Every year, on the 21st of April, India celebrates Civil Services day, to commemorate the famous address by Sardar Patel to the first batch of civil servants of India. In the speech, he called them the Steel Frame, as a reference to an enduring structure meant to build and protect a young nation.
“India observes National Civil Services Day 2020,” I read on my twitter feed while on my way to a nearby village. I read the article, put my phone down and gazed outside my window. Travelling on the desolate road, letting in the warm summer wind, I had a moment to pause and reflect. As I contemplated what it means to be a civil servant, a bunch of thoughts and emotions came rushing in.
When I was an aspirant, I used to wonder whether I made the right choice in letting go of a career in the private sector and preparing for this exam. There are three principal reasons why I harboured that cynicism, much of it shaped by a general perception of the government service.
The first pertains to the general contempt that exists against the government. It’s perceived as slow, inept and indifferent. While some of it might be true, my experience over the past five years has painted a different picture. I found that the government can be nimble, agile and sharply rise to the occasion when a problem presents itself.
Think about the current COVID-19 crisis. Though the cases are on the rise, the growth rate is slowing. The number of persons getting cured by the day is improving, too. It seems India, for all its glaring inefficiencies, has done well so far. Credit is due for all the healthcare workers and the frontline staff. Apart from it, what is truly amazing is that we’re able to manage the lockdown relatively well. It’s difficult enough to make two strangers agree with each other— on any issue. Now to have a billion-plus people voluntarily agree to confine themselves to their homes for well over a month is a staggering achievement by any measure.
It took continuous monitoring of public opinion, proper supply of essential goods to the stranded labour, and ensuring social distancing at all public places. Given this incredible challenge, we seem to have done a good job so far. There are no food riots nor mass unrest. It begs the question: How come the inept and indifferent civil service, thought to be good at nothing more than sitting on files, is managing the crisis better than developed countries?
Secondly, the case against a career in civil service has to do with political control. It is argued that civil servants, though competent and driven, are stifled because of such limitation. I find such criticism amusing.
Just think of it. Except for a totalitarian dictator, which job in the world entrusts unchecked power? A prime minister or a chief minister is answerable to courts, audit agencies, election commission, media, civil society. An Apple CEO must cater to the compulsions of shareholders and revenue growth projections of Wall Street. A startup founder is always tweaking the product to please the investors. Every job with responsibility is restrained with external checks. In the case of civil servants, it’s the political leadership. To think that just because you cleared an exam, you should be vested with all power and control is absurd. Political control means popular control. It’s not a bug, but a feature of a democracy.
Lastly, take the general view that people universally sneer at a sarkari officer. My experience in civil service couldn’t have been more contrasting.
Wherever I have been, I noticed that, contrary to the popular perception, civil servants enjoy a considerable reputation among the general public. It’s as if civil servants have carved out an exclusive space for themselves in people’s imagination. Maybe it’s the tag of IAS or IPS. Perhaps, it’s the authenticity of the UPSC that attaches so much prestige to the post. Whatever it might be, the respect people have for civil servants is phenomenal.
Consider the position of an IAS officer trainee, whose job is vested with no authority nor any specific responsibility. Yet I realised that, much to my surprise, my word carried weight. Whenever I brought a problem to the notice of the concerned officer, they would respond quickly and work a little more diligently. As for the public, no matter which remotest corner I travelled to, the importance and belief people repose in this institution is just stunning. In one public survey, District Collector ranked as the fourth most trusted institution in India. Can anyone buy or force their way into such trust and confidence of the poor? I believe people have that confidence in the institution of the civil service because, throughout its history, so many public servants have worked, silently and sincerely, unmindful of all the loud voices disparaging them.
Sardar Patel is credited with the integration of states, and rightly so. Yet, we must not forget the role of VP Menon who ably assisted the home minister, going through reams of legal documents, holding negotiations with princely states, and drafting Instruments of Accession.
That, I think, epitomises the role of a civil servant. To do the work that ought to be done, to do it to the best of one’s ability, to take pleasure in the act of doing it well, not take any praise seriously, and not let any unfair criticism affect you personally.
My experience in the service belied the apprehensions I had as an aspirant. If I get to choose my career now, I will again choose to be a civil servant.
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