15 Jun

End the IAS : Part II

Posts in this series
  1. End the IAS : Is it a solution?
  2. End the IAS : Part II

This is the second part of a three-part series of articles written in response to Mihir S Sharma’s article titled ‘End the IAS
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Sharma makes two other charges that are related. He says that, firstly, IAS officers are generalists, lack knowledge, and therefore, secondly, make blunders. He further corroborates that he seldom pays for those blunders. One additional consequence of such generalist experience is the lack of innovation that besets our policy sphere.
The generalist versus specialist debate is old. The issue has been raised many times before expert committees and commissions even before independence. On each occasion, the generalist service at the top management has been given a thumbs up because of the TINA factor (there is no alternative). Although Sharma says that this generalist civil service is based on ‘Victorian public school principles’, the same is far from true. I am sure he used the word Victorian as a metaphor for foreign and old, but how does being foreign and old make the administration of a ‘fiendishly complex’ country difficult? As a culture, our history is millennia old, but the major sustainable and structured steps to simplify administration and regulate life by rule of law and science came during the tiny sliver of time under foreign rule. It is for this reason that many of our systems and structures are still based around those inventions and discoveries that occurred when sovereignty was with the island nation and not with us. It is precisely the complexity of our inherent society coupled with the complexity of modern life that a generalist service can bring a sanity out of chaos today. It is patently untrue that all high positions of the government are taken up by the IAS. With passing years, many of the positions usually held by the IAS officers (called cadered posts) are increasingly going to specialists. The vast majority of the public sector undertakings (PSUs or government companies) are now manned by specialists, drawn from their own cadre. Many technical organisations like the revenue services, the railways services and others have specialist officers or groupings of them (Boards) at the apex level, to guide operations as well as make policy.
I will take the example of the state of Himachal Pradesh, a place I know a little better than some other places. There are many departments that are traditionally headed by specialists. Thus, the agriculture, horticulture, public works, irrigation, health, animal husbandry, electricity, even higher education departments/organisations are headed by people from their own cadres, or specialists. There has been no study that shows that the performance of these departments are any better. By its very nature, the specialists would have many advantages over the gypsy IAS that roam around. The specialists are certainly more knowledgeable (in theory) due to their decades of cultivated passion in one focussed area. They know the people through which the work is to be done. They are psychologically relaxed knowing that they have stability of tenure (that has ranged, in one department, close to twenty years at the very top!). Hence, they can plan and effect that plan. Knowledge would lead them to the latest innovations happening across the world – the latest patents, the best seeds for planting, the latest techniques in building bridges and skyscrapers. But we all know, that does not happen. We all blame our government hospitals manned by specialist. The airlines run by specialists. The colleges and universities ruled by knowledgeable specialists that have written hundreds of double-blind-peer-reviewed papers in their lifetime.
Contrast this with the positions of the IAS officers. As per a Times of India article ‘68% of IAS officers have average tenures of 18 months or less’. Once posted, thus, they have to hit the ground running. One senior officer was going on a holiday for Dussera. He left by train with his family, got a call regarding his new posting while having his first tea on the train, got down at the next station where a vehicle was rushed, leaving his family behind on the train. He joined work the next morning, and conducted elections to the Lok Sabha in his new district. Another officer, running one district, was leaving home for a holiday. Again, on another train, he got another call. He rushed back to join as the Collector of another district. To take a personal example, I was the Collector of one district for one month. Next time I was posted to another district, I counted my tenure in units of months – this month, I have to get this done, the next month I would have to get that done. IAS officers, due to the very fleeting nature of engagement with a position, are an impatient lot. He does not always have domain knowledge, does not know the officers and workers of the concerned organisation and does not have stability. Add to this fleeting nature of tenure, the multiple responsibilities that most IAS officers  have to bear. All IAS officers in most points of their careers have adjusted such multiple responsibilities. It is not a happy affair, but but a part of the job that must be done. Frequently, an officer would come to a meeting whose briefing file would be handed over to him at the door of the meeting room as he steps in – he goes through the papers in the best manner he can, and tries to do justice to the need of the hour. My own daily schedule is a maddening rush from one office to another, one meeting to another, dealing with issues fluently like a Casanova would deal with women – with passion and attention while one woman is with you, with lesser detachment when the next damsel demands your energy. Given the stark shortage of officers, bestowing of additional responsibilities is the only way organisations can be run and managed. The generalist nature of the IAS helps. One senior officer described the IAS as aloo (potato) – you can put it in any soup, sabzi, biriyani, parantha or what have you! If you have specialists manning leadership positions and have a crisis of HR in hand, how would you have them manage affairs? How can Director Agriculture, for instance, step in the shoes of Director Horticulture should there be such a requirement (do recall that in Himachal Pradesh, as I described earlier, both these positions are with specialist officers)?
So, one might ask, if the generalist is no better than the specialist, but only suffer from additional handicaps, why should we not post specialists to all leadership positions?
The reason would be that the generalist officer has a lot of exposure and experience of not just the concerned department, but of other organisations. Having seen a lot, he has a lot to put on the table. The very trait that is ridiculed is the benefit of the generalist. One day he learns how to grow fish, the next day he learns how to grow corn. When he learns how to raise cows, he knows how to champion extension work in the village. Before the IAS officers gains in seniority and sits in the reviled air-conditioned rooms (as if all others are sitting in non-air-conditioned rooms), he has seen the farmlands, the badlands, he has met the sweaty farmer and the dockyard goon, the respected retired Colonel and seen the pathetic school toilets. He has worked as mediator, as an advocate, as an activist, as a rebel, as a dutiful soldier, and frequently, as a discarded has-been. By the time one rises to join the policy level, the IAS officer is the only of its kind that has rubbed shoulders with the outcaste as well as industry captains, the broken man waiting for a decade for justice as well as the be-wigged lordships (okay, no wigs, but lords all the same), the struggling karyakarta as well as the muscleman-turned-minister. Such variety gives a unique perspective to the generalist officer that cannot be earned through focussed journey in a narrow field.
One can find examples on either side, but innovation may be expected out of someone who has seen a wider world than from someone who has seen less of it. India presently ranks 76 in the Global Innovation Index, an annual survey of 143 economies/states. To blame 4800 offices in a nation of 125 crore people for this dismal ranking is to place too much confidence in the IAS and too less in the nation. Nations like UAE, Kuwait, Montenegro, Serbia and Jordan, and certainly China (rank 29) are much ahead of us – nations that are neither known for their democratic spirit or the robustness of their bureaucracy. As a culture, we are always looking for a shortcut, be it in education or job-seeking. Cultivating the innovative spirit cannot come naturally in such an environment. What we call jugaad are but science experiments of primary schoolers. They may save money (the primary objective on most occasions), they don’t earn patents or money, or generate jobs and revenue (beyond a point). India has not seen a Nobel prize in science since C V Raman (Physics, 1930, the year of the Salt March). Most of our Information Technology companies are service companies for other organisations – it is but a rare occasion when a software or a hardware product natively developed in India has seen a modicum of success (Hotmail is an American product, co-developed by a programmer born and brought up in India; it is not an Indian product). It would be instructive to see if specialist officers have better innovative spirit than generalist officers. One wonders if any survey or research has been done in this regard. In the absence of conclusive evidence to the contrary, it seems logical to expect innovation from an impatient gypsy than from a bored artisan.
In governance, innovation can be of two essential types. The first kind of innovation is operational innovation. This is where you change a form, a process or a system that does the same thing better or faster and more easily. This keeps on happening every day in the field. Sustainability and replicability of such steps are the real issues rather than the lack of such innovative steps. The second kind of innovation is policy innovation. In this you create a new system or a new world. You disband a Planning Commission. Or you prescribe a new system of railways (like the Bibek Debroy panel is advocating). Such innovations go further, but may hit a roadblock with change in the political winds. Many of the policy innovations have seen major structural or financial adjustments with the change in the government in New Delhi last year. This is, again, not a bad thing. Firstly, it is democratic. Secondly, this enables experimentation with different models, and the discovery of the best one. Of course, governance is not all serendipity. It is conscious but tentative steps into the unknown, with bonafide public interest at heart.
Sharma talks of the Uber example. Uber is a tech company that has developed a mobile app that enables registered drivers and cabs to be used by clients. It is a virtual marketplace bringing together supply (cars and drivers) with demand (transportation). Uber started operating in Bangalore, India, in August 2014 and accosted controversy within four months wherein a female client in New Delhi alleged that she was raped by a driver using the Uber service. Sharma points out the ‘colossal idiocy’ of the response of the government of closing down the Uber service. One does not know, but he seems to allege that this spark of idea came from an IAS officer. Let’s presume that, indeed, a generalist officer was behind this decision. The facts of the case (Uber service, or other services of its kind are unregulated; they are falling foul of financial as well as transport regulations; the driver of the taxi did not even have a driving license and had a criminal record, hence internal scrutiny was lax; Uber has been in controversy across the world earlier and has been banned, variously, in many countries; the Nirbhaya gang-rape case happened only two years back in New Delhi only, and the political firmament was fidgety) were such that one could have taken any decision. In public administration, at times action is decidedly better than inaction; the Uber case was one acute example. Sharma’s ‘colossal idiocy’ statement, if anything, is self-reflective.
Sharma talks of blunders and mistakes. The only person who makes no mistakes is the person who does nothing. Frequently, inaction itself is a blunder. At times, inaction is criminal, as an ex-Prime Minister is lately finding out. The present political and administrative ethos is one of too much scrutiny and fault-finding. We had heard of policy paralysis. This would be a natural state of things should every mistake of today is searchingly criticised with the wisdom of hindsight. Noah Vosen (a character) says is perfectly in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007): “You know as well as I do decisions made in real time are never perfect. Don’t second-guess an operation from an armchair.” Any action or innovation can go two ways – some may be liked by some, others disliked. The real touchstone of any action is justice – does it do justice to the cause for which an action is intended? If the answer is yes, the action is right, despite controversies. The problem is that such answers are not instantaneous. Big dams were a hit in Nehruvian era, and were called modern temples. Those were the days of big dams everywhere. By 1997, about 40,000 dams over 15 metres height had been built across the world. But dams are unpopular now. They cause forced migration, ecological damage, financial distress, and we are lately realising, even geological turmoil on a large scale. Policy decisions are judgment calls. Some win through them, some lose. Unless a nexus is established with ulterior motives, policy decisions per se are never wrong. They may be inappropriate. Attribution of criminality in the absence of established malafide is unjust. It causes policy paralysis. Policy paralysis causes greater damage to economy and the nation than even mild corruption.
But do IAS officers escape accountability in case of decisions proved wrong? This is what Sharma alleges. Far from it. IAS officers are routinely removed by the political executive for perceived rights and wrongs. Although cases of Durga Shakti Nagpal and Ashok Khemka are championed as examples of wrongful removal, such removals are very normal. More officers are removed for doing things rightly than doing them wrongly. The issue is not lack of accountability. The issues are how to measure it and fix it, and once that are done, to implement it. Of course, IAS officers cannot be removed from service for policy wrongs. That is not only improper, but unconstitutional (again, Sharma would come across some legal hurdles). A CEO, when removed from one company, swiftly finds employment in another. The same may not be true of a generalist officer who has forgone earlier opportunities of financial ingratiation, and thus must be protected. But officers are routinely removed from their positions, and DO pay for wrongs when they are perceived. Most rapes that reach primetime television are followed by suspensions and transfers of various officers, including generalist SDMs and Collectors. Uber India CEO is not suspended or transferred or sacked for a rape under his watch. There is more accountability in public service that in many other areas of public or corporate life of India.