‘Govt should redefine its role’
Any civil servant’s most formative experience is his work as District Magistrate (DM)…
I was posted as DM at Lakhimpur Kheri in UP – 150 kms north of Lucknow, on the IndiaNepal border. I served in just one district for my entire term and everything that could happen in a district, happened there: An 18-hour encounter with Sikh insurgents in which we shot down five terrorists; the Babri Masjid agitation; floods; and the farmer agitation led by Mahinder Singh Tikait… I was so fortunate to have a really able team.
The elections went absolutely smoothly. Those were the days of T N Seshan when he was trying to correct the process of elections. We did not have the electronic voting machines (EVMs) then. Then the Mandal agitation broke out and young people got all fired up without having read the report. Communication was challenging, but I managed to prevent rumours from spreading.
During the Babri Masjid agitation, I put behind bars, the district head of ruling party. So we didn’t have to impose curfew in that district like elsewhere in the state.
Can riots be controlled?
I am convinced, after a 38-year career, that if the government means business, it can control riots. There is a price to be paid. Once you convey — and we call it Iqbal in Urdu — this belief to the people that you won’t allow rioting and if people have faith in the government, then chances of riots breaking out, law and order going out of hand, are much lower.
That brings me to some of the recent events in Uttar Pradesh. I am aghast that they are allowed to happen — not at what some politicians did but what some civil servants did. It is their job to see that rule of law is upheld, regardless of fear of being transferred. For me transfer is like death, inevitable for a civil servant. In Hindu philosophy, you are born again. You are not thrown out of service. You can continue work the way you want to work. You are doing disservice to your own self, society and to the nation if you are not doing what you think is right. If you are doing what someone else thinks is right, then you will be in trouble, the society and everyone else.
That’s what happened in Lakhimpur Kheri. People got a message that irrespective of political affiliations, you can go behind bars if you do wrong. That’s where the problem is now. Because of certain political affiliations and probably trying to avoid transfer, we take decisions that we shouldn’t take.
But if you take decisions you are also liable to be punished, even if you have taken the rights ones. H C Gupta’s is a case in point. Gupta’s case is totally different. He got caught in political crossfire. The good news is that because of transparency and a very alert media, it is very difficult to do wrong — because the chances of you getting caught are very high. Today, honesty is not just the best policy but it is the most practical policy. Gupta’s case was very different. He was punished for a fault he hadn’t committed.
When a bureaucrat is caught in political cross fire, what do you do?
Your reputation helps you. There are large number of civil servants who have gone behind the bar and no one is fighting for them. Gupta’s battle is being fought by many people. And the fact that he is not behind the bars and the entire civil service is backing him is because of his reputation. What happened with him is sad. But if you have a positive reputation, people will help you, talk good about you.
In the coal ministry that you have helmed, could what happened to Gupta, happen again?
It can but it will be difficult now.
One — the reaction to Gupta’s case. Second, consequent to Gupta’s case, Section 31d(3), under which he was held has been abrogated. The judgment says there was neither an allegation nor proof of any quid pro quo. Yet because this section existed, he was held liable. Today in a similar case, no one would be held liable. That’s the advantage of being honest. He has suffered but the future generation stands to benefit.
In the coal sector, things are not moving as fast as before. After a high of the coal auction, movement is subdued. Why?
There was a momentum built in 2014-16. The coal story (high production not auction) happened because the team diagnosed the underlying problem accurately. The problem was not scams but a shortage of coal — as there were problems in getting land, forest, environment clearance and rail rakes. We tried to address this. We didn’t meddle with Coal India — just facilitated things for them such as land clearance. They are very solid people. There are issues which a secretary can address by reaching out to the states. So the government of India can help but should not monitor Coal India.
Second, all the action was happening in the states. So I held all the meetings with the state administration in their state.
Third, if you don’t have a head of an organisation, how do you expect strategic decisions to be taken? Coal India was left without a chairman for a year. So the momentum was lost. Now they have a CMD and he’s a very good officer so now you will see momentum building up but it will take time.
In those one and a half years, ministry started imposing itself on Coal India. I have heard of letters being written to Coal India. If letters could improve coal production in the country, there would never be any problem.
You have been vocal about energy schemes, Ujwal DISCOM Assurance Yojana (UDAY) especially. What do you think went wrong there?
People talk of the Gujarat model and one model in that state that should have been replicated across the country is power reforms. Gujarat was turned around by the then Chief Minister Narendra Modi through a specific strategy. You needed to pair good performing states with under performing ones so they can learn better practises.
So it failed ?
UDAY didn’t travel the distance it should have. Some financial arrangement happened, minor improvement here and there but didn’t create the impact that it should have. Now there will be serious crisis in power sector.
How do you judge this government’s performance as a whole?
I can’t pass a general judgement. Look at who was manning which ministry. Look at how coal,
swachhta abhiyan worked in tandem with the state governments, and how Ayushman Bharat is evolving in tandem with the state governments. Where bureaucracies engaged with state governments, it succeeded. The same engagement was needed in the power sector.
You moved to education as secretary. That requires intense engagement with states…
My earlier experience in the Project Management Group (PMG) and coal helped me. I was the most uneducated education secretary. I was the fifth secretary for that department in first two and a half years of this government. What came in handy was my understanding of mafia — in both the coal and the education sector. And they are worse in education.
Is this why this government hasn’t done much?
Why this government, no government is bothered much about education. We tried some fundamental work than make announcements or headlines. Teachers are the pivot for the fundamental problem in school education. There are around 16,000 BEd and DElEd. colleges in this country — 4,000 of them do not exist but still they can give you a degree and if you pay them more, a job as well. We started action against them. It is sad I could not defend the then chairman of National Council for Teacher Education. But they went to court, a lot stay orders were issued, so many high courts got into it. The government took a very fundamental decision of increasing the tenure of BEd course to four years from two years. So now, all these farzi colleges will have to re-register and then they can be identified
So it is like demonetisation in education? You can call it demonetisation but a positive one. The country doesn’t require another education policy. What it needs is a clear cut action plan.
So, what is effective — more governance, less government or otherwise?
This is all jargon. I don’t think government should leave but it should redefine its role. It should not do things it does not need to do. Coal India is a classic example.
What do you tell young civil servant aspirants when you meet them?
I tell them to have clarity about what they want. Once they know what they want, they must do what they think is right — not what others tell them. They must know what they are doing and take responsibility for it.
Anil Swarup, former coal secretary, tells Shreya Jai Indian bureaucrats can achieve a lot if they are not afraid of facing the consequences of their actions. Edited excerpts: