Above: Prime Minister Modi at an inaugural session of assistant secretaries in New Delhi/Photo: UNI
The huge lateral entry of “corporate civil servants” is a back-door capture of the IAS and privatisation of the government. This could fall foul of the Constitution and lead to social disharmony
By MG Devasahayam
Within days of NDA-3 taking over and less than two months after NDA-2 inducted nine private sector specialists as joint secretaries to the Government of India (GoI), the Department of Personnel & Training (DoPT) is busy preparing a proposal for inducting 400 domain experts to fill deputy secretary/director posts in the central government. For the purpose, DoPT officials are working to frame a process of recruitment and evaluation of private sector employees. If implemented, this could take away 60 percent of the 650 posts at this level under the Central Staffing Scheme which is currently available mostly to Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers.
An RTI application in the matter of the nine joint secretary appointments has revealed that the recruitment process adopted by DoPT did not provide for reservation to candidates from the Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Backward Classes (OBCs). The reason given is that “since each post to be filled under this scheme is a single post, reservation is not applicable”. But if they were considered as a group of nine, there would have been at least two seats for OBCs and one for an SC candidate. This is clear sleight-of-hand.
This appears to be deliberate as evident from the Union Public Service Commission’s (UPSC) response to a question asking how many candidates of different social categories were selected for these posts. It said that “as per the requisition of DoPT, candidates were to be selected for joint secretary level posts on contract basis (Lateral Entry). DoPT had clarified that there would be no reservation in this recruitment case”.
“Lateral Entry” normally refers to inducting outsiders into a handful of posts in a structured system called the IAS. It is certainly not so when it comes to 60 percent of the total number of posts. This is main-gate entry, back-door capture of the IAS and privatisation of the central government. This could fall foul of the Constitution of India on certain counts:
- The Preamble promises to secure to all its citizens justice, social, economic, political; liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; equality of status and opportunity and fraternity, assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the nation. The IAS is the instrument to provide this governance across the country.
- Articles 15 and 16 provide for reservation for the advancement of SCs/STs/ OBCs as well as representation of these classes and communities in the services under the State.
- Article 312 covenants the IAS into the Constitution.
- Article 320(3) mandates the central government to consult the UPSC on all matters relating to recruitment to the civil services and for civil posts as well as in making promotions and transfers from one service to another.
With all its flaws, failings, individual corruption and incompetence, the IAS has so far kept the faith of the Founding Fathers of our Republic in holding together a sub-continent of about 1.3 billion people comprising 4,635 multi-religious communities who speak 179 languages and 550 dialects. Being an all-India service, it is a bridge between the centre and the states, with knowledge and expertise flowing both ways from village level to the nation’s capital. As the centre has no cadre of governance of its own, the IAS provides the critical inputs from the states that form the Union of India. Besides, the IAS is part of the constitutional scheme of things and cannot be cast away by a mere executive decision.
Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel did not achieve the unity of the country out of the blue. He worked hard for it from different dimensions. He was convinced that only a seasoned and committed pan-Indian bulwark with a spread from the remote villages to the corridors of Delhi’s capital could carry out this difficult agenda post-Independence. The IAS fitted the bill and it was covenanted in the Constitution despite resistance from chief ministers and Constituent Assembly members.
The task was arduous and the crisis in the IAS started in the early 1960s when “development” replaced “public service” as the major goal of administration. Emergency and its oppressive ways in the seventies impacted the character of IAS officers as “servants of the people”.
Liberalisation-privatisation-globalisation in the Nineties brought in further change. The FDI-GDP model of development split the IAS between the amir aadmi and the aam aadmi agenda. This split face led to conflicts between the so-called “corporate” and “non-corporate” bureaucrats and elements of the “spoils system” crept in. Such conflicts have resulted in skewing of basic governance, leading to serious inequity and injustice to the disadvantaged.
Even so, the IAS is a permanent civil service and must remain so. It must also go through fundamental and holistic reconfiguring to transform itself into a vibrant, professional management cadre. To make this happen, IAS reformers should become iconoclastic, take the bull by the horn and demolish pet theories, myths and mindsets that have crippled the dynamism of the service. These myths include “bureaucratic gagging” that chokes innovation; “political subservience” that kills neutrality; over-protection that brings in cowardice and the “jack-of-all-trades” practice, fitting round pegs in square holes and square pegs in round holes.
The best way to professionalise the IAS was to dismantle these archaic hangovers and make the service—now endowed with medical, technical and management personnel—perform while keeping the country united and the federal structure intact. For this, the PMO should have assumed leadership, declared an administrative crisis, rallied the legislature and executive, revamped political leadership and come out with a comprehensive reform/reconfiguration blueprint so that the IAS could become the bulwark of “Governance for Development and Unity”, which is badly lacking today.
Instead, the Modi government has been doing the opposite and has now brought in the spoils system with a vengeance to dismember the IAS. The spoils system, also called the patronage system, is an arrangement that employs and promotes civil servants who are friends and supporters of the political group or persons in power. In a parliamentary democracy, wherein the government is run by permanent civil servants, this is unacceptable. Protagonists of lateral entry, however, compare this with the earlier practice of appointing professionals to senior positions in government from outside the IAS. This is untenable because what is being attempted now is not isolated “lateral entry” of experts, but bulk recruitment of senior officials directly from the market who are to co-exist with permanent civil servants.
This kind of system is prevalent in the US. According to David Cohen, a US government expert, these political appointees are more of a problem than a solution. They make the job of the career civil servant harder, draining his energy and dampening his creativity and initiative. They comprise whole layers of unnecessary bureaucracy and impede communications and work flow. They have vested interests and carry them on their sleeves. They cost a lot of money. This sums up the spoils system in the US and the shenanigans of the Trump presidency bear testimony to it.
Apprehensions about the “spoils system” in India are also the same. Currently, IAS officers are selected through a fiercely competitive and largely fair examination conducted by the UPSC. In the Indian context, lateral appointments will be made on the wishes of the ruling oligarchs who will be loyalists, hampering the neutrality of the civil services. It will lead to an exponential growth of favouritism, nepotism and corruption.
The task of “professionalising” the IAS was started by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, but he confined himself to training and equipping the civil servants for the purpose. But Prime Minister Modi has become a specialist in demolishing and even destroying institutions and instruments of governance. Doing this with the IAS has been assigned to the NITI Aayog which lacks any knowledge of India and its governance system.
The Aayog has virtually become a corporate consultant urging the privatisation of all infrastructure and services. Now it wants to privatise the IAS, which is a constitutional entity and the most potent instrument of democratic and equitable governance.
During Modi-1, like many institutions and instruments of democratic governance, the IAS has been under assault. First came the steep reduction of its role at the decision-making level of joint secretaries in central government departments when they were replaced with personnel from other services that have no all-India character or exposure.
Then came the proposal to trash the merit list for the civil services recommended by the constitutionally mandated UPSC and instead, allotting the service as well as the cadre based on the trainee’s performance at the Academy during the short Foundation Course.
Even before the ink dried on this, nine “professionals” from the market were appointed at senior positions in the Government of India. Now the number has leapfrogged to a staggering 400 and may go up further.
The market-based recruitment of “corporate civil servants” would not adhere to the constitutional requirement of affirmative action in favour of the disadvantaged communities and would lead to serious social disharmony. By dismembering the IAS, the knot that binds the centre and the states would be considerably loosened if not totally unravelled, thereby seriously endangering the unity and integrity of the country.
Things will fall apart. Can the centre hold?
—The writer is a former Army and IAS officer