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A System in Decay

The Changing Face of Bureaucracy: Fifty Years of the IAS by Sanjoy Bagchi;


A System in Decay

Vithal Rajan

he Changing Face of Bureaucracy by Sanjoy Bagchi is a must-read book for anyone who wishes to know all about the Indian administrative service (IAS) – and who does not in India? This excellently brought out book by Rupa, with comfortable font size and spacing even for the armchair reader, crams its 492 pages with facts, tables, a detailed index, an exhaustive bibliography, a detailed historical account of the growth of the service from the days of the East India Company and even earlier from the days of the Mughals, and insights into the opinions of top officials themselves, all glossed with a fine patina of educated analysis by the committed civil servant author. Indeed, a fitting companion by an insider to The Men Who Ruled India by Philip Woodruff (in reality Philip Mason of UP), but written without the refraction of rose-tinted glasses worn by the Englishman.

Economic & Political Weekly

April 5, 2008

The Changing Face of Bureaucracy: Fifty Years of the IAS by Sanjoy Bagchi; Rupa and Company, New Delhi, 2007; pp xii + 592, Rs 795.

Not that the author does not doff his cap reverentially at the predecessors of his service, the Indian civil service (ICS), despite his acknowledgement that they were “imperial agents with a dominant foreign component”. The ICS, he notes, followed a set of norms that emphasised “honesty, independence of mind and capacity for decision-making”, qualities which the analysis of the book shows to be gravely eroded in the present. The ICS adopted the role of “the remote, harsh and punitive father” towards the Indian subordinates, because the British feared the Indians might act “contrary to the interests of the bureaucracy”, in other words, contrary to British interests. It may be important for the reader to recollect that if the British ICS did limit corruption to a great extent, the bane of middle class India today, it was only to secure their own interests and power all the tighter. The elite ruling clique, the ICS, separated by race, language,

interest, and power from those over whom they enjoyed power, held in their hands, as the book notes, not only real executive power, but “a substantial part of the legislature and judiciary”. It should never be forgotten that the collector, “the tortoise on whose back stood the elephant of the government of India”, to requote Ramsay Macdonald was there to ensure the king’s revenues and keep the king’s peace, as many a young recruit was reminded. If they performed these primary tasks, and kept a Kiplingese distance from those they ruled over, they could as an elite club follow their predilections without much supervision whether it was a study of Hinduism or Indian birds, whether it was big game hunting or promoting education.

If the ICS gained universal respect, it was because the Indians of the period were relieved that the savageries of the turbulent past had ended. Individually, quite a few have gone down in song and


legend for their likeable eccentricities. But they were not the philosopher kings they imagined themselves to be. That Platonic ideal was not achieved by the Chinese Mandarins, and it is an impossible will-ofthe wisp goal for any starry-eyed IAS officer. This hierarchal service finds its origins in “the rights to collect land revenue” which the British squeezed out of the Mughals emperor in 1765, after their victory at Plassey. Hence, the office of “collector” brought together “executive and magisterial functions”, and kept general control over all the governmental functions in the district, including over the police. As district magistrate, the collector was head of criminal law administration. Almost till the end of British rule, under special Section 30 powers, he could even award the death penalty, and during earlier times, he could take charge of any military units in his district if necessity demanded. Even during the Quit India movement of 1942, the police hesitated to resort to firing without his express permission, whereas these days, as the author conscientiously points out, the police feel free to take such extreme measures, while the “DM and other members of the magistracy only ratify it”. It is worthwhile pointing out that the government of Andhra Pradesh has the dubious distinction of being the first, during the 1970s, to appoint a police officer as home secretary, and thus do away with the pretence of civilian control over the police.

Internal Decay

Indeed, the main burden of the book is to detail how from high standards of conscientious service the IAS has gradually degenerated, through political interference, as well as through internal decay of morals. The author locates the beginning of the downward slide in the dark days of Indira Gandhi’s Internal Emergency, dramatically entitled ‘Darkness at Noon’, with her loyalist Haksar advocating “the services should be politically committed to the ideology and orientations of the political party which is in power as the government”. The IAS officers formed alliances with politicians, “each aiding and abetting in getting the maximum out of the spoils system”. Of course, when others came to power, they also made matters worse. Bagchi notes that it was Charan Singh who stuffed the service with officers of his own ‘biradari’, reducing MP (the author’s state of service) into a “colonial adjunct of UP”.

The author notes that our politicians are very different from those in Westminster, giving “the highest priority to the interest not of the nation but of his party – and within the party to the interests of himself, his family, his clan, his caste, his constituency”. Obviously too true about many of India’s politicians, but it must be pointed out that he is far too generous about the Brits, whose capacity for skulduggery won them not only an empire, but lasting influence over colonised minds, as Fanon and Edward Said have written in extensive detail. Bagchi is pitiless about blameworthy officers, indicting them of “personal ambition, casteism, provincialism, and careerism”.

april 5, 2008

Economic & Political Weekly

He finds many “acquisitive of perks”, compared to other services”. An implausi
“usually arrogant or petty-minded” and ble belief in such superiority is part of the
guilty of sycophancy. He regretfully British myth which lies like a miasma over
concludes that the IAS “is not a merito the former colonies, like similar belief in
cratic entity”, it is not a “lean and com pact English gentlemanliness, sportsmanship,
organisation”, and that the officers attach justice, and fair play. It is this myth that
themselves to sub-goals of caste, communal created a great empire, but an economi
and political alignments. And what types cally resurgent country, one that also
of pressure did the politicians bring to carries a large burden of caste, class,
break the morale of the service? Frequent gender and regional prejudice, needs to
transfers are mentioned in several places do away with romance and ask itself
as well as the fear of humiliation. So, the what possible use there can be in having
British did not bequeath a steel-frame to two powerful rungs of governance, one
India but one made of rushes! of politicians and another of entrenched
The author is stout in defence of his elite bureaucrats, sometimes working in
service, though magisterial in pointing out tandem and sometimes in opposition, at
all the defects that have adhered to it all times for the welfare of their own
barnacle-fashion. Along with the other classes, and always to the disadvantaged
gurus, from the early days of Sir Gopalswami of the masses they rule over. The question
Ayyangar and Sir V T Krishnamachari, to is not merely about justice, it is more
the later committees chaired by Kothari about survival of the nation itself. Unless
and Alagh, who have ruminated on how to there is an effective democratic empower
fine-tune the service, the author would like ment at the grassroots, the economy will
to suggest “three action points” before it is remain crippled, violent dissidence will
too late: political neutrality, accountability, increase, chauvinism and fundament
and systemic changes for qualitative alism will find resurgence, and effective
improvement. But it is an open question sovereignty could easily slip into alien
whether these measures, or any measures, imperial hands.
can rescue the service from all the ills it is
heir to, and help it (re)gain the Platonic Autocratic Command
heights of intellectual elitism, which the India can justifiably be proud that it has
author does not find reprehensible as he retained a greater semblance of democracy
does social elitism. Even the experiences than most other former colonies, and
of ideologically controlled communist many western nations as well. And cer
societies, Bolshevik Russia and Mao’s tainly the IAS can see itself as “the pier
China, have shown that a power distinc of the bridge over which India passed
tion between mental and manual work is from colonial rule to independence”. But
the opening wedge that rapidly divides the licence-raj, run through the elite
societies into classes and castes. Hence, nexus between the politicians and the
Mao’s call to scholars during the cultural IAS, crippled the economy for several
revolution to go to the countryside, and decades, when we might have done just
dalit resentment of brahmins. Soon after as well as China, and what is more, kept
independence, there was a Gandhian attempt 80 per cent of the people at levels no
at involving high officials in ‘sramdhan’, better than servitude. Despite the 73rd
but it soon petered out. Perhaps the and the 74th amendments to the Con
reinstitution of some such work, such as stitution the panchayati raj bodies remain
cleaning out dry latrines, wherever the without power, money, or support, and
practice is clandestinely tolerated, may do this itself speaks of the very unhealthy
more to stiffen the backbone of the service concentration of power and money at
than any other measure. the very top, with the connivance of the
Bagchi agonises over the idea that the bureaucracy. Bagchi regretfully quotes
service may be wound up, and dismisses Lord Acton’s dictum in two places in this
all attacks on the need for an elite gener large book: “All power corrupts and
alist corps in a democratic country, though absolute power corrupts absolutely”. And
he does admit ruefully that “the IAS yet he feels there can be no substitute
has not proved to be superior in probity for the IAS.
Economic & Political Weekly April 5, 2008

If the IAS set up a large number of public enterprises, this is no great claim. Most have been run unprofitably, except in the energy sector. Autocracy not only badly restricted economic growth, but the autocratic command exerted by the generalist IAS over all fields infantilised scientists, engineers, doctors, conservators, agronomists, and rendered them impotent in their own fields. The IAS must take their share of blame for the destruction of educational and public health standards, and for leaving an 800-million strong farming community on the verge of suicide. The armed forces also have their own stories to tell about the weight of the crippling IAS hand. The author quotes Sir Edward Blunt on the district officer: “He may divide the work, but he cannot divide the responsibility”. Very true, and this rule holds for the whole service, praise or blame.

Since, the IAS failed in the task (self) apportioned to them, and were partly responsible for the locust years after independence, it is quite justified to suggest that in the future public services should be headed by technical experts competent in their own areas of expertise, and accountable to ministers and other parliamentarians, the elected generalists of a democracy. The belief that an elite bureaucratic body could play the role of “guardians” (a phrase used by Woodruff), is just plain silly. Only the people can be guardians, and their institutions from the bottom upwards must have legitimacy, power and resources. This is a political issue, and is at the very root of the meaning of independence.

The best part of the book is Bagchi’s lyrical account of the work of the district officer. This reviewer looks forward to another book from this gifted and knowledgeable writer, focused on the work of the IAS in the district, perhaps drawing from the rich lore of his own state, for apart from being a charming read it might contain anecdotes and instructive insights into how change was brought about at the local level, by human inspiration and action, without much resource or techno logy, but of lasting benefit for the people.


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