The Civil Services Have Failed to Deliver and It's Time to Reconsider Their Importance

The knowledge that once recruited, civil servants are not obliged to prove their competence ever again has disincentivised performance. 

It has been reported that the prime minister’s patience with the IAS is wearing thin. One of the reasons conjectured is that the efforts of the government do not seem to percolate down towards its intended recipients and hence it is vigorously pursuing the idea of taking more and more senior officers through the lateral induction process from the private sector. Whatever be the motive, it is a welcome step as the civil service has miserably failed to deliver.

The civil service has failed on delivery

The civil services exam, quite like the JEE, has been imbued with an aura of mystery. Common people think that those who manage to ‘crack’ these exams are crème de la crème of the country, and their ‘inherent superiority’ will take India up the Golden Path. Fact is neither IITians nor civil servants have done any wonders for the country. One of our rare success stories, the ISRO, has just 2% of its engineers from the IITs plus NITs, all the rest are from small engineering colleges.

Similarly, civil servants must also be judged by what they have delivered over the decades in terms of introducing better administrative practices, policies or imparting superior domain knowledge to the nation. The million-dollar question is what the civil service, based on a competitive examination-based selection, has delivered in 165 years of its existence, which could arguably be delivered only by them and not by others, say promoted officers, academicians or just common citizens? The answer is a shocking nil. In essence, Indian administration still functions very much the same way it functioned 165 years ago. Its resources have changed; its mind and spirit remain the same. You can do a Google search and can confirm that the intellectual contribution of some 60,000 civil servants to date in terms of original books and research papers published has been insignificant. The sorry state of the country in terms of its economy, public healthcare, education, research and innovation even after 73 years of independence is well known. The higher ranks of civil service claim a hand in formulating national policies too. This means that the blame for the many failed policies of the past 73 years must fall on the civil service too.

Also Read: Data Dive Shows Urgent Need for Civil Services Reform in India

Some apologists of the IAS argue that it is a multi-functional service for senior positions in the government that require a broad understanding of the various subjects that go into the making of overall policy. Question is what the criteria for determining this so-called ‘broad understanding’ is and who is competent to determine it? Moreover, there is no objective test for determining someone’s level of broad understanding. This is actually a euphemistic way of admitting that they do not know more than an ordinary man.

Civil services are the only job in the world where you are paid for your entire career for having obtained the job in the first place! No single exam, however tough, can guarantee lifelong delivery, particularly because there is no system of rigorous in-service examinations to check one’s competence to continue.

File image of UPSC candidates standing in queue for inspection by police personnel outside an exam centre in Gurugram. Photo: PTI

There is no logic for recruiting directly at the top

All over the world, people are recruited at the bottom of the ladder and from there, they earn their promotions depending on their merit, as proved through departmental examinations. The New York City Police Department, for example, had a workforce of 55,304 and a budget of $5.6 billion (Rs 40,320 crore) in 2018. You can compare it with a nearly equally big (50,000 strong) police department of Kerala in India, which has been adjudged the second-best in the whole country. In 2018, Kerala police had a budget of Rs 3,977.32 crore only, that is, about 10 times less than their counterparts in New York. Given the fact that the NYPD is technically much better equipped and spends much more, the job of the New York Police commissioner is understandably more onerous than the job of the DGP of Kerala. The DGP of Kerala is a direct-recruit IPS officer with a minimum of 30 years of service. The present NYPD commissioner, Dermot F. Shea, had joined the police as a patrolman (that is, at the bottom of the ladder) in 1991. He became a sergeant in 1995, a lieutenant in 199, a captain in 2003, a deputy inspector in 2008, an inspector in 2010, a deputy chief in 2013, the deputy commissioner of operations in 2014, the designated chief of crime control strategies in 2017, the chief of detectives in 2018 and the New York City police commissioner in December 2019. Even by American standards, he gets a very high pay of $238,000 per annum, which is much higher than the average pay of $186,622 per annum of a Lieutenant General of the US Army. If a promoted patrolman can head the NYPD, why do we need the feudal system of IPS officers to head a smaller police force? Why cannot promoted officers do it? Why do we also not devise a proper system of promotions through examinations?

The un-Indian, feudal soul of the civil service

Civil servants do not tire of referring to themselves as the ‘steel frame’. Little do they realise that when Lloyd George had spoken of the ‘steel frame’, he meant it as an instrument of perpetuating the British Empire—he had no concern for India or Indians. Speaking in the House of Lords on February 26, 1924, Marquess Curzon of the Kedleston had clearly said, “The British Raj in India will fade away and disappear unless you have a sound Civil Service to support it.” In the same debate, Lord Olivier, the secretary of state for India, also said that it was impossible to associate the idea of the maintenance and perpetuity of British Civil Service in India with the ultimate idea of Indian nationalism and responsible government.

While the fealty of the civil servants to the Empire was never in doubt, their real contribution is grossly overestimated. ICS officers could go about their careers because it was so ridiculously easy to go about it. Eric Hobsbawm, noted historian and Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, has pointed out that the Raj was ‘so easily won, so narrowly based, so absurdly easily ruled, thanks to the devotion of a few and the passivity of the many’.

After 30 years in the ICS, H. Fielding Hall wrote in 1895, “The whole attitude of government to the people it governs is vitiated. There is a want of knowledge and understanding. In place of it, are fixed opinions based usually on prejudice or on faulty observation, or on circumstances which have changed, and they are never corrected. Young secretaries read up back circulars, and repeat their errors indefinitely…‘following precedent’.”

Liberal statesman John Bright described the Empire a “gigantic system of outdoor relief for the aristocracy of Great Britain”.

The civil service after Independence

Ideally, the nation should have disbanded the ICS/IP immediately after independence to make way for a truly nationalist cadre of officers. However, rattled by the traumatic experience of the centrifugal tendencies in some princely states, Sardar Patel pitched for continuity of the civil service. In October 1949, he told the Constituent Assembly, “You will not have a united India if you do not have a good All-India Service which has independence to speak out its mind”, even as many chief ministers had vehemently opposed it and wanted state civil services as they felt that the idea of All-India Service opposed the federal principle.

The civil service has belied Sardar’s expectations and disproved his wishful thinking on both counts. First, there has hardly been any instance in 73 years when they spoke their mind. On the contrary, there are a million examples to prove that they have been yes-men par excellence—the quintessential courtiers reciting ‘huzoor behtar jaanate hain’ (the master knows better). Moreover, there is no evidence at all that the civil service has promoted the unity and integrity of the country, whereas the state services could not have done the same thing or better. In fact, until December 2018, as many as 1,669 Kashmiri subordinate police officers have sacrificed their lives in fighting terrorism. Mohd Amin Bhat, the only ‘federal’ IPS officer to be martyred, was also a Kashmiri.

Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The feudal character of the IAS has become worse

Britain had produced a veritable battery of outstanding scholars in the 19th and 20th centuries in various fields. Ever wondered why not one of them was to join the ICS? The reason was simple. The Empire did not want the risk of ‘independent thinkers’ questioning the immoral ways of the Empire and its servants, whom Edmund Burke had described as ‘birds of prey and passage’. The Empire wanted submissive, impressionable boys for whom working in the colonies was a thrilling adventure with good money to boot, and who would do their bidding happily. Thus, a culture was born in which the primary requirement from civil servants was meekness. Meekness dovetails with sycophancy and everything associated with it.

V. S. Naipaul says that the attitudes the ICS men brought to bear to their work in India had greatly deteriorated by the end of the 19th century from curiosity and concern to complacency and cant. Gopalkrishna Gandhi calls the ICS a set of small-minded, small-sighted, small-feeling men. They had only to act pompous and pass their time in splendid isolation. The civil service, in its new avatar of IAS/IPS etc. took its ‘fortuitous’ continuation after independence as the license to exacerbate its feudal traits. The revolutionary poet Josh Maleehabadi expressed his anguish over this eloquently in his poem ‘Maatam-e-Azadi’:

Shaitan ek raat mein insaan ban gaye (devils turned into humans overnight)”.

A fellow retired civil servant Avay Shukla notes that most IAS officers have very high levels of schadenfreude (pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune), and love nothing better than to see the proletariat squirm. You would never find a citizen who could claim that civil servants were kind to him or made his life better in such-and-such manner without any recommendation, pressure or outright bribe. No wonder, in spite of all the progress that the country has made, India ranks 140 in terms of happiness in the list of 156 countries (World Happiness Report 2019), with even Pakistan way ahead of us at 67.

Why civil service still fascinates people 

As James Bond quipped in Goldeneye, “Hope springs eternal”. In spite of suffering at the hands of the civil servants and knowing well that the civil services have failed to deliver, most young people hope to join that elite group someday, to enjoy the powers and privileges, not to speak of the hundreds of crores they could make if they chose to be corrupt. That hope is the reason that few people oppose the illogical system. Not long ago, we had proper feudal lords who got their positions and titles through birth or sheer force of arms; the civil services have replaced them with ‘feudalism through exam’. The earlier we do away with this, the better.

N.C. Asthana, a retired IPS officer, has been DGP Kerala and a long-time ADG CRPF and BSF. Views are personal.