The Young Descendants

Despite having wide discretionary powers, historical judgment suggests that Cornwallis’ child has not turned out to be a Frankenstein.

Of late, for all the concern about the health of governance in India, only little and intermittent attention has been given to decoding a vital clue for the shape of things to come. A look at young pivots of governance who will administer the country for the next thirty to forty years or more (with post retirement assignments), must be significant to any such understanding.

So, how are your young Babus- (gender bias? female equivalent = Babunis?) and who are they? Where do they come from? What worldview do they have and are they equipped to address the governance agenda of our times? Do ‘development’ and ‘welfare’ fit in the world of young Babudom? Experts on Indian administration need not feel threatened – I’m offering no ‘study’. I intend only to ramble through some observations.

Importance. Cannot be overstated

When you are talking about governance in India you cant leave the Indian bureaucrat out of any frame in the picture? He or she is all pervasive (the omnipresent), appears to be the know all (omniscient), and not much moves without his wish (omnipotent). Seems Godlike? Well, he is part of a service which during British rule was called the heaven born service. He is, to use an improvised cliché from civil servant cum novelist Upmanyu Chatterji’s Mammaries Of the Welfare State, “the gird of the steel frame” of the country. He is an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer.

He can be a hero for the people, and suddenly the punching bag for all public ills. But for all practical purposes of functioning, he can pompously claim, “I am the State”.  Even more eloquent is what I recently found scribbled on the walls of a hostel room in Delhi University. A student preparing for the IAS recruitment examination had expanded IAS to – I Am Supreme. Why? Sample this:

In 2001, the historic city of Allahabad, carrying the mythological halo of being the sangam of three holy rivers, was witness to a different kind of sangam. A massive confluence of human beings, the occasion: Mahakumbh (January 9 to February 21, 2001). The population of the city swelled to about seven crores during the period of kumbh.  The scale was unprecedented. International media was simply stunned and BBC called it the “greatest show on earth”.

The ultimate responsibility for managing the whole show was on the young shoulders of a twenty something Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer. As the administrator of the district, he was also supervising numerous development and welfare programmes of the central and state governments. Also the general administration of the district, which includes agriculture, water, electricity, health, roads, transport, land revenues, law and order etc. That is what being a young IAS officer means in India.

It has no parallel in bureaucracies around the world; the closest thing is the position of Prefect in France. The wide range of the powers, functions and responsibilities of the IAS officer made the international media marvel at the majesty of the office of the District Magistrate (DM) in India. Remember this is just the beginning of a long career ahead.

Cornawallis’ child has not been a Frankenstein, at least not always.

IAS has an enviable lineage. After India’s independence, it became a successor to the highly prestigious Indian Civil Service (ICS) of British times. A brainchild of Lord Cornwallis, it was constituted in the eighteenth century. ICS became a symbol of efficiency and integrity in administration, though it served British interests. Leave alone the middle classes, getting into ICS was an aspiration that was central to Indian elite’s social clout. However, most of the key posts were allotted to Britishers.

After independence, the founding fathers of Indian Constitution viewed ICS as an indispensable part of India’s state apparatus. Leaders of democratic India in general and Nehru, Patel and Dr Ambedkar in particular, spoke forcefully in favour of retaining it. Under Article 312 it was given a Constitutional status, as an All India Service and was given its present name – Indian Administrative Service.

Despite the anti-bureaucracy tirade sometimes justified and sometimes fashionable, most historical accounts of India’s post independence phase have identified the all India federal outlook of IAS and its relative neutrality as one of the crucial reasons for India’s survival as a democratic entity. So, generally speaking, despite having wide discretionary powers at its disposal, historical judgment suggests that Cornwallis’ child has not turned out to be a Frankenstein for independent India.

Decoding the Young Entrants to IAS in Last Twenty Years

One should not be fooled by any idea that economic liberalization of the last twenty years has meant any change in the magical charm of IAS for the youth as a coveted career choice. Several studies, some by corporate interest groups like ASSOCHAM suggest that a career in bureaucracy remains the most sought after among the young. Lakhs of applications received for civil services examination by Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) include a large number of IIT and IIM graduates as well as doctors from prestigious medical institutions, who can mint money anywhere in the world. Call it the urge for instant and permanent social recognition or the wish to be a part of the Mai Baap state apparatus in India. Call it an expression of feudal urge to be the ruler or more optimistically a drive to combine ability and excellence with social conscience. Call it whatever you want, but the fact remains that IAS continues to monopolise the career choice space. The charm is intact, but what apparent changes have there been in last twenty years?

The points of departure are many, and the strands of change as well as continuity can be identified with these signposts;

Oxbridge Days are over. August Sens are no longer just Stephanians.

Many technocrats prefer to be bureaucrats. BIMARU states rule with some southern allies. Traditional breeding centres are crumbling and the Mandal effect is visible. There is a marked increase in the number of women bureaucrats. However some glass ceilings have not been smashed – English still rules but regional languages are making inroads.

Oxford and Cambridge educated young people constituted a large section of bureaucracy in the first three decades following India’s independence. This is not true for the new entrants to bureaucracy. Similarly, products from traditional breeding grounds of civil servants in India like Delhi University, JNU, Madras University, Allahabad University, Patna University and Osmania University are also facing stiff competition from students from the hinterland (who usually shift to Delhi or their state capitals/ major cities in their states to prepare for IAS exams). August Sen from Upmanyu Chatterjee’s English August, might not be imagined today with St. Stephen’s College as his alma mater.

The demolition of traditional bastions of civil servants has largely been the effect of the surge led by young aspirants of BIMARU (a lampooning acronym to scoff at their poor human development indices) Hindi belt (Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh).  The Hindi heartland has been supported in this surge by Southern states, particularly Tamil Nadu (continuing its legacy of civil servants), and Kerala.  However, it must be remembered that aspirants, with background of technical education (engineers, doctors, management professionals etc.), have also been a major factor in defining the profile of a new breed of bureaucrats. This has also led to debate on specialists (with professional degrees) opting for generalist bureaucratic positions, wasting the government funds invested in providing technical education for a very affordable fee. But equality of opportunity and freedom of career choice are their defense against any such attack.

The political initiative of implementing Mandal Commission recommendations, which provided 27 per cent reservation to Other Backward Classes (OBC) in government jobs, can also be viewed as a game changer in  defining demographic profile of young civil servants.

Interestingly, though the number of people writing civil services examination in regional languages has gone up, English continues to be the first choice for taking the examination which has a year long calendar.

The number of woman officers is also on rise, and they are occupying key positions smashing glass ceilings. But even now their number is nowhere close to their male colleagues.

The evil of examination. The rote system rules. Spoonfed preparation robs the intellectual diet. The commission in panic mode making cosmetic reforms.

Unfortunately, IAS recruitment examination has all the flaws and limitations that are part of any evaluation system in the world. Rote and a syllabus-constricted approach has given rise to a system that is rewarding – mug up and vomit mode of study. And then evaluating aspirants on the degree of the stink of their vomit. The Coaching shops have sought to exploit these loopholes to mint money by spoon feeding students with the required feed to mug up and regurgitate.

Wide reading, independent intellectual analysis, and creative articulation have certainly been put to disadvantage. Union Public Service Commission, which has been mandated by the Constitution under Article 315 to conduct Civil Services examination, has pressed the panic button by introducing cosmetic changes in preliminary examinations through a newly designed Civil Services Aptitude Test (CSAT), and has declared its plan to bring some changes in the main examination too. But such changes are too little and may soon become part of the same rote cycle.

Young babus and the lingering disconnect.

The interesting thing to observe is that except few highly motivated and dedicated bureaucrats, who have become a minority in the IAS, the hinterland surge has not changed the narrative of disconnect between young bureaucrats and the people. The old story of becoming the smug part of power elite after making it to the final list of Civil Services Examination, is repeating itself. While young IAS officers with integrity and administrative vision are not extinct, the majority reflect the times in which they have been brought up and in which they made their career choice – the times of unprecedented consumerist upsurge. Transforming themselves from a patronizing representative of the state to a visionary policymaker and facilitator of development and administration seems a long road ahead. However, this issue warrants a separate inquiry and analysis of different perspectives on the relationship between bureaucracy and development administration in India.

In the late 80s, while referring to the wide influence of IAS officers, a political commentator had described IAS as the “New Brahminical System” in the governance of India. The young entrants to this Brahminical fold are not showing significant signs of shedding their high-born aura in public hierarchy. The persisting disconnect seems insidious, and exists between the bureaucrat, who is the policymaker, and people who bear the brunt (sometimes fruits too) of policies. Reminds me of these lines from a poem by Dhumil, who commenting on the same disconnect wrote: Lohe ka Swad Lohar Se Na Puchho, Us Ghore Se Puchho Jiske Muh Me Laggam Hai!


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  • Santosh Gupta

    Well articulated sir.Good analysis..