WHEN SILENCE IS NOT AN OPTION

(The full version of the open letter of 10 June 2017 can be accessed at the wire.in)

Sixty-five retired officers from different services came together in early June 2017 to pen an open letter to the public expressing their disquiet at the growing aggression in all forms of public discourse, the open expression of intolerance of the ‘other’ as well as the easy categorisation of all dissent as ‘anti-national’. These officers between them represent over two thousand person-years of public service in various capacities in state and central governments as well as overseas. What really motivated them to move from their quiet, retired environs into the public gaze, knowing fully well that there is a substantial constituency that would run down their motivations, vilify their reputations and seek explanations for their questioning society (and, by implication, the governments of the day) for acquiescing in, if not actively promoting, an environment that fosters animosity and hatred for one’s fellow human beings and a dogged desire to enforce conformity of behaviour in social and cultural norms, right down to personal choices in respect of food, relationships and dress?

For there is no doubt that the trolls and Doubting Thomases have crept out of the woodwork to attack the recent effort with renewed vigour. The assaults focus on the usual reasons:
1) Why did these officers not raise their voice in the past to instances of vigilante violence and misuse of authority by the state apparatus?
2) Many of them must be officers beholden to the past regime for favours granted to them or must be disgruntled at not being considered for plum post-retirement sinecures by the present dispensation.
3) Did these officers take questionable decisions in their different assignments while in service?
4) Having ruined the country over seventy years with their maladministration of public affairs, these retired officers now seek to demoralise the present government and place obstacles in the way of its effective functioning.
Answering these four issues may cast light on why persons who hung up their boots years ago have deemed it necessary to listen to their inner voices.

Those who point to the apparent failure of these retired officers to agitate issues in the past forget that these officers (and many of their colleagues) observed the dharma of organisational discipline while in service. Opposing wrong decisions does not require rushing to the press at the first opportunity, though this unfortunate trait has been observed increasingly in recent years. There are several ways of standing up to blatantly wrong political decisions: persuading the politician to change her decision, pointing out one’s inability to implement the decision and, therefore, accepting a transfer. It is not correct to say that retired officers have not expressed their reservations over government actions (and inaction) in the past, be it the 1984 anti-Sikh pogroms, the 1993 Bombay riots or the 2002 Gujarat episode. If retired officers did not come together often to voice a collective protest in the past, it was because events did not follow a predictable pattern at that time. The current hype built up over the dietary habits of a substantial section of the population and the efforts to restrict these, the aggressive responses to perceived threats to the nation and the repeated questioning of the loyalty of significant segments of the population by responsible public figures are a recent phenomenon. Many of the signatories have served in vulnerable areas at times when the nation faced both internal and external challenges. But never in the past was the atmosphere cranked up to such a fever pitch as is the case at present and certainly not at the cost of
disrupting what is still a relatively delicate social fabric.

I am not ruling out that, like elsewhere in society, some of my fellow officers cultivate an unhealthily close relationship with political patrons. Speaking for my fellow signatories, I am sure that they are not in the game of repaying favours. Most of us worked under different political dispensations: I, for one, have worked with politicians of all the four major political parties in Maharashtra. While maintaining friendly ties with all, we have kept our distance from developing too cosy a relationship with any one political outfit: call it the survival instinct, if you will. We were aware of, and dismayed by, the aimless drift of the previous regime and the difficulties in working with some of the worthies of that coalition government. It amuses many of us that we are perceived as hankering after the fishes and loaves of office post our retirement. A look at the list of signatories reveals that a significant number of them resigned or prematurely retired from government service to pursue their passions or private avenues of employment. Even those who did occupy positions in the immediate post-retirement period were fully aware of the fact that 65 (that magic number again!) was the upper age limit for gainful employment, unless you were fortunate enough to be destined for governorships, ambassadorships or a political career. In any case, a disgruntled person still harbouring ambitions would be shooting herself in the foot by signing such a letter.

The easiest way to target a person is to cast aspersions on his/her character and integrity, especially in relation to decisions taken while in service. It is always easy to be an ex post facto guru, pointing out the apparent errors committed in the past. What is forgotten are the circumstances at the time the decision was taken, the processes followed in arriving at the decision and the quality and quantum of information available to the decision-maker at the relevant time. The civil servant lays no claim to infallibility: s(he) can only vouch for her/his bona fide actions while arriving at a decision. In any case, the issues presently at stake are of a nature where passing of judgments on the past actions of a signatory are of no relevance.

The final charge against us merits the closest attention and rebuttal. Politicians of all hues find it most convenient to blame civil servants for faulty policies, forgetting their role in contributing to the state of affairs. Unfortunately, the aam janata, stuck as it is between the Scylla of one political party’s rule (in one five-year tenure) and its opposing party’s rule (in the next five years) has no further options and lays the blame at the doors of the civil service. Where has the political class provided the inspiring leadership to motivate and guide the civil service to deliver great results? My seniors of the Nehruvian era and those of us fortunate enough to participate as (minor) actors in the immediate post-1991 period recall the enthusiasm in the civil services in putting together and implementing plans and programmes for economic development and change. There are many dynamic officers who innovate and bring change in their districts and departments. Alas, there is little publicity for these efforts, especially in the rarefied precincts of Lutyens’ Delhi and Dalal Street. The last thing any retired officer would do is to run down the government of the day. S(he) knows the constraints governments work under, especially at the state level, and always hopes and prays for rapid development and improvement in living standards of her/his countrywomen/men.

What has dismayed us is the approach (or rather, the lack of it) to building a social consensus on issues critical to the survival of the common woman/man. India has, unfortunately, never had participatory governance: the trend towards centralisation has been amplified in recent times, whether it be currency demonetisation, regulation of cattle slaughter or ensuring the dignity of women. Matters are not helped when public functionaries routinely ventilate historical grievances and seek to lecture the public on social norms and traditions. An aspirational society with a positive demographic dividend is routinely fed with tales of past glory (with a specific religious bent), rather than developing a scientific, analytical approach to life that can meet the unpredictable challenges of the twenty-first century. Above all, those controlling the levers of power seem to have conveniently forgotten the intricate mosaic of social and economic relationships that are the hallmark of a pluralist society. Imposing uniformity and conformity will stultify society and severely damage entrepreneurial abilities. At a time when fundamentalism and religious obscurantism are gaining a toehold (and more) all over the world, it behoves India, as one of the world’s most ancient, tolerant civilisations, to act as the beacon for guiding the world through increasingly stormy waters. Our open letter is an appeal to our fellow countrywomen/men to realise their oneness with all humanity and promote compassion, love and peace rather than intolerance, hatred and violence.

The Ten Commandments – A Survival Kit for the IAS Officer

O Thou who seest all things below
Grant that Thy servants may go slow,
That they may study to comply
With regulations till they die.
Teach us, O Lord, to reverence
Committees more than common sense;
To train our minds to make no plan
And pass the baby when we can.
So when the tempter seeks to give
Us feelings of initiative,
Or when alone we go too far,
Chastise us with a circular.
Mid war and tumult, fire and storms,
Give strength O Lord, to deal out forms.
Thus may Thy servants ever be
A flock of perfect sheep for Thee.
(Hymn and Prayer for Civil Servants, published anonymously in the Daily Telegraph)

Like speeches, there are three careers an IAS officer will have: the one she visualises (often with a rosy tint) when she ascends the mountains to Mussoorie, the actual path over the next thirty-five years and the retrospective glance (post-retirement) at the career (and life while in service) she wishes she could have had. Being at the third stage of this cycle, I feel justified in offering a survival kit to the aspiring officer – “survival” because, in the light of recent events like the Harish Gupta, et al, conviction episode, just going through a controversy-free career and enjoying retired life themselves seem like unattainable goals. My homilies are addressed to only that category of officers who seek to do their job honestly and conscientiously, not to those who seek extra monetary returns from public service (kimbalam, as the Tamils call it) or those who are permanently gaming the system to occupy “plum” postings. So here goes:

1) Downplay your achievement:
You did get through what, when I qualified for the IAS, was called the “national lottery”. Notwithstanding all the coaching classes advertising the number of hours of study put in by their diligent students, let us be honest enough to admit that several factors, including Lady Luck, play a role in the process. So, with humility, accept the fact that you are now the member of a premier service, which brings with it a few privileges and don’t advertise your superiority (even if it brings you down a few notches in the marriage market). Above all, do not add the three magic initials to your nameplate and your letterhead and, please, do not rub in the fact of your success at the sweepstakes to others, especially from sister services.

2) Develop your human qualities:
It is very easy to become arrogant when surrounded by the trappings of power.
Remember always the fleeting nature of things and stay focused on the
essentials. Be a friend and guide to your colleagues, especially in field postings,
and a source of support to every member of the public who you meet day in and
day out. You can never satisfy everyone but you can certainly cultivate the habit
of lending a willing ear to the grievances of the common man/woman and trying
to help to the maximum extent possible. Your satisfaction should come not from
the achievement of (often meaningless) targets set by your superiors but from
the number of people who come to meet you when you return to your former
haunts in later years.

3) In any job, insist on thorough process:
“Caveat emptor” should be your motto, especially where you are the emptor
(i.e., the buyer). Never buy in to arguments from bosses and subordinates that
business was always done this way. We live in times where trust in the civil
service has evaporated: what would have been accepted in 1975 as a good faith
decision with no ulterior motives will no longer wash. Any decision on
allocation of scarce resources (schools, orphanages, coal blocks, etc., etc.)
should, like Caesar’s wife, be above suspicion. The allocation process should be
accessible to all members of the public, have clear cut-off dates and have clear
guidelines for selection. Where selection through a bidding process is not
feasible, e.g., multiple applicants for an ashramshala or an old age home,
selection from the bidders meeting pre-specified criteria could even be based
on draw of lots at a public location. Of course, it would be best to aim at reducing
discretion to the maximum extent by eliminating the need for licensing as far
as possible and ensuring that ministerial approval is not required. If your
Minister, or the Chief Minister or Prime Minister (for that matter) promise you
full support for following time-worn processes, politely ask for a transfer to
another post. Prime Ministers have ad nauseam promised, in every Civil
Service Day speech in recent years, to protect honest decision making. We have
seen the consequences today, when honest bureaucrats have gone to jail.

4) Keep track of the paper trail:
Even Albert Einstein would not remember the details of every decision he took
in past years, and you are certainly no Einstein. Be rigorous in your paper work.
The coal block allocation imbroglio arose, in part, because there were
apparently no papers bringing out the rationale of allocation decisions in
certain cases. I offer my grateful thanks to the hard-nosed Secretary of my
Ministry who drilled into me the need to keep my paperwork up to date. After
every negotiation, my first task was to prepare a gist of the viewpoints of all
participating parties and the decisions taken or actions required and circulate
these to all concerned. Keeping all the cards on the table helped in later years
at the time of audit (though it did not spare me from bothersome
investigations). But, a quarter of a century later, I am leading a quiet, retired
life without any blemish on my career. As a matter of abundant caution, keep
copies of important notings and papers in your personal custody. You never
know when someone interposes in a file (on a subsequent date) some comment
contrary to your view or when the next fire or flood hits the record room.

5) Travel light:
A popular baggage manufacturer used to advertise its products as “travel light”.
Bureaucrats would do well to adopt this dictum. You will need to attune your
spouse to your philosophy since, if you insist on process, you are unlikely to
survive in “lucrative” posts. If the move is only from the fourth to the first floor
of the State Secretariat, or within the same city, this is not a matter of great
concern. But there will be this vindictive politician or bureaucrat who delights
in moving you from, say, Nashik to Nagpur or from Lucknow to Gonda. Ensure
you can move at short notice and set up your establishment in a jiffy at the new
place. It helps particularly if you and your spouse/family possess a sense of
adventure and can improvise even where creature comforts are lacking.

6) Get a life beyond work:
If I kick myself for any stupidity, it is for not following this maxim. Staying in
office beyond 6 PM is more damaging to one’s personal life than any other vice.
If your political or bureaucratic boss is determined to sit in office till 10 PM, you
do not need to keep them company, especially in this electronically advanced
age. Just sweetly tell them you are going home and they can call you on mobile
or email you any document with a critical time-frame. I have had murderous
thoughts about Ministers whose rank inefficiency in clearing files forced me to
stay in office till midnight, photocopying notes for the next day’s cabinet
meeting. Resist weekend office attendance like the plague: if you are forced to
go, make it clear to your boss that you are doing her a big favour and expect
compensatory time off in the future.

7) Make personal excellence, not the rat race, your goal:
In the middle phase of my career, I watched with envy (and not a little heartburning)
as colleagues and friends moved to the green pastures of international
institutions and foreign universities. One of my seniors added fuel to the fire by
mentioning that proximity to the top was the key to such lateral movements. It
took me more years down the line to realise that I gained immense experience
and knowledge from working in different challenging assignments at home. Set
yourself goals in any job, no matter how lowly or insignificant it is considered
in the bureaucratic pecking order. If you are Director of Archives, develop one
of the finest repositories of historical information in the country. If you land the
post of Officer on Special Duty (Revenue Appeals), set a time frame within
which appeals will be disposed of and justice given to litigants. Very often, while
participating in the rat race, we forget that the cheese is right there in the room
where we are working.

8) Watch the company you keep:
As you move up the ladder, you will be gratified by the “Rockstar” reputation
you seem to have. Leading businessmen, builders and even film stars flock to
your office and invite you to lavish parties. Remember, none of these come
without strings attached. Your subordinates draw conclusions from your
apparent proximity to the high and mighty as does the public. “Owners’ pride”
being “neighbours’ envy”, it won’t be long before the first complaint about a
decision taken by you (which may be perfectly bona fide) favouring a particular
person/group makes its way to the tables of the Chief Minister and the Chief
Secretary. In a district, do not be seen at card tables in the evening or develop a
fondness for the bottle that cheers. News travels fast and you find that the value
of your currency with the public has diminished rather rapidly.

9) Develop competencies/interests for the future:
I am lucky I got bitten by the technology bug early in my professional life. A
laptop computer was my partner over the last two decades of my career.
Equipping myself with the basic skills necessary for individual
entrepreneurship, I could move seamlessly from the protected confines of
service to survival on my own. Your education does not need to end on the day
you join service. It is noteworthy that many officers acquire additional
qualifications while in service. A law degree or a diploma in finance enables you
to branch out into areas you never dreamt of while in service. Apart from
mundane professional attainments, you can aspire to develop your interests in
music, horticulture, vintage car repair and redesign, spirituality, astrology or
any one of a million pursuits that add richness to your post-IAS life.

10)C’est la vie:
Finally, develop a devil-may-care attitude to your life in the bureaucracy. You
will have your share of troublesome bosses and recalcitrant subordinates. Learn
to take all issues stoically: nothing is life-threatening (generally) and, in
hindsight, quite often somewhat ridiculous. You are passed over for a coveted
posting or even (horrors of horrors) are superseded for promotion. The day
after, the sun still rises in the east, birds are chirping in the trees and you are
still in good health. Consider that, after taking all possible precautions and
keeping your nose clean, you are still arraigned for a felony you did not commit,
consequent on the efforts of over-enthusiastic (though inaccurate) auditors and
investigation agencies, responding to the public demand for blood. Face it
calmly, put your case forward to the best of your ability and prepare to avail of
state hospitality in case the chips do not fall on your side. Fortify yourself with
the thought “This too shall pass”. If you have faithfully adhered to these ten
commandments, you will still enjoy life even in Tihar or Yeravada Jail.