Ashoka Rastogi , IAS (Tamil Nadu Cadre, 1968 Batch)
While posted in Tamil Nadu, I had worked for a public sector company, Southern Structural Ltd., which used to manufacture heavy earth moving equipment for Neyveli Lignite Corporation. Its Chairmen, M P Narayanan, taught me how to do honest business in Public Sector and I consider him as one of my mentors. After he moved over to Coal India Ltd, he encouraged me to bid for projects there and that is how we made our presence felt in Eastern & Northern Coalfields as well. I also looked after coastal shipping as MD, Poompuhar Shipping Corporation, moving thermal coal from eastern ports to TN thermal plants. Later on, while heading BALCO, I had the opportunity of managing its operations right from ore extraction to production and marketing of aluminum products.
I’ve often asked myself whether I am duty bound to perform ethically, particularly in the face of inhospitable system and adversarial situations, both administrative and political, which tend to always pull you down? When I searched for answers within, I realized that on account of my inherited and acquired values, I was conditioned to perform only ethically. Furthermore, occasional doubts, confusion and inquisitiveness turned out to be manifestations of a deep rooted regimen of rights and wrongs because of which I could face any number of Tsunamis.
Let me outline some kind of framework to appreciate the prescriptions and their practical application in real life. Let’s look at the way a traditional aatta chakki works. You’ll notice that due to enormous weight of the stone grinders, its operation is no easy task unless one holds the central pole tightly with full concentration. Here, these two sides of the grinder represent external environment while the central pole is your inner determination to perform whatever may happen.
Hence, ‘focus’ and ‘perseverance’ are the two keys to unplug your dreams and aspirations to carry you through an otherwise torturous journey of achieving your goal of delivery of public good. In this context, you may refer to the famous Brazilian author, Paul Coelho, who, in his famous magical fable ‘The Alchemist’, repeatedly says “When you want something, the entire universe conspires in helping you to achieve it”. Nearer home, Shahrukh Khan in one of his famous dialogues in Om Shanti Om says “agar aap poori shiddat se kisiko chahoge, toh saari kayanat jut jayegee usko aap se milane ke liye”.
Now, the million dollar question is how to remain focused in the midst of temptations, allurements, fear and threats?
This discourse has three interconnected segments. First is the architectural design (DNA) of the “Karta”, i. e. you and me. Second is the tools deployed by him to perform his allotted or chosen roles. And third is the means to sustain the resultant framework. In the process, I shall be liberally drawing upon my own experience, both personal and official, as also from several anecdotes.
Talking of our DNA first, while working in Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), I was often told that men were not born immoral, but became victims of circumstances. While it’s true that all men are born innocent, we can’t entirely blame the environment for people turning out as corrupt or evil because each one of us is endowed with a faculty to distinguish between good and evil. It’s this faculty that needs to be cultivated and sharpened by practice of Dharma, understood as a broad framework of “self action”. In terms of inner engineering, “self” is described as the fulcrum of self enlightenment.
Next, coming to the tools in application of ethical conduct, we usually refer them as attributes of a good public functionary. Some of these are: honesty selflessness and frugality. These must be tempered with tolerance, compassion, passion and pride. Honesty means being able to distinguish between private interest and public interest. Consider this small incident from the life of Caliph Ali.
The Caliph was sitting in his treasury office looking at the accounts. Suddenly, his two nephews entered asking for advice on some domestic issue. Ali asked them to wait while he extinguished the candle that was lighting the room. He took out another from his drawer, lit it up and then asked them about the matter. The boys were surprised at this little drama and asked him the reason behind his action. Ali explained that the earlier candle was an official one and could only be used for transaction of official business. And when family matters were to be discussed, he would do so only in the light lit by his personal candle! It’s this kind of integrity and honesty that we’re talking about in public dealings.
Selflessness is about absence of greed. When we desire more than we require, it is greed. Its impact is succinctly described by Mahatma Gandhi’s saying: “The earth provides enough to feed everyone, but not enough to take care of our greed.” The question is how do we liberate ourselves from greed? It’s exemplified by this tale of a king.
One day a king asked his finance minister how long his wealth would last. After some calculation, the minister told him that it will last three generations. The king thought that it won’t do and asked the minister to raise more resources. After a few months, the minister reported that he had exerted his utmost and now the king’s wealth would last seven generations.
“Only seven generations? That will not do. Will the eight generation starve?” the king wailed and went into depression. A few weeks later, a monk visited the palace. He understood the king’s predicament and advised him to feed two beggars in the palace every day. It so happened, one day, the soldiers could locate only one beggar. The king then went personally on horseback looking for a second beggar. He located one seated under a tree and requested him to come to the palace and have a meal with him.
“Let me check with my wife”, said the beggar. He returned after some time and said: “Sorry, your Majesty! We have enough to buy today’s lunch; about dinner we shall see later.”
“This beggar is not worried about dinner and I’m anxious about my eighth generation!” thought the king and his depression vanished.
In this context, in ancient times, Chanakya, in his treatise (Arthashastra) on statecraft, economic policy and military strategy, while describing the virtues of a king states:
“In the happiness of his subjects lies his happiness, in their welfare his welfare, whatever please himself he shall not consider as good but whatever pleases his subjects, he shall consider as good.”
What a wonderful prescription of selfless public service handed down 400 years before Christ! It’s definitely this ethical dimension that is supposed to guide the policy makers and their implementers at the ground level.
Next, let’s take a moment to talk about frugality which means unostentatious living or living prudently within ones means. On a personal note, my wife and myself consciously lived within our means, never succumbing to temptations, allurements and even threats. In the process, this concept became ingrained in us so much that at the end of almost four decades of service, we felt contented with our pension and some savings. As a result, I didn’t feel the need to indulge in monetizing my contacts, influence and power to supplement my income.
Let me also explain the qualifying elements of these attributes thus: tolerance for others’ views; compassion for all; passion for whatever work we do; and pride in being an Indian with all the follies & weaknesses, as also strength, perseverance and opportunities it offers to excel.
As regards the third segment, about sustainably of the framework, I shall take it up a little later. First, let me recount some highlights from my life’s journey. My life story is a chronicle of high hopes, adolescent failures, perseverance and then rising higher and higher towards excellence – a kind of panorama of challenges and their management to achieve the ultimate goal of delivery of public good.
Academic failures: Being the eldest in family and earmarked to be an engineer, I had to opt for science stream in the school. While it was with some difficulty that I passed 12th standard, I got stuck in B. Sc. for two years and in a professional college for another year. Though distraught and frustrated, parental support and counseling helped me to stay focused and once the hurdle was removed, there was no looking back. In straight four years, I made it to the Civil Services, thus erasing the stigma of multiple
failures. Face to face with allurement: While undergoing foundational training in Mussoorie, there was a marriage proposal with offer of five lakh as dowry, which was quite a big amount in those days. In the background of my father being a self-made man and having equipped myself with robust idealism, I declined the offer. Exactly a year later in the midst of district training in Tamil Nadu, I faced the same issue. It so happened that upon rejection of my application for a two wheeler advance, I met the then Chief Secretary who had the audacity to ask me to go back and buy a car, as the trainee officers were known to receive fat dowries. I told him with certain emotion that I was an exception!
Managing harsh working and living conditions: My allotment to TN cadre and first posting in the southern most corner of the country came as a rude shock. Due to cultural and language issues, I found myself in an unfamiliar territory. Early marriage did help, but financial constraint was acute and remained so throughout. Slowly, I got immersed in my new calling which I found interesting and fulfilling on account of close contact with people whose aspirations I was mandated to take care of. Deep within myself, I knew that it was going to be an exciting journey.
The Dravidian mindset: The tendency to suspect everything associated with the North, including Hindi, was another issue. In this context a sagacious advice given to me is worth mentioning. While training in the State Secretariat, I had the privilege to meet C. Rajagopalachari, maternal grandfather of my batch mate, Gopal Krishna Gandhi. Finding me somewhat raw in the knowledge of local customs and political situation, he cautioned me thus: “You’ll need strong heart and mind to succeed because of certain deeply entrenched dogmas here.” Typical of my youthful defiant attitude, I told him, “I suppose I can manage as I’ m equally obdurate in my notions of right and wrong.” In due course, I learnt about the social engineering in the 1930s and the politically appropriate mannerisms in Tamil society.
In any case, this remained a delicate issue to be handled with caution. As we progressed in our proficiency of spoken Tamil and adoption of some of their cultural traits, including food habits, our assimilation and acceptance increased in that proportion.
Concept of neutrality compromised: I soon discovered that neutrality had a different connotation there. With cadre based Dravidian parties, Tamil Nadu is a highly politicized state with a very thin dividing line between the government and the administration. Every Monday was the Grievances Redressal Day (manu neethi titham), when the Collector, assisted by district officials, used to meet the public to listen to their problems and try to sort them out on the spot. During these assemblies, the district secretary of the ruling party and representatives of other parties were very much present and they used to actively participate in the deliberations. We may say that the district party secretary virtually acted as a bridge, confirming the linkage between the two entities.
Rent seeking: I used to marvel at the ease with which rent seeking had been perfected and about its acquiescence by the society at large. They will justify it by giving illustration of power losses during transmission and water loss due to evaporation.
Struggle and dilemmas: In the prevailing atmosphere, there was, within me, a constant conflict of conscience and values versus the system as a whole. What kept me going in this turmoil was my determination to carry on with my job on hand and the unflinching support of my immediate family, particularly my wife. She used to caution me to go slow and avoid clash with politically aligned bosses, if not the politicians. I would often earn adverse ACR entries for my straight forwardness. However, in each of these cases, my stand was ultimately vindicated, but after a long haul.
Interestingly, the initial handicap of being an outsider, became an asset in the following years. I was no longer weighted down by either family, or caste or regional considerations. I could, therefore, discharge my duties without fear or favour in a truly non-aligned fashion. Surprisingly, this risk-taking mindset got me bigger and sensitive assignments, signaling the tacit support and understanding of the seniors and even the political establishment, who ultimately wished for decisiveness and result-oriented administrative leadership.
Up against the mighty & influential: As Land Reforms Officer, Coimbatore, my mandate was to take over the surplus agriculture land from individual holdings and distribute it among landless poor. In the process, large chunks of land were being acquired, among others, from several industrialists as also from the Union Finance Minister, C Subramaniam. This created such a hue and cry that the then Chief Secretary, P Sabanayagam, had to come down there to pacify by telling them that there was no harassment and that the officer was only implementing, albeit vigorously, the government policy. At the end of it, he took me aside and complimented me for doing an excellent job. He, however, advised me to be a bit soft spoken!
Facing the might of State Government: As District Collector, Pudukkottai, an erstwhile principality, large funds were placed at our disposal to carry out massive rural infrastructure development. It was a politically sensitive district with three cabinet ministers from that area. Initially, there were crude attempts to tamper with the tender process so as to get works awarded to ruling party contractors. As I was firm in ensuring sanctity of the tender process, this stage was got over uneventfully. Unfortunately, when the works were in full swing, the monsoon failed and the works came to a standstill for want of sufficient water. Then, there was clamour to release full payment in respect of all incomplete works! This was a wholly unjustified and illogical demand and I declined to oblige them. I was brazenly offered all sorts of inducements, but to no avail. Stung by my “non -cooperation”, they got me transferred on phone in the middle of a school year without announcing my next posting. Naturally, I felt hurt and humiliated, but consoled myself with the premise that it was an administrative matter and there was nothing anyone could do about it.
However, relief came after a few days in the shape of the same government handing over charge of the sensitive Commercial Taxes department to me. That was not all. After a month or so, the same Chief Minister, M G Ramachandran, fully exonerated me on the floor of the State Legislative Assembly by stating, in reply to a question on my transfer, that I was a good and honest officer, etc, etc.
Ethical dilemma: Now, over to tales from Delhi durbar. My tenure in CVC was quite tumultuous as I faced a major ethical dilemma. This was on account of my stand against the policy of holding accused officials guilty on the basis of ‘preponderance of probability’ rather than ‘proof beyond doubt’. The whole approach, to my mind, was contrary to concept of the Common Law and this touchstone could not be watered down even in quasi-judicial departmental inquiries, because no innocent should ever be punished. The prevailing practice came handy in order to fatten the number of Class 1 officials caught and punished by CVC. My point was that somebody’s reputation and career couldn’t be beholden to this kind of fallacious notion and that there was no escape from following the aforementioned tenets of jurisprudence in the interest of equity, fair play and natural justice.
As expected, there was a price to be paid for my alleged disobedience of the prevailing illogical practice. My performance grading was downgraded, due to which I missed my promotion as Joint Secretary by a couple of years. At the end of the day, I had the satisfaction of having kept my sanity and to have been instrumental in saving several officials from judicial tyranny!
Let down by colleagues: Disinvestment of BALCO was another hair- raising experience. Here, I was pitted against the powerful Ministries of Mines and Disinvestment. Through intense, informed and persuasive consultations, I was able to convince more than 7000 workmen, affiliated to leftist unions, about the irreversibility of disinvestment process. However, my own colleagues did their best to jeopardize my efforts of networking with the primary stakeholders, the employees and the workmen. In pursuance of some kind of hidden agenda, they interfered at every stage by appointing outside PR agencies, etc, but could not stop me from completing all major milestones. Finally, when the unions had come on board and wanted the Ministry to sign an MOU with them to address their genuine concerns, they pulled back plunging the plant into a long shutdown and necessitating a reference to Supreme Court. Though the disinvestment did take place soon after I was forced out, many a detail cannot be shared here in view of the Supreme Court judgment that came thereafter. Suffice to say, we missed a golden chance of bringing forward a broad spectrum consensus model of disinvestment.
Consequences of going beyond the call of duty: Handling of Tsunami
of Dec 2004 in my capacity as Secretary (Border Management), Ministry of
Home Affairs, was the crowning glory of my career. Here, destiny was offering me a chance to pay back some kind of Guru Dakshina to my adopted State of Tamil Nadu and I made full use of this opportunity. In the process, I faced the fury of two powerful Central Ministers for not adhering to their diktat. Incidentally, one of them, P Chidambaram, happened to be a fellow
The worst affected areas were the southern states and the Island territories of A&N. Of these, Tamil Nadu suffered the maximum damage. The ministerial diktat was that Jayalalithaa should not get credit for relief and reconstruction operations and that her demands for financial assistance should be pruned drastically. I was, however, convinced that humanitarian relief and rehabilitation operations should not be hostage to any kind of politicking. So, I proceeded on field visits with an open mind and what I saw was most moving in terms of magnitude of devastation and scale of human suffering. Accordingly, I prepared a most comprehensive relief and rehabilitation package and the same was promptly approved by the Union Cabinet.
These proposals were patterned on the UNDP model whereby a tragic calamity of this dimension was treated as an opportunity to rebuild affected communities with all modern amenities and infrastructure facilities. The reconstruction programme was to be handled by civil society organizations. It was decided not to accept any international aid. On the contrary, we were to provide relief and assistance to the affected neighboring countries. In the words of the then Prime Minister, Dr Man Mohan Singh, these were revolutionary proposals which would change once for all our approach in dealing with such disasters on our own without seeking any external assistance. Our work was applauded by the world community at the World Conference on Disaster Reduction held in mid- Jan 2005 in Kobe, Japan. Personally again, a heavy price was extracted for having gone beyond the call of duty, by way of denial of a promised post retirement job. I, however, earned my pension honorably.
Kindly permit me to now take up the left over issue of sustainability of the ethical framework. In this context, we must look at the stakeholder (s) involved in the whole exercise. They are none other than the people, communities and organizations, who are already engaged in the mission to serve. They are the change agents who, singly or collectively, have brought in a certain degree of transformational change in their areas of activity. What is now called for is a wholesale upgrade and re- engineering of mindsets, technologies and processes to usher in a deep churning within communities for a visible change around us.
We have to be ready for another kind of revolution. The process of technological realignment is bound to be so universal as to blur the boundaries of public and private institutions, organizations and even nations. You could visualize a new world order emerging where, for example, music, herbs, humor and yoga will cure disease, not chemical medicine and surgery.
Now, I would like to say something about the ethical and conflict of interest issues that young officers are likely to face. The first and foremost is the challenge from the coal mafia. Then, there is the environmental agenda of large scale afforestation of degraded lands. Next, comes the burning issue of resettlement of displaced persons and re-starting of economic activities for their sustenance. Finally, matters like social cohesion, education, health and empowerment towards which CSR activities could be directed.
Your role could be that of a mentor or a counselor, but please remember that you are not looking for a leadership position because the need is always more for followers who would campaign for value based conduct and for an inclusive society.
I shall tell you the reward that people of my vintage have given to ourselves after four decades of public service. Well, we have been amply rewarded in terms of the heritage we are leaving for our children and the society around us. This is best illustrated by the story of Sara Smith. At the point of death, a man named Tom Smith, called his children and advised them to follow his footsteps, so that they can have peace of mind in all they do. His daughter, Sara said, “Daddy, it is unfortunate that you are dying without a penny in your bank and even this house we live in is a rented apartment. Other fathers that you tag as being corrupt have left wealth and properties for their children. Sorry, I can’t emulate you, just go. Let’s chart our own course.”
Few moments later, their father passed away. A few years later, Sara went for an interview in a multinational company, and was asked by the interview committee Chairman, “Which Smith are you?”
Sara replied, “I am Sara Smith, daughter of late Tom Smith.” The Chairman exclaimed, “Oh my God, you are Tom Smith’s daughter!”, and remarked that this Mr. Smith was the one who had helped him with his recommendation that enabled him to reach where he was today. He did all this free not only for him, but for any number of unknown persons. Turning to Sara, he told her that there won’t be any more interview and that she had got the job.
Thus, she was given a high post carrying a fat salary with all the perks. In a couple of years, when the MD of the company wanted to resign and a replacement was being looked around, the company’s consultant nominated Sara for the top job.
When she was asked in an interview about the secret of her success, she replied with tears in her eyes, “My Daddy paved the way for me. It was only after his death that I knew that though he was financially poor, he was rich in integrity, discipline and honesty. I adore him and he deserves all I have after God.”
It goes to show that integrity and self discipline make a man wealthy, not a fat bank balance.
By now, you must have realized that ethical conduct is no superfluous stuff that you may be talking about in your drawing rooms. It is a matter of faith and should be felt deep within you. Further, moral progress is often not by ideas or by transforming consciousness. It is made through the availability of “exemplars”, who expose our hypocrisies, inspire us by their examples and give us civil courage. You cannot simply run away from the field if it is found populated with thorns and evil forces. You’ve to squarely face the situation, whatever be the consequences. I’m sure the resilience of your traditional values and your inner strength will ensure a risk-taking mindset to take on successfully the challenges that keep coming at regular intervals in your journey of life.
Now, on a personal note, let me tell you that my journey, after all the trials and tribulations, has been a celebration of life well lived. I’ m also filled with a deep sense of pride in being an Indian. I can go on and on, but let me tell you that no life story is picture perfect and even the most dynamic life has an unfinished agenda – it’s at best work in progress, so to say! Let us then come together to elevate all those whom we are privileged to serve, to a level where their suffering and pain gets dissolved into cosmos, radiating, in turn, waves of positive energy. You need not be a Yogi to experience the bliss inherent in this phenomenon.
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