The Weekend Leader - Inside story

In this age of ‘specialists’, IAS officers remain ‘generalists’ and do a shoddy job

Amitabh Thakur


Vol 4 | Issue 3

As an insider, Amitabh Thakur knows the Indian Administrative Service well. Here, the UP cadre officer, who seeks a revamp of the system, explains how the British legacy has lost its relevance

I have recently filed a PIL in Allahabad High Court, Lucknow Bench praying to constitute a high-level Committee to study the need and utility of revamping the present administrative structure regarding IAS officers.

The matter being presented in the petition is as regards the role and position of present day administrative set-up where the members of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) are being placed at all important places in all the Ministries in the Central Government, the Departments and Ministries of the various State Governments, and also as the Head of the District and Sub-divisional structure of Indian system of Governance.

An IAS officer, who is a pure Generalist, seems to be fast losing his relevance and importance, writes Amitabh Thakur

Again, the IAS officers play the roles of the Co-ordination officer at the Sub-Divisional, District and Divisional level as the Sub-Divisional Magistrate, District Magistrate/Collector and Divisional Commissioner.

I strongly feel that this present set-up needs to be changed as it has failed to deliver the requisite goals to quite some extent and has lost much of its utility. I also feel that instead of having Generalists at all the pivotal places in all Ministries and Departments, we need to have respective Specialists in these Ministries and Departments.

I am of the view that even the roles of co-ordination need to be revamped and restructured in such a manner that the officers occupying these ranks are much more mature and experienced than the present ones, and that they are made to occupy these ranks after sufficient experience.

I have very definite reasons for believing so. It is a well-known fact that the Indian administrative structure, as it stands today, is primarily ruled and governed by the IAS. They hold key positions in the Union Government, State governments and Public Sector Undertakings.

It is also well-known that the Imperial Civil Service, which was also popularly known as Indian Civil Service (ICS) or British India Civil Service was the precursor of the IAS. It was the élite higher civil service of the British Empire in South Asia during their rule in the period between 1858-1947. Historians often rate the ICS, together with the railway system, the legal system and the army, as among the most important legacies of the British rule in India.

But what also needs to be understood and accepted is that with the passage of time, these services seem to be fast losing their relevance, importance and prestige. Innumerable cases of corruption, ineptitude, malpractices, inefficiency, callousness, partisan behaviour, and political servility have come forth making it now a much reduced force than it used to be in the British period. Other than this, a new problem also seems to be emerging with the passage of time.

While the 19th and early 20th Century were the age of Generalists, where a person could be considered an expert in so many subjects, today is the age of the Specialists. In such circumstances, an IAS officer, who is a pure Generalist, seems to be fast losing his relevance and importance.

Today while an IPS officer knows about policing, a Forest officer knows about environment and forest, a Railway officer knows about Indian Railways, an officer of Indian Foreign Service knows about Diplomacy, a Power Engineer knows about electricity, a Nuclear Engineer knows about Nuclear sciences, an Educationist knows about Education, a Doctor knows about Medicine and Health, a Jurist and a lawyer know about law, a Transport officer knows about Transport system and so on, an IAS officer does not have a sound/thorough knowledge about any of these areas. As far as his training is concerned, he is mostly taught revenue law along with the basics of management and Public Administration.

After this cursory knowledge about so many different departments, this IAS officer is made in-charge of almost every Department and Ministry in India- both at the Central and the State level. Thus, we have the Education Secretary, the Health Secretary, the Power Secretary, the Transport Secretary, the Home/Police Secretary, the Finance Secretary, the Forest Secretary, the Industry Secretary and so on and so forth.

While on one hand, we see this trend in governance, in today’s times, as against the previous days, super-specialization seems to rule the roost and the need is to have specialists and super-specialists in each Department. If in such situations, the Head of a Technical Department is not a specialist but a Generalist, who is the jack of all trades and master of none, there is always a great possibility of his coming in the way of better functioning. He would certainly find it very difficult to understand the nitty-gritty and niceties of the Department and Ministry.

Hence, this person who was appointed as the Secretary of the Ministry and Department only yesterday will be presumed to know everything about the Department that the other Departmental Officers (the Specialists) would be working at for years. This new Secretary, with hardly any experience in that field, would start dictating the terms and may change, overrule or amend the decision coming from beneath from a person who had been doing his job as a specialist for years.

This certainly seems to be dangerous for the current day administrative system and the time has possibly come when a fresh and newer look seems to be needed in this respect.

It also needs to be understood that much has changed in this world since 1800 and 1900 and a service that was useful in those days in the pre-independence British days, might have lost its relevance in the present days.

Other than this aspect of specialist vs generalist, there is another aspect of the IAS. It is their role as a Coordinator. Thus, we find the Sub-Divisional Magistrate, District Magistrate/Collector and Divisional Commissioner at the Sub-Divisional, District and Divisional level who act as the coordinator for various Departments. These officers, other than being Revenue officials, are also the coordinators of various Departments and act as the common bridge for coordinated and concerted functioning of District Administration. There is also the Chief Secretary at the State level and the Cabinet Secretary at the National level who primarily play exactly the same role of coordination on behalf of the various Departments and Ministries of their respective Government and with other Governments.

It cannot be denied that there is a need for a coordinator at each level of administration and if the IAS officers are undertaking this role, there is nothing wrong with it. Since the IAS officers are generalists by nature and profession, they also seem to suit this role of coordination. But even as coordinator, there is one serious problem that is coming in the way. It is a fact that an IAS officer is given this extremely important role at a very early stage of his service.

Thus, we find someone posted as SDM after 2 years of service, directing, dictating and coordinating officers from 40-45 Departments, who are very senior and experienced to him. Similarly, we find a DM after 4-6 years of experience in the IAS, working as the coordinator for the Chief Medical Officer of 50 years age, Executive Engineer 40-45 years age, Basic Education Officer 40 years of age and so on, who have been working in their Departments as specialists for decades.

Thus, while most of the other officers, except the District SP and the District Forest Officer, belonging to the IPS and the IFS, are quite experienced with 10-20 years of experience, here is an officer with hardly 4-6 years experience, who is guiding, directing, instructing and coordinating their works. It can be easily understood that such kind of guidance of the specialists by a generalist with hardly any experience has all the possibilities of being harmful and counter-productive.

Thus it seems that these roles of a coordinator at Sub-Divisional and District level, which are extremely important in the present system of Governance, need to be seen in a newer light as per the present day situations where the officer concerned occupies these extremely vital and important posts after much more experience and exposure

These are the two vital issues related with the IAS (that of relieving the IAS officers of the job of the Secretaries of the Ministries and Departments and appointing Specialists in these positions and that of appointing SDMs and DMs to these extremely sensitive and important roles of District Administration after sufficient experience for a longer time) that seems to need a deep and well-rounded study by a high-power committee so as to have a holistic view on these two topics, as per the present day needs of better Governance. I have prayed exactly for this.

Thus I have prayed to constitute a high-level Committee to study the need and utility of revamping the present administrative structure. Hope there are many who agree with me that this issue needs a fresh look.

Amitabh Thakur, an UP Cadre IPS officer, works for accountability in Governance

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