The Steel Frame: A History of the IAS

The following is an interview with Shri Deepak Gupta about his new book, ‘The Steel Frame: A History of the IAS.’ Sir joined the Indian Administrative Service in 1974, and among his many accomplishments, he is known for his leadership role in driving the ambitious National Solar Mission. Besides his distinguished career in the IAS, he also served as the chairperson of the Union Public Service Commission. Views expressed in the article are personal.


Anudeep Durishetty: Sir it was a pleasure to read your book. Each page reflects the painstaking research that must have gone into documenting this work. So can you tell us about the process of writing this book? When did the idea take shape, what motivated you, and what challenges did you face while researching for the book?

Deepak Gupta: The idea of writing this book took shape when I was Chairman of UPSC. As part of trying to build a documentation centre, I started reading about the history of the IAS and the ICS. I found a fascinating story over two centuries about the origins of the service, how its ethos and structure evolved, and what, by constitutional design, its role was intended to be. I thought I would give a short holistic picture since most are unaware of all this. There is a lot of literature of the British period and even post-independence. Accessing this was a big problem. I have suggested that the Academy get all this at one place on a continuing basis. I think the IAS has a very important role to play in governance in India and we officers must measure up to the task. The book is also a call for this. I have explained all this in the Preface.

AD: In the book, I found the chapter on the transition from the ICS to IAS captivating. Pandit Nehru held deep suspicion of the ICS whereas Sardar Patel put his weight behind retaining it, succeeding ultimately in founding the Civil Service as we know it. It was fascinating how an institution serving a foreign power suddenly had to transform into a welfare instrument through which a young nation executed its will. How did the service adapt to this colossal change?

DG: The smooth transition post-independence was indeed remarkable. It showed the resilience of the administrative system. There was, however, a lot of pressure for provincial control over all the services. Thankfully, Sardar Patel ensured that there would be All-India Services which also have a unifying role in a federal system. His speeches and comments make for powerful reading. All officers down the line were basically nationalist. After independence there was a spirit of freedom and optimism and the task of building India. Everybody recognised that in a democracy the government would now be the political head. It was not difficult to adjust. It also goes to the credit of both the political leaders and the senior bureaucrats that the system worked smoothly. It went awry in Pakistan. The problems have come gradually with increasing politicisation of the system and administration.

AD: There is a general perception among the public (and shared by many expert committees) that the current administrative system in India is skewed against honest, upright officers. They are often inflicted with frequent transfers and motivated allegations. How can we tweak this aberration and ensure that honesty is not punished?

DG: I entirely agree. This has become the bane and possibly the most unfortunate part of the current system which is having a huge adverse impact on governance and societal outcomes. The removal of the controversial section 13(1)(d)(iii) and substitution by other sections, which specifically introduce mens rea and quid pro quo as essential ingredients of an offence, in the Prevention of Corruption Act in July 2018 are a right step. There are rules for transfer but the political class is not going to adhere to them. The Service Associations must highlight cases of victimisation. Penal transfers must be highlighted in press like the case of Durga Shakti Nagpal and the Courts must step in. However, the officers have themselves to reform too and not become partisan politically. There should be focus on ethics throughout the career and on developing professionalism. I have also suggested ruthless and quick weeding out of the corrupt. The system must reform from within and outside. 

AD: Even today, the public reposes immense faith in the institution of the District Collector (DC). One poll conducted recently ranked DC as the 4th most trusted institution. In your opinion, what are the reasons for such resolute public faith in this 200+ year old institution? And what differences do you see in the role of the DC now compared to your time?

DG: This office is indeed a unique institution and has remained one of the cornerstones of administration in India. In British times this was the symbol of power. But I think the ICS officers in general gave it a new dimension. Developmental and welfare activities were few but the officers were seen to be hardworking and fair. They toured a lot and stayed in the field. Over time they were able to elicit trust in their dealings in revenue and judicial administration. All this created a certain aura. It was expected that after independence gradually we will have panchayati raj institutions. But they have not delivered. Besides the political class has not gained that trust. The DM is not only the representative of the government but is still looked as the arbiter and spokesman for the public interest. It is critical, therefore, that the officer himself be honest and fair and work hard. I also believe that IAS officers should spend the first 15 years in the field. The district is the most challenging job and it is here that the individual officer can make the maximum contribution. Of course, today there is also a huge developmental task to be performed. I have given a separate chapter to the district officer.

AD: Promotions in the bureaucracy tend to be automatic based on seniority, leaving with no real incentive for high performers. Sir, at one point in the book, you note that “only those who can demonstrate a credible record of actual performance should be promoted.” What parameters should go into evaluating an officer’s performance and how can we make such a process fair and objective?

DG: I have discussed this issue in some detail. Seniority in promotion is desirable because otherwise ad hocism and favouritism may prevail. However, not everybody should be promoted. Distinction between empanelment (those who can come to centre at Joint Secretary level and above) and promotion must be removed. How can those who were not good enough to come to centre man the helm in States? 20-25% of the batch in a year should be pensioned off at the stages of Joint Secretary and Additional Secretary. Nothing is worse for performance than those with merit seeing those without get to the top, in centre or states. This requires a fair and robust appraisal process which I have described. Long reports of work done and outcomes achieved in different positions, nature of specialisation achieved etc are needed from officers. Long interview process in UPSC would evaluate all that while material of ACRs and 360 degree appraisal would be available. Credible performance would immediately be incentivised. Similar process along with exam is required for promotion to the IAS from state services. Here seniority should not be the criteria at all. All above a certain age/batch should be able to compete.


“You will not have a united India if you do not have a good all-India service which has the independence to speak its mind.” – Sardar Patel


AD: Sir, let us talk about UPSC. Every year, we see hundreds of candidates from remote districts and modest backgrounds make it to the premier civil services of this country. It’s a testament to this institution’s integrity, fairness and independence. Can you tell us about your experience as the chairperson of this institution? 

DG: It has been my honour to be Chairman of an institution which has a well-founded reputation and respect for integrity, fairness and independence. My feedback then, and since, has been that selection through UPSC automatically means it has been on merit. I have interviewed many candidates for a variety of jobs and candidates have felt good even if they have been called for an interview in UPSC. I found this respect also in SAARC countries. It is almost like UPSC has set the gold standard. It is critical that we maintain this. It is so heartening to see candidates from all backgrounds make it to different jobs. Everybody stands a chance.

AD: Sir, in the book you also dwell at length about the Civil Services Exam. Critics point out that CSAT discriminates against rural, vernacular medium students and unfairly benefits the English educated engineering graduates. Do you agree with this criticism?

DG: I have discussed this matter in detail in the chapter on scheme of examination. I think we need first to consider what kind of service and officer we want. There must be certain minimum standards set by the examination which recruits for the highest civil services of the country whose role in a globalised economy is becoming more challenging by the day. It cannot set the lowest common denominator. The levels in the papers should be seen and compared with other examinations where such questions are routinely asked. I think we should not celebrate mediocrity. Every attempt has been made to make papers language friendly.  I have seen so many stories of people who have worked hard and in a determined way and have succeeded as the previous question itself points out. Besides, we must also focus on the question of why we are unable to improve our primary education system which actually has much larger societal ramifications.

AD: UPSC interview is a mystery to many aspirants. What traits does the board look for when judging a candidate? Any interesting anecdote pertaining to the interview process that you fondly recollect?

DG: With so many coaching centres proliferating where thousands are coached for the interview, and those who go through it talking even in social media, it should no longer be a mystery. Although an element of mystery is good. The advertisement itself mentions what is being looked for in the interview. Knowledge has already been tested. It is important that a candidate be aware of the world around him/her and developments which are taking place locally, nationally and globally. There must be confidence in oneself and honesty in replies. Guess work may misfire badly. How does one present a view, communicate and argue are all important. As for the anecdote, once a nervous candidate had wiped his face with his hankie but could not put it entirely in the pocket. A part of the handkerchief showed. As he entered the Chairman asked, what is that? Looking at the hankie, the candidate calmly replied, That Sir, is a demonstrative pronoun. And he put his hankie in. What presence of mind!

AD: Sir, what message would you like to give to someone aspiring to join the IAS?

DG: I have given a chapter to re-invention of the IAS where I have discussed certain qualities which are important. I think the candidate must be sure of why he wants to join the IAS. Is it the idea of public service and look for opportunities where one can do immense public good or is it just another job which gives good status etc., or worse, opportunities for rent-seeking? If it is the former then it will become a key driving force. Many who think of public service shy away when they think of the difficulty of examinations and seeing people sitting year after year. To them I ask to at least try for a year or two even as they are looking for other jobs. The IAS badly needs such people. So does the country.

AD: In the book you touch upon the issue of lateral entry in the bureaucracy. What checks should we put in place to ensure that the process is fair and transparent? Also, should the civil servants also be given an option to go work in the private sector for sometime and rejoin the government later?

DG: I have discussed the issue of lateral entry in detail. I discuss the latest developments in the Epilogue. As one progresses to the top, job is no longer one of a specialist, though good knowledge of the area is important. The experience and capability of getting the job done which requires coordination and all-round perspective is critical. Leadership and vision are needed. Policy advice is now available in so many ways. The problem often is the system itself. The specialist may also fall victim to that. The experience of the IAS officer over so many years in different jobs starting from the field simply is not available anywhere else. However, with many emerging challenges, there are areas where specialists are needed and they can be recruited laterally to selected posts. There is also a huge shortage of officers. But the process must be transparent. The only way to do this would be though the UPSC. Any other way, where there is even a hint of discretion, will damage the credibility. I am not in favour of IAS officers rotating through the private sector. However, strangely, IAS officers generally are not allowed to specialise, and those who manage to do, are posted elsewhere.

AD: Sir, you conclude the book with a passionate exposition on the need to reinvent the IAS. You make a persuasive case for reforming it, but steadfastly argue against its abolition. Can you elaborate on your core argument of why the IAS, with an All India Service character, is still relevant today?

DG: Throughout the book the core message is the importance of the IAS to the system and what role it can and must play. It is remarkable that Sardar Patel had visualised the problems of politicisation. That is why he said that ‘you will not have a united India, if you do not have a good all-India service which has the independence to speak its mind.’ In fact, he argued that this was even more important in a democracy than an autocracy. In a sense, a protective role was assigned. I have mentioned the World Bank reports which talk about the strength of the IAS and the role it has played. The Prime Minister is looking for young dynamic officers to head the 100 aspirational districts. All this cannot be replicated. To the critics I ask, will all of India’s problems go away if the IAS is abolished? If yes, please do. Another bulwark of stability will go.