This is Part II of the interview with former coal secretary PC Parakh, 68, whose book Crusader or Conspirator? Coalgate and Other Truths has rocked the country. It is a memoir of life in the IAS and takes a searing look at the fall of the polity, among other things. Read Part I of the interview here.
Let’s say I am a minister and you are the secretary I work with. Together, we have to appoint capable people. Why would I need money to appoint honest, able people? What has it to do with me? Why would I ask an officer for money?
The minister asks for money because in today’s situation, they need money to take care of their electorate. He constantly needs money to nurse his supporters and his constituency. Let’s take an example. We have a system in our country where constituents expect hospitality. They expect to be entertained and various kinds of things to be made available by the Member of Parliament, whichever government or party he may belong to. An MP cannot afford all this from his salary.
These are the expectations of the people when they meet an MP. It is not necessary; it should not happen. But these are the expectations people have today. I have no evidence but people in Coal India have told me that in the past too, the company has taken care of these expenses in the election offices of a minister; such companies pay the entertainment expenses. These are the unnecessary expectations we have created among the people.
In the first chapter of my book I have written that the Tehsildar is expected to entertain senior officers and ministers when they visit districts. Why should the Tehsildar entertain them? In Rajasthan they have a different system. There is a Circuit House in every district with separate menus for officers and their drivers and attendants respectively. They pay for it.
We can definitely devise systems by which we don’t initiate our junior and young officers into corrupt practices. If officers have to entertain ministers out of money they collect officially, they will collect money for themselves also. These look like small things but they are important. This is where people who join the civil service are immediately initiated into corrupt systems.
Indeed. What happens early shapes what comes later. It is the same with human beings – character is shaped early in life. I was shocked when I read what it was like when you entered the civil service. You survived because you have strong moral fibre. But there are others who enter with you. If that is the first experience of an officer, how do you expect them to stay clean? Is it possible?
It depends on how strong a person’s moral values are. I have known and heard of IAS officers getting corrupt even at that early stage in their career. Officers at that level give you those kind of temptations by which you slowly get into it. You think this is the way things happen. To tell you frankly, the topper in our batch was from Tamil Nadu – he was later dismissed and he expired. He is said to have become very corrupt at an early stage in his career.
This is shocking. A large section of India’s youth still looks to the civil service. Many people in India aspire to be IAS toppers. A newspaper, The Hindu, gets much of its circulation from people who read it to pass IAS exams. You speak of a topper going bad at an early stage. How do we prevent it? It is depressing.
Several things have contributed to this state of affairs. One reason is also the increase in age of recruitment into the civil services. What used to be 24 is now 30 or even more. A number of people who get into the civil services would already have worked in different organisations. They would have imbibed different cultures. By the time they get into the services they bring that work culture along.
A reason why younger members were picked in earlier days into the services was that their character, thinking and values could be moderated. They could imbibe the traits that used to be called officer-like qualities. This they could imbibe when young. Let me give a wrong example which I think should nevertheless apply.
When Naxalites recruit their cadres, they are willing to put their life at stake. If you are employed in the Army you are willing to put your life at stake for something that you value. Now, honesty is far less important than life. If people can be indoctrinated in such a manner that they don’t care for their life, then it should be possible to indoctrinate people in the services such that they have values because they belong to the services. This is possible if they are young at the time of recruitment.
How can we do that?
The age of recruitment should be limited to 24 or 25. We should have young officers; not people who have already imbibed different work cultures. This is one way to do it. Then, in our training part at Mussoorie, there has to be a method by which you imbibe strong values into the probationers.
When I joined the civil service, there was a feeling that you have to be honest just because you belong to the IAS. You can’t afford to be dishonest because you belong to this elite service. When that feeling comes, then automatically a different kind of culture will exist in the IAS.
I remember my grandparents asking me to be part of the IAS. They thought the three alphabets IAS were some sort of a character certificate. It was you. It was never just a job. It was proof of your stellar qualities and abilities as a human being. My grandparents told me it was something to aspire for.
I recall a debate in the Andhra Pradesh Assembly soon after I joined the services in Andhra Pradesh.
There was mismanagement of a cooperative sugar mill. It was being debated in the assembly. A member stood up and said, put a young IAS officer on the job and he would sort out everything. That was the kind of feeling about IAS officers. Nobody talks about that today. People now see IAS officers like anybody else.
You described what happens to IAS officers. I assume something like that happens with politicians as well. Is a young person who joins politics exposed at an early stage to greed and corruption as well?
It does seem to happen because there is no alternative right now. There may be a few honourable exceptions like Shri AK Antony. In the political system, everybody says that Antony is absolutely above board. Nobody questions his character in terms of integrity.
People don’t talk about many politicians in the same manner as they do about Antony. These are some exceptions. By and large, when people join politics they definitely get into a culture of corruption.
Antony is probably the only politician alive in the country today who disagreed with Indira Gandhi on matters of principle. He has a stellar reputation but he has no major role.
That is unfortunate.
The defence ministry has one of the biggest budgets. Has Antony’s presence, as a clean minister, reduced corruption in the defence ministry?
From what I hear, it was perhaps not done the way it could have been done. But once things take root in an organisation, it probably becomes difficult for one person to change them significantly. The second thing is that it also depends on the personality of the person at the helm. Some people are able to do it, some are not. They may be clean but they may not have the ability to translate their ideas into practice.
Like, for example, the Election Commission. [TN] Seshan transformed the Commission from what it was.
He had the capability; everybody doesn’t. So many election commissioners have come before and after Seshan. Nobody was able to do what Seshan did. At times everybody doesn’t have the same capability.
Apart from your being honest, you also need the ability to have your ideas and thoughts go down the line.
You spoke of the necessity of returning to a younger age of recruitment into the IAS. Recently the Aam Aadmi Party election manifesto promised to reduce the age of eligibility to contest elections from 25 to 21. Would it help reduce corruption in politics?
I have a slightly different view on that because you don’t straightaway get into the job in the civil services. You spend two years in training. You need a level of maturity in politics. To my mind, 25 is a good age to contest elections and get into mainstream politics.
People are vague at 21. Even 25 has not delivered for us.
It seems from your book that you were hesitant to move to Delhi from Andhra Pradesh. It is an important moment in the book. If you had not listened to your friends and moved to Delhi, you might not have been in the coal ministry and we wouldn’t know all that we do about the biggest recorded scam in our history. In the state cadre, did you already know how bad things were in Delhi?
I had known about it because I first came to the government of India in the petroleum ministry in 1984.
Those days I knew that a lot of lobbying is required to get into ministries. Since I am not used to lobbying I thought there is no point in offering your name. You may be picked up for a job you don’t like. And I was quite happy in the state. It was just chance that I got into the coal ministry. It had something to do with my educational qualifications. It was a stroke of luck.
You have written about the difficulty you had in opening up the system in the coal ministry. How far have your work and your degree of difficulty succeeded? Are things better now?
It has worked out to an extent. Even the Supreme Court has said that natural resources should be put through the process of auction. Eventually, not only coal, other minerals were also put through that system. To that extent I must say what I tried to do has resulted in something good for the country, although it took a long time.
E-auction of coal through the platform of the internet has firmly taken roots in the country. I was able to ensure that an honest person is appointed to Coal India [as CMD]. I must give the Prime Minister credit for that. He did it in spite of resistance from the ministers. After that a series of CMDs of Coal India have been very good people.
I was thus able to do some things while I was in the ministry and some things even after that. This was because I took the initiative. I’d like to spend a few moments on the early part of your career. You have written about NT Rama Rao and Chandrababu Naidu. They don’t come out rosy in your book. What chance do people living in states have when things are so rotten?
Let me tell you something about my experiences with chief ministers of Andhra Pradesh. I have written about Mr Vengal Rao. Let me tell you something about Mr Vengal Rao. I had close relations with a chief executive of a private company. He used to tell me about his experience with Mr Vengal Rao and subsequent chief ministers.
Mr Vengal Rao too used to ask industrialists to make contributions to Congress party funds. The chief executive of the private firm told me the difference between Mr Vengal Rao’s days and those of chief ministers who followed. He said Mr Vengal Rao would call during election time and say the party needed funds to contest the election, and that they should contribute whatever they could afford to. He used to give what he could.
Later, a chief minister would call and tell him an amount that he must contribute. Not what he could manage but what they wanted. If he did not contribute what was asked, many things could happen to him. He may have power cuts, raids, inspections or whatever. This was the difference.
I have written many positive things about Mr [Chandrababu] Naidu. To my mind, his contribution to Andhra Pradesh and especially Hyderabad is hugely significant. I worked four years in the industries department with Mr Naidu. Except for the two incidents that I have mentioned, he did not pressurise me to do anything.
He did go against my advice in the public enterprises department although he understood, and agreed, that I was right. He had compulsions which forced him to do what he did. But if a leader is sure about his position, he would not be required to compromise.
You write of a code of conduct for the polity in Part III of the book. Why do we not already have a code?
I don’t think our political system has conceived of a code for elected representatives. We have been hearing our politicians say that for them the next election is the judgment day. They say if they do not perform well, people would reject them in the next election.
I think the next election is too remote for people’s comfort. If something goes wrong today, there must be a resolution to that problem today. Not after five years.
I wanted to revisit an important issue before we wind up. If there are question marks attached to the top office of the nation, how are we to trust a government?
It is difficult to trust because if there are question marks at the top, there will be question marks everywhere.
How does society survive?
India’s citizens have to learn to vote carefully. They should vote for governments which are stable and strong.
There is a case against you. How do you expect that to play out?
I expect that eventually the CBI will have to close the FIR.
The CBI can keep cases open for a very long time. Are you expecting resolution soon?
The Supreme Court is monitoring these cases. I presume that they will not be delayed as much as other cases are.
You write of a bitter farewell gift – the CBI raid on your house. Does that make you feel differently towards the civil services? Would you still recommend civil services to a youngster?
Frankly speaking, I have not been recommending the civil service to anybody. I would like people to join the services but I don’t recommend it for two reasons. One is that today there are a whole lot of career opportunities which were not available when we were young.
Then there is the importance of remuneration for the kind of work you do. The civil services offers much less than any other profession would. If you join civil services you must do so with the clear understanding that you may not get the kind of emoluments that you can get outside with similar qualifications.
The second reason is that you will face these kinds of problems from the political system. But yes, the country needs good people in the civil services.
You write of prasadam [offering to the gods], a bribe you were offered. Is that the only time you were offered prasadam?
No. There were other times too, including several occasions in the coal ministry.
What did you do with the many prasadams [bribes]?
People took many of them away with them because I was able to see them. I’m not very rough with people; I don’t quarrel. But I told them this is not my way, please take it away. I remember once a young man, whose company was allotted a coal block, came to my house. I couldn’t deny because he was insistent that he wanted to visit me.
He came to my house and said I want to give you a gold coin. Please accept at least a gold coin. I said no, I have never taken anything. I asked him to understand my predicament. I cannot accept it. He was disappointed but he finally agreed.
There was a case where a man left a diamond set at my house when we were not at home. My wife saw it. Fortunately, he had left a visiting card along. I had to send the set to Coal India in Kolkata. I had to tell the Coal India chairman to deliver it to the address given on the card.
There is a theme I need your clarity on. A central principle taught to all of us is, be good and good will happen. We expect to conduct our lives by that. From your book it seems that the good are doing badly, Manmohan Singh for instance. What happens to this concept then?
Maybe everybody thinks differently at some point in their life. I am unable to understand Dr Manmohan Singh, with such a sterling career and a high reputation for integrity right through. I also mentioned it in my discourse when I met him after my resignation. He said he faced similar situations many times but would it be good for the country if he resigned. Maybe at some point he thought the call of duty for him was to work despite the problems he may have. I thought he tolerated a little too long.
He let the fruit go bad. What a tragedy for a man and a government we expected so much from.
Thank you Mr Parakh. It was a pleasure talking to you. I hope at least some of what you seek happens.
Thank you so much. All of us have to work together to bring the change we want.