TCPD Columns

Representation Through the Lens of Language – Examining the Language Proficiency of IAS Officers

30 March 2022 | 2 min read

The Background

After India’s independence in 1947, the Indian Civil Services (ICS) became the Indian Administrative Services (IAS) and continues to be an integral part of the government. The officers of the Indian Administrative Service are responsible for administration at the district level and are concerned with implementing government policies while looking into the overall development of the assigned district. 

Officers’ Selection and Allotment

The IAS officers are allotted cadres after being asked their preferences. There are 5 zones in which the cadres have been divided as shown in Table 1. The officers first list their preferences of zones and then their preference of the cadres in each zone as well. 

Table 1: States and Joint Cadres for All India Services

ZonesState Cadres
Zone-IAGMUT, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Rajasthan and Haryana
Zone-IIUttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha
Zone-IllGujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh
Zone-IVWest Bengal, Sikkim, Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Nagaland, Tripura
Zone-VTelangana, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala

Based on their ranks in the qualifying Civil Services Exam conducted by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), they are allocated their preferred zones and cadres. During cadre allocation, the  outsider to insider ratio of 2:1   is maintained where insiders refer to those born in the same state. 

The idea of the government to have officers representing cadres other than their home state to increase unity and discourage regionalism presents an optimistic picture,  but it can be argued that  officers can be effective only if they can communicate with the people they are mandated to serve. I speculate that communication becomes  efficient when the officer in charge is able to do so in the local language. While this requires further empirical investigation, knowing the local language gives the appearance of an insider, thus laying the foundation for trust between the people and the administration.

In this context,  I analyse how many IAS officers speak the most popular language of the state in Punjab, West Bengal, Gujarat, Orissa and in the Southern States using the TCPD IAS Dataset. Since multiple Eastern States have common cadres but different popular languages, they have been left out of the analysis. In this article, I also look at officers’ knowledge of the official languages of the country to put it in conversation with their knowledge of regional languages. 

Existing Processes 

The need for understanding regional languages has been endorsed by some state governments. For example, Karnataka has placed an emphasis on officers learning  its regional language, Kannada. Telangana, on the other hand, takes a proficiency test in Telugu for all IAS officers who did not take Telugu as a subject of study during their Civil Services Exam. Telugu University VC Prof. S.V. Satyanarayana said in an interview to Deccan Chronicle, “At the higher level, the AIS (IAS) officers are asked to read a newspaper, and explain a petition submitted to a collectorate and also converse with a villager in Telugu in front of the panel to gauge their fluency in the language,” he said.     

The Official Languages

India does not have a single national language but English and Hindi have been given the status of official languages. All the work at the central level is done in these two languages, therefore, an IAS officer needs to be comfortable with at least one of them.

The following table shows that the majority of the IAS officers are well versed in both English and Hindi, with English being more spoken owing to the fact, perhaps, that even though Hindi is an official language in India, it is not spoken in all states, particularly in the southern and eastern regions. 

Table 2:  Language proficiency of IAS officers in relation to the Indian population

English Hindi
IAS Officers96.4%77.9%
Indian Population Average 12%57%

Source: Census 2011 and Author Calculations using TCPD IAS Dataset. IAS Officers refer to those officers who were working in 2011. 

The table below shows historical data of the English knowledge level of IAS officers. We observe that IAS Officers have always been comfortable with English, with over 90% of officers across a 60 year timeline indicating working-level proficiency in the language.   

Table 3: Proportion of IAS officers who know English

Officers Selected in YearsPercentage of Officers Knowing English

Source: Author Calculations using TCPD IAS Dataset

Cadres and Regional Languages 

Figure 1: States and union territories of India by the most spoken official language.

Language region map of India. Note that although there is no specific state or Union territory, almost every state uses the Sindhi language and Sindhi is an official language of India (as can be seen on Indian currency notes)- it is the seveneenth most spoken language

Source: Wikipedia and Census 2011

Though there are a lot of transfers within districts in cadres, the transfer of a cadre itself is rare. For example, officers assigned to the Punjab cadre can be transferred to different districts within Punjab but their cadre is not changed.

With officers being assigned different states, it would be difficult for them to understand the local problems if they are unfamiliar with the most widely spoken language in their state. 

Figure 2: People Speaking the Most Popular Language of the State

Source: Author Calculations using TCPD IAS Dataset and Census 2011 

Note: All the officers who have represented the respective cadres since 1951 have been taken into the calculation. 

We find that at almost all places the percentage of officers comfortable with the regional language is less. Tamil Nadu does the best in this regard, 69% officers who have worked here knew Tamil. In all these states, close to half the officers have been from the same state as their cadre, so it can be assumed that they would be well versed with the local language. 

The following graph shows how many outsiders have been comfortable with the regional language of the cadre that they have been assigned.

Figure 3: Officers from the Home State vs Outsiders

Source: Author Calculations using TCPD IAS Dataset and Census 2011

Note: All the officers who have represented the respective cadres since 1951 have been taken into the calculation. Andhra Pradesh has been considered the home state for Telangana officers as well due to constraints in the data.

The blue bars represent the officers whose cadre is the same as the state they were born in, while orange bars show the information of officers who were not born in that state and hence would need to  learn the local language. Numbers in brackets refer to the number of officers who belong to that category and speak the language. For example, in Gujarat, there have been only 5 officers from outside Gujarat who knew Gujarati, that is only 1.8% officers who did not belong to Gujarat but were allotted that cadre knew Gujarati.

As we can see, the percentages of outsiders knowing the regional language are very low in almost all areas even though officers who were posted in Tamil Nadu did relatively well at 35%. 


Even after 70 years of Independence, the common language in government circles remains English even when barely a tenth of India speaks it. There has been a huge gap between the languages spoken by the regional population and the IAS officers working in those areas.  The data shows that half the officers have been from other states, but since 2008 the number of officers from outside have increased because only 1/3rd of the total officers are granted home states. In such a situation, the government needs to incentivise officers to learn the regional languages if they have been placed in states where the languages spoken most widely are not the ones that the officer already knows. This is imperative in order to make administration more efficient in the face of a fast-changing country –– politically, socially and economically.  


  1. “TCPD Indian Administrative Service Officers Dataset (TCPD-IAS), 1951-2020”, Trivedi Centre for Political Data, Ashoka University
  2. IAS Officers are asked to learn Kannada: Karnataka government | Karnataka News | Zee News ( 
  3. Telugu test proves a hard nut for IAS men (
  4. IAS transfers | The Times of India (


Hrishant Singhal is a II Year Economics Student at Delhi University. His research interests lie in using data science to study Political Economy and Development.


I would like to thank Ridhi Goyal and Kundanika Agrawal for their detailed comments on the draft. I would also like to thank Professor Priyamvada Trivedi and Aishwarya Sunaad for their feedback and support throughout the editing and the publishing process.