A short history of public services in India and England
The Indian system of public administration is thought to be one of the world’s oldest, barring perhaps the Chinese. In 322 BC “Chandragupta … established a complex bureaucracy to see to the operation of the state and a bureaucractic taxation system that financed public services”.
Among the more recent advances in public services in India, the model of land revenue collection designed by Sher Shah Suri in the 1540s is acknowledged as a major milestone in systematic governance. The Sher Shah model was then adopted by the Mughals and later by their successor—the East India Company.
The East India Company was one of the world’s oldest joint-stock companies; hence a pioneer. Like any good modern private company, it had built its own set of rules and procedures by 1757 to ensure that business policies laid down by its Board of Directors were complied with across its entire trading business. But after Clive’s political triumph of 1757 at Plassey, the Company was faced with the entirely new challenge of governing vast numbers of people and extensive areas of land, initially only in Bengal. It became a private company that ‘ruled’ people: a unique combination. It had to quickly come up with policies to deal with this completely new role. The bureaucracy it invented in response to this challenge was perhaps the first modern bureaucracy in the world. This bureaucracy was not accountable to the whims of kings, but to a private company’s Board of Directors; it developed as a private sector bureaucracy.
The Company started by creating a Covenanted Civil Service (CCS) whose members signed ‘good behaviour covenants’ with the Company’s Court of Directors. With a view to keeping wage costs low, members of this service were paid relatively modestly but they could ply their own commercial business on the side and thus make commissions on their trading activities. As would be expected, this model led to serious conflicts of interest. Given the lucrative opportunities created by the political patronage of their commercial activities, corruption began to flourish in British Bengal. That Robert Clive was impeached (unsuccessfully) on this ground says something about the enormous possibilities of corruption at the confluence of India’s feudal culture and a modern joint stock company which did not have checks and balances for its new role as a government.
The very concept of corruption being an impropriety was perhaps recognised for the fist time in India at this stage. Officers had been expected to use their office to coerce villagers into submission in all previous monarchical regimes. The British officers’ corruption was quite customary for India till then; no one thought it was improper. Chanakya had noted such natural tendencies among officers in his Arthashastra 2,400 years ago (“The Mahamatras are like fish. Does one know, when the fish is drinking water?”).
However, the expectation from public officers was changing. The change started in England where the Magna Carta of 1215 instilled some discipline in the king’s officers. The king of England agreed through this charter that ‘No Constable nor other Bailiff of ours shall take the corn or other goods of any one, without instantly paying money for them.’ This was revolutionary, as it created a new expectation that a public servant was only to live off his own salary.
Therefore the corruption in British Bengal was not commented upon adversely in India. It was in England that concerns were raised about it. The British Parliament took about a decade to make he Regulating Act of 1773. This Act created a Governor General for British India. A subsequent India Act,1784 laid the specific principles of governance of India by the Company. We cannot blame the British Parliament for taking so long to do something about corruption in India (it at least took some action: India’s Parliament, on the other hand, actively encourages corruption!). The British Parliament was relatively weak at that stage, and also unrepresentative. It was only in 1688 that it had gained the authority to continue to assemble without long interruptions imposed by British kings.
The second Governor General of British India, Lord Cornwallis (1786-93) seems to have laid the foundations of the modern Indian public services. He split the Company bureaucracy into two parts: the political branch responsible for civil governance, and the commercial branch responsible for its commercial activities. On entry, an officer of the East India Company had to opt for one of these branches. Commercial officers retained access to commissions on their trading activities. Those who opted for the political branch were compensated by Cornwallis through a significant hike in salary. With this, corruption came to a grinding halt in the higher echelons of British India’s government. Till independence, these higher echelons would distinguish themselves by remaining spotlessly clean. Indeed, this continued well into the early years of independent India even as our politicians were starting to become super-corrupt.
The political branch attracted talented British middle-class youth with scholarly tastes and policy interests. Wonderful writers emerged from amongst them who penned elegant and largely accurate accounts of the lives of ordinary Indian peoples. In some cases, these civil servants proved pivotal in the development of local Indian dialects and languages. They compiled dictionaries; even created scripts. The role of the District Collector, perhaps found only in India, also further evolved and became the hub of British administration. This office was particularly important given the poor means of communication available in those days, with the attendant need to empower local officials to make decisions on the ground without waiting for prior approval.
To streamline the processes of administration, Cornwallis created a civil service manual as part of the Charter Act, 1793. Carrying on Cornwallis’s foundational work, Lord Wellesley set up the Fort William College in Madras in 1800 to induct new entrants to the CCS. This college was moved to England in 1805 and became the Haileybury College. (A tidbit: among the teachers at Haileybury was the famous Thomas Malthus who was its first professor of Political Economy and taught British India’s civil servants from 1805 till his death in 1834. They were also taught the latest economic and political thought, including Adam Smith.) The Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration at Mussoorie continues the tradition established in 1800, imparting a two-year induction package to new recruits.
Given increasing concerns that appointments to the CCS by the board members of the Company were not made exclusively on merit, the Company threw the Indian civil service open to competition in 1853. This was a significant reform that even Britain would not implement in its own government for the next sixty years. In 1854, William Gladstone commissioned Northcote and Trevelyan to report on the future of the Civil Service in England. They studied the British East India Office as a model, and a few other government offices in England and recommended that civil servants in England should also be recruited through an open competitive examination, and that promotions should be made on merit, not on the basis of seniority. The frequently cited precepts of an apolitical permanent career service, being not only recruited without political patronage but whose members offer impartial advice to the political leadership, arose from this report. When Gladstone became Prime Minister in 1868 he implemented some of these recommendations. Competitive entry started in England only in 1914.
In the meantime, the British India civil service had kept up its lead in public service reform. The Indian Civil Service Act was made in 1861. Next, the recommendations of the Public Service Commission of 1886-1887 were implemented. Later, in the 1910s, in response to Indian nationalists, the British allowed Indians to take the entrance examination for which they had to travel to England. From 1922, India was made an examination centre. The number of Indians in the ICS began to steadily rise. At the time of independence, in addition to the generalist civil service, the ICS, which provided high level governance functions, India had evolved nine other central services which managed specialist areas.
The point of sketching this history in some detail was to highlight that by the mid-1800s, the Indian civil service was perhaps at the cutting edge of public administration in the world. Regrettably, India’s public services have stagnated since then while the rest of the world has continued to evolve and reform. The design of the IAS today is based almost entirely on the model of 1853. The most important public administration reforms in the world since then include the abolition of tenure in the top echelons of the public services, and bringing in significant political strategy alignment. Let’s explore these changes.
[Note: This is an extract from Online Notes for my book, Breaking Free of Nehru]
John P. McKay, B.D. Hill anid J. Buckler (1988). A History of World Societies
.Vol. 1. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. p.74