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When Did Civil Service Become Synonymous With Self-Service?

10/06/2016 8:35 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
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INDIA - JUNE 06: View of VIP Ambassador Car at Parliament House in New Delhi, India (Photo by Sipra Das/The India Today Group/Getty Images)

In 2008, I was in Chandel district of Manipur on field work. As I went about listening to local people's stories about their lives and aspirations, most of them kept praising this particular woman administrator, an IAS officer. She was from South India, they said, and yet she was able to blend in with local people and was very responsive to their needs. As I walked towards the office of the Block Development Officer (BDO), I understood what they meant. It was an office with an open door, and there were no "middle men" to stop people from meeting the officer. The people waiting outside did not have the look of being intimidated by power. Neither was the name of the officer displayed in gold letters on a red board outside the door to her office to inspire awe. The office was simple and welcoming. When I met the officer, she was kind and responsive towards me as well, ever willing to help me in my field work studying the conflicts in the area. I came back from that office full of appreciation for the tough work that most of our civil servants do in remote areas of India, serving people and looking out for their needs.

What does a civil servant represent in India? Do they represent the might of the State or its power to better the lives of the people?

Yet the other day, as the results of the UPSC 2015 exams were announced, some of the candidates who topped the exams stated that they were inspired by the amount of power that an IAS or IFS officer wields. That got me thinking: what does a civil servant represent in India? Do they represent the might of the State or its power to better the lives of the people?

In my travels across the country, especially in areas where the reach of the Indian State is limited, I have come to realize that civil servants -- for the most part -- do a commendable job of carrying out day to day administration for the common people. When I visited Kandamal and Malkangiri in Odisha in 2009, I saw what an arduous task it was to carry out administrative duties in a conflict zone with a Naxal threat looming large every day. I respected and admired the officers that I met during my several field trips to Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur and Nagaland over the years. I even believe that Indian civil servants working in difficult areas should be compensated more, as is the practice across the world (for example, US soldiers serving in Afghanistan or Iraq get paid more than their counterparts back home).

Bureaucrats are viewed as those who possess the power to create obstacles in common people's lives.

However, the lens through which civil servants in India are viewed by the majority of citizens troubled me. Bureaucrats are viewed as those who possess the power to create obstacles in common people's lives. When their cars with red lights on top pass, local people move off the roads quickly to give way. In some of my interviews about the dismal lack of infrastructure -- vis-à-vis the right of the common person to enjoy good roads, hospitals, schools -- people often did not see themselves as entitled citizens. They saw themselves as powerless. They felt they had to beg the civil servants for benefits from the development funds that were earmarked for them to better their lives. They saw the officers as the privileged lot, and themselves as the under-privileged. Their body language when an officer was present was that of being subservient in the presence of great power, heads bowed, bodies quivering in fear. It really saddened me to see a citizen of this largest democracy so fearful of someone who represented the State they belonged to, and for whose rights men like Gandhi fought the British Raj.

[People] saw themselves as powerless. They felt they had to beg the civil servants for benefits from the development funds that were earmarked for them...

So why do such attitudes persist despite nearly 70 years of Indian independence? We all know that the civil services of India are a successor of the Imperial Civil Service (then called Indian Civil Service), which was put in place under the Government of India Act, 1858 and lasted until independence from the British. The majority of the officers were British, especially in high ranks; by the time India got its independence, there were about 322 Indian officers. After Partition, the Indian Civil Service was divided between India and Pakistan. Both countries formed their own civil services, continuing one of the most significant legacies of the British Raj. Today, being a civil servant is a matter of pride for most Indians, and theoretically means an opportunity to serve the country's citizens. Moreover, most aspirants for the civil services are themselves Indian citizens and they have to go through a tough competitive examination to become an officer.

British officers had symbolic signs on their cars to show they were superior to everyone else in India; our current system continues that legacy of the Raj.

So, what happens? What changes many people once they become officers? Perhaps, the most common answer is that they believe that they are now entitled to all the privileges that come with their position. For instance, a car with a red beacon is an unmistakeable sign of someone important. British officers had symbolic signs on their cars to show they were superior to everyone else in India; our current system continues that legacy of the Raj. An Indian officer once stated that his desire to enter the civil services stemmed from the fact that the driver would always rush out to open the door for the officer. So what that represents is: "I am powerful, and when common people see me, they should run and open doors for me." So, ironically, the power that officers hold, which ideally should mean the power to create a level playing field for all, is actually seen as power to access privileges, entitlements, cars with red lights, houses in the best part of town, and a state system that exists for them, and not for the common person.

Men and women who enter the civil services are remarkable individuals, and many of them want to serve. Yet, the system of entitled privileges comes in the way.

This is a bane that India must do away with. Men and women who enter the civil services are remarkable individuals, and many of them actually want to serve. Yet, the system of entitled privileges comes in the way. We urgently need a bureaucratic system that exists to serve the people. We need bureaucrats who explain existing rules to common people and offer guidance on how to abide by them. Why do so many citizens resort to illegal means to get their work done? The answer is simple: Because it is so difficult to get the job done legally and through the State. I spoke to a person who was trying to get an electricity connection legally in Assam in 2015. First, you have to fill up 15 forms; then you have to go and submit it to the clerical staff at the electricity office, who won't even look at you since you do not come recommended by some higher officer. After days of travelling to the electricity office, wasting precious money and time, the clerical staff might glance at you. Once you are in his or her sight, you have to bow low, offer bribes, and then after months, someone will show up at your doorstep, if you are lucky. So, the common person asks me: why should I go through all that mental and physical trauma when there is a middleman offering to do the job for me for some extra money? This state of affairs shows that the Indian bureaucratic system is corrupt, dysfunctional and does not really care for the common person. This attitude persists right from junior officials to the top level.

Why do so many citizens resort to illegal means to get their work done? The answer is simple: Because it is so difficult to get the job done legally...

Can we change this state of affairs? Yes, we can! By writing about such incidents every time they occur. The internet is a powerful tool; use it. By utilizing the Right to Information Act, we can be aware of what development funds exist for a particular community. Most importantly, the foundation courses of the civil services of India should include one that instructs new entrants about what the ethos of a civil servant truly is. The bureaucracy's job is not to create obstacles but to explain the State system to the common person and help them navigate the rules. Rules do not exist in a State to create stumbling blocks; they actually exist to make the system functionally stable, efficient and structured. In India, rules are interpreted by officials as a means to block people from getting their job done easily. As a result, it encourages nepotism and corruption and creates citizens with high stress -- not good for a country's overall health.

India has a long way to go before it has a State system that exists for the people rather than those who are meant to serve them.

What is my personal hope? That one day, I travel to a remote district in Arunachal Pradesh and am met by this inspiring sight: the town roads are clean, the school system works, and hospitals are near and responsive to people needs. Today, a town like Along, headquarters of West Siang district, Arunachal Pradesh, while being blessed with a picturesque mountainous landscape, has no good roads, and very little decent infrastructure. The only building that looked passable when I visited Along in 2012 was the office of the District Commissioner; usually, all these offices are perched on a hill -- another demonstration of symbolic power and a legacy of the British Raj.

I dream of the day when remote towns showcase buildings that are as well built and comfortable as that of the office of their district commissioner. I dream of the day when India does not suffer from the stigma of having the worst bureaucratic system in Asia. Sadly, India has a long way to go before it has a State system that exists for the people rather than those who are meant to serve them.

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