Indian parliamentarians have not been known for their prowess in any game except maybe of the numbers kind. But if ever Parliament had to choose a sport that its members would enjoy, it might consider 'barking up the wrong tree.'
Forty-four MPs attached to the Standing Committee on Home Affairs played it recently, and the result is an absurd suggestion that seeks to keep out the best and brightest from the country's most crucial jobs on the grounds of value for money and perceived injustice.
The parliamentary panel, led by Congress leader Pranab Mukherjee, says a 'very high number' of MBBS and IIT [Indian Institute of Technology] graduates are getting selected to the all-India civil services, and has sought the Union Public Service Commission's views on the desirability of debarring them.
As is typical of the rigorous standards employed in such research, the panel does not tell us just how many such doctors and engineers have been selected for the civil services in the last 50 years or even in the last ten. But it quickly offers two reasons why they should be discouraged.
The first is financial: 'If the per student expenditure incurred by Government on producing IIT and MBBS graduates is taken into account, it shall run into several lakhs (of rupees) if not crores. This means that when such a student joins the Central Civil Services, all the money spent on him goes down the drain.'
The second is social: When fully-trained engineering and medical graduates ditch their original calling and end up as civil service officers, 'what is more disturbing is the fact that those many seats were blocked by them thus preventing as many students from becoming engineers and doctors.'
Ah-a, the paragons of profligacy complaining about the wastage of 'government money.'
The salary hikes and perks they give themselves every two years is not wastage of government money.
The fruitless foreign junkets undertaken by them is not wastage of government money.
The crores splurged on the Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme is not wastage of government money.
Somehow, a couple of dozen well-educated men and women switching careers to serve their country is wastage of government money.
What's the story?
That our MPs, none of who had to pass a test or exam to become a politician and some of whom have tried to prevent us from knowing their educational qualifications, are telling us who can become our administrators and who cannot is not without irony.
But something doesn't give about the creme de la crème of our youth being told to buzz off and not bother about the country.
Not only does it violate Article 19, the MPs' suggestion cuts into the essence of democracy of letting people choose their vocation.
The MPs presume that nobody makes career mistakes and that even if they do, they shouldn't be given the chance of correcting it. But what if an engineer or doctor is genuinely interested in public affairs, maybe more so than an ordinary arts or science graduate?
Ask Ankur Garg, the 22-year-old electrical engineer from IIT, Delhi, who topped the civil services examination this year:
'Since my III standard, I wanted to be an IAS officer and the IIT degree was just a stepping stone.... The knowledge acquired at IIT will only take IT to the masses.'
There is a crucial flaw in the MPs' line of thinking. They treat the degrees the IITs hand out as the apogee of a youngster's education. On the other hand, the IIT is just an engineering college, albeit a very good one, and it hands out degrees like any other, albeit hugely more respected ones.
Heaven knows that a degree on its own is not enough in today's competitive times. Is it a crime if a doctor or an engineer uses that degree as a diving plank? By the Parliamentary panel's yardstick, IITians should be disqualified from joining MBA courses too. Doctors do not have anything like the IITs. So who will the UPSC bar: only those who come out of AIIMS [All India Institute of Medical Sciences]?
The MPs have a point about government subsidised higher education going waste. But you don't hear them complaining loudly about hundreds upon hundreds of fresh MBBS and IIT graduates leaving for foreign shores each year, which amounts to the same thing, do you?
Surely, that number is many times more than the number of those who opt for the civil services?
The other faultline in the Parliamentary panel's thinking is to believe that only a certain kind of people should become civil service officers. In wildlife parlance, this is called inbreeding and can only have debilitating effects. The civil services ought to be diverse and representative of the society they seek to serve. It takes all types to tango.
Just why the MPs are barking up the civil services tree at this point is unclear. Is there a sudden dearth of doctors or engineers? Unlikely, because out of the minimum 40,000 engineers who graduate each year, less than one per cent end up in the civil services.
Nevertheless, by zeroing in on doctors and engineers, the MPs are playing into the stereotype that somehow their contribution to the process of nation-building is more important than those of historians, psychologists, geologists, linguists, artists, economists and, dare we say, journalists.
What are the MPs afraid of?
- That their votebanks might get eroded?
- That malleable and acquiescent officers may go extinct?
- That they may end up with officers with a mind of their own?
- That their scientific and rational approach may actually herald change?
There can be no doubt that our country needs the best and the brightest administrators (not to speak of politicians) if it wants to get anywhere. By keeping out the very people who are more likely to possess the necessary attributes, the UPSC will be stabbing a gift-horse in the mouth.
The question the UPSC must ask itself and before them the politicians who make policies for the UPSC, is: 'how' can we get the people who are most qualified to write the civil services examination. Not, 'why' are the people who are most qualified writing the civil service examination?
Even if we assume that IITians and doctors are generally but not always brighter than the rest of us, their entry into the IAS fray will only render the scene that much more difficult for the mediocre to pass muster. Surely, that can't be a bad thing in the overall scheme of things?
This year's civil service examinations results underlines the point. There are four engineers (two from the IITs and two from other engineering colleges) and two doctors in the top 20, as against six post-graduates, three MPhils, two law degree holders, and one MBA.
Our political masters should be glad if more and more doctors and engineers opt for the civil services. It means fewer brains gone down the drain. And they should be happy that those who could have earned millions in the private sector are willing to work for the government for a pittance.
If everybody should only practice what s/he has studied, surely it is not unreasonable to insist that our politicians should start with themselves and pass a basic in constitutional laws? And if it is only government money they are bothered about, they should tell us another story.