– C.K. Mathew IAS (Retd)
(ORIGINALLY WRITTEN IN DECEMBER 2010)
The old fable is well-known: when Arjuna participated in the Swayamwar for the hand for Draupadi, he had to undertake a test of skill in archery. He, along with the others, was asked to shoot at a fish strung high up in the air, while looking at its reflection in a bowl of water. While aiming at the target reflected in the water, the others saw the skies, the birds, the trees, the ripples; but it was Arjuna alone who saw nothing but the eye of the fish: so powerful and focussed was his gaze and concentration.
In the art of public administration, we very often miss the objective and look at the surrounding foliage. For example, if our objective is to ensure the distribution of food grains to the poor persons living below the poverty line, we will look at issues related to the transportation of food grains, commission for agents involved, arrival of grains at the fair price shop etc. While all these aspects are important, the real question we have to focus all our attention on is whether the food grains are actually reaching the targeted poor. So we have countless examples of where the food grains were transported across large distances, where the handling agents got their commission, and where the food grains did indeed reach the fair price shop. But as to whether the food grains are actually consumed by the poor beneficiaries, we have very little confirmation. Are the grains being siphoned off from the shops and bogus entries made in the registers for distribution? Is the grain finding its way into the market through black marketers colluding with the shop owners?
If the purpose of the rural water supply scheme is to provide water to the thirsty villagers, should we be just satisfied with erection of the tube well or the hand pump? Or should we be monitoring whether the water distribution is actually delivering the requisite quantity of water for consumption by each of the persons for whom it is meant. If a road is constructed to provide access to a far-flung village, should we be content with the brouhaha of the inauguration of the road, or whether it is durable and can sustain traffic and doesn’t fall apart with the first rains? If a Primary Health Centre is announced and is established on paper with doctors, nurses and adequate funding, should we lie back in satisfaction or ensure that the doctors and the nurses reach the appointed place and start regularly dispending medical care to the local population?
The art of governance is not a T20 match, with fun and excitement and cheerleaders and soaring boundaries. It is a life-long Test, where long-enduring and stolid performances are constant needs to achieve our purpose. The players have to be mature and fully grounded in the realities and truths of everyday life. A civil servant’s is a life time profession, and rightly defined as a service. It is a vocation that should drive him like a goad in every action of his in every day of his life. It will not let him rest until he fulfils his purpose. It is an unending, and perhaps unfulfilling, life time vocation, for there is never a moment when he can say that his work is done. What he successfully does is but a fraction of the work that stands like a mountain before him. It is a continuously daunting job that he must perform and never let slack. The dangers that surround his slackness cannot be described: he feels that with every file left uncleared, each person left unheard, each paper not disposed off, the darkness of anarchy will swell around him and swallow him up and destroy the last vestiges of order and stability. For to leave the vulnerable and the poor to the mercy of the wolves is the worst thing that he abhors. He will give his life to stand for their defence. He stands like a colossus before the waters of the deluge.
I am sure I exaggerate; but the purpose of the civil servant is to bring order and shape to a system that can so easily fall into shapeless chaos. And this is possible only if we have the unblinking gaze of a hawk, the sharp and focussed glare of an Arjuna when he set his sights on the eye of the fish.