Debate: The Civil Services Are an Integral Part of India’s Growth Story

It is illogical to apportion the blame for shortcomings in governance exclusively on civil servants.

I am amused to read the article titled ‘The Civil Services Have Failed to Deliver and Its Time to Reconsider Their Importance‘ in The Wire.

The writer has erred in holding that the senior civil servants have not contributed adequately in publishing research papers. In reality, civil servants are not expected to excel in writing research papers, as the nature of our work is not academic, but something intricately connected with action. They have the concept of anonymity of the civil service. The luxury to indulge in a freewheeling analytical thought process in the public domain is not available to civil servants, as it may at times go contrary to the thinking of the political masters. Civil servants are expected to uphold the values of the Constitution, but they have to work in the hierarchy. It cannot be denied that the masters in a democracy are the elected government of the day. As a person who rose to high levels in the civil service, the writer cannot be oblivious to the fact that majority of civil servants do speak their minds, whether through presentations or discussions in official meetings or notings in files.

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The second error of the writer is in assuming that Sardar Patel’s expectations have been belied by the civil service. Of course, there would always be some black sheep, who have to be dealt with as per law. But as a collective part of the state apparatus, the civil service is an integral part and parcel of India’s growth story in economic and social fields. The civil services, at all levels, did contribute to the work in progress, of a transparent and accountable governance system for delivery of public services.

Civil servants and their contributions

While avoiding to mention the outstanding contributions of some individual civil servants from different cadres, I would like to flag a few important areas in which the civil service did contribute significantly. First and foremost is in a reasonably robust system of holding free and fair elections for parliament and state assemblies. Second, in combating abject poverty and in ensuring basic nutritional security. Third, in enabling the opening up of the economy and bringing in systemic reforms to enable the growth of the private sector, with reasonably strong regulations and mechanism of checks and balances. Fourth, in ensuring outstanding response systems to natural disasters. Fifth, in bringing about a reasonably strong system of law and order, despite the limitations. Sixth, in terms of bringing in an inclusive governance structure, whether we examine it from the perspective of the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, the poor, gender, disabled or the minorities.

Indeed, it would be instructive to see the several innovations in public service delivery that are being increasingly documented and recognised through the process of Prime Minister’s Awards for Excellence in Public Administration and similar activities in different state governments. In bringing the governance system accountable and transparent, the contribution of the civil services has been significant through various e-governance projects. Unity and integrity of a country cannot be delinked from the welfare of its people. The civil service did contribute to the nation in several ways, including the few cited above.

The third error of the writer is in assuming that the civil services function in a vacuum. It is illogical to apportion the blame for the shortcomings or limitations exclusively on the civil service.

Unclear about alternatives

Finally, the writer is unclear regarding the alternatives. The need for lateral entry has already been recognised by the government in a limited sense. This possibility is already under exploration. There is also no evidence that all ‘promoted’ officials are collectively better than the direct recruits.

The comment that the feudal character of the IAS has worsened is flippant and not based on facts. Indeed, the IAS did contribute to the process of reaching out to the people, whether one recalls the inspiring work done during the phase of Total Literacy Campaign, or in several village level meetings where the members of the service still work with communities on various social issues, ranging from self-help groups, watershed development programmes, skill development programmes, to combating social evils like child marriage or malnutrition or irrational practices of witchcraft, to implementation of the Forest Rights Act or Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and Jal Shakti Abhiyan, to name a few. The contribution of the IAS to the process of social mobilisation cannot be ignored.

The task of improving governance at the grassroots level is a continuous one. There is always scope for improvement. But there is no material to write off the role of the All India Services.

G.V. Venugopala Sarma is presently serving as member secretary in the National Disaster Management Authority. Views are personal.