If Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s office has its way, doing well in the civil services examination conducted by the Union Public Service Commission will not be enough to get into an All India service of your choice.
An extra layer of assessment is being mooted to decide the service as well as cadre that probationers will eventually get selected for – based on their performance in the compulsory ‘foundation course’.
If the PMO’s latest proposal is accepted, it will theoretically be possible for a candidate whose rank in the UPSC civil services examination can get him only into, say, the Indian Defence Accounts Service, to climb up to the coveted Indian Administrative Service on the basis of how well he does his foundation course at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration (LBSNAA), Mussoorie or Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel National Police Academy (SVPNPA) or other academies for civil servants.
In a move that has already caused outrage among retired, serving and aspiring civil servants, the Centre’s department of personnel & training (DoPT) has asked various ministries for suggestion and action on the PMO proposal. The DoPT wants the new system implemented from the current year itself.
The DoPT letter says the PMO “has desired to consider the following suggestion and necessary action on it for implementation from the current year itself:
Union government ministries ‘to examine if service allocation/cadre allocation to probationers selected on the basis of the civil services examination be made after Foundation Course. 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 civil services examination and the Foundation course.’
Two days after the DoPT communication reached various ministries, it has become the major topic of discussion in WhatsApp groups of bureaucrats.
Three problems seen
The reaction among them is three-fold: First, Using a probationer’s performance in the foundation course to decide his or her service will ruin whatever objectivity the UPSC examination provides and put pressure on probationers to appeal to the subjective assessments of their examiners. Second, some officials see a deeper design in the desire to implement the proposed new system from this year itself. Third, the proposal raises a whole lot of technical questions cannot be easily resolved given the current system of service allocation and training.
Above all, the fear is that pliant academies with extraordinary powers will open the doors of sought-after services to people whose ideological outlook suits the current government, creating a loyal or ‘committed’ bureaucracy over the long haul.
A serving officer said Samkalp Coaching Centres with close connections to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) have sprung up all over India and many serving bureaucrats and retired bureaucrats give lectures there regularly.
Some bureaucrats question whether the academies are competent to assess a probationer’s ability and decide on the service for them. “Are they not being given too much power? There has to be a deeper reason for fiddling with a system which is universally accepted as fair. Biases will play out in full measure now,” says a serving joint secretary-level officer who had a stint in the Mussoorie academy.
A retired secretary says the results of the foundation course at LBSNAA are subjective. “There are probationers who make a song and dance about their knowledge and always do well in the foundation course. The UPSC results are sealed, signed and un-manipulative,” she says. The former top bureaucrat, who was in one of the large ministries that has a good number of serving IAS officers, also feels this move of deciding service after the foundation course would lead to large-scale litigation by bureaucrats right at the beginning of their careers.
Bias and favouritism
Already, the intra-service rank of a probationer is decided on the basis of performance in the foundation course. A serving joint secretary level officer says the assessment at the LBSNAA and other academies is full of biases. He gives the instance of how one probationer who was in the top 10 all India rank moved much below in ranking after the foundation course at Mussoorie. The reason: he asked too many questions and did not always agree with the faculty and director. “Imagine now even the choice of service will be in the hands of the faculty in these civil service academies for a whole range of All India services.”
A serving bureaucrat who had a stint in the Mussoorie academy gives a larger perspective. He says there have been a few legendary directors like P. S. Appu and N. C. Saxena. He remembers Saxena even inviting people who were openly opposed to the government of the day to give lectures, turning the academy into a liberal space. Similarly, Harsh Mander as deputy director took some bold measures for which he is remembered even now.
Otherwise, there have been many directors who have spent two-thirds of their career in the IAS serving in academies without much field experience.
The Mussoorie academy is full of stories of mediocrity and nepotism, says the bureaucrat with administrative stint in Mussoorie. “Now these people will have a role in allocating service,” he says. A few instances will suffice to highlight the dangerous consequences.
A little over a decade ago, essays by two probationers caught the attention of a conscientious faculty member who ran a Google check on them only to find that one essay was lifted from a chapter from Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and the other a straight lift from a speech by the Dalai Lama. They were given zero. But the then director of the academy came to their rescue and asked the faculty member to pass them.
His argument was simple: ‘You cannot give zero in an essay. So what if it was lifted from a classic or reproduced from a speech?’
In another instance, a probationer was caught shop-lifting in Singapore while on an official trip. Instead of stringent action, he managed to escape with the help of a protective director till a senior home ministry official got to know of it. He was attached to the academy for two years but is now back in service. In a third instance, a probationer got drunk, drove his vehicle and met with an accident, resulting in the death of a batchmate. But the director ensured no action was taken against him.
‘No probationer will ask questions’
Jawhar Sircar, who retired as a secretary in the Union government and also served as chairperson of Prasar Bharati, is most scathing in his criticism of the PMO’s new proposal. He fears this move will stifle the new generation of bureaucrats. Sircar says no probationer will ask questions during the foundation course for fear of getting a poor assessment and a service they do not want.
Even among those who think the new system being proposed is a good idea, the consensus is that it needs to be implemented with a lot of preparation. Former DoPT secretary Satyanand Mishra is one of them. He terms the proposal “a big step, a good step”. But he wants the existing assessment system in the academies to go. “The evaluation system should eliminate subjectivity. It should be more quantitative,” he says.
Wajahat Habibullah, also a former secretary, is supportive of the concept too. But he wants the existing hierarchies and faculty of the academies to be overhauled. Directors, he says, should be persons of eminence and carefully selected without any bias. However, he advises the government to spend time developing the idea rather than rushing through implementation. Habibullah also wants the LBSNAA to give the proposal to government rather than the other way round.
Keshav Desiraju, who retired as Union secretary, consumer affairs, says the faculty of the LBSNAA does not have the experience to do additional assessment to decide service. He thinks even with some degree of discretion that UPSC shows it is better placed. He would rather prefer that all successful candidates are put through a psychological test.
Bureaucrats are also raising several technical issues about the proposal.
The first question is about what the foundation course will consist of. Right now, probationers of all services do the first three-four months of the course together and then go to academies specific to their service for further training. IAS probationers stay back in Mussoorie, for example. Their cadre is decided before the end of the first year of training and they begin learning the language of their cadre state. In the second year of probation, all officers go to their respective cadres for field training.
Sircar points out that in the new proposal it is not clear if service/cadre allotment will be done after the first three-four months or at the end of two years. “If service is allotted within four months of training, will it be on a fair basis? Isn’t it too little a time to decide?” he asks. And in case service/cadre allotment is done after two years, what happens to field and language training? It is quite possible that a probationer will go for a field training to one state and get allotted another state.
Sircar says that in the present system, the moment their cadre is allotted, probationers start developing a loyalty to that state, start learning its language and history and interacting with people of that state. All of this will now get upended.
The proposed measure, a retired secretary says, is like everything else in the Modi government: half-baked and sinister. “It will do no good but destroy the existing system,” he says.
Akshaya Mukul is a Delhi-based journalist and author of Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India. Published in arrangement with TheWire.