"A-Z of The Civil Services" | A panorama of prestige
Packed with humour, experience and observation, Verma’s book lends precious insight into the life within India’s coveted bureaucratic circle; discusses Veena S Rao
The alphabet and acronym have become very fashionable mediums of expression in recent times. But Dr Kush Verma, a retired IAS officer of the 1979 Batch (UP Cadre) adds his own delightful twist to the idiom. From A to Zee – the author has taken each letter of the alphabet and woven a civil service story around it! This allows him to nimbly traverse the entire length and breadth of the bureaucratic landscape, while cocking a snook at several holy cows along the way. And, there’s none of that usual egoistical pontification.
Kush Verma is well-known for his erudite volumes on sustainable development, rural development, sanitation and the like. The first hint of the puckish side of his literary persona came with his publication of children’s poems, The Queen Could Sing in 2003, co-authored with his twin, Lov Verma, also an IAS officer. These poems were fun, each ending with a moral for gen-next. His new book, A-Z of the Civil Services, combines in an extremely engaging and off-beat style an array of experiences ranging from his personal experience to the collective civil service conundrum, from the ludicrous to the professional – ideals of the past transitioning through the present and the state or corrosion of the fabled steel frame.
Kicking off with his Academy reminiscences, this roller-coaster ride takes apart obnoxious bosses, pompous politicians, assorted sinners, scoundrels and scallywags, along with charlatans posing as godmen, with unsparing but good-humoured language. Kush Verma’s treatment of each subject, however serious or fundamental, is light and humorous, which makes the book quite different and extremely enjoyable. He also brings in some unique and innovative algebraic formulae to explain the more esoteric aspects of ‘babudom’, as the civil service is pejoratively called. Consider his Index for Administrative Senility (IAS), based upon the number of times an IAS officer starts a conversation with ‘When I was District Magistrate…’ – anything above the count of seven warrants an urgent trip to the shrink! Equally innovative is the way he tries to inveigle the reader with his Success Factor in Administration, which reads as follow:
X(A) = QW + Cs x BI
Where X(A) = Success factor in Administration; QW = Quick-wittedness; CS = Common Sense; and BI = Bureaucratic Ingenuity.
Clearly, Kush Verma is enjoying himself immensely while playing mathematical or econometric tricks with the readers! And undoubtedly, the readers will enjoy themselves as much.
While being a laugh fest in its own right, one cannot miss the serious undercurrents in Verma’s book. This is brought out poignantly in the chapter titled ‘We, of the Heaven-born Service’. He uses his scholarship to good effect in etching a portrait of a gentler, more civilised age gone by, one dedicated to resolving the problems of the general public through Winter Tours, by way of example. He emphasises the old in-built systems for fostering camaraderie, encouraging mentorship and promoting sportsman-like qualities. Lest one think that he is rooting for a return of the colonial-style Indian Civil Service, he enters a caveat recognising their warts, shortcomings and failures.
Even more illuminating are the episodes dealing with the perennial bureaucrat-neta conflict. Since long a staple of Civil Service lore, Verma gives it a fresh twist by juxtaposing the titans of yore with the pygmies of today. It helps that his father also belonged to the same service and served under freedom fighters. One particularly instructive tale describes a lowly Station House Officer taking on a mighty Chief Minister, only to emerge victorious! Can one even imagine a similar outcome in this day and age? As the author notes, the SHO would have been sacked on the spot, since as he puts it, ‘Street-smart cunning has replaced sagacity, facilitated by the politician-bureaucrat nexus’!
The book is peppered with such anecdotes, which are both illuminating and edifying. Each chapter is in stand-alone mode, and comes with a helping of four illustrations. As a nod to the attention span of the Twitterati generation, the take on each alphabet is roughly allotted 1,200 words. The fact that the book evolved from a blog has much to do with its look and shape, and explains, in part, its inter-generational appeal. The author uses no names – generous of him. As a retired IAS officer myself, I can recognise some people and I’m sure UP cadre officers would recognise all of them.
In recent times, there has been a flood of books on the civil services by civil servants – memoirs, learned treatises on the failure of the bureaucratic system and detailed histories of the corroding ‘steel frame.’ But Kush Verma’s book is different – it is unpretentious and genuine, humorous and elegant, very easy to read and extremely informative on the nitty-gritty that goes on in the everyday professional lives of civil servants, something only insiders know.
This is a must-read for both young and old, for civil servants and others, who would like to take a peek at the more personal events that paint an IAS officer’s life, their contributions and follies, the environment they work in, the positive and negative ecosystems for public good and the opportunities used or wasted towards that end.
A prominent economist once described IAS officers as F-1 racing superstars caught in a traffic jam. You need to read this book to understand why.