“The Appu Papers”, edited by Pradip Bhattacharya is more than the tribute of an admiring colleague: it is the story of one of India’s finest bureaucrats – a civil servant who epitomized Sardar Patel’s vision: “you will not have a united India unless you have a civil service that will be able to give its opinion to the political leadership without considerations of fear or favor”. It was to encourage officers to give sound professional advice to the political leadership, that the Constitution of India gave the civil services the protection under Article 311 – a privilege that has few parallels in the history of public administration.
A few words on Mr. Appu before we discuss the volume under review. For those of us who had the privilege of serving at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, even two decades after he resigned, and many others who had the opportunity to work him, he continues to be a legendary figure: one who could take a stand and be steadfast about it. By resigning from the Directorship and the IAS in March 1982, when the Government of India refused to endorse his considered recommendation to dismiss an officer trainee who had brandished a loaded revolver on a lady colleague while on an official tour, he left a much greater impact on public memory than if he had continued and retired, certainly as a Secretary to the Government of India, and perhaps from gubernatorial /ambassadorial assignment or the membership of one of the prestigious Commissions. Always frank and forthright, his articles and letters continue to inspire several officers across generations – from aspirants to the civil service to those who have superannuated.
“The Appu papers” starts with a Preface by the editor Pradip Bhattacharya, a Foreword by JM Lyngdoh, the former CEC, an Introduction by AR Bandopadhyaya, and contains letters and essays by Mr. Appu himself, a case study on ‘The role of Directors in a Training institution’, probationers’ comments on his resignation, and an epitaph by KR Biswas. It captures the flavor of the times: the systematic breakdown of institutions, before the advent of the new, (seventy third amendment, and regulatory regimes in power, telecom and many other sectors, RTI Act) and the struggles and convictions of Mr. Appu. The Academy incident which actually led him to quit in anguish was the proverbial last straw that broke the camel’s back. His frustrations with governance in Bihar and the functioning of the Government of India were quite apparent as his frank and forthright communications with the CM of Bihar as early as 1977. He had then chosen to move to New Delhi as an Additional Secretary, in a pay scale lower than what he was drawing as the Chief Secretary of Bihar. How many of us would volunteer to take such a decision these days!
In the Preface, Mr. Bhattacharya gives a snap shot of his career – both in the Bihar government as well as the Government of India, and his deep involvement with land reforms and agricultural developments. His academic bent stood him in good stead – he was the recipient of the Jawaharlal Nehru Fellowship, and one at Harvard, led the Institute of Rural Development at Anand, wrote extensively on issues concerning public policy and institutions, and was honored with the Padma Bhushan, albeit after a long delay on the Republic Day, 2006. Ironically, the Padma Vibhushan was given to the then Cabinet Secretary, Krishnaswamy Rao Saheb who had not extended any support to him. Mr. PC Alexander, the then Secretary to the Prime Minister, Ms Indira Gandhi, who now writes on governance issues in The Asian Age actually gave him a veiled threat for daring to challenge the decision of the Government.
Mr. Bhattacharya is eminently suited to take up the mandate of editing this volume: he was associated with Mr. Appu at the LBS National Academy, and had the privilege of heading the ATI in West Bengal twice. But for Mr. Bhattacharya’s meticulous care in preserving the papers that Mr. Appu had handed over to him on leaving the Academy , and collecting the writings published in Statesman, Yojana, Kurukshetra, Hindu, www.boloji.com, EPW, Academy Sandesh and The Service together, the next generation of administrators would have missed out on getting a ‘holistic pen picture’ of this legendary administrator.
In his Foreword, Mr. JM Lyngdoh talks about his years with Mr. Appu in his own inimitable style which is both charming and precise. He describes the world of the district officer in the first decades of Independence. People looked up to the Collector for relief, equity and justice, and in several cases his sympathies lay with the peasant, rather than the landlord. In his words, “Mr. Appu was widely known as an incomparable civil servant– equally at home in the field and the secretariat– of the more expansive, creative, pre-Independence mould (perhaps best typified by Thomas Munro in Madras and Elphinstone in Bombay)”.
Lyngdoh recalls his tenure as the Collector of Purnea under him: with an ‘ear to the ground’, Lyngdoh and Appu brought down the rate of tube wells from Rs 2000 to Rs 200 by using bamboo pipes instead of metal, and utilizing relief funds for providing farmers with tube wells. And there can be no doubt that if the water issue can be addressed, rural prosperity cannot be far behind. He defended and supported his field officers, even to the extent of virtually accusing the then Chief Secretary of being a ‘creature of the landlords’.
As Lyngdoh points out, Zamindari abolition, without any matching efforts or drive by the political or administrative classes to simultaneously empower the peasants, and provide them institutional support, served the interest of a new type of intermediary, one who held ‘benami land’ and was not averse to use of force and political chicanery to assert the control over land. The point to note is that after the eighties, the role of agricultural incomes in the overall economy the country started declining – and political mobilization on caste lines, effectively reduced the role of the ex-zamindars in the political economy.
The Introduction to the volume by Mr. AR Bandopadhyaya—who resigned from the IAS as Additional Secretary to the Govt. of India—puts the reviewer in a dilemma: it is an excellent review article by itself, and traces the evolution of Mr. Appu’s thought process— from his emphasis on land reforms, redistributive justice, inclusive growth, agricultural productivity, poverty alleviation and social justice. From the mid eighties, the author’s attention came to turn on the state of public services, but even while bemoaning the dismal state of affairs of the polity, he started writing about changes in the Panchayati Raj and the role of the public services in running the multi-tiered administration of our democratic polity.
We now come to the volume under review. The first article by Mr. Appu “They are surely one–up in the game” talks of the ironies of Indian economic planning: ‘while techniques of planning at the national level have become more and more sophisticated over the years, there is a marked deterioration in the quality of implementation… a large portion of the blame for this must rest on the shoulders of the bureaucracy’ , for while the politician must be blamed for promoting their electoral interests and raising funds for partisan objectives, why have the civil services abdicated their responsibilities. As Appu puts it ‘the unpleasant truth is that in most cases, the civil servants have become active collaborators, and not just silent spectators or reluctant accomplices in ruining the civil service’.
The option is entirely in the hands of the civil servant himself, as his dignified, yet succinct correspondence with the then CM of Bihar Mr. Karpooori Thakur shows. He is possibly the only civil servant who, when offered the post of Chief Secretary, pointed out in writing that it would be inappropriate to supersede others, and when pressed by the CM laid down specific conditions under which he would function. In his note to the CM, seeking to leave the post of CS for a post at a lower salary under the Govt. of India when his conditions were not met, he says, ‘I have always had a clear conception of the role of the top civil servants in a Parliamentary democracy. I know fully well that my job is to instruct, to persuade – but not to command. It is always open to the Chief Minister to discard my advice and pass whatever orders he considers appropriate….’
This is followed by letters, notes, resolutions, tributes and memorials on Mr. Appu’s decision to resign from the Directorship of the National Academy of Administration and the IAS when the Government of India did not accept his recommendation of dismissing an IAS trainee who had earlier been discharged from the NDA as well. In a rare show of solidarity, most of the senior faculty addressed a communication to the Union Home Secretary seeking to apprise him personally of the implications of the government position in this case. Mr. Appu’s letter to the Prime Minister and his resignation did lead to a furor in the Parliament, and the government was compelled to dismiss the officer. That he was reinstated on account of a judicial order is a sad commentary on the functioning of the government, and its inability to pursue any case with conviction and personal commitment.
Mr. Bhattacharya has also included the comments of some of the probationers of that batch when they returned to the Academy for the second phase of their training. I reproduce one of these: ‘I am proud– very proud– indeed to have trained in the Academy under Shri Appu’s directorship. Myself and most of the other probationers with whom I was corresponding were all looking forward to our Phase II , when we would have poured all our district experiences before Sh Appu. Alas! The Academy has lost one of its greatest directors’. And again, ‘Under Sh Appu, a hundred flowers used to bloom and a hundred ideologies and approaches to life got the ground of growth.’ He was instrumental in bringing to the Academy a relaxed but purposeful atmosphere... a lot of irrelevant rituals were got rid of, and instead functionality became the guiding principle.
Then follows a case study on “The role of a director of a national training institute” in which Mr. Bhattacharya’s position is quite explicit– and rightly so. Mr. A, who represents Mr. Appu, epitomizes everything that a Director should have and do as the head of a national level training institution.
Now we come to Mr. Appu’s writings again. The letter that he wrote to President Kalam in the aftermath of the Gujarat riots on April 28, 2002 reflects his anguish and distress:
‘Today I hang my head in shame… as an Indian, as a Hindu and as a former members of the Indian Administrative service. In the short span of eight weeks, the evil men who rule Gujarat, shielded by their patrons in Delhi have succeeded in besmirching beyond repair India’s reputation as the classic land of tolerance and moderation. Hinduism, despite its built-in iniquities, has been noted for its catholic and eclectic beliefs…to the eternal shame of the permanent services, the majority of the IAS and IPS officers collaborated with their political masters…’
He accepts that this letter to the President may be an expression of deep anguish. For it is in the seminal essay, “ The All India Services- Decline, Debasement and Destruction” that he makes a clear analysis of how the civil services have fared since independence, and the reasons for their decline. The point that comes out quite clearly is that when the political system is strong, and the Chief Minister is in the grip of the situation, and wants to administer well, the system performs. But in an era of coalitions and political compromises, it becomes increasingly difficult for the political leadership to support the bureaucracy – because survival takes precedence-- both over ideology and governance. Although he does not say so explicitly, he is suggesting that perhaps a move to a directly elected chief executive at the state level will enable the political executive to insulate itself from the machinations of the legislators who extract their pound of flesh at every stage. The decline of the pan Indian political parties has led to a situation where in several states the ruling coalitions operate as virtual family fiefdoms with no modicum of inner party democracy. He also suggests the lowering of the civil services recruitment age to twenty four, with a relaxation of two years for the reserved categories and a vigorous training program which should keep the officers well in tune with management techniques and practices throughout their service span.
In other articles he talks about the role of the President, the need to rein in the PMO, breaking the nexus of corrupt politicians, contractors and the bureaucracy, and the need to Indianize Hindutva. In these smaller articles, which are eminently readable, he gives some very practical suggestions, like the establishment of a directorate of prosecution to ensure that government cases do not go by default, and for making the polity more responsive and transparent.
There are three long monographs that are included in this volume. The first of these, “Alleviation of poverty in India: a program for the eighties”, written as Fellow in Harvard, gives a clear insight into the planning process of that period. Although today we have an interesting situation in the country with several regions – North, South and West being on a development curve that is far steeper than the Central and he Eastern region, in the eighties the development was not so skewed. But he could still point out the differences between the agricultural productivity figures for Ludhiana and Purnea. He traced this to the agrarian structure. While land in Ludhiana was with the owner cultivators, Purnea holdings were marked with absentee landlords and very small sharecroppers. This was the main reason why the Kosi project did not have the same impact on productivity which the Bhakhra Beas canal system had in the Punjab. The uneconomic size of land holdings and the predominance of small and marginal farmers in the Eastern region was a ‘structural feature’ and because alternate employment was not available owing to poor capital formation in agriculture, the vicious cycle tended to perpetuate it. However Appu was not a romantic idealist or a Luddite who believed that all the solutions lay in making every village a self sufficient economy. He knew that ultimately, it was through manufacturing and services only that India could redeem its economy. Yet some interim measures were required to bring immediate relief to those who lived in abject poverty, and this was encapsulated in the Minimum Needs program.
The monograph on “Agrarian structures and Rural Development” was published as an ‘Occasional Paper’ by the Dept of Personnel in 1975 and “A critique on the Draft Sixth Plan” in Kurukshetra in 1979. Here he talks about the institutional arrangements in agriculture: land reforms, appropriate land man ratios, capitalization in rural agriculture, credit issues, groundwater utilization, enhanced production, and provision of basic needs and for the first time, the need to address problems of urban slums. He is quite forthright in arguing that large irrigation projects may not be the panacea for higher agricultural production if the land tenure systems were not rationalized. Rather, he points out that large irrigation projects actually led to growth of inequity as those with larger holdings had greater ability to corner the benefits created out of public funds.
Interestingly, the papers do not discuss issues relating to marketing, processing, value addition or agricultural exports. We can therefore take legitimate pride in the fact that, at least in the domain of agriculture, we have crossed the hump, and we are talking of an entirely new set of problems-- those that deal with post-harvest management and support prices! Thanks to industrial growth in the rest of the country, the inter-state movement of labor, the caste polarization and the numerical strength of the ‘cultivating castes’, the feudal and semi feudal relations in agriculture in Bihar are now passé. Rice, wheat and paddy productivity in eastern region is now at par with the rest of the country, and the creation of water bodies in rural areas on account of the various variants of the EGS has its contribution and role. However Mr. Appu has his reservations on the Green Revolution, which I do not entirely agree with. The agricultural wage rates have gone up uniformly throughout the country and the vast inter-state migration of labor has ensured a near uniformity in wage rates through out the country– from Kohima to Kargil! Populist it may be, but the air conditioned Garib Rath, launched by Mr. Lalu Yadav with much fanfare, is a commentary on the new aspirations of the migrant labor. They would like to travel to their native village in comfort and style!
The book ends with another colleague’s touching epitaph. To quote from KR Biswas,
‘He took his bearings in life,
With a sextant set by a distant star,
Always looming above narrow horizons,
But the submerged rocky outcrops of the shore,
Kept him away from the harbor’...