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An Aspirant Questions: Are Civil Servants Today Glorified Clerks Or Real Life Heroes?

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By Arati Nair:

As an aspiring civil servant, I have attended quite a few ‘orientation sessions’ with eminent speakers gushing with fervour about the IAS being the pinnacle of glory, a panacea for those who dream to serve the society. For an average middle-class Indian, the lure of a stable government job is too hard to resist; more so if the job proffers a load of perks and immense power. Perhaps the passion to pursue a career in the civil services is premised more on the elevated societal status it offers amidst commoners, than the drive to serve the country. That’s usually the case in small town India, where the sheen of a lucrative corporate job pales in comparison to the ‘collector’ title.


However, the atmosphere of coaching classes that guide aspirants for the UPSC examination is quite different. I remember a candid conversation with a few classmates (first-timers) about the true motivation of joining the services. The reasons ranged from the truly heart-touching- “I work part-time delivering newspapers. There are many lesser fortunate ones in my neighbourhood who have become full-time rag-pickers instead. I am a hero in their midst and can do much more if I become part of the services. Perhaps offer them education?”- to the bizarrely naive- “What’s more heady than being an IPS officer, travelling in an AC car with a peg of the most expensive scotch in hand?”

One may also wish to delve into the psyche of serving officers to analyse the spectrum of varying motives amongst them; their actions while on duty could offer an interesting insight.

An Army of Black Sheep

Rishi Raj Singh IPS has had a hard time traversing the long winding political minefield in Kerala. Almost emulating those filmy super cops, his tough act against CD piracy, road safety, power theft and now a reluctance to salute the state home minister have all endeared him to the masses. For the general populace, he’s a rare ray of hope, defying stereotypes and fighting corruption, devoid of all sycophancy for the ruling politicians. While the executive is embroiled in a systemic hierarchical power struggle, the common man celebrates even symbolic flashes of bravado.

Singh belongs to that dwindling breed of Indian civil servants whose temerity and determination, while discharging their duty, restores our faith in the prized bureaucracy.

In Uttar Pradesh, Amitabh Thakur, another IPS officer facing fire for filing a case against the Samajwadi Party supremo, Mulayam Singh Yadav, who threatened him, opines that the biggest obvious hurdle before officers who want to expose graft or corruption is the service rules. In an interview, he admitted that with the RTI Act in operation and a law to protect whistleblowers on the anvil, the situation demands that service rules be modified to allow government servants to interact through an open medium regarding the illegal acts and orders of senior officers and ministers.

The list of officers like him who exposed the powerful political class for corruption, crony capitalism, misappropriation and pilfering of public funds is endless. Ashok Khemka, Durga Shakti Nagpal and D.K. Ravi have all faced flak for challenging their political bosses. The sheer disruption of Mr. Khemka’s life would give most civil services aspirants the chills, with a staggering number of 45 transfers in a career spanning 23 years, roughly two transfers per annum. While many like him are bounced about from one inconsequential department to the next, some have even paid with their lives.

Like Narendra Kumar.

A CBI probe failed to establish the nexus between the mining mafia and the death of Mr. Kumar, who was brutally crushed under a tractor. What the state can do to safeguard the latest brand of proactive officers from such ‘mishaps’ remains to be seen.

Our Bureaucracy in Turmoil

The myriad ills that plague our civil services have largely remained unchanged over the years. That the covetous ‘Steel Frame of India’ is hamstrung by political patronage has been widely accepted too. The rigid work routine, lacking flexibility in decision making, often leaves many young officers, recruited to the higher services, cynical. A skewed incentive system, which fails to appreciate upright civil servants, but handsomely rewards the corrupt and subservient ones, erodes the morale of honest officers. The Weberian bureaucratic model on which our system is based, provides for career growth through technical excellence in the field of duty. But, the rising instances of favouritism during promotion and the evident snub to deserving candidates, highlight the festering malaise of discrimination in the services.

But not all instances of misdemeanour stem from political interventions. The disproportionate assets stashed away by the IAS couple, Arvind and Tinoo Joshi, are testament to the personal greed and direct involvement of certain civil servants in corruption cases.

Opacity in Appointments

For appointment to high offices, the centre handpicks secretaries from a list of eligible candidates, the criteria for which is not available in the public domain. It is therefore assumed, that compliant officers are given plum postings by the government, even though they may have proved their mettle during a long tenure in office. Political acquiescence precedes merit here, or so it seems. More recently, the delay in appointing the Central Vigilance Commissioner and the Chief Information Commissioner, the curtailment of service of the former foreign secretary etc. were all perceived as exercises in political overreach. A transparent appointment process can serve to remove such discrepancies.

Remedies at Hand

To address the ethical lacunae in the services, an attempt to instil a modicum of integrity at the nascent stage itself was made through an additional paper on ‘Ethics, Integrity and Aptitude’ in the UPSC Civil Services (Main) Examination from 2013. Introduced just two years ago, this paper tests a candidate’s moral commitment and understanding of institutional practices through detailed case study questions.

An important first step was the much-touted directive of the Supreme Court to set up Civil Service Boards in each state to insulate civil services from political interference. Sadly, states accounting for 87 percent of the civil servants in India have failed to do so. No follow up action was taken to gauge the compliance of the court order. New ideas such as, greater scope for lateral entry to the services to check complacency among officers, make them more competent and foreign training for bureaucrats, to keep them at par with international standards of service delivery, are being floated in a bid to reinforce the ‘steel frame’. A consensus from the politicians is also needed to ensure the smooth implementation of any of such reformatory measures. A facilitating politician can work wonders for a bureaucracy in suspended animation.

So, Is All The Power Struggle Worthwhile?

The journey till the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration is fraught with struggle, hard work and sheer willpower, a ticket to which is cracking one of the toughest exams in the country. To an outsider, the ultimate destination is the training academy, but once you leave the prestigious institute, the rose-tinted spectacles come off. Gone are the dreamy visions of AC cars and spreading goodwill. Instead, there’s paper-pushing and being an obedient pawn in the grand scheme of things. As one of my friends jokingly remarked, “All that ceaseless determination to become a glorified clerk.”

However, the flickering hope for aspirants like me is the inspiring tale of officers like Rishi Raj Singh, Durga Shakti Nagpal and Ashok Khemka. These are individuals who refused to bow down or compromise their scruples and lived to tell the tale. They are the real achievers, who’ve not relinquished their spirit, but donned it as an armour to establish what they set out to do.

Or another silent group, which works relentlessly like clockwork, to usher in change at the grassroot of levels. From Operation Sulaimani to Student Police Cadet Project, they’ve calmly improved lives, unscrewing the nuts and bolts of a rigid social structure, feeding empty stomachs, nurturing the younger generation and wiping a tear or two from tired eyes that usually go unnoticed. No matter how jaded the circumstances, when a humble IPS officer, P Vijayan wins the Indian Of The Year Award (2014), beating the likes of Salman Khan and Sania Mirza, or when the vindicated bureaucrat, turned whistleblower, Sanjiv Chaturvedi bags this year’s Magsaysay Award, we can applaud the victory of grit and determination even in these times of despondence.

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  1. Avinesh Saini

    Abhishek Prakash is the most honest bureaucrat in the country. He is the DM of Bareily.

  2. AKHIL

    But my question is you being an engineer how come if you become a Civil Servant is going to bring an change.? The reason why I’m asking is the committee report which asked to implement the aptitude(CSAT) and ethics also asked to implement the introduction of criteria i.e, recruiting IAS officers only from P.G Degree in Public Administration or Public Policy or Public Governance and building an institute similar to USA’s John F Kennedy school of Government in India. So my question is whether lack of proper recruitment is also one of the reason in miss-management in our department apart from Political Interference that is destroying the system..????

    1. Arati


      You raise a very valid question and I tend to agree with you to a certain extent. Yes, certain lacunae in the recruitment process itself contribute to mismanagement, but as I have mentioned in the article this has more to do with the psyche of an individual probationer than the stream he/she had previously chosen to study. No matter if one studies physics, literature, medicine, public administration or engineering, what matters when he/she opts for a career in the civil services is the mentality to serve the nation. The expertise in policy making or governance can be gained through studying, training etc. but the problems plaguing our bureaucracy are more due to political interference or personal unethical conduct. Certain ethos that the services demand are woefully absent in many aspirants who view the IAS as a lottery to greater status and monetary benefits. I have cited an example in the write-up.

      No interview process can be foolproof as long as the interviewer cannot read a candidate’s mind. The interview board can only gauge a person’s character from the responses he/she offers.

      How can an engineer usher in change by being a civil servant? Well, the civil services are hardly one-dimensional. Even the government is mulling the possibility of lateral entry for experts from various domains. Also, as I’ve said before it depends on an individual’s drive to deliver than his/her proficiency with public policy, which, if I am not mistaken can be obtained in due course.

    2. Nanoosh

      Good article.. From seeing the examples can easily see that you are from Kerala.. I am also an IAS aspirant from (Or may be ex) Kerala. At first the syllabus had taken a whole lot out of me as myself is from engineering background but with serious determination and will i was able to cover almost all the topics except Pub Ad optional as you know one could never grasp it to the full but can only develop a better answer writing ability into it… the preparation itself had shown me so much difficulties… as i was a fresher out of college, high unemployment rate of my nation, my loss of time , friends.. change in attitude everything… but the inspiration or fire for me was always the opportunity to work for the poor and the oppressed and make a smile on their face… but for my disappointment more i become aware of my government and its functioning more i began to worry of the work i may have to do .. then i went though the lives of officers ike Rishi Raj, Alphonse Kannanthanam, Ashok Kemka, etc they were all tortures and they resisted it in thier high time and the ones like Raju Narayana Swamy couldnt stand it that they resigned… if they resigned in that high position i could just imagine what a entry level officer can do. Then i contacted many IPS officers many told me to look for IAS as they themselves suggested IPS is more hectic… but couldnt contact a senior IAS officer … evenif i do i am sure he will be missing his family life, his personnel life aand privacy.. but is this sacrifice worth to be an government clerk.. As you know the job doesnt guarantee us an experience required for any other job, so one will be compelled to cling to its position for survival… So wouldnt it be best to choose anothe social track to serve the society than to be Group A officer like the webers iron cage bureaucrat..!!!!

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