Trust vested interests to resist change, all change. It is natural for entrenched interests to safeguard their positions. That would explain why over the decades several seemingly progressive changes and reforms to the country’s bureaucratic structure have remained on paper alone. Several committees and commissions beginning with the 60s have recommended a number of key reforms, but all in vain. Aiding the bureaucratic resistance to change is the inertia and lack of determination of the political executive.
Ultimately, the government of the day fells obliged to heed the bureaucrats who claim to have much experience and rely on a wealth of precedents to bolster their no-change views. In the 70s, Indira Gandhi on the advice of her close advisers, who were mostly non-IAS, had inducted a number of specialists from the private sector, including from the universities, into key positions in the Government. One can recall V Krishnamurthy, who became Heavy Industry Secretary, and, later, the founding CEO of the Maruti-Suzuki automobile project. He came from the private sector. And about some half-a-dozen others made lateral entry into government.
But these proved one-off inductions, with the entrenched IAS lobby digging its heels against it. This opposition against lateral entry of domain experts at the mid-level in government would have made sense had the bureaucratic set-up been performing well and was responsive to the needs of the people. The truth is that the entire concept of all-India services, particularly the Indian Administrative Service, was devised by the British for another era when the size of the bureaucracy as well as the population was much smaller. After Independence, the same colonial era system was retained, the difference being the Indian Civil Service now became the Indian Administrative Service. Admittedly, till about the 80s, the toppers from the best of universities and colleges competed through the UPSC-run examination-cum-interview system to join the elite services. Unfortunately, since then the top students now vie for private sector jobs, especially after the economic liberalisation in the 90s.
Consequently, the educational and intellectual talents of the new entrants to the IAS and other class-one services have suffered a steep fall. Maybe that is a reflection of the wider changes in the society, with the deepening of the democratic process the polity, too, becoming more egalitarian and representative. Also, with political corruption becoming endemic, the top and lower level bureaucracies, too, have been infected by this cancer. Besides, top bureaucrats, instead of showing initiative and zeal in addressing the problems of the people, invariably choose to play safe, adopting a ‘time-pass’ approach with passing-the-buck having become second nature to the babus who, whether or not incomes of other people go up, must have their regular pay-rises and dearness-linked allowances and fat pensions at the end of the month. The life-time job security is another reason why inefficiency, lethargy and non-performance has come to define our bureaucracy.
Having said that, any move which loosens the grip of the entrenched bureaucracy on the administrative machinery ought to be welcome. In this context, the recent advertisement seeking applications for 10 joint secretary-level posts has elicited much comment. The successful candidates, to be selected after due screening, will initially hold the jobs for three years which is extendable to five. The specified jobs advertised are for key ministries, and obviously call for domain knowledge. Normally, an IAS officer can expect to become a joint secretary after spending 17 years in the service. Hopefully, qualified professionals will feel encouraged to respond, given that an opportunity to work the system from within would offer them a rare insight and would prove mutually beneficial for them as well as the governmental system. The ossified, hierarchy-ridden system does not leave much scope for merit and initiative, but the lateral inductees may not feel so hide-bound as not to impart a refreshing new insight into the resolution of many challenges that confront a developing economy. Ministers come and go with each election, it is the permanent bureaucracy which constitutes the stabilising structure of any government. If it is strong and talented, even the political executive of the day can respond positively. Given that Modi relies heavily on bureaucrats to run the government, he should accord priority to bureaucratic reform.