“It is necessary for people to take a stand”

TSR Subramanian, Former Union Cabinet Secretary feels that if the finance head of a company needs to say 'over my dead body', he should just say it.

In 1997, when I K Gujral was the prime minister, there was a huge current account deficit. When the budget was being prepared. P Chidambaram, the Finance Minister, wanted the retirement age for government servants to go up from 58 to 60 years. The argu­ment was that the average health had gone up and people were still quite bright at 58. I believe though that an idiot at 58 will be an idiot at 60; but that’s a different thing. Like in every one of these matters, the arguments presented before the public are quite different from the arguments that actually motivate the action. I found Chidambaram’s logic to be very narrow. Like all finance people who think very narrowly.

The logic was that if 30 years is the average career span of a government servant, every year about 4 per cent government employees retire, and they get lump sum provident fund (PF) which equalled about one or two years of salary. Broadly, increas­ing retirement age would keep 15 per cent of the government servants’ income in the government coffers. The argument against this proposal was that for every good man in Delhi, there are 25 rotten fellows who are sitting in states – a heavy baggage on the exchequer. So, for getting one good man, the central government is going to pay 25 people for two more years. Secondly, the moment you give two years more to the top brass, the others down the line are going to stagnate for two more years without promotions. They have all worked up over time for their promotions. So, something like this can lead to a lot of unhappiness.

This proposal to hike retirement age formally came up when I was Cabinet Secretary. I was just going to turn 58, but I attacked it strongly and I gave my reasons. My view was that the government needed to bite the bullet. I told him (Chidambaram) that if you don’t want to pay them now, bring a new rule that you will allow you to stagger the PF payments. Though it was a Finance ministry proposal with the Finance Minister bringing it up and the PM had agreed to it, I still spoke up at length and convinced all of them that it was counter-productive. The pro­posal was dropped.

“How can you have authority without responsibility? If the politician does these transfers and things go wrong - riots continue - then you and I are responsible. He is working from his party perspective.”

Outside the meeting room, PM Gujral called me and said, “I thought you would be the last person to oppose it. You were going to benefit. You would have got two more years of service.” I told him that I never look at a proposal thinking whether it benefits me or not. These are public proposals and not private proposals. This was one area where I opposed some­thing quite vehemently on the merits of the case.

However, after I left – retired at 58 – Prime Min­ister Atal Behari Vajpayee in the next two months raised the retirement age to 60 years. Three months earlier, I would have benefited.

Let me share another example. This was during the President’s rule in Uttar Pradesh soon after Babri Masjid was demolished on December 6, 1992. A week after the demolition, I was asked to go to the state as Chief Secretary as the state was in crisis. There were riots going on in 30 places. Two days after I joined, I still had my usual round of welcome parties. The then Governor B. Satya Narayan Reddy asked me to come and meet him immediately. I asked him the reason and he told me that he had finalised the list for postings and transfers for all senior people and that he wanted it to be issued the same night. I told him that I had just come and didn’t have time to examine the list. He insisted, “No, I want it done today.” He told me that Jitendra Prasad, the then in-charge of Congress party in UP, wanted it done immediately. Prasad had apparently also told the Governor that the PM wants it done.

All the same, I said that I needed to talk to people and examine the changes that were required. Next day, I went and met him. He gave me that list which had the name of several senior officers including the Home Secretary, DGP, etc. I argued that there was no need since these were all good officers. He sim­ply said, “Jitendra Prasad wants it.” I told him that I wasn’t in agreement and I needed time to study it but he again insisted that he wanted it done that very day.

TSR Subramanain: Former Union Cabinet Secretary

EDUCATION: Master’s from Calcutta University; Imperial College of Science and Technology, London; Master’s in Public Administration - Harvard University.

AGE: 74

PRIOR ROLES: Chief Secretary Uttar Pradesh; Secretary, Ministry of Textiles.

Sensing no options, I asked him to add one name at the top – TSR Subramanian. ‘Transfer him and I have no problems,’ I told him. He relented somewhat and gave me 3-4 days to study the list.

Two days later, I went to Delhi. Narsimha Rao was PM then. I asked for an appointment and he agreed to see me. He asked me about the situation in UP and I told him that the killings had come down and normalcy had been restored. We were managing. After the discussion, I asked him if he had asked Prasad to carry out transfer and postings of some key senior officials. “No, I haven’t asked Prasad to do anything of this sort,” he promptly replied. I told him about my conversation with the Governor.

“You are in-charge there and you do whatever is correct. It is important that right people be in right places. I want that state to be peaceful and we should move towards normalcy,” the PM said. I came back to the Governor and told him categorically that no transfers shall take place and that I had spoken to the PM. I then asked him: “Is Jitendra Prasad the Governor here? How can you have authority without responsibility? If he does these transfers and things go wrong – riots continue or something else hap­pens – you and I are responsible. He is doing it with a Congress perspective, not from the point of view of Uttar Pradesh.”

Let me give you another example from the early seventies. This was in 1971-72 and it was my first experience of organised corruption. Those days, the government used to distribute steel for the small scale sector at concessional rates. And sometimes, the premium in the market above these government rates was 100 per cent. So the market price was Rs 4,000, the official price was Rs 2,000 and the margin was Rs 2,000. We had a Director of Industries in UP government called Sharma. He had perfected a system where he made a lot of money by giving approvals to false units for obtaining steel, setting up middlemen to get huge loads in rakes from Jamshed­pur and then selling it to factories at a premium. My problem was that as the managing director of the UP Small Industries Corporation, I was directly respon­sible for the allotments. So, I went and told Sharma that we must have a roster system on which we have the list of units and then distribute it. Tomorrow if

genuine industries complain saying they are not get­ting this steel, they will come to me and not to you. He didn’t agree and we had a huge fight about this issue. In fact, one day as I was entering a social gath­ering, he quietly took me outside. “You are standing in my way. When I see a snake I stamp my foot and kill it. This is what I used to do in my village,” he told me. I humbly asked him to get me transferred if he so desired. I also told him that only God had the power to do anything more than that.

“Sometimes, one needs to stand up and say ‘over my dead body’ – maybe not in so many words – but you can say you do not agree and put it in writing.”

Kamlapati Tripathi was the then chief minister. His daughter-in-law Chandra was popularly known as Bahuji. Sharma’s way of keeping the political system manageable was that he would allocate 500 tonnes to Bahuji’s units. Thirty years back, Rs 3-4 lakh was a lot of money. This was the way it went about for a year or so. But it caught up with him. Somebody wrote to somebody and soon there were CBI raids and he was caught. Two years later, I was the Personnel Secretary in Lucknow. Around 9 a.m. as I was sitting in my office, I saw a man walk up. It was the same Mr Shar­ma. He had lost weight and looked hassled. He had been my boss so I stood up and offered him to sit. He told me that the CBI had filed the chargesheet and the matter was in court now. Ironically, the file was to come to me for the state government’s approval for the CBI to file a chargesheet. “I want you to refer the matter to the Legal Remembrancer (LR). I will speak to him and kill it there,” Sharma said. I told him that it was against normal procedure. He pleaded with me saying he was an old man and that he was unwell. So, despite all the history, I broke procedure and said in my note on the file that since there is a legal angle to the matter, it may be referred to LR. Sharma did manage to get the procedure delayed but within a year, he died.

It is necessary for people to stand up. They do not necessarily have to be antagonistic or negative – after all they are all partners in getting things done. It is not that a finance head is the enemy of the CEO. They are working together and contributing to the success of the same team. But sometimes, one needs to stand up and say ‘over my dead body’ – maybe not in so many words – but you can say you do not agree and put it in writing. My learning right through has been that people who take short cuts do not thrive in the end. Their nemesis comes to them in some form or the other. It may take a long time. Lalu Yadav may have managed for 20 years, but he is going to have a bad five years in jail. Imagine that with your morning tea, you are wondering what the court will say today or which inspector to bribe and how much. Why should you spend life like this?


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