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The World of the Civil Service

Dr.B.Ashok IAS

Many youngsters aspiring for joining IAS, IPS etc start day dreaming after seeing the district officers-District Magistrates or Superintendents of Police in action or through depiction of brave officers battling crime or working on development issues in movies or media. Officers at the cutting edge having territorial charges like DMs and SPs have great visibility and these posts give opportunity to be in the limelight of the press during elections, high profile functions, VIP visits etc. While getting superficially inspired at this screen-bravado it is equally important to understand that such highly visible positions may not be available throughout in these services.

In a standard career spanning three decades (if you join well within 30 years of age) postings as DM /SP etc. are possible only for an average of five to six years. Even when one is in the so called visible posts more time will be consumed in planning, conducting or attending meetings (communicating), drafting reports and laws, taking stock of and directing your subordinates etc. Since administration is top heavy in India, quite a bit of time will be spent attending routine matters like personnel matters of subordinates also.

In a sense, the most visible layers are also preparatory stages for officers to be groomed as senior policy makers. At senior policy levels like Secretary to government you have opportunity to work with the highest echelons of democratic governance and see the leadership in action. Usually officers who prove themselves in the field positions have a better chance of being excellent policy makers, due to their deep grass root level experience, concurrent preparation and hard work.

Many youngsters swallow this myth that once you clear the IAS exam the system takes you to the top without checking one’s credentials and achievement. This is just not correct. Being a preeminent service enjoying lower applicant-success ratios, career progression in IAS and most services are automatic if there are no adverse points like disciplinary action or too poor assessment reports compiled by superiors till 18 years. After 18 years officers are reevaluated for suitability to work in the senior posts of government of India. These posts of Joint secretaries, Additional secretaries and Secretaries, numbering about 500 are extremely vital, handling thousands of crores of financial powers and monitoring and execution of central and state projects spread out across the country. Only about 55% of a batch are selected to become JS, 35% as additional secretaries and 25-30% depending on vacancies as full Secretaries. Cabinet Secretary, the head of the civil service and enjoying a cabinet position is usually a very competent senior secretary selected at the highest level on the basis of merit, performance, seniority and of course political preference. Very few officers rise to be the CS, the first civil officer of the Union of India.

IAS officers spend roughly about 12 years as Joint secretaries in the Union or equivalents in the states formulating policy or running projects in their ministry or heading state government departments in the states. While the political heads of the Government are indeed politicians, many a time their expertise in general administrative matters like how to legislate or answer the Parliament and the subject area may be limited until they are adequately experienced. Civil servants from the higher services act as executive translators to the technocrats in the area as well as the political bosses. While many Ministries have large cadres of technical specialists as in the Ministries of environment, agriculture or telecom, they lack first hand exposure to field level implementation in the varied conditions in the different states. The IAS and other field services bring their translational and transformational skills in formulating new policies and projects.
It is important to know that IAS and IPS in addition to being such bridges between generalist politicians and highly focused technocrats, also serve a highly useful nation building activity by just being there. The rotational tenure of these services drawn from various state cadres ensures that the government of India has multi-regional specialism. When a matter pertaining to North-Eastern states is being discussed, the concerned Ministry is likely to have officers having first hand field experience there and their input could be very valuable. Various state governments who benefit from national projects also get a sense of belonging when they talk to officers speaking the regional languages, though not domiciled in that state. The problem of maintaining a representative and equitable central service is also solved by rotating expertise from various states and amongst services. I must add that at lower levels in central government at levels of deputy secretary (nine years of seniority) and director (13 years) it is usual to find many officers belonging to central services also. At JS and above the field is dominated by the IAS except in certain ministries.

The IAS and other service officers working with Union government work on tenure posts. This means that they enjoy a fixed term post, usually 4-5 years. They have to return to the states of allocation after that and stay for a minimum of three years before rejoining. An officer therefore may work in stints in Delhi only for 3-4 terms in the entire career. In fact 20 years in state and 15 years in Government of India seems to be a common split.

All India service officers (IAS, IPS and Foreign Service) also work on deputations outside government. This, undertaken with permission of government is a foreign deputation usually with non- profits and multilateral development agencies like World Bank or UNO agencies. In fact many IAS officers who have higher degrees in engineering, medicine, economics, finance, management etc go the World Bank etc due to their field experience and academic excellence. At one time there were about 40 Indian officers from various services in the World Bank making us the most recruited national service. Similarly there have been several deputy heads of UN agencies and Under -Secretaries general in even very specialized agencies. IPS officers work in UN Missions to other countries and IFS officers to UN Agencies in environment, climate change etc.
In terms of applicant preference IAS, IRS, IPS and IFS seems to have an edge over others in the recent years. IAAS and Railways services also enjoy strong following. While IAS remains the clear favorite with nearly all of applicants filling it as first option, the support for IRS is rising. Urban postings, creature comforts and social status seem to be the basis. Police has always attracted candidates who fail to make the IAS grade only narrowly, now every batch gets a few who prefer it as a first choice also.

The parity of services is a hotly debated issue in circles of government. Come every pay commission and almost all services clamor to get the IAS’s service terms for themselves. After comparing all arguments, the current position is that successive pay commissions have identified the need to have one preeminent service for the need for cadre and inter service management. IAS enjoys primacy through higher notional pay scales, faster promotions and larger number of central posts. This position is changing fast and all services are getting better and better deals in the states as well as centre.

To my mind, the IPS and the IFS (Foreign) services suffer from the present pattern of recruitment which selects 35-40% professionals in the exam. IPS is not everyone’s job and unlike Forest service does not insist on a pre-entry medical fitness test. As a result a vast majority of candidates come into IPS with inadequate physical preparation, as a second option and are obsessed with taking further attempts to try and join IAS in the next years. This results in the whole batch not training together and also trainees not being serious as they should be.IRS also face the same issue.

Foreign Service is altogether a different ball game now with the need for professionalism and competence being felt acutely now. Far from a benign etiquette service, today’s diplomats are required to be jet setting commercial players and leaders tacking many challenges including combating terrorism that need global coordination. Many candidates who just fill IFS as one of the options realize that they do not have the temperament to take on the job quite late. Also an engineer or doctor may find himself in the blues without basic academic inkling for taking up a career in diplomacy and international relations. Similarly candidates who want to be with the family frequently and have heavy domestic commitments like younger siblings etc are not advised to join IFS which needs prolonged absence from the country. I think these problems need good soul searching from aspirants as well as the UPSC. It may be a good idea to make certain physical standard tests compulsory for IPS and an aptitude paper compulsory for Foreign Service. A candidate who sails through, despite a poor interview on account of poor communication into IFS in the strength of good Math may be a waste to both Math and Diplomacy.

The perks for civil servants are quite satisfactory these days and services are no longer ill paid. Take home salaries now range from Rs 30,000 at start (with conveyance and residence plus telephones) to about Rs 200,000 at the highest levels. Many services enjoy subsidized transport; leave travel concessions and generous career upgrading training. Generally officers get at least twice the pay including admissible perks. If we add up the perks at highest level, including market value of the estates etc the compensation could be valued at even Rs 3-3.5 lakhs per month for senior levels. Foreign Service draws compensatory pay in foreign currency when posted to countries having higher living costs. The esteem value is over and above.
Moreover services give permanency and adequate time for an inspired young man or woman to prove him or herself over a long period of time. You do not have to look over your shoulder all the time and can work without fear of unfair dismissal. This protection is given in the Constitution to enthuse officers to work fearlessly and not to be complacent. Visibility, opportunity for leadership and social status seem to be the key motivators for aspirants who opt for the Civil Service Examination.

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