Civil Service: Its ‘elite status’

By Vivek Pattanayak*

A modern State needs a civil service. In addition to other institutions of government like executive consisting of President, Prime Minister, Ministers etc., legislature and judiciary government must have a permanent civil service recruited based on merit determined through the traditional process of competitive examination as against patronage, an archaic practice of the medieval monarchies.

According to Percival Spear, a British historian who taught in the famous St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, the greatest contribution of the British Raj to the Indian sub-continent was creation of a professional civil service.

One of the civil services known world over was ICS. It was considered as an elite civil service. Defined by the Cambridge Dictionary, the “elite” are “those people or organizations that are considered the best or most powerful compared to others of a similar type.” The American sociologist C. Wright Mills states that members of the elite accept their fellows’ position of importance in society. Max Weber postulates that in a bureaucracy there has to be esprit de corps in order to be elite.

ICS, soon after it was created in the mid-19th century had only Anglo-Saxon, white; Christian British officers. It was an imperial civil service. No wonder the fraternity was strong. While initially the ICS had only the British, and later the Indians joined in small number. The British initially discouraged the Indians joining ICS which becomes clear from the book of Taub, “Bureaucracy under Stress”. It is also corroborated in the book of Percival Spear.

It is not known whether the same fellow feeling continued when the Indians joined the so-called elite service or when some were nominated to the service. Perhaps it is doubtful.

After independence when IAS, a national civil service was created it was a conglomeration of war service recruits, emergency recruits and direct recruits. In course of years promotion from State civil service took place. Further, there was a special recruitment into the service in the mid-fifties of the last century consisting of people slightly higher in the age group.

From the mid-sixties those repatriated from armed forces also joined IAS. Now there is also lateral entry coming from different discipline. The Constitution provided for reservation for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe. In addition, it consisted of people drawn from different linguistic group, religion, sect, and caste.

From the above it would reflect how heterogenous the composition was in the service which was considered as the successor service of ICS. All these factors did not easily create ambience for spirit de corps which Weber’s doctrine envisaged.

Is IAS sui generis? In a competitive examination those who join IAS because of marks and position and number of papers they took in the examination are no different from who joined IFS, Central service, and Indian Police Service. Academic background was similar although some may be from humanities, science, engineering, and medical background. They all had brilliant records in the universities. Those who came in first ten may have done very well in that examination. After training, their ranking could change. More importantly their performance can change in the course of their career. A person may not acquire proficiency in professional work like knowledge of land revenue law, survey settlement, land consolidation, accounts, criminal law, general law and administrative rules and  government schemes in agriculture, cooperation, animal husbandry, rural industry, and other professional work in the course of career. Human dealings may not be uniformly appropriate. One may develop unhealthy, rude, unpleasant habits, may become lazy, and even compromise one’s integrity. What is true of IAS is equally true of Central services and other All-India services.

In the earlier years, IAS did variety of jobs while other specialized services worked in one area or other. In the recent years other service officers are also given assignments outside their specialization.

Subject matter specialists should have promotional avenue. After certain years of experience, the officers should be given scope to specialize in some area or other. Lateral entry to civil service has been there since long when management pool was created. Those from corporate sector whether private or public having experience and knowledge can be inducted to civil service as long as it is based on recommendation of UPSC and done in a transparent manner.

Much depends upon initial training, supervision after training, and nurturing by senior officers. Periodic skill improvement, and higher courses keep the officers agile, active, and efficient. Integrity is subject to influence by social circumstances, political ambience, and personality changes with marriage, when children grow up and medical and health condition and also with advancement of age. Unless there is a permanent mechanism to monitor the conduct, health, and proficiency, to keep an officer efficient, healthy, and honest till one superannuates it would be a big challenge. Substantial part of expenditure of the state is on human resource. It is doubtful whether there is any regular forensic audit done on their ability, integrity, and efficacy commensurate to expenditure made.

As many have suggested, periodic review of performance should be done by an independent body like UPSC for promotion to higher grades and also find an exit route after a particular age if one does not reach a grade, a practice which is followed in the armed services. Entry at earlier age and limitation of chances will enable officers serve for a longer period are also suggested by some. Selection for key posts should be done based on  experience, performance, utilization of budget and proven merit  on assessment by independent body like UPSC, not occasioned by nepotism or loyalty to political leaders. Senior officers should also be able to protect able but ‘inconvenient officers.’ They have a key role to create an ambience for  fierce political neutrality and ability to take tough decisions without fear or favour.

Elite status of a service can be claimed only after its members’ efficiency remains unquestionable, integrity impeccable and sincerity intact. Integrity encompasses many qualities which also include impartiality, neutrality, free of bias and prejudice on the consideration of language religion, sect, caste, and ethnic origin.

In the present national ambience with power having shifted unambiguously to political leaders, without their initiative, conscious and honest effort, civil service reform in letter and spirit is difficult to achieve. Quality of civil service especially IAS is dependent upon quality of political leadership, character of democracy and nature of federalism.

Notwithstanding what has been stated above, IAS and other services produced excellent, outstanding, and meritorious officers of spotless integrity and superb quality. Those who went to top and remained unscathed were not necessarily more brilliant and more capable than who could not. To quote Napoleon there were no brilliant generals but only lucky ones.



*The author is a former bureaucrat and held important positions in aviation and power regulatory body. He can be reached through e-mail at [email protected]


DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of Sambad English.

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