Let’s learn from the French experience
The Parliamentary Standing Committee attached to the Union Ministry of Home Affairs has rightly suggested the need to keep engineers and doctors off the civil services. This should not be seen as an attempt by the committee to do injustice to our budding technocrats and doctors but to appreciate its concerns on their future with a view to tapping their full potential and giving a professional thrust to their respective roles and responsibilities in a developing country like ours.
Historically, the higher civil service in India has been designed as a generalist one with the leadership role at all levels of administration reserved for the Indian Civil Service (ICS). This was the conception of the Northcote-Trevelyan Report on the “Organisation of the Permanent Civil Service” in Britain (1853). This report laid stress on the superior positions in the civil service being manned by “the most promising young men of the day by competitive (literary) examination on a level with the highest description of education in the country.”
There has been no change in the generalist approach of the civil service after the ICS became the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), following the Independence. When the Union Government had decided to include engineering and medicine subjects in the Civil Services Examination, it was guided by the rationale that such a scheme would help inject scientific input in public policy-making.
However, experience in the last two decades suggests that this approach has not only led to a dilution of the generalist concept of the IAS but also an abject neglect of the professional education of the candidates qualified in the examination. A BE or an MBBS entering the civil services means the loss of a brilliant engineer or a doctor. It also means the criminal wastage of precious resources and funds that the government had spent on his or her education over a period of time. Is it proper for an engineer or a doctor to enjoy the subsidies of professional education for some time and suddenly hang his boots, once he completes his course, in pursuit of a generalist career?
Many leading countries like Japan and France permit only social science subjects to be taken by the intending candidates, the governing philosophy being that a candidate should make up his mind at an early age whether he/she would like to be a specialist or seek a generalist career. The argument that by opening the door of competition to professional subjects which are taught in medical and engineering institutions, the IAS is enabled to lay claim to full range of competence including in science and technology necessary for policy-making, is flawed and weak.
Once an engineering student, for instance, gets into the IAS taking advantage of the subjects open to him, he foresakes, or must foresake, his claim of competence in engineering, and instead apply and promote the generalist mind (in the classical sense of the term) on problems and issues coming for his decision-making. In other words, he must not compete for the Central Engineering Services or Central Health Services. Renowned experts in public administration like Professor S.R. Maheshwari feel that it would be dangerous to view, even faintly, that the Central Engineering Service is a service of those who have failed in the IAS.
Clearly, a much bigger danger lies in the present approach. Luring an engineer, particularly of the IIT variety, into the IAS, is to permanently lose an engineer, much more so, in a country like ours. One cannot overlook the fact that it costs a lot for the country to produce an engineer or a doctor.
One reason why IAS attracts engineers or doctors is the kind of power and influence an officer enjoys. Far more important reason is the rapid decline in the career opportunities available for recruits in the Central Engineering Services or the Central Health Services. Thus, the wisest course of action from the point of optimum utilisation of engineering and medical talent of society is to brighten the already established engineering and health services of the country to make them equally or even more attractive in all respects.
Admittedly, the career prospects in the specialist services will have to be substantially improved and emolument structure bettered so that these services are enabled to outshine the IAS simply because these add to the permanent assets of society. Moreover, the middle and senior level positions in the specialist departments of the state should as a rule be manned by members of such specialist services alone. This is a well-established practice in an advanced country like France. In India too, as a matter of principle, the post of Secretary to Public Works Department in all states is manned by the seniormost civil engineer of the government and not by the IAS. The same rule can be enforced for departments like Health, Agriculture, Forests, Animal Husbandary, Planning and so on.
Presently, professionals get top level policy-making positions in the government only by joining the IAS even though the cost is the sacrifice of the technical degree. But the fact is that engineers and doctors bring to the civil service a computer-like mental make-up. Their approach is managerial and thinking logical, even mechanical. Public administration is not all computer, notwithstanding the importance of e-governance in the day-to-day administration. For that matter, even e-governance is not all that computer. Professionals may also be deficient in qualities fostered by liberal education.
One way of giving our technocrat administrators their legitimate due is by emulating the practice that obtains in France where civil servants comprise both the administrative generalists and the scientific generalists. The recruitment of the latter is made by the Ecole Polytechnique (EP), whose graduates man civilian positions in both government and private sector. This polytechnique has over 300 seats which are filled through a strict competitive examination. The selected candidates have to study for three years. The former are recruited by the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA) which holds an annual competitive examination to recruit middle and senior level civil servants.
It is noteworthy that the ENA permits only social science subjects to be taken by the intending candidates, the idea being that a candidate should decide at an early age whether he would like to become a generalist or a specialist. Thus, after passing the secondary school examination (baccalaureat), a student spends two to three years in intensive preparation for admission to the EP. In the case of the ENA, candidates up to the age of 25 and possessing a recognised university diploma involving a minimum of three years’ study may apply.
In the absence of a similar polytechnique in India, the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), as an answer to injecting scientific input in public policy-making, has included technical subjects in the list of optional subjects offered for the Civil Services examination. The Satish Chandra Committee, which reviewed the UPSC’s scheme of Civil Services examination, called the phenomenon of large number of doctors and engineers being attracted to the IAS as an “aberration”, but did not call for exclusion of these optionals. Clearly, there is a need to demarcate the role of the generalists and the specialists in the country as in France.
Note: The writer is Assistant Editor, The Tribune
Read part 2 - opinions in favour of the argument tomorrow