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Who Will Watch The Watch-dog?

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

by Uday Kumar Varma

Former Secretary,  Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India.

To believe that the overall conduct of the news media, in particular TV news Media, in the wake of the recent COVID epidemic is merely a transient aberration, will only reveal an ostrich-like approach, living in stark denial of what is staring us in the face. In ignoring the salience and propriety of issues that confront our news media space and the prevalent discourse that dominates this space these days – decidedly one of the most corrosive, difficult and depressing in recent times, will be perilous, to say the least.

Unfortunately, and ironically, most crises arise, perpetuate and even fester because many of us despite feeling resentment, frustration and even anger choose to be spectators and silent witnesses as grossly improper and unjust events happen around us and eventually overtake us. It is the silence of the sane and reasonable that pushes us down the abyss while a small, shouting and bullying minority decide and dictate; and rest of us choose to collectively suffer in silence, while individually and internally remaining discontented and uncomfortable. And it is true across every segment of society – politics, bureaucracy, academia, intelligentsia, civil society and of course news media. It has happened in the past; it happens even today and it will continue to happen in future as well, such is the nature of our intellectual and cerebral evolution.

History and our collective understanding of the growth of human civilization bear testimony to the fact that as far as freedom of expression and thoughts and ideas is concerned, the State shall never be able to either control or influence it for long. The nature of human intellect, freedom, innovation, endeavour and wisdom as also follies and foibles, ensure a free flow of thinking and an equally fierce desire and will to articulate it. No state can ever be able to control, subordinate or subjugate these desires, aspirations, tendencies, capacities and their free flowing expressions. Therefore, when we talk of news media content, the state shall be in the least effective position to offer an endurable and lasting mechanism to moderate or monitor content. Actually, it is news media itself that should find mechanisms to draw well thought out and defined ‘Lakshmana rekha’. Anyone else doing so will inherently invite resentment, refusal and rebellion. It is this aspect that needs appreciation when one discusses why industry should itself volunteer to effectively monitor content.

It will be foolishly and patently erroneous to argue, as a few among us may tend to believe and assert that sanity and propriety has taken leave of the news media world, that everyone in news media today thinks alike and are in broad agreement with the approach, attitudes and motives that dominate and decide the conduct of news media. Nothing can be more preposterous. There are very sensible elements and voices – many of them – not just a handful, who vehemently disagree with what news media is doing today. While most have chosen to strike silence and stoicism, many have voiced their concerns and worries and discomfort and apprehensions in private and at times but only occasionally, even openly. If only some of them are able to pluck enough courage and say what their conscience is constantly goading them to do so, the discourse will change. Or else it may as well continue on its present disastrous trajectory, much as the political philosopher Burke had warned, “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”.

It is possible to invent, create and sustain any narrative and propagate, peddle and sell it, howsoever far removed it may be from reality and truth. The Palestinian American historian Edward Said, author of the monumental ‘Orientalism’ called such possibility through ‘a whole structure of opinion and discourse’. If some among us can successfully create a subversive, corrosive and subjective perspective, the more intelligent and enlightened amongst us, can as well create a counter narrative- positive, hopeful, constructive, pacifying, and healing.

News media has always enjoyed a certain mystical ‘mojo’ – a magical charm that places her on a pedestal higher and different from others. She acts as a watch dog for everyone else and claims it as one of her basic and inherent rights and privileges. But who will be overseeing her own conduct and character? Who would do the course correction as and when it is required? To argue that news media is a power unto itself and beyond any scrutiny will be in denial of the basic and fundamental law of nature- a law that requires a balance of forces, powers and potentials- and without which neither the universe nor all that it encompasses could originate or exist. Media has the option to be its own watch dog. Is she willing to confront this reality and challenge and and make bold to resolve it?

My own logical conviction is that happen it eventually would! The challenge, of course, pivots around the issue of when and who must take the initiative in this direction.

What Is Corroding The Steel Frame?

Stubbornly honest IAS officers did idolise Mr Uday Kumar Varma in service while not that honest officers respected him like that so such an overall experience establishes the veteran’s examining the bureaucratic prospects of India’s civil service here as appropriate.

by Uday Kumar Varma

Not many will disagree on the Steel Frame’s erosion. Most civil servants today remain just tendril like embellishments on the frame – parasitic, even if presentable. Many have colluded with or ignored the rot that has been eating the frame. Officers of integrity heard echoes and saw strains that led some of them to doubt, question and at times condemn motives and actions of officers. But so deeply was the system entrenched in them that nothing they saw or heard could shake, shock or surprise them into action. Ostrich-like, they felt the problem would go away. But it did not. Why did the service go this way?

The Problem?

1. Obsession with power and privilege

Over the years, civil servants have become so obsessed with the power and privileges they enjoy that preserving and perpetuating them has become a necessity for them. The commensurate responsibility that accompanies such power may or may not be fulfilled – but the power must remain, it is something taken for granted and a matter of right; this is the persistent attitude.

2. Integrity no longer a necessity

Integrity and probity were their strongest suite. It made their cognition, comprehension and efficiency in meeting the endless challenges of administration stand out. It gave them the moral courage and conviction to stand against the corrupt and unscrupulous.

Over time, unfortunately, some of them became partners and allies of politicians and other vested interests. Some even chose to become the dominant entity in this cooperative. Politicians realized they were on the same page with them in our priorities and convergent on the purpose of being in power.

But the greater tragedy is that a large number of them, who did not wish to join the bandwagon, watched and kept quiet because they valued their own stable lives, children’s future and due progression in their careers. Being ensconced in positions of authority, they became so insensitive and inured of criticism that they dismissed this perception as the frustrated manipulations of other All India Services or the media.

3. Parameters for success have greatly altered

Over the years, first slowly and later rapidly, the definition of being successful altered. To survive in a post became the foremost criterion for being judged as successful. This became particularly critical in the early days of one’s career. Since most Collectors are trusted with the responsibility of effectively implementing developmental and welfare programs, doing so won them laurels, but in the process, leakages – particularly pecuniary leakages – became an integral part of implementation. So, the delivery of the program was successful, yet the full value of benefits did not reach the beneficiaries.

In other words, the criterion for successful implementation of government programs over time discounted the financial discipline and ethical underpinnings that had gone hand-in-hand with implementation in the early days. While the IAS must be given full credit for successfully translating several schemes on the ground, their inability or disinterest in neutralizing corrupt nexuses perpetuated this pernicious practice that eventually acquired an institutional status. Many of them, sometimes willingly, sometimes reluctantly, joined the commonwealth of the corrupt.

Why did this happen?

Did it begin like this when we got independence? Around this time, Sardar Patel had called the IAS the “Steel Frame” of India. For around a decade post-independence, the IAS, which had to live up to the legacy of the erstwhile ICS, went about their responsibilities and duties with the highest level of dedication and commitment. Those were difficult years –  beset with gigantic challenges following the biggest and bloodiest migration of humankind in history, a devastated economy and hunger and poverty of the worst kind. But the IAS held the country together and delivered what was expected of it in difficult times. It was also free from interference from the political leadership, which was altogether in a different class as far as their dedication, commitment and intent went. The fervor of building a new country subjugated for over eight centuries was strong, deep and pervasive. Personal comforts and privileges were relegated to the background. No sacrifice was considered big or exemplary enough in this pursuit.

While some bring in the issue of reservation as the cause for the first cracks to appear in the frame, a policy which was the first to divide civil servants internally, it is politically incorrect and socially inappropriate to question the policy of reservation, even as its consequences need objective evaluation. We must not forget that reservation is a far more complex issue with any discussion involving aspects of history, sociology, identity and economics, which one is not competent to do in a summary manner. 

1. Age of Entry

A major cause for the present day troubles of the service, in my opinion, starts with the relaxation of the age on entry. In the late seventies, the maximum age allowed for appearing in the civil service examination (the new terminology for the erstwhile IAS/IFS examination, IPS examination and IRS examination, which were earlier held separately) was raised to 27 and the number of attempts were also increased. The age limit was further relaxed by another 5 years for reserved category applicants. Consequently, there emerged a set of applicants who would invest 3-5 years of their lives in preparing for this examination. Some of them would eventually succeed. But the majority would end up seeking alternative avocation after exhausting all their attempts and in the process lose some of the best years of their lives. Many would retain that sense of bitterness towards the examination process and the successful entrants.

The modifications thus made in the recruitment process has led to a situation where the candidates may not be bringing with them the right social, cultural and ethical orientation that qualifies them to pursue a career such as the civil service, a career where apart from opportunities to serve society through positions carrying immense authority and responsibility, one has to display and genuinely pursue a life characterized by complete integrity and probity.

Today the average age of a fresh entrant to the IAS stands at 28 years plus. At this age, attitudes are more or less set and the value system inalterably shaped. To replace these deeply entrenched mindsets with a healthy and passionate ideology of service and sacrifice demands a training program, radically different from what obtains today.

2. Deficiencies of Training

The training of IAS probationers has failed to instill in them the right values and the sense of pride for being upright and beyond reproach in their conduct and comfort. In India training is often taken as a necessary but not a serious requirement. Therefore, while going through the motions of imparting training, no serious attempt is made to carefully design training content. The training of IAS probationers in India equips them well with legal knowledge and practical lessons to deal with the requirements of the job but it is woefully unmindful and casual about the ethical dimensions of an IAS officer’s duties and the underlying salience of integrity in their professional work. It is also no secret that the job of the Director of the Academy is rarely the first choice of most senior officers eligible for the post. Most of the officers of that seniority will like to serve a mainstream ministry. Consequently, while most of them try to discharge their duties as much as not to invite any criticism of lack of interest, they clearly lack the passion and personal commitment to use the opportunity to prepare the Probationers to deal with issues of corruption and ethics and instill in them an abiding value system that will make the trainees face the harsh and unsavory onslaught with fortitude and tact.

The fact remains that the trainees of the recent batches, during endless interactions, do believe that corruption is a way of life and it is not their objective in service to either eliminate them or deal with them decisively. After all, they argue, they have not joined the service to become social reformers. 

3. Willful Ignorance

There is now seen so much of deterioration in our public life and discourse that any thought of it being otherwise only engenders derision. Specifically, the bureaucrat (including police)-politician-contractor (business) nexus would not have become so strong as to control the system, if even a handful of IAS had resolutely raised the red flag. It would still have been there but it would have always been considered vile and to be carried out clandestinely. This is the difference that would have occurred. Ruefully, the majority of IAS succumbed to the machinations and manipulations of this nexus.

It is not to say that there are no honest officers in the system. There are, a lot many, but this tribe, barring rare exceptions, has chosen to look the other way, while people below and above and around go merrily plundering the resources, diminishing and robbing the entitlements at will and filling their bottomless pit of endless greed. The few, whose conscience still revolts and is likely to cause inconvenience to this nexus are suitably dealt with by the system by putting them in places where they can go on writing copious notes and preparing voluminous briefs with no real say in matters of governance.

4. No faceless bureaucracy

But the real failure for which future generations of administrators will hold them accountable and responsible, is their complete indifference to the idea of institutionalizing the good work many of us have done in the field or elsewhere.

In a typical career of an IAS officer, two positions hold special significance in terms of visible authority and potential to make noticeable impact. One is that of Collector/District Magistrate/Deputy Commissioner and the other is of Secretary to Government of India in a Ministry. In both these positions, officers have taken innovative and inspiring initiatives, many of them resulting in substantial success. However, documenting a successful initiative and institutionalizing it has never been the priority of such officers. The same is true of numerous Secretaries who have with or without the active support of their Ministers, conceived and grounded outstanding schemes and programs. But almost to the fault, they never documented the process and the thinking and philosophy behind such initiatives as also the way forward. Invariably, the successor officer has to understand these initiatives and adopt them for continuation.

This takes time and as human nature is, every officer desires to leave his own very special and personal impact in such assignments. The result is that many of these assiduously planned and developed initiatives are abandoned mid-way: often because either the successor officer did not like to carry on something his predecessor is credited with; or because it takes time to reinvent the wheel and come to the same initiative after a sizable gap of time. The streak, the weakness and the ambition to show individual brilliance and innovation almost completely overshadows the desirability of institutionalizing them and thus deprives the society and the country of the benefits of continuous, focused and sustained thinking, planning and building schemes of great value and impact.

5. Lessons given to the new generation

Today, nowhere, in the training of IAS officers, the necessity and importance of documentation of initiatives is emphasized. The question of being told that you should have zero tolerance for corruption and should not mind a transfer fighting corruption, is left open ended and vague with advice that it’s our job to “manage” politicians. The message between the lines is that the important thing is to survive, notwithstanding costs that fray your moral fiber and compromise your conscience.

6. Change is inevitable

IAS may be unique to India and a class apart but governments across the world need   bureaucracies to ground their programs and also to administer. Logically, therefore, they reflect the ideology, the vision, the compulsions and the priorities of the ruling dispensation. They, in the same vein, in many cases become the instruments to force their perverse and self–serving agenda. The bureaucracies, therefore, evolve in specific contexts. Our civil services are a legacy of British. There too, under the watch of Mrs. Margaret Thatcher reforms in civil services were initiated in 1979. A Commission headed by a non-civil servant Sir Derek Rayner deliberated and recommended reforms. Many of these recommendations were accepted and put through the grind despite stiff opposition from bureaucrats. The ‘Spoils System’ common in the US makes the term of top bureaucrats co-terminus with the President. The world over, the bureaucracies have been undergoing change and reform. The IAS must also reform to keep pace with the changing times and become more responsive and productive.       

7. It’s a wakeup call

‘Mission Karmyogi’, many believe, is the beginning of the end of supremacy of IAS in the bureaucracy. The fact that it was thought necessary to laterally induct specialists and domain experts at higher echelons of governance, is an indictment of IAS. It is like acknowledging that in certain areas, the generalist’s skills are not good enough. It also implies that many in IAS have not been able to acquire a level of subject matter knowledge and expertise necessary for certain key posts. The critics may also argue that the IAS has not worked hard enough to thoroughly understand and master critical issues related to the areas where they were at the helm of affairs.

However, this also remains a fact that this service has some of the brightest brains and many have an unparalleled commitment to the task assigned to them. But this is not universal. Its time, IAS as a group does some honest and ruthless introspection and take remedial measures at least a decade or two from now, they face the certain prospect of this service becoming a part of history.

It’s a wakeup call.

Welcome To The Age Of Internet

Mr. Uday Varma belongs to the elite administrative service of India and has served in the federal government of India as Secretary in two key Ministries of Information and Broadcasting; and Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises. As Secretary, Information and Broadcasting he was instrumental in effecting the transition of Indian TV to a Digitised Access regime leading to a much diversified and expanded entertainment Sector in India. He strongly believes in technology led growth and development but advocates equity in opportunities of such growth.

Here he examines post-pandemic prospects of the world.

by Uday Kumar Varma

Few cross-roads in the history of human kind have offered her such compelling but clear a choice as the one of Corona pandemic. Not only within a time span of less than a year it has transformed our lives in a profoundly fundamental way but more significantly it has inexorably and relentlessly led us up a path that seem to be having no road signs or mile stones. How deep and irreversible is this transformation? Does it signal formally our entry into a new age- an age so very different from the one we have been part of and have got used to, and what we call as the Age of Industrialization? What do we call this new age? The Age of Internet? And have we irreversibly entered this age never to be able to go back to our old familiar ways?

Many of us have recently been using a term Industrial Revolution 4.1 for the all-encompassing influence Internet has been making to our day to day lives since it was invented a few decades ago. I intend to argue, however, that what is ahead of us is not merely Industrial Revolution 4.1 and thereby an extension of the Industrial Age but an altogether new Age – so different from the previous one and so distinctly and uniquely characterized that describing it as Industrial Revolution 4.1 will be both inaccurate and inadequate. In fact, the way we live, work and relax is going to be so fundamentally changed that such tectonic shift can only be described as the beginning of a new Age.

Over six centuries ago, when we invented steam power and locomotion, a new era of industrialization began. It radically and completely changed the way we used to live, survive and grow. The advent of factories leading to mass production, the birth of human conglomerates to be known as cities and towns mostly where the factories were located, the phenomenon of migration from villages to the new cities and towns, emergence of a new class to be known as ‘labor’ or ‘proletariat’ are some of the high points of this era. We called it a Revolution because its extent and scope were nothing less than a revolution. The ideas of Socialism and Capitalism emerged, spread, took countries after countries by storm, bloody wars were fought, older regimes toppled often violently, and a new balance of power emerged. The landed aristocracy was replaced by a new class of industrialists and business tycoons. The world got divided on the lines of political philosophies and systems. Two world wars were fought and a new world order was sought to be created. Then came the cold war and then détente. In less than 50 years since the second world war, socialism as a political system and philosophy got out of fashion and largely dysfunctional. Globalization became the new buzz word and integrating the economy of the globe as the only viable option for growth and development. And then came Corona that has seriously challenged our wisdom and understanding of the prevailing world social and economic order.

In over 600 years of its existence, the Industrial Age led to changes so huge and irreversible that to go back to a period before its advent was beyond the pale of imagination. Every vital indicator of our social, economic and cultural life altered in a permanent way. Even the poor of the earlier era were replaced by a new poor- the determinants of poverty getting altogether new definitions and contours.

We seem to be facing another moment of history. Our claim that human race is now infallible to any epidemic stands belied and mocks us with shame and pity. Human hubris, however, seldom gets subdued and justifies every failure. This beside, the corona period has not only been deeply affecting our personal lives, it has also affected several institutions. Most evidently it has affected, inter alia, our educational institutions, our health systems, our work place and our manufacturing process. They stand today fundamentally altered and has replaced the old ways with a new culture and a new approach. The on line teaching, the on line work and a manufacturing that is increasingly driven by Artificial intelligence, Machine Language, Iota and Robotics. Once the Corona goes away which surely it will, the life is not getting back to pre-corona days. It’s going to be a new normal. And the new normal will have incorporated within itself the beginning of a New age. Educational Institutions at all levels are going to continue with on line teaching. The work place will not be the typical office located in big buildings, and the manufacturing is not going to restore the primacy of human beings as the principal instrument of manufacturing process.

Implications of the new normal are going to be stunning. First, imagine the resources that are going to get conserved as we realize the futility of building huge buildings and office for our school, colleges and universities. Imagine how the transport scenario in the cities is going to change drastically as only half the work force is required in the offices. Imagine the decongestion on the roads and the consequent impact on environmental and the consumption of hydro-carbons. The impact on the global environment during Corona and following it will compel fresh assessment as many fixed boundaries have been breached and the new boundaries look blurred and uncertain. The positive aspects are likely to lead to huge saving of resources and the resultant windfall for the economy will make many of the challenges of development less severe.

The manufacturing process will see processes free of human interferences and therefore error. Products will be better and defect free. The process will be faster and the scope for innovation and experimentation limitless, because human considerations that cloud the judgment would have vanished.

What about employment then?

Employment will suffer huge losses. The number of unemployed will swell. The impact will be dramatic in developing countries. India would be one of the worst affected. And it will come sooner than later. 122 million people, three fourths of them small traders and laborers lost their jobs in April, 2020 alone, informs CMIE. Part of but not entire jobs so lost will be replaced by new jobs required in the new era. But there will be substantial shortfall. The state will be forced to look after a huge unemployed population by giving a liberal unemployment allowance or devise some such mechanism. The resources for such a program will have to come from surpluses generated as the new technologies and new way of life come into full play. Over a period of time, even this short fall of jobs will get addressed as the old generation will fade out and a new younger, energetic and better equipped generation takes over.

Who will be the new rich?

The new rich and emerging aristocrats will not be big industrialist or business magnates any more. The rich and powerful in this new Age will be the big owners of domains. The bigger and valuable your domain, greater will be your influence and control. The state will continue but will be a puppet manipulated by some or a conglomerate of domain owners. They will decide what is good for society and how society should think and react. The prospect is scary but real. We already have a fairly good idea of the kind of influence these domain owners exercise in the affairs of the state. They can win or lose elections for you. They can derail, even destroy your economic trajectory. They can foment strife and war. If even a fraction of big domain owners turns megalomaniacs, the world can come to an end. But it is highly unlikely. The history of mankind has one clear and unequivocal lesson for us, humans like nature always bring back the balance. How such a balance will unfold, we can, at this point of time, only speculate and more wisely simply wait and watch.

There is a looming fear, though, that may completely overtake everything else. The social fabric may get so stretched and stressed that something like a class war may erupt, a war between endowed and not so endowed, between skilled and unskilled with latter outnumbering the former. It’s too scary and intimidating a prospect but possibly the governments may be just able to contain it. Once this possibility or eventuality is over, and a natural order of checks and balances emerge and stabilize, the world would have settled in a new age, era and order.