Recasting the steel frame

An “insider” account of the Indian Administrative Service and the various “maladies” that plague Indian bureaucracy.

Published : Sep 25, 2019 07:00 IST

THIS book, which is an “insider’s view” on the organisation and functioning of the prestigious Indian Administrative Service (IAS), has been written by one of its leading practitioners who retired as Secretary, Planning Commission, in 2002. The author claims that this book provides an unflattering view of the leading all-India service, whose officers exceed 5,000 and are deployed in all the States and in the Centre in important administrative positions.

At the outset, the author critiques the “mutual admiration club” formed by some of his colleagues, which has prevented them from taking a detached and critical view of the IAS’ limitations. The author, though critical of his service, does not go so far as to call for its winding up as Nirmal Mukarji, formerly of the Indian Civil Service (ICS), did ( Economic &Political Weekly , December 17-24, 1994).


The author admits that the IAS has indeed produced a number of eminent personalities, some of whom are mentioned in the book. One is surprised, however, that his list of eminent IAS officers does not include Aruna Roy (IAS, 1968-75), the Magsaysay Award winner who famously pioneered the movement for the right to information that led to the enactment of the Right to Information Act 2005 by Parliament.

Aruna Roy left the service because of her moral outrage over the elitist character of the service in a highly inegalitarian society. She displayed unique moral character in quitting the service in order to work for the mobilisation of the rural poor and narrates her experience in her moving classic, The RTI Story: Power to the People , published in 2018. Aruna Roy also delivered the 2015 Ambedkar Memorial Lecture on “Unbridled Capitalism: A Threat to Constitutional Democracy?”. By not mentioning her name in his list of IAS greats, the author does himself a disservice.

Among the other names not mentioned by the author are D. Bandyopadhyay of West Bengal’s “Operation Barga” fame, B.N. Yugandhar, P.S. Krishnan and S.P. Shukla. Officers such as S.R. Sankaran and B.D. Sharma were in a different league altogether, displaying legendary commitment beyond the call of duty to the cause of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh respectively. Their remarkable work deserves recognition.

In the opening chapter, the author rejects criticism by some of his colleagues who fault him for his alleged negative approach. He says that people are worried more about the outcomes that the system as a whole is responsible for rather than about individual good deeds. His own initiatives in different areas of responsibility over time have convinced him that stand-alone bureaucratic initiatives have no lasting impact because of the lack of “strong political ownership” (page 5).

The absence of administrative support for radical reforms has often led politicians to resort to “populist rhetoric and sectarian strategies”, as he puts it. If administrative processes could be streamlined, even routine administrative capacity would produce good results.

In Chapter 1, the author puts forth the following questions and invites his IAS colleagues to provide answers: i) Is the selection of beneficiaries for government programmes free enough from the errors of inclusion and exclusion? ii) Are land records in several States reflective of ground realities? iii) How is it that on social indicators, the Bangladesh bureaucracy delivers better than its Indian counterpart? iv) Do State governments report honestly on hunger deaths, malnutrition, toilet use by the poor who are deprived of jobs under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) for the mandatory 100 days? v) Why is there a wide gap between reported and evaluated data? vi) Do training institutions produce comprehensive and effective modules to reduce hatred and bias against the minorities? vii) Are elite IAS officers ever keen to serve in backward districts where their services are most needed? viii) Why has the quality of education in government schools declined and what steps are taken to arrest the trend? ix) Why have many State governments failed to ensure regular payment of honoraria to contractual staff across the board? x) Can a farmer in rural India set up an industrial unit on his land without having to apply for change of land use? xi) Do controls imposed in the Essential Commodities Act, the Mandi Act, and so on, contribute to reduction of corruption and the enhancement of productivity?

Answers to these questions, the author says, would need a focus on the much-neglected administrative reforms. Such unanswered questions crowd the pages of this book.

Maoist violence

In April 2008, the Planning Commission’s rural development division brought out the report of the 16-member expert group chaired by D. Bandyopadhyay on the causes of rural discontent, unrest and extremism, titled “Development Challenges in the extremist-affected Areas” (a copy of which is available online). The report delineated a comprehensive developmental strategy to counter the impact of Maoist violence in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Orissa, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. The then Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, who had earlier chaired a conference of Chief Ministers and Home Ministers in May 2006, had stated that “Naxalism” (or Maoism) was “the biggest internal security challenge ever faced by our country”. He borrowed the description from a top-secret intelligence report and listed several law and order steps he proposed to take, which included the induction of massive Central paramilitary forces in the conflict-affected areas. However, he did not mention that the Planning Commission itself would be examining the matter and would produce a report on the development challenges emerging from the Maoist violence.

In fact, as early as the late 1960s, when the Maoist movement first emerged in India, the Research and Policy division of the Union Home Ministry had warned that the Green Revolution could turn into a Red Revolution if far-reaching agrarian reforms were not undertaken. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi did write to Chief Ministers in this regard but nothing happened.

The far-reaching 2008 report of the Planning Commission mentioned above, containing radical recommendations, was neither placed before the Chief Ministers’ conferences nor presented on the floor of Parliament. Why did the Planning Commission so glaringly neglect one of its own seminal reports? Secondly, while the author mentions the need for administrative reforms, he himself ignores the 15-volume report of the Second Administrative Reforms Commission (2005-7) on the subject.


Thirdly, decentralisation of governance in India has been a big issue as noted by Nirmal Mukarji. Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) had been set up under the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments in 1992/1993. Despite financial constraints, these institutions were set up with 33 per cent reservation for women. Why are these reports not mentioned anywhere in the book?

The eclipse of the PRIs without a murmur of protest under the current regime is a major issue that calls for serious discussion. Decentralisation has been a cornerstone of the demand for administrative reforms in India since Independence. Nirmal Mukarji observed that the governing principle in India must be massive devolution of powers from the Centre to the States and from the States to the third stratum of the PRIs and the municipal bodies. The instruments, such as the Central Ministry of Rural Development, through which the Centre interferes in the States and the States in local government, will have to be either done away with or drastically abbreviated. This is not a matter that concerns the IAS alone; it is a broader political issue.

Finally, development issues in the north-eastern region is a subject that does not find mention anywhere in the book. Nari Rustomji of the ICS, who spent his entire working life there, produced a seminal book on the development approach in the region titled Imperilled Frontiers: India’s North-Eastern Borderlands (1984). The study remains completely neglected. As Secretary of the Planning Commission, the author could not possibly have neglected it. He remains oblivious to the North Eastern Region Vision 2020 Document and the discussion in Volume 7 of the Second Administrative Reforms Commission Report on Capacity Building for Conflict Resolution.

Despite his vast administrative experience and good intentions, the author fails to grapple with the critical issues in the north-eastern region. As Secretary of the Planning Commission, he needed to gather a team of excellent professionals to identify the key development issues that face the country. He could have learnt from the experience of top professionals such as P.S. Appu, Aruna Roy, S.R. Sankaran, B.D. Sharma, D.Bandyopadhyay, P.S. Krishnan and a host of others, or read carefully the reports of the Second Administrative Reforms Commission.


In his concluding chapter, the author notes the “maladies” that afflict the IAS, namely, i) deficiency in domain knowledge; ii) lack of concern for the poor; iii) redundancy resulting from fast promotions; iv) lack of accountability; v) poor monitoring and evaluation; vi) absenteeism; vii) neglect of output monitoring without input controls; and viii) inflated and “incredible” reporting. He is of the opinion that individual officers are bright but collective performance needs to be “scaled up”. His own initiatives on some matters such as sanitation and forest rights did not receive much support from his colleagues. Underperformance results not from the individual deficiencies but from the limitations of the administrative environment.

The author’s revealing discussion of “The Strange Case of Bihar: From Lalu Yadav to Nitish Kumar” (Chapter 8), the story on bureaucratic corruption (Chapter 9) and his admirable treatment of the relationship between civil society and bureaucracy (Chapter 10) are useful and instructive. His important comments on the bureaucracy and the minorities are most welcome.

Perhaps the ills that the author attributes to the IAS, a generalist service of “talented amateurs”, are really those of the system itself, not those of a particular service. The system as a whole needs to be examined in the spirit of Nirmal Mukarji whom we have earlier cited. But unfortunately, the author misses the bus. The book could do with an index. My congratulations to the publisher Sage for a brilliant production.

K.S. Subramanian was Director General of the State Institute of Public Administration and Rural Development, Government of Tripura.

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