The main bricks to use in India’s steel frame

Compassion and honesty are what must guide successful entrants into the still fiercely competitive civil service

August 11, 2020 12:02 am | Updated 12:02 am IST

When the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) announces the results of the Civil Services Main examination every year and the list of successful candidates, amidst all the fanfare it is legitimate for us to reflect on a few fundamental questions: Are the right type of men and women being inducted into the higher bureaucracy? Is there any mid-career review of their performance, so that the misfits and the dishonest are weeded out? Both these questions are extremely relevant if we want to see an upgradation in the quality of service to the poor.

Still a major draw

The UPSC has, without doubt, a strenuous protocol. The process is clinical and as objective as possible. There is reason to believe (unlike many of its State counterparts) the UPSC is an honest organisation which allows no latitude to the few venal elements that may occasionally be inadvertently drawn into the various stages of the selection process. Evaluating civil service recruits for their intelligence and integrity is a difficult exercise if one takes into account that many attributes go into the fabric of a credible and performing civil service. Also, we are too diverse a nation, with a huge population of rising expectations to construct a one-size-fits-all reform formula.

Also read: 16 qualify in UPSC exam from J&K, Ladakh

What is heartening is that several lakh Indian youth take the examination every year. Its popularity continues to grow despite the many hurdles which include a preliminary weeding out test, possibly because the challenges of a position in public service are still attractive and incentives in the form of salary and allowances are enlarging. I am happy that there are many success stories of children from the hitherto neglected sections of society making the grade. All this despite the cynicism with which many citizens now view a public servant, high and low. The competition is intense and spectacular. Only about 900 candidates, that is less than 4% of those who appear for the preliminary examination, ultimately get appointed.

The change now

When my generation made a bid for selection in the 1960s, we were just about 15,000 to 20,000 candidates in the race for the same number of openings. There was also no preliminary examination which now cruelly eliminates a majority of applicants. The current stiff process of selection induces many of us in my age group to believe that most of us would not have passed muster under the present scheme of the examination. In the UPSC list released a few days ago, 304 candidates were from the General category and 78 from the Economically Weaker Sections. Other Backward Classes (251), Scheduled Castes (129) and Scheduled Tribes (67) constituted the rest of the group of successful candidates. Women among these were about 150, one of them bagging the third rank among all appointees. Undoubtedly, this phenomenon has brought about a new attitude and drive to achieve, which were not fully visible earlier. As usual there are a number of engineers who have made the grade. Two candidates from Tamil Nadu were visually challenged. Nothing can touch us more. Success stories of disadvantaged members of society such as these candidates should help to dilute the age-old prejudice against those who are challenged. The enormous care taken by successive governments to make our higher civil services reflect social diversity is commendable. This is as it should be in a country where despite all the gory happenings of violence in some regions, there is a desire to push forward to empower the poor and weaker sections.

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On the ground

However, can we rest content with the incremental progress that we have achieved towards transforming the image of the civil service? Not at all. My reservation is mainly on account of the two major charges levelled against the higher civil services, especially the Indian Administrative Service and the Indian Police Service (IPS) wherever we go within the country. These are to do with the glaring insensitivity to the poor citizen and the greed that still afflicts a segment of the civil service.

The District Collector and the District Superintendent of Police are the two powerful and visible symbols of the administration. There are 739 districts in India and as many Collectors and SPs. Although the penchant of many State governments to create more small districts escalates administrative expenses, tiny districts make officials more easily available to the common man in distress, who looks up to the officialdom for assistance almost on a daily basis. If a Collector and an SP are inaccessible (as is the case in most of our districts) it shows the whole administration in a bad light. There are a few young officers who are different from the majority and put their heart and soul into the task of alleviating the miseries of the poor. It is this band of officers who should somehow be enlarged and quickly. The sheer workload of a Collector and SP may prevent them from finding time to interact with every citizen. But this reality does not convince the citizen who feels squarely aggrieved that only the rich and not the poor can get things done in post-Independence India.

This unfortunate situation is exacerbated by the fact that officials at the lower levels of the bureaucracy are either insensitive or demand illegal gratification to provide a service which is the fundamental right of every citizen. In spite of admirable reforms, major and tiny, brought about by the present central government, the common belief is that very few things get done at the bottom of the pyramid of government without greasing somebody’s palm. As someone put it, in many countries in the West, a citizen will have to offer a bribe to persuade a civil servant to omit doing something which he is legally required to do. In India, one will have to resort to bribing a public servant to compel him to do something which he is enjoined by law to do. Nothing can be a more damaging commentary on the state of our civil service.

State of the police

I am particularly concerned about the situation that prevails in our police stations. There are more than 15,000 of them in the country. A number of them have no doubt distinguished themselves with their readiness to serve the not-so literate and the poor. Sadly, a majority still have a blemished record of ill-treating the poor. As a result, a police station has become an institution that is shunned by the law-abiding citizen. This is where I would like to see a qualitative improvement in policing which has to be ushered in by the new IPS recruits.

Wherever they see injustice or violence against unsuspecting citizens, it will be for them to rise in protest and instil sense in their subordinate ranks as well as their supervisors. There is a real danger of the image of the Indian Police diminishing further if the incoming young officers just mark their time and do not put their foot down when it comes to unethical practices. We have a large core of enlightened senior IPS officers who can mould the character of the new entrants. If they do not play this desperately needed role, they will have betrayed the confidence that the father of the civil service, Sardar Vallabhai Patel, reposed in the IPS and the IAS.

R.K. Raghavan is a former CBI Director and a former High Commissioner of India to Cyprus

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