Monday 14 November 2011

India’s rubber civil frame (Sunday Guardian)


Jawaharlal Nehru changed the Indian Civil Service (ICS) to Indian Administrative Service (IAS); that, to him, seemed momentous.
The Indian Civil Service was commonly regarded at the time as a triple misnomer, being neither Indian nor civil nor even remotely a service. Whatever the factual position, the ICS considered itself the "steel frame" supporting the British Raj. It is uncontestable that for several generations, first the agents of the John Company and later Her (or His) Majesty's loyal servants in the Government of India ensured that the flow of treasure to the UK continued, undisturbed by the growing poverty and pain within the country. One of the most signal achievements of the ICS and its masters in Whitehall was to leave behind a country that had one of the lowest literacy rates and life expectancies in the world. Of course, such a record did not stop Jawaharlal Nehru from continuing in office as many members of the service as could be persuaded to remain in harness rather than migrate to the Mother Country.
However, Nehru did make a change that to him seemed momentous, the nomenclature. The ICS became the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), which — together with the IPS, the IFS, the IRS, the IA&AS and sundry other formations — has formed a new steel frame, this one designed to buttress the powers and privileges of the successors to Whitehall, the political leadership of the administrative machinery of the state. It is a task in which they have, unfortunately, been very successful. Since 1947, political dynasties in India have zoomed to the top of the economic ladder, despite having no obvious qualifications except their genetic makeup. As Papa (and Mama) knew that the source of the wealth that the family enjoyed with such abandon came from access to the discretionary powers of the state, both were keen that their offspring should continue to amass fortunes that would in a day's collection feed thousands of families for a month. The best feature of politics is that so little time need be spent in the country. Much of the year can be spent in exotic locales with interesting people, all without attracting the attention of the Income-Tax or the Enforcement Directorate (which was anyway neutered by the understanding A.B. Vajpayee by being divested of almost all its punitive powers).
And in this lies the truth behind the so-called "Steel Frame". Since the latter half of the 1950s, civil servants in India have increasingly adapted to the needs of their political masters and facilitated them, despite the fact that in the process, the people of India were being short-changed. So flexible have the spines of so many gallant administrators become that they can now — with justice — refer to themselves as the Rubber Frame. In the process of enriching politicians as they subvert the public good for individual interest, several members of the numerous administrative cadres have themselves become wealthy, able to build mansions to retire in and send their children to the most expensive education providers in the world, again of course without a peep from agencies that are presumed to look into such egregious mismatches between income and outlay. Every now and then, television screens fill with images of some officer or the other being discovered to have assets worth several thousand times his known sources of income. Were that such people be the exception. In many parts of the country, and in several corners of each service, they are becoming the rule.
Indeed, so deep has the canker reached that an "honest" police officer such as Kiran Bedi (who is apparently spending much of her day battling graft) does not consider it even moderately unseemly to double charge on travel expenses or overcharge on them. Her conduct is reminiscent of the scenario painted by Chief Minister Devaraj Urs to this columnist in 1978. "If somebody just steals 50% of what is given to him to carry out a particular task, then I define him as honest," a weary Urs said. "A crook would steal 90%." Clearly, given the disproportion between government expenditure and public good, there are far more "crooks" within the system than "honest" persons, even if one uses the standard mentioned by Urs. These days, elements of the political class have teamed up with a section of the administrative cadres to enter into private business, usually in units that are inefficient and need to be eliminated if a healthy churn is to take place. But because they are loath to see their enterprises affected, these policymakers keep efficient units from competing with them, by misuse of state power through unjust recourse to the hundreds of thousands of regulations that Nehruvian India has spawned.
Will there ever be a change? Certainly within the civil service there are individuals of outstanding integrity. In the 1950s, the redoubtable ICS officer A.D. Gorwala challenged the statist policies of his Prime Minister, pointing to the harm that these would do to national interest. His bluntness led to an early retirement and to a new avatar as a columnist for a prominent newspaper, which too was persuaded by the powers that were (all great democrats, of course) to stop the column aptly signed "Vivek" that Gorwala used to write. We have Arun Bhatia at Pune and E.A.S. Sarma in Hyderabad, two of many dozens of officers who have refused to accept Business as Usual. However, usually it is not the Bhatias and the Sarmas who thrive in the services, but those with a rubber spine and an absent conscience.
lthough pliant civil servants claim that they have no option "but to follow orders", the reality is that this has never been the case. Had they stood firm — on record — a multitude of ills could have been avoided. The Indian politician may have a lot of bluster accompanying his words and gestures, but deeper down he or she is still nervous about being held to account. Only the immunity from any accountability that was provided by pliant officers (for example in the CBI) has led to the exponential increase in corruption that we are now enduring. Ladies and gentlemen of the IAS, the IPS and other services, now is the time to show that the rest of the country can feel pride rather than contempt for you.

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