India's government bureaucracy, which the country inherited from its colonial masters at Independence in 1947, has often been called the "steel frame" for its success in holding things together in a vast and disparate nation that has 29 states and more than a dozen official languages. With the elite Indian Administrative Service (IAS) at its apex, the annual central civil service examinations to fill about a thousand positions spread over the IAS, foreign service, police, revenue, audit and assorted other roles, draw hundreds of thousands of aspirants. Anyone with a university degree and in the age range of 21 to 28 years can sit the exams, which involve written tests and for those qualifying, a final interview. Beyond that, individual states also have public service commissions that hire civil servants according to their needs. But the central civil services rule.
Officers from these cadres enjoy faster promotions, vast power - and for those so inclined, access to extra pecuniary benefits. Partly because of the power and in some cases the opportunities, it is not uncommon to see skilled engineers, doctors and chartered accountants clamour for entry into the civil service. What this all adds up to is that the quality of the service and, in some instances, its integrity, tend to be rather uneven even after the careful selection and rigorous training imparted to all so-called "probationers". Now, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government has triggered controversy within the ranks by announcing lateral-entry hiring for 10 "joint secretary" posts in areas like revenue, financial services, economic affairs, agriculture, transportation, environment and commerce. These mid-career positions are highly influential as much of government work is executed at the joint secretary level.