Indian Administrative Service (IAS) is considered the most prestigious of all the civil services in India. It is also the most sought-after service out of the 25 services for which the Indian Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) recruits every year. The attraction towards this service, which is one of the three All India Services, is justified because the service entails many social and economic perks along with the enormous responsibilities. However, only a micro fraction (less than 0.1%) of the candidates that appear for the exam are able to become IAS officers and rest (of the selected candidates) end up in other services. This is where the real problem starts. In what follows, I discuss how the IAS completely dominates the Civil Services in India.
The first posting of an IAS is at the district level in their allotted state cadres as the District Magistrate (DM) holding the rank of Under Secretaries to the Government of India. As DMs, they are practically responsible for every administrative decision in the district. Be it pensions, land-related issues or any other schemes implemented by the state governments, the files are put up and routed through the DM. They are also chairpersons for 70-100 (the precise number varies across the states) odd committees at the district level. It is worth noting that even as the Indian Police Service officers, who also constitute the All India Services, are posted as Superintendent of Police at the district level, so the IAS officers are technically their bosses.
It comes as no surprise to learn that the IPS has to report to the IAS at the district level (and, of course, at other levels too). After their stint as DMs, they go on to get promoted to high-level ranks in the government becoming Joint Secretaries, Additional Secretaries and then eventually Secretaries to the Government of India. According to a petition submitted by Group ‘A’ officers to the 7th Pay Commission, which is an administrative system/mechanism that the government of India set up in 1956 to determine the salaries of government employees, 75% of all the Joint Secretaries, 85% of all Additional Secretaries and Secretaries are IAS officers. Of the 88 Secretaries in various ministries as of February 3, 2020, 69 are from the IAS only, 10 are scientists, 4 are from the IFS (Indian Foreign Service), 2 are from the ILS (Indian Legal Service) and one of each is from the IPS and IPoS (Indian Postal Service).
One never finds an officer from Indian Revenue Service heading the Ministry of Finance; an officer from Indian Economic Service becoming the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India; an Indian Information Service officer heading the Department of Information and Broadcasting; an officer from the IA&AS (Indian Audit and Accounts Service) becoming the Comptroller and Auditor General of India or, for that matter, an IPS heading the Ministry of Home Affairs. Why is this happening? There seem to be some strong reasons for this. One of the main reasons is that the empanelling and selection authorities, the Department of Personnel Affairs is entirely manned by IAS officers. IAS officers get promoted faster than any other service officer and generally there is a 2 year gap between the promotion of an IAS and a non-IAS officer.
The second reason dates back to pre-independent India. The British had in place an institutional arrangement called the Indian Civil Services, to which only the British were recruited (barring few exceptions). The ICS was solely responsible for land administration, collection of taxes and maintaining law and order in the allotted jurisdiction. ICS officers had absolute power in their jurisdiction and controlled almost everything in the country. They completely dominated in every aspect. After independence, however, the ICS was renamed as IAS and was continued as is, with not much reform taking place. The powers that the ICS had were almost completely transferred to the IAS.
Thirdly, historically, politicians preferred the IAS over other services because of ‘merit.’ There are only a limited number of posts for every service each year as notified by the UPSC, the body responsible for recruiting the civil servants. The selected candidates, though given a preference, are allotted the particular posts in the order of their ranking in the Civil Services Examination (CSE). Conventionally, the order of allotment would start from the IAS and consequently, this perception was developed that the IAS officers are the most ‘brilliant of the minds’ in the country. It is forgotten that brilliance at academics (or one single test) cannot be a parameter to judge the efficiency of a person. Unfortunately, there is hardly any component or test for the problem-solving or efficiency of a person in the CSE.
The term ‘administration’ is too vague and the service is too generalist and the IAS officers are not specialists in one domain. Note also that the candidates selected for the IAS are from different backgrounds. It is not fair that an IAS with an engineering degree is placed in charge of the environment ministry. It is not fair to say that an IPS officer who has dedicated his life to the service cannot handle the duties of the Ministry of Home Affairs. While not discrediting the service or the members that are a part thereof, it needs to be pointed out that not all officers from such diverse backgrounds can understand clearly the intricacies of, say, economic policy and thus, cannot be put in charge of formulating such policy. This is the root of the problem that is vehemently demanding for some action to be taken and reform to be brought in.
Understanding what the problem is, now let us look at what could be some potential solutions to this problem. First is the restriction, if not abolition, of the archaic Administrative Service for appointment of officers for general administration at the district level and for heading the Public Sector Units. Second, the subject domain should be taken as a criterion, not just the ‘experience’ of the IAS officers, while promoting the officers to the Secretary level and appointing them in ministries. The current government has brought in an initiative for the recruitment of experts through lateral entry into various levels of the governments. This is, however, a bad move considering that there are officers from various civil services with the same kind of experience. Their services should be used, instead of recruiting new people. Finally, the structure of the CSE should be reformed to include criteria that test the efficiency and problem-solving skills of a person in place of the existing lengthy descriptive papers. The weightage of the interview should be increased in the overall score of a person. The dominance of the IAS is neither good nor desirable for the country, economically and socially. Reform has to happen and it has to happen very fast.
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