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Chhattisgarh's Sunil Kumar Kurup: An aberration or a model?

A Hindu (1 June 2013) report from Raipur (Chattisgarh) lauds Chief Secretary Sunil Kumar for standing up to a "fuming" Sonia Gandhi at a meeting to review the 25 May Maoist attack in Bastar which inflicted huge casualties on the State Congress Party . The UPA chairperson is learnt to have lambasted the state administration for its failure.

She was categorical that the state officials were lying when they claimed that as many as 600 to 700 policemen had been deputed for route sanitisation before the Congress procession began its march on that fateful day. When those present, including Chief Minister Raman Singh, froze and were unable to respond to the Congress president, it was Sunil Kumar who broke the ice and accepted moral responsibility as the head of the state administration. He went to the extent of offering to quit the IAS as he had only a few months from retirement. Reports on such meetings are often wide off the mark, exaggerated and apocryphal.

Victims of the deadly Maoist attack on the Congress convoy in Chhattisgarh on 25 May 2013. PTI

Victims of the deadly Maoist attack on the Congress convoy in Chhattisgarh on 25 May 2013. PTI

This one time however I am inclined to believe the account of what happened at what was a closed-door meeting to be credible. This is because I know the man who displayed guts on the occasion very well. Sunil Kumar, a former additional secretary of the HRD ministry, was a Member-Secretary of the Anti-Ragging Committee appointed by the Apex Court which I continue to head. Sunil Kumar Kurup—that is his full name, which should reveal where he hails from—is a remarkable man. If this Committee managed to produce a comprehensive and widely accepted report, it was due to Sunil Kumar’s sharp draftsmanship and extraordinary energy. He wrote it almost singlehandedly over two weeks, with a few inputs from the lesser mortals like me in the group. I admired his clarity of thought and drive at that time, and knew he would go places.

I admire him even more now after hearing about what happened at the Chattisgarh Raj Bhawan that evening. What is remarkable is that Sunil Kumar, on repatriation to Chattisgarh after his Central tenure was over, has found acceptance from a BJP chief minister, although he was generally known to be a protégé of the late Arjun Singh. I understand Raman Singh swears by Sunilkumar, a tribute to both the men. Both are straightforward men for whom it is professionalism that matters. It is this amazing magnanimity and nobility that many of us would like to see more and more in public life, especially in the civil service. I am afraid however that on the contrary it is a spirit of vindictiveness that is prominent in most states.

If you had been a chief secretary or DGP under Party A, the moment Party B comes to power, you become an ‘untouchable’ and are consigned to the Sheep Development Corporation (fit to be headed by a deputy collector and not a chief secretary) or a Chief Security Officer for a Refugee Camp (which can be efficiently supervised by an Inspector of Police rather than a DGP). This is the tragedy of the Indian scene where a spoils system and not a meritocracy that in reality operates with a vengeance. All in the name of state autonomy! A helpless Central government watches by, sometimes in complicity with the state concerned. The judiciary refuses to interfere on grounds of propriety. As a result an unbending and principled civil servant suffers in silence. This is far from the civil service model that we claim we have inherited from the British.

Sunilkumar is just a bright spot. Examples like him need to be ignited if our civil service has to stand up to meddling politicians. Officers like him are few and far between. The tribe will grow only if we generate a political class that lauds objectivity and fearlessness among the higher echelons of administration. It should appreciate that ‘yes men’ in the civil service are dangerous, and those who ask questions and express dissent to dubious proposals from the ministers are not a government’s enemies but are actually well wishers who want to impart legality to all government actions.

Punishing an officer who refuses to fall in line with a government’s questionable policy is one sure way to demoralize the civil service. Rewarding such civil servants when they come up with a sane alternative to a policy that is being thrust on a population for purely political reasons is one way of enhancing civil servant morale.

Finally, a word about civil service integrity. Across the nation we hear tales of horror of how senior IAS and IPS officers have become victims to greed and collusion with corrupt politicians. Neither the Centre nor any State administration has stayed away from this rot. Important jobs are available for a price, as we saw recently in the attempt by a Railway Board Member to move to a so-called ‘lucrative’ portfolio.

Is there any way out of this morass? I am not very optimistic. When a mass movement like Anna Hazare’s has not helped, how can a less powerful force bring about any change? Meanwhile we are sought to be hoodwinked by theories such as corruption is global and hence we need not be overly concerned. If this is going to influence the GenNext, we are stuck with a bleak situation for centuries to come.

(The writer is a former CBI Director.)