Latasinha's Weblog

Social and political Values and Systems in India.

Origin of Civil services/bureaucracy in India

The East India Company had consolidated its position as a dominant power in India by 1784. The spread of its authority demanded a change in the administrative system. The role of the civil servants of East India Company changed from merchants to that of statesmen, from traders to governors, and judges and magistrates. The shape, to this sytem, was given during the regimes of Warren Hastings, Lord Cornwallis and Lord Wellasly. After the annexation of Indian territories, Lord Wellasly (1798-1805) created a corps of specially talented officers—selected from the Commercial services as well as army—called `pioneers’ and entrusted them with the pioneering task of settling newly conquered areas, making political adjustments, restoring law and order, assessment and collection of land revenue, administration of criminal and civil justice, maintenance of roads and bridges, digging canals, opening schools and hospitals and thereby gaining confidence of people.

During this period, the administrative structure was simple, but effective. The officers possessed a high sense of responsibility. They developed traditions of character, initiative, imagination, understanding and paternalism. Munro, Malcolm, Elphinston, Metcalf, and Lawrence brothers were some of those great administrators, belonging to the group of `Pioneers’, who are still remembered as the founders of a new tradition of administration. The civil service was not only a career for them, but something which they had built-up, united and administered. They were the spokesmen of its dumb masses and often fought with their superiors for the interest of the people. A civilian of those days said, “They ruled with an iron hand in a velvet glove”.2

The main characteristics of the administration during those days were as follows:

  • Concentration of authority and responsibility in the District Officer who was Magistrate, Collector, and Judge;

  • The area of the district was not so large as to make this undivided responsibility impossible. The District Officer had complete knowledge of his area and people;

  • The administration was based on a set of simple laws and rules, respected Indian Institutions and local customs, so far as they did not clash with the Imperial interest; and

  • Formalities were at the minimum level.

In the absence of any fast means of communication, the officers at the district were compelled to take decisions of their own on important matters of policy and administration. They travelled to grassroots at regular basis, keeping a constant check on corruption and in case of any slip, officials responsible were punished on the spot. In this manner, the British bureaucrats ruled India with iron hands.



2 Needham Cust, Memoirs of Past Years, London, 1894.

June 16, 2009 - Posted by | Bureaucracy/Civil Services


  1. Isn’t it said that the Indian Civil Services, under British government, was the most incorruptible bureaucracy in the world? It is interesting to note that in 60 years of independent rule we have managed to undo much of what was done in the preceding 200 years. Quite an astonishing feat.

    Comment by Ram Raghavan | June 16, 2009 | Reply

    • To see how an effective system of civilservices got converted into an ineffective and corrupt system, please see the posts
      1. Dyarchy 1919-35
      2. Sevices under provincial autonomy Post 1935 perid
      3.Working of bureaucracy in Independent India
      4Indian bureaucracy during Nehru Patel era 1947-1965
      5. Indian bureaucracy during 1965 to 1980
      6.Indian bureaucracy of 80’s
      7.Demoralised and insecure Bureaucracy of 1980

      Comment by latasinha | July 21, 2009 | Reply

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