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Bureaucrats Quitting: Is the IAS Imploding?

Bureaucrats Quitting: Is the IAS Imploding?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with IAS probationers, in New Delhi/Photo: PIB
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Above: Prime Minister Narendra Modi with IAS probationers, in New Delhi/Photo: PIB

Has extreme centralisation of authority and bureaucratic gagging led to the sudden resignations of some officers? Will it dent the steel frame of India and lead to a crisis in governance?


By MG Devasahayam


The steel frame is taking a battering. Resignations are happening in quick succession in the IAS for various reasons. Four officers who quit this year are in their early thirties with over 25 years of service left. Their common refrain is a sense of distress and despair.

In January 2019, it was Shah Faesal of the Jammu and Kashmir cadre who quit. The primary reasons for the resignation of this topper of the 2009 batch were the throttling of freedom and “unabated killings” in Kashmir. In March this year, he launched his own political party, the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Movement. Soon after the lockdown of the Kashmir Valley following the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A and reducing of J&K to a Union Territory, he was arrested and detained in Srinagar.

In August 2019, Kannan Gopinathan from the Arunachal Pradesh-Goa-Mizoram-Union Territory (AGMUT) cadre (IAS, 2012) resigned, stating: “We got into the service thinking that we can provide a voice to people, but then we ended up with our own voice being taken away from us.” He had been bemoaning the loss of freedom of expression, with particular reference to Kashmir.

Then, in early September came the resignation of Sasikanth Senthil (Karnataka, IAS, 2009) on the ground that it would be “unethical” on his part to continue in service “when the fundamental building blocks of our diverse democracy are being compromised in an unprecedented manner”. He went on to call the system fascist. As if to prove him right, the Karnataka BJP launched a no-holds-barred attack calling him anti-national. One BJP MP even dubbed him a “paid Gaddar” and asked him “to migrate to Pakistan”.

Soon, Kashish Mittal, another AGMUT cadre officer (IAS, 2011), quit because he was being posted to Arunachal Pradesh. Even then, resigning from the IAS with just eight years of service is rather drastic.

These early and principled resignations should be looked at from two dimensions—within the service and without. To understand the first, we should go back to the framing of India’s Constitution and the “Idea of India” propounded by the Founding Fathers for a free nation.

The “political idea” of this India was for its democracy to rise storey by storey from the foundation, consisting of self-governing, self-sufficient, agro-industrial, urbo-rural local communities—gram sabha, panchayat samiti and zilla parishad—that would form the base of Vidhan Sabhas and the Lok Sabha. These politico-economic institutions would control and regulate the use of natural resources for the good of the community and the nation.

Built on this foundation, the “economic idea” of development envisages independent India as sui generis, a society unlike any other, in a class of its own that would not follow the western pattern of mega industrialisation, urbanisation and individuation. India would be an agro-based people’s economy that would chart a distinct course in economic growth, which would be need-based and balanced while conserving nature and livelihoods. Such a “development” process would be democratic and decentralised.

It is from this “Idea of India” that the governance framework for the nation emerged with the IAS as its bulwark. Adhering to and advancing this idea is the raison d’être of the IAS, covenanted in the Constitution (Article 312), a rarity among nations. With such kind of prestige and protection, the IAS was to be the bastion against “convulsive politics” and “self-seeking politicians”. Its mandate was to “give a fair and just administration to the country and manage it on an even keel”. This service was meant to “attract the best material available in the country transgressing political boundaries”.

Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel was the architect of this civil service. Responding to the grave crisis created by Partition and the post-British administrative vacuum, he wrote to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in April 1948 advocating the formation of an independent civil service in the functioning of which “political considerations, either in its recruitment or in its discipline and control, are reduced to the minimum”. There was strong opposition from chief ministers and many members of the Constituent Assembly. In his speech to this Assembly in October 1949, the Sardar thundered: “The Indian Union will go. You will not have a united India if you do not have a good All India Service which has independence to speak out its advice…” Sardar Patel had his way and the IAS was established to be the bulwark of post-Independence governance.

Seven decades later, exactly the opposite of what the Founding Fathers envisaged seems to have happened. The “Idea of India” has collapsed. Democracy is in disarray and IAS officers are forced to implement a centralised, predatory, crony-capitalist, nature-killing, land-grabbing and money-guzzling “development model”. They are unable to speak up because of a cobweb of myths and mindsets that have crippled the independence and dynamism of the service.

First and foremost is the “bureaucratic gagging”—“a civil servant should only be seen, not heard”. Under this anachronistic arrangement, some of India’s best minds that constitute the IAS are being throttled and wasted as mere status quo time-servers. What is worse, by remaining silent and unable to speak up against arbitrary policies and autocratic rule, the conscientious among the IAS are fast losing their values, principles and personality. This is unacceptable.

The notion of “subservience to political masters” envisages a meek and “abdicating” role for IAS officials and therefore, is self-defeating. The IAS has a constitutional role to play in giving honest, fair and just governance to the people, particularly those the ruling politicians do not represent. In our skewed electoral system of “first-past-the-post”, politicians hardly represent 25/30 percent of people. If IAS officials strictly observe political subservience and surrender to the rulers of the day and do their bidding without demur, where will the majority flee?

Too much protection can reduce a person to cowardice. This is what is happening to IAS officials—they willingly accede as they do not have the courage even to face a transfer or some minor inconvenience for upholding the principles of honest governance. Like a “coward who dies a thousand times before his death” (Julius Caesar), they are compromising and acquiescing each time just to keep their posts and positions safe. This is rank hypocrisy.

The practice of fitting round pegs in square holes and square pegs in round holes is the villain of professionalism and probity in civil service. By perpetrating non-professionalism and non-performance in governance, this feudal practice enables politicians to play favourites and attain unbridled power to post anybody for any job, the main criteria being their meekness and pliability.

Dismantling these archaic hangovers was the challenge for any government. In 2014, with a sound mandate for NDA-2, one expected the PMO under the new prime minister to assume leadership position, declare an administrative crisis, rally the legislature and executive and come out with a comprehensive reform/reconfiguration blueprint so that the IAS could again become the bulwark of people-centred governance which was badly lacking.

That was not to be, and in the last five years, the reverse has happened. With extreme centralisation of authority, the IAS has lost even the little independence it had. And like many institutions and instruments of democratic governance, it has also been under severe assault. First came the steep reduction of the role of the IAS at the decision-making level of joint secretaries in the Government of India (GoI) and their replacement with personnel from other services that have no all-India character or exposure. Then came the proposal to trash the merit list for civil services recommended by the constitutionally mandated UPSC and instead, allot service as well as cadre based on the trainee’s performance at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration during the short Foundation Course. Soon after, through “lateral entry”, nine private sector personnel were inducted as joint secretaries.

Within days of NDA-3 taking over, the Department of Personnel and Training started preparing a proposal for inducting 400 “domain experts” to fill deputy secretary/director posts in the central government.

This is 60 percent of the 650 posts at this level under the Central Staffing Scheme which is currently available mostly to IAS officers. This is virtual dismemberment, choking and strangulation of the service.

Outside the service and in the nation at large, what civil rights stalwart Rajni Kothari wrote about the Emergency is playing out mutatis mutandis: “It was a state off-limits, a government that hijacked the whole edifice of the state, a ruling party and leader who in effect treated the state as their personal estate. It was the imposition of a highly concentrated apparatus of power on a fundamentally federal society and the turning over of this centralised apparatus for personal power… It was one big swoop overtaking the whole country spreading a psychosis of fear and terror….”

Though political despots rule the roost, it is the IAS officers, especially the younger ones, who bear the brunt and are forced to carry the can. In the event, there is unspoken anguish and agony among those who came into the IAS with missionary zeal and not for mercenary service. Some of them are imploding and this could turn into an explosion if not promptly addressed and remedied.

—The writer is a former Army and IAS officer

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