By Pradeep S Mehta
The advocacy of institutional reforms in India would be incomplete without a push for administrative reforms. One key area of administrative reform is the introduction of lateral-entry appointments in the country’s otherwise permanent civil services system of administrators. It is also undeniable that there has been a push at the Centre for such appointments in recent years, and some success stories have also emerged. But for the success of a lateral entry and exit system as a whole, a better design needs to be explored.
Under the lateral-entry system introduced by the Union government, professionals can be appointed to government posts and also positions in other central services from outside the ranks of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). Quite laudably, the government over the past three years has regularly invited applications from talented and motivated Indian nationals willing to contribute towards nation-building to join the government at the level of a joint secretary or director/deputy secretary in different Union ministries.
In order to keep the process controversy-free, the Central government has fixed the tenure of joint secretaries at three years. However, we believe that this is not a sufficient span of time for an ‘outsider’ to get well inculcated with the complex ins and outs of governance systems and be able to contribute meaningfully.
Here it is worth noting that lateral entry in the Indian bureaucracy is old wine in a new bottle. Back in 1957, with the idea of creating a pool of highly qualified managers from both the public and private sectors, the government set up an Industrial Management Pool initiative. The aim was to boost the quality of the bureaucracy at the senior level in public-sector units by roping in private-sector talent. Among the many who applied, 131 candidates were inducted in 1959. However, the scheme was a non-starter from the beginning. Not only had recruits been picked without an eye on actual requirements, but even when public sector companies needed senior talent, they preferred to stick with the traditional bureaucrats.
Moreover, this idea of picking experts from industry, academia and civil society has given us some pioneers and thought leaders as well. The appointments of economists like Manmohan Singh, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Vijay Kelkar and Bimal Jalan were lateral in nature. Many members of the erstwhile Planning Commission and the present Niti Aayog have been eminent public figures and specialists.
Now, 60 years later, a systemic process for appointments via lateral entry has successfully been introduced again. India has no shortage of skilled talent. There is a need to tap that talent and put it in the right places. However, the mistakes of the past should not be repeated. The failure of the Industrial Management Pool, for example, was inevitable, given the way it was structured and introduced.
We must learn from that failure to ensure that such reforms can sustain their initial success. Several committees and commissions in the post-independence era were set up to provide recommendations and suggest reforms to absorb talent from outside the government. This question of lateral entry and inter-service mobility is intertwined with discussions on a need to create further specializations within the civil services as a part of overall administrative reforms.
Some analysis of the possible ramifications of this system also needs to be done. One concern is that with increased lateral entrants over time, the political leadership may end up creating a ‘divide’ which would hamper the morale of government officers. This fear is not entirely unfounded, as there has been frequent trampling of the authority of civil servants by politicians in power. Irrespective of which party has been in power, the desire for a “committed bureaucracy” was common.
A related concern is the misuse of this system to recruit politically indoctrinated individuals in the garb of recruiting specialists and experts. Such concerns should not be dismissed; rather, reforms should aim to address these. One way to avoid such misuse would be to give a constitutional body like the Union Public Services Commission (UPSC) the authority to conduct the recruitment process and have well-defined job requirements. This has been done in recent cases of appointment.
Also, the idea of ‘lateral exits’ has made advances, involving the reverse migration for all types of civil servants, for a limited period, to the private sector. At CUTS, we have had one such civil servant for three years, as allowed under government rules. Both were happy. Along with the lateral entry system, this should also be encouraged to help bridge the gap between the public and private sectors. Other than that, the armed forces offer a very good example of exit paths offered at various stages, rather than an officer or a soldier serving up to the age of 60. In most cases, nearly all early retirees get employed in the private or public sector in various capacities.
It would be in the best interest of India, its government and its people if administrative reforms are implemented with more rigour, so that we can infuse fresh blood in our administration to allow us to grow faster in our Amrit Kaal phase and achieve our goal of reaching $30 trillion in GDP by 2047 and becoming a developed country.
Shiksha Srivastava, formerly of CUTS, has contributed to this article.
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