The endless road ahead - C.K.Mathew, C.S. Rajasthan


I often wonder how the man on the street or the people in the rural areas of the State regard us bureaucrats sitting on our offices here in the capital city. Every morning, when I leave my unnecessarily palatial residence for the Secretariate, in my white car with its flashing red lights, I worry about how the man on the street, the truck driver or the shopkeeper, the labourer or the clerk, will look at my passing vehicle, this very obvious symbol of the government. Does he regard me with fear, or hatred, or does he hold me in contempt, or even derision. Does he think that I merely enjoy my perquisites with no thought for my duties, does he think I am but a mere parasite on the system, a leech sucking the life-blood of the society that sustains me. Or perhaps I do not figure in his daily thoughts for his life is so very different from mine, so very much on a different plane altogether. But the fact remains that whenever the trajectory of his life intersect with mine, I am pretty sure that I come off poorly in his eyes.

Contemplate the scene when a farmer, from a village far off the beaten path, approaches a Tehsildar or a SDO for some matter related to his land. He may have to squat in the verandah hoping that the officer will give him the time of the day. If the officer is away on official or private business, he will have to wait, in the heat or the cold as the case may be. Is he looked after in the interval, does he get a chair to sit on, not because he is any significant person or an important individual, but simple because he is a human being? Do we know; do we care?

When finally the officer comes in, and the poor fellow is called in, does he ask him to sit down, does he show him the courtesy he deserves, does he offer him a glass of water. This is true in all offices across the country. Do we not do our best to cow him down with our superior ways? Do we talk to him or do we interrogate him? Do we try to appreciate we what he wants to say, do we try to resolve his genuine grievance? Do we give him his dignity and his self-respect? Or is it that despite being public servants constitutionally bound to serve the people, we sit on a pedestal in our ivory towers and pretend not to see the poor fellow in front of us? Or chase him away with our intransigence and our superior ways?
I have often written about the arrogance with which officers in the government discharge their duties in public service. But it is time to go beyond that. To understand why we behave as we do with such impunity, we must look to the root causes. A young officer who enters public service, hopefully with such idealism and the burning zeal to uplift the poor and the miserable, must, with the passage of time, find his passion diminishing. This is so because it is impossible to sustain forever, or for his active lifespan, that zeal and passion with that same pitch and fervour with which he had begun his career.

On the other hand, severe problems of governance persist. Who can deny that there have been no developments of an astounding nature for a country as large and complex as ours? The nature and quality of public services that are extended to the public at large in the past six and a half decades has been phenomenal. But, even as we solve and resolve problems, there are new and intractable crises that just refuse to go away. They are of mounting complexities and intensities. And they are of a nature that is endless, and overpowering. Somewhere then, the compromises are made, the steel in the spine wilts, and the feet stray from the straight and narrow. And so even the untiring spirit of an idealistic bureaucrat can falter; indeed there seems to be no end to the dark tunnel. There are intolerable fractures in our society and deep inequities; and always and always, the general populace have greater and greater expectations from the government.

Thus there is a great mismatch, between the flagging passion of the officer who is charged with the responsibility of governance on the one hand; and on the other, the constantly rising aspirations of the people, filled with the angst of the deprived and the dispossessed, who now have found their voice and are ready to fight for their rights, rights denied to them for so long. I know of some who say they see no purpose in fighting for dimly perceived ideals in a shadowy world where there is no recognition for values. Others who shrug their shoulders and say it does not matter either way. And some who are gleeful of the situation and are determined the make hay while the sun shines. It is the nature of all things, both life forms and ideas, to atrophy. And that is what happens when the realities of life slowly dawn on each one of us in public service. And when cynicism creeps in, the first stage is to turn a blind eye to the happenings around us, then, aiding and abetting the decline of the structure around us is not improbable, and finally we become partners in the rape of the people. And thus we move from day to day, trying to solve unsolvable problems of the world around us, with our small thoughts and smaller actions. As T.S. Eliot so eloquently wrote:

[I] Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.

So what then does a civil servant do, when he finds himself in this predicament? Usually this stasis of the spirit happens when he is in the prime of his career, when he can contribute do so much for the world around him; but he finds fetters in his feet and chains on his hands. I have pondered on this question for long, knowing full well that the road is long and winding, knowing that the burden gets heavier and heavier, knowing that the odds are almost insurmountable. But I do know now that there is only one way to go, and that is forward. One must break the chains and smash the fetters, and bash on regardless. One must lift the spirit with all the force at one’s command and be vigilant so that the note of cynicism does not creep into one’s voice. The alternative is to die in spirit and negate the very purpose of your life. So, hurl the iron from out of the soul. Shed your weariness and let the energy flow through your body again. Make your heart gentle once more, feel the pain of the poor supplicant in front of you, knowing that you can ease his pain, wipe the tear from his eye and soothe his furrowed brow. That is your job, your duty, your constitutional obligation.

And so, as Milton put it: “Awake, arise or be forever fallen.” And let not anybody tell you that that game is over, or that all is lost. No. Be like Sisyphus who, though condemned forever to roll a huge stone up a hill only to have it roll down again on nearing the top, started all over again refusing to be defeated by the inevitability of his failure. The sun sets each day, but at dawn it rises again, full of the life giving light and bountiful energy. Be like the sun: you may be weary and dejected when the night falls, but you rise again each morning, ready to face insurmountable odds and climb the highest mountain. Clench your fist and move on. There is no purpose in the life ahead if you think anything else.
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