Saturday, September 27, 2014

Guest Post Series - Bureaucrat Bloody Hell

Note : This post is a part of the Guest Post Series.

The popular opinion among our countrymen and women is that the Indian bureaucracy doesn't work at all. We believe that all "babus" are lazy and corrupt, and all others are hardworking. The way we talk about about the public servants in our everyday conversations, it would seem as if we outsiders are efficient, upright, hardworking and disciplined chaps who lift up the country on our over-burdened shoulders, whilst the politicians and public servants do their utmost to bring it down. I have always wanted to write a lengthy post on this despicable tendency we have to generalize, but I have always held back because of an apprehension that my anger would seep through. When you argue with anger, you risk losing objectivity; and even if you don't, it is difficult to convince others that you haven't.

I know Shyam since school. We were not close. Our conversations were on Sidney Sheldon and James Hadley Chase; Anniyan and Rang De Basanti. He would lend me his excellent Haliday-Resnick-Walker Physics book on my request, and I would return it untouched (along with the ₹50 notes he stuffs into his books and forgets). He became closer later on, when we both started blogging around the same time. We happened to meet randomly at movie festivals and bookshops, and through all these we have had some great discussions on a variety of things. He introduced me to and lent to me a book very close to my heart -- Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham. I have admired the variety in his blog : he writes poems, prose, reviews, interviews, travelogues and everything else. Read his brilliant series of articles on "The journey from 'boy' to 'man'", a write-up on the "The Way of the Heart" and a cute poetic adaptation of "And Then There Were None". His feedback on my own blog are usually pinpoint - he quotes the lines he likes and politely disagrees when he has to. Shyam is also a part of a short story collection  a few of us are attempting to self-publish online. Look forward to a couple of beautiful stories from him. I will introduce the other two writers of this collection too as a part of this series.
He is, as far as I know, unsusceptible to the loss of objectivity I rambled about. When we all did the traditional engineering degree and looked for IT jobs, he did a B.Sc, followed it up with an overseas MS, took up a motley of jobs in start-ups and banks, cleared UPSC and is now a bureaucrat. All this put together gives him the impartiality to judge Indian beurocracy. I asked him to give us a glimpse of the much misunderstood inner workings of the Government of India, and here is his memoir of his first year with it.

Bureaucrat Bloody Hell

 “Every Government servant shall at all times maintain absolute integrity”
 - Rule 3(1)(i), Central Civil Services (Conduct) Rules, 1964

“You're born, you take shit. You get out in the world, you take more shit. You climb a little higher, you take less shit. Till one day you're up in the rarefied atmosphere and you've forgotten what shit even looks like. Welcome to the layer cake son.”                                                                                                    - Eddie Temple in the film ‘Layer Cake’

The first quotation is from the rule book, the second from a crafty gangster movie. Both apply equally to a government servant in India. I’ve been a bureaucrat for a year now. What follows is an account of my first impression of babudom. Read on then, you might at least be amused.

Let me be honest about my attitude towards the services. It was an outsider’s urge to act that made me enter the Civil Services. The general apathy of things, the persistent sights of unemployment, disease, inefficiency and helplessness. When asked in the interview why I wanted to join the bureaucracy, I said that I believed it was the best position for a person in my square - a young graduate in India. You get the lot - the chance to serve, remuneration, status.

After entering the government factory, the workings of the machinery became more familiar. I looked at it in awe, in disgust and in sobriety. The system was immense, had a voracious appetite, there were rusted parts, there were finer parts. During the first two years, you are trained. You see the river through its course, not swimming in it but surveying it with the eye of someone who is going to spend the rest of his life swimming in it. The young idealistic entrant full of values and noise but not of much use at navigating the system who finally becomes the veteran hawk, all purity traded for life skills that teach him to prey and sacrifice as and when necessary. Like the cold, clear water at the source, supporting little life but pure in its essence he enters. The acquirement of nutrients when flowing down to the valley, the start of life and the increase in fertility of the water body, the vitality of its mid-course as animal, plant and human activity burgeons and eventually the delta, the shallows filling up and the river mingling with the ocean. C’est la vie. 

I am from the Indian Information Service. As trainees to become the communication ambassadors of the government, we spend many hours in presentations, field visits, debates and brain storming sessions. We analyse the excellence of the Election Commission, the handling 26/11 attacks, why Bharat Ratna Sachin is still selling Luminous inverters and how some men (be it E. Sreedharan or Vinod Rai) develop the uncanny ability to cut across red tape and deliver results.

We see the good, bad and ugly. The hope is that this incubation time will acclimatise us to government temperature and hopefully pack our rucksacks with things necessary on the road trip from smart to wise.

After a year, the machine has helped show me my place in the scheme of things. It has taught me to understand that at whatever level we strive for whatever goal, let us remember that ‘’Tis but a part that we see, and not a whole’. It is necessary to keep it humble, to keep it human.

Bureaucracy has also helped me appreciate life more, embrace it with a bit more affinity. The same day throws at you experiences that are extraordinarily diverse. Just after drenching in the experience of seeing a Livelihood Mission change the lives of women in rural Andhra Pradesh, after witnessing Ratnamma talk with brimming pride on how she took a revolving loan of 5 lakhs from her SHG and repaid it, how she managed to free her husband from bonded labour from that money, you also go into the details of the blunders in the KG Basin deal. It is life in microcosm. And with a worm’s eyeview of that microcosm, the richness overwhelms and propels us  towards becoming better, serving better.

But let us see what unfolds in the coming years, what surprising turns and twists await. Robert Browning said it so well ‘Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be’.

Thanks a ton Adarsh for the opportunity,
Yours Cheerfully,
Shyam

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