The rules of the babu game
An IAS officer is at his best when drafting rules—if they are incomprehensible, he is happy, and if they are unimplementable, he is overjoyed
I have for some time been convinced that Moses (of Old Testament fame) was the original bureaucrat. The anecdotal evidence is convincing. He offered to his peoples the Promised Land—and then made them wander around in the desert for 40 years. He was adept at beating around the bush, till one of them caught fire and he called it an act of God! He was wont to deliver sermons from raised areas which no one understood. And here’s the clinching one—he framed the first set of Conduct Rules, which came to be known as the Ten Commandments. And a fine set of rules they are too, except perhaps for that one about not coveting thy neighbour’s wife, which contradicts a subsequent sub-rule which exhorts one to love thy neighbour, and we all know that the later rule supersedes the earlier one.
The true descendent of Moses is the IAS, not the state of Israel. An IAS officer is at his best when he is drafting all manner of rules—if they are incomprehensible, he is happy, and if they are unimplementable, then he is overjoyed to an almost orgasmic level. I’d like to share a few I’ve had the good fortune to encounter during my career.
Have you wondered why government servants are so short-sighted? It’s the rules, stupid! In the early eighties I was posted as a joint secretary in the finance department at Shimla. My duties involved approving claims for medical reimbursement. Those days contact lenses were deemed to be a cosmetic procedure and their expenses were not reimbursable. One day I received a claim from a High Court judge who had contact lenses fixed. I promptly took the file to the finance secretary. The secretary looked at me with a cunning grin and said: “Approve it!”. I was aghast, just as Moses must have been when he saw the Israelites worshipping the golden calf.
“But the rules, sir ...” I blurted. And then the finance secretary explained: “Avay, you must understand the rules which govern rules. The most important rule in government is the rule of precedents. A precedent, once set, is sacrosanct, notwithstanding all other rules. Once you allow something for one person you cannot deny it to others. So let this judge have his bloody contact lenses—after all, how can a lowly finance secretary refuse a mighty High Court judge? And hereinafter all of us can also have contact lenses!” And that’s how contact lenses are now reimbursable. We now have more IAS officers adorned with the lenses than starlets in Bollywood.
Rule number two: In 2007, after years of subsisting on bread and water, I finally built myself a cottage in Mashobra, intending to spend my dotage refreshing my knowledge of the birds and the bees. I applied for a gas connection from the Civil Supplies Corporation for the new house. It was refused: two connections could not be given in the same name, and I already had one in my house in Shimla. The MD of the Corporation was my neighbour and I pestered him till he came up with a solution: he would be able to sanction a second connection if I gave an affidavit stating my wife intended to divorce me and was living separately from me in Mashobra! I was stumped.
Firstly, government servants cannot go around swearing affidavits with the same gay abandon that our MPs and MLAs do at election time. Secondly, I had no intention of separating from my wife, having hung on to her for dear life for 30 years. Thirdly, once she started living separately who knew what might happen?—she might get used to the idea! Fourthly, Mashobra has a lot of retired defence services officers who spend all their time looking for lost golf balls and single women. No, this was not a good idea at all, I told my wife. She asked for two days to consider the suggestion! Finally, of course, she agreed with me. She confided later that she was tempted by the idea but decided against it because then who’d make the bed tea in the morning, or take the dog for a walk?! So we didn’t use that particular rule after all: instead I went and bought a cylinder and regulator on the black market.
Most IAS officers have very high levels of schadenfreude, and love nothing better than to see the proletariat squirm; nothing else can explain this last rule I’m about to share with you. One of the consequences of having a large government is that you also have a large number of pensioners who steadfastly refuse to kick the bucket. Pension rules stipulate that every July a pensioner is required to submit a “life certificate” attesting to the fact that he is still alive (being brain dead is no disqualification for a government pensioner, on the assumption that most of them were in this condition in any case while in service). This life certificate can be attested by any gazetted officer or by the bank manager. The system worked very well till a few years ago when some bright finance secretary in Shimla decided that the attestation would have to be done by a Patwari (revenue official) instead.
Now, a Patwari in the mountainous regions of Himachal is a mythical figure. They are more difficult to spot than the snow leopard: it’s easier to track down a man-eater than locate a Patwari. But rules are rules, and so now the mountain slopes are crawling with pensioners looking for their Patwaris, usually in vain. Some have taken to camping in caves hoping to way lay him one day, others organise havans hoping to be blessed with his presence, still others seek out astrologers to predict the Patwari’s movements. Drones are employed to sight this elusive yeti. But the astute finance secretary, I am told, is a happy man: the outgo of pensions has declined sharply, the mortality among pensioners has gone up to satisfying levels what with all the exertion now required of them, and the budget deficit is coming under control. How about giving him a Padma Shri?