It must be noted at the outset itself that in an unprecedented move that will significantly alter in a sharp departure from the past the way civil servants are inducted, marks secured by candidates in the UPSC civil services examination may not now be the sole criterion for allotting them the all-India service of their choice. The Centre is contemplating a radical change in the allocation of services to successful candidates of the civil services examination. Such an attempt has never been made before!
At the behest of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), this NDA government headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is assessing if the 15-week Foundation Course for new recruits at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration (LBSNAA) can be turned into a scoring exercise and if the service and cadre can be allocated based on their “performance” there. According to an official communiqué, the PMO has asked the concerned department to examine if the services can be allocated after the completion of the foundation course. PMO feels that the present system merits immediate and radical changes!
As is the norm till now, those who clear the civil services examination conducted by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) are allotted the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), Indian Foreign Service (IFS), Indian Police Service (IPS) and other Central Services based on their UPSC exam ranks well before the commencement of the foundation course. After that, they are sent to LBSNAA for training which starts with a 15-week Foundation Course before the recruits branch out to service-specific training programmes. In other words, the duration of the Foundation Course for officers of almost all the Central Services is three months.
As per the documents reviewed by the journalists, the PMO now wants to completely alter that process and allot services and cadres to candidates only after taking into account how they fare in the Foundation Course. As per the communication sent by the Personnel Ministry to different cadre-controlling authorities, the PMO has desired to examine if service allocation/cadre allocation to probationers selected can be made after the Foundation Course. It said that, “The departments have been asked to examine the feasibility of giving due weightage to the performance in the Foundation Course, and making service allocation as well as cadre allocation to all-India services officers based on the combined score obtained in the exam and the Foundation Course.”
To be sure, a Ministry official said that the departments have been asked to give their feed back on the proposal to allocate other Central Services such as the Indian Revenue Service and Indian Telecommunication Services. Letters have gone out from the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) to various cadre-controlling ministries, seeking their views on the proposed move. The letter dated May 17 from Vijoy Kumar Singh who is Joint Secretary, DoPT to various departments reads as such: “Examine the feasibility of giving due weightage to the performance in the Foundation Course and making service allocation as well as cadre allocation to All India Service Officers based on the combined score obtained in the Civil Services Examination as well as in the Foundation Course.”
Needless to say, if it is implemented, the move runs the high risk of turning the service-allocation as well as cadre-allocation exercise into a subjective process as the Foundation Course, designed to promote inter-service camaraderie, is a combination of activities carried out at the academy. The course consists of academic components such as public administration, law, political science, besides a number of extra-curricular activities such as trekking, village visits and interaction with fellow probationers. Any new change should not be made in a tearing hurry without due deliberation, proper discussion and a thorough debate on its pros and cons because it will have far reaching consequences on the governance quality in our country!
At present, the Foundation Course counts for 400 marks, but along with the other phases of the probation period, only goes towards establishing seniority within the batch, and in the IAS, is used as a marker for promotion in the official’s career. The latest move with far-reaching consequences to give weightage to the Foundation Course in determining the services and cadres has divided groups of serving and retired civil servants. While some have raised strong objections saying that the move could give rise to a trend where high-ranking candidates will no longer get services of their choice, others welcomed the idea.
Simply put, Padam Vir Singh who served as Director at LBSNAA and was at the Academy for 13 years before his retirement in 2014 said that, “It was not a bad idea at all”. According to him, the short interview that candidates give, after clearing the UPSC-conducted civil services exam wasn’t enough to “judge them properly”. He also pointed out that, “The idea of including the Foundation Course as part of the overall assessment of the candidate will help in getting the right people for the right service. The probationers themselves will be able to make a better choice after the Foundation Course by matching their ambition with their aptitude.” Upma Choudhary who is current Director of LBSNAA did not prefer to say anything on this.
Wajahat Habibullah who is a former Director of LBSNAA points out in his enlightening article titled “A bureaucracy of our times” dated May 31, 2018 in The Indian Express newspaper that, “The proposal is based on sound management principles. It is unfair to the recruiter and the recruited to fix a career on the basis of a single examination. Multiple attempts are allowed to qualify for the service. Thereafter, upon exposure to the contents of the proposed career, there is neither an opportunity to the employer nor the aspirant to determine whether this is the right job for her. Place this in the modern context, wherein a person whose caliber has been so tested will have many options before her. This is a positive step towards bringing the services in line with modern management practice. However, it will require a host of collateral reforms to succeed.”
Habibullah in this same enlightening editorial further points out that, “The LBSNAA, though ably led and staffed with outstanding faculty, is not equipped to make the evaluation necessary for so large a number of recruits in the short space of a few months. The Foundation Course is designed simply to acquaint the trainees with the service to which they are assigned and with colleagues from different services. It leads to life-long bonding, bringing an esprit de corps. But it is not a testing laboratory, nor can it be in the period assigned for a service of such vital importance. The government ought to reassess the entire structure of the civil service, instead of taking steps in fits and starts, to make public services more management-oriented and relevant to present challenges. The LBSNAA with its superb facilities would be the apposite instrument for formulating such a project. However, it would need to be restructured with training courses redesigned and faculty selected in line with the new demands.”
Truth be told, a senior UP-cadre bureaucrat was not very happy with this and was quoted in various newspapers as saying that, “It is a very bad idea. It will destroy the purpose for which officers go through the Foundation Course. If this idea goes through, there will be maaramaari (tussle). Probationers will compete for every mark so that they get the service of their choice. Sycophancy will reign supreme at the academy.” What wrong has he said? He has a valid point!
As it turned out, another senior civil servant said on condition of anonymity that, “There are village trips, trekking and a whole lot of activities that promote friendship across batches and also help in inter-departmental coordination throughout their careers. If the move is implemented, the Foundation Course will be reduced to impressing the course coordinator and that’s a highly subjective assessment.” Who can deny or dispute this? There is a lot of merit in what he has argued!
Going further, K Ashok Vardhan Shetty who is a retired IAS officer himself and a former Vice Chancellor of the Indian Maritime University while slamming this Centre’s proposal in his enlightening editorial titled “A blow to civil service ideals” published in ‘The Hindu’ newspaper dated May 28, 2018 makes the most convincing arguments and minces just no words in pointing out that, “The government has recently mooted a radical proposal for allocating services and cadres based on the combined marks obtained in the CSE and the foundation course. In other words, candidates who have cleared the CSE will have to wait till the foundation course is over to know which service and cadre they are likely to get. The government has said that this is a suggestion under consideration and that no final decision has been taken yet. There are good reasons to believe that the new proposal is legally unsound, administratively unfeasible and has not been thought through properly.”
Shetty further rightly points out that, “First, Articles 315 to 323 of the Constitution deal with Public Service Commissions of the Union and the States. Article 320(1) says: “It shall be the duty of the Union and the State Public Service Commission to conduct examinations for appointments to the services of the Union and the services of the State respectively.” Thus, the duty of conducting the CSE is vested only in the UPSC. If the marks secured in the foundation course in the training academy are included for allocation for services, it would make the training academy an extended wing of the UPSC, which it is not. Therefore the new proposal violates Article 320(1).”
Shetty is also right in holding that, “Second, the Chairperson and members of the UPSC are constitutional functionaries. Article 316 provides for security of their tenure and unchangeable conditions of service and Article 319 bars them from holding further office on ceasing to be members. These constitutional safeguards enable them to function independently without fear or favour. On the other hand, the Director of the training academy that conducts the foundation course is a career civil servant on deputation, and can be summarily transferred. The faculty members of the training academy are either career civil servants on deputation or academicians. Neither do they enjoy the constitutional protection that the UPSC members enjoy nor is there any bar on their holding further posts. This means that the Director and faculty members will not be able to withstand pressure from politicians, senior bureaucrats and others to give more marks to favoured candidates. They will actively try to please the powers-that-be in order to advance their own career prospects. There is also the grave risk of corruption in the form of ‘marks for money’ in the training academy. Politicisation and communalisation of the services are likely to take place from the beginning.” Absolutely right! This same argument extends to civil servants being made UPSC members immediately after retirement! This alone explains why I very strongly feel that even bureaucrats should not be allowed to become UPSC members just after retirement because they can be enticed by politicians to favour their kith and kin if they are made UPSC members! UPSC must be prevented from becoming a parking slot for those who are just tools in the hands of politicians! A mechanism must be evolved to check that the Director and faculty members of LBSNAA are totally immune from political interference which is a very difficult proposition!
It also cannot be lightly dismissed what Shetty points out in his third argument. He says that, “Third, the training academy has facilities to handle not more than 400 candidates for the foundation course. If this limit is exceeded, the foundation course will have to be conducted in other training academies situated in other cities. With only about 12 faculty members in the training academy in Mussorie, the trainer-trainee ratio for the foundation course is very high, and it will be impossible to do the kind of rigorous and objective evaluation that is required under the government’s new proposal. Needless to say, the evaluation of the trainees will be even less rigorous and objective when the foundation course is conducted in training academies situated elsewhere. It is well known that competition in the CSE is very intense. The difference of a few marks can decide whether a candidate will get the IAS or, say, the Indian Ordinance Factories Service. Therefore, the inclusion of the highly subjective foundation course marks can play havoc with the final rankings and with the allocation of services and cadres, and ruin countless careers.” Well said!
Shetty in his fourth and final argument points out elegantly that, “Fourth, while about 600-1,000 candidates are selected every year for all the services put together, nearly 60-70% of the candidates qualifying for the IPS and Central Services Group A do not join the foundation course in Mussorie as they prepare for the civil services (main) examination again to improve their prospects. Clearly, it is not possible to evaluate such candidates in the foundation course as contemplated in the new proposal. They cannot be compelled to attend the foundation course because that would amount to depriving them of their chance of taking the examination again. So, the new proposal is administratively unworkable.”
Bluntly put, there can be no denying that the civil services in India now do need some reforms as the steel frame has rusted over the last few decades! But the reforms must be meaningful and in the right direction! Just inserting ‘cosmetic changes’ and ‘baby steps’ won’t bring about the desired change in the functioning of the civil servants!
Shetty in his concluding remark rightly concludes that, “Nobody denies that the steel frame of the Indian civil services has turned somewhat rusty and need reform. But what is odd about the new proposal is that it seeks to tinker with precisely that aspect of the civil services – recruitment – that is least in need of reform. The real problems of the civil services are not with recruitment; they are with what happens after an officer joins the system. Even the best and the brightest can lose their bearings in a system that places a premium on loyalty, political connections and community/caste clout rather than on merit; in which indecision and inaction are seldom punished, while performers stand a greater chance of getting into trouble as they take more decisions; which pays lip service to honesty but is thoroughly rotten inside and expects officers to either shape up or ship out; in which performance appraisal is based more on the personal likes and dislikes of one’s superiors than on actual work done; in which, as Sardar Patel said, “exercising the independence to speak out one’s mind” means to ask for trouble; and in which frequent, arbitrary and punitive transfers have become the order of the day. The Government of India would do well to fix these systemic shortcomings rather than unsettle the settled method of recruitment.” But the real tragedy is that the Government of India has never been interested in fixing these systemic shortcomings! It never wants to give up its discretionary power of repeatedly extending the tenure of its favourite bureaucrats as Cabinet Secretary even though when it comes to Army Chief, it is not prepared to give even a slight justified extension as we saw in case of Gen VK Singh (retd) whose date of birth was wrongly entered in the records of MS branch which is not the right branch for age proof even though everywhere else in AG branch, his identity card etc his date of birth was the one which was correct! He was forced to retire much earlier! This must end! Even other bureaucrats must be given a chance to become Cabinet Secretary! Just one officer alone should not be given repeated extensions nor should they be made UPSC members immediately after retirement! But Centre never undertakes any reform on this! This is the real tragedy!
Harsh Mander who is himself a former eminent civil servant questions the latest move by PMO in his enlightening editorial titled “PMO’s proposed changes in civil services allocation are an attempt to weaken India’s steel frame” published in the website Scroll.in on May 30 and minces no words in saying candidly that, “The selection process is untainted by nepotism, by subjective bias and prejudice, by individual likes and dislikes. The suggested reforms would change all this.”
Harsh Mander in this very same enlightening editorial also pulls back no punches in pointing out that, “During the two decades that I served in the Indian Administrative Service, I would often wonder why our country’s founding fathers and mothers chose to retain in democratic India the permanent civil services patterned closely after the colonial civil services, preserving also its grand trappings of large colonial bungalows and liveried staff. The puzzle was greater in the districts, in which the District Collector functions virtually as the head of a district government. When the country was boldly willing to rely on governments elected through universal adult franchise at the Union and state levels, why did we opt for unelected functionaries selected through a merit-based system to run the district government; after all this was the level of government closest to the large mass of people – the working classes, farmers and homemakers. The same question returned to me when I read of the so-called reform that the Prime Minister’s Office has proposed in the mode of selecting civil servants to various administrative services. At present there is an arduous marathon (to which many bright and ambitious young people devote several of the best years of their youth) of a written examination followed by an interview, supervised by the Union Public Services Commission. This selection process, whatever its flaws, is nonetheless the most credible in the country for its objectivity and integrity (more so than even the selection of the members of the higher judiciary, which remains enveloped in worries about judges choosing other judges on subjective and non-transparent grounds). Candidates for the higher civil services are selected based on their scores in this examination. It is this score which determines if they get the service of their choice: whether the candidate will be a foreign diplomat, an officer initially deputed to run the administration of districts, member of the police, an income tax officer, an official who will oversee the country’s accounts, or one who will manage cantonment lands, or run the country’s railways. The far-reaching change that is being proposed is that the examination run by the Union Public Services Commission would now only determine if a candidate is among the roughly 1,000 or so officers who will be allotted to any of these diverse services (which as you can imagine are vastly differently valued). What the Prime Minister’s Office wishes to do is to evaluate the trainee officers in the Foundation Course, add these scores to their examination scores, and allot them to various services based on this combined score. All officers to all the higher civil services – what are called the Class One services – begin their training together for around three months, in what is called the Foundation Course. This is the only time in their service career that officers allotted to diverse higher services spend time together, and are introduced together to public service.”
While craving for the exclusive indulgence of my esteemed readers, let me inform them that Harsh Mander also in this very enlightening editorial minced no words in making it absolutely clear that he is not very happy with the cureent proposals made by the PMO. He says that, “I am among the many who are intensely alarmed by this proposal, and believe that if implemented it will strike at the heart of, and ultimately destroy, one more public institution among the many that have been profoundly damaged by the Bharatiya Janata Party government led by Narendra Modi. Current selection system is fair One might ask, quite rightly: Does the higher civil not need reform? And if so, what is wrong with trying out what the Prime Minister’s Office has proposed? To answer this, I must return to the question with which I began this essay: Why did newly-Independent India not cast away a civil service established by our colonial masters? Sardar Patel famously described the Indian Administrative Service as India’s “steel frame”. India accomplished freedom amidst fearsome violence based on religious strife. There were myriad other potential fractures in this fledging nation – of language, ethnicity, caste, class and many others. The expectation was that a great deal of this could tear India apart, and that its multiple ruptures could be aggravated by competitive politics. It was a small band of carefully selected civil servants who would be expected to hold the country together, with fairness, firmness, integrity, independence and compassion. This was to be India’s steel frame. At senior levels of government, power would vest with the elected executive, as it should. But here again, it was the higher civil services that were expected to fearlessly offer independent advice to their ministers. Sardar Patel said to his officers, “Today my Secretary can write a note opposed to my views. I have given that freedom to all my secretaries. I have told them, ‘If you do not give your honest opinion for fear that it will displease your Minister, please then you had better go.’ I will never be displeased over a frank expression of opinion.” Looking back to the past 70 years, it is evident to all that India’s higher civil services have failed to live up to the lofty faith that the country’s founding fathers and mothers had placed on them. There have indeed been several civil servants who have contributed valuably to public service and nation building. But taken collectively, as a tribe, there can be no doubt that the higher civil services have let the country down at moments in our history it was needed most. For instance, during the Emergency, during communal massacres such as in Nellie in 1983, in Delhi in 1984, Gujarat in 2002, and indeed the rising tide of mob lynchings in current times, when the Babri Masjid was pulled down, during caste massacres, in implementing land reforms, in building a robust set of public services of education and healthcare for all citizens, and in designing and implementing programmes to combat poverty, to name only a few. If the higher civil services have in these ways failed to live up fully to their promise to the country, why should we not give the proposed reforms a chance? This is because the proposed remedy would be far worse than the malady. For the civil services to fulfil the mandate that the country placed on their shoulders, we require women and men of courage of conviction, integrity, compassion, a deep sense of justice, convinced about the equality of castes and genders, untainted by communal, caste and patriarchal prejudice, and imbued with a deep sense of public service. There is admittedly nothing in the present mode of recruitment of civil servants that tests any of these qualities. What the Union Public Services Commission examinations test is not even high academic merit, but academic stamina and perseverance. But the high distinction of this selection process, unmatched by any other in the public sector, is its integrity and fairness. It is untainted by nepotism, by subjective bias and prejudice, by individual likes and dislikes. The proposed reform would change all this profoundly. The fate of the 1,000-odd officers who are selected for the wide range of public services would now lie in the hands of a few officers appointed to the Lal Bahadur National Academy of Administration who would be empowered to give them scores that would dramatically determine their future lives and work. These assessments would inevitably be highly subjective and opaque, reflecting the ideologies, world-views, social and cultural biases, personal attractions and idiosyncrasies of the superior officers. With all their failings, whatever credibility the higher civil services still retain is because of the undisputed integrity of its selection process. At least the merit of its selection process, whatever its other flaws, cannot be faulted for personal bias, even less corruption. If this proposed change is introduced in the garb of reform, then it will surely be the death-knell of an already enfeebled cadre of public officials. It would also vitiate completely the best period of a civil servant’s training. I underwent the Foundation Course in 1980, and I was a member of the faculty that ran these courses for three years, between 1993 and 1996. We were free to design our training programmes as we chose. In our time, we believed that the early training of the young officers should encourage young civil servants to reflect, question, dissent; to imbibe the values of the Constitution and of public service; to understand the country’s problems, their causes and possible solutions; to combat bigotry and patriarchy; to nurture their idealism; and to encourage integrity, courage, empathy, truth and a sense of justice. These are difficult goals, and our success was at best partial. But think of what would happen if young officers who gather in the Foundation Course realise that the rest of their lives will depend on what a few senior officers think of them. There would be no space whatsoever for any genuine ethical or social reflection or growth. Or indeed to build friendships that sometimes last a lifetime. All that would happen is that from the first day of their appointment, they would learn the lessons of conformity, of sycophancy, and of destructive competition with their peers, leaving no place for comradeship or the kindling or strengthening of idealism. Destroying another public institution The question then arises: Why is Prime Minister Modi contemplating such a fundamental change that would destroy the very institution that was crafted by leaders like Sardar Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru to hold the country together? I can see only one rationale from his perspective. During his entire tenure, his government has packed every institution with persons committed to the ideological world-view of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. One institution that it has not had success with so far is the higher civil services: the government is free to appoint persons who lack merit but score well in ideological compatibility to important positions, but it cannot influence the selection of officers of the higher civil services. If the proposed change comes through, then this would no longer be the case. It would be entirely possible for the government to pack the Lal Bahadur National Academy of Administration with officers committed to the ideology of the Sangh, and also to market fundamentalism. They could then select officers with the same ideological sympathies for the most sensitive administrative and police services. What is more, once a government is voted out of power, ideologically committed vice-chancellors, judges, heads of public cultural centres, and so on, can be changed. But not civil servants. They are part of the permanent civil service, and will remain in positions of authority long after a government is removed by the democratic process. The Sangh believes in a Hindu nation, not a nation in which all people of very faith have equal rights safeguarded by the Constitution. In its turbulent four-year stewardship of our country, there is much that the Modi government has destroyed in our public institutions. The civil services is one institution that must be defended, otherwise even its rusted and debilitated steel frame will collapse, and India will lie in even greater danger of falling apart.”
Harsh Mander has a valid point in what he has said. Centre must pay heed to what he has said. After all, he is a former experienced and eminent civil servant known for his integrity and impeccable character! Centre must not brush aside lightly whatever he has pointed out in his enlightening editorial which I have cited myself in my article.
It has to be acknowledged though that this idea of probation period to be counted for determining the ranking is itself is not new. In 1989, a Committee headed by historian Satish Chandra had recommended that the examination for the recruitment be divided into three stages – the preliminary examination, the main examination as well as a Foundation Course – before the service and cadre is allotted to the successful candidates. The Committee had in turn cited the report of the Kothari Committee (1974-76), headed by scientist and educationist DS Kothari who had a similar opinion. Any decision on this must be taken only after prolonged discussion, meaningful debate and due deliberation! No tearing hurry should be made in arriving at a decision just to appease the PMO because that can never be good for the long term interests of the civil servants who form the bedrock of the governance in our country!
Many civil servants apprehend that it could have high potential for misuse. A civil servant added on the condition of anonymity that, “Service allocation after foundation course will have tremendous potential for misuse unless it is done objectively and in a transparent way.” With the proposal coming from the PMO, it would be difficult for the cadre-controlling ministries to say no, he added. Another senior bureaucrat termed the proposal as being “sinister”. “If the service and the cadre allocation are determined on the combined score of the civil services examination and the score or performance of the foundation course, it will dilute the role of UPSC by increasing the interference of the executive,” the officer said.
Yet another bureaucrat from the IAS said that it would lead to a lot of arbitrariness. “The papers, the subjects…the faculty and also the overall standards ….everything is different for different foundation courses. As result, there would be a lot of arbitrariness in something as crucial as service allocation for which candidates put in so much effort,” the officer said. He also lamented that, “It is also unhealthy to make the probationers compete from day one of their foundation course; the camaraderie among them will be lost.” No doubt, Centre has to dwell, deliberate and debate very minutely and properly on this before taking any decision on this as it will have very potential far reaching consequences for not just civil servants themselves but also on the quality of governance that will be on roll in our country!
Sanjeev Sirohi, Advocate,
s/o Col BPS Sirohi,
A 82, Defence Enclave,
Sardhana Road, Kankerkhera,
Meerut – 250001, Uttar Pradesh.