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Millennium Post

Stars in a Constellation

Select extracts from a speech given by the writer in an address to officers attending the Mid-career Training Programme at LBSNAA

Stars in a Constellation

We are living in the day and age of the Coronavirus and all our conversations are centred around this. All of us are learning to cope with this. In India, we have taken quite a proactive stand and we have been able to stem the contagion, which seems to have taken its toll in China, Japan, Korea, Italy, Spain and Iran. This should also make us reflect on the challenges of governance today, the term 'Act of God' is no longer acceptable in the governance lexicon. Whether it is a Tsunami or an earthquake, or an ethnic clash, our stakeholders – both in the immediate neighbourhood and the international community expect us to take preventive and curative action. Whatever be the cause or reason — it could be a rogue virus or a perceived sense of wrong in the recent or the hoary past — the fact is that as the permanent executive, we are expected to resolve these issues. And how do we tackle issues as complex as these? By working together and understanding the interconnectedness. And by realising, now, more than ever before that a little humility and a little less certitude would make it easier for us to cope with the uncertainty which engulfs us today.

Let me at this stage also share my worldview, which is on record in an essay which I wrote two decades ago part of my course work on development discourses in India at Cornell University during my fellowship year. This is the ongoing debate between the Malthusians and the Prometheans and this dilemma is recorded in myths and fables of almost all the folklore. The Malthusians have always been like the prophets of doom — the world will never be able to cope with the crisis — whether of food production, or of climate change, or of impending wars. The Prometheans, on the other hand, believe that there are virtually no limits to a human beings ability to do anything — including stealing fire from the gods, thereby setting the stage for human settlements to extend — both temporally and spatially. In a way, Yuval Noah Harari avers to this debate in his writings and one also noted that he is also moving away from 'absolute categories' to living with apprehension about the range of possibilities and probabilities. I for one have been on the side of the Prometheans, I have believed that human beings have the ability to handle complexity and though progress is never linear, it is more in the nature of an evolutionary cycle.

The question is: How does this happen and whether or not we have a role in this. My proposition is that we have a role and a dominant role because my reading of history is that it happens when individuals and institutions are clear in what they wish to achieve and they can do it. The problem is that we often flounder and harbour self-doubt about ourselves. If we believe we have a role as individuals then listen carefully, if not try dozing off! As individuals, we are blessed to belong to the institution of the IAS which gives us a tremendous opportunity to make a positive change, provided, we believe in ourselves and our institution. I must say that when I heard your presentations yesterday, I was convinced that there is a group of people who are not just bright stars in themselves, but also make a great constellation. I have used the word 'constellation' for we have to retain our identity even as we work in unison! We must shine but we must give space and scope to others as well and realise that we cannot be lone stars in the firmament. Again, institutions, like nations do not flounder because of challenges or pressures from others. They fail because they lose confidence in themselves or lose the will to govern and cease to take hold of the ecosystem. We create our ecosystems and when we are at the forefront of anticipating change, we will take control over it. If the country needs domain expertise in different areas of governance and development interventions, we have to be at the forefront of this change. We have to be the change we anticipate. We in the IAS have an advantage over the rest. we talk to the political executive directly, and we must be able to give them ideas which work, for we have to work together with the political leadership respecting each other's professional space. And within the space that we have, why can't we create excellence as a habit? It's not easy, for the devil lies in the details but we must try to do our best, even as we realise that we are mortals, and some things can always go wrong.

Let me also dwell on the distinction between hubris and confidence. There is a thin line of divide between the two. Let me try illustrating it with an example that's close to my heart. I should have the confidence to give my expert views on issues and concerns that are close to my heart. I should also have the confidence to say that given an environment in which domain specialisation is encouraged and acknowledged, our officers will be able to render top professional advice but if I were to say that we know everything and that we do not wish to listen to or collaborate with independent experts, think tanks, university professors, industry associations or academics on issues relating to what we feel are our competence, that would be hubris. Confidence is the ability, willingness and desire to enter into a dialogue with relevant stakeholders and for those of us in the public policy sphere, the list is large.

So, friends, go forth with confidence and pride, tempered with a willingness to learn and listen and do the best you can for your organisation, your cadre, your service, your Alma Mater, your nation and the world.

The writer is the Director of LBSNAA and Honorary Curator, Valley of Words: Literature and Arts Festival, Dehradun. Views expressed are strictly personal

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