[Yojana Archives] Indian Bureaucracy: A Historical Perspective

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August 2021: Public Administration


  • Bureaucracy is the backbone of the administrative machinery of the country which forms the permanent executive branch of the government.
  • From a reading of the historical literature, public administration in India can be traced back to the manuscripts of Arthashasthra written by Kautilya.
  • In the next major phase, Bharat witnessed the rule of the Guptas also termed by many historians as the ‘Golden Age.’
  • The discussion on ‘Historical Perspectives on Indian Bureaucracy’ begins with an overview of the history of civil services in India.

What are Civil Services?

  • The Civil Services refer to the career civil servants who are the permanent executive branch of the Republic of India.
  • Elected cabinet ministers determine policy, and civil servants carry it out.

If humans as a species are made to survive independently, then why administer them?  What would be the need for public administration? Does the public need to be administered or the administers are needed for the sustenance of public and society, at large? Is it merely about managing resources or it involves greater functioning of the systems?

Why do we need Civil Services?

  • In the Indian context, in society as vast and heterogeneous, equitable distribution of resources and services is the key to the prosperity of all.
  • Gandhiji’s Talisman, ‘Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man [woman] whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him [her]’ gives the necessary direction to this discussion.
  • Public administration is a system to ensure that these steps are contemplated and implemented for the growth, well-being, and prosperity of all including that poorest face.

History of the Civil Services in India

  • The original conception of the ‘civil service’ can be traced back to the Royal Charters which gave the East India Company, the powers to raise a cadre of troops – for both civilian and military purposes.
  • The introduction of competitive exams in the mid-1800s was an important development which gave primacy to merit-based appointment as opposed to the privilege-based appointment through a referral system.
  • The commissions that were set up in reforming the public services – from the Macaulay Committee to the Islington Committee to the Lee Commission, strongly suggested that the Statutory Public Service Commission be brought into force.
  • During the Constituent Assembly Debates (CAD), there were detailed discussions and arguments about the continuity, the role and loyalty of Indian civil servants.
  • Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel was single-handedly responsible for setting up the Civil Services in Independent India and is, therefore, rightly called the ‘Iron Man of India’.

Note: We shall not dive deeper into the evolution of Civil Services in India. That is better learnt in your Modern History Sources

Early Indians in the Civil Service

  • The first Indian to clear the ICS exam was Satyendra Nath Tagore in the year 1864.
  • It is important to remember that until 1922 post the Montagu Chelmsford Reforms, the exam was conducted only in London, which greatly restricted the access of Indians to clear the examination.
  • However, there was a fair share of Indians who started clearing the exams.
  • The notable names being Bihari Lal Gupta and Romesh Chandra Dutt, who later became the President of the Indian National Congress in 1899 and wrote the pioneering book on ‘The Economic History of India ‘.
  • Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose did not join the Indian civil service even after clearing the exam that sheds light on the strong ideological stance Bose took during the freedom struggle.
  • Sir Benegal Narasinga Rau was another eminent personality among the ICS who was appointed as the Constitutional Advisor on 1st July 1946 over a year before India became independent. Later, he became the first judge of the International Court of Justice from India.
  • Sukumar Sen, India’s first Chief Election Commissioner, who later went on to become Sudan’s first Chief Election Commissioner as well, was one such hero.

Constitution and the Civil Services

  • Articles 310, 311, and 312 of the Indian Constitution pertain to Services under the Union and State.
  • Article 310 enshrines that civil servant of the Union and All-India Services are appointed by the President of India and civil servants at the State level are appointed by the Governor of the State.
  • They continue to hold office as per the pleasure of the President and Governor, respectively. Therefore, they have the security of tenure.
  • Article 311 mentions the procedures and conditions for removal, dismissal from service, and reduction in rank, thus ensuring due process of law. This ensures that civil servants are protected from political interference and undue harassment.
  • Article 312 lays down the All-India Services of India. The Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) and the State Public Service Commissions are constitutional bodies.

Related Information

  • Every year April 21 is ‘Civil Services Day’ to call on civil servants to renew their dedication and commitment to public service and excellence in work.’
  • On this day, the Prime Minister’s Excellence Awards are given to recognize and acknowledge outstanding work done by Districts/ Organizations of the Central and State Governments for outcome-oriented performance.

Challenges and Reforms in the Civil Service

  • Post-independence, India adopted the socialist-welfare model of development which increased the scope of government’s interference in all key sectors of the economy.
  • Some of the fundamental tenets of a good bureaucracy are political neutrality, objectivity in decision-making, empathy, equity, etc. As an officer appointed to serve the public, one cannot take any political affiliation or alignment but do one’s work objectively and impartially.
  • Therein, constitutionalism matters because every civil servant must be guided by the letter and spirit of our Constitution.
  • Ethics in public administration are important because civil servants are often holding offices that give them a lot of power and authority. Therefore, an officer’s moral compass is key for good governance.

Reforms in the CS

  • Various committees over the years have suggested changes and improvements to the civil services regarding recruitment, mid-career training, capacity-building, the impetus for specialisation, efficiency, accountability, etc.
  • The Second Administrative Reforms Commission (headed by Veerappa Moily) discussed the shortcomings and suggests improvements regarding recruitment, performance, and result-oriented bureaucracy.
  • In the last decade, several reforms have been undertaken.
  • Be it the introduction of lateral entry to have expert consultants at the Joint Secretary level, the regular training programmes of training at various levels for career civil servants and a record of performance evaluation.

Debate over lateral entry

  • A more recent debate about the bureaucracy, especially the administrative service, is about ‘generalists’ versus ‘specialists’.
  • The role of an administrator is to ensure fair, equitable, and efficient administration of her/his unit, right from the sub-division, district and up to various departments and Ministries at the State and Central levels.
  • Therefore, a broad understanding of the various issues, departments, roles and responsibilities is sine qua non for quick and Effective redressal of public grievances.
  • So an officer who can effectively handle all areas of administration and policy from health to agriculture to defence, and ensure that work is done at levels junior to oneself needs to be one with ‘general skills’, although some say that the ability to administer well is in itself is a unique skill.

However, specialization may be considered higher up in the ladder based on the officer’s qualifications, interests and work experience depending upon the needs and exigencies at that time.

As technology develops and the socioeconomic changes transform India, we need to ensure that these changes do not outpace policy reform.


  • Many fresh graduates from HTs, IIMs, NLUs and other professionals like doctors, chartered accountants, etc. appear for the UPSC Civil Services every year.
  • This has brought fresh energy and ideas into the bureaucracy. They bring with them their professional expertise adding richly to public administration.
  • Therefore, more and more young professionals from varied socio-economic and academic backgrounds need to enter the civil services to enrich it further and take part in nation-building.
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