Scathing words and a withering assessment on the maladies of India’s civil services.

In the early, relatively idealistic decades after freedom, there was significant public faith in the uprightness and political neutrality of the higher civil services. It was elite in social character, but considered sympathetic to minorities and the poor.

There was less engagement in development initiatives, but generally greater fairness in situations of communal violence, and some implementation of redistributive justice laws such as land reforms.

The image of the higher civil services plunged in the seventies, especially because of its supine submission to the injustices of the Emergency, but also because of the continuous erosion of its reputation for probity. The eighties saw its social base broadening, but also its far greater — and open — complicity in large communal and caste pogroms, and plummeting integrity. Since the 1990s, the expectation that loosening bureaucratic controls over industry and trade would curtail corruption is completely belied. Instead, the new commitment to globalised private markets has spawned an era of undisguised crony capitalism, and the ethic of public welfare has been abandoned as outdated and anachronistic.

In an important recent monograph by National Social Watch, scholar administrator NC Saxena, a public intellectual of great integrity and social conscience, diagnoses the maladies of India’s higher civil services and suggests an imaginative range of possible prescriptions. Saxena worked for decades in the trenches of public service as a civil servant, and applies to this experience the surgical insights of a razor-sharp mind.

Saxena is scathing in his assessment of the Indian bureaucracy today. It is “a troubled institution” riddled with “a lack of professionalism, the creation of redundant posts, unsatisfactory structures of reward and punishment, and an inability to deliver services adequately”. Postings are often “dictated by vested interest of mafia gangs, organised criminals, builders’ lobby, contractors”. He observes that “over the years, whatever little virtues the civil services possessed — integrity, political neutrality, courage and high morale — are showing signs of decay”. Newer values emphasise “political loyalty, flexibility”, and several senior officials “have become a link between politicians and the business class”.

Today many civil servants in the course of their career “lose much of their dynamism and innovativeness, and end up as mere pen-pushers and cynics, with “stagnation in their intellectual capabilities”, “decline in self-esteem”, “disillusionment, pliability and corruption”. They have become agents of exploitation in a state structure which now (is)... authoritarian, brutal, directionless, and callous to the needs of the poor”. The Indian State is “being treated as a private property of those who are at the top, and this culture of using executive power for private gains has become the norm since then. So the Housing Minister thinks that all government houses and shops are her private property, and she can allot them to any one she liked, often for a price. The Petroleum Minister thinks that he can distribute any number of petrol and kerosene depots at his discretion. An impression exists that the State of India is an open treasury that can be looted at will.”

Strong words, but Saxena is not alone in his withering assessment. Even the official Second Administrative Reforms Commission (2008) is no less caustic: “the state apparatus is ... tardy, inefficient and unresponsive” with “most functionaries serving no useful purpose.... Corruption is all-pervasive, eating into the vitals of our system, undermining economic growth, distorting competition and disproportionately hurting the poor and marginalised citizens. Criminalisation of politics continues unchecked, with money and muscle power playing a large role in elections. ... Abuse of authority at all levels in all organs of state has become the bane of our democracy.”

Another official paper in 2009 brought out by the Department of Administrative Reforms in 2009 agrees, again with remarkable candour, that “the state and its apparatus, including the bureaucracy are treated not so much as a means of generating public goods but as a means of generating benefits for the particular group that controls the state”.

Saxena lays blame also on the people, who “have unfortunately accepted the position as fait accompli and resigned themselves to their fate. They too tend to seek short cuts and exploit the system by breaking rules or approaching mafia gangs and politicians for favours”. But solutions also lie potentially with the people: a “free press, judicial activism, and civil society action has emerged as a big corrective factor on the arbitrary use of executive power”. In a later column, I will review some of Saxena’s suggestions for reforming the civil service.

But how fair is his comprehensive indictment of the civil services today? My work on hunger, homelessness and mass communal violence takes me to distant corners of the country, where I have encountered many idealistic young officers, braving great odds in impoverished regions, often racked by conflict, trying to make a difference. There are among them unknown unsung heroes, sometimes courageously standing up for justice against their own governments who are complicit in communal massacres, corruption or forceful dispossession of poor communities. But still there is justice in Saxena’s overall despair about the corrosion of India’s steel frame, and its betrayal of its duties to the people of India and the Constitution. If it does not reclaim its mantle of defending the public good with courage, impartiality and integrity, its decline may be terminal.