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July 12th, 1977. The date is etched in my memory: with a steel trunk and a hold-all, I had presented myself at the reception counter of the Lal BahadurShastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie to join as a probationer in the Indian Administrative Service. In many ways, the day was liberating, empowering and sobering: liberating, for it was freedom from the narrow confines of home and limited horizons; empowering, for I could see clearly the potential that the national civil service could provide; and sobering, for I could dimly sense the awesome responsibility that the three initials bestowed on those who had the privilege to earn it. But the idealism burning within swept away everything in its wake. As I handed in my joining report, I knew that the world was at my feet. I was thrilled to be alive.

July 12th 2014. I am in Jaipur in the last month of my official life. It is the same day, but in another millennium, and I suddenly realised that I had just then completed thirty seven years in the civil service. It was difficult to believe that the years had flown with such swiftness, that there was now much silver in my hair and that the idealism of those blissful glory days was replaced by a watchful wariness and a solemnity, a touch of caution that weighed things carefully before committing to anything. There was also some cynicism: of that too, I was sure. But with all that, I was celebrating thirty seven years in the service of the nation; I had some reason to be proud of it all.

But then I thought again: did I say ‘in the service of the nation’? Could I be sure of what that meant? Have I indeed been serving the nation? Or in the rush and tumble of the headlong drive of the days, have I also been serving my own cause? It made me pause to think; it sobered me and worried me needlessly for days on end.
Service of mankind has always been one of the major tenets of all religions. Hindu scriptures talk of selfless service as one’s dharma. It should not be done for name or fame or for any other returns. It has to be selfless. But more importantly Seva should restore the dignity and self-respect of its beneficiary.

In the same way the Quran too talks of kindness to parents, and to kindred, and orphans, and the needy, and to the neighbour that is a kinsman and the neighbour that is a stranger, and the companion by your side, and the wayfarer, and your employees.

In Christian scriptures, the lowliest of those amongst us are considered as our brothers and the Prophet said: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these bothers of mine, you did for me”, thus equating godliness with service for the lowliest.

It is in this context I wondered whether my thirty seven years ‘in the service of the nation’ has indeed been what it claims to be. In the Indian Administrative Service, right from the initial days in the employment of the government, young officers are entrusted with exacting and heavy duties in the management of the affairs of the State. As one grows, the duties become more onerous and complex. These duties may vary across the gamut of the activities we perform in government, from tax administration to law and order to infrastructure development and so on. Gigantic projects and programmes are executed, following due procedure and it is perhaps natural that errors are sometimes committed in the processes adopted for such execution. Be that as it may, even acknowledging that what we do is mind-boggling in its nature and its variety, I keep asking myself that at the bottom of it all, at the very heart of the concept of public administration, what does it mean when we say we are in ‘the service of the nation’.

Our land abounds with contradictions, of grinding poverty and obnoxious richness, of high and low castes, of discrimination between the sexes, of soaring achievements and pitiful failures. To me, in my clear and unequivocal opinion, at the bottom of it all, the true meaning of being ‘in the service of the nation’ is really to serve the poor, to serve those not as fortunate as ourselves. All other things we do are subservient to that irreducible truth.

So then, I ask myself the question again, have I been really in the service of the poor, in these last thirty seven years? Or have I been enjoying the tempting perks of power, forgetting the very purpose for which I have been placed in a position of responsibility and authority. Has the arrogance of power swept away the idealism with which I started out in my career? I ask these questions to myself now and it must surely ring a bell in the minds of all my colleagues as well who ‘served the nation’ in its premier civil service:

  • When the peon at our residence attends the phone and invariably says that the sahib is in the bathroom or at puja, are we serving the nation?
  • When we use our official car for all manner of private purposes, are we serving the nation?
  • When we come to office chronically late, leave for a two-hour break for lunch and then come back only to depart for home before office winds up, are we serving the nation?
  • When we make our visitors in office wait outside our rooms for hours on end while we have a chat with some crony or admirer, are we serving the nation?
  • When our main concern is not to wipe away tears, but the expansion of our own comforts and perquisites, are we serving the nation?
  • When we interrogate with contempt and disdain the poor and miserable people who come to us with their problems, of lands usurped, or daughters abused or money embezzled, when we dismiss them without soothing their brows, are we serving the nation?
  • When we lose our temper on insignificant and petty matters, while at the same time refusing to address the major governance issues that weaken us every day, are we serving the nation?
  • When we delegate all our work to others without providing leadership to those who look up to us, are we serving the nation?
  • When we let the tides take us where they will, and we go through life with no thoughts for the ones whose welfare we are mandated to protect, are we serving the nation?

To sum it all up, in the enormous task of the governance of the nation, if we do not keep the poor at the centre of it all, at the core of the vast and intricate machinery that is the State, then we are in danger of committing unforgiveable crimes. Crimes which include the abdication of our duties for the pleasures and comfort that the three initials after our names bring. And the callousness that we display towards those for whose welfare we have been appointed in the service of the nation.

Surely we have enough good men and women amongst us who can dedicate ourselves to the cause of serving the poor, and truly being ‘in the service of the nation’. Or have they all flown away to some cloud and cuckoo land where nothing really matters?

As a retired civil servant now musing over the years of his official life, I am shocked by the insistence with which these questions ring in my mind.

Post Author: Dr C.K. Mathew, IAS (Retd)