The Indian Administrative Service is not one of India’s most popular institutions. But there was a time, not very long ago, when the three letters by which it is known — IAS — evoked admiration and, even, respect.
The service still has extraordinarily able and diligent men and women in its ranks, but the inefficiency, callousness, self-seeking cronyism and, sad to say, corrupt collusions with politicians in not a few of them, have tarnished its image. The one IAS officer who still commands respect among Indians in our villages and districts is the district collector, also known in certain states as the district magistrate or DM.
I was touring a district in West Bengal in 2007, when villagers poured out of their fields and huts to greet the convoy that was bringing the governor and the DM. The governor they did not know. But they knew the DM well and they milled around him in greeting and expectation. He tried to tell them that ‘Manoniyo Rajyapal’ had come and that they should be welcoming that personage, not him. But the villagers were uninterested in the head of the state. They were interested only in the head of their district. “Leave it”, I told the DM “…It is good to see how much your office counts here and how much you yourself are liked…”
This is not the case everywhere. I know of states where district officers and field officers have become pale shadows of their archetypes, as a result of public tickings-off, humiliation, and the tyrannical exercise of the power of transfers.
Transfers are rehearsals of retirement from service, even as retirement is, in terms of saying final goodbyes, a pre-play of death. Frequent transfers can make a person feel professionally disintegrated, personally demoralised. Apart from what happens to the person concerned, the administrative fabric itself gets weakened by the culture of transfers as a tool of power.
Barring the district scene where the DM is still a presence, the ‘steel frame’ is under strain. Instead of being strong, it is expected to be pliant, malleable. It is now more plastic than steel. And sometimes, plasticine than plastic. Rather than give the state a certain foundational administrative grid, it is required to acquire changing shapes that the politics of the state wants it to have.
Thiruvalluvar’s ancient text, the Tirukkural, has among its aphorisms, this matchless one: ‘The prince who has not the priceless protection of advisers that have the courage to tell him when he goes wrong will find his ruin even if there be no enemies to attack him’.
Very significantly and very far-sightedly, in his Pillar Edict 3, Emperor Asoka says of his officers in the field:
“My Rajjukas are working among the people, among many hundreds of thousands of people. The hearing of petitions and the administration of justice has been left to them so that they can do their duties confidently and fearlessly and so that they can work for the welfare, happiness and benefit of the people in the country. But they should remember what causes happiness and sorrow, and being themselves devoted to Dhamma, they should encourage the people in the country (to do the same), that they may attain happiness in this world and the next.”
At its just-concluded 11th annual session, the Kolkata Group inspired by Professor Amartya Sen discussed the status of public health entitlements in India and of the role of officials. With the historical leavening that Sen gives to his thinking, he recalled the public-health priorities of the Emperor Asoka and drew attention to the fact early Chinese travellers to India, like Fahien (400 AD), had commented on the high standard of healthcare through civic hospitals founded in the Pataliputra region where physicians attended to diseased and the crippled many of who were from the ranks of the poor.
The Emperor Asoka says in his Rock Edict 2 “…everywhere has the Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, made provision for two types of medical treatment: medical treatment for humans and medical treatment for animals. Wherever medical herbs suitable for humans or animals are not available, I have had them imported and grown. Wherever medical roots or fruits are not available I have had them imported and grown.”
Today, despite the fact of our having giant hospital corporates in our metropolises, India’s ranking in public health delivery among the nations of the world is embarrassingly low. But even there, the public health spending of 1.2% of our GDP seems bigger than it actually is because it contains a great deal of expenditure unconnected with the prevention and treatment of morbidity. This requires urgent correction. But just when a skilful and insightful steering of the health policy starts coming from the Union health secretary, Keshav Desiraju, he is peremptorily transferred to another department.
Governments have the right to transfer officials. But that right must be used judiciously. Else, it becomes a whimsy, an instrument of caprice, and of vindictiveness. Asoka’s lines acquired new meaning: “The hearing of petitions and the administration of justice have been left to the Rajjukas so that they can do their duties unperturbed, fearlessly and confidently…”
Sardar Patel, our first home minister, knew the value of independent-minded officers. He not only wanted the ICS and the IAS to stay the course, but do so, strong and fearless. Speaking in the Constituent Assembly in October 1949, Patel said: “You will not have a united India if you do not have a good All-India Service which has independence to speak out its mind”. In a letter dated April 27, 1948 the Sardar wrote to Jawaharlal Nehru stressing the need for “an efficient, disciplined and contented service… under a democratic regime” and said “The service must be above party”. How many political leaders would say that today? All political parties have misused the government’s inherent right to transfer its ‘Rajjukas’. Capricious and perverse transfers of the Desirajus in the services become, in themselves, object lessons in mal-governance.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor
The views expressed by the author are personal