The higher Indian bureaucracy is being put to the litmus test like never before—and there are many who are flunking the scrutiny.
The test is being conducted at two levels; one, many senior officers—nearly 400—deemed incompetent or corrupt, have been sacked or superannuated compulsorily and prematurely in the last few years.
Two, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is pulling no punches when it comes to taking on the country’s elite Indian Administrative Service (IAS). In a move that can be regarded as unprecedented, he told the Parliament last month: “Babus will do everything. By dint of becoming IAS officers, they’ll operate fertiliser warehouses and chemical warehouses, even fly airplanes. What is this big power we have created? What are we going to achieve by handing the reins of the nation to babus? Our babus are also citizens, and so are the youth of India.”
The Prime Minister’s emphatic public denouncement of the IAS has surprised and shocked many in equal measure. Surprised, because the Modi model of governance has involved heavy reliance on IAS officers, both earlier when he was Chief Minister Gujarat and now as Prime Minister, often even at the expense of his ministers. Shocked, because while politicians have in the past derided bureaucrats individually, a collective assault of this nature and that too on the floor of the House, is nothing less than groundbreaking.
Officers of doubtful integrity and conduct, those that have faced vigilance and corruption charges, or others whose work has not been found up to the mark or are of dubious conduct, have always had the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads. The difference now is that the sword is not merely hanging, it is also severing heads.
Last year, the central government instructed all ministries and departments to maintain a register of government servants in the 50-55 year age bracket, and those who have completed 30 years in service, as it plans to weed out the ‘corrupt’ and `inefficient officials.
According to an order issued by the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT)—which comes directly under the Prime Minister’ Office (PMO)—all ministries and government departments now have to conduct a quarterly review of the officials, in order to ascertain who among them need to be prematurely retired from service.
A Series of Long-Pending Reforms
The steel frame, the once invincible government service, which assured job security like few employment opportunities in the world, is a lot more fallible now.
In the last few years, virtually hundreds of Indian Administrative Service (IAS), Indian Revenue Service (IRS), Indian Police Service (IPS) and other central services officers have been compulsorily or prematurely retired.
The government rules are clear. It is armed with FR 56 (j), read together with Rule 48 of Pension Rules, which deals with premature retirement of senior officers. According to it, the appropriate authority, in the public interest has ‘the absolute right to retire any government servant’ with three months’ notice, after one has attained the age of 50/55 years or completed 30 years of qualifying service, whichever is earlier.
The corresponding pension rule stipulates that the officer, so retired in the public interest, will be entitled to pension based on his qualifying service.
To get a sense of what is happening, it would be instructive to turn to a few numbers and events.
What is the story here? There is little doubt that the Indian bureaucracy is amid its biggest churn of the last seven decades. A push for the lateral entry of domain experts, forced retirement of officers in bulk, concerted attempts to break the stranglehold of the IAS, experiments with the time-tested recruitment rules of civil servants, have evoked applause and invited brickbats, by the serving and the superannuated, in equal measure.
Says former Union Secretary Anil Swarup: “Well, the rules provide for such removals, so to that extent they are in order. If the idea is to cleanse the system, then it is a laudable step, but there are many who doubt the intentions of this government.”
A lot of this has to do with perception—the commonly held view among the masses, who often deal with the lower echelons of bureaucracy—is that government servants are not just corrupt but incompetent.
Says Amitabha Bhattacharya, a former IAS officer, who has also served in the private sector and with the UNDP: “Public perception about pervasive corruption, more so in certain departments, particularly at the level of public-interface and at the highest decision-making level, is real. The fact about large-scale inefficiency — mostly at the middle and lower level of bureaucracy stares in our face.”
He believes that if pursued objectively and methodically, measures that the Modi government has taken will have a sobering effect on the bureaucracy and a beneficial impact on public administration at large.
“in cases of premature retirement, there is always a possibility of subjectivity creeping in. Therefore, the review process must be so robust and transparent as to be in a position to stand sustained legal scrutiny,” says Bhattacharya.
The key point is, has it?
It is necessary to understand the systemic architecture to deal with inefficiency and corruption in public service. The limiting conditions of government servants are largely defined by the Fundamental Rules (FR), Conduct Rules, and CCA (Classification, Control and Appeal) Rules, which came into force decades ago but are amended from time to time.
The ubiquitous Annual Confidential Report/Performance Assessment Report intends to give a picture of an officer’s performance and integrity, as assessed by their superiors.
Besides these, there are specific Acts like the Prevention of Corruption Act (PCA) and the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act, to deal with such issues.
Let’s Talk About Results
Nevertheless, there is not much evidence that corruption is declining or inefficiency receding.
That the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is clear about what it is doing, is in no doubt. In its election manifesto released before the 2019 general elections, the party stated: “To transform India into a developed nation, we need to work with the guiding principle of ‘minimum government and maximum governance’ and we will bring reform in the civil services and implement it in a manner to achieve.”
From the ramparts of the Red Fort in 2019, Modi stressed the importance of the anti-graft drive against officials. “You must have seen, in the last five years, and this time after coming to power, we have dismissed several people who enjoyed cushy positions in the government,” he said, adding for good effect, ``Those who used to be roadblocks in our endeavours (to eradicate corruption), we told them to pack their bags (because) the country doesn’t need (their) services.”
Says a former IAS officer, Vijay Shankar Pandey: “Action against corrupt and inefficient senior officers under FR 56 (j), is not new. I have done it several times in my career. But if you say it is to streamline governance, then I will not agree. In the past, services of many incompetent and corrupt officers have been terminated, but that has hardly brought about efficiency and high standards in governance.”
Pandey is critical of the Prime Minister’s attack on the `babus.’ ``If you did not have the babus, it would be difficult to implement Article 370. Within a moment of it being scrapped, every District Magistrate and Superintendent of Police in Jammu and Kashmir was enforcing it with gusto. Minus the civil bureaucracy, could such a move have been possible,” he queries.
He says it is easy to criticise, but not a single creative line has been said on what should replace the IAS and the civil bureaucracy.
There are other ways, which are threatening to clip the powers of the all-powerful civil bureaucracy. In 2018, a small advertisement in some newspapers sent shock waves in the hallowed portals of the bureaucracy.
The advertisement, which called for 10 lateral entries into the central government, were not new by any chance. It is an old P Chidambaram plan that goes back to the 1980s. Of 450 posts of joint secretary in the central government, 10 were being opened for laterally hiring domain experts.
Wrote Amitabh Kant, CEO of the NITI Aayog: “Civil servants together with fresh inputs from lateral entrants can provide synergies to policy and implementation like never before. The role of civil servants becomes even more vital since for lateral inductions to get immersed in the government, the system will entail a steep learning curve.”
Reforms, Meet Resistance
Clearly, the decision has put question marks on a generalist’s approach to administration and has highlighted the need for domain knowledge experts, given the demands of a growing economy and the need to quicken decision making.
Says a serving officer, tartly: ``It is not as if the lateral entrants into the bureaucracy know how to fly planes,” referring to the Prime Minister’s Parliament speech. He did not want to be named.
For some officers, the government’s actions have been disagreeable enough for some IAS officers to leave the service altogether.
In July 2019, former finance secretary Subhash Garg offered to quit from the government after he was abruptly shunted out of the finance ministry.
Soon enough, three relatively junior officers left the service arguing that democratic principles were being compromised under the Modi government — an unprecedented statement from serving officers of the IAS. Incredibly, two of them cited `ideological’ reasons for the decision, while a third left for having been posted to the Northeast.
Days later, Karnataka cadre officer S. Sasikanth Senthil resigned from the IAS arguing that it was `unethical’ to be an IAS officer when the `fundamental building blocks of diverse democracy are being compromised’.
These are unprecedented times for the higher bureaucracy. There is little doubt that change and reform is needed in a colonial-style administration. It is only on the direction of that change and the way it is going to be executed, which is a matter of debate.