Thoughts on economics and liberty

IAS Culture of Graft, Revealed by an IAS officer

My father forwarded this email which raises important issues. But note that I don't agree with Pande's analysis which focuses on "sociological" not fundamental issues that lead to corruption and misgovernance – see my comment later.

The concept of the IAS itself is an anachronism in a democratic framework  

—– Forwarded Message —-
Sent: Tue, June 28, 2011 9:43:44 AM
Subject: IAS Culture of Graft, Revealed by an IAS officer

Are the services suffering too from a similar, increasingly more pronounced, cultural divide amongst its officers leading to increasing cases of moral turpitude? 

IAS design conducive to graft
by Amitabha Pande

TWO months ago, Neera Yadav, former Chief Secretary of UP, was convicted and sent to jail. Soon thereafter, BS Lalli, CEO of Prasar Bharati, was suspended on allegations of corruption. Both were my batch mates in the IAS and my memories of them as probationers are so completely at variance with the reputations they acquired later in their careers that it becomes both sad and difficult to reconcile the two.

Do social origins and the cultural milieu in which one has grown up have a role to play in the kind of IAS officer one eventually becomes? At one level, all bureaucrats have been corrupt in some way or another — favoring friends or kinsmen or persons of a particular region, using the perks and freebies offered by PSUs and so on. Worse, many have readily condoned or did not resist the corrupt behavior of those wielding political power. A few, however, become known for the voraciousness of their appetite for material acquisitions. What makes for this change in behavior? Were the symptoms, or the ‘lakshanas’ of such behavior always there?


When we joined the IAS in 1971, the entrants could be broadly grouped into three distinct, occasionally overlapping, categories. There were those of us whose parents had been/ were in the higher echelons of civil service or senior management positions in the boxwalla companies. Most of us had been to public schools and our undergraduate years had been spent in the elite colleges and universities of India.

The second social group in the IAS was also from an urban middle class background but with a strong non metro, medium sized city bias. Belonging to cities such as Chandigarh, Ludhiana, Kanpur, Nagpur, Sagar, Baroda or Mysore, their parents were mostly from professional, technical backgrounds working in the middle rungs of their organisations. They were deeply rooted in the emerging Indian middle class and the IAS was a very significant part of their aspirational growth.

The third group had closer links with the rural and provincial than the second. They were deeply and integrally connected to land and land relations. The IAS of their imagination was still rooted in a semi- feudal, patriarchal order. Their most distinguishing feature was their unease with the English language.

This threefold varna is probably sharper in retrospect than it was at that time and many of us fell in between these groups.

The distinctions were primarily cultural and the English language the main dividing line. Many of us in the first group were half ashamed of our elitist origins. To our social guilt tainted eyes a person like Neera appeared a shining example of someone who had fought her way out of a chauvinistic, patriarchal social order.

To understand what changed, tracing the career trajectories of the three groups can offer interesting sociological insights.

Those of the third group rarely sought careers in the central government, saw little benefit in acquiring specialized technical and professional skills, and had very close relationships with provincial political satraps and local traders and contractors (forests, mines, liquor, cement, kerosene, civil works). All of them displayed a tremendous appetite for acquiring landed property. The economic profiles of most changed dramatically between the beginning and the end of their careers.

Those of the second group, while not averse to central government careers, focused on jobs traditionally associated with power and status — Ministries of Home, Defence, Industry and cultivated low profile politicians powerful in the backrooms of party politics to secure posts in such Ministries and Departments.

For the majority of them wielding authority, was more important than making money. The corrupt among them concentrated on opportunities in Government procurements, industrial licenses and approvals etc. Unlike the third group, their accumulation was relatively discreet and modest in scale.

Those of the first group made a beeline for careers in the central government, as far as possible in Finance, Commerce, Industry or the Infrastructure ministries — jobs that offered the maximum potential for international careers and foreign postings.

Most jobs required dealing with international treaties and protocols and therefore superior skills in communication in English gave them a natural advantage.

Their relations with the political masters tended to be awkward until the Rajiv Gandhi regime brought in the generation of politicians with very similar cultural backgrounds.

The corrupt among them brought high levels of sophistication to corruption itself, making it knowledge- and skill- based.

While some may have salted away fortunes in tax havens, most corruption was a kind of lifestyle corruption rather than crass accumulation of property.


Several generalizations can be made from this descriptive account. One, that the differences in the internalized image of the IAS between the three socio- cultural groups were substantial and determined future behavior. Two, the language of discourse which persons like Neera and Lalli were used to, being steeped in provincialism, showed a very high degree of acceptance bordering on reverence for existing socio- cultural hierarchies.

The Public School/ St Stephen’s lingual environment, on the other hand, encouraged irreverence and reflected a less socially iniquitous culture. Three, each of these language based categories occupies its own distinct cultural and moral universe in which standards of what is acceptable behavior differ substantively and qualitatively.

A major part of the problem in the IAS stems from an inherent design flaw. The architecture of the IAS was consciously drawn from the ICS and it was premised on a social and cultural distance between administration and civil society on the one hand and between the political executive and the civil servant on the other. It was self- consciously elitist and relied on creating a kind of Brahmanical mandarinate which was specifically groomed for the task of governance. The critical mass had to consist of people who shared a certain cultural ethos.

Such a design was obviously at variance with the rough and tumble of the Indian democracy where Realpolitik was increasingly emerging as the only ‘Real’ Politics.

Instead of redesigning the architecture appropriately to the changing socio- political context, the IAS was sought to be retrofitted by tinkering with its basic design.


The policy makers gradually sought to broaden the recruitment zone to include more and more of those with a vernacular background. This was done in the naive hope that by inducting persons of more vernacular social origins and giving them the same elite status the system could be made more sensitive to the underprivileged.

What has happened is the opposite. A new, more aggressive vernacular elite has replaced the earlier one, bringing in a whole new culture where pragmatism, expediency and moral elasticity are the presiding virtues and the exercise of petty tyranny and corruption a legitimate practice. The flaw in the design is in the idea of the elite in a democratic system not in the social composition of that elite. The concept of the IAS itself is an anachronism in a democratic framework and tinkering with its design makes it prone to ‘corruption’ in a very fundamental way.

To think that one can actually engineer an elite force which is trained into social conscientiousness and good governance and which remains immune to changes in the socio-political environment is not just naive, it is dangerous. Just think of the number of new, techno-savvy, culturally sub-educated, petty tyrants who get added on to the monstrous apparatus that is the Indian State and tremble with fear! What is the alternative? As that contemporary of the Bard said: ‘Another time another place… Besides, the wench is dead…’

Amitabha Pande is a Punjab cadre IAS Officer … now retired…

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5 thoughts on “IAS Culture of Graft, Revealed by an IAS officer
  1. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Srivasta

    I published this not because I agree with Pande's analysis but because it confirms the widespread prevalence of corruption in the IAS. His analysis is otherwise very superficial, focusing on so-called sociological issues not the fundamental drivers of corruption and misgovernance.

    Pande merely complains and flounders about with a story that doesn't link the dots together (because it is incoherent and doesn't explain anything substantial). He also doesn't offer a way out. 

    I have written a lot about the need to completely modernise India's public administration machine and won't repeat it here. Suffice it to say that we don't need the IAS or ANY tenured civil service. The whole thing is a mess that needs total replacement with a modern architecture – see BFN for details.


  2. Nitin Gulhane

    This article confirms widely held beleif that IAS officers held themselves in very high esteem. Very peculiar. Most Indians who don't get overwhelmed by the power of the chair, hold them in contempt. A bunch of incompetents who are so full of themselves. Memorizing world history doesn't make anybody a good administrator. Although it does give them a free house. And many servants.
    What we need is a rate card of IAS officers. Hopefully, incompetents from 'elite' colleges don't charge differently.
    I am not a nationalist and thats why I tolerate an IAS officer touching the national flag.

  3. Nitin Gulhane

    aagh. I need to find out why I try to blame IxS cadre for everything that ails India. My anger for them surprises me. Probably my unexpressed, unexplored and unfanned desire of being one myself? Who knows?


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