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Indian Civil Services: A Perspective

India’s Civil Services have been referred to variously, depending on who the referrer is. If he is an academic, he would be faithfully restricting himself to the textual term, civil services. He would certainly keep in his mind the historical and Constitutional evolution of different aspects of this institution; he would proudly remember that this integral and hallowed limb of the Indian body politic was visualized as a permanent, neutral, apolitical and, above all, a well informed entity, driven by an inquiring and scientific temperament and spirit; this body was expected to be fired by unflinching commitment to service of the people, always ready and available to render the requisite service; it was expected to be manned by men and women of absolute integrity with a high level of both academic as well as practical intelligence; while at the service of the people, its members were to be not only the path finders but also the social harmonizers, conflict-busters; this would earn them the most profound respect of all in the society, the heart- felt from those who are at the lowest rung. These true masters of civil servants would elevate their status from public servants to being emancipators. The terms civil servant and public servant would thus become interchangeable and synonymous.

Initial years of the working of the scheme in the 50’s/60’s witnessed almost near application of the tenets as envisioned in the preceding lines. This period of about two decades of its functioning on the ground saw the emergence of a highly scholarly, dedicated, public service-oriented, magnanimous, accessible and intellectually and morally honest and upright Indian Civil Service which set a great benchmark for the future civil servants. It is certainly not to say that this period did not have civil servants below the benchmark or the later period/s did not have its jewels. These periods were essentially different in terms of policy/ programme initiatives and objectives: the first two decades were the founding and building days of the nation, and the civil servants were also driven by the spirit of builders and pioneers; they were looked upon with great hope and admiration by a people who were dreaming of a new and resurgent India, a powerful and prosperous India, a self-sustaining and confident India. While the process of building the edifice of an economically, socially and militarily strong nation was a continuing endeavour, the flavour and orientation of the policies and progammes was adjusted to the new demands on the nation. Banks, mines, insurance and a few other services/systems were nationalised to mop up greater resources for funding scores of development and poverty alleviation progammes (119 at one stage) and also subsidising massive green revolution efforts like associated R&D , irrigation, fertilizers, etc. While subjects like Science and Technology, Space, Nuclear Energy, Power, Rural Devlopment, to name a few, apart from huge old sectors like Railways, Defence, Communications, demanding ever-increasing investments/expenditure, were very much a part of the priorities of the country, many more got added in the subsequent decades as the country progressed on the path of multi-pronged development. It must be remembered that the country had also to fight three wars forced on her during the first two nascent decades of Independence. While wars take a heavy toll on the country’s economy and resources, the war fought in 1971 was preceded by influx of millions of refugees from the eastern neighbour, impacting the employment, food and price management scenario. All this confronted the Indian Civil Service in their face, unprecedented in content and magnitude. The civil servants of the 70’s faced this challenge successfully and earned the appreciation of a grateful nation.

These were also the years when India hosted a number of international meets, like, Non-aligned Nations Conference/s, Commonwealth Heads of Government Meet, Meetings of several UN and other multilateral bodies apart from scores of bilateral meets at regular frequencies, events like Asian Games, International Trade Fairs and Festival of India in different parts of the world. In addition to these, there were umpteen deparmental meets of pan Indian and international nature all the year round. New Delhi became one of the most favoured destinations of national and international events, being the capital of federal India and being one of the founding members of the Non-aligned Group of Nations. As the largest democracy on earth, India wanted to play a significant role in world affairs, and hence its determined urge to spread its presence on a wider spectrum of global engagements. With this kind of proactive perspective which the country had set for itself, the Indian Civil Service had to be a multi-disciplinary body of most dedicated professionals. One can imagine the magnitude of challenges which this institution had to address and which it did so admirably.

However, this Service manifested some vulnerabilities and faultlines in subsequent years with changes in policies and programmes and with shifts in the political complexion at the Centre and the States. While with the onset of liberalisation of the economy the civil services had to respond to new demands on their professional and academic expertise and acumen apart from displaying their determination to rise to this unique expectation, coming to power in States of people with different political, social and economic agenda and ideologies brought with them unexpected and unusual challenges and strains to the civil services.

This led to people having flawed perceptions about these services. Policy changes gave to the country higher growth rate, next only to that of China; there was, however, no acknowledgement of the role of the civil servants in making this achievement possible with their hard work, dedication and commitment. Instead, they were blamed for whatever went wrong with the development profile. Some stray cases of irregularity and alleged cases of corruption were thrown up to malign the entire institution. Delays in disposal of administrative matters, peoples’ requests for several benefits/facilities, grievances, applications for setting up of industries, enterprises in different sectors, non-performance or deficient performance under umpteen programmes/services, etc. earned the civil servants the negative epithet of ‘babus’ who delayed matters as a matter of habit or routine, also at times for extraneous reasons; this syndrome was often referred to as ‘red tapism’, another negative comment on the work culture of the civil service.

One of the critical refrains against the service has been its inaccessibility. While several instruments and mechanisms have been evolved over the years to promote better interaction between the civil servants and the public, there have been occasions when the people and media have reasons to feel that the civil servants have not been available for help and service; rather, it has at times been alleged that they have behaved in an authoritarian manner, earning them the unsavoury reference of ‘bureaucracy’ and the civil servants referred to as ‘bureaucrats’

Another important dimension to the evolution of the service came about with the introduction of Panchayati Raj, first in the 50’s and later in a more authentic and statutory manner in the 90’s when the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution were enacted. With these amendments, Panchayats were assigned several functions (initially 29 and later 50) and decision-making in these areas passed on to them; civil servants’ powers and authorities in these areas also passed on to these elected bodies in varying degrees. Thousands of Panchayat functionaries have been receiving training in their new dispensation; this has certainly necessitated a new adaptation regime on the part of the civil servants, urging them to become ‘public servants’ in the true sense of the term.

This brings forth a perceived desire on the part of some civil servants to share publicity with the political functionaries. While there is no mention of any prescription or proscription in this regard in the scheme visualised for the service, it has been considered desirable to avoid any such temptation, keeping in view that the service is strictly apolitical in nature. It would be interesting to relate an actual incident to buttress this point: in the 1970’s when the writer of this piece was an Under Secretary to the Govt of India and was, along with his Joint Secretary, waiting in his Minister’s office in connection with Parliament Questions, TV crew entered the office to interview the Minister; the JS advised the US to be away from the exposure range of the TV camera; this was the sensitivity attached to apoliticality of the service.

Understanding of the scheme of Indian Civil Service being not the same with all political parties coming to power either at the Centre or the States, their relationship with them would vary; some of them have had very difficult times managing a cordial and mutually respectful relationship due to this factor. In the distant past, this relationship broadly matched the scheme. But later, instances of conflict between the permanent executive, i.e., the civil service, and the political executive did occasionally surface, particularly in the States. (There have been some instances even recently). It was also observed that some civil servants were perceived to be closer to a certain political dispensation, and thus they invited prejudicial treatment at the hands of the other political outfits.

However, the truth of the matter has been that the service, while traversing through the above potholes and ditches, has essentially retained its basic character of being neutral and apolitical, well informed and educated, committed to serving the public and nation’s interests, and retaining an enquiring and scientific temper. While it has to steer clear of the hazards as mentioned in the foregoing paragraphs, it has to keep striving for equipping itself with the best practices in the field of public service and governance in different parts of the country and the world. It has not only to keep learning all the time to upgrade its skills and professional knowledge, but also to diversify its expertise matching the requirements of a fast growing economy and future world power. Apart from the initial elaborate induction training programme which the concerned Academies of the Services have for their officers/probationers, the Government of India is having a massive continuing education/orientation programme for civil services officers in the best institutions of the country and the world. These include opportunities for doing Post-Graduate Diploma/Master’s/PhD programmes in the best foreign Universities/Institutions; there is also a provision for study leave for higher education in the country as well as abroad with full salary at home. This enables the civil servants to interact with participants from different countries in the world and to enrich their experience. The underlying objective is to evolve the Indian Civil Services into a dynamic, progressive, thoroughly professional and humanistic body of public service-oriented members, having absolute moral and intellectual integrity and honest service of the nation at heart.