Despite their high integrity, hard work, and competence, IAS officers, who occupy almost all senior administrative positions in the states and Centre, have not been able to improve development outcomes for common citizens. India could not achieve many Millennium Development Goals set by the United Nations, particularly in hunger, health, nutrition, gender, and sanitation. India’s social indicators are today worse than countries poorer than India such as Bangladesh and Vietnam. Besides, growth has not helped the most marginalized groups, such as tribals and women. Of all the disadvantaged groups, tribals, especially in Central India, have been the worst sufferers, primarily because of anti-tribal forest policy, displacement laws, and poor governance. Section 46(1) of the Rajasthan Tenancy Act places women at par with lunatics and idiots.
IAS officers working as Collectors and Commissioners have not been able to ensure that teachers and doctors remain present in their place of postings and provide quality services. Land records are terribly outdated with the result that nearly two-thirds of all pending cases in Indian courts are related to property disputes which take an average of 20 years to settle. The IAS Secretaries in the state governments collude with the junior staff and do not honestly report figures on hunger deaths, malnutrition, usage of toilets, etc, leading to erosion of accountability. They are also not able to ensure regular monthly payment of honorarium to the contractual staff, such as para teachers, Rozgar Sahayaks, AWWs, and cooks in MDM.
The author argues that not only many welfare programs have a design flaw, governance in India at the state and district levels is also quite weak, manifesting itself in poor service delivery, uncaring administration, corruption, and wasteful public expenditure.
The book also describes how reforms initiated by the author failed to make any impact because most IAS officers resist change, or are indifferent to the poor. He got a new law passed in UP for preventing tribal land alienation, but not a single acre of land was restored to the tribals. The economic philosophy that he followed in his career was, 'socialism for the poor and free market for the rich'. The political and administrative system in India, on the other hand, seems to be believing in 'indifference to the poor, and controls over the rich to facilitate rent-seeking'.
As Joint Secretary, Minorities Commission, he exposed the communal bias of district administration in handling riots in Meerut, but he was punished for bringing to light killing of innocent Muslim women and children by the police.
When the Bihar bureaucracy had collapsed during the Lalu years of 1990-2005, he sent a letter to the Chief Secretary of Bihar accusing many IAS officials of behaving like 'politicians - the English speaking politicians - corrupt, with short term targets, narrow horizons, feudal outlook, disrespect for norms, contributing nothing to the welfare of the nation, empty promises, and no action.'
The book is full of anecdotes ranging from how the author resisted political corruption that led to Prime Minister's annoyance, to a situation when the author himself 'bribed' the Chief Minister to scrap oppressive laws against tribal women.
The author analyses the present Indian situation and suggests policy changes in all cross-cutting systemic issues, such as the role of politicians, tenure, size and nature of Indian bureaucracy, accountability, monitoring of programs, and civil service reforms, which will transform individual competence of IAS officers into better collective outcomes