The Prime Minister's outburst against 'babus' (civil servants) in the Lok Sabha a few weeks ago has once again triggered a debate about the role and efficacy of the IAS in particular and the civil services in general. I had no wish to join the debate but am compelled to do so because the debate has provided another opportunity to the detractors of the IAS to damn the service. The service does need to be defended, not because I myself served in it for nearly two decades and a half, but because I believe that it has done - and still doing - a good job by and large. I also have my complaints but they are against individual officers, not the service as such.
When I was a student way back in the 50s of the last century, the IAS was the most preferred service of the day, like the Indian Civil Service (ICS) was in the British days. Every young person worth his salt wanted to get into the service if he could. After the IAS came the turn of the police and other central services, the state civil and police services and any other government job in that order. The private sector paid well even in those days, better than any government service, including the IAS, but those who joined it were derisively called the 'Boxwallahs' after a well-known private sector company called the Metal Box. Some respect was attached even in those days to a senior position in the Tatas. But the crème-de-la-crème was the IAS.
When India achieved independence, the rulers who had been at the receiving end of the administrators' stick during the freedom movement had a choice. They could have abolished the ICS, dismissed those in that service and not created its clone, the IAS. But they chose wisely to create a top civil service much like the ICS. One had to compete on an all-India basis, pass a difficult examination and go through an even more difficult oral interview to get into it. I had once said in the Lok Sabha that the IAS examination was perhaps the most difficult examination of my life until I contested popular elections and realised that there was nothing more difficult than that.
The basic thing the recruiters looked for in the IAS was a bright and balanced mind that could face challenges of any kind. And I firmly believe that it continues to be and must remain the basic requirement of a generalist civil service like the IAS. Long ago I had read somewhere that a generalist knows less and less about more and more until he knows nothing about everything, while a specialist knows more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing. So, I am not getting into the debate of generalist versus specialist. At a certain level in the administration, one needs people with a bright mind, a strong common sense and the capacity to face challenges. Anyone can fill this bill, not merely an IAS officer, but the IAS has been created to provide exactly this kind of an officer. On a lighter note, I shall not be surprised if it came to light that it was actually a Babu who persuaded the Prime Minister to say what he said about Babus.
The ICS officers fully lived up to the expectations of Nehru and Patel by discharging with distinction whatever responsibility was assigned to them - from difficult diplomatic assignments to managing the economy and setting up and running steel plants like my father-in-law NC Shrivastava (ICS) did after rendering great service post-partition to the refugees who had come from Pakistan. The IAS officers have not been far behind. Taking names will be odious, but there have been officers who brought credit to whichever post held from Collector to Cabinet Secretary to Governor to Ambassador. Some of them have become internationally famous international trade experts, Many of them have distinguished themselves, first as outstanding field officers and later as representatives of India to the WTO or while serving in international organisations. Such examples can be multiplied manifold. But not everyone is up to the mark. Like any other walk of life, the civil service also has many black sheep. They generally fall by the wayside, though. It is a real rat race to survive and reach the top.
I am firmly of the view that despite its many achievements, the IAS is, like other institutions, in need of reform. But reform should not be a one-time affair. It must be continuous, as new challenges emerge everyday. It must begin from the IAS examination itself and cover the training programmes both in the Academy and in the field. The career management of an officer also plays a very important role in his advancement. There are good postings and not-so-good postings. Every officer must have an equal share of both. This is not the case at present and this is where political and other kinds of patronage play a role. This practice continues to play havoc with the morale of the service. Is the Department of Personnel looking at all these aspects?
And finally, the Prime Minister has not yet discharged his responsibilities fully. He will do so when he follows his words with deeds. He cannot get away by merely expressing in the Lok Sabha his disappointment with Babus. He must follow up by doing something about it. As far as I am concerned, I will judge the worth of a service like the IAS on two basic counts: first, how has it acquitted itself in tackling emergency situations including natural calamities like floods, drought, earthquakes and man-made disasters like communal riots, caste wars, other law and order situations and handling civil supplies in emergencies. By and large, the IAS has done remarkably well in such situations. Second, what does the world think of the merit of this service by providing them openings in the international and multi-lateral organisations? Here, too, the service has done well, considering the positions which have been offered to the members of the service by these organisations.
There was a time when the integrity of an IAS officer was taken for granted. Alas! It is not so any more. Is motivation for being honest missing these days? This is a question which begs an answer. The punishment for deviation from the norm here should be swift and exemplary. That alone will ensure that the members of the service remain steadfast on the path of honesty.
Yashwant Sinha, former BJP leader, was Minister of Finance (1998-2002) and Minister of External Affairs (2002-2004)
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