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Civil Services: ENEMIES WITHIN & WITHOUT, by Dharmendra Nath (Retd. IAS), 14 June 2010 Print E-mail

Open Forum

New Delhi, 14 June 2010

Civil Services


By Dharmendra Nath (Retd. IAS)



Civil services have always been at the cross-roads, the link between the rulers and the ruled and even the others. However, in the midst of fast social, political and economic developments their role has attracted fresh attention as much depends on their own health.


From outside all looks well. In a predominantly poverty-ridden society the civil services are economically well-off and they command prestige in the society at large. Their activities are watched. They have a key role in the direction and execution of public policy. Yet the satisfaction-index of the services is falling. That affects their morale and finally their performance. What has happened over the years that has led to this situation? We notice changes in the work environment as also in the make-up of the services.


First, the internal changes. The idealism of the post-independence period is somehow largely missing. That was a simpler age; people, including services were satisfied with less. That has gradually given way to a search for more money, position and privilege. Faster the better. People are not satisfied with modest facilities. They want it big. Not the Circuit House but something flashy. Has it got something to do with the changing social values? How to ward it off?


Irrespective of the control systems civil services respect and strive for what the society respects and strives for. That creates a race in the wrong direction. How do we insulate services from the broader social influences? There is no easy answer.


Secondly, among the civil servants there is an increasing desire to be close to the centres of power. A lot of them want to be not where important work is but where important power is. More of the energy of the services thus goes into manipulation of the levers of power – including backbiting - to secure the desired position than in doing actual work which their raison-de-entre.


That leads to a warped thinking. For many in the services, their concern is more with how an action is going to affect the power source rather than the affected people. The idea is to hold on to one’s precious position or to improve it. Work performance becomes secondary and is seen only as a ladder to something else. What reorientation can curb this tendency? Again, no easy answer.


Let us turn to external factors. Work environment is changing. Ministers today are more concerned with individual cases than with public policy, unless the policy obliges some money source. Not just this. They keep track of all sales, purchases and vacancies under their charge so as not to miss any opportunity of intervention.


It is the job of politicians to run the Government but when individual cases are influenced it becomes political interference. Discretion is not exercised by the person in whom it is vested. It stands highjacked.


Self-restraint today is an almost forgotten virtue. Failing that what else is going to stop it? Whatever theory may say the civil servant is not in a position to resist it beyond a point and that results in frustration in a large number of right-minded civil servants. It will not be an exaggeration to say that political interference constitutes the biggest threat to good administration today. It creates resentment and a temporary feeling of revolt in the mind of the civil servant. He says what the heck? If I am not going to enforce the law in these cases, why should I enforce it in other cases? What then happens to the rule of law, by which all of us swear?             


Arbitrary postings and transfers reflect another change in environment. Their frequency too has increased vastly except in case of those who manage to avoid them. Not every one can or will like to do that.  The day you are considered inconvenient you are posted out. Fall in line or be posted out. Should one take the easy route and fall in line?


It is very well to say that one should take transfers in one’s stride, but they entail inconvenience and disruption of children’s education etc besides causing loss of face. Loss of face is not a minor matter nor can it be swept away on the specious plea that transfers are a given condition of service.


In every set up, one is seen against the backdrop of one’s peers. Moreover, in hierarchical services loss of face is an even more important consideration as it affects the overall discipline. Even otherwise, to how many people could one explain the position? Why does it not happen to the others? How to explain to your own children? It clearly affects the morale of the services and a vindictive frequency is obvious harassment very likely to dilute the quality of service.


Weak subordinates are another external problem services have to contend with. If the support structure is weak one would not be able to deliver as much. Here one may turn around and say that the subordinates are your own appointees. But that is not the whole story. Political patronage and corruption have already played a role there. You are faced with a fait accompli.


The controversies in which our State Public Service Commissions are mired and the fate of Subordinate Service Commissions in a large number of States tell its own sad tale. Leave out the UPSC – let us keep our fingers crossed – the state of public service recruitment leaves a whole lot to be desired. But the matter does not end there. Despite their indifferent quality even these institutions are outright bypassed in the name of making contingency appointments which are totally discretionary. That gives unhindered play to arbitrariness in appointments. Whoever can?


Contingency appointments are essentially meant to be short period appointments to tide over a temporary situation but in the Government they go on and on till their numbers achieve a critical mass and then on the strength of agitations etc they attain a back door entry into permanent service. So you have a whole lot of people in the Government who have not made it there on the basis of competitive merit – who do not deserve to be there - but on other considerations. Services will have to strain that much more to compensate for their handicap. That works to the detriment of the services and discourages them.


All these factors are a part of the civil service set up today and for the average member of the civil service they make it more of a challenge to be accepted in the spirit of humility than a privilege. Thanks to article 311 of the Constitution, which spells out the conditions of service,  it is possible for the right-minded to survive with honour, yet.---INFA


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

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