Archive for the ‘personal development’ Category

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:

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Make personal excellence, not the rat race, your goal:

In the middle phase of my career, I watched with envy (and not a little heart-burning) 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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, most events are, 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.

 

Why marks do not matter — in the long run

A recent newspaper article by a highly successful author on why average marks in school need not imply the end of the road for a student set me thinking, especially at this time of the year, when the declaration of results leads to extreme despair in those who do not fare so well, leading even to the ultimate tragedy of taking one’s own life. The author advised his young, probably apprehensive readers to take it in their stride and realise that life was about far more than just getting great marks and a plum job. Fair enough advice, as it went, except that I want to present the perspective from the other side, of a so-called “high achiever” of whom a lot was always expected and what it meant for him as he dealt with the later years of his life. Yes sir, I am talking about yours truly, a product of an aspirational system where success was judged by your marks and by your visibility as a person who has made it, who is an object of envy for others.
I grew up in a middle class milieu in Delhi where the dream was to land a prized job in the civil services or qualify as a doctor or engineer, or move to academic pursuits in the USA/UK. Competition was tough even then for the best colleges and the most highly valued jobs. As it happened, I did more than well enough to land the college and the subject of my choice. I enjoyed my college life, participated in various extra-curricular activities and, apart from a hiccup or two, acquired two degrees in my five years in the university. That I had done well academically meant that there were great expectations about me, among family and friends, and everyone assumed that I would easily be able to enter the hallowed portals of India’s civil services. This too I managed rather comfortably, apparently to no one’s great surprise.
It was after I was posted to a rural district completely removed from my earlier Delhi life that the realisation hit home — buster, you are on your own! My performance in the civil services entrance examination initially got me some attention in the Indian Administrative Service circles in my state, but I very soon realised that you are in the position of the Indian bahu (daughter-in-law): after a very short honeymoon, you are landed with many duties, with very little sympathy for your plight. I struggled with that bugbear of bureaucratic functioning in India — the achievement of targets. Whatever I did, I was often not able to meet annual targets, whether for family planning cases (a euphemism for sterilisation), biogas plant construction, land revenue collection or small savings. Realising the meaninglessness of many of these achievements, I probably never really put my heart and soul into reaching these annual targets. Matters were not helped by the bright, ambitious young men and women who were my colleagues and who seemed so fired by the zest to not just reach, but surpass, the magic numbers set for their districts. I soon got inured to the pained look on my Commissioner’s face, when, after reviewing the success of four other districts, he had to handle under-performance in my district. Slowly, I reconciled myself to the apparent truth that I was not one of the dashing, dynamic officers that senior officers in the service would laud.
It was only after I moved to a Secretariat posting in Delhi that I finally found my métier. My above average abilities in drafting notes in the English language and my passion for the subject I was handling saw a lot of responsibilities being entrusted to me. The excellent annual assessments by my bosses stood me in good stead in subsequent postings; it was then that the realisation dawned on me that you are only as good as your last assignment. Added to that was my deliberate decision to keep as low a profile as I could, within the requirements of my job description. Over the next fifteen years, I was fortunate to get a number of interesting assignments and have a warm and supportive relationship with my political and bureaucratic bosses. But what I really value is the love and affection I got from a large cross-section of people: the public I interacted with, my peers and those I worked with in my different postings across a wide geographical area. These gave me a level of comfort and confidence that enabled me to withstand such criticism as came my way. When the failure to reach revenue targets in my administrative division led to reproachful remarks from my top boss (and even a mild rebuke from the then Chief Minister), I was secure in my belief that I was pursuing more important goals impacting the lives the lives of individuals rather than striving to achieve revenue targets.
Today, five years after I took early retirement from service, I realise that there are far more important things in life than just your academic performance or even your rise up the bureaucratic ladder. As you near the sixth decade of your life and look back on the last forty years or so of life, two things come to mind: firstly, you should try to excel in (and, more importantly, enjoy) whatever you do, without getting too tied up in planning where you want your career (or life) to take you and, secondly, the human relations you form in your years at work (including, most significantly, your family relationships) are far more important and rewarding than any material successes you may enjoy in your years on the job. Of course, those marks in school and college do matter, but only for a very limited period and to enable a climb up the next rung of the ladder. It is far more crucial to develop the awareness that one may be climbing up the wrong ladder, at the cost of relationships, contentment and one’s own integrity. Remember, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs never finished college. Equally, remember all those brilliant classmates of yours, with bright futures beckoning to them, who fizzled out in the University of Life and were never able to contribute meaningfully to the society of which they were a part and which had invested so much hope in them. So, by all means, participate in the marks race, but realise that it is ultimately a game where you win some and lose some. Winning over your own fears and insecurities is what will finally make you a complete human being.