In Pursuit of Probity

S. Bagga IAS




“A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who

falls into the sea. If he tries to climb out into the air as

inexperienced people endeavor to do, he drowns …

No! I tell you! The way is to the destructive element

submit yourself, and with the exertions of your hands

and feet in the water make the deep, deep sea keep

you up So if you ask me how to be!”


Lord Jim: A Romance,

Joseph Conrad.


A civil servant has to maintain a dynamic equilibrium with forces which pull him away from the straight and narrow path of rectitude. Mr. M. G. Pimputkar once said “Never forget the administrative point of view”. What he meant was not to exhort a confrontationist’s attitude against the distracting factors but an ability to adhere to facts and extant rules even if one gets over ruled – and thus exist distinct within the system. There is a political point of view and there is an administrative point of view. They are not always at war with each other. In ideal circumstances they maintain their respective distinct identity and co-exist. In the worst circumstances if an administrator feels that a ‘fatal error’ is likely to be committed to which he would not like to be a party, he withdraws from his assignment. Our Constitution provides sufficient protection for righteousness.


Unfortunately, political neutrality of the services has weakened. I do not know when the word ‘Babus’ was coined but a gradual loss of spine, a decline in the capacity to face matters upfront, has progressively taken over the image of the services. Majority of us might still be above the “destructive element” of stalemate, procrastination and corruption, but few conscientiously repel the tide. This decline requires introspection. It is incidental for a civil servant to be aware of the political under currents; but there is a dividing line between loss of innocence and loss of virginity; this dividing line is fast vanishing.


Neutrality of a civil servant is best displayed while handling emergencies in which he is guided by inherent emergency powers without any political or superior approval. There are two reasons why administrators fail to prevent and control riots – incapacity to foresee a situation, and inactivity. Intelligent and continuous monitoring of developments, both in one’s jurisdiction, surrounding areas and elsewhere, that could disturb peace and harmony, should be a habitual part of one’s working. Riots do not take place over night. They are an accumulated result of a series of omissions which go unnoticed when they take place but cause unknown hurt to a community or a group of individuals “Monitor developments even when developments are not taking place”, said Azim Premji the Wipro chief though in a different context. This strategy includes keeping a hawk’s eye on anti-social elements who, irrespective of which religious or class denomination they belong to, are used as cat’s paw when peace goes out of gear. Anti-social elements must always feel the pressure and presence of an ever-watchful administration.


The above strategy helped me and my fellow officers in prevention and control of riots in Bulandshehar in 1975, in Bareilly in the wake Eid Riots in the neighboring district Moradabad in 1980, prevention of anti-Sikh riots in 1984 in Varanasi Division, prevention of Shia Sunni riots in Varanasi in the wake of Supreme Court’s order to shift two Sunni graves in Varanasi, and various other potentially explosive situations.


Posting as Commissioner Varanasi brought me into Ganga Action Plan. Wherever Ganga flows northwards it is considered holy. It is called Uttar Vahini. Varanasi is one such example. Almost all religions have a connection with Kashi – true to ancient Indian ethos — of Vasudeva Kuttumbakam. Hindus, Muslims, Christians Sikhs, Parsis, and even the Jews have a notable presence in Varanasi. Ganga Action Plan originally launched from Varanasi. Core action points comprised interception, diversion and treatment of sewage water, construction of sewage treatment plants, restoration of water quality for designated best use, renovation and beautification of Ghats, construction of electric crematoria at the conventional places of cremation without disturbing the existing cremation sites and without obliterating dogmatically observed rituals, and people’s participation and public awareness. Due to ever increasing population and sources of pollution Ganga Cleaning Project has to be continually updated and sustained.


Ganga Action Plan in Varanasi brought me in touch with Mr. T.N. Seshan the Union Environment Secretary. Shifting from Varanasi to Ministry of Environment and then to Election Commission when Seshan became Chief Election Commissioner happened in a natural sequence. I am lucky that I worked with one of the toughest and the harshest task masters ever. I had to work hard to prove equal to his expectations on daily basis. Yesterday’s hard work did not carry any weight today. But he knew where to stop stretching the capabilities of a subordinate and believed in developing the caliber of his subordinates. By the time he departed the Election Commission had become perhaps the most powerful Constitutional Authority in India. Seshan told me he was once conveyed the following “adverse” remarks – “a tough task master who fixes standards for his subordinates which are difficult to achieve.” He had responded – “If in the eyes of my benign government these are adverse remarks, so be it”. This was him. He did not have a flare for high tech machines and the EVM naturally did not gain priority during his time. Misuse of Money Power, Muscle Power and Minister Power or the power of being in a position of authority, the three Ms, were on the top of his mind. Thus, the Election Commission turned a new page in its history under T. N. Seshan. Grooming in Election Commission facilitated my steering through some international assignments – these included execution of first democratic elections in Cambodia under UN, working for first democratic Community Elections in post-apartheid South Africa, and then working as Chief Technical Advisor of the Independent National Electoral Commission of Sierra Leone which was struggling to come out of civil war. I was also called upon to address Election Commissioners of Commonwealth Countries in Windhoek, Namibia. Thus, working under Seshan was a life time experience. It was a new beginning in the electoral history of India. To borrow words from William Wordsworth written in the wake of the French Revolution:


“Bliss was it in that Dawn to be alive;

And to be young was very heaven.”


I wound up my career as Chief Secretary of U.P. in 2002-03. A challenge before a Chief Secretary of Uttar Pradesh, the largest and the most populated state is to ingratiate with field officers. District and division level officers are starved of direct guidance and paper guidance from long distance does not help the machinery of the state. So, I started the practice of monthly regional meetings to review and accelerate work on important priorities, like Law and Order, domestic mobilization of tax and non-tax resources, polio eradication etc. etc. The Country Director of World Bank wrote a personal letter appreciating the holding of regional review meetings correlating it with the achieving the highest ever accretion in domestic mobilization of tax and nontax revenue in one working year. The accretion that year was 21%, the highest ever achieved after independence. This increased the annual plan allocation of UP substantially. World Bank, after revising its earlier decision, sent a team of experts to revive the mid-term fiscal restructuring program for Uttar Pradesh and resume investment in power sector reforms.


The year 2002 was a dismal year worldwide and in Uttar Pradesh, where eradication of polio is concerned. Nigeria was the only country which had more cases of polio than the state of Uttar Pradesh. Out of 2034 cases of polio worldwide about 1600 were from India accounting for more than 83 percent of the total. Of this number Uttar Pradesh alone with 1242 cases accounted for 65 percent of the world figures. The year 2003 was spent as a war cry against polio involving the entire administration and NGOs – official of Revenue Administration apart from that Health. Even one case of polio occurring anywhere was harshly investigated and responsibilities were fixed. “A polio child anywhere is a threat to children everywhere” was the slogan given by Rotary International at my instance. My PSO once asked me for any special instruction. I told him save me from the hundredth bullet because if you safe me from 99 bullets and the 100th hits me there is no use saving me from 99. So, perfection was the key. In 2003 polio cases in UP fell down to only 36. The top brass of World Health Organization in Geneva who were alarmed about U.P. in 2002 were happily surprised to witness reversal of scene in 2003. The then Director General of WHO Ms. Gro Harlem Bruntland herself came down to Lucknow to see how we were handling the crisis. Dr Harshvardhan the present Union Health Minister in his book “A Tale of Two Drops”, at page 180 of his book has kindly recalled the successful efforts made in UP in eradication of polio in the years 2003. Thus, I carved out a Road Map for Zero Error in Eradication of Polio. The Technical Committee of WHO invited my batch mate JVR Prasad Rao the Union Health Secretary and me to make a presentation. The Rotary International honored me with a golden plaque and Paul Harrison fellowship for polio eradication.




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