A. S. Padmanabhan
The very title sums up the conditions in government service. That the author served the government for 40 long years adds an element of poignancy to his account.
C.G. Somiah's honesty was on test even while applying to the civil service examination. In the application form that had a column on ‘previous convictions,' he confessed to having once paid a fine for transgressing a rule against riding a bicycle without light. That he rebutted the Interview Board Chairman's claim about the number of exit routes from Coorg was not taken adversely either. These early experiences helped buttress the author's belief that honesty has its own rewards.
Postings and transfers in Orissa follow the usual pattern. While he was serving in the districts, the Accountant-General raised an audit objection on the loss of high-denomination revenue stamps. Somiah replied saying that he held a ‘conference of rats' in the treasury's strong room and the ‘king rat' told him that they nibbled at only such stamps, because they found the gum on them very tasty. And the Accountant-General just laughed over the explanation.
Quite eventful was his tenure as Forest Secretary. He would not agree to reducing or remitting the lease-rent as demanded by kendu leaf contractors since he found their plea of crop failure baseless. Somiah had to resist pressures from the highest political executive and he even risked an adverse entry in his confidential report. Ultimately, however, the contractors had their way and Somiah's promotion was delayed. Later, with the change of guard in the State, a commission was appointed to enquire into the kendu leaf “scandal” and its report vindicated his position.
Postings in Delhi gave him ample opportunities to study men and their ‘machinations'. After a stint in the Department of Company Affairs, during which the exemption limit under the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices (MRTP) Act was raised, Somiah became Home Secretary. He found his office room bugged, summoned the suspected person, and gave him a dressing down.
Another irritant concerned the purchase of pistols. On finding the imported Czech pistols defective, he worked through the diplomatic channels and got a refund of the price from the foreign seller. Yet, a probe was instituted, needlessly. Such instances show how vulnerable are honest officers even at higher levels.
As Home Secretary, Somiah had first-hand experience of inter-departmental intrigues, pettiness and peevishness in the corridors of power, ego-clashes, and revenge by questionable means. In speaking about them, he is simple, clear, and forthright. Uncharacteristically, however, he is not very forthcoming on the Bofors issue, and his plea is: “some secrets have to remain a secret”.
While on a visit to Saudi Arabia, as the Comptroller and Auditor-General, Somiah says he was informed that the Ministers — all members of the Saudi Royal family — enjoyed some latitude in financial probity. He wonders “why India should not follow the example of getting quality work done by contractors by officially providing in the work estimates for the bribe to be paid”!
There will be honest loners in every State and department. In some cases, they are marginalised, given sinecure posts, and denied foreign assignments. For his part, Somiah has had prize postings and held high constitutional offices. In that sense, he has been a lucky loner. But in a societal atmosphere where corruption is rampant, one can only say “may their tribe increase!” — whatever the difference in the career graphs of such honest loners.