NOT JUST A CIVIL SERVANT
If not in ideology, at least in proximity, bureaucrats are the category of individuals closest to the power centres in the government. So when a recently-retired top bureaucrat decides to pen his memoir, expectations run high: Anil Swarup, who retired last year as Secretary, School Education, was also Coal Secretary under the NDA government. And after spending 38 years in the civil service, Swarup has written about his experience of serving under different political dispensations.
However, what is disappointing is that instead of tell-all tales of run-ins with politicians, we just have broad hints of his spats with ministers and key officials in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) — sometimes with even the dramatis personae going unnamed. Swarup, evidently, decided he should go thus far, and no further.
The victimisation of bureaucrats and the resultant policy paralysis is an underlying theme of the book — a March 2018 episode Swarup writes about after the leak of the CBSE board exam question papers is an illustrative example. He describes the media attack against the CBSE chairperson, Anita Karwal, as “vicious, malicious and personal” and says that when he met the education minister, Prakash Javadekar, “he appeared jittery. The media was now hounding him as well and he was avoiding them. He suggested removal of Anita Karwal to contain the fallout…”
At this stage, Swarup stepped in and offered to address the infuriated media as Secretary. He adds this punchline: “But he (Javadekar) wanted to take the PMO into confidence (a culture that had evolved over a period of time)…the PMO backed my stand and asked me to go ahead to brief the media later in the afternoon but only after I had received the PM’s clearance through the PMO…”
The clearance came a full hour after the scheduled press conference was to begin and Swarup admits that every second of that one hour weighed heavily on him.
The most newsy chapters of the book detail the times when, as the incumbent coal secretary in 2014, he had to oversee the fresh auction of the coal blocks which had been cancelled by the Supreme Court during the UPA regime. But, Swarup reveals, the NDA government had mooted an “informal” proposal to appoint the former Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), Vinod Rai, as the head of a committee to supervise the auctions since the government felt it was too sensitive a matter to be left to the mandarins of the coal ministry.
The author, later, gives his critique of the hasty manner in which the CAG report on coal block allocations was handled by Rai and surmises that the auditor seriously erred by using average numbers instead of a mine-wise analysis. If that had been done, only those mines would have been cancelled by the apex court where there was a windfall gain. Scathing remarks follow: “the CAG report led to the conviction of officers who enjoyed a spotless image. The then Prime Minister (Manmohan Singh, again, not named) who in his role as Coal Minister had approved the proposals to allocate the coal blocks conveniently dissociated himself from the process. The CAG obviously cannot be blamed for all of this, but he set the tone for devastating consequences…”
The revelatory chapter on PM Singh’s years is about the environment ministry, which became the focus of Swarup’s attention when he was heading a group called the Project Monitoring Group (PMG) meant to fast-track delayed infrastructure projects. By end-2013, Swarup narrates, the pile-up of projects entailing investments of more than Rs 50,000 crore in the environment ministry began to stymie the whole process. Not once is Jayanthi Natarajan named even when he alleges, “There were rumors that a tax named after the Cabinet Minister was being charged. I, myself had sent notes on three different occasions to the Cabinet Secretary requesting him to inform the Prime Minister…”
Eventually, Swarup writes, he briefed Montek Singh Ahluwalia, the Planning Commission deputy chairman, about the roadblocks being faced by him due to absence of clearances from the environment ministry. “It was evident that Montek had spoken to the PM…I don’t know what happened after this to trigger the decision, but the concerned Minister was shown the door, within a week. Transparency had apparently claimed its first victim…”
Despite all such hurdles, though, Swarup believes the challenge of getting the better of tricky situations such as these, and, the freedom and opportunities an IAS officer gets in India, also means that there is no better job on earth.