Meddling with Bureaucracy

Loyalty test

Print edition : June 22, 2018

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing young IAS officers in New Delhi. A file picture. Photo: Kamal Singh/PTI

A proposal from the Prime Minister’s Office to reform the system of service/cadre allocation for the IAS and other Central government services could destroy the democratic structure of the country’s bureaucracy.

A LETTER hurriedly drafted by the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) and sent to all Ministries on May 17, 2018, has created a flutter in political and administrative circles.

The letter reads: “The Prime Minister’s Office [PMO] has desired to consider the following suggestion and necessary action on it for its implementation from the current year itself—to examine if service allocation/cadre allocation to probationers selected on the basis of their civil services examination be made after foundation course. Examine the feasibility of giving due weightage to the performance in the foundation course and making service allocation as well as cadre allocation to All India Service officers based on the combined score obtained in the civil service examination and the foundation course. Provide comments/inputs within a week so as to enable the Department to take further necessary action in this matter.”

This apparently innocuous letter has serious portents for the country’s bureaucratic machinery and has the potential to permanently destroy its democratic structure. It is feared by many that this is yet another attempt by the Narendra Modi government to tinker with public institutions in order to suit its political ends.

At present, service/cadre allocation to the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and other Central government services is strictly based on the ranking in the civil services examination conducted by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) whose credentials, in this context, are impeccable. Of the over 10 lakh persons who appear for the civil services examination every year, about 1,000 are selected through a rigorous three-tier system which comprises the preliminary examination, the main examination and the interview. By virtue of the sheer numbers involved, the entire recruitment process is totally opaque, ruling out any subjectivity in the process. This is also the reason why the credibility of the UPSC’s recruitment process has never been questioned.

The UPSC and the State Public Service Commissions are mandated by the Constitution to conduct examinations for government services and allocate services/cadre. The UPSC chairman and members are constitutional functionaries; they enjoy security of tenure, their terms of service are unchangeable, and they are barred from holding any government office once their term ceases. According to constitutional experts, these safeguards provide them immunity from political pressures and enable them to function without fear or favour.

Foundation course

The foundation course, on the other hand, is conducted by training academies for the recruits after their selection. Unlike the chairperson and members of the UPSC, the directors and faculty members of the academies are normally serving civil servants on deputation or members of the academia who are appointed by the government. They enjoy no constitutional safeguards and there is no bar on them holding office after their stint in the academies. Constitutional experts and former bureaucrats are unanimous that they will always be susceptible to pressures from the political and administrative machinery and hence would be subjective in their assessments of the recruits in order to further their own careers. Making the academies an integral part of the recruitment process would thus be unconstitutional. It would also make the process extremely subjective and encourage unfair practices.

Former bureaucrat and a Congress leader from Uttar Pradesh, P.L. Punia, says: “Right now, merit is the sole criterion for allocation of service/cadre. Making foundation course performance a part of this exercise will make it totally subjective, prone to pressures, and lead to the misuse of discretion.” According to Punia, this is part of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh’s (RSS) agenda to put its own people at the forefront of the bureaucracy: “[This is] yet another attempt by the RSS to capture yet another institution.” What this could also translate into is the downgrading of Dalits and minorities and those not toeing the RSS line. “The bureaucracy will be totally destroyed,” he said, adding that such a move should be challenged in a court if it came into practice.

E.A.S. Sarma, former Secretary, Economic Affairs, Ministry of Finance, and a retired 1965 batch IAS officer of the Andhra Pradesh cadre, is of the opinion that besides the fact of the academies being ill-equipped to deal with the exercise, the element of subjectivity that is bound to creep into the assessment process will destroy its credibility.

“The merit ranking secured by candidates in the UPSC civil services examination constitutes the basis for inter-service allotment and, in the case of all-India services, inter-State allotment. The public reposes a great deal of confidence in such ranking as the tests conducted by UPSC are by and large objective, apolitical and professional,” Sarma told Frontline, adding that tampering with this system would erode public confidence in the recruitment process.

“Besides, we don’t know the people in these academies, or their credentials,” said Sarma. “Since the test conducted by the [training] academy is likely to be less objective and less rigorous, I apprehend that this will have the potential of upsetting the merit ranking secured by the civil servant trainees through a highly competitive examination system and render the procedure for determining the inter-service allotment of the civil servant trainees somewhat subjective, an approach that will introduce an unhealthy distortion in the otherwise credible testing procedure of the UPSC.”

Sarma said it was a matter of concern that such an idea should emanate from the PMO and moreover, was sought to be implemented with a great deal of urgency. “Such ideas need to be thoroughly evaluated, discussed widely and debated by experts before they can even be considered by the government. In a Cabinet system based on collective responsibility, [the] PMO trying to dabble in such matters is not a healthy development,” he said.

According to Sarma: “This is yet another move on the part of [the] NDA to tinker with the integrity of the existing institutions and introduce subjectivity to suit its intentions.”

Harsh Mander, a former bureaucrat who has served at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration at Mussoorie as deputy director, is also of the view that this is a mischievous idea which will strike at the root of yet another democratic institution.

“I am among those intensely alarmed by this proposal and believe that if implemented it will strike at the heart of and ultimately destroy one more public institution among the many that have been profoundly damaged by the BJP government led by Narendra Modi,” he told Frontline.

India’s bureaucracy, popularly referred to as its “steel frame”, demands that its recruits have a high level of integrity, courage of conviction, and compassion; a deep sense of justice; and conviction about the equality of castes and genders. They should be untainted by communal, caste and patriarchal prejudices and imbued with a deep sense of public service. Mander agreed that the present system of civil service examinations did not test these attributes but argued that the reform proposed by the PMO was worse than the malady.

“There is admittedly nothing in the present mode of recruitment of civil servants that tests any of these qualities. What the UPSC examinations test is not even high academic merit, but academic stamina and perseverance. But the high distinction of this selection process, unmatched by any other in the public sector, is its integrity and fairness. It is untainted by nepotism, by subjective bias and prejudice, by individual likes and dislikes,” Mander said.

According to Mander, the reform proposed by the PMO would change all this profoundly. “The fate of the thousand-odd officers who are selected for the wide range of public services would now lie in the hands of a few officers appointed to the National Academy who would be empowered to give them scores which would dramatically determine their future lives and work, whether they would spend their lives as diplomats, administrators, women and men in khaki, accountants or railway managers. These assessments would inevitably be highly subjective and opaque, reflecting the ideologies, world view, social and cultural biases, personal attractions and idiosyncrasies of the superior officers,” he told Frontline in a written comment.

Death knell

Mander added that whatever credibility the higher civil services still retained owed to the undisputed integrity of its selection process. “At least the ‘merit’ of its selection process, whatever its other flaws, could not be faulted for personal bias, even less corruption. If this ‘reform’ is introduced, then it will surely be the death knell of an already highly enfeebled cadre of public officials,” he wrote.

Mander wondered why the Prime Minister should consider introducing such fundamental reforms in an institution crafted by the likes of Sardar Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru and which had, by and large, stood the test of time. “I can see only one rationale from his perspective. During his entire tenure, his government has packed every institution with persons committed to the ideological world view of the RSS. One institution in which it has not succeeded in doing this so far is the higher civil services,” Mander wrote.

According to him, the government is free to appoint persons who lack merit but score high in their ideological compatibility to important positions, but it cannot influence the selection of these officers at the initial level. “If this reform comes through, then this would change. It would be entirely possible for a government to pack the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration with officers committed to the ideology of the Sangh, and also to market fundamentalism. They could then select officers for the most sensitive administrative and police services with the same ideological sympathies.”

Mander opined that the move to tamper with the bureaucracy was fraught with long-term damage to India’s democracy because unlike ideologically committed vice chancellors, judges, heads of cultural institutions, and so on, who could be changed once their term ended or if there was a change of government, bureaucrats cannot be changed and would remain in service until their retirement.

“Bureaucrats are part of the permanent civil service and will remain in positions of authority long after a government is removed by the democratic process. The Sangh believes in a Hindu nation, not a nation in which all people of every faith have equal rights safeguarded by the Constitution,” wrote Mander.

“There is much that the government led by Narendra Modi has destroyed in our public institutions in its turbulent four-year stewardship of our country. This is one institution that must be defended, otherwise even the rusted and debilitated steel frame will collapse, and India will lie in even greater danger of falling apart,” he added.

Several serving civil servants who spoke to Frontline wondered how the academies would carry out an assessment that would have such a long-term influence on an officer’s entire career.

“Do they have the capability? Are they equipped to do this sort of exercise because the foundation course is a short-duration course of three months only?” they wanted to know. Several of them recalled instances from personal experience of bias and prejudice in judgment on the part of the director and faculty members of the training academy.

Officials from the DoPT said the idea was still being explored and that the decision had not yet been taken. “Don’t jump to conclusions,” said a senior official. UPSC officials refused to comment on the development.

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