The Indian Bureaucracy – Foundation, Functioning and the Challenges Ahead – Part I

The Indian Bureaucracy – Foundation, Functioning and the Challenges Ahead – An Insider’s View – Part I


Bureaucracy is a misunderstood term in India and its role and functions subject to misinterpretation even after over two centuries of its formation under the aegis of the British East India Company (EIC) during 1773-1786 and consolidation with the enactment of the Indian Councils Act in 1861 and uninterrupted functioning. While ‘Bureau’ literally means ‘a desk’ or a department of public service, the word ‘Cracy’  is derived from the Greek word ‘ Kratein’ means ‘ govern’ and together ‘bureaucracy’ means a system in which the business of government is carried on in departments, each under the control of a chief. The word does not lend itself to easy translation into Indian languages as for instance, its Hindi translation ‘Naukar Shahi’ does not carry the implication of the ‘bureau’ or the department which forms the core of the system of governance; and the word ‘Shahi’ meaning Rule is however appropriate as it conveys the key role of officials in governance. Though ‘naukar’ meaning ‘ servants’ followed by ‘ Shahi’ seem unreal in a democracy. The words ‘babu’ and ‘babudom’ often used in media to denote the State officials – high and low and the latter for the ‘ bureaucracy’ are clear “abusage” and pejorative, calculated to belittle the crucial role of the officials and the departments in functioning of the  state. These two words present an altogether false image of the role of bureaucracy – a situation, the political class seems to enjoy. It also betrays a lack of sense of history and the understanding other cultures. Far from being pejorative , ‘Babu’ was and still a honorific way of addressing a gentleman of standing in society in social intercourse in Eastern India and was thus adopted by the colonial government in official correspondence with the Indian gentry and especially with ‘ Zamindars and educated Indians’ in areas under Bengal Presidency which till 1912 included apart from Bengal proper, Bihar, Odisha; and Hindu Officials other than those borne in the I.C.S were notified with a prefix ‘Babu’ in official gazette. Most certainly because of the visible presence of Bengali Hindus in the government services in the early colonial period, it became a generic term to refer to the ‘official class’ as a whole, and grabbed by the media to use it in a pejorative sense unaware of the damage it has since caused to the image of the main instrument of governance and the morale of the higher civil servants.


This suggests the need for a clear understanding of the term Civil Service, originally named Civil to distinguish it from military service, its Oxford Dictionary meaning is “all-non-military and non judicial branches of State administration”, that is , all posts which are borne on the civil side of the budget. In a quasi federal system of government that we have in India, such posts borne under the budget of the state governments constitute the ‘State Civil Service’ as distinct from the civil Service under the Union government. Together, these cadres – Central and State constitute the Civil Service in India. The implications of the words  ‘all posts’ need some clarification as it literally means ‘ all’ inclusive of posts under Groups A, B, C and D, both at the Centre and the State governments and the 3 All India Services viz IAS, IPS, IFS (Indian Forest Service) which are common to the Centre and the States. From this it would be clear that the UPSC conducts annually an Examination for recruitment only to services under the Union government. There is yet a related question – recruitment for what level of Civil Service, to which the answer would be – for recruitment to the ‘Higher Civil Service’ or the ‘Elite Bureaucracy’, as these cadres are termed by the Government of Singapore. This is because the entry point posts borne under the various cadres, designated Services are in the Top Grade and career progression of officials thus recruited on the basis of an open competitive examination is so worked out as to enable them to reach highest levels in the Central government in their respective spheres and thereby participate in not only executing or supervising implementation of State-laws and direction but also formulation of policies, budget and taxation measures, project preparation and evaluation. This discussion therefore is confined to the challenges being faced by the higher Central Civil Service, though some of the thoughts might as well be relevant to the State Civil Services; and a proper way to contextualise the subject is to refer to the OECD (Organisation of European Cooperation and Development) definition1  of the ‘higher civil service’ in a modern democratic state outlining its functions and responsibilities as quoted below:

[1] “A structured and recognized system of personnel for the higher non-political positions in government. It is a career civil service providing people to be competitively appointed to functions that cover policy advice, operational delivery or corporate service delivery. The service is centrally managed through appropriate institutions and procedures, in order to provide stability and professionalism of the core group of senior civil servants, but also allowing the necessary flexibility to match changes in the composition of Government by using appropriate due processes.”

This definition is applicable to All India Services, Indian Foreign Service and all Group ‘A’ services and to a lesser extent to Group ‘B’ services covered under the annual examination conducted by the UPSC for recruitment to these cadres under the Union Government. The point that one must note is the ‘Leadership’ role assigned to these cadres from the very beginning which presupposes cultivation of certain values and traits, skills and levels of efficiency and appreciation of state policies, laws , rules & procedures and public duty by the SCS officials considered as ‘ Qualification requirements’ for holding senior position; and these professional demands on an individual members would continue to rise as one moved up in the hierarchy.


The way the civil service of any State responds to the challenges of governance is very substantially conditioned by the nature of the state and the government of which Civil Service is a part and derives its role and functions.  This relationship is “Symbiotic” as for example in Myanmar, where the constitution allows Army to have 25% of seats in the Legislature, a share of top posts in crucial Ministries of Home, Defence and Foreign affairs and even district civil administration, the civil service has to occasionally play a second fiddle to the Army authorities; and the situation that obtain in Pakistan is about the same where due to the special position of the Army in the government, the institution of the District Magistrate & Collector that it inherited in 1947 had been replaced by an amorphous“ District Management Group”(DMG), that resulted in an emasculated administration not dissimilar from the one existing in Myanmar. This is altogether different than the ethos that one will find in the role and functioning of the civil service in India, a modern democratic nation state. It is to be noted that Pakistan and Myanmar till 1935 were constituent units of British India and shared the same system of law and governance, founded on the British ‘common law’, principles of law and jurisprudence such as The Rule of Law and equality before Law, a common criminal law, separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial wings, scope for recognition of ‘Procedural Rights’ of citizens as basic to application of laws and all administrative laws affecting the lives of citizens. To these must be added a permanent “apolitical” civil service which is a pre-condition for a “Parliamentary Democracy”, because a party in power might lose majority before its term ends and a complete absence of any political role of the armed forces in governance. These are the redeeming features of a modern state.

The founding fathers of the Indian constitution retained these abiding features of the administrative and the legal system it inherited under Article 372 of the constitution while laying the foundation of a democratic nation state with strong ‘ quasi-federal’ features and provided for fundamental rights and duties of citizens under the constitution. Since both Pakistan and Myanmar fell under long spells of military rule, they are still a long way from developing a modern democratic state with the basic features mentioned above that India has largely succeeded. This point is critical for understanding why expectations from the civil service are high in all democracies like India. This was underscored by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose in his presidential address at the Haripura session of the All India Congress Committee (AICC) on 19th Feb 1938 in the following words:

“In every country Ministers come and go but the steel frame of the permanent services remains. It is the permanent services who really rule in every country’. The import of this statement is the reality that in a modern state, the laws confer powers and responsibilities on civil servants, exercisable by them in their own right by application of their administrative and judicial minds without fear or favour and for such functions discharged, the civil servants are answerable to the designated authorities only. This really means accountability to the legislature and the courts”.