Amid all the gloomy news about inflation and interest rates, it would be a change to look at certain transformations at the micro level that are likely to have far-reaching effects in the future. Among these is a story recently highlighted by a weekly magazine.
Analysing the background of the successful candidates for this year’s All India Civil Services exam, the report mentions that the largest percentage (16.2%) is from Tamil Nadu, followed by candidates from Uttar Pradesh (12.4%). The report also points out that a large number of those who succeeded are from poor or lower middle-class backgrounds and that there is a much greater presence of the tier II and tier III cities than earlier. Actually, this has been the trend at least for the last five years, if not more.
When we entered service in the 1960s, and, in fact, right through the earlier decades, these two states had been faring very well in civil service selections. The early acceptance of English education by the Brahmins of Tamil Nadu enabled several of them to compete for, and get selected in, the Indian Civil Service and then in the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) — those who did not qualify joined the Central Secretariat Service, and the so called “Tambrahm” culture was evident in New Delhi right up to the late 1960s. People who entered the service in the North were often children of high- ranked civil servants and certainly came from elite schools and colleges in Delhi and elsewhere. These people of impeccable manners and Victorian habits are still around, greyed and elderly, but revered nonetheless.
I saw the change happen soon after I entered service. In Tamil Nadu, the self-respect movement that started in the 1930s and gave rise to the Dravidian parties enabled access to education to a much wider section of the population. Positive reservation of seats worked to the advantage of those who had earlier been denied opportunities of becoming doctors and engineers. I could see, through the 1970s, the push for technical education from this newly liberated student class — at the same time, there was also disenchantment with government service. The 1970s and 1980s saw very few from Tamil Nadu enter the IAS every year — a majority of the senior officers in the Tamil Nadu IAS cadre today were allocated to this state during those two decades from the Hindi-speaking states.
This period led to the prolific growth of tertiary technical education institutions in the South — there are over 1,000 in the four southern states. At the same time, it provided a platform for acquiring self-assurance for first-generation students from poor and rural families. I believe that this self-assurance is now expressing itself as a need to stand up and do something different. Post-1991, with economic reforms adding to incomes and opportunities, there is more awareness of the importance of the role of government in transforming rural lives, and also of the opportunities that extend beyond information technology cubicles. With education at hand, it is hardly surprising that youngsters in the smaller towns, especially those that have seen hard times and feel that things can be changed, are opting for the civil services. There are entrants whose parents are day- wagers, others who have been supported by single mothers doing manual work. Most important, they come from all sections of our society — the other backward classes, as a percentage, are the highest.
The character of the All India Services has changed in my lifetime, and in my view, the new entrants are far more representative of the aspirations of the “inclusive growth” view. Bright and hard-working, yet from families that know the meaning of hardship, these are the youngsters most likely to be able to administer from the heart, not just from the book. I have also seen a complete social transformation in the composition of the services, a transformation, though painful, which has brought up people much more representative of the diversities in our society. In the South, especially in Tamil Nadu, it has taken almost 70 years to get here, and I do believe that the rest of India must follow, and it may perhaps take far less time. Though one had to compete all the harder to succeed, I am a strong votary of affirmative action to provide preferential opportunities, especially education, to those who don’t have them.
I can hear sceptical readers wondering: Will the new dispensation be ethical and fair? I cannot say. When I teach these students, I see the core of goodness and fairness—what the real world of politics and bureaucracy will do to their hopes and aspirations is yet to be seen. I like the fact that the collector’s office is not a mysterious, forbidding place for citizens — that they can see their own kind sitting there. Will he be fair? As in economics, the laws of supply and demand will operate. Let’s hope the citizenry wants fair deals — I am sure that the new class will deliver.
S. Narayan is a former finance secretary and economic adviser to the prime minister. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org