Why TSR Subramanian?
Former cabinet secretary TSR Subramanian has headed three high-level committees —on the new education policy, one on environmental laws and another on postal reforms — set up by the Narendra Modi-led NDA government. The former bureaucrat was recently in the news for writing to HRD Minister Smriti Irani, asking her to make public his panel’s suggestions for the new education policy. In November 2014, as head of the panel tasked with reviewing six environmental statutes, Subramanian had recommended an overhaul of the environmental governance structure in the country
RITIKA CHOPRA: You headed a committee that examined environmental laws and submitted its report to the government. Prakash Javadekar, the Environment Minister, however, in an interview to The Indian Express said that the government has no intention of amending environment laws.
I think the laws need to be amended because one of the things we found in the report was that in the last few years hardly anybody has been punished in India at all (for breaking environment laws). Nobody has gone to prison, no major fines have been issued… Generally, there is a feeling that you can break the law with impunity. This feeling has been there and I think that is why the laws need to be amended.
In the report we said that entrepreneurs should be asked to make a commitment, that if he crosses certain limits, the following action can be immediately taken (against him). In other words, you can cut through a lot of the legal jungle if you do that. This was the principle applied in the USA in the field of environment too. This is the principle being applied in European countries in the field of insurance law… consequences follow automatically. Hopefully, they (the government) will look at the report in the course of time.
RITIKA CHOPRA: The latest report that you have submitted was on the new education policy. Could you tell us about some of the recommendations that you made?
Well, the report has been submitted to the Government of India. I believe it is under consideration of the ministry. It has not been made public yet. I won’t talk about specific recommendations, but I would like to speak on the issues around the report.
Firstly, the ministry has taken the initiative, probably for the first time in India, to go to every state in India, every village, every block, and ask individuals, institutions, agencies etc., to comment. Around June last year for six-seven months, 10,000-15,000 comments had come and it was handed over to our committee. We spent two-three months going through all the material. Then we found that the material that came had a clear message in terms of quality, difficulty, ground issues, etc. But they were sort of didactic — do this or do that. We wanted to go behind these recommendations and see what are the issues.
We found that everybody was working hard, but in the end the interaction between the student and the teacher was not as it should be. There was no atmosphere created for it. The chief point we made was that after 70 years of independence, India is not one of the leading countries in the world. I am talking of public health, education, economy. We came to the conclusion that the infrastructure is here, (though) a lot of it is hollow and shallow, a lot of it is moth-eaten, but it can be revived in a very short term. A lot of things can be done in 10 to 15 years.
We found that if an opportunity is provided to an Indian child, however deprived he may be, in three years he can be transformed. That is the quality of the Indian mind. And the tragedy is that only 5-10 per cent of Indians receive good education. Suppose 80 per cent of the Indians got the same opportunity, quality education along with nutrition… It is no surprise that India is not a world leader today. I think we have posed the question in the report that if you are serious, you may not agree with the recommendations, but bring changes in the system, bring a new direction. If you do that, two-thirds of this century will belong to India and if you don’t, then the future is not bright.
RITIKA CHOPRA: The government does not seem to be acting on the recommendations that you had made regarding environmental laws and postal reforms. Does that disappoint you?
Not really. The government is a large machine and ideas take a long time to percolate and move around.
SHEELA BHATT: You have seen many governments and many PMOs (Prime Minister’s Office). What is your view on the PMO under the Modi government?
A lot depends on the personality of the Prime Minister. It reflects in the personality of the principal secretary, the PMO chief and the cabinet secretary. Earlier, the cabinet secretary was secretary to the prime minister, traditionally. Now he is secretary to all departments. Then the prime minister’s office basically facilitated speech writing, travel co-ordination etc. I think Indira Gandhi changed the colour of the PMO. She (Gandhi) started a new institution which is a major addition to the administrative practice in India.
Unfortunately, this has now become the norm in Delhi and in states too. In many states we find that the chief minister’s secretariat is the only thing that matters. I mean, most of the other ministers, secretaries, etc, they are also there… but you can see a transformation.
RAKESH SINHA: Has the bureaucracy changed since your time?
The bureaucrat of today, in terms of competence, mental ability, accomplishments, is superior.
However, about 20-30 years ago, particularly in the IAS and a couple of other services, one in 500 bureaucrats was financially corrupt and he was ostracised by the entire system. Today, that number has gone up. Not so much in Delhi though, because we still have a filtering process. But in the states, in the lower ring, corruption has gone up. In UP, for example, in our time, in the ’90s, we identified four corrupt officers in our system. Can you think of any cadre, anywhere, which will identify the corrupt among themselves? We did that. Unfortunately, not many people can resist temptation. However, in Delhi the quality of officers is still good.
I would say that quality of governance, I think, has not gone down sharply. I think media has played a very important role in the last few years. It has increased transparency. Earlier, in a lathicharge if 50 people broke their noses and legs, no one would know. Today, one bloody nose and everyone knows about it. Transparency is a tremendously important thing in a democracy.
ABANTIKA GHOSH: Do you think the PMO’s direct interactions with the bureaucracy has made the government more efficient?
Firstly, I am not willing to examine what is going on now. I know there is an excellent PMO which is highly self effacing and extremely sensitive. They do not seem to be talking to others on official matters, but they are playing the role of the eyes and the ears of Prime Minister. And don’t forget that today we have a larger than life Prime Minister — much higher status, much higher in ability than the ones we have had in the past.
AVISHEK DASTIDAR: There is this trend among bureaucrats to overstay foreign postings. What is your take on it?
It is good that they are given an opportunity to go out. I spent five years in Geneva, I got my pension. I come from a very lower middle-class background. That pension gave me the strength to stand up in a situation. You (bureaucrats on foreign postings) have a choice, please resign and stay, but don’t have one foot in this camp. Stay or come back and take charge here (in India).
ABANTIKA GHOSH: Why do you think more and more IAS officers now want to return to their cadre states?
I don’t know. They (IAS officers) may want to go back because of chief ministers or some other conditions… I don’t think there is a general pattern, but yes, the new system is demanding on secretaries and joint secretaries. Many of them are excellent officers, they work for 18 hours a day. A man gets tired very quickly and such problems should be looked into.
ABANTIKA GHOSH: Do you agree with Arvind Kejriwal’s charge that there was a political conspiracy in not letting the Bill, that would have regularised the appointment of 21 parliament secretaries, through?
There is a secretary law which says that only 10 per cent of the MLAs (can become ministers), the number should not exceed that. So if you have seven ministers, you can have only one parliamentary secretary. With the kind of politics in India right now… in many states what they are doing is that every MLA is made chairman of some corporation or the other.
If you are a sensible administrator, and when your relations are not very good with the L-G (Lieutenant Governor) or Home Ministry, you should take a little care… just get prior approvals.
UMA VISHNU: In your recommendations for the new education policy, you speak of bringing back detention after Class V. Do you think it will be the right move given the lack of infrastructure in schools, shortage of teachers, economic condition of students etc.?
We did a lot of soul searching on this particular point (detention). We analysed several points on why detention should or should not take place. We found a balance between the two. Twenty per cent of the students in a class (face) detention. We should not only focus on the bottom 20 per cent, we should also focus on the top 80 per cent. Then we have said (in the recommendations) that three different things have to be done. The teacher should look at the bottom 20 per cent and spend four to five hours every week with each one. Number two, get a one-on-one mentorship going for Classes II to VII. Lastly, if they fall by the wayside, don’t let them be a drop out, give them a new vocational avenue.
SHEELA BHATT: When Smriti Irani was made education minister, there was a lot of controversy regarding her qualification. What in your view should be the minimum qualification for the ministry? What has been your experience while interacting with Irani?
For the first question, I have no comments. Appointment of a minister is the prerogative of the Prime Minister and I don’t think one can lay down qualifications for the job. She (Irani) has to respond to circumstances. There can be no template of what a minister should be.
I give her credit for seeing the need for a new education policy. She saw that education was not in good shape and she has taken up a number of reforms in this regard. My relationship with her has been very formal as I have been associated with her only for a few months.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: Do you think there should be a cooling-off period for bureaucrats after retirement and they should not take up corporate jobs for at least 10 years?
I agree. I can say that a bureaucrat is most vulnerable in the last three-four years of his service. I agree that there should be no post-retirement sops for government servants. Once they retire, they retire. Give them full pension for five years so that they are not tempted to go anywhere else. After that, don’t give them any authority. In the US and Europe, those who join the World Bank as directors are joint secretary rank officials. They go on to learn, build their international network, and when they come back, they become finance secretaries etc. In India too, we should give them (bureaucrats) sops only if they perform well. These people hold very sensitive posts and the decisions they take have far-reaching implications. One wrong decision can do lot of harm.
RITIKA CHOPRA: Can you tell us about the recommendation in your report about campus politics?
We looked at recent controversies in JNU and Hyderabad, but did not refer to them directly. I think two things were highlighted: Majority of students go to universities to study seriously. They make sacrifices, financial and otherwise, for the four years they spend there. So, no examination should be postponed and classes should be held. The primary purpose is teaching and learning. Now, somebody mentioned that in American campuses there is freedom of expression. I checked up with my friends… The difference is that they (American students) do not disturb classes, they discuss and disperse.
I think there should be a code of conduct here. National parties should not get any representation on campuses. It is not a political forum. It is a temple of learning and it cannot be caste or community based. There should be a national debate on the subject.