Writer, columnist and theatre person Bhaskar Ghose, an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer, retired after 36 years in the bureaucracy. His myriad experiences have found their way into his latest book, The Service of the State: The IAS Reconsidered, which is both a memoir and an insider’s view on the relevance of the civil services in the 21st century. Ghose tells Mint how the attitude to change itself has altered in the services. Edited excerpts:
Your association with the services happened during the most pivotal years in Indian history. What made you chronicle these in your book?
Change is messy: Former bureaucrat Bhaskar Ghose
The book was intended to be rather like Philip Mason’s The Men Who Ruled India, but I couldn’t do the enormous amount of research Mason did (seven years) or travel as much as he did, so I settled for something very modest—a book relating to the theme “Is the IAS relevant in 21st Century India?”, and illustrating it with my personal experiences where possible. So the book relates some experiences, then tries to relate them to the theme, however indirectly, and moves on.
How was the experience of writing about your years in the service while being aware of the opacity that generally characterizes it?
One began one’s service as a timorous 22-year-old, and as one progressed one realized that one was a cog in the incredibly complex and huge bureaucratic system. So while one was aware of its shortcomings, there was not very much one could do to alter it totally; however, where one could I did try to bring in as much transparency as one could in terms of responses, as many of my colleagues did. But a complete change would have been like throwing a huge chocolate cake away and baking a completely new one, which was impossible. So one threw away some bits of the bad cake where one could, only to have lots and lots of it left, and to have some of it fill in the bits you’d thrown away.
How would you say the public’s perception of the service has changed since the years immediately following independence?
The Service of the State-The IAS Reconsidered: By Bhaskar Ghose, Viking/Penguin, 306 pages, Rs 499
In general, when I joined the IAS it was regarded with a degree of awe and even respect; as the years went on the general perception became slightly different, and some people saw it as a group of arrogant bureaucrats with little to be arrogant about. And now there seems to be a general impression that it does some good work but is to an extent dishonest.
What values did the initial training instil in you, and how were these values altered during your tenure?
The training did not really help greatly, but some aspects that were more in the nature of attitudes: quick responses to crises, the ability to keep one’s wits about one in difficult situations, that kind of thing did come from some aspects of the training, in my opinion. How this changed in the course of 36 years is difficult to say precisely, but in broad terms one did learn to go from being a pro-consul to a public servant working under a political executive.
Has there been a corresponding change in the attitude and method of the IAS officer over these years, especially as regards his proximity to the people?
Over the years I was in service there certainly was a change; when I joined we were expected to be pro-consuls, rulers in a manner of speaking. As we progressed through the years and the processes of democracy grew stronger, one learnt to value and, in some cases, defer to public opinion, when one came in direct contact with people. That contact stopped when we moved, with the passage of time, to the secretariat and posts in ministries.
Do you think that the civil services resist or welcome the idea of change? Can you offer us a few examples of the positive changes that have taken place within the system?
I have mentioned some instances of change in the book—S.R. Rao’s transformation of Surat, for example. Another officer called Lakhina, of the Maharashtra cadre, brought about radical changes in the way the office of the collector or district magistrate dealt with the public. Individually all IAS officers will welcome change if that means faster, more efficient work. It would be a very stupid one who doesn’t. The reason major changes don’t happen is because a huge number of officers, including IAS officers, are involved and that makes change messy and therefore generally ineffective.
New dynamic: Ghose says IAS officers have had to make the transition from pro-consuls to public servants.
Given your association with the arts both as an administrator and a participant, do you think that Malraux’s assertion about the arts saving the country can in any measure be applied to India?
Malraux meant what he said in a rather figurative sense, as I’m sure you understand only too well. Being able to sing well won’t eradicate poverty. I think he meant familiarity with the basic values that the arts contain and express; in a kind of osmotic process they can affect the thinking of people who grow up with them and, in time, become administrators, management executives, engineers and so on.
This applies to all countries, all communities—not just one.
Where do you see the civil services going from here?
Well, it depends on the demands made on it. Looking at what one sees from the outside now, as an onlooker, a part of the general public, one does see a degree of adaptability, of being able to change. Look at the quick responses to exposés by the media of various social evils and shortcomings. This is much more rapid than in earlier decades.