Updated: August 1, 2011 23:12 IST

Taking a second look at the civil service

A. S. Padmanabhan
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THE SERVICE OF THE STATE — The IAS Reconsidered: Bhaskar Ghose; Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New
Delhi-110017. Rs. 499.
THE SERVICE OF THE STATE — The IAS Reconsidered: Bhaskar Ghose; Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 499.

At a time when the Indian Administrative Service has ceased to be the first choice of the bright graduates, a retired member of the corps reflects on its relevance. As he recapitulates his experience while serving in different capacities, one also gets a clear idea about the governmental structure and organisation at the Central and State levels.

Bhaskar Ghose's memoirs vary from the hilarious to the poignant. He, as Assistant Magistrate, and the sub-divisional officer, who was two years senior to him, did not know how to draft a jail warrant when a mob was attacking the police unit outside a steel factory. Each thought the other would know: but as neither did they drafted a warrant in a layman's language inviting the wrath of the Additional District Magistrate who called the draft ‘garbage'.

While in the Union Ministry of Social Welfare, Ghose found his able deputy Lal Advani particularly sensitive to others' disability. For a long time, he did not know Mr. Advani was blind. Once, when power went off, Mr. Advani, used he was to darkness, cheered up an upset Ghose. The author gratefully acknowledges that this experience helped him shed many of his misconceptions about the disabled.

On bonding

Speaking of ‘bonding' in the services, Ghose suggests he experienced more of it in the training school than while in the regular service either at the State or the Centre. He also remembers how he was a victim to the lobbying done by his own batch-mate. On another occasion, the Commissioner of the Delhi Municipal Corporation, a junior officer, proved very difficult in an Archaeological Survey of India-related matter. The ‘bonding' is limited to the ease of entry into each other's room and nothing more.

Ghose recalls an occasion when the Air Force Chief flew in to meet him and apologise for the rashness displayed by his men while air-dropping relief packets. He promised to take action against them departmentally and pleaded that the proposed magisterial enquiry be dropped. Such an instance of the topmost officer coming to the rescue of the low-ranked cadre is rarely come across in the civil service.

As insurgency was brewing in Kashmir, Ghose and the Union Minister in charge of Kashmir affairs were told by the disgruntled youth of malpractices in recruitment to government service. Realising the seriousness of the situation, the Minister wanted to move vigorously against this major cause of disaffection. But the Governor of Jammu and Kashmir did not see eye to eye with him. Soon thereafter, the Minister resigned. A classic case of the powers that be failing, or refusing, to see the warning signals early enough and taking corrective measures.

The author is less than charitable in his assessment of the internal financial advisers at the Centre, when he talks about their calling the shots in any discussion with suppliers and reducing the Joint Secretaries to just mute witnesses. Any good finance officer — even one from the IAS itself — can appear exasperatingly obstructive to a general administrator. But then, the system needs such a check all the more now when the outgo from the public exchequer (both in the States and the Centre), especially by way of subsidy, is staggeringly high. In the absence of it, all budgetary calculations will go awry.


Ghose feels that, given the wide range of assignments its cadre are entrusted with — each challenging in its own way — the IAS has a slight edge over the other services. In the event, he says, administration is nothing but management as it is understood by the common man, and one has to rely more one's own wits, instinct, and luck.

The whole question of the ‘relevance' of the IAS is aptly summed up by an officer of the very first batch (1948) quoted in the book: “… you can have any kind of [civil] service that you want, because it matters little; we have our political systems making all the decisions, and we accept these, so how long will a service survive?”

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