02 Jun

Is there a conscious design to the IAS?

Amitabh Pande, a 1971-batch officer of IAS, wrote an article in India Today titled “IAS design conducive to graft” on 17 June 2011. Mr. Pande argues that there are three types of entrants in the service: firstly those who are fluent speakers of English by virtue of being exposed to it from birth by their elite parents; secondly, those that learn the language by dint of perseverance and hard work, and whose parents are middle level officers mainly from the service sectors; thirdly, the others who have a love-hate relationship with the English language, and who are more comfortable with their vernaculars, and as a corollary, are more comfortable in the rough and tumble with the local politics. Of course, Mr. Pande’s arguments are very detailed and nuanced, and this succinct reproduction of his points are for the purpose of recounting only.

Later on in his article, Mr. Pande says that the each of these categories have shown different kinds of corrupt tendencies that essentially draw on their upbringing and their natural or native bias. Thus, the vernacular group finds itself comfortable in the hoi polloi of local politics and politicians. This group

rarely sought careers in the central government, saw little benefit in acquiring specialised technical and professional skills, and had very close relationships with provincial political satraps and local traders and contractors ( forests, mines, liquor, cement, kerosene, civil works). All of them displayed a tremendous appetite for acquiring landed property. The economic profiles of most changed dramatically between the beginning and the end of their careers.

On the contrary, the second and first group would be more comfortable in more ‘white collar’ instances of discretionary corruption that can be easily performed from the cooler confines of their rooms. Also in contrast, these bureaucrats would essentially flock with their own kind of politicians – those that have had culturally and intellectually similar upbringings.

Mr. Pande’s tri-partite distribution of bureaucrats makes for interesting reading. I am presuming his thesis is based on anecdotal evidence over his very long service career. And that is a very important type of evidence gathering. Unfortunately, it would be practically impossible to get survey-based evidence, except perception based survey among a peer-group.

However, when Mr. Pande ventures to the issue of the design of the IAS, he seems to be making a claim that can hardly be substantiated. He says that

[a] major part of the problem in the IAS stems from an inherent design flaw. The architecture of the IAS was consciously drawn from the ICS and it was premised on a social and cultural distance between administration and civil society on the one hand and between the political executive and the civil servant on the other. It was self- consciously elitist and relied on creating a kind of Brahmanical mandarinate which was specifically groomed for the task of governance. The critical mass had to consist of people who shared a certain cultural ethos.

Such a design was obviously at variance with the rough and tumble of the Indian democracy where Realpolitik was increasingly emerging as the only ‘ Real’ Politics.

Instead of redesigning the architecture appropriately to the changing socio- political context, the IAS was sought to be retrofitted by tinkering with its basic design.

In other words, Mr. Pande thinks that the IAS suffers from the following design flaws: firstly, that IAS inherits the colonial DNA of the ICS with the master syndrome fairly ingrained in its mind; secondly, that no conscious or strident efforts were made to change this DNA; thirdly that what was done was a kind of ‘retro-fitting’, meaning that only odds and pieces of this integrally faulty machine were replaced.

This is a very old analysis of the civil services we have today. Unfortunately, it has not been made clear as to what are the alternatives. A bureaucracy in most countries refers to  career civil service, almost always selected on the basis of objective, transparent and open competitive process. Even if there is no ostensible exam as a selection criteria, there is a selection mechanism that tries to arrive at the best possible candidates for manning the service. The nature of the tenure – contractual or permanent – is a minor matter of detail. What is essential, however, is the attempt to find the best persons through an open process that is not restricted to any particular section of the society.

India has been a democracy ever since Independence. And it has always selected its bureaucrats on a democratic principle (except those that directly came from the ICS, who were automatically inducted into the IAS based on their experience) – the principle that every citizen of the nation shall have equal access to and equal opportunity to be selected into the civil service – in fact, even citizens of Nepal and subjects of Bhutan can appear for the civil service in India. Measures of positive discrimination have been used – liked relaxed selection norms and reservation. But these practices of discrimination are included to increase the level playing field, rather than to dislodge it. The pattern of exams have been changed from time to time – and each change has helped some people and caused problems to certain others. For instance, there were huge protests against the change in the exam pattern in 2011. Regardless of the politics or the insinuations of conspiracies behind these changes, the exam always affords an open platform of selection to all.

Thus, it is difficult to find any justification given in the reasoning that the pattern of selection is elitist, or that it is not in sync with the democratic spirit of India. With each passing year, more an more candidates are appearing from all geographic area – and also getting selected.