I have for some time been convinced that Moses (famous in the Old Testament) was THE original bureaucrat. The anecdotal evidence is quite compelling. He offered his people the Promised Land, then made them wander in the desert for forty years. If this isn’t the classic bureaucratic race, then what is? There is more. He was good at beating around the bush, until one caught fire and he called it an Act of God. He used to deliver sermons from raised platforms, which no one understood.
But here is the clincher: he developed the first set of rules of conduct, which later became known as the Ten Commandments. And they are also a nice set of rules, except maybe the one not to covet your neighbour’s wife which contradicts a later sub-rule which urges to love your neighbour, and we all know that the last rule supersedes the previous one.
There’s also a slight problem with the one that says you won’t kill, given that the Israelis are doing precisely that to the Palestinians at about the exact spot near Mount Sinai where he announced his rules of conduct. But you can hardly blame the former bureaucrat with events after his retirement, can you?
The same leeway, however, cannot be given to its successors – no, not the State of Israel, but the IAS. Now, an IAS officer is at his best writing all sorts of rules – if they’re incomprehensible he’s happy, and if they’re not enforceable he’s overjoyed on an almost orgasmic level. I would like to share a few that I have had the mixed fortune to encounter in my career.
Have you ever wondered why civil servants, especially senior ones, are so myopic? It’s the rules, silly! In the early 1980s, I was appointed joint secretary in the finance department of Shimla. Part of my heavy duties involved approving medical claims. At that time contact lenses were considered a cosmetic procedure and not a medical one, expenses were not reimbursable, even if you couldn’t see past your nose without them (probably on the assumption that the less you saw, the safer you were).
One day, I received a complaint from a High Court judge who had had contact lenses fitted, perhaps to better see his litigants, like the wolf in the fable of Red Riding Hood. I quickly dismissed the request and took the file to the finance secretary, expecting a pat on the back. The FS looked at me with a smirk and said, “Approve!” I was appalled, just as Moses must have been when he saw the Israelis worshiping the golden calf. “But the rules, sir…” I squealed. And then the FS explained:
“Ay,” he told me patiently, “you must understand the hierarchy of rules. The most important rule in government is the rule of precedent. A precedent, once established, is sacrosanct, notwithstanding all other rules .Once you allow someone something, you cannot deny it to others.Generations of judges and lawyers have been able to put bread on their tables because of this rule.So let My Lord have his damn contact lenses. And hereafter we can all have contact lenses too. And that’s how contact lenses are now reimbursable, at least in Himachal. We now have more ornate IAS chappies more red things than starlets in Bollywood.
Rule number two. In 2007, after years of subsisting on bread and water (and the occasional box of sweets on Diwali), I finally built myself a cottage in Mashobra, intending to spend my time conversing with nature. and to collect some tips from the birds and the bees. I requested a gas hookup from HP Civil Supplies Corporation for the new house. It was rejected on the grounds that two connections could not be given under the same name, and since I already had one in my official house in Shimla, the rules did not allow one for Mashobra. Since the general manager of the company was my neighbor, I harassed him until he found a solution. He informed me that he had double checked his rules and that he would be able to sanction a second connection if I swore that my wife intended to divorce and live separately in Mashobra! (It would obviously be in my wife’s name). I was completely puzzled.
First, we in government cannot swear affidavits with the same gay flippancy that our MPs and MPs do during an election. Second, I had no intention of parting with Neerja, after clinging to her for thirty years. Third, once she starts living apart, she might start to like it. Officers who had gone to Delhi on central deputation leaving behind their wives told me on good authority that the latter were soon beginning to enjoy their celibate status and were encouraging their husbands to stay in Delhi until retirement. . And why not ? They have all the benefits of an IAS spouse, they don’t really have to put up with a guy who’d rather go to bed with a pile of files than a wife. Fourth, Mashobra has a lot of retired defense officers who spend all their time looking for lost golf balls and single women and they don’t mind playing their shots on the wrong fairway at all.
No, sir (I thought to myself) that was not a good idea at all. I told Neerja. She asked for two days to consider the suggestion. Finally, of course, she also refused. She confided to me later that the idea had tempted her but that she had given up, because then who was walking the dog and making tea in bed in the morning? So, ultimately, we didn’t use that particular rule after all; instead, I went to the Lower Bazaar and bought a bottle and a regulator on the black market.
I am convinced that most IAS officers have very high levels of schadenfreude, not just testosterone, and love nothing better than to see the proletariat squirm; nothing less can explain this next rule. One of the consequences of having a large bureaucracy and an improving life expectancy rate is that we also have a large multitude of retirees who refuse to kick the bucket. (Come to think of it, why should they, when their pensions are greater than their salaries; moreover, for government retirees (as opposed to private sector types), the lack of work after retirement is not at all traumatic since they never did any work while on duty in the first place.
Pension rules state that every November a pensioner is expected to present a “living certificate” stating that they are still alive. (Being brain dead is not a disqualification, assuming most of them were brain dead while on duty anyway). This life certificate can be attested by any bank manager or official agent. The system worked very well until a few years ago when a brilliant financial secretary in Shimla decided that the attestation should be done by a Patwari (village revenue officer). Bank managers, it was decreed, could not be given a certificate of life, though they could with all our savings.
Now, a Patwari in the mountainous regions of Himachal is a mythical figure. Although there are around 700 of them, they are harder to spot than a snow leopard, of which there are barely a dozen. it is easier to track a Yeti than a Patwari, as their camouflage is so good. But the rules are the rules, and the mountain slopes are now teeming with pensioners searching for their Patwaris, usually to no avail.
Some have taken to camping in caves hoping to assault him on a good day, others organize “havans” in the hope of being blessed by his appearance, still others are looking for astrologers to predict its movements. The more computer-savvy retirees have started using drones to spot it (I hear they’ve been able to spot new Chinese villages on the border, but the Patwari remains as elusive as Bigfoot).
But the shrewd Secretary of Finance, I am told, is a happy man: mortality among pensioners has risen sharply, and with all the effort now required of them, pension expenditure has fallen dramatically. drastically to satisfactory levels, and the budget deficit is finally under control. The FS was even considered for the awarding of a Padma Shri, but it was eventually awarded to Kangana Ranaut. She has, after all, discovered the actual date of Indian independence.
Avay Shukla is retired from the Indian Administrative Service.