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What Ails India's Civil Service

October 03, 2023 10:39 IST
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'A large portion of youngsters who aspire to join the civil services are not motivated by the spirit of public service and idealism of which the civil services offer in abundance.'

'When they join the mandarin club they look for the loaves and fishes of office, rather than make a difference and wipe what Mahatma Gandhi called 'every tear from every Indian',' points out Rup Narayan Das.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra D Modi with Union Minister of State for Personnel and Training Jitendra Singh, right, Principal Secretary to Prime Minister P K Mishra, left, Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba, extreme left, and V Srinivas, Secretary, Department of Administrative Reforms, extreme right, at the Civil Services Day celebrations at Vigyan Bhawan, New Delhi. Photograph: ANI Photo

The Government of India's recent decision to compulsorily retire a senior Indian Administrative Services officer in the public interest on the grounds of 'lack of integrity and ineffectiveness' is a stern message to the clan of high profile civil servants to introspect about their commitment or lack of it to Society and State.

The malaise that afflicts the 'steel frame of India' is indeed a matter of national concern.

In spite of a number of civil service reforms commissions and committees, which have been constituted by governments, from time to time and in spite of the government's earnestness , it is unfortunate that the performance of the civil service is far from satisfactory and leaves much to be desired.

This is partly because there has been no serious exercise to look at the problem with a holistic approach; and our approach to civil service reform has been reactive something in nature of knee-jerk reaction rather than proactive.

We have often addressed the symptom rather than the disease.


In India, which is poised to become third largest economy in the world, what is required is not only growth which can be stimulated by imperatives of a corporate work culture injected into the government sector, but also equity so essential for an inclusive society which can be facilitated by a civil service which should be dynamic and sensitive to the weal and woe of the people.

It is indeed a sad reflection on the civil service that 76 years after of Independence and heavy investment in various sectors of the economy and society, there are still starvation deaths, malnutrition, under nutrition and lack of very elementary civic amenities like water, healthcare, education, transport and communication.

The blame to a great extent lies with the civil service entrusted with the task of executing the policies and programmes formulated by the government.

While the social indices of other countries are rising steadily, that of Indian remains stagnant or progress at a snail's pace.

A reality check of developmental indices betrays our tall claims of democracy and parliamentary polity.

Democracy is more than adult suffrage and periodic elections.

When a service delivery mechanism like the administration and the police fail, the very purpose and objective of democracy are defeated, and people tend to develop cynicism.

Good governance is also an essential aspect of Parliamentary democracy.

How does one explain this sad state of affairs?

One reason is that a large portion of youngsters who aspire to join the civil services are not motivated or stirred by the spirit of public service and idealism of which the civil services offer in abundance.

These aspiring civil servants know more than anybody else that when they join the mandarin club they become what C Wright Mills called the 'ruling class' and look for the loaves and fishes of office, rather than make a difference in the system to wipe out what Mahatma Gandhi called 'every tear from every Indian'.

No wonder once their training is over, they jostle for a cosy posting which will offer them better comfort. Then they become 'brown sahibs' inaccessible to the public, insensitive to their trials and tribulations and oblivious to the very potholes over which their cars travel every day.

There are a number of dedicated civil servants who have risen to the occasion and succumbed like Guru Prashad Mohapatra who died of Covid while fighting the pandemic.

Earlier, the collector of Cuddalore in Tamil Nadu did a commendable job during and after the devastating tsunami, Such inspiring examples are, however, few and for between.

It is not only their lack of motivation, zeal and social commitment which explains their lack-lustre performance, but also the very method of their selection, a process of elimination, which is faulty and defective.

It is worthwhile to look at alternative methods of recruitment as adopted and followed in the defence forces or in the private sector.

The training process can also be revamped injecting a great degree of professionalism.

Yet another point is that although those selected for the civil services are very bright and intelligent products of our best universities, after they qualify for the civil services their intellectual growth almost stops and they degenerate into mediocrity.

At a time when India is fast emerging as a knowledge society, knowledge is going to be the kernel of growth, development and productivity and there should be constant upgradation of one's knowledge and skill.

It augurs well that under Prime Minister Narendra D Modi's directive a lot of reforms have been introduced to revitalise the civil services.

Now the newly recruited civil service officers after their training at the Lal Bahadur Shastri academy in Mussoorie are attached to respective ministries at the Centre to have hands on experience in governance.

Yet another reform is the introduction of lateral induction, drawing talent from the corporate sector and professional institutions like scientists and technocrats.

Prime Minister Modi has also provided a level playing field to all services breaking the IAS monopoly.

At the end of the day, a civil servant should always bear in mind Gandhi's talisman, 'Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man (woman) whom you may have seen and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him (her). Will he (she) gain anything by it?'

'Will it restore him (her), to a control over his (her) own life and destiny?

'Will it lead to swaraj (freedom) for the hungry and spiritually starving millions?'

Dr Rup Narayan Das is currently a Senior Fellow at the Indian Council of Social Science Research at the Indian Institute of Public Administration, New Delhi. The views expressed in this column are personal.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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