Every politician is not bad and since they all have to depend on grass-roots support, most of them do speak for their constituency and have a right to be heard positively. Let me give an example.

In Ujjain, where I was the collector forty-seven years ago, we had the only CPI(M) Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) in Madhya Pradesh, Bhairav Bharti. He was in the Opposition, he could be awkward and difficult, but he was dead honest and knew his constituency like the back of his hand.

Despite being a gadfly for the administration, I liked him and we had a cordial relationship. One day, he came to me to report that there had been an incident in his village, Bhatisuda, in which nine people had been killed and sixteen arrested. He wanted me to do something to restore normalcy.

The next day, I went to Bhatisuda with Bharti and could sense the tense environment. I went to the site of the incident, which were some fields almost on the village boundary. It seemed that the cattle of one party would go along the field bunds of the other party’s land in order to reach a pasture on the village boundary. The field owners objected to this because they felt that the cattle caused damage to the crops.

The wajib-ul-arz, or the record of customary rights of the villagers, permitted people to use field bunds to move around. Therefore, when the field owners stopped the movement of cattle, the cattle owners became annoyed, a fracas developed and nine of the field owners were killed. Sixteen of the cattle owners were in custody on a murder charge.

I asked the villagers whether anyone could object to cattle coming up to where we stood and they said that because this is a village road, no one could object. When I asked whether there would be any objection if the village road went up to the pasture at the village boundary, they said that this was perfectly in order because anyone could
use a public road.

I then ordered the patwari to measure off a twenty-foot width of land up to the village boundary and directed that the land stood acquired by the state. I then told the cattle owners to pay as compensation an amount fixed by me then and there to the field owners whose land was being converted into a public road.

This was done, the land records were amended and the cause of the quarrel was eliminated. Suddenly the environment changed and Bharti told me that I could not leave the village till I feasted with everyone and that so long as I headed the district, he would never oppose me. He kept his word.

I also persuaded the police to reduce the charge from murder to culpable homicide not amounting to murder, which meant that the arrested persons could be bailed out by the court in session. Bharti became a friend for life.

Another example is of then chief minister Shyama Charan Shukla wanting to extend nistar facilities (timber, bamboo, etc., given to villagers virtually free of cost as a matter of right) to the villagers in seventeen non-forest districts where they were not so entitled. Because this would benefit the farmers, I readily agreed in my capacity as secretary of the Environment Group of Departments, which included forests.

He asked me how soon we could start supplying forest produce to these districts and I told him that our first lorries could move the next morning. It was my duty to implement this pro-people policy of the chief minister and our first vehicles left the forest depots with material for these seventeen districts the next morning.

I then sent a note to the chief minister through the chief secretary stating what action I had taken and requesting an appropriate change in the nistar policy which would extend nistar facilities to non-forest districts, asking for a contingency fund advance of Rs 5 crore to cover initial costs, and submitting that I could not immediately give a budget estimate for supplementary grants because that had to be worked out and that all this was being done without consulting the finance department.

The chief secretary recommended my suspension for violating every norm of financial and official propriety and procedure. The file came back from the chief minister with the following remark: “There is no question of suspending Buch for the initiative shown by him. In fact, I want this file to be circulated to all secretaries as a model of how a secretary to the government should implement the welfare-oriented orders of the chief minister. The Nistar policy is hereby amended as required by Buch, the contingency fund advance of five crore rupees is sanctioned, the forest department may submit a proposal for a supplementary grant in due course, and all this is done in anticipation of orders in council.”

I mention this case as a pointer to how a civil servant should work to promote welfare. Had Shyama Charan Shukla asked me to give a businessman or industrialist free timber, I would not have obeyed him even if he had hung himself upside down. A civil servant, whilst adhering to the highest code of integrity and ethics, must still rapidly implement a welfare policy and not act as an obstructionist.

Obstructionism is itself a deviation from both integrity and ethics because it prevents the government from performing its primary task of delivering welfare to the people. Ultimately, integrity, ethics and decisiveness all come from motivation, and if an officer is correctly motivated to serve the people, he is bound to be honest and ethical.

Let me end with a story. I spent the whole of 1980 without a post in Delhi after I was thrown out of DDA. I often went to India International Centre (IIC), a haven for people such as me who had temporarily fallen foul of the government and desperately needed a place to think, discuss and write. I had illustrious companions such as Ved Marwah, Jagdish Jetli and Hari Pillai for company.

One day, I walked to IIC from my house on Teen Murti Lane and when I came out of the library to walk back home, I found it was raining. At the gate was a Sikh auto-rickshaw driver who agreed to take me home. He did not ask for and I did not tell him my destination but he still took me home to 18, Teen Murti Lane. He then refused to accept any money from me.

On being asked why, he said, “You do not remember me but I had come to see you in DDA. I had registered for a house which I should have been allotted years ago but despite my wearing out several pairs of shoes, I got no solution. One day, I came to Vikas Minar and found no guards, no security personnel. I entered the office building and asked someone where I could meet the head. I was told to go to the fifth floor. Your name plate was on the door. I asked the orderly how I could meet you and, to my surprise, he told me to open the door and walk in. You were doing some work and asked me to sit down. After you finished [with] the file, you asked me my problem. I, a mere auto-rickshaw driver, was not only heard but the housing commissioner was sent for and, two hours later, I walked out with my allotment order and occupation order. I can never forget my debt of gratitude to you and will never take any money from you.”

What had I done for this man except to hear him out and give what was due to him? His accolade was like my Bharat Ratna. I narrate this story because if civil servants follow the path of integrity and ethics, each one of them can earn a similar Bharat Ratna.BuchM

An India Reimagined

Excerpted with permission from An India Reimagined: Governance and Administration in the World’s Largest Democracy, MN Buch, edited by N Ravichandran, Portfolio Penguin.