The 2012 batch of the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) has already made history as they near the completion of their training in India before leaving for their foreign attachments.
This batch of 36 officers is the largest in the history of the Indian Foreign Service. They add to the nearly 900 odd IFS officers which comprise the Indian diplomatic corps, nearly as many as that of tiny Singapore and smaller than Switzerland’s.
India’s diplomatic corps of 900 officers to staff its 120 mission and 49 consulates is smaller than that of any of the other BRICS countries. The size of India’s diplomatic corps pales into insignificance when compared with the 20,000 officers that the Americans have within the US and across the world. The UK’s diplomatic corps comprises 6,000 personnel, Germany has 6,550, France’s is 6,250, Japan has 5,500 and China’s is 4000 officers strong. Brazil has 1200 officers in its diplomatic corps.
The Indian diplomatic corps numbers look respectable compared to Singapore’s 867. The fact that India, the second most populous country and the seventh largest in terms geographical area, has such a small diplomatic corps has come for much criticism in the last couple of years.
The Ministry of External Affairs has responded by gradually increasing the intake into the IFS in recent years. The intake of officers has increased from 15 to 20 recruited till about mid-2000s to 34 in 2011 and 36 in 2012, with the aim to bring the total number of officers to 1200 by 2018. It also plans to increase the numbers of the 3,000 odd support staff of stenographers, cipher experts and clerks in the IFS (B).
However, not many within the system are convinced that the IFS should be expanded, since now much of the international diplomacy requires specialists whether for trade related issues, climate change negotiations and issues related to nuclear energy and space.
But this argument ignores the burden of work that the scarcity of human resource puts on the current crop of officers.
The limitations that this leads to become obvious when one looks at MEA’s territorial divisions. The MEA has a single joint secretary to look at North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, Mongolia, Taiwan and Tibetan refugees. A single joint secretary handles all the 20 Latin American countries and a dozen Caribbean countries in New Delhi and India does not post full fledged ambassadors to smaller but important Latin American countries like Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay. The entire South East Asian region, comprising the 10 ASEAN member states, along with Australia and New Zealand is handled by one joint secretary.
Add to this the fact that MEA ends up with very few officers posted abroad as ambassadors who are proficient in the language of that country. So, most who are posted in West Asia may not know Persian or to Latin America may not be well versed in Spanish or Portuguese.
Compare this to the US Embassy in New Delhi which has 20 officers in its political section. It has more people in New Delhi to follow India foreign policy than what MEA has in the US and New Delhi, combined, to follow US policies.
The MEA has been aware of the problem. The NR Pillai Committee of 1966, the Samar Sen Committee in 1983, the SK Lambah report of 2002 and Shiv Shankar Menon as foreign secretary moving the cabinet for expanding the cadre strength, and other structural and administrative reforms.
Attempts at reforming the service by allowing for lateral entry from other government services like audit and accounts or information technology haven’t succeeded because of Indian Foreign Service’s resistance to allow giving these officers ‘IFS cadre’. There is also a proposal for a separate IFS exam but this has also been resisted because of fears that the IFS would then lose its preeminence alongside the IAS (Indian Administrative Service) and IPS (Indian Police Service).
However, sources said that some of these calls for reforms were made after an American study published a couple of years back. The study was critical of the IFS for its generalist approach and scarcity of officers. It recommended that Indian diplomats could be trained in the US under the India-US Exchange program.
The MEA continues to resist a proposal that Washington could train Indian diplomats as part of both initial and mid-career training. South Block believes such a training may not be advisable, particularly for young diplomats as it could make them lose the perspective that they represent a developing country with national interests that may be very different from that what Americans might end up teaching them.
Unfortunately, many in the IFS also believe that the more numbers there are the more competition there would be for some of the coveted posts.