Power is ephemeral unless it’s accompanied by responsibility
KR Lakhanpal, 72, a former chief secretary of Punjab, says power gives one the ability to do something for the larger good of the community. “Power is positive but it is ephemeral unless accompanied by responsibility. The civil services offer the best opportunity to remain afloat amid pulls and pressures to do good for those not as privileged,” says the 1972-batch IAS officer.
“If I were to start life all over again, I’d still want to be a bureaucrat. Since the first day in service as the Patiala SDM till August 31, 2007, the day I retired, the man in the queue was the VIP for me. He had the first right on my time and resources and I owed him a hearing to do whatever I could to ameliorate his problem,” says Lakhanpal. “We have a strong public service ethos but the problem arises when it gets morphed into private success,” he says.
FAMILY IS THE FOUNDATION
Coming from a family of agriculturists at Lakhanpal village in Jalandhar district, he says he aspired to be a lawyer but life had other plans. “I lost my mother when I was two and my father when I was 18. My grandparents and five aunts treated me like a prince. We were a family of modest means but there was no dearth of love.”
During his childhood, he recalls, divisions on the basis of caste and class were non-existent. “Children of farm labourers played with us. We studied in the same school, celebrated festivals together and were treated by the same hakim. This bonding to rise as a community is over. That role was first taken over by the state and post-liberalisation, by the market. Today, everything is merchandised from love to health and education. Parents have no time to spend with children so they pay off the guilt with fancy gadgets.”
After selling his share in the family property to pay off the Rs 58,000 that his father owed to the revenue department, Lakhanpal moved to Delhi in 1965 to pursue post-graduation in economics. “I’m a keen student of economics. I have no pretensions of being an economist,” says the former state principal secretary, finance. The exhaustive library in his study and former Reserve Bank of India governor Raghuram Rajan’s The Third Pillar on his table, however, give away his quest for learning.
Lakhanpal believes in self-education and recalls how he would take tuitions to fund his studies. He was selected in the Indian Revenue Service where he met his would-be wife Manju during training in 1971. The next year, they were married and by then he had taken the exam again to join the IAS.
Lakhanpal took charge as the Punjab chief secretary on February 1, 2006 after superseding eight officers. He served as finance secretary for five years during the chief ministerial tenures of Capt Amarinder Singh and Parkash Singh Badal. Recalling how Amarinder kept his appointment under wraps till the last moment, he admits then finance minister Surinder Singla played a crucial role. “We had our share of disagreements despite a good equation. An exasperated Capt saab would remark at meetings that I have an FM who doesn’t need a finance secretary and a finance secretary who doesn’t need a minister,” says Lakhanpal.
He was shunted out of the finance department for opposing Badal’s sangat darshan (mass contact) programme. “I had honest differences with Badal saab. It was his prerogative to shift me and mine to pour my heart out in files.”
Unpopular with Congress legislators for his austerity measures, he says “I was able to put the finances back on track largely because Capt Amarinder stood by me. But after two years, he relented and I was transferred as principal secretary, irrigation.”
It was as the irrigation secretary that Lakhanpal drafted the Punjab Termination of Agreements Bill in the Sutlej-Yamuna Link Canal dispute after the Supreme Court ultimatum, failing which the Centre would have taken charge of the project. “I’m a proud Punjabi. Punjabiyat flows in my blood. I couldn’t let that happen,” he says.
CHANDIGARH CAN DO BETTER
A resident of Chandigarh since 1992, Lakhanpal believes that the Union territory needs a set-up with a chief commissioner who is accountable. “Why blame politicians or top bureaucrats on deputation for the city’s problems? It’s time to stem the rot in the local bureaucracy that runs the system. Have people of calibre and ensure transparency in selection. Even Punjab is better managed.”
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