Civil Services Day: Is India’s steel frame really rusted?

Contrary to popular perception, bureaucracy isn’t all about incompetence and corruption.

After Lord William Cecil was made her secretary, Queen Elizabeth I advised him thus, “This judgement I have of you that you will not be corrupted by any manner of gift, and that you will be faithful to the state and that without respect of my private will you will give me that counsel which you think best.”

Thus was born the concept of an unbiased, disinterested and committed civil servant. Over four hundred years on, it remains the guiding principle of civil services in many countries of the world, including India.

The Indian administrative system was founded by the British East India Company. Although the company’s officers were primarily tasked to look after and further its commercial interests, they did ensure some system of governance and justice to the people under their control.

In the British administrative system, based on the recognition of the importance of revenue and magisterial authority, the civil servant, aided by a finely evolved legal system, strove without temptation of reward to administer a foreign people in the name of God and country, or so he was supposed to. In The Men who ruled India, Philip Mason described a quintessential British civil servant thus: “In the public Character, whatever Calumny and Detraction may say to the Contrary, he is minutely just, inflexibly upright and I believe no Public Service in the whole world can evince more integrity.”

The civil servants spread out, imposing law and order in a land prone to feudal excesses and everyday anarchy. The power of the civil service was enhanced when, in 1798, Governor General Lord Wellesley reconstituted his office and created the post of chief secretary, who was vested with the authority to rearrange different departments of the government as he deemed best for “proper conduct” of business. The first chief secretary, George Hilaro Barlow, did not administer each department, but by virtue of his general authority and acting as he did on behalf of the governor general he was held to be in overall charge of the administration. This system continued until power was transferred from the British East India Company to the British Crown in the wake of the First War of Independence in 1858.

“Be that as it may, the fact is that the permanent civil service provides the steel frame that holds this country together. These men and women go to distant parts of the country and put in place systems for governance, and law and order. They represent the face of the government to the citizens of the country.”  

Since administering India was now the direct responsibility of the British parliament, the administrative machinery put in place by the company was formalised as the Indian Civil Service, which was headed by the Secretary of State for India, a minister in the British cabinet.

The governor general, and later Viceroy, became the direct representative of the Crown in India and was given authority over all civil and military affairs.

In the provinces, the governors were given extensive powers for administration, and under them, the office of the chief secretary came to enjoy a pivotal position. As the author Philip Woodruff observed: “The Chief Secretary was the channel through whom the orders of the government were conveyed to the officers. He was traditionally the source of posting (orders of officers); to most district officers, he was, in fact, the government.”

After Independence in 1947, the Indian government, learning the complexities of governing a vast and diverse nation, modified the hierarchies in the administrative set-up, drafted new rules and procedures, and reengineered processes to ensure it best served the interests of the people. The Indian Civil Service thus became the Indian Administrative Service.

Selected on the principle of competition and merit, the young officers of the Indian Administrative Service became the face of the government and worked to carry out its developmental programmes while ensuring peace and tranquility.

Seventy years on, though, the question is being asked whether this apparatus set in place just after Independence, and based on the colonial systems of administration, is still relevant. The bureaucracy is held as being primarily responsible for many of the ills plaguing this country. Be that as it may, the fact is that the permanent civil service provides the steel frame that holds this country together. These men and women go to distant parts of the country and put in place systems for governance, and law and order. They represent the face of the government to the citizens of the country. As they grow in experience and seniority, they are called upon to help in policy-making and supervision. They provide sage advice to their political masters, are rarely obtrusive and often work in anonymity. It would not be wrong to say that the fabric of governance hangs on their shoulders. Of course, there are some people in the service who sully the image of all civil servants.

Governing a country as vast and diverse as India is maddeningly complex. Both our political leadership and bureaucracy, therefore, must be sensitive to the needs and aspirations of different sections of the society. Everyday governance is a tedious task; it is slow, backbreaking and endless as any assistant engineer or district collector will testify.

It is to the credit of our civil servants that despite their many failings – especially in ensuring delivery of services at the last mile – they keep this country going. This Civil Services Day on April 21, let’s celebrate their spirit and determination.

CK Mathew is former chief secretary of Rajasthan. He heads the Public Policy Research Group at Public Affairs Centre, a think tank based out of Bangalore.

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