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The Shaky Frame

Civil services reform will require more than tinkering with processes.

The Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration. (File)

Corruption in the civil services is deep-rooted. In such a scenario, the government’s recent proposal to give weightage to the performance of probationers in the foundation course in allotting cadres to them would amount to merely tinkering with the existing processes. Evidence suggests that the efficiency of a democracy does not depend only on representative institutions. Non-representative and non-elected institutions, such as the civil services, have a critical role in enhancing the efficiency of Indian democracy. However, there can be no two views that the steel frame of the civil services in India stands rusted today.

The civil services have had both hits and misses during the past 70 years.The major hits include the successful holding of elections with zero error, keeping the country together despite political instability and the massive rehabilitation and resettlement of refugees after Partition and during disasters. However, the misses far outnumber the successes. Several reports by Transparency International have highlighted the deep-rooted corruption in the civil services. The Vohra Committee report highlighted the lack of secular governance and pointed to the intellectual deficiencies of civil servants after they join the services.

Are these flaws inherent in India’s civil services? I believe that the biggest deficiency of the civil services arises out of the lack of courage of civil servants to follow established rules and procedures. A civil servant who is deemed inconvenient by the political executive is likely to be transferred. But can he count on the support of his colleagues in such a situation? Often, ambitious civil servants become pawns in the system and forget the oath they took to uphold the Constitution and its values. That this happens despite the constitutional protection provided to civil servants is alarming.

Civil servants need a wake-up call to address the issues confronting the country today. They need to re-orient themselves to the task of the socio-economic integration of India, particularly because sections of the subaltern classes in parts of the country are showing a worrying propensity to use unconstitutional methods. But how much can the civil servant deliver in the absence of a fixed tenure, both at the Centre and in the states? There is no point talking about innovation in management unless the basic cause pertaining to the loss of morale is addressed: Untimely and unjust transfers.

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With the liberalisation of the Indian economy, the role of a civil servant has become that of a facilitator. Several regulatory bodies have been set up. But what are the norms that should be followed to fill these positions? How does one ensure that these positions do not become post-retirement parking slots for senior civil servants?

Increasingly, the bureaucracy is called upon to take decisions in an environment of economic and political uncertainty. Textbooks tell us that the market rewards “correct”’ decisions with “higher” returns. How do we design appropriate incentives for civil servants? How do we prevent them from being unduly conservative or unduly adventurous? And should we not review the role of watchdog bodies like the CBI, CVC and CAG especially when decision-making by civil servants entails taking risks? Can Indian civil servants deliver effectively in the country’s socio-economic development in the absence of specialisation within their ranks? Does it not lead to cosmetic monitoring and increase the transaction costs of decision-making?

Several committees have been constituted to frame guidelines for reforming the civil services but most of their recommendations have not been implemented. In many parts of the world, the revolution in public sector management is due to two reasons: Political commitment and the emphasis on integrity. In India there has been an unhealthy symbiosis between politicians and civil servants. They have come to share a mutually beneficial relationship, at the cost of subaltern classes.

First published on: 23-05-2018 at 12:03:36 am
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