Ever since the advent of the Liberalisation-Privatisation-Globalisation era in India, in the early nineties, the clarion call has been to privatise everything that belonged to the people and the governments elected by them. Ever since the present government assumed office under the stewardship of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, this call has not only become louder, it is also being put into practice.

In preparation for it, shortly after the Modi government came to power, the long-standing Planning Commission was abruptly wound up and replaced by the National Institution for Transforming India or NITI Aayog. Here, the word “transforming” clearly seems to mean privatisation. The NITI Aayog has virtually become a corporate consultant urging the privatisation of all institutions, infrastructure and services. Now, attempts are being made to privatise the Indian Administrative Services – a potent instrument of democratic governance – which has been created under the Constitution.

Though the groundwork has been going on for quite some time, the actual privatisation of the Indian Administrative Service has gathered steam in the last three years. The first change was the strange sight of IAS probationers starting their training from the top, as assistant secretaries to the Government of India in Delhi, instead of at the bottom, as assistant commissioners or Collectors in far-flung districts. This has given a clear signal that desk work is more important than field exposure. This is significant because the unique selling point of IAS officers is the valuable grassroots experience they gain right from their first posting in the block, tehsil and district, their wide contacts with the public and political leadership, and their variegated exposure in different assignments. All this is a boon for people-centered policymaking, conceiving and designing development-cum-welfare projects, and their effective and expeditious implementation. Moves to privatise the IAS are seeking to neutralise exactly this.

Then came the steep reduction in the role of IAS officers at the decision-making level of joint secretaries in Central government departments. They have been replaced with personnel from other services who have no grassroots experience or exposure. For the first time, over 30% of the joint secretaries in the Central government are from services outside the IAS. It is getting worse as seen in the appointments of joint secretaries last June. Out of 21 officers, only seven were from the IAS with the rest from the Central Services.

Another disturbing trend is that several IAS joint secretaries have sought and obtained premature repatriation to their respective state cadres, and very few empaneled IAS officers are seeking deputation to the Centre.

Foot in the door: Lateral entry

The Union government now plans for lateral entry of people into the civil services. It recently invited applications for appointments to 10 joint secretary-level posts from “outstanding individuals”, including from the private sector, with expertise in the areas of revenue, financial services, economic affairs, agriculture, cooperation and farmers’ welfare, road transport and highways, shipping, environment, forests and climate change, new and renewable energy, civil aviation, and commerce.

Though the number is small, this is a formal appointment to senior positions through a spoils system that intrudes into the permanent civil service. Once started, it could spiral into a parallel private service within the government. In politics and government, the spoils system, also called the patronage system, is an arrangement that employs and promotes civil servants who are friends and supporters of the political party in power. The word “spoils” means incidental, secondary, benefits. The spoils system developed into the firing of political enemies and the hiring of political friends. This is anathema for a parliamentary democracy.

All these moves seem to be part of an orchestrated effort to ease-out the IAS from the Union government and bring in “experts with domain knowledge”.

As justification, proponents of this move have quoted the observations of the Chairman of the Seventh Pay Commission Justice AK Mathur and its Member Dr Rathin Roy, who said: “Senior management and administrative positions in government have evolved considerably and are growing more technical, requiring specific domain knowledge.”

But they need to answer one question: In the Indian context, what is the needed domain expertise for those who run the government? Is it pandering to corporations and pushing predatory development models thrust by the rich? Or is it basic governance delivered through effective and just governments that could uplift the miserable millions and keep the country united? If the priority is the model thrust by the rich, the IAS is certainly dispensable.

Strong civil service needed

In the run up to the 2014 Lok Sabha election and after assuming office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been repeatedly parroting the phrase “Minimum Government and Maximum Governance”. The governance agenda was set out in the resolution establishing the NITI Aayog soon after he came to power. It ranges from fostering cooperative federalism to developing mechanisms for preparing credible plans at the village level; ensuring that national security concerns are taken on board in development policies; creating a knowledge, innovation and entrepreneurial support system; coordinating inter-departmental issues and promoting research on good governance and best practices in sustainable and equitable development.

If this agenda is to be implemented, India needs a strong civil service with grassroots experience and exposure to the diverse aspects of governance. Professionals from the market without any knowledge of the nation and its people, inducted through the spoils system, will only spoil the broth. They will be more loyal to their sponsors than to the people they are meant to serve.

Insights IAS, a website devoted exclusively to the Union Public Service Commission and civil service matters has this to say: “Large-scale lateral induction would, in fact, amount to a vote of no-confidence in the government personnel management system, rather than in the highly dedicated, motivated and talented officers who have chosen to join the civil services…Lateral entry cannot be a panacea for everything. It has been an exception in the Indian civil service system and should continue to be so”.

Indeed, the Indian Administrative Service is a permanent civil service and must remain so. For this, the service must go through fundamental and holistic reconfiguring to transform itself into a vibrant, transparent management cadre so that the unimaginative, acquiescing and egocentric civil servant can become an imaginative, un-acquiescing and result oriented manager. Instead of working towards this, the Prime Minister’s Office is doing the reverse and is heading towards privatising the Government of India itself. This is unacceptable.

The writer is a former Army and IAS officer.