As a school boy, I seldom saw my father. A senior civil servant with the former Madras Presidency, he spent his life buried in government files which arrived constantly in huge boxes borne home by liveried ‘dafedars’ (head peons). He never took leave, worked on Sundays and holidays and suffered untimely transfers. His only advice to me came on the day of his retirement. “Okay with me if you make a living sweeping the streets. But don’t become a government employee.”
Like my father, author Robin Gupta was part of the steel frame (civil services) which helped the British to rule India. After independence, the mantle fell on local rulers. Gupta worked in Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab handling different assignments and not working for many months! High hopes soon gave way to total disillusionment and he confesses in the epilogue, “I have written this book in the hope of presenting to the reader a mirror to India — the ethical and moral degradation that we have fallen prey to, and its concomitant ills. The book is a cursory survey of the tragedy of India today, as I understand it, for I felt that democracy in this country needs no external foe.”
A democracy revolves around ministers and bureaucrats, in desi version they are the ‘netas’ and the ‘babus’. If ‘Yes Minister’ and ‘Yes, Prime Minister’ were translated into Indian languages, they certainly would represent the India of today. Since Gupta’s retirement in 2008, both ‘netagiri’ and ‘babudom’ had worsened. On a single day, a Mumbai daily reported that a senior babu of the Bihar cadre under the scanner for amassing wealth beyond his known sources of income presented his wife with 230 gold earrings, a former additional commissioner of police in Mumbai was sent to jail for owning five flats in Mumbai and a CBI officer got bail in a graft case. The netas did not lag behind. The Uttarakhand Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna found time from relief operations to suspend babus for releasing file pictures of ‘netas’ after a visit to the flood hit areas because they were shown smiling and happy.
Glorious uncertainties of netagiri and babudom! Later in his career, Gupta underwent many of these ups and downs. But the early days were a lark. Affluent, sophisticated and well connected, he saw work with a kind of detached amusement. In distant areas like Jalpaiguri, Siliguri or Rajganj plenty of development work had to be done. But the infrastructure was shaky, people lazy and the senior babus preferred the easy, party-going life. Floods took a heavy toll every year but more attention was paid to the menu for Maya Ray (wife of Chief Minister S.S.Ray) who belonged to the region. In the midst of flood havoc, Gupta had to manage a ‘light’ lunch of tuna sandwich, lightly tossed salad, minestrone soup and some peaches or a lemon soufflé for another guest, the Nawab of Malda who had a sweet tooth! If the netas were displeased, the babus had it!
Gupta never shirked work but how to find a suitable slot where his talent could be utilised best? His mother, rich, widely read, sophisticated and with high connections helped a lot, yet weird situations developed. A highly eccentric Begum Saheba, made chairperson of the Tourism development Corporation allowed him a lot of scope to work but her odd behaviour was alarming to say the least. Gupta fared better in the Ministry of Sport despite working under V.C. Shukla of the ‘Emergency’ fame. Postings in Haryana and Punjab offered some variety but no satisfaction. How to function under ministers who knew nothing about their portfolios, kept away from their files and preferred to be surrounded by sycophants? The corruption in all the ministries, from top to bottom, was massive. The netas and the babus led the landgrabs, allocating for themselves choice plots in the heart of cities for private bungalows.
As retirement neared, disillusionment mounted. A keen lover of poetry, writing and music, Gupta writes in anguish, “The time of the thoughtful civil servant was over. The dhoti-clad legislator, full of tall promises, perpetual greeting and oily smile, was the fountain of decision making, Some IAS officers also changed over to safari suits or Indian attire and spent time interpreting rules to largely illiterate political bosses to allow the government in power to retain a facade of constitutional propriety.”
A natural story teller, Gupta tells his tale with a wry sense of humour. With power in the hands of such netas and babus, the nation’s future looked bleak. Perhaps, this book should be made compulsory reading for the civil service trainees at Mussourie.
(V. Gangadhar is a journalist based in Mumbai)
The Memoirs of an Unrepentant Civil Servant: Robin Gupta
Rupa Publications India Pvt. Ltd.,
7/16, Ansari Road, Daryaganj,
New Delhi- 110002.