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‘Women of Influence: Ten Extraordinary IAS Careers’ review: Blazing powerful trails

In 1948, C.B. Muthamma was the first woman to join the Indian Foreign Service. Three years later, Anna George was the first woman to join the Indian Administrative Service. Both women had to sign undertakings that they would quit if they chose to marry; but no such conditions were imposed on male officers.

Years later, when Muthamma was passed over for a promotion as Ambassador, she challenged the discriminatory rule in the Supreme Court. She won in a landmark judgment. The order began by wondering “whether Articles 14 and 16 belong to myth or reality.” The last line was equally unforgettable: “We dismiss the petition, but not the problem.”

Remarkable achievements

When Anna George was posted as subcollector to Hosur, she made history by bringing electricity to the border subdivision. She was also making history as a woman in a position of authority. Other women came to look at the rare sight. “She looks just like us,” said an old woman sceptically.

The sexist service rule ensured that George would not marry her batchmate R.N. Malhotra until much later. Nevertheless, when Malhotra was appointed RBI Governor, entailing their move to Bombay, the government posted George to set up a modern port at Nhava Sheva. This was no “trailing spouse” appointment: in 1989, after setting up the port, George was awarded the Padma Bhushan. These women, and others after them, blazed powerful trails.

InWomen of Influence, retired civil servant Rajni Sekhri Sibal describes the career trajectories of some of the women who followed.

The first narrative is about Otima Bordia, first woman Collector in Rajasthan. Otima was posted to the border district of Bikaner in 1965. Her batchmate and husband Anil Bordia was posted as Additional Director, Education. Typically — because no one hesitates to make a sexist statement out loud — everyone wanted to know: how could a woman be given a Collectorship before her husband?

Intrigued by the idea of a woman as Collector, Rajasthani women in ghoonghats (veils) walked across the sands to meet her. “We heard there was a woman Collector Sa in Bikaner, and came to see her for ourselves.”

It was a challenging tenure. Anil supervised the digging of trenches as air raid shelters at home while Otima was out on patrols. When war broke out, and the Food Corporation of India godown manager fled with the keys, Otima literally broke the lock of the godown to distribute foodgrains and prevent hunger in the district.

Eyes on the invisible

Sibal writes about others who found ways to reach out to the marginalised who had hitherto been invisible to policy. Anuradha Gupta addressed the problem of exclusion by turning the focus of the polio immunisation campaign to children who had not been covered. B. Bhamathi issued a key advisory for cases of trafficked women and children from other countries who had been languishing in Indian jails for years.

The most remarkable story Sibal tells is of Anita Kaul, a very unusual IAS officer. “Anita did not quite fit the idea of an archetypal bureaucrat. She was passionate about reforms, change and education. ‘Almost like an activist,’ a colleague had once sneered. To Anita, that was a beautiful compliment.”

Anita was deeply involved in the design and implementation of many pathbreaking reforms: the total literacy campaigns, which regarded literacy as the people’s right, and brought civil society organisations and mass movements to partner with the state; the grassroots women’s empowerment work of Mahila Samakhya; the joyful, child-centred and world class pedagogy of Nali Kali; and the Right to Education Act 2009, which for the first time made free and compulsory education a justiciable right of the Indian child.

It seems incredible that one person could impact so many lives — but Anita was relentless in her efforts to bring change. “Within the bureaucracy, Anita Kaul was known to possess the traits of an activist, and amongst the stakeholders and people at large, she was the medium through whom their issues would be heard and understood in the government circles. Once she decided to get something done, she would never give up.”

Key to social justice

Anita Kaul believed that education was the key to achieving social justice and deepening democracy. She also believed that education had to face up to the reality of caste, gender and other disparities: “There is a complex caste-based exclusion we need to address in policymaking. We need to address the failure of the universalisation of primary education along with the complex socio-economic issues and the issue of systematic discrimination in which such failure is grounded.”

Despite many challenges, public service continues to offer unique opportunities to drive social change. Sibal herself topped the civil service examination in 1986 and worked as Secretary to the Government of India. Her book reminds us that while women civil servants have contributed in extraordinary ways to nation-building and development, women in general are under-represented in the civil service, particularly at senior levels. This matters because the civil service must represent, understand and respond to the concerns of all those whom it serves.

Women of Influence: Ten Extraordinary IAS Careers; Rajni Sekhri Sibal, Penguin India, ₹350.

The reviewer is in the IAS. Views are personal.


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