Whether one likes it or not, the Indian Administrative Service continues to be the overarching framework of the country's administration. From running sub-divisions and districts to the administration of Union and State Government Ministries, research, commercial and industrial undertakings — and even fashion designing schools — its members man the commanding heights of governance. It is no longer what it used to be in the first two or even three decades after independence. There was a time when a dishonest IAS officer was a rarity shunned and talked about disparagingly by his colleagues. Not so now. According to a senior IAS officer, known for his integrity and competence, only 30 per cent of its members can now be regarded as honest with any measure of certainty. Of the rest, most bend rules to feather their nests in moderation while a minority resorts to downright plunder.
The power that IAS officers enjoy is a major factor. Lord Acton's saying that all power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely, holds good nearly a century-and-half later. But then the predecessors of IAS officers in the Indian Civil Service, which in turn was a reincarnation of the Covenanted Civil Service of the East India Company, enjoyed much greater power. As with the case of IAS officers earlier, dishonesty was very, very rare. Of course, corruption hitched to pelf is only one form of crime fuelled by power, which also feeds arrogance and omniscience, both of which can play havoc with administration by creating a hiatus between the people and the system, which comes to run not for the welfare of the former but pandering to the ego of administrators. The combination of corruption, arrogance and omniscience can be disastrous. Not so long ago, this writer witnessed an arrogant, uncivil, and perhaps corrupt, Joint Secretary to the Government of India severely impairing the implementation of official policies in tandem with a slippery, perverse, and also possibly dishonest, Director from one of the Central services.
Power is exercised not in a vacuum but in a wider social, political and economic context which impacts on the process. These have undergone radical transformation since Independence. Enhancement of the maximum age of recruitment from 24 years earlier (in a 21-24 age bracket) has brought in people aware that they would retire before rising to the coveted positions of Secretaries to the Government of India or their equivalent. This, in a climate of growing permissiveness, breeds a tendency to make hay while the sun shines. Besides, appointment as heads of public sector undertakings or in posts dealing with organisations of industry and commerce, have exposed IAS officers to milieux with rather elastic rules of behaviour. And of course the advent of the market economy with advertising as its cutting edge, which makes the enjoyment of ever rising levels of consumption and the possession of expensive branded goods, the sole criterion of individual worth, has added fuel to fire. Not surprisingly, a small but growing section of IAS officers seems to have been deeply impressed by Deng Xiaoping's slogan, "It is glorious to be rich."
Politics, of course, explains much. In the initial years after independence, leaders — except the stalwarts at the Centre and in the States — were unsure of themselves and deferred to the wisdom of the members of the ICS and the fledgling IAS. Soon, a process of change began. As Bhaskar Ghose points out in his extremely well-written and prescient work, The Service of the State: The IAS Reconsidered, "With the years, however, as the first general election was followed by another, and then another, political leaders began to realise that they were the rulers, much as the British were, and the civil service was there to carry out their instructions and give shape to their ideas and policies. While it gave some — not all — leaders a sense of responsibility, it also meant that the civil services, notably the IAS, had to shift ground, to step back; it meant that they had to reinvent themselves as a service."
Mr Ghose believes that the IAS did make the transition but "in a messy sort of way" and not successfully. He adds, "One of the reasons behind this disorganised and rough transition was simply that there was no one to guide the often-bewildered young IAS officer through the process of transition and adjustment." He cites the case of Probir Sen, a Madhya Pradesh cadre IAS officer with an unblemished record, who was among those who had to fend for themselves. Sen said that as a probationer, his training did not communicate to him "any central ethic of what the service is about," and added, "My idea of what a good officer should be came largely through my reading and watching some of the ICS officers."
Ghose should know, being a distinguished former member of the IAS, respected for his integrity, competence, and capacity to take a principled stand at personal cost. The failure in the initial years of transition to impart a collective vision and code of personal and administrative conduct to members of the service, largely explains its uneven evolution where it is increasingly coming to each being for each and the devil taking the hindmost. It is, of course, easy to blame the seniors who should have laid the foundations of institutional guidance. But they themselves were severely extended to cope with the mind-boggling challenges of the massive communal violence that preceded and followed partition and independence, peasant uprisings, countrywide general elections on the basis of adult franchise, development and a multiplicity of new tasks that opened up to take them over unexplored territory.
The decline in the level of political leadership and the growing criminalisation of politics that began gathering momentum from the 1980s, have further aggravated matters. There is no magic wand to change things. Like its Government, a country deserves the civil service it gets. Besides, the IAS still serves a useful purpose. It still has excellent officers who would do any bureaucracy in the world proud. The task before the public is to single out such officers, strengthen their hands and stand by them in their hours of trial. Should this happen, many officers who now acquiesce to the present drift believing that things would not change, would try to make a difference.