Rules Of The Game

I have for some time been convinced that Moses (of Old Testament fame) was THE original bureaucrat.

The anecdotal evidence is pretty convincing.

He offered to his peoples the Promised Land-and then made them wander around in the desert for forty years.

If this is not classic bureaucratic strategem, then what is? There’s more.

He was adept at beating around the bush (till one of them caught fire and he called it an act of God!).

He was to deliver sermons from raised areas which no one understood. And here’s the clinching one–he framed the first set of Conduct Rules, which subsequently came to be known as the Ten Commandments.

And a fine set of rules they are too, except perhaps for that one about not coveting thy neighbour’s wife which contradicts a subsequent sub-rule which exhorts one to love thy neighbour, and we all know that the later rule supersedes the earlier one.

There’s also a slight problem with the one that says thou shalt not kill, considering that Mr. Netanyahu is doing precisely that at almost the exact spot near Mount Sinaii where Moses announced his Conduct Rules.

But we can hardly blame the Old Bureaucrat with events occurring after his retirement, can we?

The same exoneration cannot, however, be allowed to his successors-no, not the state of Israel, but the IAS. Now, an IAS officer is at his best when he is drafting all manner of rules-if they are incomprehensible he is happy, and if they are unimplementable then he is overjoyed to an almost orgasmic level.

I’d like to share a few I’ve had the good fortune to encounter during my career.

Have you wondered why govt. servants, especially the more senior ones, are so short sighted?

Its the rules, stupid!

In the early eighties I was posted as a Joint Secretary in the Finance department at Shimla. Part of my duties involved approving claims for medical reimbursement. In those days contact lenses were deemed to be a cosmetic procedure and not a medical one: their expenses were not reimburseable, not even if your retinas were shredded to pieces! One day I received a claim from a High Court judge who had had contact lenses fixed, the better to see his litigants in the manner of the wolf in the fable about Red Riding Hood, perhaps. I promptly rejected the claim and took the file to the Finance Secretary.

The FS looked at me with a cunning grin and said: ” Approve it!”. I was aghast, just as Moses must have been when he saw the Israelites worshipping the golden calf. ” But the rules, sir…” I blurted. And then the FS explained.

“Avay,” he told me patiently, ” you must understand the rules which govern rules.

The most important rule in government is the rule of precedents.

A precedent, once set, is sacrosanct, notwithstanding all other rules. Once you allow something for one person you cannot deny it to others. So let this judge have his bloody contact lenses-after all, how can a lowly FS refuse a mighty High Court judge? And hereinafter all of us can also have contact lenses!” And that’s how contact lenses are now reimburseable. We now have more IAS officers adorned with the lenses than starlets in Bollywood.

Rule number two.

In 2007, after years of subsisting on bread and water I finally built myself a cottage in Mashobra, intending to spend my dotage talking to the birds and bees, refreshing my knowledge of their activities.

I applied for a gas connection from the HP Civil Supplies Corporation for the new house.

It was refused on the grounds that two connections could not be given in the same name, and since I already had one in my (official) house in Shimla the rules did not permit one for Mashobra.

Since the MD of the Corporation was my neighbour I pestered him till he came up with a solution: he informed me that he had checked his rules again and would be able to sanction a second connection if my wife gave an affidavit stating that she intended to divorce me and was living separately from me in Mashobra!

The connection would obviously me in my wife’s name. I was completely stumped. Firstly, we in the government cannot go around swearing affidavits with the same gay abandon that our MPs and MLAs do at election time. Secondly, I had no intention of separating from my wife, having hung on to her for dear life for thirty years. Thirdly, once she started living separately who knew what might happen? I’m told on good authority by IAS officers who go on central deputation leaving their wives behind that the latter very soon start enjoying their separate life and encourage them to stay on in Delhi till retirement!

Since they have all the perks of being an IAS officer’s wife, they don’t really need the officer himself given his penchant for sleeping with files instead of them.

Fourthly, Mashobra has a lot of retired defence services officers who spend all their time looking for lost golf balls and single women.

No indeed, this was not a good idea at all, I told my wife. She asked for two days to consider the suggestion! Finally, of course, she agreed with me.

She confided in me later that she was tempted by the idea but decided against it because then who’d make the bed tea in the morning, or take the dog for a walk?!

So finally we didn’t use that particular rule after all: instead I went and bought a cylinder and regulator on the black market in Lower Bazaar next day.

I am convinced that most IAS officers have very high levels of schadenfreude, not just testosterone, and love nothing better than to see the proletariat squirm; nothing else can explain this last rule I’m about to share with you. One of the consequences of having a large government is that you also have a large number of pensioners who refuse to kick the bucket. (Why should they when they get almost as much as pension as they received as salaries; moreover, for govt. pensioners (as opposed to those from the private sector) the lack of any work after retirement is not traumatic at all since they never did any work when in service in the first place).

Pension rules stipulate that every July a pensioner is required to submit a “life certificate” attesting to the fact that he is still alive (being brain dead is no disqualification for a govt. pensioner, on the assumption that most of them were in this condition in any case while in service).

This life certificate can be attested by any gazetted officer or by the Bank manager of the bank where the pensioner has an account. The system worked very well till a few years ago when some bright Finance Secretary in Shimla decided that the attestation would have to be done by a Patwari instead! Bank managers, it was decreed, could not be trusted with a life certificate, though they could with hundreds of crores of our moneys.

Now, a Patwari in the mountainous regions of Himachal is a mythical figure.

Though there are reported to be about 700 of them, they are more difficult to spot than the snow leopard, of whom there are barely a dozen; its easier to track down a man-eater than to locate a Patwari.

But rules are rules, and so now the mountain slopes are crawling with pensioners looking for their Patwaris, usually in vain. Some have taken to camping in caves hoping to way lay him one day, others organise havans hoping to be blessed with his presence, still others seek out astrologers to predict the Patwari’s movements.

I learn that some pensioners have asked their children in the US to procure some drones which can be used to sight the Patwari from the air and then drop the life certificates for him to sign.

But the astute Finance Secretary, I’m told, is a happy man: outgo of pensions has declined sharply, the mortality among pensioners has gone up to satisfying levels what with all the exertion now required of them, and the budget deficit is coming under control. I’m now thinking of starting a joint venture with my Patwari- for a fee (to be shared with the Patwari, naturally) – for providing this service to other pensioners. It will essentially be an out-sourcing service and should fit in very well with NDA-II’s economic policies.

And all pensioners shall live (or die, which is more likely) happily ever after, proving the wisdom of William Ellery Channing who said: ” The office of government is not to confer happiness but to give men opportunity to work out happiness for themselves.”

Avay Shukla retired from the Indian Administrative Service in December 2010. He is a keen environmentalist and loves the mountains. He divides his time between Delhi and his cottage in a small village above Shimla. He used to play golf at one time but has now run out of balls. He blogs at

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1 Comment

  1. says: Aditya M

    Dear Sir,

    I read your articles very regularly and I have learnt a fair bit from them. There is however one thing that I feel needs a lot of attention, but it doesn’t get any of it. That is our increasing population. Apart from maybe one or two statements here and there, I have never heard of it as an issue. I feel this is the greatest challenge that we face in our country. Most of the other problems are either a result of this issue, or can be solved only if we can manage to control our rapidly growing population.
    If possible, I feel this would be an interesting topic to shed light on, and would appreciate your analysis on this problem.

    Aditya M

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