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Dilemmas of a young civil servant

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A civil servant is faced with dilemmas

A civil servant is faced with dilemmas, some of which are ethical in nature, not long after joining the civil service. Once the initial flush of having made it to the civil service dies down and he looks around, he soon starts wondering which path he should pursue.

During my visits to the Lal Bahadur Shastri Academy of Administration (LBSNAA) which is tasked with imparting training to civil servants, to interact with officers of various seniority, I could discern a lot of energy and enthusiasm among the new recruits. They are willing to learn. They are keen on delivering. They are excited about the tasks ahead of them. However, when one interacts with officers attending the 3rd, 4th, and 5th phases of their training wherein officers who have put in around ten, twenty, and twenty-five years of service respectively come for training, the enthusiasm is felt to be considerably reduced. In some cases, it almost borders on cynicism. This is surprising, especially for the Indian Administrative Service officers as they still man crucial posts both in the Central and State governments.

The young officer gets to know, if he doesn’t already know it, that, by and large, the public perceives a typical bureaucrat as inefficient because he does not perform. Though there are indeed several great performers, these performers are, more often than not, part of the invisible lot. The term ‘red tape’ has come to be associated with the bureaucracy as nothing is perceived to move in government offices. The public also believes that most bureaucrats are dishonest. While a number of bureaucrats themselves believe that, apart from them, the rest of the bureaucracy is corrupt.

Coming straight out of the university and influenced by what they would have observed in conversations and serials like ‘Yes, Minister’, some young officers believe that the situation holds true for our country as well. However, they get disillusioned soon. They find that, unlike their British counterparts, the Indian bureaucrat is not very articulate, more so when it comes to expressing their opinion to the powers that be. They would rather first know the opinion of the political master and then endorse the same view. This approach appears to be pretty rewarding in terms of future career prospects. There are, however, a number of bureaucrats who are forthright and believe in expressing their opinion on file as well as verbally even if it means a transfer or harassment, including suspension.

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Some bureaucrats do behave as if they are not civil servants but the true servant of the ‘master’ they serve. Their commitment to the master and servile behaviour is indeed an embarrassment to the rest of the bureaucracy. More so because then the ‘master’ expects similar servility and pliability from other bureaucrats and, when it is not forthcoming, the ‘un-accommodating’ bureaucrat is swiftly shown the door.

Haughtiness and supercilious behaviour were attributes of ‘brown sahibs’. In a climate of total domination by the political master and the absence of self-respect amongst some of the bureaucrats, these ‘virtues’ are a preserve of only such bureaucrats who appear totally spineless before the powers-that-be but choose to roar and bite spitefully when they interact with lesser mortals. Their contemptuous derision and tendencies towards occasional megalomania have to be seen to be believed. Fortunately, such specimens are few and far between; but unfortunately, being highly visible, they create doubt in the mind of a young entrant.

The young civil servant also witnesses another set of bureaucrats who may, at some point in time, be lying in cold storage. This is in spite of the fact that they are extremely competent, decisive, disciplined and helpful bureaucrats. However, when the market demand is for the pliable and the corrupt, they prefer to remain in hibernation.

There is another small set of bureaucrats that makes the young entrant, who would have come through the same process, doubt the selection process itself. Such officers find it difficult to hide their incompetence behind the three letters, i.e. I, A, & S. However, they do a tremendous disservice to the service as a whole. They become convenient tools to be used by the ‘smarter’ ones to sign on the dotted line as they do not have the capability to question. Hence, there are instances of bureaucrats being brought in to replace an inconvenient bureaucrat to sign a report.

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As against the grossly incompetent, the new entrant also witnesses those who are competent but are withdrawn and reticent, irrespective of the set of circumstances. Perhaps this indifference enables them to lead a blissful existence. Some of them are laid-back to the extent that they remind you of some extinct species.

Also Read: Ethical Dilemmas of a Civil Servant: honesty alone is not enough

But there are also those that are always alert, optimistic and looking for opportunities even in the gloomiest set of circumstances. It is indeed a pleasure interacting with such bureaucrats like B K Chaturvedi, Yogendra Narain, D K Mittal and Gopal Krishna Pillai.

From Left to right: B. K. Chaturvedi, former Cabinet Secretary, Yogendra Narain, former Secretary General of the Rajya  Sabha, and Defence Secretary of India, Gopal Krishna Pillai, former Home Secretary and D K Mittal former Secretary, Department of Financial Services 

As the officers go out of the Academy into the hurly-burly of administration, they witness their seniors in all shades of life. They also discover soon that those that are getting rewarded aren’t necessarily the performers. They find that those moving up the ladder are often those that have taken no risk, done precious little, and not stood by their subordinates but have mastered the art of keeping the ‘right’ persons on the ‘right’ side.

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As against these movers and shakers, they see the likes of Harish Chandra Gupta, former Coal Secretary, who enjoyed the reputation of being honest to the core, going through the trauma of facing trial for corruption and being convicted while being abandoned by the political leadership. He didn’t even have the resources to engage a lawyer to argue his case! Or for that matter, P C Parakh, also former Coal Secretary, was harassed by the enforcement agencies despite taking the initiative to bring to light the wrongs prevailing in the messy coal sector and despite being a whistle-blower. On the other hand, the fresh recruit is flummoxed that the civil servant who played to the gallery and caused enormous damage to governance went on to reap rewards and continues to do so. This list is unending wherein honest and efficient officers are seen to be suffering, irrespective of the reigning political party.

These young officers would surely have been aware of the possibility of civil servants getting caught in political cross-fire, but the case of Anup Pujari, known for his honesty, will surely force them into a dilemma. Their heart would want to perform and deliver but their mind would tell them to beware of the risks associated with honest performance. They would start wondering whether they should also master the art of being servile to those that matter and learn how to become ‘visible’ through glitz and glamour, without doing much because they would not commit mistakes if they did nothing. Once this doubt enters their mind, they either learn the tricks of the trade or become useless. In either case, they consider themselves safe.

Pic: The Nationwide

For some young recruits, the issue gets settled pretty quickly, either way. However, for many, this dilemma continues throughout the better part of their career. Then they are exposed to another set of officers that is financially honest but does nothing. Some of these also develop the art of pleasing the powers that be. They remain financially honest but do greater damage to the system by being intellectually dishonest. These intellectually dishonest officers couldn’t care less if the institutions and the organizations they head went to dogs so long as they can project their own image and use this to keep climbing the bureaucratic ladder. Bureaucrats evolve in different ways, presenting several shades. This confuses the young officer just getting into the service. He does have a choice but unfortunately, that itself is the dilemma.

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Anil Swarup IAS (Retd)
Anil Swarup IAS (Retd)
Anil Swarup is a former 1981 batch, Uttar Pradesh cadre  IAS officer, and was awarded Director's gold medal for "best officer trainee" at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration (LBSNAA). He served the Government of India in various capacities for 38 years and went on to become Secretary, Department of School Education and Literacy and the Coal Secretary of India. He also served as Additional Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Additional Secretary, Labour & Empowerment, Export Commissioner in the Ministry of Commerce & Industry of India and as the District Magistrate of Lakhimpur Kheri. He couldn’t make it to the “elite” Indian Administrative Service (IAS) on his first attempt but qualified for the Indian Police Service where he worked for one year before clearing IAS in his next attempt. He is today an author of several looks like 'No More a Civil Servant,' ‘Ethical dilemmas of a civil servant’ and ‘Not just a civilservant’. The views expressed are his own.


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