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Dilemmas of young civil servants

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UPSC Civil Service Examination results have been declared. A fresh crop of civil servants will soon travel to the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration (LBSNAA), Mussoorie. As they go along in their careers, they will be faced with dilemmas, some of which will be ethical in nature.This will happen sooner than what they would expect. Once the initial flush of having made it to the civil service dies down and the civil servants look around, wondering which path should they pursue.

During my visits to the LBSNAA to interact with officers of various seniority, I could discern a lot of energy and enthusiasm amongst 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 interacted with officers attending the 3rd, 4th, and 5th phases of their training wherein officers who had put in around ten, twenty, and twenty-five years’ of service respectively come for training, I found that the enthusiasm had been considerably reduced. In some cases, it almost bordered on cynicism. This was surprising, especially for the civil servants 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 of the 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 to 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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Also Read: Indian Civil Service- All is well?

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 a doubt in the mind of a young entrant.

The young civil servant also witnesses another set of bureaucrats who may, at some point of time, be lying in cold storage. This 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.

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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.

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.

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 Yogendra Narain, B K Chaturvedi, Gopal Krishna Pillai and D K Mittal.

Left to Right : B K Chaturvedi, Yogendra Narain, Gopal Krishna Pillai and D K Mittal

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, not stood by their subordinates but have mastered the art of keeping the ‘right’ persons on the ‘right’ side.

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Harish Chandra Gupta, former Coal Secretary

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, who 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 civil servants who played to the gallery and caused enormous damage to governance went on to reap rewards and continue to do so. This list is unending wherein honest and efficient officers are seen to be suffering, irrespective of the reigning political party.

Anup Pujari, former Secretary, Ministry of Micro Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME)

These young officers would surely have been aware about the possibilities 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.

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 officers who are financially honest but do 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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