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In Parenthesis #1 : One year of IAS

by Mitali Sethi
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In Parenthesis

Let me be honest. I wrote an entire article two days back with the same headline, and it started very differently. I began with this picture below and I will come back to it.

I had written about things that I have experienced and felt in the past one year, stories transpired and lessons drawn. One year is a time to celebrate, you know.

I wrote it and slept, thinking I would get up the next morning, edit the article and hit Publish. The next day, however, started with the news of a mob attacking Vinay Sir in Nandurbar district of Maharashtra. Then the photos, videos, news poured in and by afternoon, my self-written words no longer made me happy. Yesterday, I kept questioning the whole purpose of coming into this job, more so with some of the comments coming from public saying “You deserve so”, that “You knew what you were getting into”. And so, this article will have a different beginning now because there are certain things I want to acknowledge and stand up for. In a way, this is a word-flower for Vinay Sir.

I have never believed that IAS is the only way one can do well for the society, or that Civil Services is the only way one can bring about change. I used to hear about people getting depressed, committing suicide and so everything that I have written after selection was with the purpose of deconstructing the too-large-to-fail halo associated with the IAS.

But in that effort of sounding humble and not fake-glorifying IAS, I think I might have glossed over some very real issues, and I have no shame in accepting that. I have been four months into district training now and when I look back at the past year, I know that these months have been the most transformative – because they have been the period of most real, brutally honest interfaces with some tough developmental problems and issues. In this process, I have seen many passionate people coming together for the cause of helping people out – be it NGO professionals working tirelessly in the field for betterment of people; Anganwadi workers who walk around in the whole village and make sure not one child is left unvaccinated; IAS officers who go from meeting-to-field and field-to-meeting back to back each day; politicians who truly care for people and really become the mediating link between public and administration; development professionals who have gone and stayed in tribal villages and are doing much more than what is their assigned work; office clerks who meticulously somehow do not lose or misplace even a single file, lower level functionaries who have not only stood up for the right thing but also happily faced the political wrath for it.

In my being with many IAS officers, I have seen how some of them see their newborn kids hardly for two hours in the whole day, those who forget to eat lunch every other day because there is just so much going on around, those who travel 8 hours every alternate day in mountain areas to reach far flung villages and check if toilets are being built as they should be. All this, while trying to balance families, political pressures, public demands and a sense of purpose within themselves.

So, you know what, I am batting for all these people. ALL of them. I get it, all of us are here because we want to, no one forced us into this job. I come back to my empty house some days with very little food in my tummy but a full heart of experiences and love. We get to have our desire for serving the society fulfilled and so we aren’t really doing a favour to the society by doing our jobs. But that doesn’t deny the fact that we are working in vulnerable spaces with various opposing forces and that makes the nature of our jobs difficult and challenging. It is important for all of us to be understood. Development is a complicated, complex issue and in a democratic structure, it rightly requires support of different groups to truly create change. It is easy to sit in drawing rooms and type ‘You signed up for it’ than to stand there in the field, at the grassroots level with the humongous responsibility of solving multiple complex problems in the face of 100 people saying 100 different things.

No one signs up for violence. Not a doctor, not a development professional, not an officer. We sign up, take an oath of serving the public and perhaps think of creating a better world around us, but that doesn’t mean that we can do it alone. We need those who can reach out if we cannot, those who can pick us up if we fall down, those who can join hands and jump into this imperfect world rather than constantly complain about the imperfectness of it. Courage looks like an individual pursuit but it carries a tribe along-with it, and in the absence of that tribe, one violent incident is enough to break down the courage of many who would never again venture to bravely step foot into a messy problem. And hey, here is some food for thought. What is the world to do without those who choose courage over anything else?

Writing this article has been one of the most difficult things for me. I want to write this without any fake glory, any fake humility. I want to write this really and honestly. I want this to mean something not only today when someone else reads it, but to myself when I look back at it after months, years and centuries. This is not an exercise of behaving or writing maturely, it might just be broken and immature – to me that is what virtue, integrity look like.

The past year has been absolutely thrilling, keeping this one incident aside. Not only have I had the opportunity to discover many hidden facets of my own self, I have been able to look at people, problems and solutions from very, very close quarters. While on a crop inspection drive, I realised that I don’t even know how much a bag of seeds or fertilisers costs. So, I sat down with a farmer and calculated with him his entire input cost, output profit, in the process asking him a million questions. No amount of news will tell you how vulnerable agriculture is until you are there in a field looking at a crop – I have caught myself jumping with joy now when rain comes in my district!

This opportunity of making a fuller sense of the world – discovering your own self little by little each day, loving people a little more each day – and using this newer understanding to serve is a different high altogether. The challenges of course are real, and therefore one needs to be constantly aware of the complexity of it. I just hope that we all – all of us – be the ones to bring people up rather than make them fall, in whatever capacity we can.

Let me end with the story of the picture and two little lessons that have left a deep impression on my mind.

 Last month, I visited a village in my district; one of the fellows there was to give a presentation on the developments that have taken place in the village from past one year. There was a huge rush as the whole district team was there and almost the entire village had come into the Gram Panchayat building.

As we sat there listening, one elderly kaka juggled his way through the crowd and sat down right in front of the projector screen, as is seen in the picture. The thing in his hand is not his phone, but a hearing aid, one wire of which goes into his right ear. Kaka sat through the entire one-hour-long presentation actively moving his hands to make sense of things to himself, energetically taking part in the debate that ensued and then making his way through the crowd later to ask one final question to the Additional Chief Secretary. 

Me, I stood back half delighted, half inspired and completely in awe. If I have to describe IAS for myself in one sentence, this would be it. To be in awe of what people can do for themselves. To plant the right seed and then stand back in awe at what good collective capacities can convert it into. One needs to learn how to intervene, but believe me, it is a task to learn how to stand back.  

I have learnt two very important things in the past one year, and these are lessons, notes also to myself. (Listen up, Mittali).

To do any really worthwhile thing in the world, it is essential to separate one’s own ego from the work one is supposed to do. Too many of us are so busy questioning our own purposes so many times that we forget to be truly, sincerely selfless. We forget what is it that the kaka sitting on the floor in front of the projector wants. What if what we want from the people is not what they want for themselves? Is our sense of purpose larger than theirs? We work to work for them, not to satisfy our ego.

A very good friend in SEARCH, Gadchiroli once told me “Power is not a triangle, it is a circle.” This will never, ever be wrong.

Also, for any real change in our own lives or for us to change the lives’ of people at grassroots level, it is important to really emotionally invest ourselves in bringing about that change. It is like love – you make yourself vulnerable to heartbreak, to failure, to the wait. Real change is a process of intense transformation, and sometimes, we have to be open to the intensity of it, to the magnitude of change we might ourselves go through in this pursuit. Don’t be scared of it. Have you ever seen a caterpillar turn into a butterfly? (Seriously, if you haven’t, you must. It is one of the most beautiful things in nature).

Ultimately, I guess it has been only about courage. The courage of being compassionate or cruel for the right reasons; of accepting diversity with a smile, diametrically opposing viewpoints with a smile; of respecting a really emotional and a really unemotional person equally; of being lonely and stand out if it comes to it, of getting invisible in the crowd if it comes to it; of listening to your own heart if it comes to it, of listening only to people and forgetting all about your heart if it comes to it.

[Of writing broken blog pieces like this one in pursuit of courage. :D]

 Everything that we do, feel, fear, live – are exercises in the discovery of this courage.

But, my darling, one day at a time. One punch at a time.

Source – https://inklingsofaspecialcommonwoman.wordpress.com/2018/08/29/in-parenthesis-1-one-year-of-ias/

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