The Narendra Modi sarkar seems to have let loose a hornet in the cloisters of Indian bureaucracy by proposing lateral entry of outside experts in senior positions. Surprising because in 2015, the minister of state in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) Jitendra Singh had informed Parliament that there was no move for lateral entry into the civil service. But, as we know, the Modi sarkar clearly is not averse to changing its stance if it can breathe some fresh air into the ossified strata of babudom. Not surprisingly, babus are feeling that their beloved bastion may be facing a fresh breach.
Obviously, the question of lateral entry into the civil services is an old one, and bitterly disputed. Babus have stoutly resisted such attempts by the government, and largely succeeded in keeping the outsiders at bay. Though there have been instances of lateral entry in the government in nearly every government at the Centre, these are individual entries at the behest of individuals than as part of a formal policy. The first concerted attempt was way back in 1959 when, feeling the need to bring in private sector specialists into some positions, the government set up the Industrial Management Pool (IMP). The objective was to hire talent to fill middle and high-level positions. This programme introduced to the nation such high priests of the public sector as V. Krishnamurthy (Sail, Bhel and Maruti), Prakash Lal Tandon (State Trading Corporation of India, Punjab National Bank and the National Council of Applied Economic Research) and technocrat Lovraj Kumar (secretary, petroleum ministry) among others. Naturally there was a push back from the babus who saw their turf being stolen, and the programme was finally ended in 1973.
Since then, technocrats have been brought in from time to time, mostly as economists — I.G. Patel, L.K. Jha (former RBI governors), Montek Singh Ahluwalia (erstwhile Planning Commission) et al — scientists (Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam), engineers (K.C.R. Chari, Mantosh Sondhi, S. Varadarajan, K.P.P. Nambiar) and visionary entrepreneurs (Sam Pitroda). They blazed a largely individual trail of success, which got swamped under the sheer numbers of the civil service officials they were surrounded with.
And that’s how it has been, until now. The present proposal to introduce lateral entry is probably spurred by the department of personnel and training (DoPT) report, which highlights a serious shortage of officials, specially at the mid-level. Clearly increasing the annual intake of officers in the civil service exams, from 55 in 1998 to 180 in 2015 has not made much of an impact. Even now, the Modi sarkar is stepping carefully so as not to offend the eggshell egos of the powerful IAS lobby. The proposal suggests some 40 lateral entries at the joint-secretary level. More significantly, the proposal apparently has the backing of the Niti Aayog. Earlier too, the Sixth Pay Commission and the Second Administrative Reforms Commission have strongly recommended lateral entry. The era of the generalist administrator, they believe, needs to be overhauled in today’s context, which increasingly requires domain expertise in most branches of governance.
But despite such consensus (outside the bureaucracy, of course) the proposal will need to be carefully shepherded through babu opposition to see the light of day. Its passage through the system will be keenly watched by babus and non-babus alike....