A 2012 report by Hong Kong based “Political and Economic Risk Consultancy” classified India’s bureaucracy as “the worst in Asia with a 9.21 rating out of 10.” Vietnam scored 8.54, Indonesia 8.37, The Philippines 7.57 and China 7.11. On August 31, 2016, John Kerry, the then US secretary of state, told a group of students at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi that, “India’s economy will only be able to maintain its impressive growth if its bureaucracy ceases to be an expert in setting up roadblocks.”
For those who chafe at outsiders meddling in India’s internal affairs, Indian leaders from vastly different political backgrounds have echoed similar concerns. Decades ago, Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, regretted his inability to reform the bureaucracy. In 1964, he admitted: “I could not change the administration, it is still a colonial administration.”
In a speech on February 1, 2021, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Hindu nationalist BJP, referred to Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers as “babus” that some deem an offensive colloquialism. Continuing in Hindi, he said “Babus will do everything. By dint of becoming IAS officers, they’ll operate fertilizer warehouses and also chemical warehouses, even fly airplanes. What is this big power we have created? What are we going to achieve by handing the reins of the nation to babus? Our babus are also citizens, and so are the youth of India.”
It is common knowledge that Indian bureaucrats are rewarded for bending the rules for their political masters. On the other hand, if they refuse to carry out the will of their masters, their careers shrivel. Furthermore, favorites of one party are often punished when another party comes to power. This brings up a crucial point: is it even possible for IAS officers to be impartial and politically neutral?
A well-documented problem
It is an open secret that the IAS fails to deliver. Even under Modi, IAS officers hold the commanding heights of the Indian state. The revenue secretary of India is an IAS officer, not an officer of the Indian Revenue Service (IRS). The home secretary of India is an IAS officer, not an officer of the Indian Police Service (IPS). The secretary of school education and literacy is an IAS officer, not an educator.
Institutions like the Central Board of Secondary Education, the Archeological Survey of India and the National Archives of India are all headed by IAS officers. State-owned enterprises are run by IAS officers as well and so are cooperatives. Amul is a rare exception where professional management runs one of the world’s most successful cooperatives. In neighboring Rajasthan, IAS officers still run Saras Dairy, which has failed to achieve success like Amul.
Former bureaucrats themselves have written many books on the failure of the IAS to deliver for the Indian taxpayer. Naresh Saxena published What Ails the IAS and Why it Fails to Deliver: An Insider’s View, V.Balasubramanium authored Fall From Grace: Memoir of a Rebel IAS Officer, and Deepak Gupta has written The Steel Frame: A History of the IAS. These books recount the extraordinary tale of how employees of a trading company in a foreign land — the famed East India Company — evolved into the most powerful civil service in the world.
Then the IAS was known as the Indian Civil Service (ICS). This ICS formed the backbone of the sprawling British Raj. It came to be known as the “steel frame” of the country. The ICS morphed into the IAS after independence. Nehru’s socialism gave them even greater powers than before independence. Now, the IAS ran the license-permit-quota raj that throttled the Indian economy for decades before reforms in 1991 unleashed higher growth.
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The control of the IAS over the economy might have decreased but it is still extraordinarily powerful. Unlike politicians, IAS officers cannot be voted out. Since they control all top positions, they are not accountable to anyone. The adage that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely is exemplified best by the IAS.
Saxena notes that “state resources are the most valued prize for both politicians and their constituencies, which leads to a client–patron relationship between the holders of state power and those seeking favors.” He goes on to observe: “Patronage is controlled by individuals, not established institutions bound to follow set procedures. Where power is highly personalized and weakly institutionalized, the decision-making process is replaced by arbitrary and behind-the-scenes transactions. In such an environment, exercise of power for its clients demands fudging of rules, dependence upon corrupt civil servants, plundering of the public treasury and decay of governance. When the fence starts eating the field, there is little chance of development reaching the poor.”
Corruption is the elephant in the room that few people are willing to point out. The IAS is the most organized mafia in India. Taking it on can mean the end of a career or the bankruptcy of a business. Yet things have come to such a pass that India’s law-enforcement agencies are finally taking on a few IAS officers. The Enforcement Directorate found Pooja Singhal, an IAS officer, with over $3 million in cash (250 million or 25 crore rupees) and nearly $10 million worth of property (827 million or 82.7 crore rupees). Sh is accused of stealing money from a scheme meant for the poorest of the poor. Singhal’s husband was using this money to start an upscale private hospital.
Singhal joins a long list of tainted civil servants including Nitesh Thakur, Babulal Agarwal, Rakesh Bahadur and Neera Yadav. Thakur fled to Dubai after amassing over $33 million but Agarwal, Bahadur and Yadav were reinstated as IAS officers despite being convicted of graft under the earlier dispensation.
A truly egregious example
The mother of all scams is probably the New Okhla Industrial Development Authority (NOIDA) land acquisition and allotment scam. NOIDA is a satellite city of New Delhi, with an estimated population of 738,343 in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (UP). NOIDA is a part of the National Capital Region (NCR) of India. A performance audit report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), India’s supreme audit institution, tabled in December 2021, found financial irregularities to the tune of $6.6 billion (550 billion or 55,000 crore rupees). It turns out that senior politicians and IAS officers stole massively from the taxpayer while developing the town and allocating properties. While the UP government has suspended minor officials, not one IAS officer has been prosecuted.
The audit covered the period from 2005-06 to 2017-18. Four chief ministers — Mulayam Singh Yadav (2005-2007), Mayawati (2007-2012), Akhilesh Yadav (2012-2017) and Yogi Adityanath (2017-2018) — held power during this period. This clearly demonstrates that the real estate cabal could operate with impunity regardless of the party or leader in power. To be fair, Yogi Adityanath, the current Bharatiya Janata Party BJP chief minister, gave the green light to the audit and tabled it in front of the state assembly.
The CAG report highlighted corruption on an unprecedented scale. Favoritism to a handful of private firms, a blatantly rigged bidding process and massive collusion between builders and IAS officers in the allotment and pricing of plots led to fortunes in the billions. This report authored by one of India’s most honest officers observed: “Absence of any internal audit led to unchecked violation of rules/orders and procedures as brought out in this Report. All of these translated into failure to achieve the objectives of NOIDA, distress for end-use stakeholders like home buyers who invested their life savings in schemes of NOIDA and losses to NOIDA and the Government involving thousands of crores of rupees.”
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The IAS officers in Lucknow managed to block any further scrutiny. The BJP is in power in both New Delhi and Lucknow. A senior officer told this author that the political leadership must order an investigation by a special investigation team that comprises senior officials from the CAG, the income tax department and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). This team must investigate, press charges and secure prison sentences in court. For such a colossal robbery of the taxpayer, some IAS officers must go to jail.
High time for reforms
“Corruption is like a pandemic, more dreaded than the coronavirus,” says journalist Ashwini Shrivastava, the author of Decoding Indian Babudom. This is a first-of-its-kind book, covering the ailments of India’s administrative system from a common man’s point of view. “I have explained in detail about the ill-effects and probable causes of graft in my book through a chapter titled ‘Yeh dil maange more [the heart wants more] … Corruption — need, greed or accepted norm?’”
Shrivastava joins a chorus of voices calling for the complete digitization of government works. They claim that this, along with swift punishment for repeat offenders, would be the real game-changer in the fight against corruption. Shrivastava says, “Governance is still largely inaccessible for people living below the poverty line or those in rural areas of the country.” He goes on to add: “The common man faces the menace of corruption in places of public dealing like [road transport officers] RTOs, property registry offices and civic authorities, among others. There would be zero scope for corruption if public work is done online and people are not required to visit government offices for their work. When I say digitization, I mean complete digitization and not ‘Indianisation of digitization’, something I tried to explain in my book.”
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Shrivastava’s book is subtitled ‘15 Sutras For Effective Governance’, some of which the government is currently implementing. They include programs like Clean India mission (that is aimed at cleaning of office spaces, etc.), E-Office (digitization), Mission Karma Yogi for capacity building of government employees, the Common Eligibility Test (an online recruitment mode for government jobs) and, above all, lateral recruitment (appointment of private sector specialists in government departments).
Replacing generalists, who may not possess the necessary domain knowledge to oversee major policy transitions at higher levels, with specialists has the potential to greatly reduce the scope for graft. Similarly, streamlining procedures and ensuring speedier implementation would help. This is exactly what Modi was referring to in his speech in parliament that this article referred to earlier.
Why should IAS officers run school boards and education departments when they have no idea or interest in the field? Note that they send their own children to private schools and, almost invariably, universities abroad. There is a running joke that even honest IAS officers are willing to sell out their country if the CIA can get members of their lucky sperm club admitted to Harvard. Similarly, why should an IAS officer who cannot stand the smell of cows and buffaloes run Saras Dairy? One could go on but the point is simple: somebody with domain expertise should run the department, not an IAS officer who bounces around as the big boss with no knowledge of the department she or he is running.
The Modi government has inaugurated the lateral entry program. This is a good start. Amber Dubey in civil aviation, Arun Goel in commerce, Rajeev Saksena in economic affairs, Sujit Kumar Bajpayee in environment, forest and climate change, Saurabh Mishra in financial services and Dinesh Dayanand Jagdale in new and renewable energy are welcome additions but much more needs to be done. Separate examinations for separate services, instead of a combined rote-based civil services examination, would be in the national interest.
Currently IAS officers enjoy an edge in comparison to those from the other services who come through the same exam. As pointed out earlier, the revenue secretary is an IAS, not an IRS officer. The IAS delays “empanelment” for other services, locks up all plum positions in government and occupies key positions in the prime minister’s office as well as the chief minister’s offices. Powerful IAS officers are far more important in India than even cabinet ministers. The simple solution to make the IAS less corrupt is to make it less powerful. That would redeem Nehru’s biggest regret and become Modi’s most historic legacy.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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