Appraising the IAS on Civil Services Day: Decline in the quality of the IAS cannot be denied

Uday Kumar Varma

IAS officers of 2020 batch with President Droupadi Murmu at Rashtrapati Bhavan (Representative image)

‘After a time, civil servants tend to become no longer servants, and no longer civil’; thus spake the irrepressible and witty Winston Churchill.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the bureaucrats on Civil Services’ Day

Our own Prime Minister seems to have a better opinion of them. Just a week ago, addressing the Civil Services’ Day function, the PM invoked the phrase ‘steel frame’ for the IAS. This phrase was put to use after a long time. It was reassuring for the service, but a liberal tinge of doubt is unmissable in the mention.

The PM drew a distinction between ‘letting things happen’ and ‘getting things done’. He acknowledged the contribution and capabilities of the service but cautioned against the constraints of time and the demands of urgency in dealing with pressing issues.

He exhorted the service to inculcate a ‘people centric’ and ‘development centric’ mindset and to assess their success not in terms of what they are able to do for themselves but instead what they have been able to do for the nation. His call for integrity in decisions and conduct was loud and clear.

The Rusted, Corroded Steel Frame

National Civil Services Day is celebrated in India every year on April 21. The day commemorates the birth of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the first Home Minister of independent India. Sardar Patel placed great faith in the civil services, despite open hostility and suspicion about their attitude and arrogance during the Imperial Raj.

On this day, civil servants across the country are recognised for their hard work and dedication towards serving the people. The contribution of civil servants towards the development of the country is assessed and applauded.

Despite this tradition, most of the cognoscenti sincerely believe the ‘steel frame’ to have already fatally corroded. Serious doubts have been raised from time to time about the relevance and efficiency of the services, especially the IAS. The services have also shown a tendency to rest on their past laurels and dismiss any challenges to their legitimacy as mere sound and fury signifying nothing.

The Black Sheep

In the mind of the common man, Arvind Joshis and Pooja Singhals have come to symbolise and characterise the IAS today. This is both terrible and tragic.

It is terrible because it is a calamitous manifestation of the blatant abuse of authority, and tragic because it is a denial of the outstanding work of scores of dedicated IAS officers whose enthusiasm and energy blossom into enviable sagas of sensitivity and sense of duty.

It is a crying shame that a handful of officers in their ugly and reprehensible pursuit of power and money have denigrated the lofty ideals that many of their brethren have held in the face of unspeakable odds; but such is the nature of the service. The ugliness sublimates while the beauty evaporates. Like stains on a white sheet, the services have oft had to bear heavy the burden of their black sheep.

The Decline is Real

And despite the presence of dedication, diligence and true determination towards public service, the decline in the quality of the IAS cannot be denied. The decline principally includes eroding integrity amongst a substantial section of the service, and a casual indifference and acceptance of this practice amongst the others.

Several factors have been attributed to this change, viz. political interference, limited accountability, lack of proper incentive structures, inappropriate orientation and unfound arrogance being the principal ones.

These factors and possible solutions to them have been discussed and deliberated several times and on diverse platforms. Political interference and maintenance of political neutrality remains the foremost under deliberation. Realistically, no one expects the services, especially the IAS, to be politically neutral any longer. It is seen as the norm that politicians would pressurise officers to serve their ends: but what is unexpected is the increasing tendency of the IAS to succumb to such pressures, often without even a token resistance. In many instances, this surrender is completely willing.

It is this capitulation that provides grist to the mill. Indeed, it is this nexus that has been struck with the politicians that had led to the rot in the system and is becoming fouler by the day. Denying this nexus only confirms the allegation that many of the members of this service are completely compromised.

Those who defend this service on this count are not so different from the ostrich that buries its head in the sand and denies the existence of a storm. The more such defenders try to couch the problem in intelligently worded semantics, the more complex they are likely to make the way forward for course correction.

A Crisis of Morals and Ethics

Another shocking development of recent years is recurring instances of questionable integrity among young officers and recent joiners to the
services. Some have been caught indulging in rank corruption in their very first posting. Others seem to view extraneous income as a natural perk to the job. If this rot is not stemmed right away, the demise of this once prided public service is certain.

The Karma Yogi program, a leadership development initiative launched by the Government of India in 2020 places the issue of ethics and values at the top of its agenda, aiming to inculcate a strong sense of these in the service. It encourages young officers to embrace integrity, honesty and accountability in their work and personal life.

While the intent is laudable, the fact that now efforts have to be made towards instilling something that should already have been present is nothing short of a disgrace, and an implicit acknowledgement of the services’ falling standards.

Self-Perpetuating, Self-Serving

The recipient of the majority of criticism and the target of most of the improvement programs in the services is the IAS: what an irony it is that a service which was expected to be a beacon of transparency and a symbol of integrity for the rest of the bureaucracy is the one identified to be singularly lacking in this respect!

Today the representation of the IAS in central staffing is at an all-time low and it is likely to be even less represented in times to come. The isolation of IAS in this regard can be primarily traced to their patronising and condescending attitude towards their sister All-India Services. It has been compounded by their blatantly self-serving and self-perpetuating machinations, often violating all norms of equity and fair play.

The IAS is a service where competence and intelligence may not be at a premium, but a commitment to the ideals of bureaucracy and a faultless level of conduct was to be the norm that stood them above others.

Mired by arrogance, attenuating integrity and an unhealthy eagerness to join hands with pernicious political interests have changed the way they are perceived today, both by the public and their fellow civil servants.

Given their generalist nature, it was possible and indeed eminently advisable for the IAS to forge a rapport with other services, retaining their marginally superior position without rubbing it in. It was expected that they would be at the forefront of establishing a leadership role and forging a larger and cohesive higher administrative structure. Their high-handedness and myopia has cost them dearly.

Not Too Late

In the annals of bureaucratic history, the IAS remains an absorbing and illustrious innovation. It has generally served, and served well for several years, the purpose for which it was created.

It will indeed be a sad day when this service folds up, and if things continue unabated, fold up it will; the signs of its demise are unmissable.

There are still a large number of extremely competent officers whose integrity and commitment is beyond question. The question is when will they come together and look beyond their individual growth to raise their service again to the high standards it once held.

While the services continue to attract some of the most inspired and ambitious of our youth, a few unrepentant and unrelenting black sheep still cause irrevocable damage. And if it meets its demise in these circumstances, whose possibility is eminent, while it may be remembered with some nostalgia, its death will remain largely
unlamented.

The PM’s recent address underlines the hope and faith that the political leadership still reposes in the IAS, indeed in the service class as a whole; it is testament to the fact that perhaps it is still not too late. It will be supremely unfortunate then if this so-called elite service does not respond to this expectation. A PM who is indulgent and patient could also be ruthlessly surgical.


Uday Kumar Varma, a 1976 batch IAS officer of Madhya Pradesh cadre, was Secretary Information & Broadcasting, member of the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) and member of the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council, a self-regulatory body for general entertainment channels. As Secretary I&B, he spearheaded the nationwide digitisation programme.

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3 comments

  1. The steel frame was corroded by the political establishment which supported and propped up criminals like Atiq and Ansari and tinkered around with the recruitment pattern which is almost completely reservation based. Then why lament? The civil services have moulded themselves the way the politicians want them to.

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  2. Real fact check about IAS. Created by Raj-Hangoverists, this org was designed by the British for control but now there is a dire need to change over from control to service to the people & nation. The first thing to do is strip their arrogance of being the framework of India lording over people and instead of serving the people.

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