Shifting Policy Discourse

The Constituent Assembly on 10th October 1949 highlights the importance of All India Services like the IAS, IPS, IFS for India. This quote is also inscribed on the statue of Sardar Patel at the Lal Bahadur Shastri Academy of Administration in Mussourie and it is the starting theme of training for the trainees in the academy. Article 311 of the Indian Constitution provides safeguard to the Civil Servants of India against dismissal or removal by an authority subordinate to the one that appointed them.


“You will not have a united India if you have not a good All India Service which has the independence to speak out its mind.” This quote by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in the Constituent Assembly on 10th October 1949 highlights the importance of All India Services like the IAS, IPS, IFS for India. This quote is also inscribed on the statue of Sardar Patel at the Lal Bahadur Shastri Academy of Administration in Mussourie and it is the starting theme of training for the trainees in the academy. Article 311 of the Indian Constitution provides safeguard to the Civil Servants of India against dismissal or removal by an authority subordinate to the one that appointed them. Officers of the All India Services, along with the Central Services like the Indian Revenue Service and others, staff almost every secretariat, department, and ministry in the country.

These officers are charged with immense responsibility pertaining to the formulation of policies at the highest levels of the government, execution of various policies, even executing roles like the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), and, at times, even that of the RBI Governor (as is the case at present); they chair various committees and panels related to key reforms throughout their career.  Such positions of high levels of authority, diversity in job profiles throughout the career along with the constitutional backing of security of tenure and associated perks makes 27 lakh youth to apply for the Civil Service Exams (across different exams taken by the UPSC), each year, of which around 6000 students clear the exam (according to the 64th Annual Report by the UPSC, 2013-14), which effectively makes the probability of success about 0.002 %.

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 Is IAS losing its sheen? 

Naresh Chandra Saxena (Ex-IAS) in his article “Has IAS failed the nation?” in the Economic & Political weekly states: “The high degree of professionalism ought to be the dominant characteristic of a modern bureaucracy, also that the fatal falling of Indian bureaucracy has been its low level of professional experience”.  The Hota Committee on Civil Service Reforms (2004) in its report outlined the concerns about its observations regarding the public perception of civil servants: “Increasingly, corrupt practices have become prevalent in the higher civil service”, the report concluded. It also pointed out that “A majority of civil servants are arrogant. They are not perceived as people-friendly and by and large they have lost touch with ground realities”. While explaining about how things go shockingly awry in India in implementation of programs and policies – US academician Lant Pritchett (2009) remarks that “A nation-state in which the head, that is elite institutions at the national (and in some states) remain sound and functional, but that this head is no longer reliably connected via nerves and sinews to its own limbs”. Even while hailing the Public Services for its role since independence, the Second Administrative Reforms Commission in its tenth report:“ Refurbishing the Personnel Administration” points out that “The Authority frequently appears to be divorced from accountability, leading to a system of realistic and plausible alibis for non-performance. Inefficiency, corruption and delays have become, in public perception, the hallmarks of public administration in India”.  

Second ARC also points out that “It is ironical that there has been no sincere attempt to restructure the civil service although more than six hundred committees and commissions have looked into different aspects of public administration in the country. Rather, the Indian reform effort has been unfailingly conservative, with limited impact.” Recognizing that there are issues with the bureaucracy, it can be noted that the Civil Services need urgent, effective and sustainable changes. Now these changes could amount to dismantling the civil services altogether or it could be related to revamping the services by making systemic reforms internally or a hybrid system can be established; public policy professionals & specialists complementing the bureaucracy and trying to increase the efficiency through synergetic effort. A thorough analysis of the pros and cons of all these options needs to be carried out in order to reach a logical conclusion.

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Dismantling the current system?

As the second ARC points out that “New transformation has to be like the Avtaras in Hindu Pantheon, in which the new Avtara takes its form afresh without any correspondence to the persona of its predecessor. For such a transformation to take place the old structure has to fall away and the new one created.” Here it must be noted that though a number of issues have been raised by the number of commissions like the Hota Commission, First and Second Administrative Reforms Commission regarding the performance and efficacy of civil servants, the role of the civil services in national integration and development cannot be belittled or ridiculed. The ARC in its  report also states that “There is no denying the fact that the civil service has played an important role in preserving unity, providing stability and maintaining order in a vast country prone to various conflicts – ethnic, communal, regional, etc.” Further, the dismantling of the system could create a vacuum and pose a risk of destabilization of the day to day governance of the county, especially if this dismantling is abrupt.

Finally, the system has indeed produced talented officers who have been integral to India’s developmental story. Despite systemic rigidities, needless complexities, and over-centralization, a number of civil servants have been able to navigate their way in the existing system and create a real impact on the ground. Armstrong Pame, an IAS officer from Manipur is known as the miracle man of Manipur. He has been able to build a 100-km stretch of road constructed in the State in 2012. What is important here to note is that he has done this without any help from the Government. Tukaram Mundhean IAS officer from Maharashtra has been fighting courageously against land and water mafias, braving innumerable death threats and various political pressures. Officers like Anil Swarup have been duly recognized for their work in transforming the Coal Ministry in its most difficult period and also designing the successful Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY). Others like Smitha Sabharwal, IAS of the Telangana cadre, who has been recognised to be “the people’s officer” has  launched a campaign called “Fund Your City”, appealing to residents to help her build the infrastructure of the cities in Naxal-affected areas, which in turn resulted in the construction of traffic junctions and foot overbridges; these are all examples that show how much an IAS can contribute to the society at large. This also goes to show that completely dismantling the current system will not only be counterproductive, but it will also demotivate the officers, who have been working with integrity, honesty, and compassion in spite of hurdles.

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Systemic Changes Internally 

Another option is to systematically change the civil services system internally. This would be successful if the focus of the reform is on the long term development of human capital and the facilitation of an environment that allows for the achievement of human potential to the fullest for civil servants. The Second Administrative Reforms Commission also states that “Administration should be reformed to bring about improved transparency, greater accountability and streamlining of the structure of the Government, based on decentralization, civil services reform, an open and responsive government, rule of law, fiscal and environmental sustainability and elimination of all forms of corruption.” There is a need to bring changes in the process of civil services recruitments, postings, and overall career management. Various committees and commissions have highlighted the need for domain expertise, using the long-term experience of civil servants and building up their capability to manage and respond to the change.  There is also a great need to deal with an asymmetry of power, work on undue political interference, induce professionalism, focus on outcome-oriented work and on ways to ensure greater accountability.

   However, in spite of recommendations by various commissions and committees on the issues stated above, there is something deep that serves as a hindrance to the creation of a culture of excellence. Michel Crozier coins the term “bureaucratic behavior” which involves slow, ponderous, complicated, and routine working models evolving over a period of time. NC Saxena also states in his article “Has IAS failed the nation?” published in the Economic & Political weekly that “Despite initial competence and enthusiasm, the hard reality is that many civil servants in the course of the 30 years of their career lose much of their dynamism and innovativeness, and end up as mere pen pushers and cynics, with no faith in their own contribution to public welfare”.  Another common issue is “resistance for change”. The 73rd and 74th Amendment Act which substantially argues for the power of local self-governance at the rural and urban levels has not been implemented as it would involve a substantial reduction in the discretionary power and prestige of bureaucrats. The issue lies with the “attitude” of Civil Servants as well – the 2nd ARC hints that bureaucracy in India believes in the “Hegelian prescription” which means to consider that the bureaucracy derives immense power from rules that it has prescribed for itself and not corresponding to the needs and aspirations of the people.

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Further, in a country like India where there is a lot to be desired in terms of national-level development as well as the performance of our civil servants, the bureaucracy needs leaders who take bold decisions; it needs fearless officers; however, the 3 C’s – Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), and Courts have prompted the bureaucrats to play ‘safe’ and restrain from bold decisions; this has led to a state of ‘policy paralysis’. Richa Mishra in her article “Three Cs and the fear of policy paralysis” published in  The Hindu Business Line talks about the new mantra of inaction in the bureaucracy recently, quoting an anonymous bureaucrat saying that “Retirement ki baad mujhko Tihar Nahi Jana hai (I don’t want to go to Tihar Jail, post-retirement) for taking a critical decision. It’s better to play it safe.” Thus, an environment that fosters healthy risk-taking is critical for the success of civil services in India.

A Hybrid Approach 

The UPSC used to select just around 60 to 70 IAS officers in the 1990s; the lack of recruitment then has led to an acute shortage of mid-level IAS officers with 18 to 25 years of seniority today. And yet even though the number of IAS officers has been increased to 180 now, it is still quite insufficient, given the population of India and the complex challenges. The ARC has recommended creating Senior Executive Service (SES) for induction into civil services at the senior level which would include vacancies from outside the civil services as well. People like Manmohan Singh, Jairam Ramesh, Arvind Subramanian, and Vijay Kelkar have served at the senior positions as lateral entrants and have contributed substantially. In various State Governments and for some positions at the Central Government level, the gates have been opened for taking in professionals on a contract period of 1 to 5 years at various positions: for e.g. fellowships started by various State Governments. Talented youth with a good amount of work experience and education from the best of the universities are forward to work at these positions. Also, these are generally youth with no baggage of the culture of work prevalent in the civil services; since they haven’t already been enculturated in the system, they bring fresh energy and dynamism with them. However, the problem is their extremely short tenure. It is important to groom them, give them meaningful exposure and to absorb them in the regular cadre of services if they are found to be good. The problem is that the Government takes one of the extreme stances – giving extreme stability of tenure to the bureaucrats and just giving about a year to the fellows. The sweet spot is perhaps somewhere in the middle. Perhaps a system based on the corporate business model would be suitable. While it may have its own challenges, yet, studying the model of recruitment and tenure in the corporate sector and tweaking it to the realities of civil service may give useful clues. Further, fellows can also be given perks equivalent to those serving as regular bureaucrats to bring some parity. It should be clear to them that they are there to create a positive and tangible impact during their tenure.

  The process of inducting people into the system, albeit through unconventional pathways, would create a kind of competitiveness within the services that trigger the conventional bureaucracy to be on their toes. However, there shall be a need to develop more robust processes so that these professionals do not take the form of a committed bureaucracy – i.e. the process should be designed in a manner that can prevent ideologically inclined people to infest the system at the behest of ruling parties and crony capitalists.

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Way Forward

The issues in conventional bureaucracy make structural reforms inevitable; also it needs to create avenues for them to specialize and hone their intellectual skills. However, given the knowledge burden on policymakers, the skill sets required and growing challenges, it is most prudent to implement the hybrid approach and create a new class of public policy professionals to complement the existing bureaucracy. The hybrid approach would balance the two extremes & implement the ARC in letter and spirit which recommended: “Generalising the specialists and specializing the generalist”.

Written By Chinmay Dandekar, public policy scholar, The Indian School of Public Policy


Article Name
The Constituent Assembly on 10th October 1949 highlights the importance of All India Services like the IAS, IPS, IFS for India. This quote is also inscribed on the statue of Sardar Patel at the Lal Bahadur Shastri Academy of Administration in Mussourie and it is the starting theme of training for the trainees in the academy. Article 311 of the Indian Constitution provides safeguard to the Civil Servants of India against dismissal or removal by an authority subordinate to the one that appointed them.