India’s tiny declaration of independence


Modi celebrates Civil Services Day. PHOTO/Virendra Singh Gosain/Hindustan Times/Getty Images

Opening up the civil service would transform government.

It was the most carefully examined little square of newsprint in recent Indian history. Last week, a small job ad appeared on the inside pages of some newspapers looking for candidates for the post of “joint secretary” in the Indian government. Within a few hours, the ad had gone viral: Opposition politicians had weighed in, Twitter was agog and hundreds of thousands of 40ish Indians wondered if they had one last, unexpected opportunity to make their parents proud.

Anyone unfamiliar with the Indian state would have been mystified by the uproar. After all, just 10 positions were being advertised, and successful applicants would get a three-year contract — at government salaries. What was the big deal?

Indians, on the other hand, immediately recognized that in opening up the ranks of the civil service to qualified outsiders, one of their country’s stoutest walls had been breached. India has the most closed and hierarchical government of any major democracy. In fact, India’s bureaucracy is more removed from its people than those in many authoritarian countries. Our politicians may get all the attention, but everyone knows that mid-level bureaucrats such as joint secretaries — there are about 350 of them in all — are India’s real policy-makers.

A tiny cadre of generalists, known as the Indian Administrative Service, currently monopolizes these posts. Members of the IAS are selected in their 20s, after a fiendishly difficult entrance examination. In 2016, 1.1 million people sat for the first stage of the selection process; all knew that only 180 of them would make it into the service. Success is about as likely as a tossed nickel landing on its edge. You have better odds of becoming an astronaut if you apply to NASA. Ten times better, in fact.

But, if you make it through the exam, you are guaranteed to be one of India’s rulers for life. Constitutionally, you can’t be fired without a time-consuming and troublesome legal process. At most, elected politicians can transfer you from one post to another.

Before your 30th birthday, you’ll be given an Indian district to run, answerable to no local politician or council, and with near-absolute power over millions of people. You’ll collect their taxes, sit in judgment over their land disputes, control the local police and disburse pensions and scholarships and welfare. You’ll travel everywhere with a retinue of junior officials and favor-seekers, live in the nicest house in the district and be the guest of honor at every social function. Unsurprisingly, after awhile it can become quite hard to remember that you are, after all, just another public servant. In fact, you might begin to suspect you are a superior breed of human.

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