An In-Depth Review of ‘Ethical Dilemmas of a Civil Servant’ by Anil Swarup

By : Syed Ali Taher Abedi


“Ethical Dilemmas of a Civil Servant” written by Anil Swarup is a compelling and insightful exploration into the intricate and often morally complex world of Indian civil service. The book, which is structured as a series of short chapters, draws from Swarup’s extensive career in the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). It provides readers with a profound understanding of the ethical challenges that civil servants face and offers a reflective look at how these dilemmas shape their professional and personal lives.

Structure and Content

The book is divided into several sections, each focusing on different aspects of the bureaucratic journey and ethical conundrums. The content is arranged in a way that each chapter presents a specific dilemma, recounts a real-life experience, and poses questions to the reader about the ethical choices involved. This format not only makes the book engaging but also thought-provoking, encouraging readers to ponder their own moral compasses.

Bureaucratic Dilemmas

The initial chapters delve into the fundamental question of ethics in bureaucracy. Swarup discusses whether ethics are important in the public service and examines the practical implications of honesty. Through anecdotes, he illustrates the often harsh realities faced by honest officers, who might find themselves at odds with a system that does not always reward integrity. For instance, in the chapter “Does Honesty pay?” Swarup narrates instances where his commitment to honesty was tested, highlighting the difficult balance between ethical principles and professional survival.

Journey Replete with Dilemmas

This section is a rich tapestry of Swarup’s experiences across various postings. From dealing with corruption in local administrations to navigating the complexities of high-stakes policy decisions, each chapter is a case study in ethical decision-making. In “Nakal Mafia,” for example, Swarup tackles the issue of widespread cheating in examinations, a problem that required not only administrative acumen but also moral courage to address effectively. These stories are not just about the challenges faced but also about the innovative solutions implemented, reflecting the author’s commitment to ethical governance.

Dilemmas across the Bridge

In the latter part of the book, Swarup reflects on the broader implications of his decisions and actions. He discusses the systemic issues within the bureaucracy and the often conflicting demands of political and public service. Chapters like “A Meaty Decision!” and “Battling the Bats” provide deeper insights into the policy-making process, the influence of vested interests, and the ethical tightrope that civil servants must walk.

Themes and Analysis

  1. Ethical Integrity vs. Systemic Corruption: A recurring theme in the book is the tension between maintaining ethical integrity and navigating a system rife with corruption. Swarup’s narratives often highlight how deeply entrenched corruption can undermine the efforts of even the most well-intentioned officers.
  2. Moral Courage: The book emphasizes the importance of moral courage in public service. Swarup’s accounts of standing up to powerful interests and making unpopular decisions underscore the personal and professional risks involved in adhering to ethical standards.
  3. Reflective Practice: Each chapter ends with questions, prompting readers to reflect on the ethical dimensions of the scenarios presented. This approach not only engages readers but also serves as a practical guide for aspiring civil servants on how to think critically about their own ethical decisions.
  4. Leadership and Empathy: Swarup’s stories illustrate the role of empathy in effective leadership. His ability to connect with the people he serves, understand their needs, and act in their best interests, even when it meant going against the grain, is a testament to his leadership philosophy.

Style and Presentation

Swarup’s writing style is straightforward and engaging, characterized by a candidness that makes the complex subject matter accessible. The use of real-life anecdotes adds a personal touch, making the lessons more relatable and impactful. The book’s structure, with its short, self-contained chapters, allows for easy reading and provides clear takeaways from each story.

Impact and Relevance

“Ethical Dilemmas of a Civil Servant” is a significant contribution to the literature on public administration and ethics. It provides a rare insider’s view of the challenges faced by civil servants and offers practical wisdom for navigating these challenges. For current and aspiring civil servants, the book is an invaluable resource that combines theoretical insights with real-world applications. For the general public, it sheds light on the often unseen struggles of those who work within the government machinery, striving to make a positive difference.


Anil Swarup’s “Ethical Dilemmas of a Civil Servant” is more than just a memoir; it is a reflective exploration of the moral and ethical challenges inherent in public service. The book’s strength lies in its honest portrayal of these dilemmas and its emphasis on the importance of integrity and moral courage. Swarup’s experiences serve as both a guide and an inspiration, highlighting that ethical governance, while challenging, is both possible and necessary. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding the complexities of public administration and the importance of ethics in governance.

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