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India’s flag bearers

From quelling bilateral crises to dealing with political negotiations involving India to knowing which flower is taboo at a dinner party in a country abroad, Indian Foreign Service officers do more than just globetrotting, reports Rahat Bano

education Updated: Jun 20, 2012, 13:30 IST
Rahat Bano
Rahat Bano
Hindustan Times

While many youngsters chase jobs where the string of zeroes on the paycheque matters the most, some work hard to realise a childhood dream: Of being able representatives of India. “As a child I would see people on TV — the fact that one person was representing India was very fascinating to me,” recounts a 28-year-old Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officer (name withheld). It was this dream that made her apply for the Civil Services Examination.

IFS officers have to play an active role in ensuring the Indian imprint on strategic locations across the globe. So, one might have to promote Indian business abroad, make the world aware of Indian culture, say, Buddhist circuit tourism, spread the word in Washington about the application and history of mehendi, or popularise yoga in Alexandria, Egypt.

Officers get opportunities to globetrot. “You stay abroad and interact with people there. You get to know about various governments and what people of different countries think about your country,” says the undersecretary at the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA).

It’s also interesting to know about the different cultural practices and customs. The official recalls an instance during her stay in an east Asian country: “I made a beautiful white and yellow flower the centrepiece at the dining table at a party… My (local) friends appreciated everything but smiled when they sat down for dinner. Later my maid told me that those flowers are used only when somebody dies.”

Of late, however, a few experts have indicated that the service is losing its sheen. About 80 per cent of IFS officers in the last few batches didn’t indicate this service as their first preference, Surendra Kumar, former dean, Foreign Service Institute, New Delhi, wrote in a newspaper article recently.

But Shyam Saran, former foreign secretary and currently the PM’s special envoy on climate change disagrees, saying it “may be a misplaced feeling that the Foreign Service is no longer a preferred career option. There are few career opportunities in India today which are as exciting and rewarding as the IFS. India’s rapidly growing engagement with every part of the globe and in every field of activity, demands individuals who are comfortable dealing with diverse cultures, possess good communication skills and take pride in representing their country in the chancelleries and councils around the world.”

IFS is “much more than” than international travel and work. “You need a versatile range of skills which equips you to engage in complicated political negotiations, manage multiple crises, engage in commercial promotion, promote investment and in addition, be a cultural ambassador and public relations expert to boot. There is no other career that builds such a wide spectrum of professional skills in an individual, skills which will be valuable in any situation in a globalising India,” says Saran.

MEA insists that the service is still the chosen one for many. Spokesman Vishnu Prakash says, “IFS is a premier civil service which remains the top choice of many aspirants. What is even more relevant is that young men and women joining the service should have the right disposition and qualifications. It is gratifying that the service attracts some of the brightest individuals of calibre, who are well suited to handle the challenges and rigours of the diplomatic world.” Vikas Swarup, author and India’s consul-general in Osaka, suggests the profession is for those with a keen desire to serve the motherland. “The work requires a great deal of responsibility.” On the flip side, “You are part of the bureaucracy and have to operate within the rules. You are not as well paid as in the private sector. But you should look at it as the social sector.”

What's it about

In 1783 in Calcutta, the East India Company passed a resolution to set up a department to help the Warren Hastings administration carry out its “secret and political business” with “Foreign European Powers”. Later called the Indian Foreign Department, it saw a delineation of its political and foreign wings over the years. In 1946, India decided to form an Indian Foreign Service for diplomatic, consular and commercial representation abroad. The first batch was inducted in 1948. An IFS officer is supposed to project and protect national interests in a range of spheres, including bi-national economic and political cooperation, trade promotion, cultural links, media relations, as also multilateral issues, domestically as well as overseas

Clock Work
Average day of an undersecretary for country X, when parliament is not in session:
8 am: Drive to work
9-9.30 am: Reach office. Check mail and country X’s media. Go for a meeting with the JS to discuss what happened over the weekend and what needs to be done
11.30 am: Prepare response to a correspondence from country X’s embassy. Do groundwork for the visit of a delegation from X
1 pm: Lunch in the canteen
2 pm: Summarise reports from the Indian embassy in X
4 pm: Meeting with X embassy officials
5 pm: Prepare for an Indian delegation’s visit to X
6-6.30 pm: Push off for home

At an embassy:
* Third secretary (entry-level: language trainee -- grade pay is Rs 5,400 a month)
Basic pay doesn't change for up to the seventh year of service but the FA shoots up. FA may range from US$3,500 a month in New York to US$2,700-2,800 in Kathmandu)
* Second secretary (promotion once you are confirmed in service)
* First secretary (pay remains the same)
* Counsellor (grade pay of Rs 8,700 a month; FA is higher)
* Minister (grade pay Rs 10,000 a month; FA is about US$5,000 a month at most stations)
* Deputy Chief of Mission/Deputy High Commissioner/Deputy Permanent Representative (e.g. to the UN)
* Ambassador/High Commissioner/Permanent Representative
At headquarters:
* Under secretary: Grade pay same as second and first secretary's
* Deputy secretary: Reach here after nine years of service
* Director: Grade pay is same as a counsellor at a mission. Reach here after 13 years of service
* Joint secretary: Grade pay same as a minister's in a mission but your monthly take-home is about Rs 60,000. No specified number of years to become a JS; eligible to be ambassador
* Additional secretary: Grade pay is Rs 12,000 a month; take-home is over Rs 70,000
* Secretary: Pay fixed at Rs 80,000 a month plus DA

Except the foreign allowance (FA), IFS officers' pay is the same as that of corresponding levels in other Central government services. In addition, as an IFS officer, you receive dearness allowance (DA), 100 per cent medical cover for yourself and your dependents, house rest allowance or government accommodation, city compensatory allowance (about Rs 1,000 in Delhi), travel allowance of Rs 3,200 a month up to the director level and Rs 7,000 for joint and additional secretaries (a JS/AS can opt for an official car instead). You can also get your child's school fees reimbursed. The amount is up to Rs 3,000 a month for hostellers or Rs 1,000 a month for day scholars in India. In mission postings, you can send your children to an international school like the American School, British School or an international baccalaureate school for which the government foots the bill.
It takes 17 years to be eligible for ambassadorship. You normally do two postings abroad, followed by one at the headquarters. Each overseas assignment has a fixed tenure of three years while that at the HQ could be 2-2.5 years.

Good communication and inter-personal skills
Interest in and knowledge of world affairs and your country’s politics, culture and economy. Diplomat-author Vikas Swarup adds, “They are looking for well-rounded people. You should have an eclectic reading habit and a general awareness of what’s happening in the world. They look for people who have an interest in the world around them”
. Analytical skills
. Decision-making ability
. Leadership quality
. Physical stamina and poise
. Ability to adapt to different environments (e.g. you might be posted to a mission in a country with limited healthcare facilities)
. Loads of patience

How do i get there?
Entry to the IFS is through the Union Public Service Commission’s Civil Services Examination, open to graduates in any discipline, though an international relations background would help. The exam includes a written preliminary test and a Main exam, followed by an interview. After a foundation course at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie, entrants are sent to the Foreign Service Institute for specific training. For more details, check

Institutes & Urls
You need a Bachelor’s degree from any recognised Indian university, or equivalent. More at

Pros & Cons
. Represent your country and work to achieve national objectives
. International travel and work
. Enjoy diplomatic immunity
. On foreign posting, you may have to leave your family behind
. Insular service — there’s not much public dealing at the HQ
. The work requires you to not always stick to the truth. But MEA spokesman Vishnu Prakash “vehemently disagrees with any such proposition. An IFS officer tries to create a conducive external environment for furtherance of national objectives. The foundation of what he says has to be built on facts. You need to make sure what you say is accurate.” An IFS official who can’t be named as he is not authorised to speak to the media says, “There is no deliberate falsehood…The language is nuanced…You cannot be very forthright. It’s not falsehood you’d be ashamed of ”

The campus had a certain gravitas

IFS officer Vikas Swarup, now India’s consul-general in Osaka, reminisces about his training days in a chat with Rahat Bano

UP boy Vikas Swarup took a BA degree in psychology, history and philosophy from Allahabad University and entered the Indian Foreign Service in 1986. In a tele-con from his current station in Osaka, India’s consul-general recaps his days at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie:

What were the best and worst of being there?
The worst thing about life at the academy was, you thought your studies had ended and you would soon be installed in an executive position. But that wasn’t so. There were exams at the academy and there was a lot of study to be done — from 9 am to 5.30 pm. We had modules on subjects like law, history, foreign policy, the environment.

The best part of being there was that we met and heard a lot of interesting speakers coming in every week. One of them was Bharatanatyam dancer Swapnasundari whom a batch-mate married later.

What was it like at the academy?
It was a great place for bonding. That’s where you meet people from the different services, IFS, audit and accounts and so on, and make friends. Your batch-mate circle is very important.

What did you do apart from studies?
Our evenings were free. We took part in recreational activities. I picked up billiards over there. We went for walks on the mall.

It had a campus-like atmosphere yet there was a certain gravitas. Phakkadpan (happy-go-lucky attitude) was missing.

Did the gentlemen and ladies bond?
Yes, though I was unfortunately not one of them. The main campus gossip was about who was going around with whom and who was breaking up with whom.

Why should a youngster join this service?
You should come into this line only if you want to do something for your country, if you want to make a difference. The work requires a great deal of responsibility.

The downsides of the profession? You are part of the bureaucracy and have to operate within the rules. You are not as well paid as in the private sector. But you should look at it as the social sector.

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