Sunday 25 October 2015

Remove India’s Central Services caste system (Sunday Guardian)

Rather than a plethora of services, there ought to be a single service, a National Public Service.
Caste by birth was an innovation that had no place in the traditional concept of different types of duties, which was based entirely on aptitude and work rather than on bloodline and family. Although much has been done to free society of this evil, as yet remnants remain, and few stronger than what is prevalent in the Central government’s administrative machinery. 15 August 1947 ought to have resulted in a comprehensive change in the mode of government followed in India, but this detail seems to have escaped those who assumed charge of governance once the Union Jack was lowered from what till then had been the Viceregal Palace. Despite his international fame as a tribune of democracy, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was not merely comfortable occupying the less than Gandhian quarters of the Commander-in-Chief of the (British) Indian Army, but also in ensuring the continuation of the legal and administrative structure left behind by the British. Structures that were preserved and added on to, rather than cast away. The Indian Civil Service (ICS), an inheritance from the imperial times, was renamed the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), and both the method of selection as well as the training given to those selected for this particular service resemble what had been the practice during the colonial period.

From the time that those getting through the papers and interviews get placed in different streams — the IFS, the IAS, the IPS, the IRS and dozens of others — a caste system gets formed, in which those of the first three services, especially the IAS, become the highest caste of the administrative structure, with the others forming the lower tiers, and the so-named State Administrative Services forming the top of what may be termed the “backward classes” within the system. Why this distinction between “Indian” and “State”? A member of the Karnataka Administrative System is “Indian” enough, except for those still steeped in colonial attitudes.
Rather than a plethora of services, there ought to be a single service, a National Public Service (thereby ensuring emphasis on the “sevak” factor so correctly pointed out by Prime Minister Narendra Modi). This would end the effective caste system prevalent in the services since the period of British rule, except that in place of those mostly with white complexions, individuals usually dressed in white khaki took control of the machinery preserved with such care by the post-1947 leadership. Those who got through the National Public Service could get placed in different streams, such as Defence, Home, Finance, External Affairs, Accounts or Railways, with the Forest branch being expanded to cover Environment as well. Rigorous training could be given in such streams, so that those in positions within the administrative system would have adequate knowledge of the fields on which they were expected to make decisions. It is ridiculous in the extreme to still have generalist officers looking after departments such as Defence or Home, although this fact may perhaps explain the shoddy performance of these ministries in a country where the excuse of “security” gets reflexively trotted out to abandon opportunities, and which after seven decades of freedom is dependent on foreign countries for more than 80% of core defence needs.
Part of the colonial administrative caste system involves the recruitment of personal assistants (PAs) to key officials and their ministerial overlords. Such individuals have next to zero chance of rising up the administrate ladder, whereas it is a principle of administration that the individual at the lowest level of the ladder ought to be given a reasonable chance of making it to the top, the way V.P. Menon did during the days of the British raj, which, incidentally, seem to have been far less fossilised than is the case these days. Why not vastly expand annual recruitment to the National Public Service and post young NPS officers as PAs? The quality of work and the motivation would subsequently be much higher. Another anachronism is the restriction on age. Why should there be such a limit? If such a measure is needed, it would be better to fix it at 40 for all individuals, with specified extra marks provided for those who presently enter through quotas. The spectacle of a 22-year-old officer sharing a location with a 36-year-old selected in the same examination creates a differentiation that hurts both morale as the well as the need for looking at each recruit through the same lens irrespective of family background.
Finally, there ought to be lateral entry from civil society to each level of the NPC of 25% of total posts, so that experience and talent from outside the administrative system get made available to government within its own network.
Anomalies such as the “cadre” system result in individuals being unhappy from Day One in the cadre they get assigned to, and desperate to escape from. As for State and Central Academies, the standards should be the same for both, as serving in a state is as important for the nation as serving at the centre.
Finally, Prime Minister Modi’s admonition to regard public service as seva needs to be operationalised, so that in at least now, the country escapes from the coils of the colonial administrative system and its attendant caste system.

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