Monday, October 12, 2009
The men who rule India: towards reforms in IAS
Here is one more article on Personnel Administration and administrative reforms. Can be linked to these both topics in upsc syllabus. Highlighted points can be part your notes
Defending the indefensible is an uphill task. Defending the indefensible when popular public perception views it as being indefensible is even harder to do. Philip Mason wrote his class many years ago by the name The Men Who Ruled India about the Indian Civil Service (ICS) and how it shaped India’s destiny. Since then, much water has flowed under the proverbial bridge, and as an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer who has travelled, interacted and negotiated with civil services around the world, I can say with a lot of pride that IAS is, even today, despite a number of fundamental flaws, world class in several respects. Sadly, India has one of the finest higher civil services in the world, sitting on top of one of the worst lower civil services, which accounts for many, but not all, of its flaws.
Let’s start with the system of recruitment: About 500,000 candidates write a year-long, multi-stage examination, competing for just 80 seats—half of which are reserved—in IAS, and is considered by many to be one of the most rigorous contests in the world. That’s a success percentage of 0.02% versus about 250,000 candidates appearing for about 6,000 Indian Institutes of Technology seats each year, with a success rate of 2.96%. No other examination in the world has odds the national civil services examination of India has. Yet, while the latter are, justifiably, celebrated, the former, often regarded as the “best among the brightest”, are today the object of scorn and disgust, blamed for the various ills that plague the country. Still, quite a few officers from IAS are wooed at astronomical salaries by the private sector for their talent, relationships, education, and rich and diverse ground-level experience, which should give some idea of their market value.
People are quick to criticize IAS, but they forget that corporate titans such as the redoubtable Russi Mody, Yogi Deveshwar and many others failed even in autonomous entities such as Air India. Many have fallen prey to the political class, handling whom and keeping them away from the spoils of office is in itself often a full-time vocation for the honest IAS officer. The classic Westminster model, on which IAS is based, expected that while politicians would debate and legislate policy, civil servants would implement policy. This has over the years been turned on its head, for politicians have found it “profitable” to get into every aspect of execution, while the civil service is left to write policy. With the advent of criminals in politics and the huge role that money plays in elections, bureaucrats prefer masterly inaction to any form of risk-taking.
Reforms in IAS are needed urgently. First, IAS must not necessarily be a lifetime appointment. The initial appointment should be for a period of, say, 15 years, after which every officer’s performance should be evaluated by a constitutional authority such as the Union Public Service Commission, based on a 360-degree kind of appraisal which is considered superior to traditional forms of assessment. Then, they should be hired on five-seven-year contracts with specific performance targets through a competitive process. The terms of the contract should incentivize performance with accountability to results, not just to process. Second, there are innumerable examples of deviants in the civil service. There have been recent examples of officers indulging in sexual harassment, shoplifting, copying in examinations and large-scale corruption. The government must not let them off or allow them to take voluntary retirement to escape punishment. It must try them in special courts and demonstrate certainty of punishment, no matter how powerful the officer is. Without demonstrable and quick punishment, there is no way to check deviant behaviour in IAS.
There is no gainsaying the fact that the contribution of IAS officers is often extraordinary but overlooked. We often forget that M. Damodaran, who turned the former Unit Trust of India around, and Y.V. Reddy and D. Subbarao, responsible for steering India’s central bank under trying global economic circumstances, are all from IAS. Rentala Chandrasekhar led India’s e-government revolution. T.V. Somanathan designed a world-class blueprint for the Chennai Metro, with minimal fiscal burden on the government. S.R. Rao cleaned up Surat in circumstances where no private sector chief executive would go for any amount of money or incentive. Countless faceless IAS officers work selflessly every day in circumstances which many of us won’t work in.
Except the civil services of Japan, China, the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, there is not much to write home about most of them. In these countries, civil servants are invariably masters of their subject matter, courteous and efficient. But then, they don’t report to the kind of political masters IAS does, they don’t deal with the numbers and complexity that India offers, nor are they as poorly paid.
India cannot have a 21st century economy run by a 19th century civil service using Jurassic era rule books and laws. Unless IAS is reformed where necessary and celebrated where due, good governance will remain just good rhetoric.