Major reforms for civil services on the way? All signs from Narendra Modi government point to yes

Recently, two IPS officers found to have suboptimal performance have been compulsorily retired by the Government of India; a couple of weeks ago two IAS officers in different states were also compulsorily retired on the same grounds of “public interest”. Rule 16(3) of the All India Services (AIS) Rules demand periodical in-service review, a legal requirement taken casually, hardly enforced in recent decades. Do these dismissals portend the beginning of a campaign to upgrade the administrative system? – are these the first shots fired for transformation of the permanent executive? One’s gut instinct is that they carry the Modi stamp – introduction of a major programme through an seemingly innocuous but important message? For the nation’s sake, one hopes this is a correct interpretation.

 Major reforms for civil services on the way? All signs from Narendra Modi government point to yes

Representational photo. Agencies

While the quality in top 30 percent of AIS is still pristine, probably better than yore, there is sharp deterioration at the lower level of batches. In most states, the chief minister runs the administration with five or six hand picked officers, with the other 300 or more having little to do. Corruption has become rampant among AIS, which was unheard of previously. There are even officers who perform treasury duties for political funds, guard, distribute and manage political election chests – many of them have become dalals to politicians. While it would be unfair to attribute corruption and inefficiency to all, the fact is there is varying shades of grey, descending to very low levels.

It is now unquestionable that there is a lot of dead-wood in the AIS state bureaucracies, an alarmingly growing phenomenon triggered by a variety of self-reinforcing political factors. Lethargy, lassitude, a feeling of irrelevance are the main forces, which over time drive extremely bright, able, arguably best in the world men and women, to feel unwanted, unwelcome and unable to find a role of contribution for themselves. These are very harsh words; senior experienced and verified bureaucrats, who have seen better days, may appreciate what is being said here. Twenty years ago, in one state, two of four IAS officers voted as ‘most corrupt’ were given out of turn promotions as Chief Secretaries; – (Has anyone, anywhere heard of any group of professionals voting for ‘corrupt’ amongst themselves!). In recent years, at least in one state, the Chief Secretary superseded 7 batches of seniors – and with the ‘silence of the lamb’ the IAS community did not protest! What does this say of the morale, self-esteem, marginalisation and irrelevance the AIS.

For decades, the practice had been that only carefully filtered, above-average AIS officers were generally brought to for Central deputation from the states, a practice that was jettisoned in the Manmohan Singh Government, which allowed picking and choosing of favourites by ministers, presumably to meet their own requirements and ends, by-passing long standing conventions – political selection at the Centre till then had been strongly frowned upon. Since the Appleby / Santhanam administrative reforms reports, at least 300 reform reports are available to act on. Implementation of the substantive recommendations is almost zero – surely the political class did not want the executive, seen as the hand-maiden of politics, to perform.

Hitherto, as a general rule, only 50 percent of director level officers had been allowed to enter the joint secondary panel. No attention had been given to the bottom-half of the pile. One would now advocate that a new norm should be enforced – 20 percent of AIS officers ought to be shown the door compulsorily every year – this would deliver an excellent message. There is bound to be the odd case of injustice – such possibilities need to be minimised by excluding political attention to matters of promotion and service, and creating a new regime for the bureaucracy to ensure internal rectitude. There need be no fear of an “administrative vacuum” – plenty of high quality, experienced, able provincial service officers are available in most states to instantly step into their shoes. One’s experience of 50 years is that frequently the wrong man gets promoted – no good officer ever gets rewarded. These need to be followed up a serious administrative reforms. Reform measures are all well-articulated in various reports.

For decades, the country has made grave policy blunders, surely with much political deliberation, with the ultimate purpose being to meet the interest of politicians. The ubiquitous and pernicious role of politics being the raison d'être of each executive action is to be blunted, the legitimate and independent roles of the bureaucracy, within its own limits, need to be unshackled. For 70 years, India has been slowly sinking in a governance morass – this can be proved if required chapter and verse. While it’s okay to tom tom that India is now the world’s second fastest growing economy, nobody should be blind to the fundamental facts, structural flaws and failures. It will require a number of major effective high value blows to restart the efficacy of the administrative system, to enable the permanent executive to play its legitimate role. Surely demonetization, coupled with the pronouncements of the prime minister relating to major financial and economic reforms and war on corruption are extremely heartening beginnings – one should forget the short term pain, and see it in its right perspective as the most important development of the past 70 years to reverse the trends as a first step to bring India to the forefront of the world’s nations. The quiet but sharp and effective message that has now been delivered to the AIS, through the cashiering of the IAS/IPS officers, should be seen as part of the same process – the administrative apparatus has a key role in the implementation process – cleaning up and overhauling it and make it work is a top most priority. Indian civil services, with its high potential, will take the message and respond. A high quality effective civil services are a sine qua non for development.

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Updated Date: Jan 22, 2017 10:18:09 IST