During the two decades that I served in the Indian Administrative Service, I would often wonder why our country’s founding fathers and mothers chose to retain in democratic India the permanent civil services patterned closely after the colonial civil services, preserving also its grand trappings of large colonial bungalows and liveried staff. The puzzle was greater in the districts, in which the District Collector functions virtually as the head of a district government. When the country was boldly willing to rely on governments elected through universal adult franchise at the Union and state levels, why did we opt for unelected functionaries selected through a merit-based system to run the district government; after all this was the level of government closest to the large mass of people – the working classes, farmers and homemakers.

The same question returned to me when I read of the so-called reform that the Prime Minister’s Office has proposed in the mode of selecting civil servants to various administrative services. At present there is an arduous marathon (to which many bright and ambitious young people devote several of the best years of their youth) of a written examination followed by an interview, supervised by the Union Public Services Commission. This selection process, whatever its flaws, is nonetheless the most credible in the country for its objectivity and integrity (more so than even the selection of the members of the higher judiciary, which remains enveloped in worries about judges choosing other judges on subjective and non-transparent grounds). Candidates for the higher civil services are selected based on their scores in this examination. It is this score which determines if they get the service of their choice: whether the candidate will be a foreign diplomat, an officer initially deputed to run the administration of districts, member of the police, an income tax officer, an official who will oversee the country’s accounts, or one who will manage cantonment lands, or run the country’s railways.

The far-reaching change that is being proposed is that the examination run by the Union Public Services Commission would now only determine if a candidate is among the roughly 1,000 or so officers who will be allotted to any of these diverse services (which as you can imagine are vastly differently valued). What the Prime Minister’s Office wishes to do is to evaluate the trainee officers in the Foundation Course, add these scores to their examination scores, and allot them to various services based on this combined score. All officers to all the higher civil services – what are called the Class One services – begin their training together for around three months, in what is called the Foundation Course. This is the only time in their service career that officers allotted to diverse higher services spend time together, and are introduced together to public service.

I am among the many who are intensely alarmed by this proposal, and believe that if implemented it will strike at the heart of, and ultimately destroy, one more public institution among the many that have been profoundly damaged by the Bharatiya Janata Party government led by Narendra Modi.

Current selection system is fair

One might ask, quite rightly: Does the higher civil not need reform? And if so, what is wrong with trying out what the Prime Minister’s Office has proposed?

To answer this, I must return to the question with which I began this essay: Why did newly-Independent India not cast away a civil service established by our colonial masters?

Sardar Patel famously described the Indian Administrative Service as India’s “steel frame”. India accomplished freedom amidst fearsome violence based on religious strife. There were myriad other potential fractures in this fledging nation – of language, ethnicity, caste, class and many others. The expectation was that a great deal of this could tear India apart, and that its multiple ruptures could be aggravated by competitive politics. It was a small band of carefully selected civil servants who would be expected to hold the country together, with fairness, firmness, integrity, independence and compassion. This was to be India’s steel frame. At senior levels of government, power would vest with the elected executive, as it should. But here again, it was the higher civil services that were expected to fearlessly offer independent advice to their ministers. Sardar Patel said to his officers, “Today my Secretary can write a note opposed to my views. I have given that freedom to all my secretaries. I have told them, ‘If you do not give your honest opinion for fear that it will displease your Minister, please then you had better go.’ I will never be displeased over a frank expression of opinion.”

Looking back to the past 70 years, it is evident to all that India’s higher civil services have failed to live up to the lofty faith that the country’s founding fathers and mothers had placed on them. There have indeed been several civil servants who have contributed valuably to public service and nation building. But taken collectively, as a tribe, there can be no doubt that the higher civil services have let the country down at moments in our history it was needed most. For instance, during the Emergency, during communal massacres such as in Nellie in 1983, in Delhi in 1984, Gujarat in 2002, and indeed the rising tide of mob lynchings in current times, when the Babri Masjid was pulled down, during caste massacres, in implementing land reforms, in building a robust set of public services of education and healthcare for all citizens, and in designing and implementing programmes to combat poverty, to name only a few.

If the higher civil services have in these ways failed to live up fully to their promise to the country, why should we not give the proposed reforms a chance? This is because the proposed remedy would be far worse than the malady. For the civil services to fulfil the mandate that the country placed on their shoulders, we require women and men of courage of conviction, integrity, compassion, a deep sense of justice, convinced about the equality of castes and genders, untainted by communal, caste and patriarchal prejudice, and imbued with a deep sense of public service. There is admittedly nothing in the present mode of recruitment of civil servants that tests any of these qualities. What the Union Public Services Commission examinations test is not even high academic merit, but academic stamina and perseverance. But the high distinction of this selection process, unmatched by any other in the public sector, is its integrity and fairness. It is untainted by nepotism, by subjective bias and prejudice, by individual likes and dislikes.

The proposed reform would change all this profoundly. The fate of the 1,000-odd officers who are selected for the wide range of public services would now lie in the hands of a few officers appointed to the Lal Bahadur National Academy of Administration who would be empowered to give them scores that would dramatically determine their future lives and work. These assessments would inevitably be highly subjective and opaque, reflecting the ideologies, world-views, social and cultural biases, personal attractions and idiosyncrasies of the superior officers. With all their failings, whatever credibility the higher civil services still retain is because of the undisputed integrity of its selection process. At least the merit of its selection process, whatever its other flaws, cannot be faulted for personal bias, even less corruption. If this proposed change is introduced in the garb of reform, then it will surely be the death-knell of an already enfeebled cadre of public officials.

It would also vitiate completely the best period of a civil servant’s training. I underwent the Foundation Course in 1980, and I was a member of the faculty that ran these courses for three years, between 1993 and 1996. We were free to design our training programmes as we chose. In our time, we believed that the early training of the young officers should encourage young civil servants to reflect, question, dissent; to imbibe the values of the Constitution and of public service; to understand the country’s problems, their causes and possible solutions; to combat bigotry and patriarchy; to nurture their idealism; and to encourage integrity, courage, empathy, truth and a sense of justice. These are difficult goals, and our success was at best partial. But think of what would happen if young officers who gather in the Foundation Course realise that the rest of their lives will depend on what a few senior officers think of them. There would be no space whatsoever for any genuine ethical or social reflection or growth. Or indeed to build friendships that sometimes last a lifetime. All that would happen is that from the first day of their appointment, they would learn the lessons of conformity, of sycophancy, and of destructive competition with their peers, leaving no place for comradeship or the kindling or strengthening of idealism.

Destroying another public institution

The question then arises: Why is Prime Minister Modi contemplating such a fundamental change that would destroy the very institution that was crafted by leaders like Sardar Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru to hold the country together? I can see only one rationale from his perspective. During his entire tenure, his government has packed every institution with persons committed to the ideological world-view of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. One institution that it has not had success with so far is the higher civil services: the government is free to appoint persons who lack merit but score well in ideological compatibility to important positions, but it cannot influence the selection of officers of the higher civil services. If the proposed change comes through, then this would no longer be the case. It would be entirely possible for the government to pack the Lal Bahadur National Academy of Administration with officers committed to the ideology of the Sangh, and also to market fundamentalism. They could then select officers with the same ideological sympathies for the most sensitive administrative and police services.

What is more, once a government is voted out of power, ideologically committed vice-chancellors, judges, heads of public cultural centres, and so on, can be changed. But not civil servants. They are part of the permanent civil service, and will remain in positions of authority long after a government is removed by the democratic process. The Sangh believes in a Hindu nation, not a nation in which all people of very faith have equal rights safeguarded by the Constitution.

In its turbulent four-year stewardship of our country, there is much that the Modi government has destroyed in our public institutions. The civil services is one institution that must be defended, otherwise even its rusted and debilitated steel frame will collapse, and India will lie in even greater danger of falling apart.