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Administrative Services as a Career Option for IITians


While many of our arguments against brain drain as one of the worst plagues of higher technical education seem to have lost their appeal in the age of globalization, one hears voices of discontent about a special kind of brain drain in the field today. The number of IIT graduates branching out into administrative services has seen a noticeable increase in the last few years. There is a perception that the primary goal of institutes of higher learning such as the IITs is to contribute to the overall scientific and technological development of the country while another associates a tangible advantage with the deployment of the technically equipped in the administrative sector.

In an effort to understand/define our attitude to this phenomenon, we invited two of our colleagues to present their points of view on the issue of Administrative Services as a Career Option for the IITians.

Though a certain opprobrium is associated with the word `bureaucracy', yet it is an institution indispensable to modern government. The BBC serial Yes Minister was an excellent exercise in revealing and capturing the soulless and self-serving nature of bureaucracy, The Indian Civil Service (ICS) which had its genesis in the untrained, underpaid and greedy underwriters of the East India Company, grew to become the `steel frame' of the British Raj, and gave way to today's Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and other all-India and central services. The civil service has always attracted the best in the country. The members, recruited after a fair and competitive examination (much like our JEE), undergo an intensive training in revenue management, legal procedure, and community administration. It is a formidable institution, with excellent service conditions. Its members control virtually all levers of administrative power, enjoy high remuneration (the best in the government sector), immense prestige and status. While defending the constitutional guarantees to civil servants, Sardar Patel told the Constituent Assembly, "I am speaking with a sense of heavy responsibility and I must confess that in point of patriotism, in point of loyalty, in point of sincerity and in point of ability, you cannot have a substitute."

In the last few decades, the civil service has lost some of its shine, and a sense of disenchantment has set in. However, the debate on whether the civil services should be a career option for young people today is marred by a myopic view of the opportunities it provides for career advancement, for a fulfilling life, and the capacity to carry out the benevolent functions that were once associated with it. Primarily, two reasons are advanced why a career in the civil service should be shunned. Firstly, that it epitomises a degenerate, decadent and corrupt system, so anyone who enters this service will naturally succumb to its faults. And secondly, that individual personality and creativity have no place in the service and so, it is bound to lead to a dull, repetitive, and alienated working life. As for corruption, my argument is that the civil service is only a microcosm of the society we live in; corruption is not unique to the civil service. And in any case, acts of corruption are matters of personal choice. There are several examples of honest and upright officers in the civil service, some have even become media celebrities for confronting corruption. The creativity argument is a basic criticism about a wooden bureaucracy made since the time of Lord Curzon and has often been repeated. In my view, it is meaningless to blame the perceived nature of the job: a truly creative person is capable of leaving the imprint of his personality on the most mundane chore. Besides, the vast array of sectors that a civil servant handles is unmatched by any other in our society.

In the specific context of the IITs or engineering graduates, it is sometimes asserted that the wealth of talent and skill, carefully nurtured, is `wasted' in the civil services, that these can be manned by `lesser mortals' or the `generalists'. This argument has further gained ground as the number of engineering graduates who qualify for the services has gradually increased, now accounting for more than 40 per cent of the recruits, with IIT graduates securing very high positions in the entry examinations. It seems odd to me that a service that is highly valued in terms of the potential contribution it can make to the management and governance of the country, should be considered inappropriate for the skilled and the talented. I would think it is here that their services would be required the most for the greater common good.

"It seems odd to me that a service that is highly valued in terms of the potential contribution it can make to the management and governance of the country, should be considered inappropriate for the skilled and the talented. "

Further, the civil service is not merely the preserve of the `generalist'. Governance today is a complex matter. In any case, civil servants are not only responsible for maintaining law and order or collecting revenue, they also head scientific and technical departments. The expansion in the duties of the government, more so since the independence, makes it imperative that the civil services are manned by people with calibre. After all, the standard of administration depends on the people appointed to these very responsible posts. It might even be said (without being flippant) that it is the duty of talented young persons to serve the country.

It is true that rather than a service motive, some show a preference for the civil service charmed by the flashing red light on the official white ambassador cars, some might even think of it as a haven for the indolent and the status quoist, and thus wish to be a part of it. Yet it is also a place for the dedicated workaholic, the reformer, the man of ideas, the man who wants to replace red-tape with flexibility and initiative (qualities we cherish at IIT Kanpur). It is not fair to assume that individual motivations to opt for the civil services are always malevolent. There are several examples of civil servants who valiantly crossed seemingly insurmountable hurdles, sometimes at a great cost to their personal lives, and contributed to social development or sought to clean up the system. A few names that readily spring to mind are K.J. Alphons, Arun Bhatia, Keshav Verma, and S.R. Rao. Civil service activism is now a reality. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that civil service provides possibly the best platform for activism.

Moreover, since the recruits enter the services in their mid-20s, they can even choose to opt out after serving for a few years, as indeed some do. The wide and varied experience gained as a result of their postings to a diverse variety of jobs stands them in good stead in finding employment opportunities not only in large corporations, but also if they choose, in the voluntary sector, or even in electoral politics. Civil servants work in various capacities as legal representatives of the government, implementing programmes of the popularly elected governments as heads of district administration to jobs at the United Nations and the World Bank, formulating policies which touch the lives of millions of people across the globe. So far, no civil servant has complained that he `wasted' his time while in service, whatever other misgivings he might have.

The apparent intellectual disdain of the civil services is perhaps caused by some of our own insecurities, especially in institutions of higher learning where entry into the civil services is thought of as `brain in a drain' as opposed to `brain drain'. The former is worse as the student is `lost' within the country! Fortunately, this is not the case at IIT Kanpur. An open and unconstrained atmosphere here encourages the students to decide their own future.

The need of the hour is the bold, fearless, independent, skilled and competent civil servant. In providing competent civil servants to the country, centres of excellence such as the IITs are only performing their task of nationbuilding. As a result, the brilliant record of IIT Kanpur graduates in gaining entry to the civil services has only enhanced the prestige of the Institute.

Munmun Jha
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur
Kanpur - 208016

How suited is an administrative career for a graduate of IIT Kanpur? This question is best answered by considering what qualities our graduates are supposed to possess, and also what an administrative career in India requires. The Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) endeavours to select 18 year olds with superior analytical abilities, along with a good knowledge of 10+2 Physics, Chemistry, and Mathematics. The JEE is tailored to provide challenging problems, most of which require some independent thought for solution in a timely manner. Out of the successful JEE candidates, generally those with better All India Ranks come to IIT Kanpur. At the Institute, the UG curriculum aims to hone the problem solving abilities, and to provide a solid foundation in state-of-the-art engineering and science education. Our UG students take numerous courses, most of which demand initiative, planning, independent thought, and resourcefulness in carrying out the assignments and projects, and in passing the examinations. It may be argued that these youngsters are not very good at time-management, but after facing the incessant and demanding schedules of quizzes, examinations, assignment and project deadlines for four years, they graduate with a healthy respect for time. The ability to solve problems in a time-bound manner sets our students apart in the job market. Despite the increasing difficulties in the recent years, a high level of undergraduate education has been maintained, which is perhaps the best in the country.

"It appears that only a miniscule fraction of the civil service aspirants are attracted to the career because they genuinely think that they can make a difference."

Engineering and science education in itself demands the following qualities in a student: honesty, objectivity, creativity, and diligence. Furthermore, IIT Kanpur has traditionally taken pride in imparting the technical education in a very open and democratic fashion, which encourages a student to ask questions. A lecture (or tutorial) is not considered complete until the teacher is able to remove the fundamental doubts of a student. Upto a certain extent, it can be argued that such a transparent and democratic academic environment instills the courage to question the judgement and knowledge of one's superiors, which in turn, keeps the teachers on their toes in the classroom.

How useful are the qualities of creativity, honesty, objectivity, diligence, independence of thought, respect for time, and the courage to question the wisdom of superiors in an administrative career in India? Ideally, a developing country such as India needs precisely these same qualities in its administrators. Combined with a good knowledge of science and engineering, such skills may even be considered best suited for an administrative career. However, the ground reality is quite the opposite. The administrative set up in India is outdated. The bureaucracy of the colonial era has, by and large, survived. The administrative structure was not reformed after the independence to suit the needs of the young republic. Moreover, the checks and balances were gradually removed yielding to a lack of accountability and corruption. Since democratic ideals of the founders are yet to be implemented at the grassroot level, there is no public demand that the administrative set up be overhauled. The latter is primarily due to the fact that a large majority of the populace is deprived of basic education, and thus the people are largely unable to demand their fundamental rights through democratic means. Thus ignorance of the public, which had facilitated colonial rule, now facilitates the rule by inefficient and corrupt political class. One even wonders whether there is a vested interest in maintaining the status quo! Whatever be the reasons for it, the administrative machinery, instead of being a dynamic engine of economic growth and social development, has remained a puppet in the hands of its political masters. The results are quite obvious. It is a prevalent belief that a civil servant who displays independence of thought, honesty, and courage to question his superiors is least likely to advance in the administrative hierarchy. The prevailing culture of sycophancy quickly stifles creativity and objectivity. In this scenario, it is difficult to imagine of what benefit an engineering/science education can be for an administrator. A significant number of IIT Kanpur graduates have passed - indeed topped - the Civil Services Entrance examinations in the past several decades. How many of them have applied their special skills and knowledge to offer a solution to the basic problems of the country? It appears that only a miniscule fraction of the civil service aspirants are attracted to the career because they genuinely think that they can make a difference. Most of the aspirants have in mind the proximity to power, the VIP status, and the illegitimate gains that accrue from the unchecked power and the prevailing lack of accountability. Unless these be the career objectives, the present administrative services are definitely not an avenue of professional advancement for a young engineer or scientist.

Ashish Tewari
Department of Aerospace Engineering
Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur
Kanpur - 208016

The viewpoints have been taken from IIT Kanpur website.

Copyright belongs to the author of the articles/views. Copyright DOES NOT belong to IAS Centre/Priyatu Mandal.



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