Monday, June 30, 2014

The Great ‘Babu-cracy’ of India - Origin, Changes and Challenges of Today

The word ‘babu’ has a bona fide entry in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary (COED); I have the Fourth impression 2006 of the Eleventh edition, 2004, First Published in 1911. The meaning reads: a respectful title or form of address for a man; an office worker - Origin from Hindi, lit. Father. The ‘Babu-cracy’ - i.e. bureaucracy, to be exact, had its formal beginnings in India, in its current connotation, in 1765 when the British East India Company had first organised a cadre of civil servants with the sole objective of assisting to collect revenues from the people of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa under the right granted by the Mughal emperor. This dual role of the Company as trader and ruler continued till 1833 when it succeed in acquiring control over extensive territories all over India. The Company, in its new role as ruler, soon recognised the need for a bureaucracy devoted exclusively to administration, unburdened by any responsibility for trading operations.

To quote the veteran bureaucrat Dr PC Alexander, 
“In 1853, the Company accepted the most distinctive feature of the Covenanted Civil Service of India which became the Indian Civil Service (ICS) after India came under the direct rule of the British Crown in 1858.” 
The process of selection through competitive examination and the most magical nomenclature ‘Indian Civil Service’ -  hailed by historians as the ‘ Heaven Born Service’ and ’Steel Frame of India’ - had been given by the special Indian Civil Service Act of 1861. The history of the ICS and its ‘reincarnation’ as Indian Administrative Service since independence indeed represents transformation of India as a modern democratic polity with all the ups and downs in the life of the nation.

Both Prime Minster Jawaharlal Nehru and Deputy Prime Minister cum Home Minister Sardar Vallabhbhai devoted an extraordinary attention to reassure and reorient the ICS and also to guide the Service towards the new goals of the independent nation. Nehru and Patel along with Dr BR Ambedkar were instrumental in putting in place the constitutional and related institutional frame work for the security and neutrality of newly designed All India Services - with the Indian Administrative Services at the top of the pyramid - and the other Central Services. To quote Patel,
 “…you will not have a united India if you do not have a good all India service which has the independence to speak out its mind, which has a sense of security… The constitution is meant to be worked out by a ring of Service which will keep the country intact.” 
The grateful bureaucracy of India has adopted the day of the address by Sardar Patel to the All India Services Training College, Delhi on 21st April 1947 as the ‘Civil Services Day of India’ since 2006, quoting Patel’s masterly exhortation to the civil servants to be always mindful of their, “dignity, integrity, incorruptibility and impartiality.”

The Nehru era - glowing with the higher values of the freedom struggle- witnessed a very fruitful flowering of the trust and collaboration between the well-meaning and patriotic political leadership and the gifted and competent top brass bureaucracy. There were shining examples of the efficient execution of many a visionary schemes for the development of the country and the welfare of the masses. The ‘steel frame of the ICS’ was indeed skillfully tempered to serve the requirements of the ‘sovereign (later amended to include socialist, secular too) democratic republic’ - in the making. How the stresses and strains of the party politics since 1969 and a good bye to the higher pursuit of “not power at any price but service at any cost’ have been adversely affecting all walks of national life - including the highest rungs of bureaucracy - need not be narrated at length. The manner in which the competence, integrity and impartiality of the top civil service has been continuously compromised, blatantly in the states under the rule of the rapacious local leadership, makes a sordid saga of the great betrayal of the people who put them into the seat of political and administrative power. The corruption at the political and bureaucratic level has indeed corroded the national psyche and endangered our survival as an independent state.

The Election Commission of India has been once again recipient of the great applause and admiration of the world for conducting the gigantic task of enabling the largest electorate of humanity to exercise their most precious right to vote in a free and fair manner. Comparatively on a different – quiet and sober-note the Union Public Commission of India had also declared the results on 13th of June of the Civil Services Examination 2013. The UPSC, it may be mind boggling to know, has selected during the last six decades nearly a quarter of a million candidates after examining over 46 million! This year, a total of 1,122 candidates were declared to have qualified one of the toughest three tier examinations so meticulously devised and spaced out over twelve months to select the brightest of the youth of the country for the most demanding and prestigious positions in the service of the state. The allure of the IAS seems to have become the most irresistible national obsession; it is rated far superior over all the other options of careers: the best are prepared to spend their best years chasing the civil services dream. It was reported that some 5,36,506 candidates had applied for the preliminary exam of the Civil Services in 2012. The mushrooming of civil services coaching centres / academies in the two localities of the capital of the country attract hundreds of thousands of civil services aspirants from far and wide in the country. They camp there ‘to try, try again, and again… and again till their respective limits of age or the chances get exhausted’.

It is said that India has the most elaborate - rather the most forbidding and intimidating - systems of examinations but, perhaps, not one credible system of education. The education system meant primarily to qualitatively improve life of the people of the country, millions of them being marginalised in society, has been, of course, continuously subjected to various processes of reforms. The new trends in higher education have also been amply reflected over the years in the UPSC’s agenda of reforms. Chairman of the UPSC Professor DP Agrawal has underlined that the changes in the pattern of Civil Services have to be ‘consistent with the need for selecting the right kind of persons from a huge pool consisting of multiple languages, creeds, culture and communities.’ It is indeed quite baffling for the former civil servants like myself, now a senior citizen of 70+ years, how in the changed times in India, the serious policy issues like the syllabi of the Civil Service Exam; issue of age limit; the number of chances, etc., have become causes for public protests by the aspirant candidates. And the government of India has created precedents that such protests and demonstrations in the capital can be effective in getting rules amended! Is the country marching towards the ‘Street- smart Civil Services Examination’?

The All India Services including the Indian Administrative Service, Indian Police Service, Indian Forest and the entire range of various Central Civil Services including the Bharati Videsh Seva - the Indian Foreign (Diplomatic) service - have a unique role in keeping the country going forward and unified as visualised by the founding fathers of India’s federal structure under the Constitution. The upright, efficient, experienced, duty conscious and fair minded civil servants are an invaluable asset of any nation, more so in a developing democracy like India with the millions of the deprived reposing their faith in them for justice and a fair deal. The old usage of ‘mai-baap’ - the paternal officer for the district officer - remains relevant even now in the rural areas of India where the vast majority of the dispossessed, discriminated and oppressed live. An honest and helpful civil servant is indeed the best creation of any political dispensation - and, perhaps, divinity too. Those interested in making money and lusting for power may think of doing any other thing but must not ever think of a career in civil service.

I am tempted to look back, as far as the deepest recesses of my memories go, towards all my days, weeks, months and years of my own service and memories of so many extraordinary colleagues in the Indian Foreign Service- I had joined w.e.f. from 11th of July, 1971- and the IAS / other Central Services. By a strange coincidence, there is a get together of the ‘Batch-71’ on this very date in July in New Delhi. I look forward to meeting many colleagues of the IAS / other Services since we parted company in November ’71 after the common Foundation Course National Academy, Mussourie! Among the distinguished batch mates, Shri SY Qureshi, formerly Chief Election Commissioner, remains in the media focus as an author-commentator. Shri Madhukar Gupta and VK Duggal distinguished themselves as Home Secretaries. Shri PL Punia had the rare distinction of being Principal Secretary, respectively, to both Maya Vati and Mulayam Singh and later became an MP on the Congress. He is still in position as Chairman of the National Scheduled Caste Commission with the BJP nudging him to quit. I also remember those batch mates who died in accidental and unnatural deaths in the prime / peak of their careers including Shri Gian Chand Gill whose parents were still sanitary workers in Malerkotla. The UP cadre had a strange case of a wife killing her IAS husband for infidelity; suicide by a DGP rank officer and currently an imprisonment for four years for corruption of a former Chief Secretary of the state. The involvement of senior civil servants of all the prestigious services on a larger scale in the recent years has indeed been a disturbing tendency.

The media has reported in some detail about the two and half hour inter active meeting taken by PM Narendra Modi on 4th of June with the 77 Secretaries of the Government of India. It was underlined that such a meeting has taken place after more than eight years - kya top Civil services ke achhe din aa gaye hain !.

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