Indian Administrative Service - steel frame of India or steel fetters on democracy
Raja Shankar

A paradigm shift is taking place in the Indian social, economic and political arenas.  A protected and state controlled economy is giving way to globalisation and a market based economy.  The state is shedding many of its traditional responsibilities, which are being taken over by the private sector and other civil society groups such as NGOs and voluntary organisations.  There is an increased awareness of the constraints posed by the environment on economic growth.  Centralised state decision-making is being questioned and there is a growing demand for the devolution of powers and resources to elected bodies at the local level.

In this context, it has become necessary to examine the existing mechanisms of governance, especially the IAS in terms of their capability to direct the nation towards sustainable soico-economic development.

IAS-a colonial legacy

The Indian administrative service is a continuation of the Indian civil Service instiutted by the British in the Indian colony.  The ICS was designed to administer the country, collect revenue, maintain law and order and assist the colonial rulers in their exploitataion of India’s resources.  The logic of the ICS was the ruler-subject paradigm-an elite, western educated service ruling over the illiterate, ignorant Indian natives, ostensibly for their benefit, in reality for their exploitation.

Even when the British started conceding the demands for self-rule through the Morley-Minto reforms and the Government of India Act 1935, the civil services were not made accountable to the elected representatives but continued to be answerable to the central imperial authority.

As with many other colonial institutions and practices, India continued with the ICS, renamed the IAS, after independence.  This is understandable in the early years after independence.  It could be argued that the then political leaders were inexperienced in the art of administration and hence needed the experienced IAS, which Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel had termed the `steel frame of India’.

Rather ironically, instead of gradually replacing this frame with democratic elements, we allowed it to expand and assume gigantic proportions.  Today this steel frame has transformed into steel fetters shackling Indian democracy, which has strangulated the initiative of the people and suppressed development. 

Now why is the IAS incongruous in a democracy?  How is the dynamics of its functioning detrimental to the interests of the people?  Let us look at these issues more closely.

Centralised non-participatroy decison-making

The IAS system is based on a centralised concept where decisions taken at the top percolate down through various levels to the grassroots.  This system has two defects.  One, planning and development decisions are made at the top most levels by a few people unfamiliar with ground realities.  This makes them insensitive to the needs, constraints and aspirations of the local People.

Two, by the time the decisions made at the top reach the local level they are transformed beyond recognition.  As Prof. Varun Sahni of Jawaharlal Nehru University [JNU] put it, “By the time a state directive is transmitted from the commanding heights down the intermediate levels of the state to the trenches, it has either metamorphosed beyond recognition, or else has been transmogrified, with only the external shell remaining intact”. 

This flow of decisions from the top is also accompanied by the flow of resources.  In this process, huge frictional losses occur as the money filters through various levels of the bureaucracy, encouraging corruption and wasteful expenditure.  As Rajiv Gandhi has said, only 16 paise out of every rupee reaches the actual beneficiaries.


Concentration of decision-making

The bureaucrats are overburdened with decision-making, which affects the quality of their decisions.  This is especially evident in the case of the district collector who is flooded with work that can be done at the lower levels.  He has to maintain law and order, look after revenue functions, attend courts, arrange for VIP security, manage development work and also attend to numerous petty issues affecting the people in his district.  The system breaks even the most enthusiastic officer, most of whom are frustrated and end up doing inconsequential work.


Gigantic bureaucracy

The bureaucracy has grown in size assuming gigantic proportions, a manifestation of the omnipresence of the state in people’s lives.  This is a result of over-centralisation and the entry of the state into areas that should normally have been reserved for private enterprise.

This has had two adverse effects.  First, the increased interaction between the citizens and the bureaucracy is one of the major reasons for corruption.  Second, it has suppressed the initiative of the people who have developed a dole mentality vis-a-vis the government.

Lack of accountability

Lack of accountability of the bureaucracy is part of the general lack of accountability to decision-makers to the people in India.  There is no transparency in the functioning of the bureaucracy.  In additon to this there has been a proliferation of departments with conflicting jurisdictions and mutliplicity of authority.  Nobody knows who is responsible for what.  In this confustion it has become easy to pass the buck.  This has provided the ideal climate for corruption allowing the politicians and the bureaucrats to form an unholy nexus detrimental to the people and their development.

Communication gap between the bureaucracy and the People

Historically the IAS has been a western educated elite service ignorant of the local conditions and needs of the people.  There has always existed a ruler-subject relationship between them and the people.  They, especially the District Collectors, have been the sahibs and the burra babus.  Today they are the mai baps.

In addition to this, the bureaucracy has become more inefficient and corrupt.  To the feeling of contempt.  It is no wonder then that the bureaucracy is not able to communicate properly with the people.  Neither do they get accurate information from the people nor are they able to communicate their development measures to the people.

Insecurity of tenure

Even those officers who wish to do good are pre-empted by the system.  The IAS officers have to know-tow the diktats of their political masters even if they realise that they are agains the interests of the people.  Officers who protest are transferred or they obstructions in their career growth.  In fact, transfers have become a thriving business with many officers paying handsomely for plum postings.  This has emasculated the IAS who have become servile to their political masters.


Apart from the above deficiencies, the IAS system is not desinged to cope with the political, social and economic transormations taking place today.


IAS a hindrance to the development of Panchayati Raj

Although Panchayati Raj (elected local governance) has been instituted through the 73rd and 74th amendements to the Constitution, the district collector and the rest of the local bureaucracy has not been made accountable to the local governments.  They continue to be accountable to the state governments.  This system thwarts many of the initiatives of the elected representatives who have to get their proposals implemented through this bureaucracy.  Thus the state government manages to have an unhealthy control over the local governments with the help of the bureaucracy.

Redundancy of the IAS in the changed economic climate

The existing structure of the IAS is incompatible in the changed scenario of liberalisation and globalisation.  The state is shedding many of its previous responsibilities, especially in the public sector.  With the reduction in the size of the state there has to be a corresponding reduction in the size of the bureaurcracy.  Many of the responsibilites in the chaning scenario need specialised people, such as economists, planners, engineers, managers and natural resource professionals.  The IAS, which is a jack of all trades and master of none cannot perform these functions.  Most ministries are manned by generalists.  This adversely affects the functioning of these ministries.

Method of appointment

No management theory tells us that persons selected thirty years ago through a college type examination alone are suited for manning top public administration positions to the exclusion of all others.  The concept of selection on the basis of a competitive examination for top positions for all times may sound objective but does not necessarily throw up the best talent.  A person should be on test at every job and appointed to top positions only on the basis of proven performance.  Public management in India thus has to suffer mediocrity because an elite service has pre-empted the right to all the top appointments.

IT is clear from the above discussion that a large scale restructuring of the Indian bureaucracy is required.  Some of the changes that need to be instituted are briefly discussed here.

Top appointments

In a democracy, top administrative and technical appointments in all governments from local to central, sholld be through open selection on contract of five years.  Such a practice is already prevailing in the Government of India public sector.  The selection should be through an autonomous selection process or directly by the head of the government but approved by a multi-party committee of the elected body.  Termination or non-extension of the contract should also require the approval of the multi-party committee of the elected body.  This will facilitate selection of good professionals and provide adequate protection to the persons once selected against political harassment.

Secretaries to Government

In all departments, the departmental head should first be considered for additionally holding the charge of the secretary.  Only where the logistics so require, a coordinating secretary may be appointed.  In both cases, the appointment should be through open selection or nomination by the head of the government (as was done in the case of Sam Pitroda).  All appointments should however be approved by a multiparty committee of the elected body.  The same practice may be followed in the state, district and local governments.

Separate services for each government

 In a democracy, a hierarchy of governments at the neighbourhood, local, district state and central levels are created, each accountable to the People it serves.  The state bureaucracy has therefore necessarily to be structured into separate local services, each accountable to the government it serves.

All India services violate the above principle.  IAS officers were appointed as municipal commissioners with independent powers to neutralize the elected mayors and impose state control.  The continuation of this practice today and its extension to panchayats is a violation of the letter and the spirit of the 73rd and 74th constiutional amendments.

The other central and state services also suffer from similar infirmities.  One reason for illiteracy in villages is that the school teachers manage to get transferred to urban schools or simply draw salary without going to the village leaving the rural schools high and dry.  This would not be possible if the local governments had their own services and cadres.  Gujarat has taken a positive step in this direction by providing for panchayat level cadres in their panchayati raj legislation. 


The above changes cannot by themselves solve the problem.  The degeneration of the bureaucracy, especially the IAS is part of overall degeneration of the Indian polity.  The restructuring of the bureaucracy will therefore have to be carried out as a part of the overall reform of the polity.    q

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