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Govt vs IAS? Inviting lateral entrants in the bureaucracy is fraught with dangers

Neeraj Thakur | Updated on: 16 June 2018, 18:01 IST
(Arya Sharma / Catch News)

In 1999, Ramesh Kumar (name changed) was selected for India's most coveted job known as the Indian Administrative Services (IAS). Kumar managed to crack the civil services exam in his third attempt. It involved four years of rigorous studies, putting up at a dungeon-like small room near Delhi's Old Rajendra Nagar. 

After spending 19 years in the service, rising from the rank of sub-divisional magistrate and donning various hats in different departments of his allocated state, Kumar has finally reached the rank of a director in one of the ministries in the Union government, his next promotion will be make him a joint secretary. But Kumar is a worried man these days, as the government has introduced a system of lateral entry in the bureaucracy at the level of Joint Secretary.

This coveted position in the government is the real chance at making national level policies. However, the Narendra Modi government feels that there is not enough talent within the Indian bureaucracy and it needs to call people from the private sector to help the government formulate better policies in future.

Kumar feels that the bureaucrats who join Indian Civil services have a set criteria after which they are chosen for the job of managing and formulating government policies. But the idea of lateral entry makes the choice of a lateral entrant arbitrary. Anyone who is close to the incumbent government will get the position, making it difficult for bureaucrats who came through UPSC.

Then there is the issue of bypassing constitutional mandate of providing quota for historically oppressed castes. If the government allows lateral entry without following the criteria of caste representation, it will eventually, in all likelihood, affect the representation from the marginalised sections of society.

Dalit activists have realised the dangers for their community in the proposed policy and have planned a nation-wide protest in the coming months to create pressure against such a measure.

Apart from being arbitrary and anti-reservation, the policy of lateral entry, in its current form would also breed instability in the system. The government circular says that a lateral entrant will be chosen for a period of 3 years with a possibility of extension by another two years.

This means that a person who comes from the private sector will never have the security that a permanent officer from IAS/IPS/IFS cadres enjoys. This permanency of job, gives bureaucrats the power to not be afraid of politicians who in an extreme case of insubordination can order for the transfer of a bureaucrat. Bureaucracy is meant to help politicians run the country, without the burden of subordination.

But the tenure of 3+2 years makes a lateral entrant vulnerable and desperate in front of the minister who is heading the ministry of his charge.

Moreover, how would the government ensure that the private sector person who has come for a period of only 5 years does not try to secure his future by favouring a particular corporate through his inputs in the policy documents?

Will a lateral entrant make a better policy because of his specialised experience?

The 'specialist vs generalist' debate is as old as the bureaucracy in India. To understand this debate, one needs to understand the structure of India's policy-making set up. An IAS officer, after becoming the sub-divisional magistrate starts working in some block of India. From that time on, his role is to oversee law and order, general administration, and developmental work.

After spending two decades in different parts of India, he becomes well-versed with the reality of the country, its diversity, differences within communities as well as socio-economic conditions of the people. This first hand experience of dealing with people, gives him the required understanding of the possibilities and limitations of any government decision in the form of a policy. On the other hand, there are experts who have dedicated their life to just one subject giving them the edge in domain knowledge.

Who will make a better policy, say, on the coal sector? A man who has spent 15 years tracking coal prices, quality and its mining technologies may appear a winner when it comes to imagining a policy document a one-way process where the government's order is supreme.

But in the real world, especially India, a policy has to be implemented on ground, therefore, during its formulation, the person in charge must be aware of the any sort of backlash that coal mining will face in different parts of the country. The understanding of local communities and their behaviour is something that cannot be purchased or picked up in any university of the world. This is why traditionally, bureaucrats have been formulating government policies with the help of technocrats. And remember, those technocrats are also permanent government officers who have spent their lifetime working with politicians and bureaucrats to understand the ground realities of a diverse country like India.

There is a weight in the argument that a bureaucrat should not be in charge of Air India. At the same time, a private sector person - with a tenure of just 5 years and no understanding of India's natural resources and its interface with country's human resources - should not be in charge of drafting policy..

A few reports, quoting government sources have suggested staff shortage at the top level is forcing government of India to look for talent outside. Nothing can be farther from the truth in this case because it is in government's hand to increase the number of hiring at the bottom of pyramid to promote more number of people from the civil services for the top 4 positions in the hierarchy of policy-making in India. Data shows that over the years the governments in power have constantly reduced the number of new appointees through UPSC exams.

In the current year, for which Preliminary exams have just been held there are less than 750 seats that the government plans to fill through a 3 level selection process. Every year around 6 lakh people appear for civil services exam in India and it is ridiculous to argue that from such a large pool of applicants, the government does not find the talent that can be promoted to the JS level, in the years to come.

First published: 16 June 2018, 14:45 IST
Neeraj Thakur @neerajthakur2

As a financial journalist, his interface with the two dominant 'isms'- Marxism and Capitalism- has made him realise that an ideal economic order of the world would lie somewhere between the two. Associate Editor at Catch, Neeraj writes on everything related to business and the economy. He has been associated with Businessworld, DNA and Business Standard in the past. When not thinking about stories, he is busy playing with his pet dog, watching old Hindi movies or searching through the Vividh Bharti station on his Philips radio transistor.