The civil servant who spoke truth to power

  • Ramachandra Guha
  • Updated: Jun 21, 2015 08:53 IST

Shortly after the UPA government was re-elected in 2009, the prime minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, received five fascinating letters from a man living in Bhopal. The first letter shredded the government’s plans to set up a slew of new IITs. It pointed out that ‘the new institutions will find it very difficult to find good faculty’. The government claimed to promote ‘excellence in education’, whereas in fact its scheme would ‘downgrade all the institutions to a level of mediocrity.’

The letter-writer advised the PM to instead invest more in the existing IITs, ‘so that they become true centres of excellence.’

The second letter to the PM argued that technical excellence had to be complemented by quality education in the humanities. Otherwise, by focusing only on engineering education, India would ‘at best produce highly disciplined robots whose make up is biological but whose thinking is excessively narrowly focused on technology’.

The Bhopal man’s third letter was on the breakdown of the rule of law, in which senior police officers and civil servants were as complicit as politicians. ‘We just do not punish wrongdoing,’ he wrote, ‘whether it be violation of traffic laws, arousing of communal passion, mass murder through rioting and terrorism or corruption on a scale which is beginning to make Kuomintang China look like a Sunday school picnic’.

How to correct this? One was to ‘mercilessly weed out from the IAS, IPS and Indian Forest Service all those who are slackers, derelict in their duty, partisan and corrupt’. Another was to make district officers personally responsible for development projects under their jurisdiction, with DMs empowered ‘to take action against their subordinates and tell the politicians that any interference in this behalf will not be tolerated’.

The fourth letter warned the PM not to be deferential to the United States, and to assert India’s right to help in rebuilding Afghanistan. ‘Without fanfare,’ it said, ‘we should ensure that when any senior American intelligence officer comes to India, the highest level access he should be given is to an officer of the level of Deputy Director, I.B. or an equivalent rank RAW officer. That is how the Americans treat us, so let there be reciprocity’.

The fifth letter argued that Articles 15 and 16 of the Constitution specifically ruled out caste-based discrimination, and thus all positive discrimination should be on the basis of class, not caste. It expressed dismay that the government had re-introduced the caste census, designed by the British to divide India.

Who was this wise (and brave) man from Bhopal? His name was MN Buch, and he studied economics at Cambridge, before joining the Indian Administrative Service. One of his first postings was at Betul, where he greatly endeared himself to the adivasis (and they to him).

Later postings took him to other parts of Madhya Pradesh, where he likewise rooted himself in the lives of the people under his charge. Later, after shifting to the Secretariat in Bhopal, he served as forest secretary and as the head of a new Town and Country Planning Organization.

In the last phase of his civil service career, MN Buch specialised in urban affairs. He was a vigorous proponent of zoning, warning against setting up hazardous industrial units in cities. He urged that the Union Carbide plant be shifted outside Bhopal; had his bosses listened to him, the gas leak of December 1984 would have done far less damage.

Earlier in 1984, Buch had taken voluntary retirement from the IAS. Fed up with working with short-sighted (and malevolent) netas, he chose to enter politics himself. He fought the 1984 Lok Sabha as an independent from his beloved Betul. He lost by a margin of 30,000 votes to the Congress candidate, the hockey player Aslam Sher Khan. In the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination even a lamppost would have won on the Congress ticket. That Buch did so well (with no money at all) is reflective of how much he was still loved by the people of Betul.

Buch now turned to scholarship and advocacy. He wrote several books on urban planning, and a memoir of his early years in the IAS. Perhaps his best book, however, is The Forests of Madhya Pradesh, where this Kathiawari raised in Delhi paid eloquent tribute to the ecological (and cultural) diversity of his adopted state.

When Mahesh Buch died earlier this month, a mutual friend described him as ‘opinionated but not arrogant’. This was wonderfully apt. I once travelled with Buch by car from Naini Tal to Delhi, mostly listening, which I was happy to, for few civil servants I knew had lived so intensely for and with the people they were asked to serve. And none at all were so willing to so fearlessly speak truth to power.

To return, in the end, to those letters Mahesh Buch wrote to the prime minister. As was his wont, Dr Singh answered them courteously and had them filed away. But of action on its contents there was scarcely a sign. Yet they remain compellingly relevant. This new government has gone in for a further reckless expansion of IITs, has even greater contempt for the humanities, and is as deferential to the United States.

Of another outstanding IAS officer who recently died, Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote that it seemed ‘God needed an exemplary civil servant for himself, since modern India seems to no longer have any use for this kind’. I wonder if that is why God called Mahesh Buch too. If so, God may regret it, since he will find his affairs subject to the same searching scrutiny as were Men of Power on Earth.

Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is Gandhi Before India You can follow him on Twitter at @Ram_Guha.
The views expressed by the author are personal.

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