The Steel Frame: A History of The IASThe Steel Frame: A History of The IAS by Deepak Gupta
The development and role of the Indian Civil Service was one of the dominant features of the period of the East India Company, and later, British rule in India. It is extraordinary how people employed by a trading company in a foreign land transformed into the most powerful civil service in the world. It was also the first civil service in the modern world where recruitment was on the basis of open competition and not through patronage. Though much criticized, it developed its own character and traditions.
It is really unusual that such a service – defined as the ‘steel frame’, on which depended the fortunes and the survival of a huge empire – continued essentially with the same structure and traditions, along with the administrative systems developed over a century, into Independent democratic India. Although much has changed, even today the Indian Administrative Service retains some basic characteristics from the past. This system of governance as it evolved in India is indeed fascinating story.
Well researched and detailed in its presentation, Deepak Gupta looks at changes from the past, its present, and also the future of the IAS. He also suggests some measures so that it could re-invent itself to play the important role envisaged by the makers of our Constitution.
Excerpted from the book-
Virulent criticism has led to demands by some that IAS has outlasted its purpose and must be abolished. To proponents of continuity, the value of maintaining an All India Service was premised on three underlying beliefs – such officers would have a national rather than a parochial outlook, and along with their movement between the state and the centre, they would contribute to national unity; that an elite service would draw the best national talent which would provide for good governance necessary for the transformation of the country; and, that it would possess an ingrained sense of independence, commitment and impartiality which would protect democratic values and prevent political exploitation and arbitrariness.
Over time many have felt that the service has failed to meet any of these objectives satisfactorily nor does it now draw the best talent and, therefore, appears to have become an anachronism.
The most significant call, coming from within, would be from N.K. Mukherji, the last ICS officer to retire and who was cabinet secretary in 1977 in the Janata Government. He said: ‘Inveterate supporters of the IAS say, why pick on the IAS? Are other services, and indeed society itself, not equally affected? But if the IAS has sunk so low, it has lost its raison d’etre.’ He argued for decentralization and State Services. Decentralization is necessary but not a panacea for all structures. State Services suffer from even greater problems. Provincialization would be further advanced.
At the other end of the spectrum, there have been suggestions for an elite secretariat cadre filled largely by specialists through lateral entry after abolishing the IAS. This would actually lead to a complete fragmentation of the administration. Both suggestions have elements which should be implemented but abolition of the service is simply not a solution.
In an undefined sort of way there is a feeling that all the problems of our country would disappear simply if the IAS is abolished. This arises also from the misconception or the deliberate attempt to arrogate all the policy failures, or the bureaucracy in general, on the IAS. Our Constitution makers provided for and designed the institutional architecture with great care and deliberation. Over several decades there have been attempts at their weakening, though they have shown resilience, which has been the strength of our democracy. Nevertheless, the first few months of 2018 witnessed a worrisome and serious crisis for these institutions.
About the Author
Deepak Gupta did his BA from Allahabad, MA from St Stephen’s college and MPhil in International relations from JNU. From the IAS batch of 1974, he has spent many years in the field in the erstwhile state of Bihar, including two districts (Saharsa 1979–80; Rohtas 1986–88) as Collector. He served in many departments in state and centre and was also posted in India Trade Cente, Brussels and spent a year as WHO Advisor on TB in Delhi. He retired in 2011 as Secretary, Ministry of New and Renewable Energy. After retirement he consulted with the World Bank and UNIDO and writes on issues of energy and sustainable development. He was Chairman of UPSC from November 2014 to September 2016.
His published works include Documentation of Participatory Irrigation Management, Covering a Billion with DOTS, Achieving Universal Energy Access in India: Challenges and Way Forward, and Caught by the Police.
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