– Dr C.K. Mathew, IAS (Retd)
I wrote this blog some two years before my superannuation: in retrospect, it probably reflects a sense of impatience with officious rules. But I repeat it here for your reading and consideration.
The power and authority that we possess, by the very nature of the jobs that we occupy in government, is immense, discretionary and wide ranging. Even within the schedule of powers or the rules of business which govern the activities that we perform in the course of our official duties, there are large, unquestioned and often unbridled powers. Not only regarding what we do to make things happen, but also in what we do to prevent them from happening.
However, even if we go beyond the ambit of our official work, the impact of our influence also is vast and all-pervading. Whether it is to put in a word to a selection board to help a particular candidate to get through the interview, or to nudge the Principal of an exclusive private school to grant admission to the ward of a colleague, or yet again the grant of an arms-license to the son of a friend….the instances are infinite in its number and variety. The fact that we do it, even without consciously thinking about it, just as a matter of rote is also significant, in a system where patronage and largesse is a part of life.
All this is especially ironic in a situation where transparency and objectivity are the key words on which the administration supposedly stands. Yes, there are several aspects of administration where our powers are closely supervised and carefully circumscribed. In such areas, more or less routine in nature, there is not much discretion. For example, the appointment of a person on a job through a process based on his performance in the written exams: this is where nothing much can be done to influence the decision or to unduly benefit anybody. The questions have multiple-choice answers, an impersonal scanning machine evaluates the answer sheet and the results are machine generated. What a marvel of technology, but how irksome for someone who is used to the power of one’s influence. How should he react to the all-pervading impact of the integrated chip! So also, allotment of plots in a new housing colony through a lottery: who can influence the God of Chance? Gone are the days when a friendly face was willing to accommodate the request of a colleague of a senior. Now a computer software pulls out numbers at random to give you your plot or flat number. In these and similar situations, the old days of ‘the wave of a benevolent hand’ are gone.
But there is another side to it. What do we do in situations demanding a humane response? When the strict adherence to rules will only prove what a hard heart we have. Should we, in the top bureaucracy, not demonstrate that we too have compassion? When we know that delay is taking place because some demands of petty officials in the hierarchy are not being met, are we bold enough to intervene and shake up the system. Or perhaps we would prefer to close one’s eyes and go back to sleep? When the cries of a supplicant, groaning under injustice, are not heard, then do we have the moral right to continue at the top of the ladder?
It is here, in such rare cases, that we must exercise our discretion, our solemn judgment, and reach out to correct an error, to set things right, to soothe the ruffled brow, to bring solace to the troubled mind. Rules have their place, and without them, we will not survive. Order demands that rules are framed or else we stare at anarchy. But then comes a point when rules serve only to hinder the delivery of justice. At senior levels of the bureaucracy we must recognize where we have to intervene and get obstructive rules out of the way, with ‘a wave of the benevolent hand’. We cannot let rules stand in the way of good and humane governance. We need to see the agony of the people who come to us. We need to temper justice with mercy. We need to know that what we deem to be the truth may not be true at all.
Robert Brault once said: “Today I bent the truth to be kind, and I have no regret, for I am surer of what is kind than I am of what is true.”And that is why we have to go the extra mile, be extra good, be extra caring and compassionate while discharging the high duties of office. I quote again:”Be kinder than necessary because everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.˝