Ring-Fencing the Good

India singularly lacks icons. Neither does India know as to how to celebrate its icons. Much of this is true except perhaps in the world of sports, software and movies, where we do cherish our icons. This is in response to “The Egovernance Muddle” by Shubendhu Parth dated September 2, 2005.

R Chandrashekhar and J Satyanarayana are not ordinary IAS officers-they are icons of the IAS, the creators of e-governance in India, and are responsible for creating from scratch, projects which have added tremendous value to the everyday life of the harried common man. If they had been born in any other country, like the United States, they would have been held up as national treasures. But, we, rather than applauding their feats, and recognizing how many minefields they had to go through professionally to make them happen, choose the easy path of sending an email or two, writing trash and innuendo hoping that it would substitute for solid analysis which ought to precede an investigative article.

Slaying middle class icons through an unfair and one-sided trial by media is wrong and unfair. It is shocking to see that a magazine of Dataquest’s repute can lend its credibility to any sleaze and stoop to such levels.

It wouldn’t be difficult for someone to talk to a few rivals and concoct some allegations against the author concerned or anyone else and write an equally strong article. Will DQ publish that too? DQ must understand that the power it has, comes with a responsibility to use it sanely and not just find a conspiracy theory (and a conspiracy theorist) to fit every story deadline; nor can reporters be allowed to pass off innuendo as analysis, and rubbish as evidence to support it, all to permanently tarnish the reputation of an honest IAS officer. And reputation is the only asset that an IAS officer earns during his lifetime in the service. To allow it to be tarnished at the hands of a cub reporter, who has no clue either how to do an investigative piece, is simply sacrilege.

I have had the singular privilege of working with both these gentlemen for several years. Not once, not on a single occasion, was there a mis-step, or a dubious suggestion or even the whiff of being pliable or favoring anyone. Not once. These are officers who would rather break than bend.

By the way, for the record, I do not work with the government any longer, haven’t been in touch with Mr Satyanarayana since I left India, don’t have anything to do with e-governance anymore and don’t really have to stand up for either of my colleagues, lest someone is quick to dismiss my arguments as brown-nosing. I am doing so, only because I feel strongly about the general principle of ring-fencing the good, and know enough about the person in question, have seen the lifestyle he lives, have observed the decisions he makes from close quarters and the principles he values, to believe that the charges in DQ’s article are simply blasphemous.

Onto the allegations of misconduct:
NISG is not a public sector undertaking. It is owned 51% by India’s best private IT players, and 49% by the government. Those very players whom Dataquest has put up on a pedestal, time and time again (and for good reasons), as national treasures. So Satyanarayana is technically not really answerable to the government, much less to every carping critic. He is answerable to the Board of NISG, which has government nominees, which he himself opted to do, by placing the various charges against him, in front of them. And the Board, in all its wisdom dismissed them as rubbish. A credible reporter would have checked this.

[Second] I have known Pradeep Gupta, a distinguished alumnus of IIT and IIM, and the publisher of DQ, to be a fine gentleman and a tremendous supporter of the IT industry. If all that is needed to be done is to send an email with some make-believe allegations, perhaps titled: “Are you the CEO of CyberMedia or are you corrupt?” to make a DQ cub reporter scramble to write a piece that can tarnish a sincere and good person’s reputation in print, every business rival will send an email avalanche right away! If an over-enthusiastic reporter decides to act as irresponsibly as he has done now on every piece of gossip that he chances upon, perhaps to beat some other publication to carrying it, no honest IAS officer will ever be able to function in India.

[Third] It is a sad moment for the IAS, that someone like C Umashankar, who is personally known to be not corrupt and who has done some good work in Tiruvarur, has chosen such a medium to attack another service colleague. These allegations have as much credibility as the allegations that Umashankar as Additional Collector, Tiruchirapalli, deposited DRDA funds into a bank, where his own brother was the branch manager! (Incidentally, Umashankar himself has been served a show cause notice by the Government of Tamil Nadu on this and other charges, and jumping to the conclusion that Satyanarayana is corrupt, would be as ridiculous as jumping to one about Umashankar’s honesty before the enquiry is completed). Would it be fair to write off the good work that he did in Tiruvarur if some crank chooses to send an email or two against him, even if that crank is in the IAS or in the media?

[Fourth] Since when was it mandated by the Constitution that the CVC has to respond to every piece of trash emailed to him by some cub reporter, which itself is then used as evidence of Satyanarayana’s guilt! Does the CVC have nothing better to do? Whatever happened to the principle of locus

[Fifth] The story is factually incorrect about Umashankar being a member of DIT’s working group on the implementation of e-governance. Another example of factual inaccuracy in the story.

[Sixth] Is NISG under some Constitutional obligation to ensure that it equitably distributes its projects in a socialistic spirit among every Tom, Dick and Harry, who decides to float an IT consulting firm and bid for a project? It is quite natural that there will be firms who will get more projects than some others. Without studying every tender, their terms and conditions, the bidders and their proposals, how can [the author] come to such shocking conclusions so trivially?! Merely because 6 projects went to PWC-why even if all 10 projects were to go to PWC-does it mean that there was corruption involved? It is ridiculous to arrive at this conclusion, prima facie, based on just this and the fact that another IAS officer is saying so!

[Lastly] Just because someone goes for a limited tender, does it mean that there is corruption involved? Why is that route available to administrators at all, in the first place, if using it would be equated with being corrupt? Would any IAS officer ever be proactive or take risks to serve the common weal? And then the very same cub reporter, would write that the IAS is indecisive; that IAS officers do not take decisions, that there are delays in implementing projects of national importance etc. In such circumstances would even the most dynamic IT CEO of India, dare take decisions? And on the side continue to fight all those, from within and outside the system, who have no ‘conduct’ rules, whereas for the honest IAS officer every possible ‘conduct’ rule is supposed to apply? This kind of a thing will happen only to someone who is trying to do something good, not to someone who does nothing at all and is a mere spectator inside the government.

If DQ wanted to truly do an honest investigative piece, it should have found out the reasons for a limited tender and whether they were malafide in any way, shown that tender conditions were manipulated, that they were manipulated by Satyanarayana to favour a particular firm, and that there was a ‘quid pro quo” (as required by law) involved somewhere, to prove his malfeasance. To rely on emails floating around in a chat group as concrete evidence of proof of corruption against someone who has done solid, enduring work, and whose reputation precedes him for 30 years in the IAS as an impeccably honest officer, is a great dis-service to e-governance, to credible journalism and to India, all three of which DQ professes to serve.
It is truly unfortunate that Dataquest has lent its credibility to such allegations, which are blatantly false and that the author has not even tried to do proper research to determine whether they are right or wrong, in an analytical manner- it demeans Dataquest as a magazine. The least the author can now do is to publish an unqualified apology in print, as prominently as possible. In the light of all the facts in this article, we urge DQ to consider this seriously.

Having said this, I do agree with the author’s contention that RFP evaluators must not partner with vendors to form consortiums to bid for other similar projects. It’s a bit akin to what shook the world of auditing long ago when the lines between consulting and auditing functions got blurred in some of the Big Five firms. This is the only sensible point that he makes in his story.

The larger question is: how do we ring-fence the good? We are quick to point fingers at anyone successful-it is almost a national culture of crabbiness. The only way to do so is to redefine collective security for the good officers in the IAS. An attack against one honest IAS officer, whose reputation precedes him, be it by the Prime Minister or a Chief Minister or from the media must be treated as an attack against all like-minded good IAS officers. Everyone must unite to surround and ring-fence him, perhaps using methods similar to the civil disobedience that Delhi recently saw during the power tariff hike, to protect him from harassment.

Wouldn’t the press jump to the defense of one of its own kin, if they are attacked? Don’t lawyers go on strike routinely when another lawyer is targeted? Don’t brother judges routinely look after their brethren against false allegations? Why then can’t the IAS do so too? Why can’t the National IAS Association stand up, and ring-fence the good through some mechanism agreed upon? And identify, and weed out the bad? In the process, it would be a first step towards celebrating icons in India. India needs icons, needs heroes, and desperately at that. Especially from the middle class, so that many more icons can be created, by emulating them.

-Srivatsa Krishna, IAS is currently with the World Bank in Washington, DC. These are his personal views and not of
any organization he is associated with in any form or manner.

Dataquest response
The Dataquest investigation and report was triggered by allegations made by Umashankar C, IAS, in his mail to NISG CEO J Satyanarana, IAS. But that was not the only basis. There was also the petition sent by KEONICS chairperson Manjula Nagaraj P to the AP CM, asking for an enquiry into projects handled by Satyanarayna. Our report was based on these, and on our discussions with the industry and other government employees.

As a matter of due process Dataquest sought clarifications from Satyanarayna, PwC, DIT and CVC, and their responses were reported. We requested Satyanarayana to respond in four days (August 8 to August 12) and not in “24 hours”.

Incidentally, in the electronic media, response deadlines of a few hours are commonplace. While we did not get the CVC response till the time of filing the story, the DIT’s response giving a clean chit to NISG and Satyanarayna was adequately accommodated in the story.

On Umashankar’s appointment in the DIT’s working group on e-governance: Dataquest has copies of the office memo of January 27, 2005, nominating Umashankar to the working group. And a copy of a letter dated August 12, 2005, reversing this-“it has been decided that there shall be no permanent special invitees to the working group.”

On NISG’s obligations and status: NISG is a Section 25 company. A question that needs to be asked is: why should NISG, a company owned 51% by private sector players, be given projects directly, without any tender process? Several bureaucrats told us they prefer giving projects to NISG just because it’s the national institution driving India’s e-governance initiative.

‘Cub reporter’ is not an accurate description of an award winning journalist with 14 years experience, including nine in the Indian Express and elsewhere. Shubhendu Parth won the Polestar Award in 2000, headed CyberMedia News 2003-2005, and has to his credit significant investigations such as the Nigeria 419 scam report in Dataquest in 2003, uncovering gangs operating out of Nigeria, China, Taiwan, et al. His probe led to the registration of the first Nigeria 419 case in India, and also caused the Hong Kong Monetary Authority to initiate an inquiry on some of the companies.


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