The Indian Administrative Service enjoys the unique distinction of heading the Indian bureaucracy with the mission to translate the ideals of the Indian Constitution into reality. The District Collector is one such living institution serving the same at the grass root level. In the last few decades, the administration has acquired a value addition by becoming people-centric, with inclusiveness as its focus. Officers, today, are perceived as agents of change. As a conduit for transmitting schemes and policies of the Government directly to the people. Officers have a vital role to play in building a new India with better human indicators. The 21st century has thrown some new challenges for the service, and the members need to rise to the occasion.
Civil servants, today, are seen more in a managerial role with concomitant expectations. The difference is substantial. An officer goes by the rules whereas a manager by skills. The former is concerned with the objectives of administration whereas the latter is involved with the end result. Today, officers must be professional in their approach to issues. The luxury of passing on the buck is long gone. The information revolution of the 21st century has changed the perspective of governance, seasoning it with speed and an interface with stakeholders. Officers need to upgrade their skills at par with corporate functionaries and also deliver consistently.
Different from its conventional sense, governance has been redefined today. Accommodating conflicting interests and serving the plurality of stakeholders, while placing the interest of the State as supreme, at the same time, is perceived as administration. Success is not measured in terms of how well decisions are made but how best issues are resolved. Once, merits decided issues but now issues seem to decide the merits, as people are increasingly empowered. Officers also began looking at the big picture around them in order to prioritise issues; for often, circumstances demand solutions to be more 'practical' than perfect. Now, it is also necessary to think globally before acting locally. Flexibility is gradually taming rigidity and idealism is refined by pragmatism. Administration is proving to be more of an art than a science. As governance is largely influenced by sociopolitical dynamics, it will be too hasty to pass a value judgment on officers.
Administration is not a royal prerogative anymore and Officers are no longer Sahebs of the colonial Raj. Today, the multiplicity of schemes, asserting stakeholders, RTI, judicial activism, round the year elections and a probing media, all keep officers on their toes. The over smart handling of State business, taking always the better off the minister, as Secretary Humphrey portrays in the 'Yes Minister' series is a fantasy. Today's political executive i.e. the ministers and political heads of various bodies are more educated and well informed than their 20th-century counterparts. It necessitates officers to acquire negotiating skills to handle the affairs of the State.
Unlike earlier, in today's multi-polar political system, ruling parties are called upon to explain day-to-day accountability. The media hosts live debates even before decisions are made and bureaucrats are supposed to brief the media on what they did or are going to do. Social media is an addition to the pressure and people taking to the streets on issues is commonplace now. Incidents of political instability necessitating floor tests are also frequent. Bureaucrats today have got to master the art of statecraft, for it is not only their statutory obligation to aid and advice the political executive but also to protect the values of the Constitution. Striking a balance between service ethics and managing a government is a delicate responsibility. A tightrope walk, it demands conscientiousness.
The much-hated phrase 'Political interference in administration' is a misnomer now; actually, it is an inevitable interface between the executive and the legislature, on the ground level. The theoretical separation of powers between the two is only meant for classroom discussions. Today, MPs and MLAs are seen actively involved in local administration by directly interacting with District Collectors and Secretaries to the Government. Though seen as interference, it is useful as informal 'Checks and Balances' to ensure more accountability. In this era of inclusiveness, officers are expected to be more compassionate in order to empower the marginalised sections and the women at grass root levels. Besides, they are also supposed to maintain the national character of their job when serving the State Governments run by regional parties with local priorities. It's an unenviable task because though appointed and controlled by the Center, in practice, a majority of the officers work at the pleasure of State Governments.
Corruption is the Achilles' heel of any organisation. Unfortunately, incidents of misuse of power over the last few years have brought some disrepute to the service. The State, however, has come down heavily resorting to stern remedial measures which included imprisonment and premature retirement against the concerned. The message is loud and clear; no one is above the law. As it is said, 'Caesar's wife must be above suspicion', the conduct of officers should be exemplary. When integrity becomes questionable, it leads to indiscipline and subsequently, deviance sets in amid the delivery mechanism down below. The service needs to introspect and set its home right. However, a few bad examples cannot eclipse the glorious image of the service that helped build modern India in the last six decades and continues to do so.
As the cutting edge of governance, Civil Servants have enhanced responsibilities today. A positive attitude with an upright disposition helps perform better. Drawn from different parts of India and serving in different states, they represent the real India in spirit. The common man still has faith and insists on meeting the nearest IAS officer for any grievance.
(The author is a senior bureaucrat in Chhattisgarh. Views expressed are strictly personal.)