Denting the 'steel frame' of India

Denting the 'steel frame' of India

In Telangana, the district collector, an IAS officer, touched the feet of the chief minister

Recent reports in the media suggest Prime Minister Narendra Modi questioned the need for civil service officers to run everything. Credit: AP Photo

Why is our “steel frame” so much at the receiving end lately? Recent reports in the media suggest Prime Minister Narendra Modi questioned the need for civil service officers to run everything from fertiliser plants to airlines, commenting on how the IAS could do better, emphasising the necessity of the private sector to ensure the country’s progress. On another occasion, it was the concern with the pace of asset monetisation and disinvestment because government officials were unable to take courageous decisions fearing allegations and the courts. Yet again, it was the slow pace of infrastructure projects which was another reason for frustration with the civil service.

Not just public statements and speeches, there have been several other acts on the ground. For the first time, non-IAS serving officers will be heading to the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration for their mid-career training programmes under the PM’s ‘Mission Karmayogi’ plan so that the mix of all services will address issues of elitism associated with the IAS besides fostering intra-departmental coordination.

Before this, in 2018, an ambitious step to fill in decision-making level, joint secretary rank posts in the civil service through lateral entry was launched by the Modi government. The need was felt to usher in fresh talent into the bureaucracy, resulting in the appointment of eight new joint secretaries. Currently, the government plans to induct 30 more private sector specialists at the joint secretary and director levels, quite apart from the existing practice of filling in posts traditionally earmarked for IAS with officers of other services, a process that continues.

On their part, the IAS cadres are not distinguishing themselves either. The West Bengal chief secretary missed his meetings during the prime minister’s visit to Kolkata, leaving the Centre to initiate major penalty proceedings against the official alleging misconduct and misbehaviour.

In Telangana, the district collector, an IAS officer, touched the feet of the chief minister, who was there to inaugurate a newly-constructed Collectorate building, later giving implausible justifications. Karnataka, too, was subject to the spectacle of a public spat in Mysuru between the district deputy commissioner and the city corporation commissioner, both IAS officers.

So what exactly is happening to our civil service officers, or India’s “steel frame”, and why have IAS officers become the way they are? Perhaps, it is the outdated performance measurement structure that incentivises the status quo. An IAS officer would never get rewarded for making a big positive change but would certainly be penalised if things go wrong. There is also the perception that the system is skewed against honest, upright officers, who are subject to frequent transfers and motivated allegations. So why not go through the tenure until the next posting and promotion without ruffling any feathers? After getting past the severe competitive exam, why not be comfortable and enjoy the power, the pelf and prestige that goes with the job? Do IAS officers, especially the older set, face a disconnect with technology even as the globalised economy becomes more challenging by the day?

Nevertheless, why do so many power centres periodically attack the IAS community? Why this tendency to nitpick, to run down the whole service, to demotivate them and tarnish their image? Up to 1979, an IAS candidate at the civil service examination stage made two additional postgraduate level submissions, a sign of a higher status for the IAS. Although removed later, this perceived position remains, possibly explaining what leads to inter-service rivalry and the resultant criticism of the IAS when demands for various positions are not met.

Why not respect meritocracy and give credit where it is due? After all, at the civil services examination, the IAS is the first choice of toppers who have demonstrated superior acumen and analytical skills that will not change mid-career. In New Delhi’s North and South Blocks, where civil service members of different services operate, IAS cadre officers always stand out. Drawing a parallel with another meritocratic legacy, that of IIT engineers or IIM postgraduates, nobody grudges IITians heading some of the best companies in the world.

Reforms are fine but constantly questioning the cadre’s relevance or running the service down will only weaken the structure. A beleaguered steel frame needs reinforcement when the country’s priority is to provide momentum to the economy after the Covid situation when consumption, increased spending, asset monetisation, PSU disinvestment, engaging with the private sector for wealth creation are necessities. Carrying out the business of governance requires a competent civil service, getting the job done necessitates coordination, an all-around perspective, leadership and vision which fits the IAS officer’s experience with different jobs garnered over several years.

While the IAS community forms the backbone of the governance structure in India, their contribution requires teamwork at every rung, especially the frontlines. For their part, the IAS must realise that times have changed and that they need to adapt, to professionalise, to not only administer but also enable progress. While privileged to lead their attitude should be to serve.

(The writer is former Executive Director and Member, Board of Directors, BEML)

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