How Bureaucracy Has Left the Indian Civil Services Adrift

India’s crisis-ridden bureaucracy is unrecognisable, and this perception of the civil services overshadows the handful of upright officers who continue boldly to keep the system afloat.

Once hailed as the steel frame of independent India, the country’s civil service today is a pale shadow of its halcyon past when officers of high intellectual calibre, personal integrity, and the brio to give unbiased advice, held sway.

Successors of the ‘heaven born’ colonial Indian Civil Service, or ICS, and the analogous Indian Police or IP, newly independent India’s civil services was not too different. They equitably managed the turbulent times of Partition, rife with bloodshed, refugees’ influx, and the division of assets between the two newly created nations.

In the decades thereafter, guided by competent political leaders they kept hope alive by nurturing a fledgling democracy in a hugely diverse country, which few in the world thought would survive as a nation state.

But over seven decades later India’s crisis-ridden bureaucracy is unrecognisable; vilified for its inefficiency, nepotism, and corruption, but above all else, for its arrogance and high-maintenance and low mileage capabilities. This common perception of the civil services overshadows the handful of conscientious and upright officers who continue boldly to adhere to old values and keep the system afloat.

Ironically, it is because of this latter diminishing complement of officers that many systems continue to function relatively well.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems to concur with this public perception of the Indian bureaucrats. He recently excoriated the country’s civil servants in the Lok Sabha, venting his ire particularly against members of the ‘hallowed’ Indian Administrative Service (IAS) that heads the country’s bureaucratic pinnacle.

Also read: The Civil Services Have Failed To Deliver and It’s Time To Reconsider Their Importance

The ‘babu’ culture

Participating in the motion of thanks to President Ram Nath Kovind’s parliamentary address, an incensed prime minister lamented that India’s growth had become ‘hostage’ to the whims and fancies of babus a mildly pejorative euphemism for civil servants and the untrammelled power they wielded.

“Babus will do everything,” an incredulous prime minister asked rhetorically. “Because they became IAS (officers) they run fertiliser factories ….chemical factories… even fly planes,” he fulminated. “What is this big power we have created,” he asked, going on to inquire of his fellow parliamentarians whether it was judicious to hand over the ‘reins of the nation (of power and governance) to babus’.

The prime minister’s outburst upset senior civil servants who rather than introspect on the criticism levelled against them spent their energy speculating on what had prompted Modi’s outburst. Near-unanimously they agreed that the prime minister’s tirade against them was because of a handful of projects that had been delayed; of course, due to no fault of theirs.

What Modi stated in parliament on February 10, starkly echoed the despair and helplessness of billions of Indians, subsumed by a bureaucracy which other than the IAS is supplemented by the Indian Police Service (IPS), and overseas by the Indian Foreign Service (IFS). Assorted central services oversee varied other departments like revenue, customs, railways, forests, and cantonments, amongst others.

New IAS civil servants headed for training. Credit: PTI

New IAS civil servants headed for training. Photo: PTI

Exceptions notwithstanding, there is a collective strain that defines them all, at least in the popular perception: power, pelf and relative inviolability. The civil servants’ calibre is in direct proportion to their ability to perform in the qualifying examination and the subsequent interview. Thereafter, efficiency, probity, conscientiousness, and empathy are of limited relevance for the average three decades most officers serve.

Most officers assume the trappings of feudal grandeur much like their colonial predecessors, but without either their efficiency, commitment, or impartiality. Their ‘power’ props begin with their massive office revolving chairs, with the mandatory white towel changed regularly draped over the back for reasons unknown. Over decades this white towel has emerged as an unquestioned symbol of bureaucratic authority that brooks no challenge and is always right.

Red lights flash continually outside their office doors to further indicate high office and importance. These worthies, ironically known as public servants, are largely inaccessible to common people who obsequiously line up outside their offices for redressal of their grievances, sometimes waiting the entire day without getting to see the ‘sahib’. In colonial times, those in authority were commonly known as ‘mai baap’ (my father); in independent India they have a shorter, adaptive Anglo-Indian appellation sir ji.

Sir ji’s calls are screened by his army of staffers who invariably mouth the patent questions: ‘aap kahan se bol rahe hain’,  ‘kya kaam hai’, or a helpful ‘dekhta hun sahib kamre mein hain ke nahin’. But this is mere tokenism as most callers are summarily informed that ‘sahib’ is either out or busy in a meeting. This generally means only one thing  the personal staff does not consider the caller important enough to bother the boss. Similarly, visitors are disdainfully discouraged either by making them wait, or advised to meet some other lower-level official in connection with their grievances.

Such inaccessibility contributes majorly towards building public perception regarding the importance and invincibility of the officer. And though civil servants cannot possibly meet, or talk to everyone, there is no system to differentiate between those who have legitimate grievances and others who do not. This malaise has percolated down to the lower power structure echelons, leaving millions of unrequited supplicants across the country.

A large proportion of these civil servants’ business is conducted via haloed meetings, attended by officers whose comprehension of the subject under discussion is normally limited to what is included in the briefs or notes prepared by their juniors. Moreover, these incessant rounds of meetings tend invariably to be long and tedious, devoid of all levity or humour, and seldom result in any definitive decision. In most instances, the minutes are recorded on the ubiquitous file which in turn remains in perpetual orbit.

The German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) had famously defined bureaucracy as a highly structured organisation predicated on specialisation and technical competence, a formal set of rules and regulations, a well-defined hierarchy, and impersonality in application of rules. A century later Weber would be hard pressed, to put it mildly, to define Indian bureaucracy even remotely in this overarching framework.

Even insiders, who have spent decades in civil service, find it difficult to explain this sarkari jalebi that impinges on every Indian’s life in varying degrees but one that renders the bureaucrat wholly indispensable. It is also a truism that the power an Indian civil servant wields is vast and in many cases in indirect proportion to the ability of the person exercising it.

Metaphorically, India’s bureaucratic hierarchy divided into four groups mirrors the toxic chaturvarna vyavastha, or the caste system, to which admission is determined by one’s performance in the annual civil service and other entrance examinations. And much like the accident of birth that determines one’s station in the chaturvarna vyavastha, entry into one of these aforesaid categories too determines the future course of one’s career, circumscribing mobility across the broad four civil service groupings.

Specialisation is an important facet of bureaucracy in the Weberian scheme, but in the Indian context the ‘generalist’ IAS officers are the ultimate mavens in all administration branches, as Prime Minister Modi emphatically pointed out in the parliament.

Potentially, an IAS officer with a mere bachelor’s degree in arts could well be deemed as much of an expert in financial management as in aerospace and defence, in most instances learning the basics on the job. The depth of knowledge and experience normally necessary in each of these areas, it seems, are no barrier. As the prime minister declared: the ‘Babu’s can do everything.

Also read: Lateral Entry Is Fine. but What About Enhancing the IAS’s Professional Competence?

Streamlining the country’s bureaucracy

India’s first Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC), aiming at streamlining the country’s bureaucracy, had in 1970 recommended that an overarching ‘functional field’ needed to be created for the lAS. The Commission proposed that this could consist of land revenue administration, exercise of magisterial functions and regulatory work in the states in fields other than those looked after by officials from sundry civil services.

It also suggested that the jobs which do not fall within a particular ‘functional area’ need to be demarcated into eight areas of specialised administration: economic, industrial agricultural and rural development, social and education, personnel, finance, defence and internal security, and planning.

Expectedly, these recommendations were never fully implemented. Instead, a hybrid system was adopted that provided an edge to IAS officers in matters of promotion, postings, and career furtherance. Under this skewered arrangement, the non-IAS services received step-brotherly treatment leading not only to resentment, but also demoralisation. Though the non-IAS officers are now being inducted into higher positions in the ministries in greater numbers than before, such opportunities continue to be limited relative to the number of officers seeking such opportunities.

The recommendations of the first ARC continue to be relevant as governance has become increasingly technologically enabled and specialised. Successive governments declared their intent on assuming office of executing administrative reforms, but these were cleverly stymied each time by the internal forces, reminiscent of the delightful BBC comedy Yes Minister and later Yes, Prime Minister.

In one uproarious episode Prime Minister Jim Hacker asks of senior bureaucrat Sir Humphrey Appleby whether he knew of a civil servant resigning on a matter of principle.

I should think not! What an appalling suggestion! retorts Sir Humphrey in high dudgeon.


Amit Cowshish is former financial advisor (acquisitions), Ministry of Defence.