NO LONGER A SURPRISE - A system is in trouble if conditioning in the field results in dishonesty

Read more below

  • Published 14.04.03

The author is former secretary, ministry of information and broadcasting.

The kind of administrative system that we — or any country — will have can well be taken from a system worked out in other parts of the world, but, over time, the system will evolve its own distinctive identity. This identity will inevitably reflect the nature of the society in which it works.

We inherited the Indian Civil Service, the ICS; in its time it was imbued with an awe and respect perhaps a little out of proportion to its actual nature, but it was a formidable system of administration, its some one thousand members ruling an empire of over three hundred million people. True, it had a police force under another imperial service, the Indian Police, or IP, as it was called, but their numbers, again, were far too small to have ever been able to overwhelm the huge number of Indians they policed.

There was the great struggle for freedom which tested the administrative system, and though it occasionally bent under the pressures it ultimately held together. Freedom came, let it be said clearly, not because of the numbers of Indians, but the dogged, fierce determination of the leaders of the movement, a determination which made it plain to the rulers that they would not be able to make it falter, far less break it.

But to get back to the subject. The ICS was a system that was devised elsewhere, probably on a model of the Napoleonic system still in use in France; it was adapted for use in the Indian empire, and was retained when India became independent, though not without argument. Govind Ballabh Pant in Uttar Pradesh and Malik Kizr Hayat Khan Tiwana in Punjab argued for greater provincial control over the services but Vallabhbhai Patel stood firm in retaining it as a service to be under the final control of the Centre. “The Union will go,” he said, “you will not have a united India if you have not a good all-India service which has a sense of security. If you do not adopt this course then do not follow the present Constitution…”

So the system stayed. But Patel, in his wisdom, actually overlooked the social roots of the system of administration. In his book, The Mind Of The Indian Civil Service, Clive Dewey defines these. “The single most important factor,” he writes, “dragging decision-taking down the official hierarchy, was the difficulty of understanding India. It was so alien, so diverse, so immense...The Secretary of State’s staff consisted of a handful of clerks (who had never seen India) and a council of old India hands (working part time). British politicians saw no need for elaborate mechanisms of control. They were excited by the Russian threat to Afghanistan, by obstacles to British exports, by constitutional reforms, but took no interest in the government of India’s activities. The annual debate on the Indian budget emptied the House of Commons...The ICS filled the void. Their monopoly of information meant they could skew it in any way they chose. They took up issues that mattered to them; they tailored their reports to their recommendation...Like most professions, they sat in judgement on themselves.”

This was obviously not going to work in an independent country where the government was directly concerned with the processes of governance, and after a period when there were several skirmishes — urbane, polite and very civilized for the most part — between the political rulers and the ICS officers then in the seniormost positions, the definitions began to alter.

With that, the nature of the civil service began to change, and as time passed, and the hold of the political classes became not only vice-like but reached to every aspect and vestige of governmental activity, the service was in a real sense born again. Over time, of course. But it very definitely has been.

This is precisely what we began with — that a particular society forms the kind of administrative system it needs. The inherited system remains, technically speaking, but it has developed — if that is the word — attributes peculiarly its own, and very frighteningly familiar. The first of the two major attributes is the widespread dishonesty and criminal tendencies that almost routinely make news.

They make news because they concern persons in high positions, but that kind of news has ceased to surprise. There is a story, possibly apocryphal, of a woman IAS officer of a certain state being raided and a few crores recovered from her house. She is supposed to have told the Central Bureau of Intelligence officers indignantly to go and see what her boss had before they came to her. But, she is supposed to have commented bitterly, it’s always the smaller ones who get caught.

This is not funny at all. It’s tragic. From the high ideals which officers were supposed to start with to come to this level within a matter of a few years speaks of a more intense and vicious kind of conditioning in the field than can ever be possible in a training institution. And it is conditioning in the field. It is absurd to think that young recruits come to a service adept at the manner in which he or she can make money dishonestly. This is not to say there aren’t honest officers; there certainly are, and they are there in fairly large numbers. It’s just that the numbers of the dishonest are beginning to grow, and the prospects are not good.

The second attribute that has become more and more noticeable is in fact far more widespread and insidious. This is not dishonesty as such, though there might be some mixed up in it. It is the art of becoming courtiers, of developing and using the arts of flattery and servility, and more than this, the seemingly harmless quality of being pliable, of quietly acquiescing in what may be a decision which is not totally clean. Worse still, of applying one’s skill to making a patently unclean decision look clean, or cloak it with conditions and qualities which conceal its basic nature.

Land deals, to take an example. Lately Subhash Sharma, a senior IAS officer, the vice-chairman of the Delhi Development Authority, was arrested for having amassed certain sums of money. But how many of these deals were actually done for his own benefit, and how many were to accommodate a political master? And is Sharma the only one of his kind? Leave his personal honesty or dishonesty alone for a moment; what about the pliability that he obviously had and which many many officers IAS officers throughout the country, in the states and in the Centre, have?

These attributes are our very own, but we recognize them for what they are; unhealthy and dangerous. Everyone agrees they need to be removed but precisely what is being done to do so? It is time the matter was studied by some good men, tried and trusted men, and by enlightened political rulers — there are still some, I’m sure — starting with the process of recruitment. If a person can be conditioned into becoming evil, can the reverse, for example, work? Someone has to think questions like this — seemingly ridiculous questions — through and come up with answers that need to be tried.

Success may not be instant, and many new methods may not work. But a continuous effort has to be made, if the country is to stay healthy, and function reasonably well.