Venality in the IAS

July 6, 2011

I was watching this video, where an honest and committed IAS officer talks about the Service, and “babu”dom, and several people who realized their dreams:

My reaction, which I sent to an email list that I belong to, was this:

“There are two things that really bothers me about this video (and in general) and that is the fact that very often, such people are only preaching to the converted…and that to be heard (especially on the net) one needs to be proficient in English. I am sure we have honest “babus” and others, who are not good at English…how will their voices be heard, especially by the urban English-is-practically-my-mother-tongue (I include myself in this category) category?

“And how do we solve the gigantic problem of the category of “babu” who truly makes it a four-letter word, as Srivatsa Krishna says?”

I thought there was no doubt in my mind about my supporting honest officers such as these, and was, therefore, surprised to receive a one-line email from Srivatsa, asking:

“And so is it a crime to be a Harvard MBA or one to be an IAS officer?”

I felt, however, that his email needed a detailed reply, and did so:


“Srivatsa, the point I was making was that in our country, this whole knowing-English thing seems to be important…I have certainly watched Vivek Kulkarni “getting things done”, and so how could I subscribe to this view? For any administration, especially the mammoth “business” of the administration of the country’s affairs… the Service has the name “administrative” ….surely a degree from the world’s top business administration school would be a major help.

“Why do you feel that I, personally, have this view? I don’t think I do.

“I was asking, actually, if there could be ways to improve the performance of so many other IAS officers…..there is a reason why the image is so tainted. I’ve had this conversation with Vivek, but he is far less flamboyant (read, wanting to go public with his views) than you are, and the conversation didn’t really lead anywhere. When he started B2K, which later became Brickwork, I also remember asking him why he was quitting the IAS, when officers like him could actually work within the system to improve it. He said something to the effect that his personal goals were different…a valid enough answer!

“I had another IAS officer friend, Srivatsa, I need not name him here; but it was obvious that he wasn’t a model of integrity.I have a friend in Chennai who is in the Income Tax department…she is an honest person, but she is able to tell me that most of her colleauges are not. Mohan, my husband, has an MBA from IIM-A, and I know some of his classmates who are certainly not honest, sad to say.

“However, it’s not even always a question of corruption…sometimes it’s just inefficiency, I find, a rooted mindset of “we can’t”. Can’t change our methods, can’t change our delays…“this is how it’s always been done” seems to be the prevailing thinking.

“It’s not just the IAS…in every field, I find that often, the most qualified people seem to leave for other shores, and it is left to the mediocre and (in the words of one friend) “cannot-escapes” to do the job. IIT, for example, often teaches (at minimal cost) skills to our youngsters which they then promptly take abroad.

“We have two surgeons in the family; both of them are now practising in the US, and, when they bemoaned the state of facilities in India, we had a raging debate on why they could not have come back with their acquired qualifications and worked in India. It was only a debate, of course, because I respect their personal decisions…so, actually, when I find people like you or Vivek coming back, and working in the system, I am really happy to see it happening. I respect someone like Shiv Shankar Sastry for coming back after his FRCS and working in Bangalore.

“Well, if, by any implication or imputation, I have offended you, I am sorry….but I am hoping you are asking for a conversation, not expressing offence. I sent across the video to the mailing list (from your response, I assume you belong to it too?) because I wanted others to see it. What I was saying, in effect, was, how can we, or you who are working within the system, change the less-than-effficient and less-than-honest culture? How can we include the not-articulate-in-English section of the people into our efforts?

“The other point I was making was, it’s only people who already agree with the fact that there are also able and honest administrators, who see that video…that’s what I meant by “preaching to the converted”.

“If you have the time, could you tell me how your business school degree influences/guides you in your work?

“Sorry for the long-winded answer, but I felt your question merited a detailed reply”

I then received this reply from him:

“Thanks! I just saw an I complete post online and wanted to check what it was about. That’s all. Degree has nothing to do with work, except if posted in a few technical posts. Where do u work and your husband? Thanks.”

The topic of how his studies have helped him in his present job is not really addressed…unless he is saying that it is irrelevant?

Venality in our culture…how to remove (or at least minimize) it….is a hydra-headed monster that we are unable to tackle.