India's Elite bereaucrats

Corruption runs rampant as a fresh breed of bureaucrats takes over the country's reins
They are the elite of India's elite: the brilliant men and women who belong to the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), the top strata of civil servants--numbering about 5,000--who in effect rule this country of more than 1030 million people. At one time, many of these gilded bureaucrats came from the high, priestly caste of Brahmins and were schooled in the classics, philosophy and even the proper iron to use for a chip onto the green. They were also given riding lessons since, it was assumed, anyone who could handle a horse could govern a district. Thus aesthetically armed, the young officers were dispatched across India and expected to cope with famines, fend off man-eating tigers, put down revolts and build irrigation canals.

Today's IAS officer is more likely to be bouncing across his domain in an Indian-made jeep than on a horse. And since a few harsh words in the vernacular can be remarkably more effective in stopping a mob than a clever Latin quip, Ovid is off the curriculum at the IAS training academy. Instead, the new generation of officers is expected to learn a couple of India's 18 official languages. The IAS used to be the exclusive preserve of India's most prominent families. But these days, the sons and daughters of the urban, English-speaking elite prefer going abroad to earn advanced degrees or taking high-paying jobs with one of the many multinational companies elbowing into the Indian economy.

The shunning of the IAS by India's brightest and snobbiest is beginning to change the fabric of the country's entire 20-million-employee bureaucracy. For average Indians, the trend is likely to mean dealing with an elite that is more aggressive--and hungrier for a bribe. Says B.S. Baswan, director of the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, the IAS' two-year finishing school in the Himalayan hill town of Mussoorie: "There has been a shift in the social composition of the recruits. These people are more the upwardly mobile crowd." Agrees Nazeem Dawood, a student: "These urban types are not so interested in the service. But a rural chap sees the official car with the red flashing lights and craves it."

In the eyes of some IAS officers, the new egalitarianism is causing problems. As fewer officers are drawn from the upper strata of Indian society, old-timers say, the service has become increasingly politicized--and in some cases increasingly dishonest. In the northern state of Bihar, for example, four IAS officers have been named in a corruption scandal. At least 25 senior civil servants are under criminal investigation in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. In Uttar Pradesh, some honest IAS officers were so incensed by the swindling and bribe-taking of their superiors that they tried to embarrass the culprits by polling colleagues to select the three most corrupt and undesirable officials in the state. The secret ballot was held last December, but the three worst offenders have yet to be disclosed. Says S.S. Tinaiker, the former municipal commissioner of Bombay: "There's a total demoralization of the bureaucracy at the top level. Officers were supposed to be close to the people. Now you find them hanging around ministers and party bosses." The British, who set up this top tier of bureaucrats, referred to it as a "steel frame" on which they constructed their Indian empire. A young IAS officer in Bombay calls it instead "a rubber frame." He explains: "We're bending all the time before our political bosses." Since it is virtually impossible to sack an IAS officer, politicians often use the threat of transfer to bend administrators and even make them comply with unethical or downright illegal orders.

The lure of corruption begins right at the gates of the IAS academy. There, around 100 of the brightest recruits are selected each year from among thousands of applicants and sent for two years of administrative training. The list of new arrivals is keenly awaited by industrialists, high-ranking civil servants and government ministers. Explains Santosh Matthew, an academy teacher: "Bureaucracy represents power, and these people all want to seek an alliance with this power."

Such alliances often are sealed through arranged marriages. Industrialists with an unhitched daughter or son might try to make a match with one of the academy's students. According to an alumnus, a promising young officer was hounded by his home state's chief minister, demanding that he wed a senior minister's daughter. When the officer refused to comply, the angry minister stalled his promotion. In another case, a student had to be hidden by his friends from a squad of police officers who were trying to pair him off with their boss's daughter. Often parents of the would-be bride offer dowries of up to $15,000, with the understanding that once the groom climbs up the bureaucratic ladder, he will use his connections to line up government contracts and favors for his in-laws. IAS grooms now rake in the highest dowries on the marriage market, above doctors and engineers, and some newspapers even run a column among the matrimonial ads devoted exclusively to the academy's graduates.

As official corruption and other abuses sap people's faith in the bureaucracy, the government is drawing up a code of conduct. Activists are also campaigning for a Right to Information bill, so that citizens can detect how much money allotted for development ends up in civil servants' pockets. A few good men and women have survived inside India's bureaucratic labyrinth. Anil Lakhina is one of them. As a former district collector in Ahmednagar in Maharashtra state, he found it difficult to locate documents among the 300,000 dossiers piled in his office. Using an old British manual as a guide, Lakhina reorganized the storage system so that any file could be readily found. His method of bundling the folders together for swifter access was copied widely, enhancing Maharashtra's reputation as one of the better administered states in the country. Another bureaucrat who has made a difference is S.R. Rao, who took over as municipal commissioner of Surat after a plague epidemic struck this fetid, polluted city of more than 2 million people in September 1994. He widened 100 km of roads, provided water and sewage to the shantytowns and had the garbage collected from alleys that swarmed with rats. He also took on a larger kind of rodent: the local real estate mob. When an underworld chieftain tried to stop a demolition team from tearing down his illegal, multi-story building on city land, Rao slapped the gangster in the face, as thousands of incredulous citizens at the site gaped. Once synonymous with plague and decay, Surat now is rated as one of India's more livable cities.

For most Indians, who have every reason to fear the country's octopus-armed bureaucracy, the scowling IAS officer sitting at his grand desk is still someone to be approached with trepidation--and, increasingly it seems, with a thick packet of rupees. Still, the IAS officer may be losing his godly status. As senior officer K.K. Sarma recently told students at the academy: "We were made to feel that we have descended from the heavens, that we just had to sit in the chair and snap our fingers. That's not true."

Reported by Faizan Ahmad/Patna, Meenakshi Ganguly/Mussoorie and Maseeh Rahman/Surat
By Tim McGirk New Delhi