Saturday, June 6, 2015

Why I don't want to be an IAS Officer

"China was ruled from the top down by a Confucian bureaucracy, recruited on the basis of perhaps the most demanding examination system in all history. Those who aspired to a career in the imperial service had to submit to three stages of gruelling tests conducted in specially built exam centres, like the one that can still be seen in Nanjing today – a huge walled compound containing thousands of tiny cells little larger than the lavatory on a train:

These tiny brick compartments [a European traveller wrote] were about 1.1 metres deep, 1 metre wide and 1.7 metres high. They possessed two stone ledges, one servicing as a table, the other as a seat. During the two days an examination lasted the candidates were observed by soldiers stationed in the lookout tower … The only movement allowed was the passage of servants replenishing food and water supplies, or removing human waste. When a candidate became tired, he could lay out his bedding and take a cramped rest. But a bright light in the neighbouring cell would probably compel him to take up his brush again … some candidates went completely insane under the pressure.
No doubt after three days and two nights in a shoebox, it was the most able – and certainly the most driven – candidates who passed the examination. But with its strong emphasis on the Four Books and Five Classics of Confucianism, with their bewildering 431,286 characters to be memorized, and the rigidly stylized eight-legged essay introduced in 1487, it was an exam that rewarded conformity and caution. It was fiercely competitive, no doubt, but it was not the kind of competition that promotes innovation, much less the appetite for change. The written language at the heart of Chinese civilization was designed for the production of a conservative elite and the exclusion of the masses from their activities."
This extract about 14th century Chinese bureaucracy is from Niall Ferguson's Civilization: The West and the Rest. 

Indian Civil Services Exam. The number of my friends who have prepared or are preparing for this exam for months and years is not small. It has become an industry, like all competitive exams in India become. Seeing their hard work, I was curious about the selection procedure. So I went through the earlier question papers of subjects I have some understanding about. I also looked at the interview questions. While I am not any expert, I have a feeling that this selection process is not unlike the Chinese model of 14th century. 

Like most competitive exams in India (CAT, CLAT and the like), this one is also deadly dull, excludes the masses and produces a conformist, conservative, mostly English speaking elite. And boy, elite it definitely is.

Why do so many of my skilled friends who are engineers, accountants, scientists and lawyers want to be IAS officers? The most common reasons are 
  1. Assurance of a Sarkari Naukri (government job) - The holy grail of Indian families. This is not the main reason for many of my friends who have other lucrative career options if they so desire. However, I wonder, why not other government jobs which require their skill. There are engineers, scientists and lawyer jobs in the government which are also at similar pay scales. 
  2. Power and Prestige - This is the main reason. IAS officers are treated like demi-Gods. They have big houses and many servants. Their families live comfortably. They are part of this elite community. They have a lot of power and prestige, much more than other government positions. That's why my engineer friends prefer to be IAS rather than civil or mechanical engineers in Railways or Defense.  
  3. Service the citizens - Some people choose this because they think this is a good way to provide essential services to the citizens and make their lives better. However, the number of people for whom this is the prime reason is a small minority.

Given all this, how does the bureaucracy actually perform?
A study by the Hong Kong based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy, released in 2012, ranked and rated Indian bureaucracy as the worst in Asia. According to the study, India's inefficient and corrupt bureaucracy was responsible for most of the complaints that business executive have about the country. A paper prepared in 2012 by the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions states that corruption is prevalent at all levels in civil services and it is institutionalized.

The problem with too much prestige based on success on a single selection process (which is debatable) is that the selected feel unreasonably meritorious. Most IITians, IIM grads and bureaucrats suffer from this syndrome in varying quantities. In the case of civil services, this leads to excessive pride in generalist and managerial abilities. Inter-domain transfers hinder the development of specialized knowledge and expertise. Some good recent opinions on this are in the Express and Business Standard. A good case for a separate Indian Education Service is made by Ranjekar and Giridhar, stalwarts of Azim Premji Foundation and University. I am sure that there are other fields where a similar case can be made.

If you speak to bureaucrats, they will tell you all kinds of problems - political interference, uneducated masses, lack of initiative in the system etc. Seldom will they mention that they have just been transferred from the agriculture to the education department and have no clue about the principles or best practices in education.

This (arrogance?) is caused by many factors. There is social superiority given by their position. The quality of their Grade 2 and lower officers and support staff is even worse. The sycophancy by private vested interests and their junior staff is nauseous. Apart from corruption and political influence, while the entrance may be meritocratic, the promotion system is entirely the opposite of meritocracy. Initiatives can lead to 'problems'. Given many such experiences over time, many choose to just pass time without controversy. So much better to be inactive and safe rather than proactive and unsafe.

In no developed country do generalists (apart from politicians) have such power and control over areas which should be in the hands of specialists.

Personally, I find it difficult to work if I am given respect and standing which is not based on my expertise. In IAS, I don't have the choice of choosing my field or my mentors. And I want to specialize in a field and do good work in it.

I do want to work to improve the public system, especially education. But maybe becoming a bureaucrat is not the best option. Though, it might be worth reconsidering if they start the Indian Education Service.

Disclaimer: The intention of this post is not to malign bureaucrats. There are hard working, sincere people at all levels in the system and India would be even worse without them.