Civil servants posted in New Delhi are fond of citing a famous story about Swami Vivekananda whenever questions are raised over the stranglehold of serving or retired Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers on regulatory jobs that come under the government’s ambit. The story may be apocryphal, but its significance in today’s context of continuing IAS dominance is not lost on anyone. One day, Vivekananda’s teacher in school asked his students to reduce the length of the vertical straight line drawn on the blackboard without touching it in any way. The smart Vivekananda went up to the blackboard and drew another vertical straight line that was longer than the other.
The problem associated with the growing clout and presence of IAS officers can perhaps be traced to the absence of the Vivekananda formula. There could be many reasons the IAS network of officials has succeeded in creating its near-monopoly over several jobs within and outside the ministries, in addition to those of regulators. Periodically, the government, too, has expressed concerns over such predominance that results in the exclusion of equally qualified and able candidates from non-IAS cadres. But the problem has remained largely unresolved.
So, why not create a more powerful service that can become a stronger magnet of attraction for talented people to join and get nominated to key positions? The clout of the IAS will continue to grow as long as you do not create a more powerful cadre of officers. For a government that has failed to introduce any significant reform in the civil services, the task may look ambitious. But civil servants themselves also point out that the idea is worth exploring, since all other attempts or schemes to achieve the same goal have failed so far. If the IAS has succeeded in retaining its grip over key administrative positions in the entire country, it is largely because its members have not allowed any other cadre to either grow or acquire equal prominence in administration of ministries or even professional bodies under the government.
Thus, the department of statistics will rarely be headed by an officer from the Indian Statistical Service. Even the department of revenue has, traditionally, been kept under the control of an IAS officer as its secretary, ignoring the claims of officials from the Indian Revenue Service. The story has been repeated in the law ministry. Where are the officers from the Indian Legal Service and why should they not be groomed and considered to head the law ministry? Indian Economic Service, too, has seen a steady decline, with few of its officials going up in the ladder to oversee the country’s macro-economic management in the department of economic affairs. This list can be much longer, but the point is clear. If the IAS dominance is not healthy as it has concentrated all power of administration in one elite service, then it is time the government, like Vivekananda, created a new service, more powerful than the IAS.
Not that this thought completely bypassed policymakers in the government in the past. The idea of the Industrial Management Pool, a cadre of professional managers selected from the private sector, was essentially aimed at creating a talent pool within the government that could be more rich, effective and efficient than the generalist IAS officers. Some of the finest secretaries in the Union government in the 1960s and 1970s belonged to the Industrial Management Pool, with professionals like D V Kapur and Lovraj Kumar heading economic ministries with distinction. At around the same time, an Indian Economic Service officer (IES) by the name of I G Patel headed the department of economic affairs or Sharad Marathe, another IES officer, headed the industry ministry. IAS officers were still around then, but they had to compete with strong contenders for every job. An Indian Audits and Accounts Officer, R Ganapathy, could become the expenditure secretary. And a non-IAS officer like V Krishnamurthy could become the industry secretary.
Two things led to the gradual disappearance of competent non-IAS officers in the government system. The IAS network became stronger, ensuring that no other all-India service got any fillip, incentives or support to pose any challenge to its dominance. Two, the non-IAS all-India services failed to attract talent, reducing the ability and firepower of their bench strength. There was a time when even the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) had an informal quota for an IAS officer nominee for the post of a deputy governor. That practice has been discontinued in the last couple of decades. And this perhaps could happen also because the central bank paid more attention to build a strong cadre of its own officials. As a result, today RBI has its own cadre of officers who have been nurtured to grow within the organisation, reducing its dependence on outside talent for filling key vacancies.
The Vivekananda formula can work only if the government starts paying attention to building in-house talent pool as an alternative to the IAS. Each regulatory body should invest time and energy in building cadres of officers who could grow and stake claim for even the top position. It is such pressure that will be the best antidote to the growing IAS dominance. The government needs many more straight vertical lines that are longer than the IAS line, drawn long ago and one that remains virtually unchallenged.