If you are expecting a series of funny anecdotes on the IAS or an ‘English August’ type of book on the Indian civil service, perish the thought. Instead Javid Chowdhury tries to give an earnest and evolved picture of his 40 years as a public servant and though he has a neat turn of phrase and some juicy stories, specially the one on three Parsi police officers controlling a riot, it is his integrity and values that come across strongly. Boy! If this was what civil servants were like once, the country was in good hands. And there is a good reason why Chowdhury was ingrained with such high integrity when you read about the rather comically strict M.G. Pimputkar, the former director of the Academy at Mussoorie. He is the man who got his own ration card suspended after he learnt that rations were falsely drawn on his name. In this age where multi-crore corruption scams barely raise an eyebrow, this must seem trivial. “The question of integrity was an obsession for the civil servants of my time,” he writes.
He is perceptive not only about his own profession but also the political class he had to deal with. Writing about Chimanbhai Patel, he says, “His ethical world was set in a vacuum and he floated weightlessly in it.” A masterly statement that could apply to so many politicians of today. He also refers to the perennial tussle between the minister and the civil servant but also appreciates the simplicity of the former Gujarat Chief Minister Babubhai J Patel, who when he was only a minister used to travel by bus and did not believe in protocol.
Chowdhury can get stodgy at times but that’s alleviated by his genuine concern and the seriousness with which he conducted himself in his profession. There is a useful section on how public servants stack up which gives you an informed analysis of corruption levels among them. He speaks approvingly of the changes in the cadre of civil servants. The case of the young Muslim boy from Jhabua, the son of illiterate farmers making the IAS cut is quite touching. The civil service is rife with pettiness and rivalry and Chowdhury when he was at the Centre as Establishment Officer was not immune to these. Recalling a whisper campaign by the then Union Cabinet secretary who spread a canard that Chowdhury was terminally ill so that he would get transferred, he writes, “By the grace of Almighty not only was I not ill then, but as I write this today, I have (touch wood) enjoyed fifteen years of quality life after this incident. In the course of that, I have had the good fortune of being the Union secretary for a total of over five years in three ministries and departments — food, revenue, and health and family welfare. It was shocking to discover that the doyen of civil services, the Cabinet secretary, would make such a diabolic statement about his immediate junior.”
He also admits that it was difficult to get women and scheduled caste officers in senior posts and he did his best to change that. In addition is the caste factor. “Caste-based power play is gaining an unimaginable hold in India. This weakness for one’s own caste is now increasingly found in top Ministers and civil servants also. In my stint as Revenue secretary I found it impossible to place even a single officer of the level of Deputy Secretary or above in the department on the basis of my objective assessment of their merit,” he says. So for a lark they totted up the members of the finance minister’s caste in the ministry and found 25 per cent of the senior posts in the department belonged to the minister’s caste which constituted less than 2 per cent of the population.
And of course he writes of another distressing phenomenon that no woman officer has ever headed the service as cabinet secretary. No one, not even V. P. Singh or Manmohan Singh seemed to favour a woman for the top post and it has not been for want of contenders. Even under-privileged communities cannot become cabinet secretaries and the civil service can go any lengths to prevent this as in the case of Mata Prasad that Chowdhury writes about.
On a lighter note are his stories of accompanying the CBI director to Switzerland for the Bofors papers, and his experiences as Director of Enforcement, apart from the nitpicking of former finance minister Yashwant Sinha. While health secretary he realised that the social sectors are bereft of conceptual thinking and he says that the political and bureaucratic executive, between them, have managed to ensure this. There is also the battle over banning the sale of non-iodised salt and Chowdhury’s face-off with the redoubtable Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee who wanted to lift the ban.
Again after the Gujarat riots, Chowdhury gives an insight into Vajpayee’s meeting with Narendra Modi. The question of camps for Muslims being shut down was foremost and Vajpayee was obviously in disagreement with Modi. Notably, Chowdhury writes, L. K. Advani as home minister who was present at this meeting, didn’t utter a word. Finally the Prime Minister had his way by ordering Mr. Modi to brief the press on the situation. The book is highly critical of the role or lack of it played by civil servants during the Gujarat riots. And that is not the least of the book’s merits.
THE INSIDER’S VIEW — Memoirs of a Public Servant: Javid Chowdhury; Viking/Penguin, 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 499