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21 October 2012

Senior IAS officer of Gujarat cadre exposes what really goes in power of corridors in his book 'The Insider’s View: Memoirs of a Public Servant'

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Book: The Insider’s View: Memoirs of a Public Servant
Author: Javid Chowdhury
Publisher: Penguin
Price: Rs. 499
Pages: 328

Post retirement memoirs by civil servants sometimes tend to be pompous, self-important and dull. Fortunately, Javid Chowdhury’s recollections in The Insider’s View is none of the above. It is a candid, analytical and objective reflection of Chowdhury’s years as a Gujarat cadre I.A.S. officer who held a variety of posts from an assistant collector in the state to Enforcement Director, Revenue Secretary Health Secretary and Food Secretary at the Centre.

The role of the civil servant in the mid ’60s when Chowdhury joined the service is very different from today. Till the ’80s civil servants had considerable say in drawing up public policy and shaping public programs. In the ’90s following globalisation and liberalisation the system changed, the author argues. Today much of policy formulation is outsourced to extra constitutional bodies like NGOs, think tanks foreign advocacy groups etc. Anything that is considered “economic reforms” is automatically labeled a worthwhile initiative. Extra legal jurisdiction is appropriated by certain ad hoc wings of government, like the prime minister’s Economic Advisory Council. The Planning Commission, which was meant to be an advisory body, has become a decision making body. The civil servant, who was accused of a lack of urgency in decision making, is now increasingly bypassed. He simply tags along.

The background of the civil servant has also changed from generalist graduate in the humanities to trained professionals such as doctors, engineers and business management graduates. Chowdhury believes that while the latter are better equipped to solve problems, which are clearly delineated, the old school civil servant scores in handling issues involving varied social pressures where there are no clear cut answers but the need for a harmonising touch to reconcile the conflicting demands of society.

The author regrets the gender bias which has so far prevented any woman officer from becoming cabinet secretary. He cites the names of three deserving women candidates, who were bypassed, Roma Mazumdar, Reva Nayar and Sudha Pillai. The usual manner of blocking such appointments was simply to give repeated extensions to the incumbent. “The extraordinary longevity of K.M. Chandrashekhar as cabinet secretary raised speculation that the seat was being kept warm for another much junior candidate who was widely considered to be a member of the extended Gandhi family. An unforeseen turn of events led to the abortion of that succession plan.’’ Similarly the rightful claim of Mata Prasad, an outstanding officer, who should have become the first scheduled caste cabinet secretary, was blocked by giving a second extension of three months to the incumbent cabinet secretary.

The book provides interesting insight into the cold war between A.B. Vajpayee as prime minister and Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi after the 2002 Gujarat riots. L.K. Advani, who was present at the stormy meeting, did not utter a word. Modi dug in his heels and refused to allow any representative from Delhi to visit the notorious Shah-e-Alam refugee camp. When Vajpayee sent his health minister, presumably Shatrughan Sinha, to visit the camp Ashok Bhat, the state health minister, went berserk. He threatened that if the minister insisted on visiting the camp he would jump out of the car. A rattled health minister retreated.

Commenting on the conduct during the riots of his fellow bureaucrats from his home state, Chowdhury regrets that Gujarat was administered by “salaried managers and not by constitutionally mandated public servants.’’

One of Chowdhury’s eye-opening revelations concerns the attempts of the Enforcement Director to put an end to the Indo-USSR rupee rouble scam. At that time the rouble was highly overvalued and the USSR had accumulated a large credit balance on exports. The modus operandi adopted by the racketeers was to take advantage of the inherent anomalies in the trade agreement. Purchasers of rouble assets set up bogus export deals which remained only on paper. To end the scam, the directorate wrote to the Revenue Department that it proposed to move the Central Board of Customs and Excise to amend the conditions of export. In future, the exporting party would have to compulsorily provide details of cost, insurance and freight. Shortly afterward the Enforcement Directorate received a rocket from the Revenue Department, which was outraged at the suggestion. Normally, such a reference would not get the attention of the department for at least a year, Chowdhury notes. In this case it was clear that the directorate was attempting to tread on the toes of some very powerful vested interests. Incidentally, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was co-chairman of the Indo-Soviet Joint Planning group when the Indo US rupee rouble trade agreement was negotiated and signed. Many fortunes were made at that time by trading in roubles.

In the Jain hawala case, the author recalls how a senior C.B.I. officer went out of his way to divert the focus of the investigations. The accused hawala dealer S.K. Jain gave a statement totally out of context claiming that he was very friendly with then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao and had taken a suitcase full of cash to his residence. The officer instead of reporting the matter to his superior, the director of C.B.I., placed the interrogation record before the Supreme Court, knowing full well that it would be leaked to the media and change the focus of attack.

Another insightful anecdote is how N.K. Singh, then working in the P.M.O., coolly defied Vajpayee’s diktat that the Central Government order banning the sale of non- iodised salt be withdrawn. N.K. realised the wide scale public health implications of such a retrogressive action. “Public loss with no corresponding private gain was a proposition N.K. could not rationalise.’’ He used his skills as an experienced bureaucrat to delay and ensure that the P.M.’s orders were never conveyed to the health ministry. “Find out how many small scale units are there in Gujarat?” “Has the salt commissioner given his view?’’ were some of the unnecessary queries sent out. Some desultory letters were dispatched, they were never answered and no one in the P.M.O. found it necessary to send a reminder.

Vajpayee had changed the decision on the salt order on the plea of a few elderly, misguided Gandhians who were acting at the behest of some small salt cooperatives they had set up in Gujarat. When the Gandhians, some of whom Vajpayee knew personally, came back to complain that the order was still in force, the PM was livid. He summoned Chowdhury, then health secretary, and with minimal facial movement asked, “Who is the Prime Minister of this Government?’’ Clearly, despite the author’s misgivings the I.A.S. still manages to rule the country.

[This Book Review has been sent by Shahid Raza Burney, Editor-in-Chief "Aapla Saptah" and Senior Special Correspondent NYT and Political PR Consultant, Pune - (Maharashtra). He can be contacted at whistleblower786@gmail.com]

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