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A Valedictory in the Times of COVID

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By SANJEEV CHOPRA 

The only thing certain is that nothing is certain!
The Uncertainty Principle of Heisenberg is not limited to the world of sub-atomic particles. It applies equally to empires, institutions, technologies and diseases. Till recently, we thought that Cancer was the Emperor of All Maladies. Now Covid is the front runner.

Let me say that every crisis is also an opportunity. In all crisis situations, there are some institutions and individuals who emerge stronger, many become less relevant, and some become redundant. Fortunately for us, your Service has acquitted itself with flying colours. If there is one organisation in the country that has led from the front, 24X7, from the time the first sign of this crisis came to the fore, it is the IAS. Yours was the first Association to contribute Rs 21 lakhs to the PM CARES Fund, and we followed this with an appeal to donate one day’s salary to this account for the current financial year. Let me also state that it is not the quantum of contribution, it is our willingness to be part of the collective effort of the nation to contribute to the larger cause that makes the difference.

You are also aware of the CARUNA platform, which brought together all the twenty-two service associations on a voluntary platform. The Preface to the CARUNA Report presented to the Cabinet Secretary was written under the pseudonym of ‘an anonymous officer’. This is important, for we have chosen an ethic to remain in the background, to focus on our work and to do it well professionally. Let me also make a distinction between the work done by you in your personal and professional capacities. If you get the Sahitya Academy Award for your poetry, or if you gain recognition as a sculptor, you are entitled to it by all means, but when you run a district or a sub-division, or an institution like the LBSNAA, the credit goes to the Team.

COVID has also shown that, in the near foreseeable future, the role of the state at all levels will be salient. It also suggests that multi-level collaboration and inter agency coordination are the key. From the Prime Minister to the Gram Pradhan, and from the Health Ministry to the Rail Coach Factory and the MyGov platform – every institution has to work in tandem.

Is this pandemic different from its predecessors? Yes. This is the first pandemic in the age of ‘Information Technology’ and the ‘counter-factual’. It is almost impossible to suppress information. There will definitely be fake news, but it will also be difficult to brush anything under the carpet. You have also been taught that the counter factual is an important consideration in any nuanced discussion today. If the government quarantines, there is a problem because livelihoods and economies are adversely impacted. If it does not, there is an even greater problem – lives may be lost forever. But if the government takes no decision at all, that’s the worst. Remember, therefore, that the IAS is a service in which you have to take decisions, and we draw our strength from Yoga Karmasu Kaushalam: Yoga is excellence in action.

I now come to the second part of my address. Act we must, but ours is not the charge of the Light Brigade. We have to think through the implications of our action. We are creatures of the Law and the Constitution, but the interpretation is not cast in stone as we saw in Separate but Equal, as well as in ‘Article 15’. The letter, the spirit and the context are all significant. This brings me to the theory of ‘dominant discourses’ or the meta narratives which offer us the framework of understanding our lived reality.
Take for example the date today. We are all so comfortable with 8th May 2020 as per the Gregorian calendar, that we do not realise that as per the official Indian calendar, today is the Pratipada, the first day in the Krishan Paksh in the month of Jyeshta in 2077 of the Shaka Era. By the way, this calendar was chosen, amongst many other choices, including the Bikrami Sambat and the Kali Calendar by a committee set up by the Government of India in 1957 under the chairmanship of the eminent scientist Meghnad Saha. Fortunately for us, our important festivals and in many cases, marriage ceremonies and property buying are still based on this calendar, and now with easy conversions available on the phone, it is not likely to disappear from our consciousness.

Incidentally, the Gregorian calendar was established in the Vatican in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII, when the Holy Roman Empire was at its peak, replacing the Julian calendar, which was established by Julius Caesar in 45 BCE. Even the terms CE and BCE, though an improvement over AD and BC, are a subtle reminder that there was a world before Christ, and one after him. A simple search on Google will show you that there are over a dozen calendars, including the Islamic, Jewish, Chinese and the Tibetan calendar, which still exist today. Does the physical reality of a day – measured in terms of sunrise and sunset — change if we measure it across calendars? I am not saying that we should all adopt calendars of our choice: life may become difficult then – all I am saying is that we should accept the fact that there are so many ways of looking at the same thing, and we should not close our minds to possibilities that are not conventional.

Thus GDP, the established measure of growth is not the only marker we should look at, for we should consider the damages caused to the environment as well as to social, cultural and aesthetic artefacts. The ultimate irony is that at a recent conference organised by environmentalist Anil Joshi to discuss Gross Environmental Product (GEP) as an alternate measure of growth, chaired by the Principal Scientific Adviser to the PM, Dr Vijay Raghavan, who also spoke to you at Kevadia, the matrix was on valuing eco-system support services, but again in terms of GDP. What an irony!

(Sanjeev Chopra is an Indian Administrative Service officer of the 1985 batch. He is currently the Director of the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie. He is the honorary curator of a literary festival held annually at Dehradun).