Thoughts on economics and liberty

Civil Service Reforms – by Dr G. Sundaram.

I thank Dr G Sundaram IAS (retd.) 1962 batch for sending me his article on civil service reforms (PDF here, Word version here). I’ll review and comment on it separately.

Civil Service Reforms – by Dr G. Sundaram (Gujarat – 1962)

In a book by the TN Retired IAS officers Association-edited by M.G.Balasubra-
maniam (IAS:RR:1948):East West:now Westland:2006

At the outset, I must say that Civil Service Reforms is difficult subject and different countries including India have approached it in different ways from time to time.

A report appeared in the papers a few years ago that Premier Zhu Rongji axed two million Government jobs as a measure of administrative reforms in China. Such a drastic action is just not possible in India, which is a Parliamentary democracy whereas China is a totalitarian state. In South Africa, Presidential Review Commission appointed by Nelson Mande while he was President found the inherited bureaucracy `fundamentally flawed’ and recommended far-reaching proposals for reconfiguration and abolition of a number of Ministries. There is no information on whether these reforms have been implemented with success in South Africa.

A few years ago, there was also a report in the United States by the then Vice-President Al Gore on “Reinventing Government”. US senior civil service is based on political preferences. The States in the US have their own way of administration.

It is said that the old system of checks and balances still continues, hampering development in India. There is a public feeling that a sizeable section of the bureaucracy including direct recruits has, of late, lost its sense of dedication and has started colluding with the political masters in the art of manipulation and corruption.

India is a parliamentary democracy like the U.K. In the UK, the laws passed by Parliament cannot be interfered with by courts. To illustrate this, it used to be said, humorously, that the British Parliament can pass any law except the one converting a man into a woman or a woman into a man. The Indian Constitution permits judicial intervention/interpretation of the laws passed by the Parliament /Assemblies.

In the U.K., from time to time, there have been Royal Commissions to review the Civil Service, the last one being the Lord Fulton Commission. Although this was implemented with some zeal by Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, there were doubts about its full success.

The direct recruitment to the IAS, the IPS or the IFS may not be considered merit-based in a strict sense because of 49 % reservation (though reservation by itself may be necessary in the Indian conditions). The State promotion quota is also 33 1/3 % with demands to increase it to 40%. The State Governments generally prefer the promotee officers for important executive positions like District Collectors because of their practical approach due to hands-on experience at the grass root levels of administration. IAS Regular Recruits (RR) are also reluctant to move out of Delhi once they are posted there. An increasing number of middle-class entrants find the present system of allotment to a State other than their own inconvenient and they try all the time to move to the Centre. In sum, the concept of all-India Services as a unifying force seems to be losing its relevance because of several other factors that help to cement national integration. So the emphasis should shift to specialisation. In this context, it is a welcome feature that the Central services as well as the All-India Services and the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) are becoming a pool of talent with entrants from IIT, IIM and science disciplines, replacing the predominance of liberal arts.

Even during the ICS days, there was a certain measure of specialisation in the sense that after some years of initial service some were chosen for the Political Service or the Judiciary. A Finance and Commerce Pool was set up by choosing officers from the ICS and other Central Services to man the economic ministries at the Centre, with reverse deputation of ICS officers to the States.

For the IAS in the mid-Fifties, a Central Administrative Pool was formed and officers selected for the Pool. Due to protests from those not selected for the Pool on the ground that it was not fair to introduce a caste system in the premier service, the Pool was allowed to dry up without a formal dissolution!

Having been directly under the British Government for nearly ninety years (1857 — 1947), our parliamentary democracy is modelled on the British system. The most important aspect of this model is that the Ministers who change with the Government are assisted by a band of permanent civil servants of several grades. The civil servants are recruited by an independent services commission on the basis of open competition. There is therefore no scope for jobbery in the gift of the politician.

The politician in power gets around this to some extent by manning his private office with his acolytes, their main job being to assist the Minister in nursing his constituency. In the U.K., Harold Wilson, the Labour Prime Minister introduced the practice of inducting special advisers from outside to be attached to the individual Ministers. These special advisers share the political philosophy of the Minister. They do not have control over the Civil Service in Whitehall. Tony Blair as Prime Minister has considerably increased the number of such Advisers. According to an article in the Spectator, 2nd March, 2002 there were 81 Special Advisers in Whitehall of whom 26 were in the PMO. Unusually, a few of them had been given control over civil servants. In the U.K. where there is an effective public opinion, this arrangement has not found much favour mainly because these Special Advisers are particularly concerned with news management. Somehow the general public do not attach much credibility to this kind of managed news.

In India, there has been lateral induction from nongovernmental sources into permanent positions in Government even at the level of Secretary to Government. These are persons with proven record of competence in certain specialised fields. After induction, they become part of the regular permanent establishment of civil servants. The fact that they are part of the established hierarchy makes them acceptable to the establishment.

In India the appointment of an Adviser to a Minister on a contract basis has not been a great success. An Adviser to a Minister is neither fish, nor flesh, nor good red herring. Bureaucracy has a way of neutralising such advisers. The Adviser becomes frustrated when he finds that the senior bureaucrats do not care for him. The Minister is not happy to get contradictory advice from the Adviser and the Secretary to Government. Permanent civil servants who are part and parcel of a well entrenched system alone can bail out a Minister when he gets into a jam. After a time the Minister is happy to bid goodbye to his Adviser. After his ignominious departure, the ex-Adviser reveals to the Press how the Minister is a puppet in the hands of his officers and how his sensible advice was spurned. After this kind of public sensation, the politician becomes chary of having an outside Adviser. The point to be noted is that there cannot be too many birds of passage in a Ministry. The Minister is accountable to Parliament and the Prime Minister. An Adviser on contract is not accountable to anyone except to himself. Mere claim to professional competence does not improve his acceptability by the system. In a survey in the Government of India as to the actual decisions taken by the officers and the Ministers over a period of time, an economic Adviser pertinently pointed out that he never took a decision because his job was only to advise!

There is bound to be ego clash between the established system and a loose cannon of an Adviser to the Minister. On the other hand, if he is a regular Adviser recruited on a fairly long tenure and fitted into the regular hierarchy, he becomes part of the system. There have been many such instances like Prof. P.N. Dhar and M.S. Ahluwalia.


Let us briefly examine a few suggestions on recruitment to the IAS because any change of pattern in the Services is closely linked to the mode of recruitment.

  1. One suggestion is that the entry age should not exceed 25, since persons entering the service later would hold inflexible views on many things and would be more practical minded rather than idealistic even at the beginning of their career. It would be difficult to mould such recruits.
  2. A common examination sometimes leads to a feeling amongst other Services that not all the candidates chosen for the IAS and the IFS are distinctly superior to those allotted to other Services. It should be recognised that not everyone selected for the IAS/ IFS is intrinsically of a superior calibre to those chosen for the other Services, nor are those chosen for the other Services intrinsically of inferior calibre to the IAS and the IFS officers. Of late, unlike in the past, recruits with high ranks do not prefer the IFS for a variety of reasons. In a competitive examination or, for that matter, in a career, the role of chance or luck cannot be ruled out. At the same time, it should be considered whether the role played by chance in the career one gets allotted to introduces a prejudice against the IAS/IFS in the other Services.

It appears necessary therefore to remove the chip on the shoulder of other Services by making selection to the IAS and the IFS through an examination that is separate from and distinctly superior to the one for the other remaining Services.

Against this background, it is suggested that, as was being done till about a decade ago, after the preliminary examination there could be two different (combined and not common) examinations—one common examination for the IAS/IFS only, and the another common examination for the Indian Police Service and all the Central Services. The number of subjects for the Services other than the IAS and the IFS could be two less in the two optional subjects so that the maximum marks for the written test is 1,400 and for the interview 200 instead of 300, i.e., a total of 1,600 marks, as against the total 2,200 marks for the combined the IAS and the IFS examinations. As in the past, the two advanced papers for the IAS/IFS need not be corrected unless a candidate secures a stipulated minimum in the preliminary and lower papers. This would ensure that an officer of the Central Services/IPS will not suffer from a real or imaginary grievance that he received a raw deal due to fortuitous circumstances.

There have been discussions whether the present system of selection is the best. Whatever be the subjects for the written tests, so long as there is a wide choice of subjects with similar standards and the valuation of the papers is objective, by applying the law of probability the end results are not likely to be very different. There will still be a few undeserving cases getting into the selected list and a few deserving cases not getting into the selected list. The objective is to give equality of opportunity to our competent young men and women to become qualified to occupy positions of authority and prestige and discharge their responsibilities sincerely, efficiently and honestly.

Future of the IAS

There have been various suggestions on the future of the IAS. In one extreme, there is a suggestion to abolish the IAS. The other is to have a combined Service for the IFS, the two all-India Services and the 23 Central Civil Services. A brief examination of these suggestions without any comments will be in order.

Mr. Nirmal Mukerji (ICS-1943), the last of the ICS Cabinet Secretaries, in an article in the Economic and Political Weekly, December 17-24, 1994, suggested “to close the IAS shop” either by stopping further recruitment or give the States the option to opt out of the IAS scene. His suggestion is “… the central, state and local government bureaucracies should come 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”.

At the Retreat held for IAS officers at the Lal Bahadur Shastri’s National Academy of Administration in June, 1997 on the completion of 50 years of Independence, 27 retired ICS officers and 15 retired IAS Officers attended. Mr. Mukerji, while addressing the assembled retired officers suggested the abolition of the IAS. He had a lone supporter in B.D. Pande, ICS (1938), also a former Cabinet Secretary. All others present opposed the suggestion and said that abolishing the IAS would be like throwing out the baby along with the bath water.

At the same retreat Mr. T.N. Kaul, ICS, a former Foreign Secretary, suggested merging of the IAS and Indian Foreign Service as, in his view, foreign policy formulation could not be isolated from internal affairs and should be firmly rooted to the soil. The general consensus was in favour. It was however recognised that this might not find favour with the Indian Foreign Service establishment.

There is the question whether an all-India service recruited by the Centre which also exercises the ultimate disciplinary control, should be continued or not. There are two extreme views; one, that a Service centrally recruited and managed is no longer needed since things have changed since Sardar Patel advocated the all-India Services. That was at a time when democracy was yet to take root in India. The other view is that fissiparous tendencies have only increased and love for one’s own State is determined by hatred of other States and that against this background, there is still a need for a binding force like the all-India Services. The criticism against this view is that for maintaining the oneness of the country- we should not depend on the Services but on democratic institutions.

At the 1997 Retreat in Mussoorie, there was an address given by Mr. Indrajit Gupta, the then Union Home Minister. He was a longstanding Parliamentarian, and enjoyed the reputation of being frank and open. It should also be noted that Indrajit Gupta hails from West Bengal, which is one of the States not favourably disposed towards the IAS being controlled by the Central Government. Indrajit Gupta agreed that the politicians should not be allowed to make civil servants subservient but wondered how the officers had allowed themselves to become so. Reflecting on the criticism of the IAS, he said that this was happening because the IAS still considered itself elitist and had not been able to break free from the mould of a tribal culture. He urged the IAS officers to do everything under their control to dispel this impression and to treat the other Services with respect. The continued hostility between various Services was not in the interest of the public at large. He also felt that the Service was tending to neglect the villages and was now no longer regarded as a Service that cared for and served the poor people living in rural India. This would have to change. However, he did not agree that the IAS had lost its reason to exist and felt that a strong administrative machinery was needed to deal with the emerging complex situation. He commended the resilience shown by the Service in the past and expressed the hope that it would be able to rise above narrow self-seeking considerations and rededicate itself to the service of the people.

In his valedictory address at the same Retreat, he recalled that, inspite of the criticism that had been leveled against the Service in recent years it was still regarded as the steel frame that had sustained the country through years of challenge, strife and spells of instability and kept the Government moving. According to him, while the IAS had successfully shouldered the additional responsibilities thrust upon it as the country progressed and newer areas of administration were discovered; a vast majority of civil servants who were still fully dedicated to performing their duties with honesty and diligence were being tarnished by a self-seeking minority; the politicisation of the Civil Service and the decline in its moral and ethical values had undermined the principles of fairness and objectivity that had been the hallmark of the service; people had come to believe that the civil servants worked primarily for their own benefit and served the politicians. However, Indrajit Gupta felt encouraged that the Civil Service was conscious of these maladies and was seeking to redeem itself in the eyes of the people.

In the light of these pronouncements from eminent persons and in view of the changing role and the quality of administration a few suggestions on the revamping of the top bureaucracy may be considered. Broadly speaking, the restructuring could be on the following lines :

  • There should be a Unified Civil Service on the same pattern of selection as of now and with uniform grades of pay. There should be a similar but separate Unified Technical Service.
  • Since India is still rural, the members of the Unified Civil Service should spend their initial 5 years in the districts as SDMs/DMs/DDOs to get a direct feel for the needs, attitudes, approaches and ethos of rural India. This should be followed by 5 years in a State Secretariat or as Heads of Departments in a State to know the working of a State administration. Later, they could move to the Centre. It is quite on the cards that many may want to remain in the respective State Governments, as happened in Pakistan when the old PCS was abolished.
  • The Unified Service may be grouped as follows and officers allotted to each group depending upon their academic background, attitude and aptitude :
  1. Law and Order Group
  2. Economic and Finance Group
  3. Industry, Science & Information Technology Group
  4. Infrastructure Group
  5. Agriculture Group
  6. Human Resource Group
  • There will be no Indian Police Service (IPS). State recruits will make up the uniformed force upto the level of SPs. The higher level posts (including RAW, IC, CSF, etc.) will be from the non-uniformed Law and Order Group.
  • Similarly, there will be no Indian Foreign Service. The posts now held by the FS/IFS will be occupied by those from the Economic and Finance Group which would also include Commerce and Defence.
  • This classification will apply, mutatis mutandis, to the State Governments.
  • A member of the Service will remain in the Group to which he is allotted for his career. Scientists should also not claim any exclusive privilege or treatment and they would be a part of the Unified Technical Service.
  • Should State Governments so desire, they could draw these officers on deputation from the Centre instead of the other way round now. There could be inter-flow at higher levels between those in Government and those in the business, academic and allied world.
  • This system would also take care of the present practice of frequent transfers since transfers are possible only within the Group.
  • Article 311 may have to be diluted and not abolished to make it easier to weed out the inefficient and the corrupt.
  • The present audit system of the CAG may have to change. As of now, the Public Accounts Committee looks into a problem after three or four years without even calling the people who originally dealt with it to appear before it. As graphically explained in the book by Leslie Chapman, Your Disobedient Servant, the present system is ineffective. It is therefore necessary to overhaul institutions like the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Public Accounts Committee and the Vigilance organisations to make them more effective.
  • The Manuals including the Fundamental Rules and Subsidiary Rules should be drastically overhauled.

There is bound to be resistance to this suggestion of a Unified Civil Service from each of the extant cadre authorities.

Re-organisation of the top civil services is really a political exercise which should have the acceptance of all major political parties. In the U.K., a broad based Royal Commission with an independent Chairman and experts drawn from different fields is appointed to make recommendations on civil service reforms. In India also, the setting up of a Commission, its Chairman, and the terms of reference should be by means of a parliamentary resolution. A Commission set up by an order of the executive Government may not be appropriate.

  • The broad based Commission should have a Chairman who has had considerable experience of administration as a senior Minister, both in a State and at the Centre.
  • Since administrative practices, approaches and ethos vary from State to State, and from those which were ryotwari, or zamandari or part of former native States, the members of the commission should also be drawn from those who have been ministers in these different kinds of States. Retired administrators, social scientists, economists and representatives of large NGOs which had close interaction with Government departments should also be members. The Commission can form compact committees for important segments of administration.
  • The report should be placed on the table of Parliament for discussion. Based on consensus arising out of their discussions the Government should draw up reforms. Though it is time-consuming, such an open discussion will clear many cobwebs and introduce clarity in determining the complementary roles of the higher civil service and the Minister.
  • The very setting up of such a Commission will throw up further discussion on matters which are now shoved under the carpet.

It should also be mentioned that things have not been static. There have been changes, to cite a few:

  1. in the mode of recruitment of direct recruits
  2. reservation for different castes, and for the state civil service officers
  3. the educational qualifications of successful direct recruits
  4. the percentage of marks assigned to the interview in the total marks for the final examination
  5. increase in the intake of women candidates

Disturbing existing practices and procedures that have evolved over a period and in which State Governments are also involved requires very careful handling. With different political parties in the States and with a coalition of many parties at the Centre, the merits of the existing system should not be lost by attempting far-reaching reform. The future generation of officers should not say of the senior officers that having had a cushy time themselves, they have opened a Pandora’s box by suggesting far-reaching reforms.

It should be conceded that what requires immediate attention is the way political parties in their flush of success at forming Government are dealing with the Services many States and in a few ministries at the Centre. The politician should realise that to run an administration, and in the interest of democracy, the civil service is a must. You cannot get the best out of any human being by shaking, the time, the seat he or she is occupying. The Services their part should realise that their loyalty is always to the Government of the day. While a service officer is free advise on any policy matter, programmes and schemes, the final decision is that of the political master. Once the decision is made the officer should execute it with the same zeal and zest as if the decision is his own. The broad based Commission, even with limited terms of reference, may help to stabilise the minister—service interface for the betterment of governance.


Sanjeev Sabhlok

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