A Life in Three Acts

Karti Sandilya IFS

If you had told me, in early 1967, that I would be a bureaucrat, I wouldn’t have believed you. I was set on being a lawyer in the Madras High Court, hoping to make a name for myself in constitutional law. But plans changed, when my father died soon after the UPSC examination results were announced, and I headed to the Academy and the Indian Foreign Service (IFS).

As it turned out, Mussoorie was probably the best thing that could have happened to me at the time: a fresh environment and the company of a large number of extremely congenial strangers! Over classes, billiards and boozy evenings at Whispering Windows, one made friends for life, across all Services. Some, sadly, no more, as the batch lost several members fairly early on, including a beloved IFS mate within months of the Foundation Course. Still, one should count one’s riches in friends, and the Academy and the bureaucracy have left me absurdly wealthy. And to all of you, I say, you know who you are!

Civil servants – even those with stable careers – are destined to live life in three-year installments. An unfortunate few suffer even shorter tenures and, hence, more frequent dislocations. But I was lucky: from a first posting to Argentine in 1969 (with a young bride in tow!) to the deputation to the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in 1986, I had just five changes of venue. Buenos Aires was followed by New Delhi, Geneva, Dhaka and again New Delhi. What was also unusual was that in those 17 years, I worked in – and was paid by – the Ministry of External Affairs (my parent Ministry) only for a little over a year. For the rest, I served the Ministry of Commerce (12 years) and the Ministry of Finance (3 years). For Commerce Ministry (at home and abroad), that meant export promotion (Argentina and Bangladesh), multilateral trade policy (Geneva), trade with neighboring countries, and policy for the plantations industry (tea, coffee, rubber and spices). In Finance Ministry (Department of Economic Affairs), the remit was aid from European countries and foreign exchange budgeting for the petroleum sector. Unexpectedly, for three months, I also tackled a coin shortage emergency (authorizing coin imports, coordinating “coin trains”, and sanctioning a new Mint!). Not your typical IFS trajectory, you would agree. I was clearly an early convert to the notion of economic diplomacy.

I am still a firm believer in that school of thought. With more than 40% of India’s GDP now linked to imports and exports, our approach to multilateral trade negotiations seems rooted in a time when that figure was less than 10%. And in our relations with South Asian neighbors, we continue to be reluctant, or so it appears, to wield the powerful weapon that is the vast Indian market. Economic considerations undoubtedly count for more now in India’s foreign policy; but there remains room for greater integration of politics and economics in our stances towards the outside world.

The shift to the ADB in Manila (and the subsequent early retirement from Government in 1991) deprived me off a major experience that motivates entrants to the IFS, viz., being a Head of Mission or ambassador! Although I still regret that omission very much, what ADB offered me instead was a broadening of the mind to non-governmental perspectives on socio-economic development. My perch at ADB’s Strategy and Policy Department offered an enviable vantage position to observe the Asia-Pacific region during a period of rapid economic growth. Crafting ADB’s policy on good governance in 1995 (a first among multilateral development banks) and its Poverty Reduction Strategy in 1999, was both satisfying and rewarding. My last assignment at ADB, to its office in Washington, D.C. provided an easy segue into a third act.

In retirement, a new career has beckoned: supporting an environmental non-profit to alert the world to the dangers of toxic pollution. This means 10 million deaths a year globally or more than three times the annual mortality due to malaria, tuberculosis and HIV combined. In India, smog in metropolitan centers, but also smoke from household chulas, and lead and chromium pollution (from battery recycling and tannery effluent), cry out for clean-up. More than an environmental concern, this is the #1 public health issue. Time for the country to clean up its act!

On a lighter note, I cannot end without recalling one tiny tradition – still current – that dates back to the Foundation Course. Early on during our Mussoorie stay, I came to the dining room for breakfast one morning and casually asked Rathi Ganapathi (now Rathi Vinay Jha, TN: IAS, 1967) if she knew what virgins ate for breakfast. She was momentarily at a loss and then shook her head, as if to indicate she didn’t know. When I looked at her in silence and with raised eyebrows, the implication of her non-answer dawned on her and she chased me out of the room, caught up with me and pulled my ears. In retaliation, I pulled hers. And, so now, whenever we meet, we pull each other’s ears, to the continuing bemusement of friends and families! We shall, no doubt, do so again at the 50th Anniversary Batch Reunion…



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