Some years back you said that the IAS system has failed India. What was the context?

First, let's address my statement about the IAS failing the nation. After independence, the IAS succeeded the ICS as a homegrown response to support universal franchise democracy in a low-awareness society. In the 1950s to 70s, IAS officers were known for their competence, integrity, and commitment. However, this reputation has declined due to ineptitude, inefficiency, and corruption.

Currently, about 25% of IAS officers are either corrupt, incompetent, or inefficient. The middle 50% started well but have become complacent, while only the top 25% are truly delivering. Ideally, we need 75% to be effective. The problem lies in the wrong incentives—no rewards for good performance and no penalties for non-performance. Some officers blame politicians for their inability to deliver, but if IAS officers stood united, politicians wouldn't be able to manipulate them. The entire service has suffered because of this.

I believe the country still needs a generalist civil service, but the IAS needs significant reform and reinvention to achieve this.

What do you think should be the ideal way to reform the bureaucracy?

Reforming the IAS is a vast topic, but since you've raised it, I'll address some key areas: recruitment, career management, incentives for rewards--and penalties.

Currently, IAS officers are recruited between the ages of 25 and 32. No examination system can perfectly assess an individual's administrative calibre, character, and personality at this age. Mistakes in recruitment can lead to ineligible people being selected and eligible people being left out. These errors shouldn't be carried for 35 years without any avenue for course correction.

I suggest a two-level entry system: initial entry for those aged 25-35 and a second-tier entry for individuals aged 37-45. This isn't about lateral entry but about bringing in professionals from diverse fields like journalism, engineering, medicine, NGOs, entrepreneurship, and farming. Those who enter young should be evaluated after 15 years, with one-third progressing and one-third being replaced by fresh entrants. This institutionalised lateral entry and exit system would help reform the IAS effectively.

Do you agree with economist Sanjeev Sanyal's view that it's a waste of youth to keep trying to crack the IAS exam multiple times and that they should aspire to be entrepreneurs instead?

Yes and no. India needs a diverse range of professionals, including entrepreneurs, corporate executives, NGOs, farmers, journalists, and IAS officers. I agree with Sanyal's diagnosis but not his remedy. The IAS system often leads to a tunnel vision where candidates keep trying until they exhaust their chances, succumbing to the sunk-cost fallacy. Instead of blaming candidates, we should reform the recruitment system by limiting the number of attempts. Currently, candidates get six chances, which might lead to mastering exam techniques rather than showcasing inherent capabilities. I propose limiting it to two or three chances, with additional attempts for scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, and OBCs. This would encourage candidates to explore other opportunities and prevent them from viewing civil service exam failure as a life failure. Reforming the recruitment system is simpler than overhauling the entire bureaucracy and would naturally lead youth to consider better alternatives.

You also mentioned in the book that you took part in a student protest at IIT Kanpur when the-then US ambassador to India was visiting. So, how do you draw parallels with the current wave of campus protests where university students are protesting the Israel-Gaza conflict? Do you see a future where universities will increasingly feel the heat of geopolitical conflict in their campuses?

Universities cannot be immune. I think students should be politically aware and at that stage in life, they should be free and willing to protest if they want to. But it should not also be the case that they use the campus and protests actually vitiate the academic atmosphere of a university. In a university, a seat of learning, you learn in a classroom and also learn outside. You learn through protests. But protests should not be the mainstream activity of any university. You know, I was at Yale teaching last fall, and I saw on either side of the street, one side, pro-Israel, one side, pro-Gaza, pro-Hamas. And they were protesting, but they were not inimical towards each other. But what we are seeing, in Columbia University, University of California, and some of the campuses, is that things are turning violent, which is very inadvisable.

Why were you apprehensive about writing this book on your journey as a public servant?

As I wrote in the preface, civil service memoirs are a very crowded genre with varying quality. The standout books have intertwined the office's experience with the political and economic situation of the time, and I wasn't sure I could match that caliber. I joined the IAS in 1972, a different era with a different context, and I wasn't sure today's youngsters would relate. Additionally, I hadn't maintained a diary, so recalling 50 years of experiences is risky. I began writing during the COVID lull, starting as notes to myself, which evolved into a book. My target readers are youngsters in the private sector, particularly young IAS officers and aspiring civil servants. I wondered whether they would find value in my story, so that's why I had misgivings. But I'm still waiting for the judgment!

On a lighter note, your profuse comments in the book on IAS coaching assistance could well end up as an endorsement for Rau's IAS Study Circle!

Unfortunately, the original Rau is no more, but some others are running the show in his name.

But they can always claim the legacy...

Yeah! They've got many toppers earlier on, but I don't know how they are doing now because civil service training institutions have mushroomed all over the country.

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