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Let's streamline the State

India's civil service is not as professional as Jairam Ramesh thinks. Ramachandra Guha writes.

india Updated: Nov 11, 2011 01:19 IST

It is (I hope!) a good augury that a Union minister has joined the debate on bringing professionals into government (Facts versus fiction, November 8). I am grateful to Jairam Ramesh for correcting an error in my column (Rejig the steel frame, November 7), relating to when Lovraj Kumar became petroleum secretary, and for pointing out that after her return to power in 1980, Indira Gandhi also appointed several professionals as secretary to the government.

However, contrary to what Ramesh claims, that tendency was not visible in Mrs Gandhi's first term as PM. Between 1966 and 1977, she promoted the idea of the 'committed' civil servant, one committed to her ideology and to her personally. One must, therefore, conclude that after 1980 she took heed of, and was positively influenced by, the Janata government's greater emphasis on professionalism in public administration.

Why was the trend started by Morarji Desai and continued by Indira Gandhi not consolidated by later prime ministers? Space does not permit an assessment in this respect of the tenures of Rajiv Gandhi, PV Narasimha Rao, AB Vajpayee, et al. Let us consider only the now seven-and-a-half-year-old term of the current incumbent. Manmohan Singh was instrumental in bringing Nandan Nilekani into government. However, to this one bold step forward, several steps have been taken backward. Thus, during Singh's tenure, crucial posts previously held by professional economists (such as finance secretary and governor of the Reserve Bank), have instead gone to generalists.

Ramesh agrees with me that professionals are required at "the highest levels of government". In fact, professionals need to be inducted at middle levels too, and in state governments as well. Such is the case with mature democracies, where professionals are encouraged to join government in mid-career and then promoted based on performance. In India, however, nepotism, party politics and trade unionism rules.

One would have expected Manmohan Singh, himself a professional who strayed into government, to try and change this. That he has not. Singh has brought in merely one top professional into his administration. At the same time, he has done nothing at all to insulate the regular civil service from political interference. Promises made about ensuring fixed terms for IAS and IPS officers, and for making postings and promotions less dependent on the whims of ministers, remain unredeemed.

In my original column, I had said that there are some first-rate people in the IAS. However, Ramesh's claim that the service has witnessed a growing 'professionalisation' is untrue. Those who join with medical or law degrees do not often get postings commensurate with this background. Rather, like everybody else, their career depends on the fancies of politicians. The cult of the 'committed' civil servant, promoted by Indira Gandhi Mark 1, yet rules.

The Hindustan Times's headline writer summed up the thesis of my original column perfectly — we need to 'rejig' the steel frame, not demolish it. Under the present system, the self-serving and mediocre IAS officer is as likely to get promoted as the upright and brilliant one; while many jobs that should go to trained professionals are instead assigned to untrained generalists.

We urgently need to streamline the State. On this, columnist and critic are in agreement. Ramesh has a long innings ahead of him in politics. One trusts he will lobby actively with his colleagues in party and government to put professional competence above length of service or personal loyalty when appointing directors of institutes, secretaries to government, governors, ambassadors, and the like.

Ramachandra Guha is the author of India After Gandhi: The History Of The World's Largest Democracy. The views expressed by the author are personal.

First Published: Nov 10, 2011 21:30 IST