The Indian Administrative Service remains an imperial institution which has failed to endear itself to the people. It is not indispensable. A momentous shift has been taking place in India these past few years, with a protected, state-controlled economy relinquishing the stage to globalisation and a market-based system. The state has been shedding many of its traditional responsibilities , to be taken over by the private sector and civil society groups such as NGOs and voluntary organisations. And with the centralised decision-making discredited, there is a growing demand for the devolution of powers and resources to elected bodies at local levels. All these wrenching changes notwithstanding, there is an extreme reluctance when it comes to modifying the functioning of the Indian bureaucracy. It is taken as a matter of faith that the existing mechanisms of governance, as epitomised by the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), will by themselves, and willingly, adapt to the changing scenario. This is far from assured, however, as will be clear from a study of the genesis of the Indian bureaucratic services, its structure, and the dynamics of its functioning since 1947.
The Indian Civil Service, the precursor to the Indian Administrative Service, was instituted by the British to facilitate their rule over the Indian population. The job of the ICS was to administer the country, collect revenue, maintain law and order, and assist the colonial rulers in the exploitation of India´s resources. The ICS was to maintain the ruler-subject relationship—an elite, western-educated bureaucracy exercising control over the illiterate, ignorant Indian natives—ostensibly for their benefit, in reality for their exploitation.
Even when the British started conceding to demands for self-rule through the Morley-Minto Reforms of 1909 and the Government of India Act of 1935, the civil services were not made accountable to the elected representatives. They continued to be answerable to the central imperial authority in Delhi. As with many other colonial institutions and practices, after Independence, India maintained the ICS almost without alteration for the change in its nomenclature was only symbolic, not structural.
The continuation of the ICS, albeit as the IAS, was perhaps understandable in the early years after Independence. It could be argued that the new rulers were inexperienced in the art of administration and hence needed the help of time-tested bureaucrats. In fact, Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel, the first Home Minister, did call the IAS the “steel frame of India”.
Over the years, however, instead of gradually implanting more democratic elements into this frame, the character of the IAS was not only maintained, but also allowed to expand and assume truly all-encompassing responsibilities. Today, the IAS remains an imperious institution, having done nothing to endear itself to the people. Neither has it been able to prove its indis-pensability. In fact, there is a growing perception that the IAS, in its present form, has outlived its purpose.
But why is the IAS incongruous in a democracy? How are the dynamics of its functioning detrimental to the interests of the people? There is more than one explanation.
Inappropriate Decision-Making. The IAS system is based on the centralised concept where planning and development decisions are taken at the top-most levels. And given the elitist composition of the IAS cadre, the administrators are generally unfamiliar with the complex ground realities of a vast country with its diverse peoples. It is little surprise that the IAS hierarchy is insensitive to the needs, constraints and aspirations of local populations. Furthermore, decisions taken at the top have to percolate down through various levels of government to reach the grassroots. As Jawaharlal Nehru University professor Varun Sahni puts it, “By the time a state directive is transmitted from the commanding heights down the intermediate levels of the state to the trenches, it has either metamorphosed beyond recognition, or else has been transmogrified, with only the external shell remaining intact.”
This flow of decisions from the top is also accompanied by the flow of resources. In this process, huge frictional losses occur as the money filters through various levels of the bureaucracy, encouraging both corruption and wasteful expenditure. As pointed out by the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi himself, only 16 paise out of every rupee reaches the actual beneficiaries, and one of the reasons has to do with the structure of bureaucracy.
At the same time, the bureaucrats are overburdened with work, which affects the quality of their decisions. Considering the many responsibilities they have, it is a marvel that anything gets completed at all. This overload is especially evident in the case of the District Collector, who has more responsibilities than can possibly be borne by one person. It falls upon the District Collector to maintain law and order, look after revenue functions, attend the courts, arrange for VIP security, manage development work, and at the same time take care of the numerous petty issues that affect the people of his district. Even the most conscientious officer would find it impossible to handle all the duties that are his by definition.
Lack of accountability. There is little opportunity for transparency in the way the IAS bureaucracy functions. In addition, there has been a proliferation of departments with conflicting jurisdictions and a multiplicity of authority. Nobody knows who is responsible for what. Files have to travel through numerous tables before decisions are made. In this confusion, it is easy to evade responsibility. Strong vested interests such as big business houses and rich farmers´ groups find it easy to manipulate the system for their own benefit. Their potential for mischief is great since everything in the country is centralised and because the state is active in areas that should normally have been reserved for private enterprise. While the increased interaction between the citizens and the bureaucracy has bred corruption, the omnipresence of bureaucratic machinery has suppressed the initiative-taking ability of the people.
Communication Gap. The officers of the erstwhile ICS were always the sahibs, the hurra babus (big bosses). Their successors today are the mai baps (overlords). A symbolic manifestation of this are the sequestered residential arrangements for the bureaucrats. The British had created areas known as the civil lines, where the administrators used to live away from the people. This practice has continued till today with the District Collector and other bureaucrats.
It is no wonder that the people hesitate to approach the bureaucracy, whom they have historically associated with exploitative government. It is also small wonder then that the bureaucracy has not been able to communicate properly with the people. The IAS officer is not able to get accurate information from the public, nor is he able to develop full communication with the population regarding development work to be carried out on its behalf.
Insecurity of Tenure. There are the occasional officers with full commitment to serve the people, but they tend to be pre-empted by the system. IAS officers are not protected from persecution by their political bosses. They have to kow-tow to the dictates of these masters even if that means working against the interests of the people. Officers who protest are transferred or otherwise find their careers in free fall. This has made the IAS servile to the politicians. (This leads to handsome displays of servility, as when after the general elections last year the secretaries of the various ministries were photographed bowing obsequiously to the incoming ministers and greeting them with bouquets.)
Incompatibility with Changing Scenario. The IAS system was not fashioned to cope with the kind of political, social and economic transformations taking place in India today. In the political sphere, although Panchayati Raj (elected local governance) has been instituted through the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution, the District Collector and the rest of the local bureaucracy continue to be accountable to the governments in the state capitals. Elected representatives find their initiatives thwarted by an uncooperative bureaucracy through which they have to get their proposals implemented. In this way, the bureaucracy helps the state government to retain an unhealthy control over the local governments.
Similarly, the existing structure of the IAS is out of step with the changing economic context. Even as the state sheds many of its previous responsibilities, especially in the public sector, the continuing relevance of the bureaucracy´s given structure has not been examined. The method of appointments are yet to be looked into. Many of the responsibilities in today´s altered conditions urgently need specialists, such as economists, planners, engineers, managers and natural resource professionals. But an elite corps which was selected fully 30 years ago through a college-type examination effectively relegates to itself all top appointments. As a result, the vast country continues to suffer from misplaced rulers, and mediocrity.
Structural Adjustment. Transformation the IAS structure is imperative if the bureaucracy´s professed goal of serving the people is to be at all fulfilled. The restructuring should go deep, and the overhauling must start at the top.
Top appointments. An IAS administrator should be on test at every job and not be given charge simply on the basis of tenureship. In order to help selection of professionals and provide protection against political harassment, high-level administrative and technical appointments, in all governments from local to central, should be through open selection on five-yearly contracts. This is nothing new, and is already being followed by the Government of India in the public sector, with satisfactory results. The awarding, as well as termination or non-extension of the contract, should be through an autonomous selection process or directly by the head of government with approval of a multi-party committee of the legislature.
Secretaries to government. After independence, India retained secretaries to act as go-betweens between the decision-makers and the departmental heads in each ministry. This, too, may have been justified initially due to the inexperience of I the political leadership. But 50 years after independence, Indian politicians do not need intermediaries or mechanisms other than to transfer accountability for their own non-performance.
In all departments, the heads should be required to pick up the work presently being done by the secretaries. Only in special circumstances where the logistics require should a coordinating secretary be appointed. In both cases, the appointment should be through open selection or nomination by the head of government (as was done in the case of Sam Pitroda when he was appointed to head the CDOT organisation by Rajiv Gandhi. All appointmerits should, however, be approved by a multiparty committee of the elected body.
This practice of appointment should be followed all the way through the state, district and local governments. Most administrative secretaries to government along with their retinue of special, additional, joint, deputy and under secretaries, will then become redundant. The mammoth-sized central and state secretariats of today are a liability to efficient decision-making. They can and should be largely dispensed with.
Separate services for each government. In a democracy, a hierarchy of governments at the neighbourhood, local, district, state and central levels has to be created, with each accountable to the people it serves. The state bureaucracy has, therefore, necessarily to be structured into separate local services, each accountable to the government it serves.
The all-India services which has been continued since British times violates this key principle of responsible rule. For example, IAS officers are appointed as municipal commissioners with independent powers to neutralise the elected mayors and impose state control. The continuation of this practice today and its extension to the panchayats is a violation of the letter and the spirit of the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments.
Other central and state services also suffer from similar infirmities. To take just one example, one reason for illiteracy in villages, despite the large number of schools given in the official statistics, is the lack of administrative services and cadres responsible to local governments. This makes it easy for school teachers to get transferred to urban areas as soon as they are appointed to a village school, or to simply draw salaries without showing up at their place of appointment. An experiment started in Gujarat will be worth watching, (or the state is presently engaged in providing panchayat level cadres in their Panchayati Raj legislation.
The state bureaucracy is, of course, likely to resist reassignment under local government, claiming protection under Article 311 of the Constitution (which protects civil servants against dismissal except after an inquiry). But despite beliefs otherwise, the fact of the matter is that government service provides ´regular´, and not ´permanent´, appointment. Once the principles of restructuring are instituted, stale governments should abolish all excess posts, and allow a reasonable period for the personnel thus rendered surplus to get absorbed into local government. Those who are not appointed through open selection by the various local governments can be retained on contract on humanitarian grounds, and allowed to work, for example, with NGOs to whom projects are assigned by the government.
Transparent legislation. There is also a great need for a transparency law, which will provide the people with the right to information. This will act as a check on arbitrary government functioning and also ensure accountability of the administrators to the people.
The above changes cannot by themselves solve all the problems with the governance of India. And, without doubt, the degeneration of the Indian bureaucracy, and especially the IAS, is part of the overall downturn of the national polity. The restructuring of the bureaucracy will have to be carried out as part of an overall reform of the whole political system but it need not wait. And until such a time that it happens, the servants of the people will continue to be their masters. R. Shankar is with People First, a Delhi-based trust that advocates better governance.