There has been an unusual spurt of interest in the higher civil services in recent weeks, for many reasons. One is the uncommon rebellion by Indian Administrative Service officers of the Delhi government who refused to attend meetings called by ministers, leading to a sit-in protest by the chief minister – a former civil servant – and his senior colleagues. I do not recall any remotely similar event in India’s history since the creation of a merit-based civil service in colonial times. The second is a suggestion, credited to the Prime Minister’s Office, of allocating services to selected civil service recruits only after adding to their scores their assessments during the Foundation Course. The third is an advertisement inviting people outside government to apply for positions to the senior and influential level of Joint Secretary of the Government of India, bypassing the Union Public Services Commission.

These occurrences have spurred a spirited public debate about the civil services, their utility and role in a democracy, their selection, training, the modes of assessment of their work, how much they have lived up to the expectations of the country and the faith reposed on them, and whether they should give up their current near-monopoly of senior positions of authority in the permanent executive (subordinate only to the elected members of the government).

The Indian Administrative Service is an all-India service, but the services of its members are placed at the disposal of a particular state government. They can come on deputation to the Union government from time to time, and not vice versa. In this, the Delhi Indian Administrative Service officers stand out as an anachronism. I believe that the fitting democratic arrangement is for officers of the Delhi government to be brought under the control of the Delhi state government, as is the case for other state governments. This was indeed the arrangement in Delhi until recently. Land and law and order – which are usually the domain of full-fledged state governments – were from the start controlled by the Union government in Delhi on the grounds that it is the national capital. But what tilted the balance perilously was the Modi government’s decision to snatch away another crucial authority from the state government through a notification issued in 2015. This was the control of the civil services.

What this has meant is that the Union government now appoints and controls the officers of the Delhi administration without even the courtesy of consulting the chief minister, even less seeking his consent. It is this that has precipitated the present crisis, by making the position of Delhi’s chief minister entirely untenable. He cannot choose even his Chief Secretary, or secretaries and heads of various departments; or shift an officer he feels is not performing well to another position.

Let there be no doubt. This was not an innocent administrative change introduced by the Union government. It was clearly a vindictive response to the Aam Aadmi Party’s unprecedented victory in the polls to the Delhi Assembly in 2015, the first to halt the Modi juggernaut. It was a cynical move designed precisely to render it impossible for the chief minister and his cabinet colleagues to function, leading to the unseemly impasse the people of Delhi are witness to today.

Impasse in Delhi

Officers argue that Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s hectoring style of leadership is responsible for the alienation of his officers toward him. It is true that Kejriwal could have extended to his officers more courtesy and respect. Being from the civil services himself, he could have been more empathetic to their predicament, and not treated them as adversaries. But from my years in the service, I can testify that over the past decades, officers have made charges against a significant number of chief ministers that are much graver than the worst that have been made against Kejriwal. This includes the cadre that I served for 17 years – Madhya Pradesh. There have been chief ministers who were not just rude, they were known to humiliate officers publicly and routinely – throw files at their faces, abuse them, and act whimsically. There have been chief ministers who were implacably corrupt, communal, casteist, venal and even criminal, who demanded that their officers be complicit in their misdemeanours, partisanship and crimes. What is noteworthy is that not one of these chief ministers who were guilty of actions far more reprehensible than the worst of what Kejriwal is charged with have ever spurred a collective rebellion of officers of the kind that we are witnessing in Delhi today.

The reason is simple. In other state governments, it is only the rare individual officer who would take an openly contrary stand on high principle against her political bosses including the chief minister, and she would suffer grave career consequences for this principled dissent. There is never a collective sense of high public service that has bound officers to act in concert against corrupt, communal, castesist and criminal chief ministers. In Delhi, by withdrawing the control of the state government over its officers, the Union government has created a permissive environment for officers to defy the directions of the state administration. It is fair to say, the Union government has not just enabled officers of the Delhi administration to defy the dictates of their elected ministers and chief minister, it has positively incentivised this.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia and other during their sit-in protest at the residence of the Delhi Lieutenant Governor in June. (Photo credit: Nagender Sharma/Twitter).

I have from the start of my career insisted on the right – and indeed the duty – of civil servants to dissent, and to go so far as to refuse to obey the orders of the elected executive if these orders conflict with the call of their conscience. I believe that civil servants are first the servants of the country’s Constitution. Next, they are servants of the people, especially those populations in their jurisdictions who are the most deprived, oppressed and dispossessed, indeed the wretched of the earth. And only after these are they servants of the elected government under which they serve. This means that if the conscience of the civil servant dictates that the orders they receive are illegal, or in conflict with constitutional morality – with justice, liberty, equality and fraternity – or are not in the interests of people of disadvantage, I am convinced that their ethical duty is dissent with such orders. I would go so far as to say they must disobey such orders, but all may not agree with my view of holding the ethics of conscience above the ethics of obedience for the members of the civil services.

However what we are witnessing in Delhi is not any such principled opposition to unlawful and unjust instructions.

Chief Minister Kejriwal invited me some months ago to look closely at the mohalla clinics that his government had established. Despite some quibbles with details, I assessed this to be his government’s most valuable contribution to Delhi’s poorer citizens, who cannot afford quality private healthcare and therefore suffer enormously when hit by the misfortune of even small health problems, let alone health catastrophes. This was indeed the finest model of public-provided primary health care services for the urban poor in the country. But Kejriwal complained to me that the expansion and consolidation of the scheme was badly stymied because his Health Secretary (appointed by the Union government) just refused to obey any of his directions, or those of the Health Minister.

Likewise, Kejriwal complained to me that the reforms in homeless shelters that we sought could not be implemented because the senior officer of the department refused again to comply with his orders. If officers refuse to advance providing primary health care services to Delhi’s poor, or dignified shelters to the city’s homeless, they are not spurred by any sense of public service. In a fight between two sets of warring political masters, they are choosing the one that is more powerful, who can benefit their careers, and in this way they are becoming willing partisans in disobedience, bereft of any high principle. This is an impossible and utterly unacceptable impasse for any elected government to brook. And this situation directly created by the Union government, as I have earlier emphasised, was to successfully steal for the Union government the unprecedented mandate that the Aam Aadmi Party won from the people of Delhi.

Disruptions in recruitment

The other official moves that have thrust India’s higher civil services into public debate are controversies related to changes in the mode of recruiting civil servants and allotting them to specific services. Each year, the still prestigious Indian Administrative Service recruits less than 0.03% of the persons who appear for its marathon examination conducted by the Union Public Service Commission. The examination recruits a much larger number of persons (but still less than 0.3%) to the Class 1 services. These include, apart from the most popular Indian Administrative Service, India’s Foreign Service, and a range of All India Services including the Indian Police Service, Income Tax Service, Audits and Accounts Services, Railway Traffic Service, Postal Service and Land and Cantonments Service. Successful candidates are allotted their services based on their position in the Union Public Service Commission merit list. In these columns I have discussed the dangers inherent in the proposal of the Prime Minister’s Office that in the future no service should be allotted to the entrants to all the Class 1 higher civil services solely on the basis of their evaluation by the Union Public Services Commission. The proposal is that they would be further evaluated by the faculty during the three-month long Foundation Course at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, and these scores would be added to the commission’s score. This combined score would determine which service the recruit would work under for her entire working life. In my previous article, I spoke of the dangers of encouraging sycophancy, hyper-competitiveness, subjectivity, opacity and – most worrying of all – ideological conformity with the then ruling establishment, that this proposal carries.

The last in this series of disruptions in the country’s civil service arrangements is an advertisement issued earlier this month to recruit officers older than 40 years from outside the government to the senior level of Joint Secretary. The criticism is not that fresh talent from outside the government is unwelcome at all levels of the permanent civil service. On the contrary, the Indian Administrative Service, which currently holds the majority of these positions, has often been found to be wanting in domain expertise as well as willingness to learn and innovate. The alarm bells have rung with this proposal – as with the proposal for adding Foundation Course faculty assessment before allotting services – only because it bypasses the Union Public Service Commission.

It is important to remember that the Union Public Service Commission is a creature of India’s Constitution, comparable to two other constitutional bodies, the higher judiciary and the Election Commission. It draws its mandate from Part XIV of the Constitution, titled “Services Under the Union and the States.” The Constitution exclusively empowers the commission to make appointments to the services of the Union government and All India Services. It is also prescribed in the Constitution that the commission must be consulted by the government in matters relating to the appointment, transfer and promotion of civil servants, as well as disciplinary matters.

Narendra Modi addresses Government of India secretaries at an informal meeting in April 2015.

Reforms urgently needed

Reforms in the recruitment, training and evaluation systems of the higher civil services are of course long overdue. Open to debate, for instance, is whether the Indian Administrative Service has outlived its utility, or failed to live up to the onerous trust that the country placed on its shoulders for seven decades. Respected retired civil servant NC Saxena points to the failure of many members of the higher civil services to learn and grow after they find a permanent sinecure at high levels of the government.

My colleague V Ramani writes in his blog that there is a strong case for pensioning off civil servants at every stage as is done for the armed forces, and for replacing them with talent from outside. Therefore the idea that the civil services needs reform should not cause disquiet; it could even be welcomed. However what causes grave unease with both the recent actions of the Union government is that they dilute in one case, and completely bypass in the other, the role of the Union Public Service Commission. This defies the Constitution.

There are legitimate disagreements about the design of the commission’s selection process to recruit, promote and discipline officers of the senior civil service as public-spirited servants of the people. But what the commission has never been charged with is partisanship, nepotism or corruption. It is one of the most credible institutions in the country (unlike, for instance, the majority of state public commissions).

The Union government led by Narendra Modi will be remembered by history for many things. One of these is its continuous and reckless assault on the country’s institutions for ideological or the narrowest immediate partisan political ends. Its malign ploy to disable the elected government in Delhi by snatching away from it its control over its own officials, and the attempts to recruit ideologically compatible and pliant officials bypassing the Union Public Service Commission, are body blows to both the independence of the higher civil services and their independent recruitment by a constitutionally mandated institution. I reiterate that the civil services are indeed in urgent need of extensive reform. But the country cannot afford for the members of these services to be reduced further into willing partisans of ideologically driven governments.