November 17, 2010

Not a tall order

Hindustan Times today (Wed 17th) carries an essay I wrote regarding thoughts I've had of my father, JB D'Souza, in the wake of this Adarsh scam: It's Not a Tall Order.

Comments welcome.


Postscript: Here's the text of the article as I sent it to HT. There are a some small changes they made (two that I wish they hadn't). Also, I called it "Return to Quaintness".

The first time Jairaj Phatak made me think of my late father was a couple of years ago. As Bombay's Municipal Commissioner then, he announced that he would stick to a 1966 GR, stating that all official communication would be in Marathi. Fine, good decision. And what about people who don't understand Marathi? In a Hindustan Times report ("Now, only Marathi in BMC", June 7 2008), Phatak said this: "It is simple, the script is the same as Hindi".

I was elated. For I realized that contrary to any previous impressions I might have had, I actually understood Konkani, Nepali, and Sanskrit, for all of which the script is the same as Hindi. Not just that. I also realized that I understood Spanish, French, Irish, Gaelic, Welsh, Italian, Polish, German, Latin, Turkish, Portuguese, Dutch, Danish, Flemish, Afrikaans, Malagasy and several more languages, for all of which the script is the same as English. (Which I understand).

Simple as that. No, actually I wasn't elated.

So why did Mr Phatak make me think of my father? Because my father, JB D'Souza, was once Municipal Commissioner of this great metropolis too. But not once did he say something like this. Perhaps the 1966 GR wasn't a bone of contention during his term, so let me put it this way: I cannot even imagine him saying something like this.

JB died in September 2007. He had a long and what he always described as a fascinating career in the IAS. Apart from his stint as Municipal Commissioner, he served as GM of BEST, MD of CIDCO when they began planning New Bombay, Maharashtra's Chief Secretary and finally Secretary in the Housing Ministry in Delhi. I list these not so much because they form an impressive record, but because he found most of those jobs all-absorbing, all-consuming. He used to say to us that what motivated him was hardly promotions and the like, but the chance to do interesting work while serving the public, and in so doing to earn the respect of his peers.

Now I am not one for singing the praises of my late father, and even saying as much as I have about him makes me squirm as I type, as it would make him squirm. But when Mr Phatak's name cropped up in the news about the Adarsh building scandal, he got me thinking about JB for the second time.

For among those who have been allotted flats in Adarsh is Kanishka Phatak, son of Mr Jairaj Phatak. Not that he's the only such. The Adarsh flat owners' list includes the children of DK Sankaran (like my father, once Chief Secretary of Maharashtra), Uttam Khobragade (like my father again, once GM of BEST), Ramanand Tiwari, CS Sangitrao, SC Deshmukh and PV Deshmukh. Apart from this bonanza for the offspring of Indian bureaucracy, I won't even mention the spouses of bureaucracy, the various defence officials, the politicians of every party, who own flats in this building. I also won't mention the various reports that spell out how various clearances Adarsh sought sailed through our otherwise notoriously sticky bureaucracy: for example, as Municipal Commissioner Mr Phatak was instrumental in allowing the building, originally meant to be six storeys high, to reach 31 storeys.

The bureaucrats in Adarsh will no doubt produce all kinds of explanations to show they did nothing illegal concerning the building. But they forget that that's hardly the point. When you are in public service, you are a servant of the people. You answer to the people. You answer to an old-fashioned notion called "propriety". That means you don't do things that will raise questions later. That means, yes, no favours for sons and wives and daughters and mothers-in-law, period. That means your primary concern is the public interest, period.

So in reading about Adarsh, what strikes me is the lesson my father taught well: being the son of a senior bureaucrat got me no favours. This was clear early, when he would not let his official car take us anywhere, unless he was in it travelling to or from work and we could be dropped off en route. There was the day when it poured as school ended. I found a phone and called him to ask if he could send the car to take me home. He said one word: "Walk." But I'll be drenched, I wailed. He said six more words: "You can dry off at home." It seemed cruel. But I was dry before he got home, and then I grew to appreciate and respect the example he set and it was not cruel at all.

When he died, The Guardian carried an obituary for JB. It had this line: "In the gigantic heap of pestilential and growing venality which passes so often for the Government of India, he was one … who remained, despite all odds, dedicated to the idea of public service, a notion becoming almost quaint in modern India's world of swashbuckling capitalism, the fast buck and devil-take-the-hindmost."

It made me proud, sure. But it made me yearn for quaintness once more: whether with flats in fancy buildings or with the language of official communications.


Anonymous said...


Thank you for sharing your recollections. I look forward to some more.


Suresh said...

There are two anecdotes which came to my mind as I read your article. One is about Harry Truman, the former US president. I believe he was once asked how he felt about stepping down from the presidency. His reply was that as the president, he was the servant of the people but when he stepped down, he became the master and hence it was a promotion. Facetious, perhaps, but it also reveals the character of the man.

The second is from the classic Yes, Minister. After giving an indiscreet interview to the BBC, Jim Hacker wants the broadcast stopped. On being informed that it can only be done if it is in the public interest, he replies "It is not in my interest, and since I represent the people, it is not in the public interest."

The first one reminded me of your father; the second one of Messers Phatak, Sankaran et al.