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Service Providers

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Yet another bureaucrat has been arrested for having assets grossly disproportionate to his income, this time in Uttarakhand. Considering the fact that it is probably the most elite of government services, it is strange that the IAS and allied services comprise such officers. Sadly, these are not the exceptions but seem to be the rule, considering the fact that such wealth can only be accumulated if there is an entire eco-system feeding off corruption. This is a contrast from some decades ago when the IAS was considered the bulwark against systemic failures of this kind.

The problem starts from the beginning with the selection process, which is obviously outdated. Having sprung from what were originally ‘writers’ under the East India Company, when most of its domains were run by military officials, after the ‘First War of Independence’, the ICS came into being, with Indians being included in the service. As this was the period when the Imperial administrative structure was established, mostly focused on taxation – what are the present DMs were then designated as ‘Collectors’ – these officials began to wield extraordinary powers while carrying out the diktats of a distant British Parliament. Even as elected bodies began to be established in India, the clout was retained, not least because of the good work done by many. At that time it required all round abilities – from linguistic skills, to travel and exploration, hunting, providing on the spot solutions for myriad challenges – often quite ingenious. It earned the praise of India’s first Home Minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel as the nation’s ‘steel-frame’. However, with the political leadership taking over much of the loftier duties, the post-Independence version, the IAS, has gradually declined in the ability to make positive interventions, even as the status has been retained. (Some would allege through continuous manipulation in the backrooms of the ministries.) Caught between the corruption below and above, many have chosen to make hay while the sun shines.

Under the circumstances, there is need to redesign and restructure India’s administrative services. Verticals have to be created run by domain and management experts, with a specialised cadre set up for general administration. Lateral induction from the private and other sectors is required in the ministries that cannot be run by ‘generalists’. The district and state administration should be structured in line with modern concepts and clear lines of command and accountability. The political leadership should judge performance on the basis of outcomes – this would ensure corruption is reduced to the minimum. It must be realised that the glory days are gone – instead of as lords and masters, they must now function simply as ‘service providers’.