Every year, lakhs of youth appear for the Civil Services Examination conducted by the Union Public Service Commission for recruitment to one of the most coveted services of the Government of India — Indian Administrative Service (IAS). Few hundreds of them, supposed to be among the country’s brightest students, qualify for the tough competition and the results make national headlines.
The reaction of each successful candidate to reporters’ queries is more or less the same: “I want to serve the country. I want to work for the development of the common people, especially those on the margins.”
In all probability, the response of senior Jharkhand cadre IAS officer Pooja Singhal would not have been different when she cracked the examination in 2000. Twenty-two years later — 6 May 2022 to be precise — the Enforcement Directorate raided multiple premises of Singhal, who is the mining secretary of the state, and seized over Rs 19 crore in cash.
Apparently, Singhal’s is not a standalone case of corruption among top government officials. In 2010, raids by Income-Tax department officials on an IAS couple, Arvind Joshi and Tinu Joshi, belonging to Madhya Pradesh cadre, had unearthed properties worth a whopping Rs 360 crore. But such raids are few and far in between.
We inherited the civil services from the British. Our first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was full of hope that the services would contribute in a big way towards building the nascent nation brick by brick. He described the civil services as the “steel frame” of Independent India.
Over the decades, however, rust seems to have developed around the steel frame. Decisions made due to corruption at the top level have damaged the economy and adversely affected the common people at large. We often hear from sources how many officers in charge of districts as collectors or departments as secretaries issued licences or no objection certificates (NOCs) to projects after being paid astronomical amounts as bribes.
Undoubtedly, an obvious nexus exists between the bureaucracy and political persons in power in irregularities done and spoils shared. But there is a difference: Politicians face elections every five years and get punished for their wrong doings; bureaucrats continue it for an uninterrupted three decades.
However, while we often come across news about lesser state government officials getting “caught red handed” by vigilance department, we do not often hear the same about top all India cadre officers. That is because state vigilance departments go through a complex process to probe allegations of corruption against officers of IAS, Indian Police Service and Indian Forest Service because of certain bureaucratic immunity.
On the other hand, central government agencies like the Income-Tax department, ED and Central Bureau of Investigation do not come calling often; probably affinity and camaraderie among all India officers might be coming in the way of fair investigation.
In his book “Vikalpahin Nahin Hai Ye Duniya” (The world is not without alternatives), noted socialist thinker Kishen Pattnayak wondered how India’s best talents that join the IAS become inefficient, arrogant and corrupt over the years; there must be something rotting in its structure, he notes.
Indeed, there have been concerns over the downward spiral of the IAS into inefficiency and corruption. Many experts think it should be dismantled because one cannot be an expert of every field — be it revenue, development, health, agriculture, industry and so on — just by clearing an exam in the mid-twenties. Some have also advocated the lateral entry of experts of specific fields into the government at mid and top levels as an alternative for better governance.
In his recent interviews, election strategist Prashant Kishor said that it was Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s idea of introducing experts from diverse fields into different government departments that drew him closer to the former before the 2014 elections. He claims that as Modi did not show much interest in it after becoming the Prime Minister, they parted ways.
Kishor is still a strong advocate of lateral entry into the government. To buttress his argument, he says that all the revolutionary and game changing things that happened in India are due to the efforts of experts from specific fields and not bureaucrats — atomic energy due to Homi J. Bhabha, Green Revolution due to M.S. Swaminathan, Operation Flood due to Verghese Kurien and computer revolution due to Sam Pithroda.
He certainly has a solid point.
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