Administrative reform and the IAS

Written by YRK Reddy | Updated: Apr 30 2005, 05:30am hrs
The decision for a second Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC) has drawn adverse comment from many, that it may divert attention from the recommendations of recent committees and remain a paper exercise. We had 19 reports from the first ARC (1966-70), whose critical recommendations have not been implemented. Apart from the Pay Commissions, in which administrative reforms are also covered, directly or indirectly, we had five committees in the past four years, looking at various aspects of civil services reform. Experience since the 50s tells us that some convenient recommendations are selectively accepted, without disturbing the power structures and entrenched interests in civil services. There is a steel frame that eventually cages every such commission or committee.

The Indian Administrative Service (IAS) was once described by Sardar Patel as the steel frame. He fought vehemently for its constitutional protection, for it to be able to exercise an independent voice for the benefit of the people and as a check on misuse of power by politicians.

This framework, comprising 4,200 serving officials, has become cybernetically intelligent. As in the Terminator series of movies featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger, the metal can take any shape intelligently and protect itself. It quickly occupies important slots, just as liquid metal flows into any crevice, even those meant for the judiciary and the scientists. It fights all intellectuals, specialists and domain experts as foreign bodies and meticulously subjugates all cadres, by dynamically arranging the pecking order. It must come on top, each time and every time.

Criticism is discounted as acts of prejudice and envy. Jibes, darts, recommendations dont hurt this intelligent frame. It is a marvel and an inspirational model for the rest of bureaucracy it sets the conditions and standards for accepting and resisting reform. It overwhelms inexperienced political leaders. It makes political leaders realize they are truly birds of passage, that must gather their worm and fly away; it may even help the birds gather the worms effortlessly. It dashes any ambitions for reform, by disheveling new brooms and reining-in enthusiastic leaders, one way or the other. It will reform only those processes that do not hurt its larger interests. The paradox is, the leaders have to rely on this very steel frame for any reform, while it refuses to shoot itself in the foot.

The IAS-run civil service has stymied all administration reform ideas
We have to move to specialist streams and lateral entry for needed change
The first ARC had given several recommendations to reform the generalist service to a specialist one. Except for the handful of officers who assiduously pursued specialisations and emerged as world-class professionals in economics, IT, public enterprise management, energy, disaster and urban governance, the service remains super-generalist. The stream of intake continues and the attempts of the 70s for lateral entry have been largely given up. Thus, it remains an exclusive order, that controls much of the economy.

The steel frame could be exclusive in another sense. According to a 1985 study, the quotas for the SC and ST candidates were continuously unfilled and the data remains masked. While other minorities are over-represented in comparison to their population, Muslims are grossly under-represented. Among the Hindus, upper castes accounted for 68%. Shudras were a mere 2%, with the largest contingent from AP. Women were under 8% of the total. With the concomitant urban bias, decisions may indeed be tilted towards the interests of the rich and powerful than the masses. The Alagh committee has reportedly commented on the ruler mind set.

This steel frame has also insulated itself from the Central Vigilance Commission, as noted in a CVC study titled The Indian Administrative Service - A Study of the Current State of Preventive and Punitive Vigilance Mechanisms. We now need a super-intelligent and mighty body for conceptualising and implementing reform. A permanent commission that knows meta-reform. It must be hands-on, to stop fresh recruitment and graduate strategically to a system of specialist streams and new cadres, with possibilities of lateral entry. This is the only way to bring in more relevant organisational designs, diversity, accountability, public service values and enthusiastic performance, to support the larger goals of development, equity and justice. But then, the steel-frame would have factored this also by now!