Book Review: Not Just a Civil Servant – A memoir of an IAS officer

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Updated: March 24, 2019 7:07:45 PM

The memoir of a civil servant, though lucid and readable, leaves the reader wanting for more juicy details

Anil Swarup, an IAS officer of Uttar Pradesh cadre, joined the elite service in 1981 and retired in 2018. (Express photo)

If journalism is termed as the first draft of history, it won’t be wrong to say that memoirs of bureaucrats are its primary source material. And if the bureaucrats happen to be officers of the Indian Administrative Service or the Indian Police Service, the source material is richer and varied, as the expanse of work of these officers is so large that it touches almost the entire gamut of human existence in India.

As my late father, himself a civil servant, who served as an administrator of Ranchi Municipal Corporation, used to say, “In birth, one needs to visit a municipal corporation for a birth certificate, and no death is complete unless the corporation certifies by way of a death certificate.”

Since colonial times, India has a rich tradition of civil servants writing not only about their life and times, but also scholarly works. Two works instantly come to mind. For the study of the Emergency era of 1975-77, perusal of BN Tandon’s PMO Diaries is a must. Tandon, who served as a joint secretary in Indira Gandhi’s secretariat, wrote an exhaustive account of the times, which provides rich insights into the behind-the-scenes machinations of our rulers. Similarly, former cabinet secretary TSR Subramanian’s Journeys through Babudom and Netaland is a must-read if one wants to get a glimpse of both the central and state governments.

Anil Swarup, an IAS officer of Uttar Pradesh cadre who joined the elite service in 1981 and retired in 2018 having worked in several capacities in the state, as well as the Centre, is thus not a new entrant to the club of ex-bureaucrats putting pen to paper. In fact, he continues the rich tradition.

Having known and interacted with Swarup, I was a bit disappointed, though, going through his book, Not Just a Civil Servant, as I found him to be too economical with his stories, something which he is not in real life. The 182-page hard cover could easily have been expanded to 200 pages more and it would have been trebly more interesting.

Swarup has covered his state postings very briefly in the book, focusing more on his tenure at the Centre. Here also, he has disproportionately apportioned larger reams to his working in the Union labour ministry, where he worked on the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana, an insurance scheme for the poor and unorganised labour force. No doubt, it turned out to be a success compared to such schemes in the past, which were a dud. However, while he’s mentioned all the notable names who worked hard to make the scheme a success, he’s omitted naming those who tried to pull it down.

He became secretary in the coal ministry after the coal scam in which the Supreme Court cancelled more than 200 blocks allocated since 1993. Swarup conducted the coal auctions in a transparent manner, which was a huge success. However, the only details he shares are his run-ins with the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, who tried to create headlines by sensationalising his audit report on the subject, only to be thwarted by an impeccable Swarup. The account of the differences with Prime Minister Modi’s principal secretary over an overseeing committee for the auctions—which Swarup resisted and had his way—is too short.

What he writes on his differences with another former CAG, Vinod Rai, in assessing the perceived loss to the exchequer through wrong method of coal allocations is merely a commentary, and not derived from his personal experience. While it may be argued that he was not in the ministry at that time, he is right in commenting on the issue as a civil servant as he feels the whole issue frightened civil servants from taking action, and was the genesis of policy paralysis. But is policy paralysis a new phenomenon? Every bureaucrat can tell you a dozen stories of honest officers who refuse to sign files and do anything worthwhile from the fear that they might get framed later in false charges. Swarup is contemptuous of such officers, but doesn’t write about any of them or reveal any names.

He has stood by a former coal secretary, HC Gupta, who wrongly got chargesheeted in the coal scam, while then coal minister (former prime minister Manmohan Singh) went scot-free. Swarup is critical of Singh for not standing by Gupta, but perhaps he could have been more expansive on this point.

Similarly, he was the first officer who was appointed by the UPA II government to expedite stuck infrastructure projects and he did a good job there. But once again, his account could have been more elaborate. Swarup moved from coal as secretary, school education and literacy, a move he writes was welcome, but doesn’t reveal the reason behind the transfer.

His account in this office deals mostly with the mafia, dealing with teachers’ education, as well as the leak of the 2018 CBSE math and economics examination papers. Here again, one feels that he could have shared more stories.
Swarup served in UP, a state rich with political stories, but he has shared no nuggets related to Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati. The little he has shared regarding Kalyan Singh is too less, barely enough to qualify even as an appetiser.

While Swarup’s book is lucid and readable, it leaves one wanting for more details and stories. One hopes this is just the beginning and he comes out with a sequel filled with more interesting details to make the work of journalists and future historians easy!

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