Sunday, 31 May 2015



A world sailing on the brink of disaster, burning through its coal and oil, leaving six degrees of rising seas and searing heat for its kids

Now slowly wakes up and sees where it's going and jams the brakes, turns the rudder, pours all its anxiety and some of its money to changing direction and slowing the apocalypse

But have we been too slow? Have we missed the chance to save the planet?  If we really want we can bring ourselves to stop at two degrees, but we have to move faster, much faster


A great nation wasted precious decades, letting its children grow up in want while wanting much, immersed in examining its own fingernails while the world surged ahead 

Now it looks up suddenly, puts on its glasses, sees how far it has to go and tries with all sincerity to sprint and make up the distance lost 

But it has to build its muscle as it runs and it has no time for rest days and warm ups 

And the world watches admiringly yet apprehensively, with sports drinks and wet towels in hand at pit stops 

Can it make up the lost laps, can it do justice by its growing children's needs? Sure it can, but it has to run faster than it ever has, much faster 


As mid life beckons, as one's children grow taller than us and seem to have far more sense than we had at their age, or even have now in many ways 

As the hours days weeks months slip by and you realise you have become and are living the dreams and aspirations that powered you all your life

Then fulfilling those dreams isn't enough and you know you have to do, right here, right now, everything that you were built to do, make the difference you were meant to make, leave in the real world all the good you can leave, because there isn't all the time in the world, and every moment matters, and you have to work faster, much faster 

Monday, 25 August 2014

On gender and development

This is something I think a good deal about, and have done some work on. Pending any new writing I can find the time to do, here are two pieces on the subject published in Pragati Mag

Monday, 18 August 2014


I attended the PM's flag hoisting and speech at the Red Fort for the first time this year. There were some vague rumours about non-attendance being penalised, but I simply HAD to be there anyway. I hadn't seen the PM yet except on TV, and I was desperate to hear his mind, to understand who exactly I was working for now. 

It was a truly beautiful morning, with mild sunshine and a cool breeze. My dad's sudden reminder, just as I was going out the door, to carry an umbrella, was fruitless- scatty me had no clue where her umbrella was- but then it wasn't needed. No clouds in the sky.  

When I seated myself and squinted into the sun looking at the podium, I wondered, where will he speak from? Where's the glass enclosure? 

Then he came, visible to us at our distance mainly because of his jaunty turban, and as we all stood up, quietly murmuring the Jana Gana Mana, I thought- he really made it! He really is addressing the nation from the Red Fort! What a dream to come true! What an inspiration for anyone hoping to achieve something that looks beyond reach! 

And then I realised, he is going to speak from right there.. no enclosure! I tried to get a good photo but it was too far away. Fortunately my mum had taken great screen grabs from the TV at home- and grabs of the housefull, humongous crowd, which I couldn't make out from the middle of it. An Indonesian tourist couple in matching batik dresses were sitting behind me, totally excited to be there. We were shading our eyes from the sun with the brochures handed out at the entrance, including one with a list of new schemes being launched. 

And he started speaking. This wasn't a bombastic orator's election speech. This was a man who had something to say and he was saying it- just talking to us, to all the people of the nation, and of course to all the people of the world, because which country's leaders wouldn't be eager to hear this man who his country had believed in so completely? 

We have all heard his speech, or read about it. We know about the girl's' toilets, the model villages, the free insurance, the skill development, the Digital India and Make in India themes. We all noted his generous acceptance of the work done by leaders who came before him, his mention of only three great men- who are undisputedly the greatest Indians of the last century- Gandhi, Patel and Vivekananda, his leg-pulling of us bureaucrats which had us all guffawing though a little embarrassed. His straightforward admission that he was an outsider to Delhi disarmed us. 

The speech left us all happy and fuzzy. We were hoping to hear our leader's mind, and he had fulfilled our hopes. When the Jana Gana Mana played this time, everyone around sang it with full gusto. Everyone made sure to get a photo or a selfie in front of the big LED screen in the parking with the ramparts in the backdrop which was playing footage of the PM among the kids. 

There has been a lot of media coverage and in general a lot of praise for the speech. But somehow, I feel, due to the man's straightforwardness and simplicity, no one has quite grasped the truly historic significance of what he said and how he said it. 

He spoke in the first person, as Narendra Modi, not as the Prime Minister. He really wasn't speaking on behalf of anybody but himself, the man who today is the Prime Minister. 

He made not the remotest attempt to show his greatness or his past achievements. He did not make a single mention if the work he has done in Gujarat. He didn't even mention anything about his incredible victory in the elections. No, he was completely in the present, in the moment; it was almost a stream-of-consciousness speech. 

He was brutally frank about his struggle to learn and understand the world of the Government of India, and made it clear that he was still learning. He shared his observations- such as departments of a single government fighting each other in the Supreme Court- with bemusement, the way any outsider who hear of such ridiculous things for the first time would react. 

He hit the most fundamental issues before the country in their natural order of priority- the sex ratio- which leader last mentioned the sex ratio, and what can be more fundamental?- the dignity of women- half the country, half the voters!- how delighted it made me and the fellow lady bureaucrat sitting next to me to hear him on the subject! And to upbraid parents for not pulling up errant boys and controlling girls instead! 

Cleanliness and toilets! What is more obvious to any foreign visitor than these basic things? Who last discussed them? And really can a government do it all by itself without the people pitching in?

Skills and manufacturing; everyone knows they are necessary but has anyone dared to put them front and center? Schools are bad, there's no power water or roads, I heard people around me grumble that day and later. But if you don't articulate a vision, how can you achieve it? Everyone knows what goes into making a country skills and manufacturing- led. Why isn't enough happening on either front then? Not due to a lack of money nor due to a lack of knowledge or talent. 

Getting rid of the Planning Commission- which leader anywhere would have had the guts to announce it and admit that he had no clear idea of what would replace it? And yet, he could convince us that he would be able to create the right institution in its place. The jubilation with which bureaucrats of all seniority have received this news, as they mourned their best development schemes having never taken off because they got caught in Yojana Bhavan red tape, has to be seen to be believed. 

The simple vision of sava sau crore Indians stepping forward together- what more potent symbol can there be of unity, harmony and development? And yet I saw cribbing in the media later that this wouldn't be quite right due to the multiplicity of cultures in India. 

And all of it looked like completely achievable things- no super grand dreams, no bleeding hearts about poverty- only a clear set of steps which had to be taken. 

No, the media and the bureaucracy hasn't quite grasped what the country has got. 

It has got a man who actually cares about the country. A man who actually believes in what he is saying. A man who as an outsider and therefore can see clearly what is wrong with the way things have been going on, and dare to declare when the emperor has no clothes. A man who knows where he has come from and where he wants to go- and has the power and the capability to take the country with him. A man with the moral courage to scold the people instead of coddling them. A man who understands the need of a leader to provide social leadership more than anything else. A man who respects the capacity of Indians to raise themselves from poverty and backwardness instead of promising that the government will provide the sun and the moon. When did we last have a leader like this, at any level of government? 

The country couldn't ask for more from its leader at this moment in time. 

Thursday, 8 August 2013


When I first heard about Durga Shakti and her frontal attack on sand mining I thought what everyone must have thought- that her parents did a great job naming her.

There is a power to archetypes, as Jung postulated, and here's an archetype as old as humanity-the young woman, made up of the purest essence of every godly quality, rising to fight darkness and evil, her approach simple and direct, her victory complete.

Then her troubles started, as they were bound to. For her story has another archetype attached to it- the fact that there may hardly be any IAS officer now living who has not been penalised in some way for fighting illegal activities as a youngster in the field, as an SDM or a DM. And however cynical the world may be about our merit and spine, it is still only a very small proportion of youngsters who throw idealism to the winds and join the loot. The pressures to bend or break take somewhat longer to act on IAS officers. Possibly this is an effect of the passionate, intense training we undergo in Mussoorie. 

The normal penalty when one cracks down on illegality is to get transferred. We like to boast mildly of the number of transfers we undergo. It is among us a subconscious measure of a person's merit. Too few transfers and we automatically assume the person is coopted; far too many and we decide the person may be having other personality problems besides the burden of being honest. We may often be wrong both ways but that's how our minds work.

There are other ways of being penalised as well, from being served notices calling explanation on trivial matters, to never getting a decent or comfortable posting and always feeling vaguely discriminated. 

The common factor in such penalties is that they are not actionable despite the mental and often physical trauma they cause. In the end the record of the officer stays clean. One gets used to  such things happening and in the long run forgets about them though they definitely contribute to the bending and breaking process.

But to get suspended and chargesheeted on zero evidence- and after several weeks, to have no let-up despite all the anger everywhere against what has happened? That's new. If it is possible to chargesheet her without evidence it will eventually be possible to render an irreversible penalty to her, a miscarriage of justice which, if it happens, will disqualify this country from being called a democracy or a republic. 

Why is she being witch-hunted to this extent? I suspect another kind of archetype comes into play here. Young women tend to be seen first and heard later, their message lost because the audience is looking and not listening- and looking through thick distorting glasses of unconscious patriarchy. The audience thus reacts to what it sees, and actually sees what is its own mind; and a young woman bucking a trend is in this state of mind a thing to be beaten down and punished, a germ of rebellion and instability to be destroyed at all costs. Here logical thinking or political calculation ends and witch-hunting in its most literal sense begins. Because by now surely the loss of political capital and bureaucratic goodwill far surpasses whatever political gain had been expected. 

Durga herself has chosen to stay silent and dignified all through her continuing ordeal. This is, in fact, how most of us have dealt with whatever has been dished out to us. The option of appealing to the Central Government or to the Courts are always open to her and if she chooses to exercise her options one by one according to necessity, she is to be commended. After all it is she who is living through it and she who has to bear the long term consequences. 

How about the rest of us? The UP IAS Association showed exceptional and dignified courage in instantly protesting the suspension. The Central IAS Association which includes as active members the entire senior bureaucracy of the Government of India apart from representing every IAS officer across the country is leaving no stone unturned to find ways to get justice for her. 

Why is her case different? Bad things happen to bureaucrats every day in every state. Often the circumstances surrounding such events render some uncertainty as to who is to blame. We IAS officers tend to hold ourselves to rather high standards of behaviour. Here, however, she is patently in the right and she is being hounded blatantly for petty gain. She is a tipping point; we have had enough. Silence is not an option any longer. 

Two PILs have been filed by third parties; one in the Allahabad High Court and one in the Supreme Court. There is a view that since she herself is not appealing yet these PILs have no locus standi. This, however, is simply not true because the issue is not only about her. It's about what is common sense and what isn't; what is justice and what isn't; what is politics and what isn't. It is, in fact, quite simply about truth and lies. 

Our nation may be constructed on the basis of a Book- the Constitution- but its functioning is purely mythological. We survive on heroes and gods, heroines and goddesses. The cult of the individual lies at the heart of every success this nation has seen. The image of a young and upright IAS or IPS officer setting things right in his or her area has its own archetypal value as may be seen in the popularity of this theme in Bollywood. 

In fact, nations work on systems, not on individuals; but mythological terms are a perfectly valid and very human way to deal with reality. 

The Courts must consider the importance of her case in these sweeping terms, not as an individual sad case. The future of the nation could well depend on what happens next to her. 

Friday, 8 March 2013


It all started for me last year in April when something, I don't remember what, prompted me to post this Facebook status:

This elicited a lot of discussion among my friends as can be seen. For anyone who doesn't want to read through all the comments on the post, I would hasten to clarify that I quickly realised that what I had actually wanted to say is "a world designed for women and children too", not quite "a world designed by women", which was rather presumptive in assuming that men weren't capable of designing a world convenient for women and children, though it did bring out the fact that the existing world has been designed by men with very little thought on this subject.

Well, in July 2012 came Anne Marie Slaughter's now legendary article, which kickstarted a conversation that had been waiting to happen for decades- Why Women Still Can't Have It All

The tempo in this conversation is yet to slacken, and in fact is gathering traction every day.

Today morning my friend  Meeta Sengupta, came up with the idea of starting a conversation on the valuation of the kind of unpaid work that housewives have been traditionally expected to do for generations, and- who knows?- maybe even having it added to GDP, or having it as a part of a new measure of productivity, prosperity,and well being, in the near future. I was too happy to join in with her.

We shared some ideas, which are now posted on her blog here,

It may well be asked why one should take the trouble of measuring things which are by definition unpaid, i.e. what is the economic value of conducting such a valuation?

It is established that getting women into education and into the workplace adds tremendous value, a couple of first-item-off-google links which I was prompted to look for by some Men's Rights Activists on Twitter an hour back (and I'm really grateful to the MRAs for making me look for evidence for things or analyse data to refute their entertaining but bizarre and horrifically wrong claims) will show that they indeed do:

Women doing well in higher education

Women adding value to companies

If we want to get more women into higher education and into high value, full time work, we simply have to bring about institutional mechanisms to

  1. make it easier for men in a household to share in the housework and caregiving
  2. free people from unnecessary housework
  3. create public support systems for caregiving
  4. allow all workers, men and women, to have enough time for their family and personal life.

These will have costs, of course.

The fact however is that many countries and many companies are finding the investments that these steps require to be worthwhile.

This is a piece dated 1990 about the day care system in France written by none other than Hillary Clinton.

This is a piece showing that Quebec's equally comprehensive childcare programme is economically viable

There are many other ideas on the subject which have tended to have been broached and then ignored.
They are not necessarily "impractical" or difficult to implement".
Further, in the midst of ongoing fears that leaning too much in favour of women's rights would lead to a breakdown of the family or the institution of marriage, for example,
These are the kind of steps which can revitalise these very institutions while making the economy stronger than ever.

This Women's Day, I think the time for thinking through and implementing such ideas has come.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Internal Audit For A Public Servant's Soul

A random checklist of things for a public servant (someone like me) to revisit periodically on the job:

(1) Am I in touch with my subordinates? Am I making full use of their knowledge and experience on one hand, and their personal wisdom on the other? 

(2)Do they radiate the same spirit of being accessible to the public which I (hopefully) do? 

(3) Am I dealing with any negligence or corruption on the part of my subordinates sternly, promptly, but humanely?

(4) Are my subordinates clear that I expect excellence, and will make every effort to ensure that it is rewarded appropriately, keeping aside personal considerations?

(5) Are mutual staff relations healthy?

(6) Am I advising my superiors correctly?

(7) There are times when my speaking up in front of my superiors can make a big difference to the final decisions and outcomes. Am I sure I have not let any such times slip by?

(8) In a more narrow context-when I am faced personally with a morally dubious course of action prescribed by a superior- or a subordinate- do I point it out? Politely, without getting abusive or personal? On the basis of clear facts and rules/laws?

(9) When I can see that I am likely to face undue pressure, have I taken advance action to raise the bulwarks so that the public interest is not harmed?

(10) Am I sure I am personally clean enough to confidently take the moral high ground if and when things get rough?

(11) Do I remember, and regularly remind myself, how it feels to be on the other side of the table or counter? Am I willing to wear my status lightly most of the time because the reward of being able to learn more and perform better is a richer prize?

(12) Do I often consider how new technologies and new ideas that I get exposed to in daily life could be utilized to make my work more effective?

I'd made up this checklist a couple of years back but it still looks relevant to me, over and above other skill sets.