How the steel frame of administration was reduced to a bamboo frame

K K. Sethi

With public good relegated to background, with loss of prestige, with absence of factors of cohesion, the services deteriorated rapidly and the steel frame was reduced to bamboo frame. Now The steel frame is gone. Even the bamboo frame has decayed.

The last batch of ICS officers
The last batch of ICS officers (courtesy flickr.com)

The British brought about an administrative system with two objectives – one to bring about uniformity in procedures throughout British India (the States were guided but mainly left to themselves for internal administration). The second objective was to employ Indians to deal with the public but under strict control of the British officers. At the top was the Indian Civil Sservice. They were trained to be master of all the avenues of life, which were not complicated in those days. There is a story that a civil surgeon in Madras pPresidency went away and the charge was handed over to an ICS officer.

In due course of time, Indians were allowed in the Indian Civil Service though they were trained in England. They copied the British officers in style of governance. District was the unit of administration and an ICS officer was placed in overall charge. He managed the revenue services. the police services and much else. One of the main ingredient of training was generation of team spirit amongst these officers. A camaraderie prevailed in all aspects of life from sports to clubs to offices. And this was not interrupted by the consideration of seniority. This was what led to the designation of steel frame.

The norm was the field posting which was given more importance than the secretariat posting. The Commissioners were senior to the Secretaries. There was a rule that a concurrent proposal from Collector and Commissioner could be overturned only as a coordination case i.e. by the Chief Secretary and the Chief Minister (the provision still remains as we are too lazy to change it but we ignore it).

The main duty of the steel frame was to maintain the supremacy of the government while working in close coordination with each other. In an age where the concerns were limited to revenue collection, maintenance of law and order, this was not difficult. The development activities were missing and the welfare of the citizens not of priority though they did help out in the times of acute adverse conditions like famines, widespread epidemics etc.

The judiciary was not separate and was under the control of the district officer. This factor is important in what followed after the Independence. The detention of the leaders, the atrocities on the lower level agitators were ascribed to the district heads. At the same time the leaders were impressed with the single minded devotion with which the officers carried out their duties.

When the country got its independence, the Congress leaders who came to power had no experience about administration. Agitations devised and led by Mahatma Gandhi were the mainstay of struggle for Independence. There was no headquarters to watch the progress, or lack of it, of the agitation. Stray thoughts were expressed by the leaders on administration, on education, on other aspects but never coordinated to form basis of a sustained movement.

In these circumstances, it was considered best to continue with the same set of officers and the same organization. It was expected that they would serve the new government with the same sincerity which they had shown towards the Empire. And they were not disappointed. The officers, many of them patriotic at heart, transferred their loyalty to the new rulers. The Constitution provided for their continuation and gave them the protection which they had previously enjoyed.

Officers at LBS National Academy of Administration
Officer trainees at LBS National Academy of Administration

But other forces were also working simultaneously. As remarked earlier, the magistrates had been in the forefront of fighting the struggle for Independence and this had created an animus towards them on that count. It was therefore considered appropriate to reduce their magisterial powers. This was done under the guise of separation of judiciary, touted as a noble idea but carried out for different mindset. The judiciary was separated at all levels from the lowest to the highest. It took some 25 years before this was enshrined in statute but the process started right after the Independence. This did not have any adverse impact on the administration since the judicial officers were still in the old frame of mind. It is a fascinating story how the judiciary gradually got the upper hand creating problems for the administration and for the society. We will not dwell upon it except to show its effect on the steel frame. The judiciary loosened the control of administration over the police force. The Supreme Court ruled that IAS cannot write the confidential report (CR) of Indian Police Service (IPS) officers and by corollary of Indian Forest Service officers. This led to reduction in prestige of the steel frame of being first in the district.

The second factor which disturbed the steel frame was the emphasis on development. No longer were the government content with revenue collection and maintenance of law and order. The economy of the nation had to undergo the change at a rapid pace. Industrialization was necessary and urgent. When the scarcity of food grains was encountered, green revolution had to be brought in. Not having any other agency, the work was allotted to the district officers. It was a change for which they were not ready. No changes in training had been organized to make them fit for the new role. They were to learn on the job. When the need for rapid industrialization led to creation of public undertakings, the same officers were deputed thereto. From development agents they had to don the role of businessmen. Again without adequate preparation.

With all these new assignments, the number of officers had to go up. The workload was going up and the leisure hours were being eaten up by the need to show results. The cohesion which marked the service was casualty of this twin attack. It was the leisurely sip of scotch which was the mainstay of interaction and that was being stifled.

Not attuned to the new role, their shortcomings were many and could no longer be hidden. The politician, having to explain to the public at the time of election, the failure to deliver had no option except to blame the officers. They, themselves, were neither trained, nor ready to learn the administrative ropes. They depended fully on the officers to deliver on the promises they made to the electorate. Since they were not appreciative of the administrative bottlenecks, their promises had no relation to resources available in terms of time, finance, technical expertise etc. and lesser they knew, more grandiose were their promises.

This passing of the blame led to loss of prestige of officers amongst the people. Having been sworn to anonymity, the officers could not hit back or even explain what the reasons of failure were. Their absence only made the public more suspicious of their capacity to deliver. This led to more and more recourse to leaders for anything they wanted to get done. And the leaders, in their turn, leaned heavily on the officers. The emphasis shifted from public goods to the welfare of the individuals. The leaders liked it. It, to their mind, added to their stature. So started the cycle of sycophancy which flowered in a geometrical fashion.

With public good relegated to background, with loss of prestige, with absence of factors of cohesion, the services deteriorated rapidly and the steel frame was reduced to bamboo frame.

In the above discourse, no reference has been made to corruption angle. It is too well known to bear a lengthy description. As the elections became costlier, the need for money – money by any means – became paramount. The favours were sold. Naturally the intermediaries – the officers – had their cut. The merry game went on till it became difficult to say who was bigger culprit in this game. The judiciary, the ultimate guardian of justice, became complacent since there was no need to account for their deeds or misdeeds. With the coming in of coalition government, the higher judiciary saw their opportunity and seized it with both hands. The memory of what the steel frame did to them in the good old days led to over boarding and the avenues to call the officers and assert the judicial supremacy became the war cry. This has further taken away whatever grace the officers still had. and so we come to the last chapter when the officers like to pass time, put up with humiliations, gather a moss to live life king size afterwards. The steel frame is gone. Even the bamboo frame has decayed. Here and there, a few trees still stand and we call them the stalwarts. It is the same with forests, a few trees stand waiting to be felled or fall of their own accord. The grass, the bushes, the bamboo and everything that made a real forest have all gone but in official papers the area still remains reserved forest or the protected forest. So also with the steel frame.


KK Sethi
KK Sethi

About the author: KK Sethi is a retired bureaucrat who is highly respected for his commitment to the larger cause of society. He has held several important posts and was Chief Secretary Manipur and President Board of Revenue in Madhya Pradesh. As Commissioner for Linguistic Minorities, he had presented to the President of India, the forty-fourth Annual Report under Article 350- B (2) of the Constitution. For the implementation of the constitutional provisions and Nationally Agreed Scheme of Safeguards provided to linguistic minorities, the report recommends action to be taken by the Central Government and various State Governments / Union Territory Administration, to assuage the feelings of the linguistic minorities.

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