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Civil Services at the crossroads - Mathew C. Ninan

Published On : 14 Sep 2019

Civil Services by which we mean the IAS, IFS, IPS and allied services were the ultimate El Dorado for the bright young people of the previous century. They were at the helm of affairs, as they were adjudged the best of the lot by a rigorous exam conducted by the UPSC. The job was high profile, and much vaunted. It came with umpteen privileges, perks and entitlements. In other words they ruled the roost by virtue of their proximity to power.

What about its fortunes today? How come we hear about some of the best IAS and IPS officers resigning from service? These are worrisome issues worth delving into.

There are two critical issues obfuscating the malaise that has gripped the services. One is the ineffective selection process to the cadre, and another is the really capable ones getting disillusioned and leaving the service. Put together this is a recipe for the steady degradation of the premier service.

This piece is written in the wake of a few recent resignations of men and women of calibre and commitment, who had earned public acclaim for their extraordinary commitment and people-friendly initiatives. All of them alike showed independence in their thinking, decision-making and out of the box initiatives. Such qualities do not characterise all the civil servants. It is indeed very unfortunate that such people are leaving the service for the simple reason that they find the working environment quite stifling and stressful, and least productive. They leave because they are not given the freedom to work within the framework of established rules and the constitution of the country. One of them stated frankly in his resignation letter that he found ‘democracy being compromised’, as his reason for leaving.
It’s time the government revisited the very process of selecting and training these civil servants. Selecting people on the basis of a couple of written examinations and an interview is by no means reliable enough to determine the capabilities required in administration. All these exams favour those who are past-masters in rot-learning. Memory happens to be the major skill that is tested. What about the other multiple abilities called for in public administration?

For example, people skills or soft skills. We come across civil servants who have no management or social skills or people skills. Some of them do not even have basic soft skills like treating people with respect, or receiving a visitor with a smile or a handshake or a Namaste. There are a few who think that they will lose their aura of importance if they show any such courtesies. They seem to think that a stiff upper lip is a great virtue they must cultivate. How aptly did Abraham Lincoln say, “nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you really want to test a man’s character, give him power”.

I have come across civil servants who try to keep off people and put on a very cold and unfriendly posture most of the time. Some of them are known to snub people in their meetings to ward off questions and discussions. Some of them lack basic communication skills. Therefore they feel insecure and try to wind up meetings hurriedly. They are always ‘busy’. They prompt their personal staff to parrot that the boss is busy to take a phone call, or meet a visitor. Their sense of insecurity or lack of confidence make them put on a rough exterior.
Of course there are also men and women who come into the service with a lot of enthusiasm and a great deal of idealism. They feel at home with people and communicate well with them. They earn a good name much to the chagrin of their political masters. Soon such popular officers will be shunted out. In other words, the bureaucracy is expected to be subservient and surrender to the wilfulness of politicians and never steal their thunder. No wonder, upright and honest civil servants find the job most stressful and suffocating. Some leave, and some stay on because they don’t have an option. This is one reason why many bright young people do not come into civil service. How sad!

It’s time the Government took a feedback from the Civil Servants to find out what they have to say about their working conditions. They must be assured that their frank feedback will remain confidential. A professional body has to study their responses, and suggest ways and means to improve the system.

The Civil Service today does not attract the best of talents. Exceptions apart, most of them who come into it do it only for a plum job, willing to hobnob with politicians or corporate for personal gains. If one is prepared to ‘compromise’ on one’s intellectual and moral principles and be sycophantic, willing to forget one’s self-esteem, this service is the ideal one. It comes with a host of benefits. The only condition is one should forget one’s self-respect and principles in life.

This is a very worrying scenario. What would be left of the civil services if the bureaucracy is a spineless appendage of unscrupulous politicians?

In a democracy, we need politicians and civil servants who are capable, conscientious, hard working and morally and intellectually superior. We will be safe only in their hands.

This calls for an attitudinal change of the political class too. Those in power come through an election process, but that does not invest in them any right to ride roughshod on the rule of law, or established conventions and practices based on law and the Constitution of India. It’s in the interest of the progress of the country to have good administrators with vision, integrity and compassion, willing to serve the nation with dignity and decorum. The Civil Services must regain its lost glory and attract the brightest and the best to serve the country.

(The writer is Director, Little Rock Indian School, Udupi)

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