70 years of Independence: Mapping 'New India' and its aspirations through the eyes of young civil servants
Civil services continue to be the beacon of change and the single most powerful, effective medium of bringing about positive transformation for New India
Civil services in India has for long remained a prestigious and much sought after career-choice for precocious, young talent from varied educational and professional backgrounds. Though the motivation to opt for this career varies starkly from individual to individual – ranging from romantic idealism and a genuine commitment to public service to a sheer attraction for the power and pelf associated with the services. Its irresistible charm has held sway for many decades.
However, over the last several years, a new perception has gained ground. That with increasing influence of market forces in all spheres of the civil servants' lives, and the receding dependence on the State for welfare or even sheer survival, their role in society and their contribution to the process of national development has been on the wane.
Being new entrants to civil services, we realise that nothing could be further from the truth and the life-stories of many a new entrant, including the authors' which we will re-visit later, are a complete antithesis to such a proposition. As the fast-paced changes in India's economic and socio-political fabric throw up newer dilemmas and challenges for young civil servants, our mandate might have changed and evolved, as it should in any dynamic and progressive society, but it has certainly not diminished.
In many ways, an increasingly restless society has resulted in the "fierce urgency of now", which demands an ever greater devotion to duty and ability to 'deliver' on the ground. The perception conundrum cited earlier is unfounded and only a myth, reasons for which are three-fold.
First, for the "magic of the market" to work, we need "enabling institutions", which only the State can provide. In his path-breaking book, The Mystery of Capital, Hernando de Soto argues that only a society that establishes the rule of law and enforces property rights witnesses long run economic growth. There are occasions when the market, in its single-minded pursuit of the single 'p'- profit, overlooks the other two 'p's - people and planet. This calls for sound property rights, effective laws, good governance, and a robust regulatory architecture - all of which lie in the realm of today's cutting-edge administrators.
Second, evidence shows that while economic reforms have lifted millions out of poverty, the gap between the rich and the poor must be reduced without further ado. In an increasingly aspirational society, meeting this objective needs the collective creative inputs of many a public servant, especially the younger lot, who deal with the implementation of varied schemes and are the pivot of success or failure of all government endeavours.
Third, for the teeming millions living at the margins of society, the need of the hour is to build up of their capabilities so they may participate in the prosperity this nation has achieved in the last 70 years. The mandate for this still lies with civil services in India.
A plethora of formidable challenges is faced by present-day administrators. The increasingly complex environment in which public servants operate demand enhanced skill-sets for tackling the cutting edge problems like the environment and climate change, disaster management, trade negotiations, and technological innovations.
In rural areas, the focus has been on the provision of basic services like education and healthcare, income support to the poor, provision of productive assets to the impoverished and securing the future of Young India. In the cities, the challenge has been manifold. With rising populations, the focus is on the provision of sanitation, housing, water-supply; re-orienting urban infrastructure to present-day needs and preserving the sense of 'community life and urban culture'. The unfinished agenda of India @ 70 is to ensure 'access and quality' of services like primary education, public health and basic infrastructure.
As in physical infrastructure, more so in human resources, the administration's real challenge lies. The focus is now on developing private productive capacity, infusing competition and encouraging entrepreneurship. The issues have thus evolved and beckon a relook.
Our battle is not with resource-constraint anymore, but with resource allocation. Be it land, finance or skilled labour, resource redistribution and transfer of ownership of productive capital, are affecting a whole gamut of industries and also our manufacturing might.
While policy direction comes from the Centre, all the action now happens in the States, and more so in the districts, where young administrators now have tremendous scope for modernisation, mediation and monitoring. Innovation happens at the cutting edge and it is here that newer civil servants play a vital role.
The ever-evolving mandate of a public servant can be envisaged through the institution of a Collector. Although in many states the development agenda now lies with separate agencies or the Panchayats and implementation work with the many line departments, it is only the office of the Collector that has true insight and overview of governance, and thus has the role of a prime mover in order to deliver services seamlessly to the citizens.
The Collector continues to be at the fulcrum of all service delivery at the local level, and improving his or her efficiency can greatly impact the delivery of services. In his video conference with District Collectors recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi acknowledged this when he gave his clarion call for India 2017-2022.
In conclusion, we would like to revisit the earlier point of perceived dwindling relevance of civil services today. Having studied at top institutions in the United Kingdom and after working a few years in London with leading banking and consulting firms, we found our calling in the pursuit of public service.
While newer entrants to the services are inherently driven by a sense of righteousness associated with this vocation, a deep-rooted sense of idealism and romanticism still persists. India is already on the brink of the greatest transformation in its history. As Young India teams up to build New India, it is our collective efforts which will determine the reality of tomorrow.
It is this conviction, that civil services continue to be the beacon of change and more importantly the single most powerful and effective medium of bringing about positive transformation in the lives of millions, that civil servants across the spectrum dedicate their lives to the service of this great nation and her people.
The authors are both young civil servants. Views expressed are personal.
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