Meet the IAS Officer Who Antagonised Both Indira Gandhi & Vajpayee

Ex-IAS Naresh Chandra Saxena talks about what’s wrong with IAS, offending two Prime Ministers & bureaucracy reforms.

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When Naresh Chandra Saxena topped the Civil Services Examination in 1964, he might not have predicted his long and prestigious career in the IAS. Retired as Secretary of Planning Commission, Saxena played an instrumental role in important policy reforms on hunger, forest rights, land reforms and education. He’s got an insider’s perspective on the problems which plague Indian bureaucracy, which has of late been making headlines with IAS officers resigning and speaking out against the system.

In his latest book, What Ails the IAS and Why it Fails to Deliver, he analyses the structural issues with civil services, peppered with personal anecdotes on how he antagonised Indira Gandhi and Vajpayee; the Bihar government's reluctance to spend money on development and how he was compelled to offer money to Odisha's Chief Minister to remove an archaic law.


‘Indira Gandhi Govt Punished Me, Sent Me to Afghanistan’

As Joint Secretary of Minorities Commission, NC Saxena studied the 1982 Meerut riots. When he visited Meerut, he found that a large number of Muslim women and children had been killed. He filed a report to the Home Ministry on the issue, only to be informed about a transfer order to Afghanistan. As Saxena says,

“As Joint Secretary, Minorities Commission, I studied the 1982 Meerut riots where I found that the police had killed a large number of innocent children and women, they just entered the building and started firing at them, but the government of India (Indira Gandhi’s govt) didn’t like the report, they thought it was very harsh and very frank and rather than acting on my report, they punished me, they sent me to kala pani, to Afghanistan.” (laughs)

What’s Wrong With IAS?

According to NC Saxena, the culture within the IAS needs to change, where Secretaries express interest in policy reforms, supported by the political establishment. He says,

“When I joined the service, my Chief Secretary said that the system looks after what is urgent, it ignores what is important. And somehow, that culture has continued in the state governments throughout, that is, what is urgent is what these politicians are putting pressure on you, transfers, posting etc or some scheme which is just started by the chief minister, otherwise all things remain as they are. Therefore, there is no capacity in the state government to look after what’s important.”

He also spoke of how the time of most IAS officers is taken up with transfers and posting, leaving them with no time to focus on working for the people.

“Once I spoke to a very competent officer in the central Indian state, I said these are the reforms you can do in the health sector, he said, ‘Sir, 90 percent of my time is spent in transfers and postings, where is the time to look at these issues?’”

Offering Money to Odisha CM to Change Law

When asked how Saxena himself had attempted to reform the IAS system, he spoke of an incident where despite multiple letters to the Odisha government, he was unable to get an archaic law changed. The law basically forbade tribal women in the state for keeping brooms at home. When the 'official' route didn't work, Saxena was forced to resort to unorthodox measures. Like promising more money to the Odisha Chief Minister, in his position in the Planning Commission. As he explains,

“Tribal women in Odisha being prosecuted for keeping brooms in their house, so ultimately, as I have described, when the chief minister came to the Planning Commission, I said, ‘Sir, I will give you 50 crore more, you change the law.’ And as soon as he left my room, he announced to the press, that yes, this is a very archaic law and this needs to be changed.”

Civil Servants or Politicians, Who’s In Charge?

The tussle between IAS officers and politicians has always been a factor in India's bureaucracy, so between the minister and the Secretary, where does the power lie? According to Saxena, secretaries have the opportunity to take interest in issues, which the politicians should encourage. He says,

“The politicians leave policy issues to the secretaries, they are interested in transfers, postings etc. So therefore, if a secretary takes interest in certain issues, the minister will just sanctify. Unfortunately, secretaries also don’t take an interest in these issues which will help the rural poor. It’s only when someone at the top, maybe in the GoI, maybe in the Planning Commission, they take interest and put pressure on the governments, then things change.”

When Bihar Govt Didn't Want to Spend Money

But what if the government doesn't want to spend money? Even if they have it? In a fascinating anecdote, Saxena talks of how the Bihar government under Lalu Prasad Yadav didn't want to spend money, for fear that it would be lost in corruption. He says,

“Bihar, as you know was ruled by Laluji and his wife, from 1990 to 2005. Now Mr Lalu Prasad Yadav thought that if they spent government money, because of bad procedures, it will all be eaten up by bureaucrats. So, as a strategy, the government decided, and this may be the only example in the world that a poorest state decides not to spend government money on development.”

So, what should an honest IAS officer in such a position do? Here's what Saxena did.

I was Secretary, Rural Development, and I persuaded the Secretary, Water to spend money on drinking water. But for two years, not a single paisa was taken by the government of Bihar for water. Ultimately, I wrote a strong letter to the Bihar government that IAS officers have totally succumbed to politicians. But in the book, as you see, I have apologised because I do realise now that if the political decision is not to spend money, then civil servants must abide by this.

What’s IAS’ Future?

With resignations of IAS officers becoming common, and growing concerns on the politicians overpowering the role of civil services, what does the future of IAS look like?

“First of all, IAS will definitely continue. If you look at the government of India, they want the IAS to be there, because that gives them the handle to control the states. These managerial reforms which I have suggested are apolitical in nature, after all, why should you not improve evaluation, why should you not ensure that the reports which come from the ground are authentic. If we start highlighting these issues, surely it will put pressure on the state government to take some action.”

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