In this essay…
While framing the social contract for modern India, leaders in the constituent assembly borrowed good things from around the world. Government of India act 1935 was the base, on which we added and subtracted as per needs. Amid the process of weaving modern India, a civil servant of British India, V.P. Menon submitted his resignation voluntarily to the upcoming power. He deemed that there were chances to look at him from the prism of skepticism since he had served imperial British India.
The first home minister, the man of unity, Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel met and requested Menon to take his resignation back. He persuaded him to use his energy for the development of modern India. Consequently, the civil servant, V.P. Menon played a very important role in the integration of 565 princely states along with Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel and pundit Nehru. Sardar Patel also called civil servants – “a steel frame of India.” Since then, civil servants have been shaping India in different fields.
In this essay, we would discuss the needs of ‘role’ instead of ‘rule’ in contemporary times. It will also explain how civil servants have been transforming Indian society through their roles. It rolls out the challenges as well as new debates in transforming civil services in India.
Why ‘role’ is more important than ‘rule’?
The objective of imperial civil services was to maintain law and order and contain all sorts of thrust from the people. It was a means to rule India through administration. But the role of civil servants in independent India has been national building and the service of people in India. Today ‘role’ is more important than ‘rule’ – First, India has witnessed a drain of wealth by imperial powers. According to an estimate by Utsa Patnaik, British alone India had plundered $45 trillion from India. Here, the role becomes important to perform best out of limited resources available, after the drain of wealth by foreign invaders.
Second, according to the RBI report, nearly 23% of the people in India live under BPL. It means 23% of the people are not able to earn Rs 23 per day in the rural areas and Rs 33 per day in the urban areas (As per Tendulkar’s estimation). Regional variation of poverty also raises eyebrows. Nearly, 45% of the population live under BPL in states like Chhatisgarh and Jharkhand which presents disturbing facts. Poverty also impacts the education of children adversely which leads to poor skill development and social capital. Thus, the roles of civil servants become very important in eradicating poverty since they work at the grassroots level.
Third, in spite of increasing surplus agricultural production, the Global Hunger index 2020 has revealed that India has not even been performing better than Pakistan and Bangladesh in eradicating hunger. Similarly, inequality is increasing continuously. According to a study by Thomas Piketty in his book “Capital in the 21st century” claims that India’s inequality has been raised from 6% in 1980 to 23% in 2017. Inequality creates ‘relative deprivation’ in society and provides ground for revolution and social unrest. The differences between ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ prevent India from becoming a power pole.
Fourth, Amartya Sen in his ‘theory of entitlement’ claims that poverty and famine are not due to lack of resources but due to lack of equitable access to the resources. Here, the roles of civil servants become very important inequitable distribution of resources so that inequality can be reduced and hunger can be eradicated. Civil servants play a very important role in PDS (Public Distribution System) to fill empty stomachs and solve the ‘dilemma of exclusion error’ so that the people could spend their money in other areas like education, skill development, and health.
Fifth, New challenges like Cyber-crime, Global warming, and Terrorism have been coming to the fore. Thus, there is a need to redefine the roles of civil servants. A civil servant should have technical knowledge of this world along with administrative skills. Adopting advanced technologies and their efficient use can be an antidote to the new challenges coming out of the technologies.
How roles of civil servants transform society?
Civil servants have presented their success in various fields. 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 has successfully constructed a 100 km road in 2012, even without financial support from the political class. He crowdfunded Rs 40 lakh from the public and put Rs 5 lakh from his own pocket to serve the interests of people. It shows the ability of a civil servant to work efficiently with the limited resources.
Similarly, in Chhatisgarh, OP Choudhary has worked extra-ordinarily in Naxal affected district. He has been successful in generating ‘good will’ in tribal society. His approach was based on maximum delivery of scheme to the people. When Naxals tried to destroy schools, he managed to give them a temporary school so that there could be no gap in education. His education initiatives like ‘Nahney Paride’ and ‘Chhulo Asman’ were successful experiments.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Arvind Singh in UP showed dynamism during the first wave of the pandemic. He trained women working in SHGs for making PPE kits who 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.
During the second wave of pandemics, Dr. Rajendra Bharud in the Nandurbar district of Maharashtra has been successful in the containment of infections effectively. He anticipated the possible threat a long back. He managed to get oxygen supplies and better facilities for COVID-19 patients by using disaster funds.
Challenges in performing roles
Civil servants face many obstacles while performing duties. The political challenge is one of the biggest problems which tries to make a crack in civil services. The political class tries to use civil servants for their political interests. It doesn’t mean that the person can be debarred from political participation just because he/she is a civil servant. There is no harm in joining politics by the civil servants after retirement or resignation. But becoming a politician while in office is the biggest challenge to the other civil services. Its rays are harmful to other civil servants.
Apart from the above, financial constraints are also the biggest challenge. In Manipur, when Armstrong Pame asked for building roads to erase public inconvenience, his requests were rejected by the Manipur government. Along with financial constraints, civil servant’s roles also get thrust into administration. There is an inter-departmental or intra-departmental conflict, which hampers the overall efficiency in administration. Civil servants are also not immune from the impacts of mafia, and criminals.
New debates and the road ahead for ‘the steel frame’
New experiments like ‘Lateral entry’ are made to increase competition within the administration. It has given the birth of the ‘Specialist Vs generalist debate.’ It is argued that conventional civil servants lack special knowledge of the field. PM Modi in parliament also raised questions on the role of civil servants by asking – “How can civil servants run PSUs?” A former civil servant, Anil Swaroop argues that civil servants are people trained for the good soul which could also take care of the weaker section of society.
Civil servants understand diversity and have good faith in the constitution of India. They abide by the law due to very limited discretionary power. Apart from structural changes, the Government of India has been changing the nature and functions of civil services. The government’s new initiative ‘Mission Karmayogi’ program is aimed at recasting the civil servants in a manner that every officer is trained to optimally discharge the role assigned to him, rather than remaining a “prisoner of rules”.
We have discussed the journey of Indian civil services from the era of British India. It has elaborated the need for transforming approaches of civil servants from ‘rule based’ to ‘role based’ amid increasing poverty and inequality in Indian society. It has explained how young civil servants like Armstrong Pame, O.P. Chaudhary, Arvind Singh, and Dr. Rajendra Bharud has presented model before budding civil servants through their dedication toward public services. It has explained political, social, and financial constraints along with new debates related to the lateral entry.
Thus, the role of civil servants is of utmost importance in meeting the dreams mentioned in the preamble i.e. social, economic, and political justice. They have the capability to deal with the contemporary challenges and meeting the international commitments like INDCs and SDGs, made by the government of India.