January 12, 2011

Service, above all

The Jan-Feb 2011 issue of HouseCalls is out. I've been writing essays for the magazine for several issues now. This one carries something I wrote called "Service, above all". You can find it on page 62 on that site, but it's a little cumbersome, so it's appended below.

Comments welcome.


When my father died, in September 2007, we invited a few people who knew him well to speak about him at his cremation. They said many warm things, making it a little easier for us in the family to get used to his passing. One of the speakers, S, was a colleague and close friend who had known my father for nearly 50 years. S began by recounting one moment from those five decades that, he said, "stood out" in his mind.

My father, JB D'Souza (known to his colleagues as JB), spent his career in the Indian Administrative Service. At the moment S was talking about, in about 1970, he had just been appointed head of CIDCO, the agency that was to oversee the development of the new city across Bombay's harbour, or New Bombay. He asked S, an accomplished urban planner, to join the project. When S walked into CIDCO's office in Bombay's Nariman Point, JB shook his hand and said, "Welcome to public service." As S said at JB's cremation: "It doesn’t sound like anything much, but there was something in the way he said it, something that gave it an emotional charge. Because for him, public service was what life was all about. Being a Government servant was almost incidental. What mattered was public service."

This is not meant to be some kind of hagiography of my father; I know that would be anathema to him. But I think it is worth examining the idea of public service as S and JB meant it, especially at a time when a profusion of scams suggest that it is an outdated, derided idea. When people elected or appointed to public service have little interest in either the public or service.

Take the Adarsh building in South Bombay. The details are too well known to need me to spell them out, especially given that they forced a Maharashtra Chief Minister to resign. Still, in a nutshell: when first proposed in about 2003, Adarsh was to be a six-storey building to house widows of soldiers killed in the Kargil war. When it was finally completed several years later, it was 31 storeys tall and none of its residents were remotely connected to Kargil. (That is, if you don't count two "soldiers", listed by Adarsh as flatowners, whom the Army denied having any record of). So who does own flats in Adarsh? A motley collection of bureaucrats, their children, politicians from various parties, their siblings and in-laws, retired senior defence officers, possibly their relatives, and possibly some more.

What's more, many of those same bureaucrats were involved in passing one clearance or another for those who built Adarsh, including the way it magically grew to 31 storeys.

If this Adarsh narrative wasn't real, it would make an excellent comedy film, containing as it does everything from winking officials to windfalls for relatives, a five-fold growth in height to fictitious soldiers. Which Bollywood scriptwriter could have dreamed up all that, all at once? Yet Adarsh really serves best as a commentary on contemporary India, where the rise of the middle-class is more than matched by a rise in the scale of corruption and greed.

There is much to investigate in the Adarsh episode, and we can at least hope that justice will be served. But in the meantime, give some thought to how relatives of public servants -- sons, daughters, in-laws and more -- have benefited from Adarsh. Give some thought not to the legality or otherwise there -- I have no doubt that the bureaucrats concerned, especially, will explain smoothly how everything was legally done -- but to an old-fashioned idea called "propriety".

In other words, give some thought to this question: should a senior bureaucrat really use his position to help his relatives in any way?

The point about public service is captured nicely in the name itself: it's about serving the public. No more, no less. You are accountable not to your family, not to some particular Minister, not to something called Government, but to the people. You answer to that idea of propriety. That means you don't do things, you don't take decisions, 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 serving the public interest, protecting it, period.

This is the implicit contract that binds you when you join the IAS. But more than that, it is a good way to define what you will be doing in the IAS. If this makes little sense to you, or if you think it is impractical and impossibly idealistic to be so bound, you should find a job somewhere else. Maybe some of the Adarsh crowd need to have followed that path.

Possibly you believe I'm wandering too far with, making too much of, the Adarsh grab-bag of political and bureaucratic kin? Well, think of Enron then.

In his startling book "Power Play", Abhay Mehta spells out the Enron scandal of the 1990s in Maharashtra in close detail. This was one great benighted saga of bribes and skullduggery that consumed the state through that decade. (As Adarsh may yet consume the state through this decade, who knows). Its ways of doing business, if we can call them that, eventually consigned Enron to the trashcan of history. But not before everything that Enron's critics, like Mehta, had predicted about their operations in Maharashtra actually came true. Yet of course, these same critics were consistently scorned for being "anti-Maharashtra" and "anti-development".

As you might expect, the skullduggery happened because of the ordinary greed and negligence of many ordinary Indian men. Mehta explains that Enron came to India intent on getting itself the best possible bargain here, doing "what most business houses would have done" in that pursuit. Nothing intrinsically wrong there; by definition, a business chases profits. But Mehta writes: "The problem lies mostly with us -- the Indian nation state of India and all that term represents or should represent. At the core ... lies our inability to deal with or look after our own interests and to take responsibility for our actions or the lack thereof."

For it was India's own Indians -- politicians, but a whole swathe of bureaucrats too -- who gave Enron what turned out to be the most lucrative contract in its history. Doing so, they left Indian interests -- the interests it was their job to protect and promote -- wallowing in the dust.

There's as good a trashing of the idea of public service as any. For I'd like to suggest that when you see your IAS job as a way to help relatives get flats, it's not much of a leap before you start flinging rules out the window so that an Enron can cheat its consumers. Cheat a nation.

So when I read news about Enrons and Adarshes, it takes my mind back to the lesson my father taught well: being the children of a senior bureaucrat brought my siblings and me no favours. This became clear to us early. For example, he would not let his official car take us anywhere unless he was also in it, travelling to or from work, and we could be dropped off en route.

To this day, I remember the time that it was pouring as school ended one afternoon. I found a phone and called JB to ask if he could send the car to take us home. He listened and then said one word: "Walk." But we'll be drenched, I wailed. He said six more words: "You can dry off at home." It seemed cruel. We did get drenched. But we were dry long before he got home, and then I grew to appreciate, respect and absorb the example he set. And then it occurred to me: he had taught me something I value every day. Not cruel at all.

When he died, the Guardian in England 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 unscrupulous companies or with flats in fancy buildings. It made me long for more public servants to greet each other with that "emotional charge": Welcome to public service.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

After reading the article in Housecalls, I googled your name and got to your blog. The article struck a chord. Reminded me so much of my father who I think was from the 1949 batch of the IAS- final posting in AP. The only difference, I was once sent the car on a day it poured heavily. The only day. Otherwise for over a year when my father's office was about a kilometer from school, I would trudge to his office and wait for over an hour till closing time, and travel back with him. This too, only because at that time, my mother thought I was too young to commute by bus.

He tread on many toes, to the extent that he was denied the Chief Secretary's post when his turn came up. And when he passed away in 1991, he had no house or land in his name! No material possessions to inherit, but his values and principles. Totally invaluable.