New role of the Civil Servant

By Jawaharlal Nehru

From presidential address to the fourth annual meeting of the general body of the Indian Institute of Public Administration, New Delhi, April 5, 1958.

During the past two years there has been a good deal of thinking and discussion about the ways of public administration, and a growing criticism of the way the Government works. It is a healthy sign and, to some extent, it should take place. This Institute of Public Administration is itself an outcome of the feeling that public administration is a subject of great importance and that some organized thinking and study should be given to it. 

There has in recent years been some rethinking about the basic concepts underlying the administrative system. This is inevitable. We are passing through a transitional phase in social and economic spheres, invoking a tremendous extension of activities of the administration. We have had during the last few years many important reports, the Appleby reports, and some others, on administrative questions. We are constantly discussing these questions in Parliament when demands or activities of the Ministries come before the House. 

Public administration, apart from the normal features which it should have, should be intimately concerned with public co-operation. The idea of a public servant sitting in a world apart and doling out impartial justice is completely out of place in a democratic society. It is especially so in a dynamic democratic society. The pace at which society moves forward depends on the people, and if there is no intimate connection between the public servant and the people, he will not move forward even if he is efficient. The whole conception of the public servant in India has in the past been a static conception. Doing one’s job as efficiently and adequately as possible, and impartially, was the conception in British times.

As I was sitting here, I glanced through an article in the recent issue of your journal on “Civil Service Neutrality” by Mr. S. Lall. Civil service neutrality is a fiction which I have often wondered at. I have not been able to understand how any thinking person can be neutral. I know exactly what it meant in the old days, and I think it was good within limitations. But the way it is being displayed pompously is not only not right but wholly wrong. I can understand that a civil servant should obviously be above party politics. I also fully understand that he must, as far as possible, be a detached, objective person, considering problems in a detached and objective way, and tendering advice for accurate action. During British times there was a definite pattern of government which the British had laid down. Neutrality meant keeping oneself strictly within the lines of the pattern of government. Going outside it was tantamount to lack of neutrality. Neutrality thus, in fact, meant extreme partisanship. What was called neutrality was full acceptance of what the British Government had laid down, within the four corners of which the civil servant was to function. If a person raised his voice against the established pattern, he was supposed to be an anarchist. That a civil servant had to function within a prescribed framework is understandable. Why call it neutrality? 

In a period of dynamic growth, we want civil servants as persons with minds, with vision and with a desire to achieve. We want persons who have initiative for doing a job and who can think how to do it. Can a person be neutral about the basic thing which the State stands for, namely a socialist pattern of society? Can a civil servant adequately perform functions relating to the attainment of a socialist pattern of society if he is entirely opposed to that conception? He might, to some extent, but not with any enthusiasm. If he is opposed to the very growth in that direction, he is a drag on it. 

Again, our Parliament has often expressed itself against what might be called a communal approach to political problems. The Government is opposed to it. It is a point of view which either we have or do not have. Neutrality has no meaning in this context.

Under a democratic form of government, different political parties come into power at different times, and I can understand that the civil servant should not be partial to any one party. But he cannot be neutral about the basic issues. I am not quite conversant with how the civil servants in Britain adapted themselves to the advent of the Labour Government. I happened to be in Britain about that time, and I heard the bitterest complaint from the Labour leaders about the attitude of the civil service. I remember with what extreme feeling Prof. Harold Laski spoke to me about it. 

The writer of the article on "Civil Service Neutrality" says that the civil service in Britain is a model. It is an excellent service, but this fact is seldom mentioned openly in that country. Mr. Lall has arrived at the same conclusions which I have reached in my own thinking. The British concept of the civil service neutrality is a logical outcome of the political framework within which the British civil service has grown and developed. During the last century, the major issue that divided the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party in England was free trade. The civil servant was supposed to keep his hands off such parts issues. Attitudes have, however, changed a lot. Some sort of State intervention is now accepted by all, whether it be the Conservative Party, the Labour Party, the ordinary citizen or the civil servant

In India we are in a stage where future development depends upon the acceptance of certain basic assumptions and on intelligent, prompt and quick action. What has the civil servant to do in such a context. Naturally he cannot be a partisan of any one party. But must he be inactive and without any views of his own on basic matters. He will not be happy to be so, nor will anybody be happy if he is so. 

I have been wondering how far at our school for the training of the I.A.S. probationers, the trainees were being taught to apply their minds in a positive way towards the consideration of certain basic thing for which we stand. Certain basic issues emerged out of our struggle for freedom, and we should give the probationers the background of these issues to enable them to understand intelligently the current problems of the country. I am not in favour of too much conditioning of the mind. We must avoid any extreme effort to condition the individuals as they do in some communist countries, and also in some other countries which are not communist. Too much of it does not quite fit in with the democratic process. We must take care not to cramp pliability and individuality. There arc certain major problems which the country faces today; and whether you hold a socialist view of life or a co-operative view of life or have a communal or an anti-communal outlook, you cannot be neutral to their solution. 

I venture to re-emphasize two other important aspects of the problem. One is that in the modem age the success of the public servant depends, in addition to ability, efficiency and integrity, upon his capacity to co-operate with the public. If he does not have this capacity, his efficiency is not of much use. His success in his job depends on the extent to which he can evoke public co-operation. The second aspect, to which we are at present directing our minds, is related to the training of the public servants initially in such a way as to avoid their developing an ivory-tower attitude in their careers. 

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