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Who’s afraid of lateral entry into India's civil services?

Governments have long hired ‘outside talent’. The new move only formalises the process.

VARIETY  |   4-minute read  |   11-06-2018

The central government just pulled up a few more chairs to the high table of the Indian bureaucracy. In a move that has sparked off a spirited debate, the Centre has opened 10 joint secretary-level posts for people from the private sector — “10 outstanding individuals with expertise” in relevant areas.

Many have lauded the benefits of this — those hired would be experts in their domains, would have a proven record of competence, coming from the private sector, will bring in fresh perspective and new ideas, and, not trained in the bureaucratic culture of rising up the ranks, would be less risk-averse.    

The criticism, equally swift and strong, says this would open a side door for the government to appoint its favoured people to important posts, would promote nepotism, and could even be a way to bypass reservation for scheduled caste and scheduled tribe candidates.

These fears, however, smack of exaggeration and paranoia.

For starters, the plan is neither as new nor as radical as it is being made out to be. The Narendra Modi government is not the first to bring in experts from outside to buttress the bureaucracy — the Congress under the Indira Gandhi government started this in the 1970s, when Yoginder K Alagh, then a teacher in Ahmedabad, was appointed the head of the Perspective Planning division of the Planning Commission.

Other “outsiders” of note are former prime minister Manmohan Singh, economist Montek Singh Ahluwalia, who ushered in transformative economy reforms, Sam Pitroda, credited for the telecom revolution in India, and more recently, Nandan Nilekani, the co-founder of Infosys, whom the UPA brought in to head the UIDAI project.

Former prime minister Manmohan Singh and former deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, both made a 'lateral entry' into the government. Photo: PTI

What the new move by the government does is to formalise this process of hiring domain experts, and is thus likely to promote transparency and throw the field open — interested individuals can now apply for the posts, instead of the government in its wisdom picking them out.   

Also, people hired this way will always have the option of going back to their old jobs, and thus can stand up to their political bosses in a way that is difficult for government servants.   

The hiring guidelines so far state that candidates can apply online, and those shortlisted will be called for a “personal interaction with the selection committee”. The details of this selection committee are not clear yet.

Those making charges of nepotism and ideology-based selection are thus jumping the gun. Both the Congress and the BJP have accused each other of appointing ideologically sympathetic people to posts such as the censor board chief and even university vice-chancellors. However, no one can say that talented and committed individuals have not held these posts, or that the method of appointing them is flawed.

Also, at present, only 10 candidates are to be hired on three-year contracts, which can be extended to five years based on performance. This is hardly enough to change the face of the bureaucracy and sidestep the reservation system, as the doomsayers claim. There is, in fact, enough window to check if the “lateral entry” is a good idea, and to iron out kinks in the selection process.

Nandan Nilekani, the co-founder of Infosys, was roped in by the UPA government in to head the UIDAI project. Photo: PTI

The problems in the existing public service system have been pointed out for long and by many. Historian Ramchandra Guha, in 2016, wrote in an article about Indian civil services: “In no other modern society does a person, who got a high rank in an examination 35 years ago, automatically go on and be allotted a high-status, high-impact, and vastly important government job, based only or largely on that exam rank.”

The nature of transfers and postings in the bureaucracy is such that IAS officers end up serving in diverse departments in the course of their tenure, not all of which may be their areas of expertise.  

The opening up of the services, thus, is a chance to induct talented individuals who have experience and specialisation in the exact field they will be hired for.

The UPSC examinations are one of the most difficult in the country, and undoubtedly filter in talented candidates. However, these very standards can also be exclusionary — those with the pressure to find a job quickly do not have the luxury to devote years to preparing for one exam with no guarantee of success.

The new move, thus, gives these people a fresh chance to serve the nation, after honing their talent in the private sector.

The IAS has long been an ivory tower. Opening a new door to it will prove to be a good idea, for the bureaucracy and for the country.   

Also read: Who's saving the children? Will child rights ever be a focus for our politicians?

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