Has the IAS failed the nation? D. Subbarao shares his views

The Asian Age.  | Indranil Banerjie

The narrative is straightforward, guileless, compassionate and full of insights

Cover page of Just a Mercenary? Notes from My Life and Career
Can anyone compress a whole lifetime, especially a busy and eventful one, into a single book? Not really. But former bureaucrat and RBI governor, Duvvuri Subbarao, takes a good shot at it in his scintillating and heart-warming autobiography titled Just a Mercenary? Notes from my Life and Career.


The former Indian Administrative Service officer turned central banker has lived an astonishingly successful life, coming out of a mofussil town in the Andhra heartland to become one of the most important officials in the Indian bureaucratic hierarchy, and finally an equally successful academic abroad. The narrative is straightforward, guileless, compassionate and full of insights. The writing reflects the writer. And as one follows the events in the book it becomes clear that Duvvuri Subbarao is as luminous as his writing.

While ruminating on his early career as an IAS officer, Subbarao cannot but ask whether the IAS has failed the nation. “In the mid-1970s when I was a fresh entrant into the service, if the government was being attacked by the Opposition on a scam or a scandal all that the chief minister had to do was to stand up in the Assembly and announce that he would appoint an IAS officer to inquire into the matter. That was enough to shut down the debate. Today if a chief minister were to say that, she is likely to be booed.”


“A chief minister once told me that of the IAS officers at his disposal, about 25 per cent were callous, corrupt or incompetent, the middle 50 per cent had happily turned into sinecures and he had to depend on the remaining 25 per cent to get all his work done,” the author recalls, adding: “I am deeply conscious that there are hundreds of young IAS officers out there in the field performing near miracles under testing circumstances. Sadly, my generation of civil servants and subsequent cohorts have bequeathed a flawed legacy to these unsung heroes.”


The author admits to have made mistakes in his career but stresses that he learnt from most of them. During one of his early postings in the districts, the author miscalculated in going by the book and disenfranchising hundreds of non-tribal farmers who had purchased land reserved for tribals. He later learnt, the non-tribals, most of whom were small farmers, had bought the land from tribals in a fair and market-determined manner and stood to lose everything once evicted from their farms.

He admits acting in haste. “I should have taken a little longer to study the problem and understand the sociology of the place before launching into action. Many of the subordinate revenue staff, having operated on the frontline for years, had a good understanding of the ground situation. Had I solicited their advice, at least some of them would have advised temperance… Because of my inexperience and over enthusiasm, I lost the battle as well as the war.”


Subbarao was not one to forget his mistakes and as he went on to more important positions in government, he remembered those lessons. One of the lessons he seems to have learnt is the importance of independent thinking. He writes that “every institution would do well to internalise what the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo reportedly said: ‘I don’t want you to think like me, I want you to think’.”


The book is also about the many insights the author acquired during his career on the workings of the great Indian bureaucracy and the larger system of governance involving politicians and the public. One of the many areas which appear to have greatly dismayed him is the erosion of checks and balances in the system. He feels that “financial management at the state level has deteriorated markedly in the thirty years since I left state finances. Political expediency has made ad hoc tampering with budgets, appropriating funds of public enterprises, of budget borrowing and hiding contingent liabilities commonplace practices.”

The author is particularly concerned about the growing tendency of states and the centre to borrow funds not only to fund development projects but also day to day expenditure. As a result, the indebtedness of the government is growing. “Our growth prospects and hence our debt sustainability depends critically on private investment pouring in. For that to happen, we need a lot more things to fall in place than just a well-crafted and well-intentioned budget. If today’s debt financed spending does not generate rapid growth, the burden of debt repayment will pass on to our children through higher taxes. We don’t want to sin against our children!”


In another section, the author writes that farm loan waivers exemplify a larger problem of asymmetric incentives that drive public policy choices. “The 2009 Mega Farm Loan Waiver was touted as a lone waiver to end all loan waivers. It turned out to be the exact opposite by setting off a series of loan waivers… That the farm sector continues to be distressed despite repeated loan waivers is clear evidence that loan waivers are not a solution but, in fact a problem.”

The author’s last appointment was as governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) where his greatest challenge was to manage the Indian currency. He hung up his boots in 2013 and moved to academia. This book was completed in his “apartment on Chapel Street on the edge of the Yale campus” in Connecticut, USA.


Before signing off, he concludes: “We are all prone to complaining about our country — how it is unfair, unjust and unequal. I complain too. But when I look back on my life and career without any bias, I realise that this country has given me so much…warts and all, there are still opportunities for merit in our country.”

Just a Mercenary? Notes from My Life and Career
By Duvvuri Subbarao
Penguin India
pp. 336; Rs 799