Through what prism should we see reforms in the Indian Administrative Service cadre rules? Should primacy be given to localism or their all-India character? Should States be permitted to exercise overwhelming rights over the careers of IAS officers assigned to them? Should individual officers be allowed to exclusively determine where they want to serve?
These questions become pertinent in the context of the sharp reaction of some states to the amendments proposed in the IAS (Cadre) Rules, 1954 whereby the officers to be deputed to the Central Government shall be decided by the Central Government in consultation with the respective State Governments and in case of any disagreement, the decision of the Central Government will be final.
At a broader level, the best answer to this conundrum is found in the words, spoken seventy years ago, of Sardar Patel, the statesman-administrator, regarded as the patron saint of the civil services, when he spoke about the expectations from the newly created steel frame: “Successors to the ICS and IP, which, apart from filling the existing wide gaps in these services, would contribute to the unity of the country and the strength of the administrative structure, and make for a high standard of efficiency and uniformity.”
IAS officers are recruited by the Central Government through the meticulous UPSC, but their services are placed under various State Governments. Although it is part of the service conditions that they would be obliged to serve both under the State and the Centre, no minimum period for central deputation is stipulated.
Currently, 40% of the sanctioned strength of officers in a state is the central deputation reserve or CDR against which IAS officers in a state can come on central deputation. In the past, in some cadres, such as those in the troubled Northeast, there was a preponderant attraction towards working in Delhi and the CDR was breached.
However, with time, the ground level atmospherics and conditions in the states have changed significantly – officers have multiple charges and so the operational spread of resources and canvas of work is significantly richer – making a posting in the state attractive. Besides, Delhi postings at the Deputy Secretary and Director level are perceived as desk bound grunt jobs, with hardly any contact with the public and with limited scope for experimentation and innovation. Thus, we have the troubling phenomenon of young officers managing to stay in the state without experiencing working in the central government until they reach the rank of Joint Secretary.
Given that the CDR utilization has dropped from25% in 2011 to 18% as on date, Government of India’s initiative to get states to commit adequate number of officers for central posting is entirely justified. IAS officers are the backbone of the government at all levels and every Ministry needs a few Deputy Secretaries and Directors who have had the experience of the field as Collectors and Administrators of various development projects to help formulate policies that are grounded and beneficiary-oriented.
The contention of some states that this will prevent officers from giving their best to the state because of the uncertainty of where they could be assigned next, they forget that it is in the best interest of IAS officers to work alternatively in the central government and the state so that they enrich their own experience with a suitable mix of both nation-wide and state-specific planning. Such knowledge and experience sharing is also crucial to the states to ensure that their interest is protected in central policy-planning.
Officers cannot but be aware of the higher level of uncertainty in the states than in the government of India, thanks to a faster turnover of political regimes and the spoils of power. As a result, we witness the frequent and whimsical transfers of officers, of some being punished senselessly for opposing those close to the party in power, even refused permission to go on deputation to the Centre. On the other hand, there are officers who wallow in the incessant patronage bestowed on them for their localized loyalty –making them perennially indispensable to the state. Some end their entire careers without even once budging out of the state for a posting elsewhere.
Precisely for this reason it is important to create a regime whereby the IAS officers should spend at least a third of their careers in the central government out of which at least 7 years should be at the Deputy Secretary/Director level. It is also necessary to shape the IAS like a central elite corps, with ultimate commitment to the nation, without any parochial loyalty to the State cadre they are borne to. It is only when officers spend time out of their comfort zone in the state – even a posting to another state should be acceptable if an officer is not happy to work in Delhi – that IAS officers will be able to shed their provincial mindset.
Only then will the all-India character of the IAS be preserved –with direct benefits for the unity of the country and uniformity in governance standards as espoused by Sardar Patel.
At another level, at the time of recruitment it should be made abundantly clear that officers would have to serve for defined periods both in the central government and in the states. To foster an inclusive and modern mindset, training in the very best universities of the world on government account has to be mandated as part of the career planning equation.
An online system should be devised to facilitate officers to apply for government jobs in consonance with their sectoral specializations and choices. Even if officers want to go to the private sector for limited periods of their career, they should be permitted to step out to absorb the best practices of the corporate world to create an ecosystem in which the private sector and the public sector can work collaboratively.
IAS officers will be best utilized when they are groomed and positioned as an elite corps with skill sets and experience to work efficiently in the global arena, in the central government and in the states. To ensure that the States utilize them effectively and provide them a conducive working climate to elicit their best effort, it is important for the Centre to adopt an approach with the states which is consultative, tolerant and paternalistic.
(The author is a former IAS, ex- Secretary to the Government of India. The views expressed are personal)