Monday, 15 August 2011



As we celebrate Independence Day tomorrow, a holiday for most of us, the nuts and bolts of the government won’t take a break from their work. Through a vast pool of officials in the echelons of the Indian Administrative Service or the IAS, the flag of governance will keep flying. Bhaskar Ghose, noted columnist and a retired IAS officer, who served as the Director General of the Doordarshan and also as the secretary to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, reviews the entire set-up of IAS, its effectiveness and relevance in the 21st-century India, in his recent book, The Service of the State: The IAS Reconsidered. Recounting his own experiences spanning across 36 years, Ghose writes on the good, bad and ugly of the ‘steel frame’ of Indian bureaucracy.

“This is not a memoir, really. It is a selection of events in my career which relate, directly or indirectly, to the basic theme of the book: Is the IAS relevant today,” says Ghose. And while doing so, the “events, consequently, virtually chose themselves.” So, the author “did not have to avoid anything” or glorify himself at all.Beginning with his selection to the Service, and training at The National Academy of Administration in Mussoorie, Ghose writes about his initial years as a government officer, serving in West Bengal, and moves on to tell about his experiences at later postings, including the dreary life in Delhi where he was deputed for some time. His colleagues, the camaraderie they shared, the people he came across while serving, the highs and lows that he went through as he faced friendly and hostile colleagues, have all been described vividly. Ghose skilfully combines everything to offer valuable insight into the workings of bureaucracy. Was it easy for him to recall those events? “I find recalling the past fairly easy. I do remember things — events, people,” assures Ghose, who “never kept a diary or journal.”

In the book, Ghose has repeatedly mentioned the disconnect between the real-life situations on the ground and the rosy pictures that are being painted during the training. I ask him whether the disconnect has become more pronounced over the decades. “I can’t answer this very accurately as I am not familiar with the content of the present-day training given to IAS recruits,” he says. “All I can say is whatever the nature of the training, there can be no substitute for hands-on experience. To take an analogy — a pilot may do hours of flying in a simulator, but it’s nothing compared to actually flying a plane.”

Ghose particularly mentions the role played by the Financial Advisers. “Far from being adviser, they actually called the shots... The villain has been in the system, the one factor that rendered the best-thought-out projects and schemes useless because they were delayed for years together: the system of financial advisers...” Ghose writes. Is ‘obstruction’ the default mindset of the Indian bureaucrat, I ask. “The institution of Financial Advisers evolved with the increase in developmental expenditure. The original intention may have been to improve financial administration, but the system that it has now become, is pernicious...” Ghose explains. “And yes, there is a ‘high’ in being able to say ‘No’, at least for some who lack self-esteem. The system needs to be eliminated altogether and the powers vested completely in the administrative heads.”

In the book, the author mentions how lowly salary would not allow him or most of his colleagues to invite guests at home, forget splurging. But there were others who indulged in corrupt practices to lead a life of luxury. I wonder how can the IAS be kept insulated from ‘corruption’ which has become a national menace. “There’s no simple formula to eradicate corruption in the IAS. It has to be a many-pronged strategy. The PM had identified a crucial one some years ago when he spoke of taking students who clear their Class XII exams straight to the Academy. This would ensure their values can be shaped to reject any activity that smacks of corruption or irregular action. They do it in France, I hear. Students who pass their school exams are taken into L’Ecole de l’Administration (the School of Administration) which is a very prestigious institution in France which turns out their civil servants,” Ghose replies.

“This won’t eliminate corruption, but the young people being trained there will be conditioned instinctively to see corruption as something repellent. One other part of the strategy would be to improve the vigilance mechanism and punish corrupt officers very very quickly, with exemplary punishments,” he adds.

That’s a wish we all have across the country: a corruption-free, humane Indian bureaucracy that serves the people with sincerity, rather than behaving like despots inebriated with power.