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Tuesday, December 10, 2019

The legacy of the IAS, despite the shine of prestige and authority, has paled over the years

The author is a conscientious insider who held senior positions in the government and is the rare civil servant who, during his years in office, occasionally put down his contrarian views in writing, even if these offended the powers that be.

Written by Coomi Kapoor | Updated: November 24, 2019 5:12:00 pm
Front cover of Naresh Chandra Saxena’s book.

Title: What Ails the IAS and Why It Fails to Deliver
Author: Naresh Chandra Saxena
Publication: SAGE Publications
Pages: 276
Price: Rs 595

Few would dispute that the IAS, once referred to glowingly as the steel frame of the nation, has lost much of its sheen. Reports by some 50 commissions and committees on administrative reform have not stemmed the decline. Our planners would be well advised to make compulsory reading, for all concerned, Naresh Chandra Saxena’s candid, thoughtful and balanced book, What Ails the IAS and Why it Fails to Deliver, which offers much insight.

The author is a conscientious insider who held senior positions in the government and is the rare civil servant who, during his years in office, occasionally put down his contrarian views in writing, even if these offended the powers that be. As Secretary, Rural Affairs, he chided Bihar cadre officers collectively for many acts of omission, including failing to utilise Rs 177 crore allocated for the poor in the state. Though a member of the powerful National Advisory Council, which was chaired by Sonia Gandhi, he criticised the Right to Education Act as impractical. He described NGO activists as “populists who cater to a constituency of habitual seminar participants.”

The Union Public Service Commission may select some of the finest minds in the country for service, but the idealism of young IAS entrants peters out after a few years, thanks to an adverse working environment. The IAS may have an inflated opinion of its worth but, increasingly, the public views the senior bureaucracy as disinterested in public welfare and corrupt. According to a survey of 12 Asian economies by the Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy in 2011, India’s suffocating bureaucracy was ranked the “least efficient” — major reason why India’s pace of improvement in social indices is much behind poorer countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Vietnam. According to the Planning Commission in 2012, some 55 per cent of subsidised foodgrain reached the wrong hands in 2004 and 2005. Schemes like NREGA and MGNERA are, in practice, simply a system of doles rather than providing jobs for the unskilled. Significantly, positions dealing with social welfare, tribals, minorities, planning boards and training institutes, which make the maximum impact on governance, are seen as dumping grounds for unwanted officers. Postings in finance, industry and commerce ministries are much sought-after because the perks usually extend well after retirement.

True, political pressure has eroded administrative autonomy. In UP, the average tenure of an IAS officer in the last 20 years was a mere six months. The roll of honour of conscientious officers who riled their political bosses for sticking to their guns include: Ashok Khemka of the Haryana cadre who was transferred 50 times in 23 years, having exposed corruption in each department he was posted in; Vineet Chaudhary of Himachal Pradesh, transferred 52 times in 31 years; and, Kusumjit Sidhu of the Punjab cadre with 45 transfers. The British believed that if the man at the top was honest, corruption at lower levels could be within manageable limits. But with the lower functionaries losing their fear while making money, the upper bureaucracy, meant to be the guardians of propriety, have started following suit. The distinction in public perception has become blurred. Saxena believes that the silver lining is that probably 75 per cent of IAS officers are still untainted by corruption and nearly all cabinet secretaries, and most senior secretaries, are people of integrity.

Politicians expectedly get a major share of the blame for the downfall of the service, but it is not all one-way. Former UP chief ministe, Mulayam Singh Yadav, while addressing a conclave of IAS officers, pointed out, “Why do you come to me for personal favours? In return, I will extract my price from you.” At times, politicians are willing to take the initiative, but the status quo-ist IAS quotes the rule book to avoid change. And the complicated web of rules and laws in our country can often be interpreted in any manner. Unimaginative bureaucrats seldom try to simplify procedures or recommend doing away with defunct legislation. Babu Raj remains as oppressive as ever. Saxena cites some telling examples. In Odisha, for instance, tribal women were prosecuted and jailed because they were using hill brooms, whereas the law gave the right to only one particular cooperative to make such brooms. The new Land Acquisition Act of 2013 is neither industry-friendly nor beneficial to the farmer. Only the middleman gains.

Initiatives by stand-alone bureaucrats seldom work unless supported by strong political initiatives. This was reflected in such successes as the Swachh Bharat Mission, distribution of subsidised rice in Chhattisgarh where there was negligible leakage, and improvement of water management in Madhya Pradesh, tripling wheat production in a decade. On the other hand, Lalu Prasad Yadav took the extraordinary position that good administration only benefited the upper castes and was not compatible with good politics. Instead of demanding more financial devolutions from the central government, under him the Bihar government actually chose not to use even the funds allocated to the state. His chief secretary, Mukund Prasad, acquiesced quietly to his wishes. Most IAS officers, with very few exceptions, were willing to run to jail to take orders from Lalu, though his wife was officially the chief minister. When Nitish Kumar took over the government in 2005, he brought about a sea change with the help of the same officers, particularly in road connectivity and rural electrification.

Saxena has sensible suggestions for improving the standard of governance, which are unlikely to endear him to his biradari, an exclusive brotherhood which has the power to keep bestowing fresh benefits to itself: retirement of 25 to 50 per cent of officers at the age of 52 to 55, as in the army. Drastically reducing the cadre as well as ex-cadre posts especially in super time scale. Earmarking many government posts for lateral entry from NGOs and professional institutes to bring a fresh outlook. Finally, he points out that 70 per cent of all government employees are support staff — drivers, peons and clerks. A large percentage should be redeployed to public services such as education, health care, police and judiciary — areas in which there is an acute shortage of manpower.

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