Thursday, November 4, 2010

A genius mistaken for a crashing bore

Over thirty years ago, when I was a resident of Chennai (then Madras), there was a retired railway employee called Narasimhachari in my neighbourhood.  A crashing bore, he used to be the terror of the entire neighbourhood, including his wife who, however, didn’t have the means of avoiding him.  If Uncle Narasimhachari was out in the street, we wouldn’t step out of our house for fear that we might be buttonholed by the old man.  But the wily old man knew how to thwart our attempts, with the result that he had a constant supply of audience for his “cranky” ideas about how to reorganize things in the world so that the future generations were not deprived of the natural resources.
 One of his “cranky” ideas was rainwater harvesting (RWH) which, he claimed, would help recharge groundwater.  From the open terrace of his house he had had two courses laid out, using water pipes, for the rainwater to reach the open well in the backyard of his house.  “During the rainy season”, Narasimhachari said with enthusiasm, “the rooftop water won’t go waste.  It will have to go into the well through the water pipes.  I’ve installed a filter also, and so before the water goes into the well, it will get filtered.”

But people only laughed at him.  When a block of apartments was being built in our neighbourhood, Narasimhachari rushed to the builder and advised him to put up an RWH system in the block.  He spoke at length about how RWH could recharge groundwater.  “Not only that”, he persisted.  “The groundwater in this area is a bit brackish.  RWH can, in course of time, reduce the salinity, and the quality of the groundwater will certainly improve.”  The builder looked him up and down and said he didn’t need to be educated.  “In any case”, he added, “I’m providing a metrowater connection for this block, and so drinking water won’t be a problem here.”

When I visited Chennai a few years ago, I realized what a genius Narasimhachari was.  After battling for water for decades, Chennai had realized that RWH, Narasimhachari’s obsession, could mitigate its problem.  The Tamil Nadu government had promulgated an ordinance making the installation of RWH mandatory for all buildings, old and new.  The ordinance said that if an RWH structure was not set up by the date specified, the water connection would be cut.  The residents of Chennai seemed to have taken the ordinance seriously: they were installing the RWH system.

I don’t know where Uncle Narasimhachari is now.  I can only imagine him stopping a young man rushing to his office and telling him how Chennai ignored him when he proposed the RWH idea over thirty years ago.

The changing character of IAS

The Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie, where IAS probationers receive their training, “has virtually become a marriage market”, said a recent newspaper report.  The price they quote is very high, but no price is too high for rich parents of ready-to-be brides.  The report also quoted the former HRD Minister, Murali Manohar Joshi, as having said that, in a recent case known to him, the dowry demanded by the officer’s family was Rs 50 lakhs.

“What a modest dowry!” exclaimed a young friend of mine some of whose friends are in the civil services.  “In our own state, Andhra Pradesh, the going rate for an IAS recruit ranges from 20 to 50 crores in two of the communities.  In others, 2 to 5 crores is very common.”  He added, “This low-mindedness is not only with regard to dowry; a good number of the new entrants to the civil services are too caste-conscious and have contempt for values such as pluralism and gender equality.”  The Academy may be situated at a height – in the Uttar Pradesh Himalayas – but the thinking of a good number of its trainees is far from Olympian.

This, in my opinion, is due to two factors.  One of them concerns the quality of the intake.  The typical IAS recruit is no longer a liberal arts educated young man from a family rooted in intellectual traditions with an inheritance that includes exposure to western liberal influences and contempt for regional and religious identities.  He comes from a rural or semi-urban background and is untouched by liberal influences either in his upbringing or in his education.  What he has received is not education in the real sense of the term, but coaching.  Consequently, he can perform well on a competitive test but is incapable of engagement at the level of ideas.  And his outlook is markedly provincial. 

The second factor is the kind of training given at the Academy.  An ideal foundation course is one that instils values such as pluralism and equality and provides for the development of managerial skills and problem-solving strategies that the officer will be called upon to employ in his day-to-day work.  But, regrettably, there is an overemphasis on the latter.

Even an emphasis on the former may not help much, given that a typical recruit is well past the impressionable stage.  The onus is, therefore, not on the training but on the recruitment scheme which must be so designed as to prevent the entry of coarse material.