April 9, 2024


Are Civil Services hamstringing India’s development?

The movie 12th Fail garnered some attention and positive reviews for its depiction of someone, in this case, a real-life IPS officer, Manoj Kumar Sharma, and his struggles to make it into the civil services. The civil services are coveted by lakhs of people in India as a means to a better way of life. The exams are tough and competitive.

There are probably many like Manoj Kumar who faced trials and tribulations before finally succeeding in the UPSC exams. Perhaps Sanjeev Sanyal isn’t a fan. He’s a member of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister. He described how lakhs of people spending years attempting the UPSC exams is a waste of youthful energy. Is he right? Would Indians be better off putting their energy into other aspirations to help the country’s development?


The civil services have come a long way since the days of the East India Company. It started the Covenanted Civil Services (CCS), where members had to sign covenants with the company’s board. After power was transferred to the British Crown, it was called the Imperial Civil Service and later the Indian Civil Service (ICS). In 1854, the Macaulay Committee recommended appointments to the service on a merit-based system.

Post-1885, ICS recruitment was done only through a competitive exam but was denied to Indians. It wasn’t until 1886 that the Aitchison Commission recommended Indians be employed in public service. In 1912, the Islington Commission suggested that 25% of the higher posts should be filled by Indians. The ICS exams began in 1922.

The Public Service Commission of India was established in 1926. Post-1939, the number of Indians in the service increased since there weren’t enough Europeans. After independence, the ICS became the Indian Administrative Service (IAS).

April 21 is National Civil Service Day to acknowledge the work of officers across various public service departments. Post-independence, India’s growth story has been quite remarkable and eventful. Literacy and life expectancy rates have improved, poverty has been reduced, and people have increased access to education, healthcare, and transportation. The civil service is seen as a key stakeholder in these developments.

It’s no wonder that lakhs of people dream of being a part of this continuing journey through the civil services. Getting there is no easy feat. Compared to the number of people who sit for the exams, only a handful get selected. For example, in 2021-22, only 833 candidates were selected or recommended for service out of over 11 lakh aspirants.

The demand is so high that it has spawned a large and lucrative private coaching apparatus and economy. Coaching institutes have cropped up across India with promises of glory and success.

Sanjeev Sanyal’s recent comments have reignited a debate on the role of Indian bureaucracy and civil services. The famed Indian red tape and bureaucracy has made a name for itself. Are they hindering India’s development? Is it still a prestigious and noble aspiration, or should we dream bigger?

VIEW: Need to move beyond it

To delve into Sanyal’s comments first, he doesn’t seem to be against the civil services or even the UPSC. He said appearing for one or two attempts is fine but doesn’t see the merit in someone spending their entire twenties on it. His argument is, why not put that effort into something else? One of the elements involved in cracking the exam is luck. You really can’t prepare for or manufacture that.

While there’s no doubt that civil services have contributed to India’s development story, it doesn’t negate the fact that they’ve faltered in satisfying and keeping up with a resurgent country. Among the common criticisms levelled against it is that the civil service is self-serving, elitist, and slow. Time and again, there are concerns about its ethical standards and integrity.

The civil service has become somewhat increasingly mythologised in popular culture. They’ve perpetuated a myth that a career in the civil services symbolises prestige and respect. While there’s nothing inherently wrong about dreaming of becoming an IAS or IPS officer, people need to be aware of the ground reality. Those interested in the development of the country can serve by choosing any profession they’re interested in, not necessarily just the narrow path of civil service.

COUNTERVIEW: It’s a necessary component

Serving the country in any developmental capacity should always be considered noble. That applies to the civil services. Sanyal’s criticisms seem anecdotal. The civil services provide those from aspirational districts in tier 2 and 3 cities a chance to serve the country and build a better life. They often do so without the resources or cultural capital that many in urban areas have.

From a pure work-life perspective, there aren’t many professions that give a person an opportunity to work at different levels of governance. Take district administration, for example. It provides a spectrum, from conducting elections to managing crop insurance to polio campaigns. Former bureaucrats have criticised Sanyal’s comments. Former IPS and IAS officers have spoken highly of the civil services while acknowledging their shortcomings.

Sanyal’s comments about “why not dream of becoming an Elon Musk or Mukesh Ambani” reek of elitism. Not everyone has the resources needed to become an entrepreneur. In most agrarian societies, the leap to entrepreneurship is tough, given the responsibilities toward families and pursuing an education. Taking risks isn’t feasible for everyone. Sanyal’s comments also seem to be stuck on an obsession with wealth creation. Why should civil service, or even public service through politics, not attract the best and brightest? That would also help in India’s development.

Reference Links:

  • Is India’s civil service out of joint? – ORF
  • ‘UPSC is a waste of time. Large parts of bureaucracy are dull and boring’: PM-EAC member Sanjeev Sanyal – Moneycontrol
  • Sanjeev Sanyal says UPSC is poverty of aspiration. But it’s more about desperation – The Print
  • Sanjeev Sanyal as WhatsApp uncle: Blaming Bengalis and UPSC aspirants – The Indian Express
  • I was an IAS officer for 36 yrs, not a dull moment. Sanjeev Sanyal got civil services wrong – The Print
  • Lateral Entry as a Catalyst for Transformation in India’s Governance – The Financial Express

What is your opinion on this?
(Only subscribers can participate in polls)

a) The civil service is hamstringing India’s development.

b) The civil service is supporting India’s development.


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