‘There’s a world of a difference between the two (govts). In the previous govt, there wasn’t much of a pressure from anywhere for you to do what you wanted to do. In this government, there’s an enormous amount of pressure to deliver… do things… whatever they want,’ says Swarup
New Delhi: After a 38-year-long bureaucratic career, during the course of which former secretary to the government of India Anil Swarup has grappled with a range of challenges, from coal mafias to education mafias, he has finally settled down — to write a book. The book, called Not Just A Civil Servant, which is going to be launched on February 23 is a memoir of a bureaucrat that gives you an insider’s perspective on the ups and downs of his career and also takes readers through the annuls of history and some of the events that shaped India’s history. To write this book, Swarup maintained a diary since 1981 when he was an IPS, he says. And all of what was taken down as diary entries has culminated into this book. In this freewheeling conversation with PSU Watch, Swarup talks about his book, his bureaucratic career and the principles he holds close to his heart.
Q. The title of your book is Not just a civil servant. When a civil servant says that he is not just a civil servant, what does it imply?
A. I want to imply that the job of a civil servant goes beyond just being a civil servant, beyond just being a bureaucrat. They have to be humane. They should be able to empathise with the sufferings of the common man. They have to go beyond the call of duty to understand the pain of the common man and work in a manner that their pain can be relieved. If you keep the human face in mind, it will always spur you to do more than what you would normally do.
Unless you engage with the task at hand, you won’t be able to resolve issues. Then you are pro-actively participating in the process rather than just being part of the process. And in the process, you will encounter problems. I did too. But then, the bottom line is, as I have said in the book as well, there’s so much that can be done, despite the problems.
Q. Is this book an autobiography or an account of your career?
A. It is an account of my career. There’s just one chapter in the book that talks about my initial days in the civil services. But then it only talks about my career.
Q. You have had a 38-year-long career in the civil services and the job also comes with its own set of challenges, dilemmas. Can you recall a situation that was the most difficult to resolve?
A. There were several occasions where the challenges I faced were huge. In the last phase of my career, when I was Secretary of School Education and the CBSE paper leak happened, there was a clamour to remove the chairman of CBSE. But the chairman wasn’t at fault, so that was a great dilemma for me. But I thought that if she is not at fault, then I should stand by her. And I did.
There are several incidents recounted in my book where I have talked about situations where there was pressure and problems, but I tried to do what I could.
Q. In your bureaucratic career, you have had the opportunity of working with both the UPA government, led by Congress, and the National Democratic Alliance government, led by the BJP. How does one compare with the other?
A. There’s a world of a difference between the two. In the UPA government, decision-making was very difficult. Projects were hardly moving and that is why they had set up the Project Monitoring Group. In contrast, with the current BJP government, things have been moving. This government is certainly more decisive than UPA.
Also, in the previous government, there wasn’t much of a pressure from anywhere for you to do what you wanted to do. So, you could do it. In this government, there’s an enormous amount of pressure to deliver… do things… whatever they want. There was no such pressure in the previous government. So, the pressure in this government is much more to move in a particular direction. One may agree or disagree.
Q. One of the most difficult assignments in your career was your appointment in the Coal Ministry at a time when the sector was abuzz with the coal allocation scam. What was the approach that you took up the job with?
A. The sector was in a bad shape. But the good news was that it was in such bad shape that anything that will be done, would be looked at as an improvement.
And then I tried to understand the core of the crisis. The problem wasn’t coal scam, the problem was a shortage of coal.
So, we took a number of steps to improve coal production and that’s why, in 2014-15, there was an incremental production of 32 million tonnes, which was more than the cumulative increase in the previous three years. In 2015-16, there was no thermal power plant that had a shortage of coal, and India was even considering exporting coal to Bangladesh.
Q. From there, how did we reach a point where there was a shortage of coal again in the next two years?
A. I think, firstly, leaving Coal India without a chairman for one year was disastrous. A temporary chairman cannot take decisions, long-term or medium-term. So, the momentum, that was built in 2014-15 and 2015-16, got lost.
And secondly, I believe that the intensity with which engagement was supposed to happen with state governments did not happen.
Q. Speaking of West Bengal, recently, an IPS officer was seen sitting with Mamata Banerjee at a dharna. What is your take on the matter?
A. I think this is unpardonable. Even if a wrong was done, two wrongs will never make a right. It is absolutely unthinkable that a uniformed civil servant will sit on a dharna.
Q. Coming back to your book. Does your book have anything that could be looked at as a lesson or advice for youngsters wanting to join the civil services?
A. No. I have not preached at all. Nowhere have I said that a civil servant should do this or that. I have accepted my failures and I have just written about what I have done in my career.
Q. It was during your bureaucratic career that the Babri Masjid was brought down. You were the District Magistrate of Lakhimpur Kheri during the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi agitation. Does it find a mention in your book?
A. Yes, there’s a full chapter on it and it’s a different take on what people think of the incident and of the then UP Chief Minister Kalyan Singh.