The British colonial administration in India bequeathed to its successors, along with their independence, a fully fitted out colonial state with an administrative machinery, the ‘steel frame’, which had curbed India’s striving for independence with iron hands.

In an inexplicable state of mind for which later generations found a name, ‘Stockholm syndrome’, the founding fathers fell in love with this apparatus of control, domination and subjugation and retained it lock, stock, and barrel. The new term of endearment for the fabled service, created in the very image of the mythical ICS, was IAS. It was expected to perform the feat that it’s precursors, the ICS, had been done for their colonial masters: hold the new country, with its wide diversity, together. They were supposed to advise their political masters at the centre and in the states, and help them steer the ship of the state.

Sardar Patel believed that “You will not have a united India if you do not have a good All-India Service which has independence to speak out its mind”.

To ensure that they were not lightly trifled with, Article 311, a politically self-denying provision was introduced to inure them from arbitrary punishments. The then government of India shared the belief of their colonial predecessors that deliverance could only be had at the hands of the District Magistrate and Collector. PM, CM and DM were the three forms of loco parentis in which the mai-baap sarkar of our democratic polity manifested itself.

The fears of the founding fathers about the threat to federalism seems to be coming true, but their faith in the service as the defenders of the idea has come undone. The unseemly incident in which the CM of West Bengal walked away with her Chief Secretary in tow, from a meeting convened by the Prime Minister to assess disaster caused by cyclone, has created some sort of an impasse. It was a situation no civil servant would like to be in: an IAS officer is bound in obedience to both the CM and the PM, but for a situation in which he has to choose to obey one and show willful disrespect to the other, there are no precedents. Anyone else would have agonised but the CS, WB, found it easy, because there is a general belief that all India Service officers in West Bengal, and many other states, are long used to behaving like party apparatchiks. What followed was even worse: the decision of the central government to recall an officer who had been granted an extension, a few days back, was churlishness of unthinkable proportions. As Stalin famously said, they are both worse. Instead of steering the ship of state away from choppy waters of state-centre confrontation together they have charted a collision course.

The Indian Administrative Service, consciously modelled itself after its more illustrious predecessors, the ICS, whom Philip Woodruff described as, “a ruling class, a class apart. They were hard working in a debilitating climate, incorruptible in a society riddled with bribery, celibate until middle age in a subcontinent which married at puberty. Above all they were intellectuals.”

Being an intellectual brought in its wake the responsibility to speak "truth to power", in the famous phrase of Julian Benda. It is a clear case where the IAS on both sides of the fence failed to speak truth to power they were serving, the independence to speak out their minds notwithstanding. The threat to federal structure, as always, seems to have been subordinated to personal career interests. (On this point those interested can see my The Rusted Steel Frame).


Ironically, at this very juncture the other article of the faith of our founding fathers, deliverance at the hands of the District Magistrate, has also been tested and found to be totally misplaced.

After the Bengal Deewani the East India Company began to fancy itself as a state. To make its unconscionable plundering look like a respectable vocation, Warren Hastings was tasked to produce a piece of machinery that English officials could operate and English opinion tolerate. Collector, the emblematic figure of British imperialism, the king pin in Hastings’ plan for the better administration of Bengal, was the answer. This instrumentality of collector was such a roaring success in fulfilling the objectives of the company, while satisfying easily satisfiable British opinion, it was consistent with British “ideas of justice and the proper discipline, forms of deference, and demeanour that should mark the relations between rulers and ruled, “that it was replicated in Southwest Pacific as well (Bernard Cohen). Collector was the man on the spot who knew “the natives,” who was to represent the forces of “law and order.” “Law and order” became the magic mantra and the Superintendent of Police became the magic wand – that he could wield. After the creation of the ICS the office of the District Magistrate was manned by the members of the service.

The successors to the British administration, Congress men in a hurry, quietly supplanted themselves in the place of the rulers. The office of the collector, created solely for legitimizing exploitative profits of the Company Bahadur, remained the king pin of the administration which was now supposedly centred around people. It was thought that what was sauce for the colonial goose would be sauce even for colonial gander.

The DM, heads the disaster management authority created by the National Disaster Management Act of India, 2005, at the district level, while the national and state level authorities are headed by the PM, CM and DM respectively. The DM as the head of the authority at local level enjoys unlimited financial powers and huge immunity. Of course, he cannot command the elements, he cannot ask the storm to stop raging or sea waves from lashing the shore, everything else he can. On pain of punishment, he can mobilize every resource and seek almost everyone’s cooperation. NDMA, SDMA, also have retired IAS officers, some representation form retired military officers and a retired IPS officer as well.

The management of Covid-19 by the DMAs, the unplanned migration of workers and the management of the second wave, especially the supply of oxygen and other lifesaving materials, has led to untold misery, an unmitigated disaster. It tested the premise of IAS officers acting in their capacity as DM to deliver, and they failed miserably. As a counter factual it may be noted that a doctor acting in his capacity as district magistrate in a remote district of Maharashtra managed the crisis so well that it became a national success story. There were some others too, I name Rahul Kumar DM of Purnea in Bihar about whom I heard good things, who acquitted themselves well, which point to the doability of the task. But impersonality and indifference, the defining characteristics of bureaucracy have overshadowed every requirement and trait, in their handling of this crisis. A District Magistrate quipped in face of the shattering image of a child riding a suitcase which his mother was dragging on her long haul back home, that he also similarly rode his father’s suitcase. An audio tape that went viral has a doctor on 24/7 duty in a Covid ward pleading with the health secretary, for some arrangements to be made for his accommodation so that he is not forced to go home and endanger, his wife, his children and his parents. The health secretary asked him to resign and threatened to send him to jail for arguing with him. But the image of rampaging Agartala DM, who bet up the bridegroom, humiliated the guests under the garb of enforcing Covid curfew, will for a long tie represent the public perception of a DM. The production of moral indifference in its handling of Covid was an absolute shame.

I have been a member of the UPSC interview board for civil services for a couple of years. Year after year, the procession of candidates would begin by spelling out their vision of how they would serve the people when they became the collector. No one saw himself as an officer of any other service, no one envisaged any other role for an IAS officer other than that of a collector. I loved to rile them by putting across that they would be lucky if they got into the IAS, lucky if they became Collectors for more than a term of a year or two, they would have certainly thought about the remaining thirty odd years of their service. They obviously had not. The civil service examination which has been identified with the IAS, and the IAS with the office of the collector fuels - and provides the outlet for - the private little feudalistic fantasies of every eligible candidate alike, even highly qualified professionals earning phenomenal sums of money.

Hasting’s gift to the nation has the potential of turning, has in fact turned - many administrations on the model of East India Company. They are run on the lines of profit-making corporations for their political masters and many of these officers have enriched themselves to become “the King of nabobs”.

P.S. - The nearest example that I could find to such a situation as evidenced in West Bengal is the one narrated by Krishan in his book Sardar Patel. “In a democratic set-up, cabinet sanction was essential for Police Action (against Hyderabad). Patel faced a formidable task in overcoming Nehru’s reluctance. At one of the meetings of the defence committee of which Nehru was the chairman, “there was so much bitterness that Sardar Patel walked out. Seeing his seat vacant”, V. P. Menon told a Rotary meeting in Bombay, “I too walked out five minutes later.”

This seemed to have shaken Nehru out of his complacent mood, and mellowed his opposition. Later, at a meeting attended by the governor-general (Rajagopalachari), the prime minister, the home minister (Patel), and secretary to the states ministry (Menon), “it was decided to order troops into Hyderabad”. - B. Krishna, ‘Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’.


India Today magazine once referred to Manoje Nath, a 1973-batch IPS officer, as being fiercely independent, honest, and upright. Besides his numerous official reports on various issues exposing corruption in the bureaucracy in Bihar, Nath is also a writer extraordinaire expressing his thoughts on subjects ranging from science fiction to the effects of globalization. His sense of humor was evident through his extremely popular series named "Gulliver in Pataliputra" and "Modest Proposals" that were published in the local newspapers.