Thoughts on economics and liberty

A 1994 article in EPW that made a cogent argument for disbanding the IAS

I’m posting this here, for my personal record and reference. Nirmal Mukarji (ICS-1943), was the last of the ICS Cabinet Secretaries. He was Cabinet Secretary of India under three Prime Ministers: Morarji Desai, Charan Singh and Indira Gandhi. He recommended in 1994 that the IAS should come to an end: CLOSE THE IAS SHOP, he said. “He had a lone supporter in B.D. Pande, ICS (1938), also a former Cabinet Secretary.” [Source]

Restructuring the Bureaucracy: All-India Services, Nirmal Mukarji, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 29, No. 51/52 (Dec. 17-24, 1994), pp. 3193-3195 [Word version]

Bureaucratic arrangements must fall in line with the multi-layered character of the polity. The central, state and local government bureaucracies must, therefore, be placed squarely under the control of the elected rulers at each level. A suitable way needs to be found to close the IAS shop.


This paper rests on the proposition that existing bureaucratic arrangements are unsatisfactory and need to be reviewed. The proverbial man in the street would probably regard this as a gross understatement. Sad to say he has a poor opinion of the bureaucracy as a whole. Not for him the fine distinctions between all-India services, central and state services, clerical cadres and the rest. In his vision, noble exceptions apart, there are only two kinds of bureaucrats, bad and worse. The police, of course, is in a category by itself. There is little doubt that the common man considers bureaucrats to he as responsible for the sorry plight of the people and the country as the political class.

It would be unwise to disregard this widely held perception, either by arguing that the entire blame lies with the politicians, as many stout defenders of the services tend to do, or by taking comfort in the fact that there are still many good people in the services. After independence it was expected that a system of governance would evolve that would care for the people and their concerns. That it has not is, in large part, due to the bureaucracy itself having become a burdensome problem. It is an unpleasant truth but one which needs to be faced squarely rather than avoided, ostrich-like.

It is not possible in a short paper to explore fully how we have come to such a pass. Nor can it be expected that a blueprint of an alternative bureaucratic system will drop out of the sky. What is needed is to bring to the forefront the fundamental question of how the country’s bureaucracy should be restructured. At this kick-off stage it would be enough to identify key issues for consideration. If these are carefully picked and constructively discussed a basis could emerge for further creative thinking about the bureaucracy of the future.

* * *

No exercise to redesign the bureaucracy can be undertaken in isolation of the larger system of which it is a part or of the factors having a bearing on its functioning. It would be useful to recount the more important of these connected aspects, especially those that may be expected to endure into the future.

Firstly, India is essentially a federal democracy. The federal element, such as it is, is multi-layered — the centre, the states and the panchayats and municipalities —with elected rulers at each layer. A reorganised bureaucracy must be in conformity with this reality. The democratic component _ in the term ‘federal democracy’ requires that bureaucrats must be more fully accountable to the people and their representatives than now. Likewise, the federal component demands that bureaucratic arrangements must be as multi-layered as the polity itself.

Secondly, functions and powers are at present heavily over-centralised. Consequently, relations between the three strata of governance need to be reordered. The governing principle must be massive devolution from the centre to the states and from the states to the third stratum. The instruments through which the centre intrudes in the states and the states in local government will have to be done away with or drastically abbreviated. To illustrate, centrally-sponsored schemes like the Jawahar Rozgar Yojana and agencies to implement these like the central ministry of rural development may have to be abolished. Such hatchet treatment, long overdue, would help move expenditure away from useless salaries to useful purposes at hical levels. Genuine devolution must show up in slimmer central and state bureaucracies.

Thirdly, the new economic policy of liberalisation seems to have acquired irreversibility. Therefore, like it or not, its consequences must be taken into account. Two of its features, deregulation and privatisation, cannot but influence the shape of tomorrow’s bureaucracy. For, deregulation renders organisations set up to regulate redundant and privatisation decentralises functions from the public to the private sector. Neither feature has gone very far as yet, but the trends are there and it is only a question Of time before the bureaucratic apparatus feels the squeeze. Devolution on the one hand and deregulation and privatisation on the other are inescapable slimming diets for the bloated bureaucracies of the centre and the states.

Fourthly, the social and political climate of the country is fast changing. Previously submerged ‘sections of society are asserting their rights, whether as individuals, as in the Shah Bano case, or as groups. Every time such assertion hurts, the hitherto privileged sections launch a backlash. What we are witnessing is a churning of society, both ways. The process has just begun. One can foresee the likelihood of an increasingly vigorous ‘manthan’ in future years, which political parties may well perceive as promising waters to fish in.

An important offshoot of this societal churning is the emergence of a new species of middle and upper middle classes, characterised by a yearning for life styles like those of affluent countries. The species is relatively small in numbers, perhaps only 10 to 15 per cent of the population, but highly ifluential. It controls the media, dominates the economy and bestrides society because of its largely upper caste composition. It is the main beneficiary of the new economic order and is consequently its vociferous supporter. While this species prospers, the rest of the people remain uncared for. As the gulf between the two widens discontent is bound to grow. The bureaucracy of the future must be understanding and humane in the face of these churning forces.

Fifthly, technological innovations, especially in electronics and telecommunications, have introduced an altogether new dimension. We are thus in a highly changeful situation. All the indications are that changefulness will continue far into the future, very likely at an accelerating rate. The bureaucratic system we have lived with so far is on the other hand rigid and change-resistant. This glaring mismatch has somehow to be corrected. A redesigned bureaucracy Will have to be flexible so that it can keep pace with changing times.

* * *

A historical flash-back may help to draw up a starting point agenda of prime issues. Once upon a time there were no services as we know them now and yet for the ordinary citizen the country was governed not much worse than it is at present. Akbar introduced an imperial service, viewed by a British historian as the steel frame of the Moghul edifice. But his ‘mansabdari’ system was no more than a pool of young noblemen, appointed and promoted by imperial favour and, presumably, dismissed or worse when favour was withdrawn. These ‘umrah’ constituted a central bureaucracy which administered the ‘subhas’, ‘sarkars’ and ‘parganas’, forbears of our states, districts and sub-divisions. The officials were salaried at least to begin with, and transferable. The system held until the empire itself dissolved under the later Moghuls.

Then came the British. At first they were just traders and so their early functionaries were known as writers, factors and merchants. In 1765 the East India Company acquired the ‘diwani’ of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. Everything changed with that. The Company moved on from commerce and entered the arena of governance. It could no longer do with mere traders on its staff. Step by step, therefore, a civil service evolved until it blossomed into the Indian Civil Service. This fabled service set a pattern of how a cadre could be organised to attend to the tasks of governance. In due course the pattern engulfed the rest of the bureaucracy.

The main characteristics of this archetypal service were the following:

(1) It was an all-India service par excellence. All other all-India services set up later, whether during British rule or after independence, used the ICS as the model.

(2) It was an exemplar of a service with a cadre for which certain posts were reserved. The service-cadre system it pioneered was adopted by every central and state service later, whether before or after 1947.

(3) Its members were assured of near-complete security of service. Once someone managed to get in, he remained virtually untouched unless he resigned or went mad, which was not infrequent. The Constitution guarantees similar security to all existing services, all-India, central or state.

Each of these characteristics was almost unthinkingly incorporated in the bureaucratic system of free India. It is time now for the key issues raised to be discussed and reviewed. These are:

(a) Whether all-India services should continue or be wound up.

(b) Whether the service-cadre system should remain or be replaced.

(c) Whether security of service should continue as now or be balanced by greater accountability.

The present paper seeks to examine only the first of these, leaving the others for separate treatment.

* * *

To go into the question whether the all-India services should continue or not, it would be best to focus attention on a single service, the IAS, since it also happens to be the direct descendant of its progenitor, the ICS.

British India was ruled by a governor general, under whom the governors ruled the provinces and district officers, variously called collectors, district magistrates or deputy commissioners, the districts. The business of governance was centralised and unitary. The key functionaries at all three levels of the pyramid, the centre, the provinces and the districts, had to be knit together in a command structure for the common purpose of preserving the ‘raj’. It was in this context that the ICS came into being. Also it was in this sense that it came to be known as an all-India service.

By the early 1930s political compulsions altered the context by introducing the twin concepts of provincial autonomy and a federal centre. It was urged before a joint committee of the British parliament that the recruitment of officers by the Secretary of State for service in the provinces was incompatible with provincial autonomy. The committee appreciated the force of the argument, but played safe by recommending that only all-India services other than the ICS and the Indian Police should be wound up. “Grave apprehension” was expressed that abrupt changes in these two services would expose the new Constitution to “risk and hazard”. However, the door was kept open for a review to take place five years or so after the induction of provincial autonomy. It never took place.

During the war, recruitment to the ICS was stopped. It was not resumed subsequently because of impending transfer of power. In this altogether changed context India had to make its own arrangements. A. great opportunity arose to do something radically new. But grooved minds could produce only a replica of the ICS. At a conference in October 1946, Sardar Patel sought the consent of provincial premiers to the IAS scheme. They were not enthusiastic, with even a stalwart like Pandit G B Pant expressing reservations. Bengal and Punjab actually withheld consent. The others finally agreed, mainly because of Congress solidarity. Punjab decided to have its own PCS, Class 1. The IAS was thus rendered less than truly all-India, because provinces could and some did opt out.

Whether it was UP under Pandit Pant or Punjab under Malik Khizar Hayat Khan Tiwana, the crucial question was of ultimate control over the proposed service. The provinces were not happy with overmuch central control. Sardar Patel argued that provincial control would expose the service to undesirable influences. In his words: “Democracy in India is in its infant stage. We have not yet created that public opinion or our level of public opinion has not risen to such an extent as would justify leaving our services to the influences outside.” The underlying thought was that the centre was more immune to undesirable influences than the states.

Three years later, when the context was the framing of the Constitution for free, democratic India, the Sardar went further. He said: “The Union will go … you will not have a united India if you have not a good all-India service which has a sense of security… If you do not adopt this course then do not follow the present Constitution. Substitute something else. Put in a Congress constitution or put in RSS constitution, but not this Constitution. This Constitution is meant to be worked by a ring of service which will keep the country intact. We have in our collective wisdom come to a decision that we shall have this model wherein the ring of service will be such that will keep the country wider control” (emphasis added).

With this powerful endorsement from the strong man of the central power structure, the IAS was firmly ensconced in the Constitution. It needed specific mention because otherwise there was no room in a federal polity for a service common to the centre and the states. But for all-India services there was, in fact, no need for Part XIV of the Constitution dealing with services under the union and the states. There could just have been statutes for the central and state services under the relevant entries of the Seventh Schedule. We need not have earned the dubious distinction of being the only major federal democracy in the world to have mentioned the services in the Constitution.

The states acquired linguistic-cultural or tribal identities only after the reorganisation of states. Yet, having initiated a measure which enabled these identities to begin coming into their own, the States Reorganisation Commission was overly concerned with “correcting particularist trends”. It proposed, for instance, that about 50 per cent of the new entrants in any cadre of an existing all-India service should be from outside the state concerned. It also recommended that new all-India services should be constituted in sectors like engineering, forestry, medical and health. After one such service had been set up, the Indian Forest Service, the states woke up and stopped the further advance of the all-India service juggernaut. For once, India’s federal polity asserted, itself successfully against centralist forces.

In 1977, in a memorandum on centre-state relations, the West Bengal government stated that all-India services like the IAS and the IPS must be abolished. There should be only union and state services and the power to recruit and exercise disciplinary control should vest in the union and the respective states. Eight years later, three other states — Tamil Nadu, Tripura. and Punjab — expressed the same view in their submissions to the Sarkaria Commission on centre-state relations. Curiously, West Bengal moderated its earlier stand by urging that at least individual states should be allowed to opt out. Both abolition and the right to opt out were firmly ruled out by the Commission, which on this issue took as centralist a line as the earlier States Reorganisation Commission.

Meanwhile, there were developments within the IAS, two of which deserve mention. To begin with, both cadre sizes and annual intakes were kept under leash. But then the centre panicked. It suddenly concluded that there would not be enough IAS officers for the expanding requirements of governance. Consequently, both cadres and intakes began leaping up. Intake, for instance, jumped from 33 in 1947 to 138 in 1965 and 160 in 1985. Warnings that such heavy recruitment would produce an eventual glut went unheeded. The result is that the states are now inundated with IAS officers. In many states there are multiple secretaries for the same job, and officers of chief secretary’s rank are two a penny. Intake has now been reduced to 80, but that is still too large and, in any case, the floods of the past will take long to recede.

Secondly, in the early years, corrupt officers were rare and communal ones even more rare. But today the reverse is the situation. In state after state, it is officers who are both honest and non-communal that are in short supply. Inveterate supporters of the IAS say, “Why pick on the IAS? Are other services, and indeed society itself, not equally infected?” But if the IAS has sunk so low, it has lost its raison d’ etre.

* * *

It seems that we have carried on with the IAS more out of inertia than reason. Basically for a service recruited and controlled by the centre to supply officers for key posts in the states and for the states to be compelled to accept the arrangement because the said posts are reserved for such officers is a position wholly incompatible with our federal democracy, howsoever ‘quasi’ the federal element may be. The point was raised with the British when provincial autonomy was being worked out and its logic conceded. It was raised again with Sardar Patel in October 1946 and partly conceded in that two major provinces were allowed to opt out. It was raised a third time by four states but stubbornly rejected by the Sarkaria Commission. It needs to be raised a fourth time, for now this essentially central service will intrude not only into the states but also into the third stratum of panchayats and municipalities.

Sardar Patel’s argument about democracy being in its infancy obviously cannot hold water four and a half decades later. The assumption that the centre is more immune to undesirable influences than the states is, to say the least, laughable in the present state of affairs. His postulate that the Constitution is meant to be worked by a ring of service that will keep the country under control is entirely untenable, if only because it places the bureaucracy ahead of democracy. Equally indefensible is the view that the IAS is needed to keep India united. Things have changed since the Sardar’s days and any discussion about all-India services should reflect the change.

Lastly, the IAS seems to be sinking under the weight of its own numbers. Recently Gujarat declined to accept any IAS recruits two years running, presumably because of IAS over-population in that state. Several other states have thought in terms of stopping or at least reducing the influx of fresh recruits. The service has also fallen steeply in public esteem, because far too many IAS officers are seen to be corrupt or in league with politicians or, in many states, communal or casteist. Its very reason for existence as an elite body, therefore, no longer holds true. That partly explains why both central and state services increasingly resent its higher emoluments and its hold over top posts.

It would be best to find a suitable way to close the IAS shop. When the British decided to wind up the all-India services other than the ICS and IP, they simply stopped further recruitment. A bold method would be to follow that precedent and stop all further recruitment forthwith. Simultaneously posts reserved for the IAS in the states should be gradually dereserved. An alternative route would be to permit individual states to opt out of the IAS scheme, whereupon any state that avails of the option should have the right to dereserve all its IAS posts. In either case, the salary structure of such IAS officers as chose to remain should be protected.

Winding up the IAS need not rule out the possibility, even desirability, of training arrangements at the national level for both central and state civil servants, supplemental to state-specific arrangements in the case of the latter. Nor should it rule out the centre taking in selected state civil servants on deputation for specified periods, thus ensuring that the centre is not cut off from ground realities.

The essentials of the new regime between the centre and the states, which should embrace other all-India services as well, should apply equally to reorganised regimes between the state and the third stratum of panchayats and municipalities. Neither the all-India services, in their remnant form, nor the various state services should intrude into the domain of the third stratum. The panchayats and the municipalities need to be left free to evolve their own arrangements, unrestricted as they are by the binds of Part XIV of the Constitution. Eventually all mention of all-India services should go out from this part, and consequentially the deletion of the entire part seriously considered.

The end result would be central, state and local government bureaucracies, squarely under the control of the elected rulers at each level. Bureaucratic arrangements would thus fall in line with the multi-layered character of the polity. Also autonomy for the states and self-government for the panchayats and municipalities, within the overall compass of national sovereignty, would be imbued with meaning, at least in administrative terms.

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Sanjeev Sabhlok

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