Policy pariahs: why there are so few SC/ST officers in top echelons

A dalit wrote the most important policy document of the nation, our constitution. But 63 years on, there have been very few IAS officers from SC/ST in the highest echelons of policy-making. Why is this so? Are these officers who pass the most gruelling exam of the country–with some positive discrimination, of course–so incompetent that they deserve to rise only so much and no further? Or are they not allowed to live down their caste identity even decades after entering the IAS?


Brajesh Kumar | October 15, 2013

The fact that we have not had a dalit secretary for more than a decade (from 2001, when Devi Dayal retired as banking secretary, until April this year when Dr Lalit Panwar of 1979 batch was appointed secretary, minority affairs) underscores the subtle discrimination in empanelment at the level of joint secretary.
The fact that we have not had a dalit secretary for more than a decade (from 2001, when Devi Dayal retired as banking secretary, until April this year when Dr Lalit Panwar of 1979 batch was appointed secretary, minority affairs) underscores the subtle discrimination in empanelment at the level of joint secretary.

Ponder this: We have had a dalit president, a dalit chief justice of the supreme court and we now have a dalit as speaker of the Lok Sabha. But we have never had a dalit cabinet secretary. Why? Have we not found one dalit Indian Administrative Services (IAS) officer in 63 years fit enough to rise to the zenith of the civil services? Or is something else the problem?

This long essay is an attempt to find answers to the “something” part of the question.

In a series of debates at the round table conference in 1931, BR Ambedkar emerged as the strongest votary of “Indianisation” of the civil services in India. He insisted that all officers in the Indian Civil Services, be they British or Indian, should be treated at par. It was this thinking on equality – and of course, the caste realities of India – that contributed to him introducing reservations in public services.

For more than six decades now, each year 22 out of every 100 candidates who enter the royal portals of the IAS – the most prized of all civil services in the country – are from the SC/ST category, or dalits and tribals as they are called. As a result, there are hundreds of SC/ST IAS officers in the country now. Numerically at least, we seem to have achieved proportional representation for SC/ST in the IAS. Ambedkar must be cheering in his grave. Or so you might think.

ALSO READ: Scheduled caste officers get their due in Bihar

The bitter truth, however, is that equality of opportunity is still a far cry and discrimination against SC/ST officers is so palpable that, forget about becoming the cabinet secretary, it is a major achievement if a SC/ST rises to be an additional secretary or secretary in the government of India.

That shakes the foundations of our generally-held belief that the IAS is one homogenous monolith that subsumes all caste, class, regional and religious identities. It actually borders on disbelief; so some statistics, from the most authentic source, the ministry of personnel (which is the cadre controlling authority for the IAS and other central services), might help. Look at the accompanying table on pg 12, these are figures given out by minister V Narayansamy to parliament about the number of SC/ST officers in the higher echelons of the IAS (joint secretary and above). In March 2011, out of 149 secretaries, only four were SC/ST (2.6%), out of 108 additional secretaries, only four were SC/ST (3.8%) and out of 477 joint secretaries only 46 were SC/ST (9.6%).

Now if you recall that at entry level 22 out of every 100 are SC/ST (22%) and compare that with the ratio of the SC/ST secretaries in 2011 (2.6%) you know that even numerically equality of opportunity claim stands exposed. What the figures suggest is this: SC/ST officers have been systemically kept out of the highest echelons of policy-making in the country, the echelons that wield the real power of bureaucratic office.

So 63 years after Dr Ambedkar, a dalit, wrote the mother of all policy documents—the constitution of India—it is still not “safe” to trust SC/ST IAS officers with the onerous job of writing or influencing policy. As long as they are on the periphery of policy-making (such as drafting policy, but not deciding policy) they are tolerated. That is why most SC/ST officers rise up to the level of joint secretary and then go into a career-freezer. They are made commissioners and chairmen of government bodies, away from policy-making, into purely administrative jobs. Mata Prasad (IAS, 1962 batch), one of the most respected dalit officers of all time, rose to be the chief secretary of Uttar Pradesh (in itself it’s exceptional) and was one of the contenders for the post of the cabinet secretary in May 1998, when the Vajpayee government came to power.

“The IAS brotherhood is a myth that needs to be broken. SC/ST officers might think they have left behind their caste identity and that as IAS officers they will reach the pinnacle of success because everything being equal, it is one’s performance that counts. But they are grossly mistaken. They meet of wall of resistance at every step and other officers gang up against them to stop them from rising up the ladder,” said an IAS officer from the community. 

Minister Narayanasamy further told the Lok Sabha in March 2011: “There is no provision for reservation for SCs/STs/OBCs in these posts (JS, AS and secretary). As officers, on the above posts, are appointed on deputation basis from various cadres, the percentage of SC/ST officers on these posts need not be same as in their respective cadres. However, at the time of empanelment, every effort is made to empanel officers belonging to SCs/STs categories, if necessary, by adopting liberal benchmarks as compared to officers from General category.”

That is so not true. In a report submitted to the government last year the national commission for scheduled castes (NCSC) highlighted the cases of discrimination and called this situation grave and called for urgent remedial steps. “The government needs to do something about it urgently because there is this feeling amongst officers of this community that they are deliberately kept out of the portals of power,” said a senior NCSC official.

In January this year, the commission received a petition from ten IAS officers of the 1990 batch who have alleged that in spite of their “outstanding” ACRs (annual confidential reports or performance appraisal), they have been denied empanelment for joint secretaries. This petition is a rare formal complaint. NCSC officials say there are a number of informal or oral complaints of discrimination against SC officers. “We learnt of a 1979 batch officer from Haryana cadre, Raminder Jakhu, who has been denied empanelment even as a joint secretary although his batch mates (Rajiv Takru and Ravi Mathur) are secretaries,” said an official from NCSC. Similarly Chandra Prakash, an IAS officer from 1982 batch, has not been empanelled as additional secretary even though he has seven years of service left (one of the arguments given for not empanelling SC/ST officers as additional secretaries and secretaries is that they enter the service late and therefore don’t have the length of service required to reach the top or that when they do, they are left with very little service. More on that later).

Then there is the case of Narendra Kumar, an IAS of 1988 batch who is posted as member, NHAI. Although he was ranked second in his batch, he had to face discrimination from the start. He was denied the union territory (UT) cadre, his first preference, and was allotted Assam Meghalaya cadre. According to an official of NCSC, one of his batch mates from general category, and much below him in the merit list, was adjusted in the UT cadre instead of him.

“Although Kumar was considered in the general category based on his merit, he was denied the UT cadre as it did not have a vacancy for a reserved category candidate” he said. Kumar did not take this deliberate discrimination lying down and went to central administrative tribunal (CAT), where he won the case and was given the UT cadre. But then that was not the end of discrimination. Kumar got empanelled as joint secretary way back in 2007, but ever since he has not been given any important position in the central government. “His case proves that however bright a SC/ST officer is, he cannot enter the portals of real power, the important policy making positions,” said an NCSC official.      

“There is prejudice at every step for an officer from the reserved category,” said Devi Dayal, a retired SC IAS officer of 1966 batch. Dayal is one of the very few dalit/tribal officers who retired as secretary in the government of India. “Although I served in important positions as JS, AS and secretary in the ministries of petroleum and finance, I had to fight for it,” he recalled. After his empanelment as joint secretary in 1992, his name was recommended for a number of important departments like those of economic affairs and industrial development but got rejected. “In the offer list, my name was on the top but was not considered,” he said. Finally he met Margarat Alva, then in charge of the ministry of personnel. On her recommendation, he was posted as joint secretary in the ministry of petroleum where he served for seven years. He retired as secretary banking.

PS Krishnan, a general category bureaucrat, retired as secretary of social welfare department in 1990 and is now a dalit rights activist. Krishnan told Governance Now that in his career he saw several cases of discrimination against SC/ST officers. He gave us this example: “The batch of 1964 came up for empanelment for secretaries. Many names went to the then home minister SB Chavan. He returned the file because there were no names from SC/ST. Chavan asked the panel to include the names of dalit and adivasis officers in the list. The file came back to him with two recommendations – Darshan Kumar and Vikram Sarkar. Kumar was then with the planning commission and Sarkar was posted in West Bengal. But then what happened was unprecedented.

Despite their names being approved by the minister neither of them was ever appointed secretary.”

Citing another example, he recalled, “When I was secretary of social welfare department in 1990, the list of 1979 batch IAS officers came for approval for the rank of joint secretaries. In the list there was just one SC candidate. When I pleaded with the cabinet secretary, seven more names were added.”
TSR Subramanian, who retired as cabinet secretary in 1998, admits there is discrimination against SC/ST officers. “Yes, it is very much there and we all know it,” he told Governance Now.

Prof Vivek Kumar of Jawaharlal Nehru University isn’t surprised at discrimination against officers of this community. “Discrimination is the base of problem
that led to their selective exclusion from the governance process. It is an empirical reality,” he said.

The steps of discrimination

The first step of systemic discrimination is taken at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration at Mussoorie, where the seniority list for IAS recruits is prepared. This list, explained an officer, is prepared by giving 80 percent weightage to the marks obtained at the civil services examination and only 20 percent to the marks that an officer gets during the training period at the academy. Since SC/ST candidates are invariably below the general candidates in the civil services merit list, they find themselves at the bottom of the seniority list even if they excel at the academy.

Actually, some believe that discrimination starts much before – during the interviews after the candidates clear the gruelling civil services main exam. There have been instances wherein dalit and tribal candidates who have excelled in the written exam and are placed several notches above general candidates end up at the bottom of the heap after the interview. The Uttar Pradesh public service commission conducted a unique experiment to eliminate deliberate or default discrimination against SC/ST candidates in interviews by not disclosing the surnames of candidates to the interview board. The results were stunning. For the first time in decades, SC/ST candidates started showing up high in the merit list.

The second step of discrimination comes during the empanelment process. The selection of secretaries, additional secretaries and joint secretaries is done through an empanelment process every year. The first step of empanelment of joint secretaries is done through converting all the ACRs into marks and calibrated on to a scale of zero to ten every year.

“Now each year there are 120 to 150 officers in line for empanelment for the position of joint secretaries. Out of these only 40 to 50 are selected, and no prizes for guessing who make it to these coveted but limited posts,” says a dalit officer. While the process is said to be fairly transparent, there is no questioning why a certain officer is picked and another is not. Although the poor grading in the ACR of the SC/ST officers could be (which again are prepared by upper caste officers) one of the reasons why they are not picked, the case of ten officers from 1990 batch who have been overlooked in the empanelment process for the rank of joint secretaries, despite having very good and outstanding grades, defies explanation.

Only those empanelled for joint secretaries are considered for further empanelment to additional secretaries and secretaries. So in case no SC/ST is selected at the joint secretary level from a particular batch, there will be no secretaries from that batch in subsequent years. The history of IAS is replete with many such missed years for SC/ST officers. The fact that we have not had a dalit secretary for more than a decade (from 2001, when Devi Dayal retired as banking secretary, until April this year when Dr Lalit Panwar of 1979 batch was appointed secretary, minority affairs) underscores the subtle discrimination at the JS empanelment level.

Those who are lucky to be empanelled as joint secretaries and further go on to become additional secretaries and secretaries are often sidelined to insignificant postings. Devi Dayal was the last SC officer to be appointed as joint secretary and additional secretary of a prominent ministry like that of petroleum.

However, there is a flip side to the argument, too. Bahujan Samaj Party founder Kanshi Ram was never overawed by dalits breaking into the civil services. He believed that dalit officers recruited through the reservation system tend to behave “super brahmins”. His pet line was “we want to be in a position where we can give reservation to upper castes”.

Kanshi Ram did not live to see that day. Generations more will come and go before we get even an inch closer to that situation.

With contribution from Trithesh Nandan



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