The craven manner in which the government of Uttar Pradesh - or, more specifically, the ruling Samajwadi Party (SP) - initiated disciplinary proceedings against a young Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer, Durga Shakti Nagpal, has led to a spate of breast-beating about the decline of governance and the corrosion of the steel frame. One issue that has been neglected in these debates relates to the comments of Ram Gopal Yadav, a senior SP leader, that the state did not need the IAS and could be run with the help of state-level bureaucrats drawn from the Provincial Civil Service, or PCS. While that statement was just one of many ill-advised comments made by the SP leadership, it did point to a much-neglected issue, namely the role of the state civil services. The IAS gets a lot of attention (although not necessarily good analysis), but there is a shocking lack of informed commentary - let alone analysis - about the various PCSes. If there are questions about the competencies, integrity and political pressures on the IAS, these are likely to be considerably greater in the case of the PCSes. First, to the extent that the recruitment pool for the PCSes is much smaller than for the IAS, this is likely to lower the average quality. This is somewhat similar to the average quality of students in state universities compared to central universities. On the other hand, greater familiarity with local issues may make PCS officers more grounded. The "best and brightest", and not just in India, often carry with them an arrogance that ensures resentment in those they work with and a "know-it-all attitude" that leads to cognitive closure. Second, if political pressure is brought on PCS members, the absence of exit mechanisms is likely to make them more pliable. Officers from the all-India services at least have the potential to ride out pressure and exit to the Centre, a luxury unavailable to those in the PCSes. On the other hand, PCS members have fewer post-retirement temptations, which the IAS has fashioned for itself but at a heavy price in terms of its integrity. Third, the selection processes were constitutionally mandated to be run by autonomous bodies, the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) in the case of the all-India services and the State Public Service Commission (SPSC) for each state to recruit for its own state civil services. Whatever the limitations of the entrance examinations for the all-India services, (such as the age limit or the number of attempts), the UPSC has managed to retain a level of probity in the conduct of the exams. The SPSCs, on the other hand, present a more depressing picture. Virtually all SPSCs have been dogged by controversy. Numerous reports on the workings of these bodies are rife with "irregularities", "manipulation" and "anomalies". Members with dubious credentials have been appointed - such as siblings of Cabinet ministers and people facing murder charges.
High courts have annulled examination results and appointments, as well as ordered inquiries by the Central Bureau of Investigation. Exam papers have been leaked, and sometimes replaced, and the exams themselves have been inept with factually incorrect "model" answers and errors in the scaling system across different exam subjects. And then, of course (as in Uttar Pradesh recently), reservation policies evoke fierce partisan battles. While strengthening the integrity of the SPSCs, three other structural changes are needed to bolster the PCSes. Currently, two-thirds of IAS officers are directly recruited, and one-third are promoted from the state civil services. The selection of state service officers into all-India services is carried out on the basis of review of seniority and annual confidential reports, a process that appears to favour the risk-averse and politically connected. However, based on Administrative Reforms Commission recommendations, the UPSC has suggested changes in the existing system: it has been proposed that a state public service officer should sit for a competitive exam and an interview to get promoted to the IAS. Such a change will be a major improvement. It will not only limit political favouritism, but also give younger PCS officers an opportunity to enter the IAS at an earlier age (currently, most do so at around 50). But this will still not address a key limitation of the current process: how to get PCS officers to be less parochial and more "Indian". As India becomes more federal, the coordinating role of the all-India services - between and among states and between the Centre and the states - will become more important. A PCS officer aspiring to serve in the IAS must get some exposure, whether in another state or at the Centre, and hence should be required to serve outside her state cadre - even for a couple of years. Third, the IAS itself must focus on improving the quality of the PCSes, whether by putting in more resources for training or through less step-brotherly treatment. The reality is that the IAS' own effectiveness requires more effective state civil servants. The two complement each other, and the weaknesses of either are bound to pull down the other. India desperately needs a better functioning and more responsive bureaucracy, and the civil services are vital in this regard. However, the civil services at all levels face a tremendous challenge in their inability and unwillingness to weed out poor performers while moving swiftly to punish those who do perform - as exemplified by the cases of Durga Shakti Nagpal and Ashok Khemka. This is compounded by the paucity of new talent at middle and senior levels with specialised expertise, which is increasingly required in many parts of government. Both the IAS and PCS see lateral entry in government as a major threat to their fiefdoms. And, though it is certainly true that given the predilection of Indian politicians such a step will require very strong selection and screening mechanisms, its absence carries even more risks.
The writer is director of the Centre for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania