March 31, 2020
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All Spic And Span In The Stainless Steel Frame

Ghose’s IAS memoirs delivers the usual images, but does not look at the oft-craven ways of a once-committed cadre

All Spic And Span In The Stainless Steel Frame
All Spic And Span In The Stainless Steel Frame
outlookindia.com
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The Service Of The State—The IAS Reconsidered
By Bhaskar Ghose
Penguin/Viking | Pages: 320 | Rs. 499

There is widespread recognition that the IAS (Indian Administrative Service) has played a significant role in the post-independence era. From being the virtual rulers of India for two centuries under British rule, these civil servants were transformed into advisors and policy implementers. Bhaskar Ghose’s highly readable memoir is the story of one career in the IAS—from his Academy training in the ’60s, to life as an administrator in rural Bengal, to policymaking positions in Calcutta and Delhi. His book brings out the wide variety of postings an IAS officer is exposed to, in diverse sectors, and the types of challenges and tasks undertaken.

But is Ghose’s portrayal of the IAS a bit too rosy? While our administrators can rightly take some credit for post-1947 achievements, don’t they share, to a more or less equal degree, the blame for major failures on many fronts? Crushing poverty is still rampant, India is one of the most illiterate nations, our public health performance has been inferior to that of Sub-Saharan Africa, and we are one of the most corrupt nations—are politicians alone to blame for this? Whereas the young British joint magistrate would keep a stern eye on local corruption, Ghose’s description of life in the district for an IAS officer does not appear to have anything to do with land administration or probity in the thana. Did Nehru and other Indian rulers decide ab initio that corruption would not be taken up as an issue?

Ghose’s book reflects all the usual images of the IAS. The average member of Parliament wants a young IAS collector in his district because it enhances the image of the administration. The Indian civil service is widely respected by civil servants all over the world as one of the best organised and as one that has held the country together in difficult circumstances. One cannot over-emphasise the role played by the higher civil services in maintaining the country’s unity and integrity, and providing reasonably efficient administration. While the “babu” is spoken of with ridicule, the citizen realises that the “steel frame”, though rusting, is still in place.

But Ghose fights shy of mentioning issues related to the inter-relationship with the political class and the increasing politicisation of the IAS. While intellectual and moral standards have been somewhat on the decline, there is also in recent years an alarming increase in financial dishonesty, even if it’s only a small minority who are indulging in it so far. It was Indira Gandhi who ushered in the concept of “committed bureaucracy”. In the beginning this “commitment” referred to policies, but it rapidly degenerated into loyalty to a political party, and from there on to serving individual ministers and politicians. The public servant’s transformation into a private servant was complete. These are issues conveniently side-stepped by Ghose.

For instance, in the early ’90s, in an annual gathering of the Uttar Pradesh cadre of IAS officers—“service weeks”, as they are called by bureaucrats—the chief guest, the then chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav, addressed his officers. “You are all highly educated, some of you have Nobel prize quality minds, you live comfortable lives, you can educate your children well, you have status in society,” he began. Then in a more strident tone: “Why do you come and touch my feet? Why do you ask me for personal favours? I will do what you want, and in return take back from you a thousand times.” In present times, it is probably more like a million times! The crisis of character afflicting the entire population has surely infected the IAS also.

Some trends are clearly emerging, with only minor variations between the states—the honest, upright officer who will not play political games but will tender straight advice will be sidelined—he can spend the rest of his career mastering the Sudoku or the Kakuro. The pliant officer who is willing to keep his eyes, ears and mouth shut can still climb the ladder. Those who are highly flexible, willing to tango, collaborate, and even conspire with the minister will go places—a rare one may land up in Tihar jail.

Ghose has recounted the life of an IAS officer in the first three decades of independence; he has chosen not to look at the falling standards of the next three decades. Having said this, I do believe the country cannot do without the higher services, despite its warts and obvious weaknesses.


(The reviewer was a 1961 batch IAS officer and former cabinet secretary)

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