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My friend told me the coal sector was like ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’: Former secy Anil Swarup

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IAS officer Anil Swarup on the mafia in the education and coal sector, and the need for renovations in civil service exams.

New Delhi: As Anil Swarup, secretary of ministry of human resource development retires, he talks about his experience in the civil services, the controversy about lateral entry, and bringing about change in the coal allocation system while his superiors faced CBI inquiries.

Swarup was in conversation with founder and Editor-in-Chief of ThePrint, Shekhar Gupta on Walk The Talk. Read transcript of the interview.

Gupta: How does somebody survive in a service like yours silently?

Swarup: I think it is the easiest to survive when you are straight. If you are tortuous, you may face difficulties. If you are straight, people would know so and value you accordingly.

Gupta: But the system is not straight.

Swarup: I would not say so. It is, in fact, how you make the system. No system in the world is perfect. As a civil servant, you have to find your way through it. Once you develop a reputation of being straight and delivering things properly, people will accept you as you are. It is a question of how you are.

Gupta: Now let’s talk about your life. You are finishing your tenure of 37 years. You have been a part of the cabinet secretariat during the UPA rule handling project clearance. It was a time when all these projects were held up. You were the coal secretary. You have been in the labour sector. And now you have also been in the HRD. In the state, you have handled investments and all the other things that an IAS officer does. How does an IAS officer move from one department to another, from coal to HRD?

Swarup: The fundamental principle remains the same, in whichever sector you are. It ultimately boils down to managing men and women. So you have to know how to make people work.

Gupta: I ask this because you have also been in the HRD.

Swarup: Yes. You have to learn the art of handling people. It is a cakewalk once you are able to empower and trust them.

Gupta: Those are people who work for you. But what about people who you work for?

Swarup: Their trust matters a lot, as well. You need to learn to negotiate with them. Like everyone, politicians desire success and fame. So if things get delivered on ground, more often than not politicians take credit for it. In case of a coal block auction, even if the team does groundwork, the government takes credit and rightly so. After all, they provide the support.

Gupta: You were transferred as a coal secretary at a very crucial time. How reckless were you when you moved in, especially since your predecessors were facing the CBI inquiry?

Swarup: What had happened back then was that everything had gone wrong with the coal secretariat. So when they posted me as coal secretary, I asked a friend of mine about the sector. He asked me if I had watched Gangs of Wasseypur. That was my introduction to the coal sector. But there was a bright side to this. The situation was so bad that I could walk around, experimenting in the coal secretary. Anything I did would be some sort of improvement. I was blessed with an outstanding team. We were a bunch of dedicated IAS officers.

Gupta: Isn’t the CBI the only place where IPS officers get better of IAS officers?

Swarup: I had to instil some sense of security among the IAS officers. Since I had some reputation in my field I could convince them. I would crack jokes with the team since humour brings about some sense of cohesion. By and large, the UPSC makes people rally around you. It is a question of how you use them. If you give them that sense of comfort, they will surely deliver. I may have taken the credit of the coal block auction but I think I did the talking while they did the walking.

Gupta: So tell me what exactly happened at the coal ministry when you went there. It seemed that anyone who would touch coal could go to jail. And frankly speaking, before you anybody who touched coal went to jail.

Swarup: I’ll tell you what I did. I am a great believer of transparency. Even if I go wrong, I would know that I have been honest.

Gupta: And they will not impute motives to you.

Swarup: Absolutely, no mala fide will be directed. I have been telling my colleagues to be totally transparent. Technology allows you to do that. Take coal block auction, for example. You could actually see all the action happening on your phone. Everyone knew what was happening. So when everyone knows, things will not go wrong and if they do, there will be people coming and informing you. You can correct it.

Gupta: Is it a good thing for the coal and energy economy, because I also understand a lot of people who bid for mines are not into mining. Hence further auctions have failed.

Swarup: The primary problem with the coal sector was not the coal block auction. It was the shortage of coal. But things changed in the two years that I was there. When the shortage of coal ends, the demand for coal blocks come down. We went into a third and fourth round of auction as there were not many takers. It is always convenient to get a reasonable price quote from Coal India. We addressed a fundamental issue. I keep telling my colleagues that whenever there is a problem one must understand the ‘why’ of a problem. The ‘why’ of the whole problem was not coal block auction, it was the shortage of coal. And the ‘why’ of the shortage was the non-availability of coal.

Gupta: So has the production gone up now? Or is it the consumption that has gone down?

Swarup: No. At that point of time, consumption had gone up. To give you some numbers, in 2014-15, the coal production rose by 34 million tons. This was more than the cumulative growth in the previous four years. The following year, it was 44 million tons. Production shot up so much that Coal India had to go to users to sell coal. Now, demand is also increasing with production. So we still hear of some coal shortages here and there.

Gupta: So, one of your predecessors H.C. Gupta was prosecuted and convicted. Do you have a view on that case?

Swarup: It is very unfortunate. I worked with him and I know that he is one of the ablest officers in the IAS service. He was known for his competence. It is very unfortunate that this had to happen to him.

A document came to him when he was chairing a committee and he took that document too seriously. Later on, it was discovered that that document was fudged. How do you hold secretary and chairman of the committee responsible for something like that?

Gupta: And there was no quid pro quo in this conviction order?

Swarup: They said that there was no quid pro quo in the conviction order.

Gupta: So is there a flaw in the law in the amended Prevention of Corruption Act?

Swarup: Yes. Section 13 (1) (d) of the Prevention of Corruption Act is flawed in itself. The assumption of quid pro quo, in case something goes wrong, is problematic.

Gupta: So do you think that the government and political parties should come together to try and repeal the Act?

Swarup: We have been raising this issue for quite some time now. The government is also considering it. However, this needs to be done for quicker decisions.

Gupta: Was this not done under street pressure at that point by a very weak government?

Swarup: I do not know what the pressure was. Though, they could not sustain it for sure.

Gupta: After that, you moved to the HRD. Was it like moving from the frying pan to the fire? Or was it like jumping from the stove into the frying pan?

Swarup: In coal, mining happened underground while the mafia ruled over the ground. In education, it is the other way round. The mafia stays underground and the mining takes place over the ground. The HRD sector is much more complex. The underpinning problems are more complex in comparison.

Gupta: What are four or five of the biggest problems in the education sector?

Swarup: I will tell you in simple terms. The teacher is at the helm of the Indian education system. Most of the problems begin and end with teachers. Let me give you a few examples. If you look at the teacher continuum, the problem lies in the way teachers are trained before they get into a profession. B.Ed and D.Ed. are the biggest mafia.

Gupta: Did you go after them?

Swarup: Yes. We went after them. 25 per cent of B.Ed and D.Ed colleges are unregistered. They give you a degree if you pay them well. Some of these institutions even lure students with promises of job prospects. It is as bad as that.

Gupta: So would you say that my primary school teacher was a crook?

Swarup: I can’t say this for all of them. There are still a lot of good teachers.

Gupta: What do you have to say about the situation in the ‘least corrupt’ state in the country, Haryana?

Swarup: The teachers are not sufficiently equipped to teach the students. There are a lot of issues. But we must try to address them one by one. It is a very challenging exercise.

Gupta: So do you think that the central problem with education is teaching?

Swarup: If teachers can handle problems, the education system will improve and the country will go a long way.

Gupta: What is the next big problem in education?

Swarup: I believe that there won’t be a major problem if teachers learn to handle crisis.

Gupta: Don’t you see another problem? If you go to the Parliament website and take a look at the MPs and their qualification, it will seem that all of them are educationalists. In our country, education is supposed to be non-profit. How do you deal with politicians with vested interests in commercial education?

Swarup: We need to primarily handle the B.Ed and D.Ed colleges. I traveled to the states and spoke to chief ministers. The amount of support that I got from the politicians is amazing. The problems started coming from the stay orders of the court. But hopefully, we will get the decision soon. That should handle the problem.

Gupta: The HRD is a complicated ministry. I believe you were the fifth secretary in three years. But there would have also been a sixth secretary after you. How does one function like that?

Swarup: You work with what is given to you. I focus on what is at hand. There is no point in brooding over the things that are out of my control.

Gupta: What was your tenure?

Swarup: One year and seven months.

Gupta: One year, seven months is like ten years under Mayawati.

Swarup: I am used to it.

Gupta: You worked with her in the UP cadre. Is there sufficient focus on education in our political circle?

Swarup: I think there is. Even I had to make a presentation before the Prime Minister. He was quite interested in it. He totally agreed with my statement that the teachers’ problems have to be sorted out.

Gupta: Do you think that the hypocrisy of education can be eradicated by removing corruption? Presently, everyone has to do everything illegally. Everyone has to lie.

Swarup: This has been going on for a while now. Since our immediate concern is with the teachers, I think next the step would be to see how we open up the education system. To some extent, the market system could determine this very easily. I am a great believer of public-private partnership. Efficiency comes from the private sector whereas scale comes from the government sector.

Gupta: Recently, another question was being debated. Generalists like you have handled investments in state, you have handled administration in the district, worked in the labour ministry, coal sector and the HRD. Before that you were the key person in designing the original  Swasthya Bima project. You may be an exception. But can the same man bowl, pace, spin and open the match?

Swarup: Let me tell you that I am not the only exception in the civil service. You have people like Parameswar Iyer, Amardeep Sinha, and other brilliant officers. So, there are a lot of people who are capable of multi-tasking. I am of the view that after a particular level of seniority, it is more about managing men and women rather than having detailed knowledge of a particular domain. Because you may have domain knowledge, but ultimately what gets delivered through the people around you.

Gupta: So you are not concerned about this generalist problem?

Swarup: I am convinced about the fact that we need managers of men and women. We are talking too much about specialisation. Though, there is no doubt that some amount of specialisation is required at the top level.

Gupta: Unfortunately, these are mostly CFOs. I said ‘unfortunately’, because CFOs are not generally entrepreneurial.

Swarup: But my concern is different altogether. It is about managing men and women.

Gupta: I will tell you a short story. I was forced to manage a big media company, The Indian Express. One of my friends who was on my sounding board, asked me: “If you look at the time, your corporate time, who do you spend it more on? Your chief marketing officer or your chief financial officer?” I replied that I spend more time on my CFO. That tells you that your company is in trouble. So for a company to do well, you have to spend time with your CMO.

Swarup: I agree with you. See, the point that I’m trying to make here is that we are unnecessarily pitting the specialists against generalists. I think we should look at leaders. Leaders bring about change. Even in civil service, I have been advocating that you should have people who can make things happen on the ground. As an IAS officer, I take pride in the fact that I had the opportunity to do this.

Gupta: So do you have a view on the new scheme to bring lateral entrance at the joint secretary level?

Swarup: It is being debated a lot. This is not for the first time that such a thing has happened. What is the big deal?

Gupta: Should the service feel insecure?

Swarup: This is the last reason for someone to feel insecure. If you are competent enough you will be positioned. What is the problem? Fifteen people coming in is no big deal. I am of the view that we should improve our own work, rather than dwelling on these issues.

Gupta: The experience with lateral entry has not been bad either. We have had Manmohan Singh, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Vijay Kelkar, Navraj Kumar.

Swarup: It will be great if we can get the Kelkars again. We should let them in.

Gupta: So you think that it is a good initiative?

Swarup: I am fine with more people coming in. If I am good enough, I am not competing with anybody.

Gupta: And you can learn from them.

Swarup: Absolutely, we should learn from everyone.

Gupta: So, Anil, there are other debates coming up. For example, should you recruit officers on the basis of the same test? Or should you have different exams, different syllabi, different training methods, and different systems for all?

Swarup: Let me explain this to you. If I were the head of the UPSC, I would compliment the UPSC for doing a fabulous job. But like everyone should evolve, the UPSC too should evolve. My personal view is that we should select leaders. We don’t need intellectual giants writing a good exam. If you select leaders and train them appropriately, they will do well.

Gupta: So, how will the UPSC change if you start selecting leaders instead of taking exams?

Swarup: In my time, we used to have two subjects. Before that there were five papers, now there’s only one paper. The rest of it is general studies and analysis. They are moving in a direction where they are making an assessment of their all-round capabilities. This is a good step. But they should go a step further. Things like group discussions will enable them to understand the skills of a person. Having said this, I must insist that the UPSC selection has been fantastic. Nobody doubts it.

Gupta: You think people are open-minded about these changes?

Swarup: I wouldn’t know that. I haven’t raised this issue in the political circle. I have discussed internally with some people. I have thrown ideas about reworking the selection procedure.

Gupta: I just Googled you and found that you are a year younger than me. It is criminal that you are retiring. You should not be retiring. We will benefit from your views because I think governance in this country needs to be reformed. The country can’t be governed anymore by a system which the British set up for 35 crore subjects. It is now a country of 136 crore voters. We need your mind and we need your voice. You are probably one of the civil servants who used social media very well. Keep at it.

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