The steel frame in peril

The government wants to have a say in deciding IAS officers’ cadres. It is a proposal fraught with dangers

CK Mathew | June 14, 2018


#IAS   #Civil Servants   #Bureaucrats   #Bureaucracy   #UPSC  


As a nervous, young IAS aspirant in 1977, I remember being thrilled to see my name in the newspapers when the list of successful candidates was published. Indeed, I was hoping to be allotted my home state, Kerala, but knew that my rank in the exams did not make that possible. Yet, I cannot deny being a little shell-shocked, when, towards the end of our first phase of training, instead of God’s own country, I was assigned the dry, dusty deserts of Rajasthan as my cadre state. But I did not complain: the processes of allotment were anonymous and faceless; and hence acceptable. And now forty years later, a retired senior citizen, I still feel pride that I had the chance to do my bit for my Rajasthan, my foster home and my karmabhoomi.

All that may change now. A letter from the joint secretary of the department of personnel dated May 17, on the directions of the PMO, enjoins all ministries and departments “to examine if service allocation/cadre allocation to probationers selected on the basis of the Civil Services Examination be made after Foundation Course”, thus making service and cadre allotment subject to the combined score of exams and the foundation course. The cat has been let loose among the pigeons.

The Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) has been one of those rare institutions that has stood the test of time, free from political interference and fiercely independent. There has not been a single scandal till now. In 2016 for example, over 11 lakh youths applied for the exams, out of which about 5 lakhs appeared in the Prelims and more than 15,000 took the Main exams.

Almost 3,000 candidates were selected for the interviews, from whom just a little over 1,000 were appointed for the various services that manage the administration of the country. One in a thousand applicants makes the grade. Without fear or favour, malice or ill-will, the giant, faceless UPSC machinery delivers for appointment, service by service, the best of the best the country has to offer. Merit is the sole criterion: neither the service nor the cadre is subject to change, for all the 35-odd years one serves the country. 

The May 17 missive seeks to change all that. If I remember right, the UPSC civil services examinations count for about 1,750 marks and it is on the basis of one’s scores in these exams that the services, almost 30 in number, are allotted. Later, a digitised blind process involving one’s rank, one’s preference of services, the alphabetical order of the states, etc. determine the state cadre allotted. During the probation period, one’s performance in the foundation course only helps determine the inter-se seniority within the cadre allotted. This is, to the best of my knowledge, 450 marks: 300 for mid-term and end-of-course exams conducted in various faculties, and 150 for the director’s assessment in the nonacademic components of the training. One’s performance here decides only the inter-se seniority amongst the officers already allotted to a state cadre. If A, B, C and D are four IAS officers allotted Rajasthan on the basis of their ranks in the UPSC exams in that order, the marks obtained in the foundation course may alter their final rankings to say, B,D,C and A within the Rajasthan cadre, but in no way would their selection to the IAS itself, or their allotment to Rajasthan, be affected. 

What the proposal under consideration moots is that the UPSC only prepare the combined list of all successful candidates, to the extent of the aggregate of all the vacancies in the All India Services and central services. At that stage there would be no allotment to specific services or state cadres. All of them then undergo the foundation course together. Thereafter, the combined scores of the exams and the scores obtained in the foundation course would become the basis of allotment to the services and the state cadres. This would be done by the government of India.

What does this mean for the ‘steel frame’? The social media has exploded with comments, especially from retired government servants – serving officers have no opinions! Learned opinion pieces have appeared in newspapers and journals. Political parties have jumped into the debate.  In short, this is what stands out: 

First, the UPSC exams become but a qualifying stage to determine the pool of bright young aspirants to the various services. Their actual destiny, in terms of allotment of service and state cadre, would be decided only after the foundation course is over. Whether this is a dilution of the role and responsibility of the UPSC as envisaged under Articles 315 and 320 of the constitution requires serious examination. The arbiter of service allocation, and by extension, the cadre, becomes the union government, and not the UPSC.

Second, the scores in the foundation course would be decided by the director and faculty of, say, the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration; a task fraught with dangers arising from lack of competence to actually determine merit of that order and scale, the obvious mediocrity of the staff manning the academy, the role of personalities in a not-so-impersonal system, the possibility of favouritism and manipulation to benefit some and damage others. The director’s assessment, a personal evaluation of the probationer’s worth, can become a powerful weapon to bestow rewards or impose punishments based on sycophancy, or the lack of it.

Third, the deliberate intervention of the union government, in a process of objective selection by merit conducted by an independent constitutional institution, is a step that is fraught with severe dangers. The PMO is contemplating the introduction of a largely subjective assessment to determine one’s service and cadre. The use of the foundation course scores to place you in the elite services or relegate you to ‘lesser’ services, or to post you in a less favoured state instead of one where you would have been otherwise eligible, is a potent one. Rumours are rife that ideology and political machinations maybe used to decide the service and the state you are allotted to, willing officers being rewarded, others not so obsequious being penalised.

The rewards of loyalty and saying ‘yes, sir’ will indeed be priceless; the probationers will have to learn these skills even as they undergo training. The definition of ‘a loyal bureaucrat’ may be about to change. And, as political parties come and go, what impact this will have on the state governments where IAS officers will serve out their careers, will be an unpredictable and contentious issue. The negatives far outweigh the positives. Wise counsel will prevail, we hope: else, we may be seeing the end of the steel frame just seven decades after Independence.

Mathew, IAS (retd), is a former chief secretary, Rajasthan

(The article appears in the June 30, 2018 issue)

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