Reloading the Indian Civil Services

civilsCivil Services is the backbone of any country. In India this core pillar of the governance has been going from bad to worst. It needs to revamped and rejunvenated to serve the public. Although some of the successful civil servants are keen to solve people’s problems political interference is frustrating them. I suggest come autonomy for the system with adequate protection incase of attacks from the political figures and parties. 

Shailaja Chandra writes in The Times of India (23 June 2009)

The final touches are being given to a civil services Bill, which represents an improvement over the 2007 public service draft. People are 
alternately euphoric or cynical about the move. There is a need to analyse the ambit of the proposed law in terms of what is good about it and also highlight why this law cannot become a panacea for all the ills that beset the civil service, particularly in its interface with the public.

First, a civil service or public services law is not a new idea. It has already been introduced in Australia, New Zealand and several other countries. But in these places it was primarily aimed at orienting lateral entrants into the civil service towards understanding concepts like allegiance to the Constitution, law, democracy and the neutrality of civil servants. By contrast, members of the organised services in India are well-versed in such issues right from the beginning, although some choose to disregard the wisdom wilfully.
This is partly attributable to increasing the age of entry into the civil service, multiplying the number of attempts to get in, introducing an Indian language (read: the mother tongue) as an examination paper and holding interviews in regional languages, all of which have slashed the chances of finding young officers who can think beyond regional mindsets, whether nationally or globally. To expect such civil servants to become instruments of change is like asking for the moon.

Where the idea of a civil service law would definitely score is by the establishment of a Central Public Service Authority (CPSA). The CPSA will have the overarching responsibility to oversee the management of the civil service and, if media reports are to be believed, its role would not be merely recommendatory. There would be time and opportunity to look at suitability and experience of entrants. More important, the tendency of officers to brazenly curry favour with prospective secretaries and ministers to find a ‘good berth’ in a central ministry might end.

Another plus point is that independent scrutinies of key appointments such as that of the cabinet secretary and hopefully even the information commissioner’s and regulatory authorities’ might be subjected to bi-partisan scrutiny. This might also end the practice of making controversial appointments, which have discredited different governments and created immense resentment within the bureaucratic system.

At the state level, there could still be a snag. The proposed law would most certainly have to be individually accepted by each state. It has to be seen whether key states like Uttar Pradesh would play ball. Should they do so, it would free appointments and transfers from the ‘off with his head’ syndrome and rescue some innocent officers from the ignominy of public disgrace often prompted by whimsical politics. Nonetheless, at the state level, everything will depend on who heads the state PSA. A smooth operator can still fix things, and selections at the state level can be manipulated with little ingenuity. The central government is lightyears ahead in terms of its selection and transfer processes. The real need to rein in transfers is in the states where loss of morale and resentment is at a peak.

Finally, the problem with the public service law is that it can only encompass the organised services. It will, therefore, not impact on an exasperated public seeking assistance in accessing health care, electricity and water, food rations, traversable roads, unadulterated food and crime prevention. Indeed, it is the bureaucracy that comes into public contact that desperately needs a facelift if the label of India having “Asia’s worst civil service” is to be altered.

That would mean that a civil service law in a country like India also needs a supplementary law or regulation to deal with recalcitrant public functionaries that citizens confront everyday. The people need a forum to vent their grievances before an authority that can summarily deal with cases of harassment and corruption. The departmental system is too long drawn out and clumsy to get anyone punished in a way that sets an example.

In 1997, the Delhi government had set up a public grievance commission to hear complaints against any official of the government. The commission still exists. Summary proceedings are held and the commission can take suo motu cognizance of any issue that comes up during a hearing or even otherwise. As a result, any member of the public can bring a grievance before the commission which listens to complainants (minus lawyers), and makes recommendations by scrutinising the files and listening to what the department has to say. The Administrative Reforms Commission had recommended that a public grievance commission could be set up by all state governments.

Along with a civil service law, there is every need to introduce a fast-track mechanism to hear people’s grievances publicly and act on them promptly. While officers need protection, the legislation should also benefit the public for whose good all laws are made.
Sumit K Majumdar writes in The Business Line (23 December 2005)

A 21ST CENTURY Indian economy, on the fast growth track, needs a forward-looking administrative organisation, and the creation of a second Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC-2) is an excellent opportunity to bring about substantial organisational discontinuities that will support the institutional discontinuities put in place by the 1991 reforms.

If the reform pace is perceived to be slow, it is because the implementation of the broad framework of objectives leaves much to be desired. The substantial institutional change of mind was not accompanied by the required organisational restructuring. Now, if ever, is the time to set that right.

One of the most important aspects the ARC-2 should deal with is restructuring the civil services. Since Independence there has been a mushrooming of services, and it is worth examining if any purpose is to be served by continuing with them in their present form.

There are the three All-India Services: The Indian Administrative Service, the Indian Forest Service and the Indian Police Service. To complement these, there are several Central Services, both technical and non-technical. The list is, indeed, long.

These include the complicatedly named Delhi, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Goa and Mizoram Police Service (DANIGMPS) and the Indian Post and Telegraphs Accounts and Finance Service (IP&TA&FS). I would like to come across individuals with these letters after their names, not because they do anything less valuable, but because their tasks are so specialised. It would take someone quite well trained to be a policeman simultaneously in Delhi, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Goa and Mizoram.

Outsourcing begins at home
The question is: Do all the individuals belonging to these various services have to carry out their tasks within the government framework or can their tasks be outsourced and the services abolished? A serious assessment of the feasibility of abolishing a number of these Central Services must be carried out, and its results will be insightful indeed.

Many of these services, while relevant in their day, no longer have economic legitimacy. New business models have emerged. Many tasks that, of necessity, had to be carried out by the state, are being carried out efficiently by private entrepreneurs.

Thus, the concept of outsourcing and privatisation can be applied, not just to the public sector enterprises but also to many government activities carried out departmentally and in whose support the services exist.

Many of the services can be abolished. Let me start with the various accounts services. There are: the Indian Audit and Accounts Service (IA&AS), the Indian Civil Accounts Service (ICAS), the Indian Defence Accounts Service (IDAS), the Indian Railway Accounts Service (IRAS) and the Indian Post and Telegraphs Accounts and Finance Service (IP&TA&FS). Except for the IA&AS, all the other services — ICAS, IDAS, IRAS and IP&TA&FS — can be disbanded.

The question is: Who will carry out their tasks? India has thousands of qualified chartered accountants, cost accountants and financial analysts who have been successfully running accountancy practices and consultancies for decades.

All the book-keeping and accounting activities can be outsourced to private bodies. After all, Indian professionals are now at the forefront of outsourced accounting and taxation activities. Should not these lessons be applied at home?

The next question is: What does one do with the members of all these services. The answer, on paper at least, is simple. Every divestment decision is also an investment decision. It takes money to divest. The VRS sums paid to these members to compensate the loss of their careers will provide them the capital to become the entrepreneurs that supply many of these services to government bodies.

It is then up to the government to initially provide contracts for the supply of these services. And what about policy and control? The IA&AS then remains the only service that deals with development of accounting issues, standards and as the monitoring agency that undertakes the quality control of the entire accounting process for government.

Revisiting history
Similarly, there is no need for an Indian Salt Service (ISaS), the Indian Supply Service (ISuS) or the Indian Trade Service (ITS). Yes, these do exist. They are anachronisms of a distant past, when the activities of the government, at least in the revenue sphere, revolved around a set of activities that have disappeared.

Take the Indian Salt Service. Around the time of the India’s first struggle for Independence, salt was one of the principal sources of government revenue. Remember, too, the symbolism of the Dandi Salt March. In fact, the Salt Agent to the government, based at Contai, now a little sub-divisional town in West Bengal, was a very senior personage, being paid a salary of Rs 4,000 per month, the amount paid to ICS officers who were the Secretaries to the Government.

As late as Independence, there was a Commissioner of Northern India Salt Revenue, again a relatively senior person. From these foundations arose the Indian Salt Service.

But are some of the services still relevant today? Or do we let go of path dependencies and create a new history based on today’s necessities? Thus, are the Indian Supply Service (ISupS) and the India Trade Service (ITS) also needed? After all, government purchasing has shrunk substantially, the DGS&D being no longer the commercial force it once was. And the Indian entrepreneur is himself highly motivated to conquer global markets and does not need to be told `export or perish’ by an Indian Trade Promotion Organisation.

Take, next, the impact of technological change in information and communications technologies. As a result, the role of private sector firms has become significant and the vibrancy of the Indian broadcasting and telecommunications sectors is testimony to this. Is an Indian Broadcasting Service (IBS) really needed now?

Again, does the Indian Postal Service (IPoS) have contemporary relevance? After all, postal activities have shrunk , given the huge drop in the price of telephone calls. Postal activities are, also, nothing but the undertaking of retail and distribution tasks. Can not every little shop sell stamps if need be?

Institution building
On the other hand, there is actually a strong need for services in other domains to be strengthened, even resurrected. Take the cavalier and step-motherly treatment given to the Indian Economic Service (IEconS) and the Indian Statistical Service (IStatS).

It can be argued that, in contemporary India, the tasks of these two services have become extraordinarily complex, given the numerous economic issues, related to relatively new topics such as globalisation, the role of the WTO, IPRs, economics of energy and renewable resources, environmental regulations and network economics, which need continuous analysis, both analytical and empirical.

A truly substantial enhancing of these services will serve India well. The enhancing of the status of the IEconS and the ISS to that enjoyed, implicitly, by the IAS and the IPS will go a long way in augmenting the capabilities, motivation and quality of the Indian policy-making establishment. What have been the unkindest cuts of all? Three critical nation-building services were disbanded at Independence. These were the Indian Education Service (IEdS), the Indian Medical Service (IMS) and the Imperial Service of Engineers (ISE). If anything, not only do these services have to be resurrected but have to be made principal services that enhance the quality of life for India’s population, and propel the development of the nation. In a sense, these are the critical institution-building services.

The IEdS, which had manned the most prestigious academic positions in places such as Elphinstone College, Bombay, and the Presidency Colleges at Calcutta and Madras, and stalwarts such as P. C. Mahalanobis and A. C. Banerjee, a Senior Wrangler at Cambridge, as members is, alas, no more.

Nevertheless, the IEdS has to be revived if India is to be at the forefront of the global knowledge revolution. Otherwise, the educational sector will continue to be at the mercy of charlatans.

So should be the case with the IMS and ISE. A national service that enhances the physical health and well-being of the population, and whose member Sir Ronald Ross won the Nobel Prize, is of far more relevance than services such as the ICAS, IRAS, IDAS and the IP&TA&FS!

A national service that builds infrastructure, as did the ISE in building the numerous roads, dams and canal systems that the British created in India, and gave to India individuals such as Sir M. Visvesvarayya, or the trio who created the Bhakra Dam, is perhaps more important than services such as the IBS or the ITS!

Therefore, a revival of the IEdS, the IMS and the ISE (though Indian, not Imperial), will mean that implicitly a cadre of Indian Institution Building Services (IIBS) is being created. It will not be difficult to create these services either.

Competencies exist within the States of the Indian union as well as with the Central Government, and it will be an administrative exercise to band these individuals together into the national All-India services that the IEdS, the IMS and the ISE should be, as indeed they once were.

1 Comment

  1. Praveen S said,

    +00002010-07-18T01:46:45+00:00312010bUTCSun, 18 Jul 2010 01:46:45 +0000 2, 2008 at 7.27 p07

    oh my good god!!! sir, your article oozes with indepth knowledge

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