Dialogue October-December, 2011, Volume 13 No. 2


Ignominy of  Being a Civil Servant

Madhav Godbole*



There are widespread misconceptions and myths about the civil services in the British days. The so-called ‘steel frame’ which the civil services signified was such only when there were no elected governments in power. Repeated complaints were made by the leaders of the Congress party and the Muslim League regarding the ineffectiveness of the administration in dealing with communal violence and its partisan attitude. The main reason for the overall deterioration in administration, which started during this period, was the uncertainty as to the future of these premier civil services which had undermined the confidence and the morale of their members. It was claimed by the British that the watershed was the advent of the elected governments taking over power in the provinces. By his letter dated 6 January 1947, Pethick-Lawrence, Secretary of State for India and Burma, had asked the governors for their views as to how the two premier “security services”, the Indian Civil Service (ICS) and the Indian Police (IP), were standing up to the strain of the transition period and how far they were getting on with the popular Ministry. The replies received from the Governors were startling. In his reply, Nye, Governor of Madras, inter alia, lamented that “There is a section of these officers who, with an eye to the future, are unduly subservient to the Ministers and some, I fear, are prepared to curry  favour with the ministers at the expense of their duty....There is no doubt that, with the changes which are contemplated there will be a great loss of efficiency in the administration which will persist for many years, and unless active steps are taken to recruit and train officers of very good type for the future, it will have a permanent effect on the efficiency of the government in this province.” (emphasis added.)1

    The views of Burrows, governor of Bengal, were contained in his letter dated 25 January. He attributed the running down of the administrative machine to a course of events over which the services had no control. “In almost every department in public life there is ample evidence of very serious degree of demoralisation of services. There is no longer any feeling that any disgrace attaches to inefficiency or even to dishonesty (the only sin is being found out); it is comparatively rare nowadays to find officers who value doing good work for its own sake”, he observed. He had bluntly stated that “The steel frame is admittedly and avowedly on the way out and is rapidly becoming ‘Lath and Plaster’....There is more insidious canker of what I may call ‘administrative trimming’, so as to secure favour or at all events to avoid offending the rising power.’ (emphasis added.)2 

     Wylie, governor of United Provinces, had enclosed with his letter a copy of the letter which he had received from an English collector, which observed,” The change [in the transition period] may not be so apparent in the Secretariat appointments; it is grimly clear here [in the field]. We are working in conditions which our predecessors would have found intolerable and we watch what we consider the elementary principles of administration disregarded. We have no guarantee that we would be supported or, which is more important, that we will be able to support our own officers or that there is any authority capable of supporting us. You have only to read the evidence before the Calcutta Inquiry Committee [on Calcutta riots] to realize that and the meaning of ‘appeasement’ applied to law and order. (emphasis added.)

     The note prepared by the Joint Planning Committee had stated that the administration in the provinces had continued to run down. It referred to the case of Inspector General of Police (IGP) in the United Provinces, where the home minister belonging to the Congress Party was corresponding directly with the police officers in the field, instead of through the Head of Department. The IGP issued instructions to his officers to disregard such directions. The home minister was offended and insisted that IGP should leave.  In spite of the intervention of the chief minister and the governor, the IGP had to leave, when Nehru threatened that the Congress members in the interim government would resign if the police officer was permitted to stay in the post. As a result, the officer had to go on leave preparatory to retirement. These instances and observations read as if they are of the present state of civil services in the country. Thus a new and corroding administrative ethos had set in even before independence. The so-called impregnable bastion of the ICS and IP, which represented the ‘steel frame’ of administration, had started crumbling with the very first in-roads of political interference.3 Over the years, this position has deteriorated rapidly.

    Not just the public perceptions, but, self-introspection by services too would bring out the reality of a precipitous and calamitous fall in the standards of personal behaviour and work performance, ethics, and image of the civil services. It is not therefore surprising that all civil servants from a lowly clerk to the highest echelons are commonly referred to as mere babus (clerks) in public discourse and the media, which I find most offensive. But, the only remedy against this onslaught would be to take steps to improve the working of the services. And there are no signs of any such changes for the better.

      It may be appropriate to recall a few shocking examples which brings this out fully. The then Information and Broadcasting  Minister, K.P. Singh Deo, had reportedly laid down certain ground rules for the functioning of the civil servants in his Ministry—”Servants should not speak till the master permits” and “You are not to apply your mind, you are just to do what you are told.” There was also the unsavoury controversy in regard to the sugar scam when the former Food Minister had lashed out at the Secretary of the Ministry. The then Chief Election Commissioner and a former civil servant, T.N. Seshan, colourfully described civil servants as “call girls” and “backboneless wonders”. Interestingly, there was no organised protest by the civil servants or their associations. The master-servant relationship between the Minister and civil servant was shockingly sanctified by intemperate observations of Justice M.P. Thakkar during the course of hearing of a writ petition in 1998 on the opaque selection procedures for appointment as Secretaries to government of India. The judge had observed, “Even when a person appoints a cook or a watchman he looks for a person in whom he has faith. How can the Government of India appoint any person as Secretary in whom it has no faith?” A cartoon pithily showed a civil servant addressing his colleague, “I belong to the V.P. Singh batch. You must be of Rajiv’s.”4 This undermines the basic concept of a non-political and neutral civil service which the then Home Minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel had advocated so strongly in the Constituent Assembly. Patel must have turned in his grave at the distortions which have been brought about in his concept of a neutral civil service.

     What ails the civil services is well known. The wheel does not need to be reinvented. Since independence, reportedly, more than 600 committees and commissions have gone into the relevant issues at the behest of the state governments and the government of India. But, what is wanting is action thereon. There is neither an administrative will nor a political will to deal with the issues firmly and decisively. The same fate has befallen the Second Administrative Reforms Commission (SARC) Its report is also languishing though nearly two years have elapsed since its submission. There is a new “cold storage device “ invented by the centre. It is to refer any matter to a group of ministers! This is what has been done with the SARC report as well.

       A question is often raised whether we require politically neutral and permanent civil services patterned on the British model. My answer is a categorical yes, but only if the services are provided enough protection and not left to their own devices as at present, as discussed later in this paper. There are those who suggest that civil services should be restructured in such a way that for higher levels of joint secretary and above, there would be lateral entry, particularly from the academics and the corporate sector. But, who will enter the civil services if the higher jobs are to be given away to “outsiders”? This debate is often joined by people who have little experience of how the government functions in reality, the checks and balances which operate or expected to operate in government, and the compulsions under which the higher civil services have to function. Just as it is not easy to transplant a person from the civil service in the corporate world, except to undertake lobbying and liaison assignments, an executive from the private sector cannot be easily put in place at policy making levels in the government, except in a few assignments. Further, we cannot have a half way house. If one is so enamoured of the American system of governance, it is best that it is adopted fully and not in a piecemeal manner to accommodate the nominees of the high and mighty in the senior posts in the government. It is also necessary to remember that the assertion of lateral entry for outsiders could be relevant only at the secretariat level and not in the thankless assignments such as in the urban local bodies and panchayat raj institutions, where dealing with the elected representatives on the one hand and the dissatisfaction of the general public on the other, is a tight rope walk and not a bed of roses. In these circumstances, civil services will continue to grow and expand in India in the foreseeable future, particularly in the social sectors. The challenge is to make them non-corrupt, productive, accountable, transparent, sensitive and responsive in their functioning. And this is where India has failed miserably both at the political level and senior administrative levels. It will be wrong to lay the blame only at the doors of the political class.

      With globalisation, and economic reforms set in motion in the early 1990s, administration has to change inevitably. It is fashionable to say that the change has to be from regulatory to promotional. But this is only partly true. Globalisation and doing away with the ‘licence-permit raj’ should not be construed as “free for all” functioning, and opaque, non-transparent and adhoc decision making processes. The root causes of dozens of major scams which have tarnished the image of the country are to be found in such non-accountable, feudalistic functioning. If India is to be an attractive destination for foreign investment and has to be globally competitive, it must endeavour to provide a level playing field to all players, whether domestic or foreign. Public-private partnership for funding and implementation of projects should not mean compromising public interest and subserving the interests of private partners. For example, the concept of recovery of costs of infrastructure projects through levy of toll has been accepted by people but it is being misused in some projects with the active connivance of public authorities turning a blind eye to the gold-plating of costs of the project or tardy audit of the accounts of the private partner in the project.   Blindly following the examples of advanced countries, without taking note of the parliamentary ethos and public expectations in this country can lead to immense problems and misunderstandings. Another example is the decision taken by Rajiv Gandhi government to permit senior officers in government to go on deputation to private companies for a period of up to five years. Already in Delhi, officers are categorised as AB+ and AB- (Ambani positive or Ambani negative), or RH + (Reliance and Hinduja positive) and RH - (Reliance and Hinduja negative), and so on.  Influences which large industrial houses exert in postings and transfers of officers are common knowledge in Delhi and state capitals. Creating vested interests of officers and to make them obliged to particular business houses is hazardous and has brought bad name to civil services.

      Right to information (RTI) Act was passed with lot of fanfare in 2005 but it must be admitted that it is mainly the senior bureaucracy which has been responsible to make its provisions redundant in a number of cases. It must be noted that most decisions on implementation of the Act and supply of information there under are taken at the level of officers. Only a few matters involving politically sensitive information have to go to Ministers for decision. It is unfortunate that bureaucracy has turned out to be the biggest hurdle. The Supreme Court has recognised right to information  as a fundamental right. It is therefore binding on every functionary in the government to supply all information to the public, except that which has been specifically barred under the Act. However, one reads of dozens of cases in which Secretaries to Government have taken a negative view. If such is the mindset at the highest level, how can the lower bureaucracy be expected to change its ways. A recent proposal, strongly supported by the committee of Secretaries was to withhold file notings from people. I have been strongly arguing against it for several years. Once a decision is taken on a file, all notings on the file, including the Cabinet note, must be made available to people to see. If those who handle the file know that what they advise on the file will be subjected to public scrutiny later, it will be the best way to prevent misuse of power. Another recent case was the proposal of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to exclude it from the purview of the RTI Act. In this case too, the committee of Secretaries is reported to have recommended it to the Prime Minister. This came very handy to the government and it has approved the proposal! It is a travesty that while the higher judiciary is endeavouring to make CBI’s working more credible and to improve its image, bureaucracy is bending backwards to help CBI in continuing with its much discredited and highly politicised functioning. No one is asking CBI records to be thrown open to people when the investigation of a case is in progress. But, once the case is closed or decided by the court or is withdrawn by the CBI, people must have a right to see how it was handled by the CBI, what its law officers advised and so on. But, this is precisely what the CBI does not want!   It is said that sunlight is the best disinfectant but the higher bureaucracy does not seem to believe in this universal truth.

     The related question is of the continuance of the archaic Official Secrets Act (OSA), 1923. England, from where the legislation had been copied, has already recast it completely. Some major political parties had announced their intention to abolish the Act if they came to power. But, once they assumed charge in the North Block, seat of power of the Ministry of Home Affairs in Delhi, the view changed completely. Official Secrets Act will have to continue to be in operation but in a very restricted form by recasting it completely. Several proposals in this behalf, including the one framed by the Press Council of India, have been with the government for quite some time. But, there is a fear of the unknown in the politicians and senior administrators. They apprehend that their closely guarded citadel of power will be invaded if the OSA is recast. It is high time pressure is brought on the policy makers to see reason.

     There was a time when the higher civil services were known for their honesty, integrity and probity. There were some exceptions to the rule but those were the rare exceptions. Now the position is reported to have reversed. Honest civil servants are the exceptions. Majority may not be personally dishonest but they would not go out of their way to keep the system under them clean and would prefer to go along the current. The recent cases such as the 2G scam, Commonwealth Games scam, Adarsh Co-operative Housing Society and so on are a mere tip of the iceberg. As a result, in common public perception, all government servants are corrupt, unless proved to the contrary. In such an environment, it is demoralising for an honest civil servant to function effectively. Some time go, the IAS association in Utter Pradesh had taken a bold initiative to identify two most corrupt officers in their cadre by a secret ballot. It is impossible to believe but the same officers were later appointed as chief secretaries by the government. The astounding story of corruption of husband-wife couple in Madhya Pradesh was numbing. And there are such cases in all states. Now, one feels ashamed to say that one belongs to the IAS! The question is where do we go from here? Is there a way out at all? It is shocking to see that in Andhra Pradesh, all India service(AIS) offices have been kept out of the purview of the Lok Ayukta on the basis of a misconceived judgment of a single member Bench of the Andhra Pradesh High Court. But, the higher bureaucracy did not seriously pursue the question of filing a revision application in the high court and as a result the decision of the court has become final. The GOI, which is in charge of the AIS matters, was also not approached to have this untenable position set right. It is not therefore surprising that people at large believe that the higher civil services in the state have a vested interest in perpetuating the present position. It is needless to say that the fight against corruption will be futile unless the higher civil services have a commitment to make it a success. To argue, as some people do, that the civil services are drawn from the society at large and are bound to have all the weaknesses and drawbacks of the society is one thing but to accept this argument would mean the AISs are not the cream of the society and are no better or worse than the common babudom!

      It needs to be noted that as compared to the earlier years, present recruits in the civil services are more highly qualified, particularly in the professional streams. The competition for getting into the top services is killing. Against this background one wonders why there is such all pervasive corruption and debasement of standards in the higher services. One reason could be the lack of value system, and inadequate emphasis on inculcation of appropriate values at the initial training as also refresher and higher in-service training. Role models of proper behavioural standards need to be placed before the officers at these training programmes. Most importantly, officers whose integrity is doubtful and who do not come up to the desired standards of probity and behaviour must not be seen to be rewarded and recognised by way of foreign training, foreign postings or coveted postings. The age of recruitment also needs to be lowered if proper values are to be ingrained in the officers at the induction stage itself.

    With the politicization of civil services, esprit de core which was earlier the hallmark and the strength of the services is no more. Each officer is now left to his own “devices”, in every sense of the term. One of the main casualties of this situation is the mass transfers of officers every time there is a change of government so as to reward those who are the supporters of the party coming to power and to teach a lesson to those who were sympathetic to the out-going government. Repeated efforts made to stop the “transfer bazaars” had failed. The high courts and the Supreme Court too had refused to intervene, except when an injustice was caused to individual officer. Even in such cases, it was difficult for an officer to establish before the court that the government action was biased and taken with a prejudice. Public interest litigation filed by the Common Cause, an NGO in Delhi, had failed in eliciting any response from the government or remedial action by the Supreme Court. At the same time the issues were  important and therefore required to be pursued.

      E.A.S. Sarma and I had filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court in 2004 praying that just as the court had recognised certain rights such as right to privacy, right to information and freedom of press as fundamental rights, the court should also recognise good government as a fundamental right of every citizen.5 It was underlined that good governance is recognised as a prime objective in several leading democracies in the world. The countries which are in the forefront in these efforts include Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, the United States and the United Kingdom. We had pleaded that once this is done, a number of statutory and institutional changes would inevitably have to be undertaken by the government. We had further pleaded that civil services should be recognised by the court as the main instrument for translating the right to good governance into reality and towards this end had suggested a series of steps for improving the functioning of civil services. It was emphasised that each one of the basic features of the Constitution identified by the Supreme Court will remain on paper if the ills afflicting the civil services, which have been responsible for what the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution has called “pervasive disenchantment” with the governance of the country, remain unattended. The prayers in the petition included, among others, directions by the court  that good governance and permanent and politically neutral civil services as intrinsic to the scheme of the Constitution and part of its basic structure; officials, before starting their career, in addition to taking the oath of loyalty to the Constitution, should also swear to abide by the basic principles of good governance to give unequivocal commitment to the basic tenets of the Constitution. Towards this end, the government servants Conduct Rules should be completely rewritten so as to be in accord with modern notions of accountability, and so on. We had hoped that the admission of the PIL and issue of notices by the Court to the centre, the state governments and other stakeholders will generate long overdue, healthy debate on the subject. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court refused to admit the PIL. May be its time had not yet come!

   Now over 85 officers of AIS and other central services, who had retired from very senior positions in the state governments and the centre have filed a PIL in the Supreme Court against mass and arbitrary transfers of officers and steep fall in the standards of administration. The main difference in the two PILs is that while the former PIL had placed the problem in the larger context of imperatives of good governance, the latter pertained just to safeguarding the interests of civil services. It is understood that Common Cause proposes to seek permission of the Court to join in the latter PIL and to plead once again for the need  to recognise good governance as a fundamental right.

     A PIL was also filed in respect of grievances of police officers and political interference in their postings, transfers, promotions etc. by Prakash Singh and others. After an unduly long wait of nearly a decade, the writ was finally taken up for hearing by the Supreme Court and a series of salutary directions were issued to the central and state governments regarding institutional and other changes and policy prescriptions. As was to be expected, several state governments have not taken kindly to the court interfering in their purely administrative domain. In fact,. the delay in implementation of its directions led the court to taking a very unusual step of appointing a committee under a retired judge of the Supreme Court to go into the issues. This brings out once again the imperatives and urgency of recognition of good governance as a fundamental right. Once this is done, police reforms will inevitably have to form part of the strategy for translating the concept into reality.



 1.     Nicholas Mansergh (editor-in-chief), The Transfer of Power 1942-7 (TOP), Her Majesty’s Stationary Office, London, Vol. IX, p.518, in Madhav Godbole, The Holocaust of Indian Partition—An Inquest, New Delhi, Rupa & Co., 2006, p. 92-93.
. TOP, Vol. IX, pp. 544-551, Ibid., p. 93.
Ibid., pp. 94-95.
. Madhav Godbole, Serving the Master, Indian Express, 25 August 1995, in Madhav Godbole, The Changing Times: A Commentary on Current Affairs, New Delhi, Orient Longman, 2000, p.176-77.
 Madhav Godbole, E.A.S. Sarma,  A Quest for Good Governance, Advocacy Perspectives, Working Paper Series No. 20, Pune, National Centre for Advocacy Studies, May 2004.

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)                                                Astha Bharati