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The Problem With Putting the Civil Services on a Pedestal


Recently, two IAS officers were the subject of widespread public derision for misuse of power. A week later, the media and the public feted those who had successfully cracked the UPSC examination in order to become bureaucrats of the future.


GS-II: Role of Civil Services in a Democracy

Dimensions of the Article

  • About Indian Administrative Service
  • What makes civil services favourable in India
  • Issues with Public Perception
  • Way Forward

About Indian Administrative Service

  • Civil Services refer to the career civil servants who are the permanent executive branch of the Republic of India.
  • The modern Indian Administrative Service was created under Article 312(2) in part XIV of the Constitution of India, and the All-India Services Act, 1951.
  • It is the backbone of the administrative machinery of the country.
  • As India is a parliamentary democracy, the ultimate responsibility for running the administration rests with the people’s elected representatives.
  • The elected executive decides the policy and it is civil servants, who serve at the pleasure of the President of India, implement it.
  • Article 311 of the Constitution protects Civil Servants from politically motivated vindictive action.

What makes civil services favourable in India

  • Most countries in the world have a cadre of professional civil servants but nowhere are new entrants to the system of government celebrated like in India.
  • Colonial legacy: The fact is that, 75 years after independence and 30 years after liberalisation, there is still an overhang of the all-powerful, all-pervasive state.
  • There are good reasons for a favourable view of the civil services.
  • Merit based selection: For one, candidates are selected on merit based on an open examination and interview.
  • Job security: Then there is the job security that comes with gaining entry.
  • Unless a civil servant does an extraordinary wrong, she has a job for life, and steady, time-bound promotions which ensure that everyone retires at the top irrespective of performance.

Issues with Public Perception

  • However, in the perceived strengths of the civil services lie its weaknesses.
  • Single exam: The single UPSC examination is treated as gospel. 
  • But merit and competence cannot be judged by a single exam.
  • Permanence is a problem: The permanence of the job is a problem too.
  • Punishment for over-reach or misuse of power is a transfer, either from a weightier ministry to a lighter one or from high-profile capitals to geographically remote ones.
  • A system of limited accountability: The result is that all civil servants, never mind their ability or competence, operate in a system of limited accountability with few incentives to perform and plenty of opportunities to use and abuse their powers.

Way Forward

  • Placing civil servant at par with other professions: The civil services system needs to be brought down from its pedestal and placed at par with every other profession like elsewhere in the world.
  • This will not happen via political diktat. It requires the weight of public opinion.
  • Broaden the selection criteria: The system must be manned by capable, competent individuals. This cannot be decided on the basis of one exam.
  • Remove the job permanency: The underperforming officers need to be separated which cannot happen when the job is for life.
  • It may sound radical for India’s civil services but that is the way the rest of India and the world function, including the UK from where we inherited the structure.
  • If we can make these changes in the civil services, India will get the government it needs for the 21st century.

Source – The Indian Express

November 2023