Life of an IFS officer: An anonymous in-service officer talks it out


These are excerpts from an AMA (Ask me anything) session at Reddit held about three years ago (2012). The IFS officer kept his identity a secret (for it’ was a small cohort of 800 odd servicemen, everyone knew everyone and he wanted to be at ease!)

He had given a proof of his identity to the mods at Reddit so be assured over the veracity of the claims made.

Here are some of the choicest questions from the sessions which would give you an honest sneakpeak into the life and times of an IFS officer:

#1. How much you earn in salary and above the table?

Check out the Sixth Pay Commission figures. That’s what we earn. When we are posted abroad, there is a Cost of Living Allowance, but that’s not much to write home about. Any decent IT worker earns more than civil servants. IFS officers don’t get much, if any, money under the table. Our property returns are now online on the Ministry website. Feel free to take a look.

In a developed country, it would be somewhere around $3000 at the junior IFS level (Second Secretary) and around $8000 for the senior-most IFS officer (Ambassador) in the Embassy. These are approximate figures. These numbers are based on a Cost of Living Index prepared and updated by the UN. As you can see, these are decent allowances, but nothing special. Please do remember that we don’t get cars or servants or all sorts of other freebies that people imagine us to be getting.

#2. What kind of cultural training do you need to undergo before placement in a new country? How does it affect family?

Each IFS officer learns one foreign language before he/she is confirmed into the service. This training is provided in the country where the language is spoken. Beyond this, there is no formal cultural training. The Foreign Service Institute in Delhi has some training courses for young inductees on diplomatic etiquette etc. but it is quite basic.

Family life is hard. Most of the younger officers are married to highly qualified spouses who want to work. It isn’t always possible. Some countries don’t allow diplomatic spouses to work, some allow but the specific jobs are hard to find, and some have barriers like language.

#3. How corrupted is Government Service? How best can we eliminate it?

IFS is not very corrupt. Perhaps because we don’t have much political interference, but mostly because we don’t have huge budgets and spending programmes controlled by the Ministry. To eliminate corruption, we need to have more transparency. I wish people would use the RTI more, and use it more effectively. We also need to cut down the government size at the lower levels (looking at you, Railways) and increase the numbers at the higher, executive levels.

The average District Magistrate or Police Superintendent is way too overworked. Even if he were 100% honest himself, the system is too heavy and too complicated for him to deliver great results. Once you have a lighter government, you can also afford to pay a living wage to such executive officers. But with millions of peons and assistants with little work and strong unions, you can’t pay the higher ups without increasing their pay as well. And that breaks the government coffers.

#4. China is said to be establishing very strong links with several sub-saharan countries to establish a stranglehold over their resources. Are we also planning/doing the same?

Our companies try to do what they can. ONGC (through OVL) is quite active. Some private companies too. But this is not a game in which we can compete with China. Their companies are government controlled and can execute projects at short notice with whatever money the government asks them to put in. Our system is very different. There are also reports of dissatisfaction with Chinese investment, because their infrastructure is aimed at their own projects and creates temporary jobs for Chinese immigrant labour for most part. Locals don’t get as much benefit as the headline figures of Chinese “investment” suggest.

#5. Tell about the worst story being “middle management” IFS civil servant

Some politicians are okay on their own, but their hangers-on are quite terrible – demanding that they be gives cars 24/7 when abroad and that their shopping bills be paid by the IFS officers accompanying them or that their bags be carried by the IFS officers. I have refused such demands. Many get pissed. Some have complained to my bosses. But I do my job well, and haven’t yet had to apologize for doing the right thing.

Senior IAS officers on foreign tours are the worst, in terms of the % of bad eggs they seem to have. Worse than politicians, because politicians often have local contacts who take care of their demands. IAS officers usually don’t, so they make demands of the Embassies, treating Embassies like their personal fiefdoms in the districts. It doesn’t work with me, but I know colleagues who have had to grin and bear it.

#6. Does anyone indulge in Insider trading and stuff considering you guys have access to certain info before the general public does?

I once invested in a company after meeting the CEO and being very impressed by him. The stock promptly tanked soon 🙂 I’ve been I index funds since. Can’t rule out insider trading by others but the information companies share with us isn’t always market moving.

#7. Is India really serious about a permanent seat in the UNSC? What are its chances given it has not signed the NPT?

We are serious, but we know that it will happen not because of our lobbying but because we are considered important enough in the international system. When that happens, we’ll get it. It is still important to lobby though, because if we don’t, then it is not going to come our way. NPT is a non issue at this point. Outside of some academicians, nobody really cares about it. World politics has moved on.

#8. Look East or Look West. Or both?

“Railway line ko cross karne se pehle hamesha dono taraf dekhein” 🙂 Look both ways, of course. Look everywhere. Then assign a buzzword to it to generate enthusiasm.

#9. Is there really a long term vision for India’s foreign policy? Please say yes. Really? What is our end game? How are we going to play ball with US and China especially?

We will deal with US and China both. We have to. There are issues on which India and China agree and work very closely together (e.g. climate change). Same goes for the US. Same for Russia and any other country. With the collapse of ideologically shaped foreign policies, countries now are much closer to the idea of interest-based foreign policies. You know the saying: no friends, only interests.

#10. If you have to choose between IASIPSIFS right now, what would be your preference? Please don’t be diplomatic(HAH!).

I would choose IFS again. The IAS/IPS have a very limited world view and a small arena of action for most of their careers. They also get to deal with the worst of the politicians, and they have to handle people in masses. I prefer interacting with smaller groups of people. I like international affairs, and I like to think in terms of “what does it mean for India” rather than “what does it mean for district ABC”.

The Q&A was picked up from this AMA @Reddit.
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By Root

Caretaker @civilsdaily

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