Fall from grace

From archangels to archfiends - the reputation of IAS officers has certainly nosedived. Anil Agarwal, director, Centre for Science and Environment, and N C Saxena, director, Lai Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussorie, share their views

 
Last Updated: Sunday 28 June 2015

-- ANIL AGARWAL: I was very impressed when I read your paper Reforms for the Indian Administrative Service. You have been quite critical of the IAS, although you too belong to it. But I was struck by one omission in your paper. You have been deeply interested in natural resource management issues where the IAS plays a very important role. Your paper is silent about that. What particular issues would concern you with respect to the IAS and its role in the areas of resource management?

N C SAXENA: in the -last 10 or 15 years the forest department (FD) has been severely criticised for not managing forest resources well. The charges are that they do not understand people or that their mindset is still colonial. But after all resources like groundwater village lands and tanks are outside the control of the FD. The truth is that these resources are much more degraded than government forests.Even with respect to forests the top policy positions are held by the IAS. Therefore the IAS cannot absolve itself from the responsibility of mismanaging the country's natural resources.

The IAS has generally been indifferent to the resources that sustain the livelihood of the poor. This is reflected in the way IAS officers grade their jobs. Industrial and commercial departments and corporation posts are highly sought after. Next are posts having a lot of patronage and influence like a district charge the departments of home' establishment and finance. The lowest ranked jobs are tribal and social welfare revenue administrationl and reforms urban slums and rural development. Usually an errant officer is posted to a tribal district or other backward areas as punishment. Ultimately it is the adivasis and backward people who bear the brunt of bureaucratic whims.

Even when some 1AS officers have taken interest in providing credit tubewells and fertilisers to small farmers, resources in the nature of open access have eluded their attention. Thisis because poverty in India is generally linked to lack of privatelandor its low productivity. Gatherings from common lands and tanks although a source of sustenance to the poor is not considered a worthwhile economic activity. Secondly both the land distribution policy of the '70s and social forestry of the '80s seem to have been influenced by Hardin's ideas that there are only these sustainable policies. Either the commons should be privatised or they should be controlled by a coercive authority. But despite overwhelming evidence of peoples' ability to manage common resources collectively community resource management is not treated as a viable reality.

Lastly, natural resource management is a new and growingdiscipline. How many IAS officers take the trouble of keeping themselves abreast of the literature on this subject? It is joked that in an 1AS officer's house one finds only three kinds of books - railway time table because he is always traveling a film magazine the only book he reads and of course the civil list which describes his seniority within the service. It is only when the best administrators reach the Centre that they familiarise themselves with environmentalists and academicians and attend developmental workshops.

ANIL AGARWAL: What is true for the states will be equally true for the districts, I guess.

N C SAXENA: It is worse in the districts. The average tenure in the field today is now very short. In Uttar Pradesh it has comedown to about three months. Naturally in three months you cannot learn your job and perform satisfactorily. As a police officer once said if we are posted for haftashafta (weekly bribes from police stations)!

With every quick change in the head of the office down the line the respect for authority is whittled away. Rapid changes erode the department's mandate. There are two other consequences. The incumbent himself is not sure of how long he will stay which affects his capacity to master the situation and change things and improve them. Therefore changes which may have been initiated by his predecessor are either disregarded or thought of as being disruptions.

Secondly there are even more deleterious consequences fined up. Other staff in the organisation do riot extend their Commitment so necessary for changes to be institutionalised. Their assessment is that everything new being temporary represent the foibles or prejudices (at worst) of the incumbent to be sent packing immediately on the departure of the officer. Instability of tenures leads thus not only to a lack of sense of involvement but also to the inability to contribute effectively to ameliorate the system.

anil agarwal: Here is a very strong statement in your paper:Whatever little virtue the IAS possessed - integrity, political neutrality, courage and high morals - are showing signs of decay. Unfortunately, many IAS officers are accepting a diminished role for themselves by becoming agents of exploitation in a state structure which now resembles the one in the medieval period - authoritarian, brutal, directionless and callous to the needs of the poor. In the process, they would become totally indistinguishable from other rent seeking parasites - politicians, inspectors and babus. Stagnation in their intellectual capabilities and a decline in self-esteem will further demoralise them. Disillusionment and corruption ire thus likely to coexist in the us for quite sometime to come. From what you just said do you re-emphasise this?

N C SAXENA: Yes. It must be admitted that the civil services is passing through a grave identity crisis and a problem of role definition. At the district block and the cutting edge levels the lower level functionaries are thought to be an organised band of exploiters. In the not so recent past IAS officers were looked upon by the people as their uncorrupt saviours from the tyranny of all lower level functionaries.

.But of late the distinction seems to have been buried if not totally eliminated. A recent survey has elicited startling responses from -a substantial section Of Us aspirants. According to the respondents one of the prime motivating factors for joining the IAS is the ample opportunity of making money! Even if this perception is incorrect or exaggerated the very fact that it exists should cause worry and concern.

Gradually the civil service has become too big costly and slow and has failed to put its own house in order (judged by a large number of writs and cases filed by government servant son issues of seniority and promotions). The majority of the officers in the district and the state governments even if they are clean are like parasites... I mean they are taking too much from the system and contributing too little.

Even after five years of liberalization and given the factthat states have to compete with each other for attracting private and foreign capital the general impression of industrialists is that bureaucracy is tangled entirely in red tape and that bureaucrats cannot take any simple innovative decision.

Also there is greater integration now both socially and in terms of group objectives between IAS members and politicians. Many civil servants are involved in partisan politics. This is unfortunate because a model in which politicians are casteist, corrupt and harbourers of criminals whereas civil servants are efficient responsive and behave as change-agents is not viable. In the long run administrative and political values coincide. The Indian state has thus become an open treasury- to be looted by both the politicians and the bureaucracy.

anil agarwal: But what can be done about this?

N C saXENA: It is sometimes argued that the IAS is very closely associated with politics and unless you reform the political environment there can be no long-lasting change. However it is a typical commons problem so well analysed by Hardin.

Any politician who does not hobnob with the mafia orcollect donations from the business sector is likely to be a loser. So there is hiatus. between individual rationality and group rationality - concluded Hardin by analysing the phenomenon of graziers increasing their individual herd and thereby degrading the commons.

There in lies the tragedy - every One is locked into a system compelled to increase the herd limitlessly in a limited world. Hardin then suggested that a solution to this impasse cannot emerge form within the system - it has to originate from an external coercive authority.

Although Hardin's thesis has been criticised for not considering the possibility of consensus emerging from within say the herders, I believe that politicians and civil servants on their own would not be able to initiate radical reforms. Luckily today the arbitrary powers of the licence and permit raj are facing flak. And a group is emerging in our society which is not dependent on the government and therefore ecancriticise it strongly. These groups will become more assertive and pursue cases in the newspapers, indepent TV channels and courts thereby increasing pressure on the IAS.

Secondly the involvement of international donor agencies in development schemes has spiralled in 'sectors like health primary education and forests. On the one hand it means loss of sovereignty through increasing dependence on foreign finds, but on it has some positive aspects too, as such donors would demand greater professionalism and better results. Already a handful of officers are seeking broader horizons in the international arena.

These two forces have created an environment which is quite conducive to radical reforms which I have described in the second part of my paper. These will result in greater accountability more transparency longer tenure open evaluation and stricter performance norms slimmer bureaucracy and drastic reduction in bureaucratic power and direction. The best way to speed them up is to discuss them continuously in different fora to create a favourable climate.

ANIL AGARWAL: Is this also one of the key reasons why you have often expressed another concern that though something may have happened at management levels in big industry yet very little has percolated to resource management at the government level? And this despite the government' sassurance to decentralise power and liberalise the system. But how to change the system and the minds that work at it?

N C SAXENA: You have hit the nail on the head when you say that the IAS needs to learn a great deal from the management culture and also de-regulate fast. It will be interesting to compare the work culture of young 1AS officers with those from the Indian Institutes of Management. Both are from the same social and educational back ground and- enter their reprieve organisation at senior positions while very young while their colleagues and subordinates are much older.

The young manager has to establish himself by proving his effectiveness and utility to the organisation by generating more sales or showing greater savings. The young administrator, on the other hand relies more on acquiring traditional and distinguishing ascriptive traits like alooffiess, greater use of English calling on seniors and trying to achieve social integration with them and at the same time enforcing symbols of subordination on others.

In other words the latter tries to prove that he belongs toan exclusive club. The fact that he has shorter tenures injunior positions helps to hide his mediocrity. To correct this one should start by retiring 25-50 per cent of the officers at the age of 50-35 as they do in the Army, so that the IAS deadwood is eliminated.

De-regulation has made almost no impact at the state level. The systems of buying and selling land getting a ration card or your security backand rent control acts - all need a thorough revision. One can set up an industry worth billions in India without any licence but the farmer can neither set upa brick kiln unit nor a rice shelling plant nor a cold storage- and not even cut a tree standing on his own private field without bribing officials.

A simple operation of converting prosopis (a shrub found abundantly in Gujarat and Tamil 'Nadu) into charcoal - an employment generating activity - requires four different permissions: one to cut the tree the other to transport it the third to sit up the kiln which costs only a few thousands and the fourth one to transport charcoal!

A committee should identify specific laws and rules that hamper rural entrepreneurship. Areas in which the government must withdraw should be reviewed and departments which need to be wound up should be defined. I will also encourage officers to take mid-carrer sabbatical and live-in the rural areas to see for themselves how the various organs of administrations exploit the people.

ANIL AGARWAL: These are some interesting points. After all the IAS roots go back to the colonial period where the purpose of the service was to primarily help the foreign power. Today the role has completely changed to handling development management taking sensitive decisions. But the majority within the service just go through various postings without much contribution. You gradually gain seniority and you say, as the secretary of industries may have done nothing in developing a single industry and yet be more powerful than chairpersons of most Indian corporations.

Therefore performance monitoring of promotions is very important. Why cannot all the jobs above the joint secretary level be made available through a competitive exam? I can give reasons why this will be much better: a) you will bring people from broader backgrounds - from the NGO sector academicians from the scientific and the managerial professions so that you get some experts who although unaware of administrative details could learn gradually; b) this can also break the politician-bureaucrat nexus; c) it will provide a broader range and exposure to that position.

Take water resources. The water resources secretary is normally a civil engineer. So water resources management in India has become totally dominated by civil engineers which is a tremendous loss because it is not just civil engineering, but hundreds of other things.

Similarly, I had great respect for T N Seshan who built up the ministry of environment and forests (MEF); but again the WF is just into law and administration whereas it involves a lot of science, economics and other things. If different people came to the same job at different points of time they would add new dimension to the institution.

To me it seems the best way also to bring in specialization in the IAS. After some time you will see great changes taking place: people interested in poverty alleviation will come to the government with a different attitude. How do you respond to that? How do you think the IAS would react?

N C SAXENA: I agree with you. All senior government positions should be open to all to permit lateral entry from NGOs professional institutions/experts or various levels to create fresh outlook. However an examination may not be the best way to attract talent and the best experts may not even appear in an examination. There could be a high level constitutional body represented by the Supreme Court and the Union Public Service Commission which should recommend the appointees' names to the Prime Minister.

But the IAS is not going to like this suggestions it would perceive this as a threat to its monopoly. Therefore the way to increase the acceptability of this suggestion would be to encourage specialisation and decrease the powers of the government through de-regulation.

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