Masterliness In A Servant
It was during the final year of my MBBS course when I, along with a couple of like-minded friends, decided to take the Union Public Services Commissions (UPSC) examination for entry into Civil Services. All of us fell into the category of students who did reasonably well in examinations without blazing any trail of glory, the sort who Chetan Bhagat would place under the ‘five point something’ category. What we had in common was the feeling that we did not have the intense commitment towards medicine, which was imperative for achieving success as a doctor. Since options outside the field of medicine were rather limited for MBBS graduates, we were forced to attempt the UPSC Civil Services examination, which had a well-deserved reputation for being the toughest of its kind in the country.
‘Civils’, as these examinations are fondly called by all those who attempt it, have undergone many changes during the 30 years since I took it but the overall pattern has remained the same. There is a preliminary examination (‘Prelims’), which is used for bringing down the number of contenders from the region of a few lakhs to around 10,000. This is followed by the ‘Mains’ part, where one has to answer papers on subjects of one’s choice, followed by the ‘personality test’ (more popularly known as the interview), which is conducted by panels chaired by members of UPSC. The whole process from date of preliminary examination to announcement of results takes almost an year, at the end of which it would be known whether one is successful or not.
As most of the applicants start their preparations almost a year before the ‘prelims’, it can be said that one needs to keep apart around two years for making one full-fledged attempt to clear this exam. Further, only a few candidates are fortunate enough to qualify in their first try; most of those who emerge successful do so while taking the challenge a second or even a third time. Thus, it can be seen that, on an average, persons who enter civil services spend at least three to four years of their life with their minds focused solely on ‘civils’. Hence, it can be said without any doubt that this exam tests not merely the knowledge of the applicant, but his mental stamina and determination.
Why does this examination attract so many applicants? When I went for the interview, I was fairly certain that I would be asked the reason for leaving medicine to take up a career in civil service. I must confess that I did not have any specific answer for that and so I had decided that in case the question came, a bland response on the lines of “this is the best job that Government of India offers” would be given. Fortunately, the interview board chose not to pose this query; as a friend later remarked, one look at me might have convinced them that I was a lesser menace in civil services!
The real reasons behind civil service being the foremost career option of a large number of young people in the country are many. The first amongst these would be the importance of the job that civil servants are required to discharge, which bestow on them enormous power and access to huge resources. The work involved gives opportunities for helping the poor and the needy, thus one can contribute substantially towards improving the lot of those who are challenged economically. An added attraction is the variety of responsibilities that could come along one’s way, which, besides helping to learn new things, also ensures that mind is always kept active and alert. The job security offered by the government, a system that is essentially based on meritocracy and fairly good financial remuneration act as cherries on top of the pudding that attracts young aspirants towards goal of civil services.
However, once a person enters the civil services, he realises that the trappings of the job and the glamour apart, one is required to function within the ambit of law and the policies of the government. There is a clear-cut hierarchy within the government wherein civil services provide the permanent bureaucracy which helps the political executive to formulate policies and implement them successfully. An officer is duty-bound to carry out the directions of the government as well as to enforce the order of courts of law, irrespective of his personal opinion or convictions and any dereliction or hesitation in this regard would be considered as incompetence or, even worse, as acts of indiscipline.
However, it must be stated that within these limitations, there exists ample scope for individual enterprise and innovations, which can help to bring solace and benefits to the population at large. An example that comes to mind readily is the success achieved by our State, Kerala, in the area of tourism, which is largely on account of the efforts of officers whose original and creative thinking was backed up with excellent implementation. It is relevant to mention here that initiatives in this regard were within the broad policy objectives of the government. Conceptualisation and development of Kochi International Airport and setting up of Students Police Cadets are two other instances where officers who thought out of the box could bring about changes for the betterment of public, while working within the boundaries of the policy parameters placed by the government.
Cause for disgruntlement
Given all these opportunities and the appeal they hold, why is it that some officers find themselves so much out of sync that they choose to put in their papers? What could be the reason for persons who scored top ranks to feel useless and end up frustrated? Though such instances are exceptions rather than the rule, they have a penchant for getting attention of print and social media and hence merit a discussion.
The most obvious cause for disenchantment is misplaced expectations about the job. Every entrant to the civil service brings along with him/ her a set of dreams and ambitions. While most of them are able to conform to the realities on the ground and readjust their focus accordingly, a minuscule number of people find it difficult to make the required changes in attitude. This inability to attune to the aspirations with practical dimensions of the job causes disgruntlement, which could, in turn, lead to attrition.
Another aspect that many don't understand is that work as a civil servant does not require brilliance. Instead an officer should possess common sense, perseverance and empathy, along with adequate amounts of tact and discretion. One has to learn to work with the personnel provided, which would be a mix of good and bad, excellent and mediocre and energetic and languid. Success of an officer is determined by the ability to carry the team to the objectives identified and make each member realise his full potential. Thus, man management skills count for more than high intelligence, when it comes to a career in civil service.
Not for activism
Further, civil service is not an arena for activism. Bureaucrats are expected to discharge their responsibilities with minimum of fire and fury, without being seen or heard. Though some of the officers in certain States, including Kerala, have started using social media to emerge out of the cloak of anonymity and communicate directly with the public, this practice is not widely prevalent. This is one reason for many officers choosing to leave the protective umbrella offered by civil services to plunge into the rough and tumble world of politics.
Finally, it should be remembered that the structure of the civil services that we have today has been inherited from Great Britain and designed to serve the interests of the colonial powers. Despite various attempts at reform, the steel structure has not only survived but added strength to itself. The move by the present government to allow lateral entry to government posts at senior levels is the first attempt at breaking the stranglehold of existing bureaucracy. This strikes at the root of the concepts of stability of tenure and assured career advancement and thus carries the potential to be the harbinger of a structural overhaul of civil services, which is long overdue.
To conclude, resignations of individual civil servants
or occasional, solitary instances of disillusionment do not warrant a public
debate as these happen on account of seeking better pastures or maladjustment
with the job, which is part of every ecosystem. A more pressing need is reform
of civil service with the objective of making it more responsive, less elitist and
in tune with the needs of the times.