Why the top political establishment doesn’t seem to be too unhappy about the declining clout of IAS lobby

Why the top political establishment doesn’t seem to be too unhappy about the declining clout of IAS lobby

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Last month, the Government of India appointed 20 joint secretaries (JS) in various ministries, in which the majority — 12 to be precise — belonged to services other than the elite Indian Administrative Service (IAS). The new entrants included three officers from the income-tax department, three from the railways, two from the central secretariat service and one each from postal, audit and accounts, civil accounts and ordnance factories services, all considered rank and file in the hierarchy of Indian civil services.

This is not a new trend. But the pattern has become so consistent since 2017-18 that IAS officers holding critical JS rank have now become a minority in almost all central government offices. According to data available with the department of personnel and training (DoPT), IAS officers in the rank of a GoI joint secretary are only one -third, a dramatic fall from five years ago when almost all posts of JS and above were unofficially reserved for the prestigious cadre.

A JS in GoI is a senior officer with a mandatory experience of 16 years, a post deemed important because of the power and independence it wields. Plus, it is a stepping stone to the upper echelons of civil services: additional secretary and secretary. “IAS is no longer a premier service,” says a serving additional chief secretary-ranked IAS officer, requesting anonymity. “Other services have lobbied far too well.

The Seventh Central Pay Commission has damaged us a lot, both in terms of pay and seniority,” he adds, referring to its refusal to accept the IAS’ demand for faster promotion. The outcome is clear. The “IAS lobby” is on the wane, losing its swagger and power, and the political establishment at the Centre does not seem to be unhappy about it. Small wonder that when Alapan Bandyopadhyay, a 1987 batch IAS officer and the then chief secretary of West Bengal, was in the dock recently for failing to attend PM Narendra Modi’s review meeting regarding Cyclone Yaas, none of his comrades in the service, not even his batchmates, made any backroom bid to rescue him, say officials in the know.

““I have always held the view that public administration is a specialised skill and that anyone picked up from outside the system cannot make any signi cant impact””

— KM CHANDRASEKHAR, FORMER CABINET SECRETARY

Bandyopadhyay has been served a notice under the Disaster Management Act, 2005, and if the case is doggedly pursued and the officer’s explanation not found satisfactory, he could end up in jail for a year, a harsh punishment for any officer of such seniority. It will, however, be wrong to claim that IAS, a legacy of the British-era Indian Civil Service (ICS), has lost its sheen entirely. Even today, most of the 90 GoI secretaries are IAS officers, barring those in a few specialised ministries and departments such as science and technology, space and external affairs (the last is always an IFS officer). As on March 24, the actual strength of IAS and IPS officers, excluding those from state services and promoted later, were 3,719 and 2,992 respectively, with IAS having 942 vacant posts, according to a reply to a Lok Sabha question.

ET spoke to half a dozen serving IAS officers, two officers belonging to other central services and a few retired bureaucrats to outline the emerging trends in the premier civil service. First, a unique situation has arisen where the secretary of a GoI ministry is still an IAS officer, but the majority of joint secretaries hails from diverse backgrounds like tax collection and ordnance factories and have little experience of working in state civil departments. “IAS officers as joint secretary have a clear advantage over others in almost all ministries, barring a few such as defence, civil aviation, commerce and industry that don’t need to deal much with states,” says Satyananda Mishra, former DoPT secretary.

““Let’s be honest, when a joint secretary, who is an income-tax of cer, calls up a senior state of cer who will invariably be an IAS, the response is likely to be far less enthusiastic””

— SATYANANDA MISHRA, FORMER SECRETARY, DOPT

“Let’s be honest, when a joint secretary, who is an income-tax officer, calls up a senior state officer, who will invariably be an IAS, the response is likely to be far less enthusiastic,” he adds. VK Yadav, a former railway board chairman who belonged to the Indian Railway Service of Electrical Engineers (IRSEE), disagrees: “Railway officers are well-trained to meet any challenge. That’s why they excel when they join any ministry on deputation. Also, they bring back the experiences to the railways.” The second trend has been the Centre’s tightening of norms for empanelment under the “360 degree” evaluation process since 2015. (Empanelment refers to preparing a list of officers for positions under the Central Staffing Scheme at the level of joint secretary and above.)

Unlike in the past when 70-80% of a particular IAS batch got empanelled, the share has slipped to 45-50%, says an officer who has recently managed to scrape through the process. The selection process has become more inclusive but it is also somewhat opaque, as the review allows an expert panel to independently verify the credentials, integrity and, some allege, the ideology of an applicant beyond what the boss has written in the appraisal papers, better known as ARC (annual confidential report).

““Many IAS of cers nowadays simply don’t want to join the central government. Many say they are nding Delhi not so conducive””

— GK PILLAI, FORMER UNION HOME SECRETARY

A railway officer, requesting anonymity, asks: “Why should the entire administration be left to the whims and fancies of one service? The government is empanelling a smaller number of IAS officers to accommodate more from other services. The government is right as it is breaking the IAS monopoly.” No government functionary wants to come on record, but many say the present political establishment does not want to hand over the reins to only one service.

Third, there is a genuine shortage of mid-career IAS officers because of fewer number of recruitments in the past as well as a growing reluctance among officials to come to Delhi. In the mid-1990s, the government’s focus on downsizing its operations had resulted in at least half a dozen smaller IAS batches, with just 50-60 recruits, as against 180 now. Its fallout is felt currently when officers of those batches are eligible for a JS posting. “In 1972, our batch had 112 IAS officers. In the late 1990s, the intake got reduced to 50-60.

That has its impact now. Also, many IAS officers nowadays simply don’t want to join the central government. Many say they are finding Delhi not so conducive,” says GK Pillai, who retired as Union home secretary in 2011, after serving at the Centre and in his home state, Kerala. Fourth, the clout of IAS could diminish further if officers from other services fast-track their empanelment process. This depends, among others, on how proactive the cadre-controlling authorities are; for instance, the Department of Revenue controls the cadre of the Indian Revenue Service (Customs and Central Excise) officers.

As of now, 1999 batch IRS (C&CE) officers are empanelled for joint secretary as against 2004 batch IAS officers — a gap of five years. When more and more young non-IAS officers become joint secretaries, there will always be a greater probability of their moving up to the next level. Since the government seems to have put in the deep freeze its experiment with lateral entry for joint secretaries, IAS officers won’t have to face an avalanche of private CEOs in the corridors of power, but the challenge from officers in other services is real. On the debate of deputation of IAS versus non-IAS officers, former cabinet secretary, KM Chandrasekhar, tells ET, “I have always held the view that public administration is a specialised skill and that anyone picked up from outside the system cannot make any significant impact.”

Should the IAS or any other service be protected? “What happens to a section of officers of any service is less important than the transformation of administration into a results-oriented system,” he says, giving the example of UK and Australia’s corporatestyle, customer-centric New Public Management.

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