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Changing chalta hai 

Indian Administrative Services can lead the charge. If it reinvents itself, its effects will ripple through the system, galvanise change.

Written by Gulzar Natarajan , Duvvuri Subbarao | Updated: December 30, 2017 12:29 pm
If IAS reinvents itself, its effects will ripple through the system, galvanise change. Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing the nation on Independence Day. Modi had said that there was a ‘chalta hai’ culture in the nation. (Express Photo/Tashi Tobgyal)

In his Independence Day address last August, the prime minister decried the “chalta hai” culture in the nation and called upon the people, especially the youth, to embrace a “badal sakta hai” attitude. The prime minister hit not just the right button, but exactly the right button. Yet, in a nation inured to platitudes from leaders, this one too might get lost in the flood. That will be a pity. If acted upon, the prime minister’s message has the potential to profoundly change the quality of everyday life of Indians.

So, what is the “chalta hai” attitude? We all know it; after all, we experience it all the time as we go about our everyday lives. Yet it is difficult to define it. Perhaps a phrase will better capture its essence: “It’s okay. Don’t sweat. This is India. We are like that only.” It is a mindset that not only accepts but internalises tardiness, lack of a work ethic, ineptitude, indifference, inefficiency, indiscipline and even corruption and crime. Some societies, notably the Japanese, are zero tolerance; we are the exact opposite.

Our public toilets are filthy; it’s okay. We cut corners in everything we do; it’s okay. We don’t give way to an ambulance on the street; it’s okay. We are pathologically incapable of standing in a queue, being on time or keeping a promised delivery schedule; it’s okay. We build world class expressways and look on nonchalantly as people drive on the wrong side. Our nonchalance extends to deeper issues. Fifty children die for want of oxygen in a Gorakhpur hospital; 22 commuters die in a stampede on a suburban railway bridge; 30 people die in the rioting that follows the arrest of a godman. We accept all this and move on. Someone blatantly puts a bounty on the head of an actress who essayed the lead role in a movie that allegedly distorted our history. We shrug that off as par for the course.

Moving from “chalta hai” to “badal sakta hai” means a cultural change which, by its very nature, is a long haul. It needs a people’s movement; the government can at most be a catalyst. The purpose of this article is not to put forward a citizen’s charter for that. We are attempting something less ambitious but important: How can the IAS fraternity begin acting on the prime minister’s exhortation by setting an example?

Many people will find the very idea of the IAS leading the fight against “chalta hai” preposterous. The IAS is, in fact, seen as the embodiment of all that is wrong in the country. It is at centre of the callousness, venality and corruption that define our governance. To believe that the IAS will fight to bring down a system that it carefully built and nurtured over the years to further its narrow self-interest is simply ludicrous.

Regrettably, this report card of the IAS is not without basis. But it wasn’t always like this. When the service was instituted soon after Independence, its mission was clear — nation building. Whether it was agricultural development, implementing land reforms, building irrigation projects, promoting industry, expanding and improving health and education delivery, implementing social justice or enforcing the rule of law, the IAS was seen as the delivery arm. The IAS officers led this effort from the front and laid the foundations of an impressive development administration network, earning for the service a formidable reputation for competence, integrity and for being a change agent.

But that reputation began eroding, starting in the mid-1970s. The IAS lost its ethos and its way. Ineptitude, indifference and corruption crept in. The service still attracts some of the best talent in the country and young recruits come in with sharp minds and enthusiasm to be change agents. But soon, they become cogs in the wheels of complacency and acquiescence, build a stake in the status-quo and resist change. Today, the stereotypical view of an IAS officer is one who puts self-interest ahead of public interest.

Unfortunately, this stereotype is amplified by fringe elements in the service who have gone off-track. The entire service gets tainted by their misdeeds. In order to lead this transformation from “chalta hai” to “badal sakta hai”, the IAS must regain its moral stature. That effort must begin at home — with an introspection on where and how the service lost its ethical moorings and what should be done to reverse the degradation. Just as individuals have character and personality, so does the IAS as a service. The service has to focus on reinventing both its character and its personality.

On the character front, the service must adopt and conform to an honour code that upholds and prizes competence, commitment, pecuniary and professional integrity. This will happen not by mouthing shibboleths. It will happen only by each and every IAS officer internalising the ethos of the honour code and conforming to it no matter the provocation or the temptation to infringe it. It means championing change, pursuing public good with passion and professionalism, acting without fear or favour, accepting challenges, no matter how daunting, and letting actions and results speak for themselves. It means reviving the old esprit de corps where officers stand up for each other in order to uphold public good. It means shunning ostentation, luxury and frills.

On the personality front, the IAS must adopt and adhere to a code of conduct of work ethics and behaviour. This means diligence and application, punctuality, disciplined work habits, willingness to learn, accepting responsibility for mistakes with humility, going to meetings well prepared, communicating clearly and effectively and being courteous and humble. Yes, it also means being properly attired and well groomed.

Once the IAS begins on this mission of reinventing itself, its effects will ripple through the system, galvanising change across the administrative hierarchy. It will soon find that it is well on its way to bringing out a transformation from “chalta hai” to “badal sakta hai” in the larger society.

Natarajan is a serving IAS officer and Subbarao, a retired IAS officer, both of the Andhra Pradesh cadre

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  1. vasdev malhotra
    Jan 1, 2018 at 4:42 am
    The idea that our friends Natarajan and Subbarao have placed before the nation is radically new – not only new it is in fact foreign - to our culture and will be difficult to take root. Difficult it will be but we must work hard to implant it on our soil whatever the cost. We will have to throw away our narrow self interests and instead, we will have to learn how to work for common good. I have previously quoted the example of a French noble man, Montesquieu who had given up a prestigious office to be able to work for the common good. It will be great surprise for many here in our country to know that this man coming from an aristocratic lineage had spent early years of his life among the peasants, a poor working class in a village.
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    1. Ashish Shankar
      Dec 31, 2017 at 10:49 pm
      Its a fundamentally flawed article today time, India does not meed the civil services at all. In fact I sincerely hope (and i know that this hope will not come true) that the prime minister acts on his minimum government maximum governance promise and disbands the Union Public Service Commission. This will also set the example for the state governments to disband the state civil services. Ashish Shankar
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      1. vasdev malhotra
        Dec 31, 2017 at 6:27 pm
        It seems the ‘Age of Reason’ has already started in our country. First our friends Mr.Natarajan and Mr. Subbarao have placed before the nation a serious malady which has been inflicting our society for a long time and which has now been thought about by a number of our other friends. Out of this examination some of our friends have made some suggestions and some others have indicated some difficulties that may come in our way. Many more suggestion will come and more difficulties will be pointed out. I will pray to our friends Mrs.Natarajan and Subbarao to kindly involve some more people interested in this noble work and prepare a long time continuing workable plan to ultimately reach our destination at some time in the future, no matter how much far away it may be.
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        1. Lakshmanan Jagannathan
          Dec 31, 2017 at 5:21 pm
          Chalta hai at ude will not change in the near future due to a few reasons. Reservation policy beyond Group C post is one reason. Second is even a passionate person who wants developed India talks like "As long as the name of Ambedkar remains. ...... Vote bank politics of ruling party with a diffrence is a disappointment. Lastly observing IT raids without immediate actions/arrests on the part of BJP -Especially PM Modi is an eye opener. Their motto is also Party First ..... Corruption later
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          1. Santosh Kumar
            Dec 31, 2017 at 2:55 pm
            This article is trying to correct the corrupt working ethos and improve the image of the IAS but real problem lie in the very archaic structure. Need is to- 1. strengthen democracy at grassroot- panchayat, urban governance led by representative of people. 2. Financial power, budgeting power, decision making power should be devolved to local representatives. 3. Each service whether IAS or other AIS or central services are equally important in its own way, so, any sort of hierarchical segregation among services will create a sense of elitism, insensitivity among perceived elite services... 4. How much altruistic pledge authors may try to pour here for IAS, its not going to be inculcated, its going to be same even next 50 years. Values are such subjective attributes every one put a counter vie to justify one`s deviant act, so , its always better to rely on transparency by electronic governance..... 5. Reduce discretion maximally, put technology at all interface of service delivery
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            1. vasdev malhotra
              Dec 31, 2017 at 4:30 pm
              Yes indeed it is going to be a long drawn process. It involves changing of at udes and habits which cannot be done overnight. It certainly will need more than fifty years. But we have to start somewhere and take the first step. It is good that our two forward looking officers have made us at least think about it. We must not allow this effort to die down after a few days as it often happens with such articles because of the same mindset of our dear ‘chalta hai’ at ude the very malady the authors have suggested to get rid of .
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              1. Lakshmanan Jagannathan
                Dec 31, 2017 at 5:26 pm
                At panchayat level, all party councillors unite, swindle money and share. We need wide publicity and draw the attention of the local population when panchyat spending plans are discussed.
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