Rather safe than sorry
I am a journalist today because once I had wanted to be an IAS officer. I was falling short by a year on the age criteria when the thought first popped into my mind that I would like to contribute to nation building.
So I decided to while away the time at a journalism course to be able to learn how to write. The essay writing at the civil services exams in those days used to make all the difference between pass and fail and next best to expensive tutorials, I thought, was a writing course that would hone my skill and help me sail through.
I got a job in the local newspaper even before I had passed the journalism exams and some months into that job, under the influence of my peers, I decided being a reporter was better than being a Collector.
My family and elders looked at me with pity saying, “Whoever becomes a journalist when one can be an IAS officer?”
At that time, I remember, a national survey had revealed that journalists were at the bottom of the ladder in the dowry sweepstakes and civil servants right at the top but by then I had seen and heard enough about civil servants not to be too impressed by a future in the civil service.
My professor of public adminstration at a Masters course I had undertaken in the subject, had been an Indian Foreign Service officer and had quit the service to keep his sanity intact after some of the things he said he had had to face as a civil servant.
“If you want to join the IAS with any notions of doing public service, perish the thought,” he said.
“You cannot beat the system even from the inside, You have to either join the system or quit it. You just cannot hope to change it.”
IAS often stands for I Am Safe, he said, as against I Am Sorry that they say to the politicians – and indeed the politicians have to be sorry because they are tossed out every five years while civil servants contiue to the around, no matter what their trials which last only until their tormenters are in power, he said.
Then some years into journalism, a politician who found himself in the middle of a major scam he had been trying to conceal told me ruefully, “If the bureuacrats want a cover up, there is no way a politician can ever leak the information to the media and hope to get away with it, But if a politician wants a cover up and the bureaucrat is determined against that, somehow or the other you will find that information making the headlines and no way will you be able to catch him out in that leak.”
Given the trials of Durga Shakti Nagpal and other young civil servants across the country, I cannot help but remember then what a very close friend from the Maharashtra cadre did to outwit Sharad Pawar and his capitalist friends in Bombay who wanted some government land cleared for redevelopment.
The officer tied Pawar up in knots over the consequences of sanctioning that redevelopment and so convoluted his reasoning sounded that I was verily reminded of Sir Humphrey from Yes Minister – that land today has some housing for the poor instead of the shoppng mall that the developer had originally wanted.
But Maharshtra’s politicians are far more civilsed and I remember one of them complaining to the then chief minister that he just could not get round his secretary who would not allow a particular project to go through.
The chief minister said, “You have to study the officer and discover his mindset first. Then deal with the issue, You cannot just hooe to bully your way through with the burueacracy.”
That is when I learnt the politicians’ mindsets – bureaucrats are as honest or as corrupt as the poltiicians allow them to be. But the politicians need the honest ones to implement projects and the dishonest ones to allow them their own returns.
So they try no nonsense with those who would not be corrupted and merrily make use of those who are more amenable.
I also had friends who divorced when the husband, a cop, thought nothing of accepting a refrigertor delivered to their home by a local shop owner, gratis when the wife was the local Collector and would not even accept a complimentary hair pin from any one and insisted on paying for everything herself or going completely without if she could not afford one.
There was a friend in the IAS whose father once received a basket of oranges from some one his son had been dealing with in the business of government.
The father promptly wrote back asking, “Was that a bribe for something you may have done or are about to do or just a courtesy, for usually there are no free lunches in this world. In any case I have passed on those oranges to the maid and not eaten a single one for I do not want dishonest money going into my stomach. So make sure you do him no favours out of the way and do not encourage him in in the future.”
“Just imagine!”; the friend ranted. “Just for a basket of oranges he thinks I am corrupt. What do I say to a man like this?”
Why don’t you try `Thank you for being the father you are and for being my father at that’ ? I told him.
Suddenly there were tears in his eyes. And he was among the most honest officrs I ever knew.
But so many years later, I am still glad I am a journalist and not a civil servant.