73 IAS for 163 joint secy posts: Is Modi govt picking others for central top jobs?

A new appraisal system, lateral entries in place, other services grab a significant share. We look at the data.

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73 IAS for 163 joint secy posts: Is Modi govt picking others for central top jobs?
Gobindh V B
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The annual shortlist of IAS officers considered for central deputation is getting smaller. Fewer officers of the premier service are making it to significant positions – such as joint secretary – as compared to their share six years ago while the shortage of IAS officers, against their sanctioned strength at the centre, is unprecedented.

With a new appraisal system in place, 36 other ‘A’ grade central services grabbing a significant percentage of the top jobs, and introduction of lateral entries, there have been concerns that the dwindling numbers of IAS officers may widen the gap between grassroot realities and policymaking at the top.

Joint secretary is the third-highest position in a central ministry after secretary and additional secretary, and is a key force behind policy-making. By the time an IAS officer is considered for this post, she has ostensibly acquired multiskilling and domain knowledge of several departments, and a reduction in their pool, the IAS lobby argues, indicates the central government’s intent to look elsewhere.

Making a case for a private sector role in governance, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had called IAS officers “babus” while talking about their alleged unbridled powers in parliament last year.

Their share in top positions, however, is shrinking, with a dramatic change and continued dip since August 2016 – a few months after the central government implemented a new evaluation system, according to government data compiled by Newslaundry.

Let’s look at the selection trends for joint secretary posts.

Against nine out of every 10 in 2012, the central government shortlisted just three out of every 10 IAS officers in 2021 for joint secretary posts. Overall, there are only 71 IAS officers now against 163 from other services on these posts.

As many as 75 percent of IAS officers from six batches were shortlisted for the position under the central staffing scheme between October 2012 and March 2016 by an expert panel of the department of personnel and training. And with the new evaluation system in place, the figure dipped to 56 in August 2016. It shrank further, hovering between 33 and 49 percent, over the six other batches reviewed for joint secretary positions over subsequent years.

The batch of 2005 was the latest to be empanelled – in August last year and June this year – and recorded the lowest success rate at 33 percent among the 13 batches analysed by Newslaundry. These 13 batches also included promotees from state civil services. Of the 56 shortlisted candidates from the 2005 batch, only 13 have been appointed at the joint secretary level so far.

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What changed in 2016?

Shortlisting or empanelling by an expert panel just makes an IAS officer eligible for a central government posting. These names are then recommended to the civil services board, and the state’s and candidate’s approvals are sought before the final nod by the appointments committee of the cabinet chaired by the prime minister.

Usually, three candidates are considered for each opening.

Until 2016, IAS officers were empanelled for central deputation for joint secretary or higher level on the basis of their annual confidential report and the annual performance appraisal report. Depending on their performance, IAS officers were graded “outstanding”, “very good”, “good” and “average”.

The DoPT in August 2017 told a parliamentary committee on personnel, public grievances, law and justice that around 90 percent of officers were rated “outstanding”, hinting that the ratings were inflated or artificial. This, the department claimed, forced it to borrow from the corporate world’s book: a 360-degree appraisal system or multisource feedback. Under the “supplemental tool” introduced in 2015 and fine-tuned a year later, the expert panel calls up peers, seniors, subordinates, secretaries and “external stakeholders” for insights on an IAS officer. Those who don’t find their names in the first shortlist are re-examined by a review expert panel, which collects views from a different set of people. Non-empanelment does not have any bearing on the promotion of IAS officers in their state cadre.

In its report tabled in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, the panel called the new appraisal system “opaque, non-transparent and subjective”. “Feedback in this process is obtained informally, making the process susceptible to being manipulated. Further, the feedback received from subordinates and stakeholders may be biased and lack objectivity, particularly if the officer had to discipline his subordinates or he was unable to meet the unjustified demands of stakeholders,” said the committee. It observed that the 360-degree did not have a statutory backing and was enforced through an executive instruction.

A few IAS officers have approached the Central Administrative Tribunal and the Delhi High Court against the feedback system, but received no reprieve.

Concerns

An email sent to the DoPT has remained unanswered. Newslaundry asked the reasons behind the dwindling number of shortlisted IAS officers.

Newslaundry spoke to a dozen serving and retired IAS officers on the dip in the number of shortlisted candidates. They argued that this may lead to a disconnect between the field and policy-making, and flagged three major concerns against the 360-degree appraisal system: inability of candidates to know the reasons for their failure; their exposure to more adverse comments; and “defective” implementation.

Former UP chief secretary Alok Ranjan called the feedback method “stringent”. “Even those who have ‘outstanding’ or ‘very good’ ACRs are not getting empanelled. People are not very happy with the 360-degree system and find it very opaque and non-transparent. For example, an IAS officer who has excellent service records is not selected. Nobody tells him why. This means that somebody has given an adverse comment…who’s that somebody? Why has he given an adverse comment? Unless the panel shares the adverse view, how can the officer rectify himself?”

Ranjan, who retired in 2016, underlined that IAS officials deal with public issues daily. “If somebody holds a grudge against an IAS officer and they get a call from the expert panel, they are sure to share a negative opinion against him. A person has the right to know on what basis he was not selected,” he said.

A petitioner in the Central Administrative Tribunal raised similar questions in 2018. Dayanand Kataria, a 1998-batch IAS officer of the Tamil Nadu cadre, was not empanelled for the post of additional secretary and faulted the new screening process even though his service record was “outstanding”. He wanted the tribunal to declare the appraisal system “illegal” as it violated the All-India Service Rules, 2007 that govern screening of IAS officers for central deputation. However, the tribunal in its final order ruled against Kataria as the new format was a policy decision.

Anil Swarup, a former secretary to the central government, called the system “very defective and subjective”. “I don’t see any discussion with juniors of an officer concerned. They talk to only senior officials. So, it’s not 360-degree. They ask officials on the telephone how they rate the official. This doesn’t happen in the private sector. No discussion is held with the official,” he said.

However, B Ashok, secretary to the Kerala agriculture department and president of the state IAS association, said the central government can choose any screening process. “Notwithstanding the criticism, the feedback does not hamper promotion of IAS officials in their state cadre. It’s just a lateral shift. One should not bother much about it.”

Another senior official from Kerala agreed that IAS officers make more adversaries at the district or state level as their nature of work is largely regulatory, making the 360-degree screening disadvantageous for them.

A former secretary to the Delhi government said the reduced number of IAS officers may deprive the central government of field experience and result in policy lacunae.

However, in their submissions before the panel that filed its report in 2017, associations such as the Indian Revenue Service flagged the continued dominance of IAS in central deputations, demanding parity by scrapping the two-year advantage granted to officers from the premier service.

Staff crunch persists

As many 37 ‘A’ grade central services, including the IAS, IPS and IFS, vie for senior positions under the central staffing scheme each year. These positions are at the level of secretary, additional secretary, joint secretary, deputy secretary and director or similar ranks. Candidates have to achieve a certain grade pay and a specific number of years in service before they can be considered. For example, for the joint secretary post, an IAS officer usually requires 16 years of service under her belt, among others.

According to the annual reports of DoPT for the past few years, the central government has been facing an acute shortage of IAS officers. In 2020-21, there were just 445 IAS officers on central deputation against a sanctioned strength of 1,451. In April 2014, the shortfall stood at 694. The current overall cadre shortfall is 1,515 as the sanctioned strength is 6,746 against 5,231 officials. Around 20 percent of the total serving IAS officers are reserved for central deputation.

Dipak Kumar Singh, additional chief secretary to the Bihar education department and secretary to the state IAS association, attributed the shortage mostly to small IAS batches in the 90s and early 2000s. “The impact of small batches shows in the following 15-20 years. This is what’s happening now. But this will soon change as later batches were bigger.”

Between 1992 and 2007, the average annual intake through the UPSC examination was just 74 against 180 in the last nine years.

Besides the low intake, Rajasthan principal secretary and state IAS association vice-president Kunjilal Meena counted other reasons too. “Sometimes, it happens that an official does not take up the job as the position is different from what he wants. On other occasions, states don’t relieve the officials considered for central deputation as they too are battling shortage,” said Meena.

State governments have on several occasions refused to relieve an IAS officer on central deputation.

Such refusal to relieve an IAS officer became a flashpoint between the West Bengal government and the centre last year. The central government had directed outgoing chief secretary Alapan Bandyopadhyay to report to it, but he refused to comply with the apparent backing of the state government. Later the Central government proposed new rules that once an official is chosen for central deputation, states will have to give their consent in specified time. Several states have opposed this, saying the rules impinged on the federal structure. A final decision has not been taken.

Meanwhile, to plug such gaps, the Narendra Modi government has turned to other ‘specialised’ ‘A’ grade central services such as the Indian Revenue Service, Indian Postal Service, different wings of Indian Defence Service and Indian Railway Service, etc.

“Selection of candidates depends on requirement. There is no comparison between IAS and other central services,” said RK Tiwari, chairman of the UP Transport Corporation and president of the state IAS association.

Jayadev Sarangi, former secretary to the Delhi government, batted for research to look into the decrease in IAS officers.

But despite the dwindling numbers, IAS officers have had a higher share in central deputation as compared to other services, except certain periods. In 2020, 143 IAS officers were brought on central deputation against 173 from other services. A similar trend was observed between December 2017 and March 2019.

In this article, former Planning Commission member Naresh Chandra Saxena was amused to note that a railway traffic official was deputed as health joint secretary and “an ordnance service person finds himself in the Ministry of Tribal Affairs!”

Meanwhile, with an aim to rope in “domain experts” and address the staff crunch, the Modi government hired seven lateral entrants from the private sector and public sector units as joint secretaries in 2020, and 30 more last year for three-year terms. From the first batch, six were given two-year extensions last month.

Last year, the Central government formed a five-member panel headed by former DoPT secretary C Chandramouli to suggest measures to address the acute shortage and draw up a plan for the next 10 years. “We have not submitted the report yet,” he told Newslaundry.

Though IAS officials’ dominance in top echelons remains almost uncontested, other services have made some strides to soldier on to what Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel called the steel frame of India.

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