How the IAS has let India down
IAS officers resist change, are indifferent to the poor, and have not delivered on development goals
Despite their integrity, hard work and competence, Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers, who occupy almost all senior administrative positions in the states and at the Centre, have not been able to improve development outcomes for citizens. India could not achieve many Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), particularly in hunger, health, nutrition, gender, and sanitation. India’s social indicators are today worse than poorer countries such as Bangladesh. Besides, growth has not helped the most marginalised groups such as tribals and women. Section 46(1) of the Rajasthan Tenancy Act still places women on a par with lunatics and idiots. Of all these groups, tribals have been the worst sufferers because of anti-tribal forest policies, displacement laws, and poor governance.
IAS officers have not been able to ensure that teachers and doctors stay in their place of postings and provide quality services. Land records are outdated with the result that two-thirds of all pending cases in the courts are related to property disputes, which take an average of 20 years to settle. The list of beneficiaries for State programmes has huge errors of inclusion and exclusion.
IAS officers are not able to ensure regular monthly honorarium to contractual staff, such as para teachers, rozgar sahayaks, anganwadi workers, and cooks in mid-day meal programmes.
Secretaries in the states, who belong to the IAS, often collude with the junior staff, and don’t honestly report figures on hunger deaths, malnutrition and usage of toilets, leading to an erosion of accountability. While looking at the number of missing toilets in 2014 for Maharashtra, I could not help shouting at the secretary, “Vandana, your data is bogus.” She retorted, “Sir, don’t call it bogus, this is advanced statistics. This is what we will achieve after 10 years, but since we are very fond of the sanitation programme, we report it right now!”
My new book, What Ails the IAS and Why It Fails to Deliver, describes how reforms initiated failed to make any impact because most IAS officers resist change, or are indifferent to the poor. As revenue secretary in 1981, I got a law passed in Uttar Pradesh to prevent tribal land alienation, but not a single acre was restored to the tribals. The economic philosophy that I followed in my career was, “socialism for the poor and free market for the rich”. The political and administrative system in India, on the other hand, seems to believe in “indifference to the poor, and controls over the rich to facilitate rent seeking”.
As joint secretary, minorities commission, I exposed the communal bias of the district administration in handling the riots in Meerut in 1982. I received a written warning from the home secretary, and was shunted out from Delhi to Afghanistan as punishment for bringing to light the killing of innocent Muslim women and children by the police. When the Bihar bureaucracy had collapsed during the Lalu Prasad years (1990 -2005), I sent a letter to the chief secretary accusing many IAS officials of behaving like “politicians — the English speaking politicians — corrupt, with short-term targets, narrow horizons, feudal outlook, disrespect for norms, contributing nothing to the welfare of the nation, empty promises, and no action.”
A key element of an IAS officer’s work experience is their encounter with the political leadership. A most telling instance, in my own long bureaucratic experience, was the time I “bribed” a chief minister to scrap oppressive laws against tribal women.
Many poor women in Odisha were arrested in 1995 because they collected “hillbrooms” from forests to make brooms. However, under the rules, they were not permitted to stock, or sell, this produce to anyone else except to a government contractor. When I requested the Odisha bureaucracy to scrap the law, I was told that the government was annoyed with me because I published an article in a newspaper, condemning it for anti-tribal and anti-women policies.
Ultimately, I had to do what many Indians do to bend the government in their favour — resort to bribing. When the chief minister came to the Planning Commission for funds, as secretary of the Commission, I said, “Sir, please get this law changed, I will give you ~50 crore extra in your outlay this year as advance, and the same amount next year after my work is done”. He agreed. He was a tribal, and empathised with the issue. So the oppressive law was scrapped in March 2000, and 67 minor forest produces were de-nationalised, and freed from government control.
The system requires changes in many welfare programmes, such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, the Integrated Child Development Services, housing for the urban poor, and the public distribution system, as these schemes have design flaws.
What is needed is a change in the policy regime in many cross-cutting systemic issues, such as the role of politicians, stability of tenure, size and nature of Indian bureaucracy, accountability, monitoring of programmes, and civil service reforms, which will transform the individual competence of IAS officers into better collective outcomes.
NC Saxena is former secretary, rural development, Government of India, former secretary, Planning Commission, and former member, National Advisory Council.
The views expressed are personal