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The Centre’s proposed amendments to the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) cadre rules have met with opposition from the chief ministers of certain states. Given India’s political environment, strident objections to the proposal are understandable, though the heat so generated clouds a dispassionate analysis of the issues involved.

The All-India Services (AIS), such as the IAS, Indian Police Service and Indian Forest Service, were set up under our Constitution with noble and practical objectives. Members of the AIS, especially the IAS, were to occupy leadership positions in the bureaucracy, from the sub-district to the state and central levels. As P.S. Appu noted, “[The] idea was that members appointed to the Services would resolutely stand by the Constitution and the law and tender frank and fearless advice to the politicians... that they would play a pivotal role in holding together a country of great disparity and diversity. Another expectation was that these Services.... would make available to both central and state governments officers of high quality with valuable experience in field conditions and the actual functioning of governments at different levels...."

The exchange of officers between their allotted state cadres and the Centre is a basic feature of the IAS. Direct recruits are allotted a state cadre (with a 2:1 outsider: insider ratio) and deputed to the Centre for specific periods, after which they’re expected to return. Thus, at all times and at senior levels, the Centre should have adequate officers representing the experience of various states. This maintains the all-India character of the services, broadens their perspective and reduces parochialism. While calculating the strength of a state cadre, a central deputation reserve upto 40% is built in. Every year, the Centre asks the states to send a list of officers in different seniority bands to be considered for deputation, and the Centre makes a selection from such ‘offer lists’.

Unfortunately, many states do not offer enough numbers for consideration. Consequently, over the years, an unfortunate situation has arisen, wherein central ministries and departments are facing an acute shortage of IAS officers at middle and senior levels. That is apparently the reason why the Centre wrote to states proposing a change of rules and seeking their response.

The proposal urges each state to send a list of names to meet the Centre’s requirements, and in case of any disagreement, the matter would be decided by the Centre and the state must effect that decision “within a specified time"; further, in case of any delay by the state, the officers shall stand relieved; also, in the specific situation where officers are required in “public interest", the state must effect the call within a specific time frame.

On the face of it, none of this appears unreasonable. What then do certain states fear? How does it enfeeble the states’ political control over the bureaucracy? How does it go against the spirit of cooperative federalism and affect the administration of states? Would it be in the public interest to ‘provincialize’ the IAS and threaten its all-India character? What do such states propose to satisfactorily resolve this issue?

The fears seem to stem from a trust deficit, between governments as much as among individual officers. Recent episodes involving senior IAS and IPS officers caught in the crossfire of political battles have raised the basic issue of who really controls members of India’s higher bureaucracy and thereby the administrative machinery at both the central and state levels.

The willingness of officers to go on deputation from their state to the Centre is also an important factor. The propensity of many officers to lobby with political leaders to retain or attain coveted postings adds to the problem. A central job appears attractive mostly to the more ambitious lot, to those not in the good books of a state’s political leadership, or those who have personal reasons for a move to Delhi. Many others prefer to spend their careers in their home state. Is this desirable?

To resolve this problem, the Centre must play a more persuasive role. Making stricter rules and adopting a high-handed approach may not be of much help. All states should appreciate that it is in their interest to have officers with exposure to work at the Centre.

Firstly, therefore, the cadre and career planning should be scientific and future-looking, with more recruitment if need be. Second, each officer should be motivated to work at the Centre, and this should be made clear during their induction training itself. Third, in an annual joint exercise between the states and the Centre, the list of those to be deputed should be finalized. Since the selection for senior positions is done by chief ministers at the state level, or by the concerned minister and Prime Minister at the Centre, the latter should not be left with a fait accompli list of officers considered ‘inconvenient’ or ‘sparable’ by states.

IAS associations, which do precious little, can perhaps volunteer to help government(s) in this exercise. Once a mutually-agreed list is finalized, it should be the responsibility of the Centre to find appropriate postings for all of them, ‘within a specified time’. The practice of reverting officers prematurely to their states should be avoided.

What is needed is the cooperation of all stakeholders. The proposed rule changes, apparently well intended, will succeed if the Centre can convince the states as well as IAS officers of the merits of this move. Otherwise, the current confrontation will continue, minor issues will get blown out of proportion and individual officers will suffer.

Amitabha Bhattacharya is a former Indian Administrative Service officer who has also worked in the private sector and with the United Nations Development Programme

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