From growing up in a single-room accommodation in Delhi’s Sarojini Nagar, Arvind Kumar has come a long way.
Where there’s a scholarship, you’ll find me, he says. A graduate from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, he went on to do an MBA from IIM-Ahmedabad, joined the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), cracked the GRE, went to Princeton University on the Robert S McNamara Fellowship and got into London School of Economics on another scholarship. Phew... that was a long list!
It was all about dedication and hard work for him, and today Arvind is the MAUD Special Chief Secretary in the Telangana government. Over a cuppa tea, he tells us all about his journey, values, passions and love for Hyderabad.
When did you know that IAS is your thing?
I have a very ordinary background, my dad was a clerk in a bank and my mom studied till Class X. We used to live in a single-room accommodation till I was in Class V. These were the motivating factors which made me want to do well in life. Another thing is, my parents are from Bihar. So, whenever I visited my hometown, I used to see these huge houses. People used to say that this is the district magistrate’s (DM) house. I used to wonder who is a DM? Whenever you raise the topic of bad roads or poor water supply, they’d say ‘The Collector has to do it.’ I used to wonder who is this collector who is supposed to do these things. I always had the idea of IAS in mind, throughout my school and college.
After Class X, I took Economics and not Science. I had Economics, Psychology, Geography and Maths — a funny combination. By the second year of college, I knew that I was going to attempt Civils and in the final year, when everyone was aiming for IIMs, I too sat for CAT and got through IIM-Ahmedabad. I did my MBA, but that was more of a backup — if I didn’t get through Civils, I’d at least be able to get a job.
Did your family ever pressure you to sit for Civils?
Never. After Class X, my father asked me what I wanted to do and he supported my decision. My parents trusted me. Wherever there was a scholarship, I would go for it (laughs). Well, after a point of time, you master the art of writing essays (for scholarships) and you know what they want to hear from you.
What made you want to sit for Civils?
Whenever I visited Bihar, I used to see such poverty which could not be explained. I’ve seen housing patterns in villages where people from socially marginalised classes stay in a separate block and are not allowed to mingle with the other residents. One wonders why such things are happening, why are there no roads leading to villages, why are people still drinking water from open wells, why is there still open defecation? You see kids in tatters, not going to school, their poor health condition. I used to think, how can I make a difference? I wanted to do something to address these issues. That was the driving force. Over the years, this feeling just got reaffirmed further. When I was in Ahmedabad too, I knew that I was not cut out for a corporate job. I’m not trying to demean any business, but I didn’t want to sell cigarettes and soaps. I wanted to do something meaningful. I could’ve earned a lot more money doing a corporate job, but what I am doing now gives me peace and is extremely gratifying.
Where does your dynamism stem from?
If something can be done, it should be done — that’s my philosophy. I would like to do justice to the job given to me and I will try and do what should be done in a time-bound manner. Whatever assignment I’ve taken up, I have had immense job satisfaction. I want to see what’s happening on the ground, I have to be on field to know what’s going on. People say ‘It’s the Commissioner who is supposed to be on the field. Why are you going?’ But till I see and understand the problem, how can I resolve it? I believe in field-level experience and execution.
Cracking UPSC is a life goal for many. There’s so much pressure on them. What’s your advice for aspirants?
Firstly, you should be clear if you want to take up UPSC or not. You need that inner urge to clear the exams. You should not be giving the exam just because your parents are forcing you to do so or your peers are appearing for it. It won’t work. Secondly, give your best. Don’t do anything else for that one or one-and-half years. Thirdly, you learn a lot in the process. So, don’t put everything at stake and feel depressed if you don’t get through. If it happens, brilliant. If it doesn’t, what’s wrong? Move on. Also, a lot of it depends on your choices — the course you take, the books you read, etc.
What was your schedule like when you were studying for the exams?
I used to study for 10-12 hours a day. I never did anything else during those years. For a break, I would take a stroll in Sarojini Market and return to my desk.
Have all these years of service taught you any life lessons?
It’s better to keep things simple, that’s one lesson I’ve learnt. Learn to say ‘no’ — this is something I am still learning. Politicians can be our biggest strength when it comes to getting things done. We need to engage, work as a team and if we are on the same page, things will move at a lightning speed. Engagement is the best policy when it comes to getting things done. Finally, honesty. On a philosophical level, it’s only one life. Whatever you do, whatever happens, it all comes back — Karma.
Did you try to convince Maansi (your daughter) to follow in your footsteps?
Her mom and I have believed in giving her a basket of options and leaving it to her to decide. Whatever she decides, I am always there for her.
Tell me about your passions. I’ve heard you have a vast collection of Ganesh idols.
I’ve been collecting Ganeshas for decades now. I’m not a very religious person as such, but I just like the look of the god. He’s jovial and is one of the very few gods with whom you can get creative. In my Delhi house, I have a 6-ft tall wooden idol. My latest passion is maintaining and collecting bonsai. I have over 50 bonsai, some of which are more than 15 years old. I used to paint, but haven’t been able to these days. I’d like to get back to painting. It’s very soothing.
Your vision for Hyderabad
I sincerely feel that Hyderabad is one of the best cities in the country. In fact, it is the best. When I compare it with Delhi, the latter has so much pollution and intolerance. When I go to Delhi, I’m in a rush to come back. In Hyderabad, the cost of living is still the cheapest among the metros, distances are not much, it’s safe, real estate is still the cheapest. I want to continue to work here to make this city a better place. The idea is to make people feel proud about their city, they should feel that yes, someone’s looking after it. I feel connected to this city.
How’s your relationship with MAUD Minister KT Rama Rao?
I’m very lucky to be working in the Ministry headed by the dynamic Minister Mr KT Rama Rao. While he guides and reviews, we discuss, decide and work as a team. There’s no lag with him when it comes to decision-making. We just drop him a text and he gives a go-ahead or flags his concerns. Even when he has a thought, he sends me a WhatsApp message asking me to look into it. I feel comfortable with him; there’s no extra pressure because he’s a Minister.
By the way...
How do you keep yourself motivated?
I always feel there’s a lot more to do. It’s about being self-driven
Your favourite outfit?
Anything comfortable. Massimo Dutti is my favourite brand. Every time I travel, I buy something of this brand
What are you reading currently?
John Grisham’s Camino Winds, Policymaker’s Journal by Kaushik Basu, Essentialism by Greg McKeown, Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of The Oppressed
What do you do for fun?
I love walking my cat, Kabir. I like to make my own cup of Earl Grey tea — once in the morning and evening. This might sound funny, but I like buying vegetables. I love driving. I binge watch thriller series on Netflix. I love travelling alone.