A special article by Debaki Nandan Mandal, former Joint Secretary, Governemnet of West Bengal, publiched in thestatesman.net on 05 June 2008:
The Statesman

Civil services

Reform More Essential Than A Raise

By Debaki Nandan Mandal

What the Prime Minister told senior bureaucrats on Civil Services Day (21 April) is not much different from his assertion, on coming to power in 2004, that administrative reform "at every level'' was his priority. This time, however, he had to sugarcoat his statement to soothe the ruffled feelings of the Army, Navy and Air Force officers who have been let down by the Sixth Pay Commission.

He is acutely aware of the poor performance at all levels of the government and the urgent need to reform the civil services. "We must introspect and recognise that there is great public dissatisfaction with the functioning of the government at all levels. The civil service must endeavour to address this challenge as a collective entity. The most important challenge is to instil confidence in our people that our civil services are fair, honest, as well as efficient, but they should be seen to be so, and endeavouring to be so."

Cherished career

In a country of more than a billion people, of the 10 million civil servants (3 million at the Centre and 7 million at the states), 80,000 Group A bureaucrats run the government, of whom 5,600 belong to the IAS. This includes district collectors and those at the secretariat level who advise ministers and draft policy in Delhi and the state capitals.

Government service still remains a cherished career. In the administrative hierarchy, a vast retinue of unskilled workers, if at the bottom of the scale enjoy pay and security far above what is on offer in India's labour market. The red flag and militant trade unionism ~ and not productivity ~ are their forte. At the top, the administrators enjoy a wider canvas of operation than they would find outside the government. The vast functional discretion they exercise ~ and hence suffer less stress ~ puts them in a category that is totally different from that of their counterparts in the private sector.

In the districts, apart from law and order and collection of revenue, the collector has to oversee the management of welfare and development projects, such as the NREGS. He has to oversee the spending of Rs 100 crore annually on such rural schemes. Obviously, the bureaucracy has to be made accountable if the public is to be provided with proper public services. The delivery mechanism, dwelt upon by Dr Manmohan Singh after he took over as Prime Minister in 2004, has to be more efficient.

To begin with, the human element. The quality of recruits to the civil services has been declining over the years. Deteriorating standards of education, the attractions of the private sector, increasing political interference, and above all caste-based reservations have queered the pitch. Now, almost half of the vacancies in the IAS are reserved for SCs, STs, and OBCs. In no other occupation is the Gresham's Law so much in operation as in the Indian bureaucracy.

As the growth rate exceeds 8 per cent, with inflating land prices and increasing opportunities for private contractors, there are dubious sources of income for corrupt politicians and bureaucrats. It doesn't involve stealing directly from the poor. Startling revelations from across the country in the implementation of NREGS will corroborate this phenomenon. Getting rid of corrupt or incompetent civil servants is rather trickier. A former cabinet secretary once recalled that during his long tenure, only three officers could be dismissed on corruption charges.

The Prime Minister's exhortation to senior bureaucrats to be "fair, honest, and efficient" stems from his awareness that the system needs total overhaul. What has been, so far, attempted is to inject some palliatives; what is required is surgery. True, to combat overstaffing, a freeze on recruitment continues though the widow of an IAS officer and Delhi's chief minister Sheila Dikshit believes that about half the civil service posts could be scrapped.

The Right To Information Act, passed in 2005, contains at least a promise of official accountability. A more drastic reform ~ to decentralise power from the state to the panchayat to cut out bureaucratic sloth ~ has resulted in the symbiotic relationship between the peoples' representatives and rural bureaucracy to loot and enrich themselves.

Recent changes in the Civil Service Code by the Department of Personnel ~ fixing the job tenure at two years ~ has been accepted by only a handful of states. Another burning issue to lower the upper age limit for IAS recruits is still at the conceptual stage. The RTI and Decentralisation of Power Act are intended to strengthen social audit and expose citizens to rural governance. Yet, they are in their infancy partly because of resistance from bureaucrats. Self-seeking politicians are loath to use the three-tiers of rural governance.

The overbearing and arrogant mindset of the present-day bureaucrat who never conceives of anything beyond his own domain or pelf and power lies at the root of malfunctioning at all levels. A new entrant, already a suitable boy in the marriage market, is "overwhelmed by the constant feed of adulatory amrosia". Gradually, he tends to lose his head and balance.

Real hindrance

The diffident youngster of early years strikes an alliance with unscrupulous politicians and his world is narrowed to the aggrandisement of the self and the coterie around him including his promoter. The likes of him ~ and none else ~ are the real stumbling block for any meaningful civil service reform programme if it is seen at clipping their wings. "I am the government" syndrome has thwarted all previous attempts to reform the services and it will continue to do so unless the political executive demonstrates its courage of conviction unambiguously.

The Prime Minister, himself an astute administrator with a wealth of experience in several areas, has his feet on the ground. He understands more than anybody else that India's public service needs reform more than it needs a raise.

Already, economic liberalisation has taken its toll on the bureaucracy. The IAS is no longer a career option for the bright and the meritorious. The engineers or MBAs among them would switch their preference towards Infosys, Wipro, IBM, TCS or look towards America or overseas placement. They have nothing but hatred towards the illiterate or semi-literate politicians. There is bound to be an erosion in the talent of the civil services as long as the likes of Arjun Singh have their way with reservations. And the quality of public service will be no better than the quality of people it is staffed with. Time will only reveal whether the Prime Minister was voicing his concern in the wilderness.

The writer is a former Joint Secretary, Government of West Bengal