Lateral entry in civil services: A dilemma between specialist Vs generalist

In this article…

Indian Bureaucracy is the backbone of the administrative machinery of India. It forms the permanent executive branch of the government. India, a civilizational state, had developed the art and science of administration in the past. An element of public administration is also found in Kautilya’s Arthashashtra. The administrative mechanism had traveled from ancient India to modern India. Its structure, as well as its functions, have taken a tectonic shift in the journey of ‘the steel frame.’

Journey of ‘the steel frame’

Deepak Gupta, a former IAS officer in his book ‘The Steel Frame: A History of the IAS’ observes that the original conception of the ‘civil service’ can be traced back to the Royal Charters at the very beginning of the 17th century. Royal Charters gave power to the East India Company, to raise a cadre of troops – for both civilian and military purposes. In 1784, Pitt’s India act outlined “a patronage bureaucracy” i.e., administrators were appointed only through the nomination of the Court of Directors. It continued until the Charter Act, of 1853.

On the recommendation of the Macaulay committee, under Charter Act 1853, for the first time, an open competition system for civil servants was introduced. But it was limited to British citizens and Indian people were largely excluded from this program. The examination was held in England in the English language. After 8 years, under the Indian Council act 1861, Open competition was allowed for Indian citizens also. But the exam was still held in London to contains Indian from becoming civil servant.

The formation of INC in 1885 has demanded simultaneous recruitment examinations to ICS (Indian Civil Services) in India. The Government of India Act,1919, finally provided for a separate, not simultaneous recruitment examination to ICS to be held in India. Later, members of the constituent assembly reshaped civil services based on past experiences. Indian Constitution through Articles 310, 311, and 312 confers the protection from political interference and unwarranted harassment.

New debates in the development of civil services

During British India, the civil services approach was ruled based. The end objective was to perform administrative roles in the interests of colonial masters. In independent India, the approach of civil services is ‘role-based where public services are the end objective. It could be understood from the quote of pundit Nehru – “Administration is meant to achieve something and not to exist in some kind of an ivory tower following certain rules of procedure and Narcissus-like looking on itself with complete satisfaction. The test, after all, is the human being and their welfare.”

The year 2014 marked the shift in India’s political order from ‘the congress system’ to ‘the BJP system.’ It marks a gradual change in the conventional mean of administration. Unlike Nehru’s socialist-welfare model, ‘the BJP system’ is seen as more closure to the neo-liberal model. Continued disinvestments since Atal Bihari Vajpayee and lateral entry into civil services are few supporting shreds of evidence. In other words, lateral entry can be described as a disinvestment process in the Indian Bureaucracy.

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The first bidding of disinvestment has been introduced at the joint secretary level. In the name of reforms, personnel from the private sector are selected to an administrative post at the Joint Secretary level, the third-highest rank in bureaucracy after Secretary and Additional Secretary. If we extrapolate the graph in civil services, based on experiences from other sectors, it is expected that after a few years committees would be formed on the assessment of lateral entry. Committees would appraise the new system by stressing its benefits and recommend ending the conventional system.

Evaluating specialist narrative

It is argued that governance is becoming more and more complex requiring specialized skills in the 21st century. Lateral entry would bring specialists into the system. PM Modi on babus in parliament says – “Sab Kuchh babu hi karenge. IAS ban gaye matlab woh fertiliser ka kaarkhana bhi chalayega, chemical ka kaarkhana bhi chalayega, IAS ho gaya toh woh hawai jahaz bhi chalayega. Yeh kaunsi badi taakat bana kar rakh di hai humne?”

Here, I agree with the statement that complex governance requires specialists. But my difference is that specialization should not be unidimensional and it must be multidimensional. UPSC ensures multi-dimensional personalities. It is similar to the physics questions that we solve mechanics problems by ignoring the role of air, which doesn’t exist in practicality. People who are supposed to be inducted in the current lateral entry are specialists in one dimension. He/She may be an expert in their core technical area but there are probabilities that they would have poor knowledge about the Indian constitution, diversity, and social complexity.

Experts can be outsourced on a case-by-case basis. But it is very difficult to outsource a good soul because people in a good position in MNCs show their intolerant behavior against other communities on social media. If knowledge level would have solely been the criteria, then a lawyer would be a better judge than the judge himself. What differentiates between a judge and a lawyer is – the soul, having a good understanding of India’s diversity, society, and empathy for the weaker sections. That’s why for becoming eligible to be a judge, one of the criteria is that he/she should have been an advocate of a High Court for at least ten years.

For the proper functioning of a diverse country like India where people from the stone age to the space age live, there is a need for good souls who has faith in the Indian constitution and empathy toward the weaker section. It is also not necessary for specialists always work. For example, Ashraf Ghani was also a specialist in the field of a failed state but he failed in protecting Afghanistan because he didn’t understand the social realities and power distribution of Afghanistan. It is also true that man is not always guided by knowledge but also guided by passion. Thus, the problem doesn’t lie in specialists or generalists but it lies in the social capital.

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Parochial presentation of case studies

In an interview with Saurabh Dwivedi, Prashant Kishore defended lateral entry by saying that the people who have research in a particular field are superior and the civil servants are inferiors (In the words of Mr. Kishore, “Jo researcher aaega, wo us officer ke niche hoga jisko kuchh samajh nhi hai”). He supported his stance using revolutionary activities that had been done by the lateral entrants in past – Sam Pitroda in the field of telecommunication, Kurian Varghese in the white revolution, Vikram Sara Bhai in space, M.S. Swaminathan in Green revolution, and Nandan Nilekani in Aadhar UIDAI. It has become a popular argument among those who strongly support lateral entry.

I agree and appreciate the achievements done by these esteemed personalities. But it doesn’t mean the civil servants have not done anything at all. Just after independence, the role played by the V.P. Menon, a bureaucrat, in integrating the 565 princely states has been remarkable. He worked effectively and efficiently with pundits Nehru and Sardar Patel. On the same line, T.N. Seshan, as Chief Election Commissioner during 1990-96, had given new energy to Indian democracy. He reformed the electoral system and prevented democracy from politicians’ ambitions.

Similarly, SR Sankaran, 1956 Batch ‘people’s IAS officer’, is one of the very few civil servants in whose name a statue is erected and is a household name in Andhra Pradesh even today. His efforts in abolishing bonded labor and his pioneering work on welfare schemes to uplift the marginalized sections won applause from every section of the society. Can anyone tell which specialist would be more appropriate to abolish “bonded labor?” Instead, the unidimensional specialist (Lateral entrant) may create more such exploitative systems since their end objectives are merely numbers on which they are judged.

In Manipur, connectivity to the two villages was a huge problem and the locals had to either walk for hours or swim across the river, IAS officer Armstrong Pame successfully constructed a 100 km road in 2012, even without financial support from the political class. Similarly, O.P. Chaudhary, a young IAS officer used education to transform the Naxal-affected district of Dantewada. We have still been witnessing the work of Ajit Doval in securing India’s security posture. There is a long list of the achievement of civil servants that don’t get a proper position in the debate.

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Refuting vague arguments

Lateral entry is justified in the name of shortages. It could have been done by increasing seats in UPSC instead of lateral entry. Another popular attitude criticizes bureaucracy for red-tapism and the status quo. Thus, it is claimed that lateral entry would bring professionalism and change workplace culture. There are two issues in this argument: First, Civil servants are still seen through the colonial prism. Second, there is a very limited discretionary power to the civil servant. For example, amid a pandemic, a group of IRS officers has been suspended just because they prepared a report to suggest the government pandemic without their order.

In spite of the very limited discretionary power and tied hand with the defined rules, they give the best out of them. During the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, IAS Arvind Singh in Lakhimpur, UP, trained women working in SHGs for making PPE kits that were used to make pickles earlier. He created a chain of skilled women by transferring skills to other women. He has not only been able to get PPE kits for his district but also delivered the order made by the Indian army. Similarly, during the second wave, Dr. Rajendran Bharud, in the Nandurbar district of Maharashtra, foresaw the need for oxygen plants and helped nearby areas with oxygen supply.

Another popular argument is made that it will increase competition and ensure participatory governance. Competition is basically associated with numbers instead of a holistic assessment. It may cost the public interests. People would become mean to the end of the objective of getting numbers on paper to get permission. This is against the core values of the civil services i.e. public services. Superficially it is deemed as participatory. But in a real sense, this would be an attempt to erase the boundary between permanent executive and political executive.

In conclusion

It is the nature of the political class to increase their domain and become Leviathan in the system. There is a high probability that lateral entrants may become pawns in their hands. Industrialists fund political parties. In return, political parties may use these lateral entries to clear files without proper environmental and social assessments. We should abide by the spirit of separation of power. It plays important role in the functioning of democracy. India’s system of checks and balances is probably the central cause for making democracy most successful in India among all post-colonial states.

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