The 8th ‘Ethics in Public Governance’ programme for senior officers of the Indian Administrative Services run at Asia Plateau, the IofC Centre in western India, began predictably enough. On 29 November an impressive group of 19 government administrators assembled, each headlining the positions of high responsibilities they have at the national or state levels. Two former Cabinet Secretaries (the highest civil service position in the country) spoke to them and held frank discussions about the challenges in public governance.
The programme worked through set exercises, such as a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis on the current reality of public governance; exploring root causes and remedies; and the ethical issues around bringing a socially just and environmentally sustainable life for all. There was plenty of debate; no shortage of informed opinion.
But on the third day, something more happened.
Maybe it was the ‘Soul nurture walks’ they took together early in the morning through the jungle up to watch the sunrise from the plateau behind the Centre. Or the interaction with the Asia Plateau community from many lands, telling their experiences. Or the introduction to the practice of inner listening, about which they already had much to discourse on from their Indian spirituality. Or the passionate visionary statements of some senior Indians present, outlining a vision for India’s further development with moral and ethical drivers.
But alongside all of these, the factor that undoubtedly brought a different dynamic was that the IAS officers themselves began to talk quite freely about their work and, at the same time, about their personal motivations. The first few days had seen intense debate, with some saying that ‘ethical governance’ was about structural issues, and that the examples of personal change being given were irrelevant. Even though ex-Cabinet Secretary Prabhat Kumar brilliantly argued that, way beyond sticking to rules, regulations and social requirements, to act ethically is a personal choice that comes from within. To defy the powers operating, he said, ‘you must be prepared to pay a price.’
Then on the third evening, an officer described how he was appointed District Collector in Bastar District in the newly formed state of Chhattisgarh, one of the poorest in India. Arriving, he found it was a stronghold of the violent Maoist Naxalite movement that is making large areas of India difficult to govern. Some 70 million people, many of them tribal people and extremely poor, are said to be in areas where extreme Naxalite groups use underground violence against police and the authorities.
On top of that, his head office was in a hopeless situation. Drunkenness and absenteeism were rife among the staff. Though development programs were in place, little productive work was being done. First he tried enforcing discipline, threatening those who came to work drunk with dismissal. Then he asked himself, how many could he dismiss? What would be accomplished?
Questioning deeply what to do, he turned to his own spiritual sources and felt his ‘inner voice’ prompting him with the thought, to make Mahatma Gandhi real in lives of these government workers and the people of the district. He began starting office work every day by assembling everyone, appointing a Class 4 (the lowest) worker to garland the large painting of the Mahatma, then getting everyone to sing Vashnav Jana To, the bhajan (prayer song) that Gandhi loved most:
The true human being, the true follower,
is he who understands the pain of others,
and tries his best to resolve them as if it is his pain.
He helps others when they are in distress
and does not even feel proud in doing so.
He is the true follower of God.
The results were dramatic. Government workers began to serve; programs began to move. Absenteeism from drunkenness dropped among government employees. Soon, the same ceremony and bhajans were being used in meetings with people of the district. Because of effective programmes for elimination of child marriages, improving village sanitation and toilets, and promoting green cover, Bastar District administration was awarded ISO 9001:2008 certification.
The dialogue from that evening moved to another level. It flowed with examples of personal ethical dilemmas and choices, or bold and effective initiatives for development which have affected millions being shared between the officers.
‘Most of us take the red rotating light off our cars and wear it on heads,’ joked one senior bureaucrat. ‘If relationships with people are not equal, there can be no give and take.’
‘We lose nothing by losing ourselves for others,’ said another, ‘because in the process we are enriched. Relationships are what I can give to others. If you decide to do what is right for the other person, you get courage and conviction from within.’
‘One thing I have learned here,’ said another, who has battled with systemic corruption. ‘We are not alone: both in the challenges we face and what we can achieve. We are part of a community seeking to make a difference drawing on that which can’t be seen but which can be felt from within. To me it is being true to self – listening to that inner voice.’
The next Ethics in Public Governance for IAS officers starts in mid-January in Asia Plateau. Meanwhile, the IC Centre for Governance, which formally hosts the programmes at Asia plateau, is launching a high-level dialogue in New Delhi to find and form proposals for an independent commission against corruption.