Pre-requisites for Excellence – What made the ICS the service it was?

Probir Sen IAS


Till as late as the ‘50s there were three organizations that Indians were proud of – The Indian Army, Air India and the Indian Civil Service. Men in the civil services delivered – from tents pitched in villages, to the great halls of North and South blocks, a quality of administration that could compete with any, anywhere in the world. Today when we are overwhelmed by cynicism and despair it may be useful to recall, what, in the civil services, made things work when they did.


Morale and motivation amongst members of the Indian Civil Services (ICS) till the ‘40s, could not have been higher. ‘To belong to the ICS was not simply a guarantee of a good and interesting job; it was also a combination of a calling and an honour’ (Morris Jones). ‘In the young civilian there was an entire absence of the carping and pining spirit of discontent ……. It is impossible for the civilian to have any misgiving concerning the dignity and importance of his work’. (Woodruff).


Entering a profession with ideals, exercising enormous power from the beginning, the young civilian, was also blessed by an extraordinary combination of trust and support from those above him. ‘This was perhaps the greatest of the ICS traditions …. Trust and a complete readiness to allow the junior man initiative, backing him up if his initiative should lead him into trouble’ (H. Tinker). A letter written then by a Commissioner to his District Magistrate sums it all up. ‘You will have a trying day tomorrow. You will be on the alert all day and will probably have a riot. But I have discussed all your arrangements and I approve of them. One embarrassment at least you shall be spared. I am going fishing’.


This trust between a junior and his senior was not confined to the districts. What Collectors enjoyed from Commissioners, Deputy Secretaries did from Secretaries, and Secretaries from Chief Secretaries. Total trust and the promise of support in case you fumbled or failed, generated enormous courage and initiative, making heroes of men. Its withdrawal converts them to cowering clerks, seeking shelter in the refuge of rules, finding sanctuary in the maintenance of the status quo.


Such trust naturally resulted in great independence. ‘He could afford to think for himself and say what he thought’. He displayed ‘a marked independence sometimes bordering on not unpleasant eccentricity, a tough-minded sense of reality, a pragmatic approach to problems, and the courage to disagree with superiors and to write sharp notes of dissent to Secretariat colleagues who were not always regarded with the greatest respect’ (R. Braibanti).


Intolerance of dissent, and regarding it as insubordination, is fatal to effective bureaucratic functioning, because the very purpose of papers moving from level to level, and laterally, is to invest decision making with the benefit of a variety of opinions. Absence of such variety reduces the basis of decisions to the intelligence, wisdom and exposure of a single mind, which mind is very often not even the best available.


After selection to the ICS, successful candidate was sent to Oxford or Cambridge. Finishing up at Oxbridge is a privilege that only the best had in the mother country, and the experience must have made good any deficiencies that the young civil servant may have felt, either in academic training, or in acquiring the social graces. It also provided that enduring bonds that only going to a common educational institution can provide.


This sense of belonging was continued in the training the probationer received in the district. Collectors who were to train young civil servants were handpicked. The Assistant Collector soon became a member of the Collector’s household and ‘seated on a comfortable sofa … plied with good tea and excellent homemade cake, the touchiness and arrogance so characteristic of the intelligent, inexperienced young prizewinner …. Would fall off like an old garment….’ (A.D. Gorwala).


Finally, the most importantly, there was almost total unanimity regarding the qualities that a good officer should possess.


‘What has to emerge is the picture of a man who gets through his files quickly because he wants to be out of doors and because he wastes no time on looking up the rules; who writes short decisive judgments because he is clear in his own mind where the right lies and does not seek to justify himself; who expects his subordinates to do their own work and trust them unless he has reason not to; who likes to get about hid district and see things for himself’. (P. Woodruff). It was an easy and confident way of doing things but there was nothing easy in the standards of probity expected. ‘The young imbibed standards, sometimes without even being told …. However awkward the circumstances, however grave the consequences to oneself….one did not lie. In all emergencies it was one’s duty to stand firm. However frightened one might feel; one did not show it. The throwing of one’s responsibility on one’s subordinates degraded one not only in the sight of one’s fellows but in one’s own eyes’. (A. D. Gorwala).


Pride of profession, trust, support, the tolerance and encouragement of dissent, a sense of camaraderie, and sharing of values, made civil servants an extraordinary group of persons producing extraordinary results. What needs to be reflected upon today is whether abandonment of these values and conventions of functioning is responsible for the state we are in, and whether it is beyond the realms of possibility to restore some, if not all of these.


It is not that the service today is without success stories. Many officers have carved out niches for themselves, or found tiny holy grails in implementing schemes. There is also throughout the refreshing river of public contact, and the love and gratitude that people lavish on you, for doing what is, after all, only your duty. This is what sustains. But this is not substitute for a system, which if it is good, does not depend on the extraordinary, but makes extraordinary men out of ordinary people.







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