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.