Comment

IAS shortfall at the Centre: Incorrect diagnosis, wrong remedy

Former Chief Secretary of West Bengal Alapan Bandyopadhyay who was the centre of a Centre-State tussle last year.

Former Chief Secretary of West Bengal Alapan Bandyopadhyay who was the centre of a Centre-State tussle last year. | Photo Credit: PTI

The amendments proposed to Rule 6(1) of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) (Cadre) Rules of 1954, which seek to empower the Central government to unilaterally order the Central deputation of IAS officers without the consent of the State governments or the officers concerned, have provoked controversy. The Centre has justified them on the ground that the States are not meeting their Central Deputation Reserve (CDR) obligations because of which the Centre is suffering from an acute shortage of mid-level IAS officers, especially Deputy Secretaries and Directors.

It is true that some States like Tamil Nadu (until a few years ago) and West Bengal were recalcitrant and would not forward the names of even willing IAS officers for Central deputation. But the fact that all the States, including the BJP-ruled ones, are not meeting CDR obligations indicates that their reluctance to forward names to the Centre is not the real problem. We believe that there are simpler, more effective and less contentious solutions to the shortage than the proposed amendments. In fact, once the root causes of the shortage are identified, the solutions suggest themselves.

Causes of shortage

The first cause of the shortage was the drastic reduction in the annual recruitment of IAS officers after 1991 (from 140-160 to just 50-80) under the misguided notion that the government will have a reduced role due to economic liberalisation. That didn’t happen. It took nearly 20 years for the Centre to correct this mistake and restore the annual recruitment to pre-1991 levels. As of January 1, 2021, the shortage of IAS officers at the all-India level was 23%. The number of IAS officers recruited annually should be increased to around 200 for a few years as a short-term measure.

The second cause is lackadaisical “cadre review”. This is an exercise conducted jointly by the Centre and the States to designate certain strategic posts in the States as “cadre posts” and earmark them exclusively for IAS officers. In Tamil Nadu, it is unconscionable that posts like Commissioner of Disciplinary Proceedings, Commissioner of Archaeology, and Commissioner of Museums have been designated as cadre posts. A proper cadre review in all the States will release many IAS officers from non-strategic posts and reduce the shortage. At the Centre, there is a strong case for downsizing the bloated Central Ministries dealing with subjects in the State List and the Concurrent List, thereby reducing the demand for IAS officers and the CDR obligations of the States.

The third cause is the ill-advised discontinuance of direct recruitment of officers to the Central Secretariat Service Group B since 2000, and undue delays in the regular promotions of officers from the ranks in the Central Secretariat due to protracted litigation since 2011. These officers used to occupy a sizeable proportion of Deputy Secretary/Director-level posts in the Central Secretariat.

The fourth cause is the complete non-utilisation by the Centre of the services of officers who are appointed to the IAS by promotion or selection from the State Civil Services. This large pool of around 2,250 officers, usually in the age bracket of 35-55 years, who have immense field experience, remains State-bound. It should be made mandatory for these officers to work for at least two years on Central deputation as Deputy Secretaries/Directors immediately after their appointment to the IAS and their training in Mussoorie. Their next promotion in their State cadre should be subject to their completing this mandatory period of Central deputation. Officers who are over 50 years of age at the time of appointment may be exempted. This can solve the problem of shortage of Deputy Secretary/Director-level officers at the Centre in one stroke.

The fifth cause is the numerous administrative barriers to Central deputation imposed by the Centre itself in the form of highly restrictive conditions, perverse incentives, annual lapsing of offer lists, long debarment periods, compulsory cooling-off periods, etc. Expecting directly recruited IAS officers to work for at least two years as Deputy Secretaries/Directors between nine and 16 years of service for empanelment as Joint Secretaries at the Centre is unwise because this is precisely the phase when they are working in posts with good job content, power, prestige and perks. So, a large number of them do not go on Central deputation and fail to get empaneled as Joint Secretaries, which automatically eliminates them from future empanelment as Additional Secretaries and Secretaries.

Proposed solution

We suggest that it should be made mandatory for directly recruited IAS officers to serve at least three years on Central deputation between nine and 25 years of service. Their promotion to Principal Secretary grade in their State cadre (usually after 25 years) should be subject to their completing this mandatory period of Central deputation. This wider window will enable IAS officers to opt for Central deputation at their convenience and the Centre will also be assured of a steady, adequate supply of deputationists.

The process of empanelment of IAS officers for the posts of Joint Secretary, Additional Secretary and Secretary (or their equivalent) at the Centre is much reviled for being opaque and arbitrary. The Centre should directly choose its Joint Secretaries, Additional Secretaries and Secretaries from among IAS officers “on offer” who are officiating in equivalent grades in State governments through a process of selection — in much the same manner as it chooses Deputy Secretaries/Directors. This will make a larger, better talent pool available to the Centre and enable officers to use the experience gained in the State at various levels in the service of the Centre.

We are, therefore, of the view that the proposed amendments are a case of diagnosing the malaise incorrectly and applying a wrong remedy that has serious side effects. It should be noted that even if the proposed amendments come into force, States can still scuttle Central deputations by giving adverse performance assessments or foisting false disciplinary and vigilance cases against the officers. This dystopian scenario actually played out in Tamil Nadu some years ago with “he/she is a below-average officer” being the favoured adverse comment.

Persuasion succeeds where force fails. The shortfall in CDR obligations is not a problem that the Cabinet Secretary cannot solve by having a constructive dialogue with all the Chief Secretaries, or the Prime Minister cannot solve by holding a meeting with all the Chief Ministers. The Inter-State Council constituted under Article 263 of the Constitution is the institution meant specifically for handling such Centre-State situations before things get out of hand.

It is worth recalling that in 1947, India lost nearly 60% of its Indian Civil Service officers – British and Muslim – when the country was beset with far greater challenges than today. Sardar Patel showed great sagacity and overcame the shortage within a few years by working with the provinces (as they were called then) rather than against them. The sanctity of the principle of cooperative federalism and the interests of national unity and administrative efficiency demand nothing less.

K. Ashok Vardhan Shetty is a former IAS officer of the Tamil Nadu cadre and V. Ramani is a former IAS officer of the Maharashtra cadre


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Printable version | Jul 1, 2022 10:16:03 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/oped-on-simpler-solutions-to-solve-the-problem-of-fewer-ias-officers-at-the-centre/article65048510.ece