Civil Services: making a difference

Working in the Civil Services involves steering changes at the policy level, and being able to share a meal with a farmer as well as a chief minister

Working in the government means you could be occupying some of the most powerful positions in the land, second only to politicians. Government officials deal with issues that have an impact on the life of every citizen. Starting their training as young probationers at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration in Mussoorie, Civil Service officers generally begin their careers in the talukas and districts of the allotted state, slowly moving on to bigger responsibilities, sometimes at the Centre and sometimes in their states. And those who are in the Indian Administrative Service get to work across departments that may be as diverse as information technology, industry, tourism, health, infrastructure development, even law and order. We spoke to three officers—a secretary to the Union government, an additional director general of police in Bengaluru, and a young assistant collector in rural Maharashtra—to find out what their days are like.

Amitabh Kant. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Amitabh Kant. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

AMITABH KANT, 59, New Delhi Secretary, department of industrial policy and promotion (Dipp), and chief executive officer (CEO), NITI Aayog

It’s 7pm and there is a roomful of people at Udyog Bhavan, New Delhi, waiting to meet Amitabh Kant. Some are industrialists who have come to see him with the problems they are facing in doing business; others may be fellow bureaucrats, working with him on different campaigns. Kant, a 1980-batch Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer, is from the Kerala cadre. He is the architect of that state’s tourism campaign, God’s Own Country, and has authored Branding India: An Incredible Story.

One of Kant’s early postings was as district collector in Kozhikode, where he helped clean up the city, get rid of encroachments, and structure the Kozhikode airport project, being implemented through a public-private partnership. He moved to Dipp in 2014; till then, he was chairman of the high-profile Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor project.

Nowhere else in the world will you get the opportunities that you get in the government in India

How he got here: Kant’s father was a civil servant and his mother, a principal at Maitreyi College in Delhi university. Working for the government was a natural choice for him, he says; he had decided on this career while studying economics at St Stephen’s College in Delhi. “Nowhere else in the world will you get the opportunities that you get in the government in India: building new cities, working on brands like Incredible India, and making a difference to the lives of people," he says, referring to his various assignments over the years.

First assignment: Kant was posted as a sub-collector in the coastal town of Thalassery in north Kerala in 1984. Being in that town gave him the thrill of being a part of history. “Thalassery was where cricket was first played by (English cricketer) Colin Cowdrey 200 years ago, when Lord Wellesley was collector of this area," he says.

Daily duties: Kant’s days are packed with meetings. “A lot of the work is internal, with departments at the Centre as well as in the states. I work closely with the chief secretaries and the industry secretary at the state level, looking at simplifying rules for industry, for manufacturing, for start-ups, etc.," says Kant. Dipp recently ranked states on the ease of doing business at an all-India competition.

Kant travels extensively, in India and abroad, often as part of the Prime Minister’s delegation. As secretary, he has speaking engagements with industry forums, like the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci), and conducts workshops in state capitals on how to simplify processes for businesses.

In between all this, Kant may scan the news, read reports on industry in India, tweet his views on matters varying from a hackathon at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, to urbanization and the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor.

Most challenging assignment: There are many. One of them was working on the God’s Own Country campaign in 1999 as part of Kerala Tourism—travelling with the late artist M.F. Husain across the state in the summer of 2001 as he painted a series on Kerala, shooting commercials with cinematographer Santosh Sivan. In 2001, Kant moved to the Union tourism ministry. This turned out to be an even bigger challenge. “Soon after I joined, 11 September (the attacks on the World Trade Center) happened. Suddenly, we had a war in Afghanistan. There was just no consumer demand for travel," he says. Kant worked on the Incredible India campaign, aiming to recreate consumer demand.

Skills needed: The ability to work in partnership with all stakeholders, and to be able to find the best people and work with them.

Money matters: Approximately 80,000 a month, plus benefits like housing and other allowances. “You are paid adequately. But you join the government for the job content; you never join the government for the money. What gives me a kick is the job," says Kant.

Kunal Prakash Khemnar. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Kunal Prakash Khemnar. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

KUNAL PRAKASH KHEMNAR, 31, Gadhinglaj, Kolhapur district, Assistant collector and sub-divisional magistrate (SDM)

I have had breakfast with a farmer in a remote village in Maharashtra and dinner with the chief minister; that’s the kind of diversity this job offers you," says Kunal Prakash Khemnar, who supervises the administration of close to 180 villages in Kolhapur district. Khemnar, who has done his MBBS, or bachelor’s in medicine and surgery, says the sheer diversity of his job as an IAS officer is so satisfying that he doesn’t miss being a doctor.

How he got here: Khemnar got his MBBS degree from the King Edward Medical Hospital in Mumbai in 2008, but decided not to specialize. Instead, he went on to prepare for the Civil Services. “I had a group of friends who wanted to work in the Civil Services. During our internship in Mumbai, we would visit IAS officers who were doctors and ask them about choices and career prospects to help us decide whether we should move out of medicine and into the Civil Services," says Khemnar, who moved to Delhi the same year to prepare for the UPSC exams. “I worked for five-six months as a resident doctor in oncology at the BLK Super Speciality Hospital in Delhi to support myself, and spent the rest of the year studying for the IAS exam," says Khemnar, who took the exam three times, securing an all-India rank of 87 in 2011, on his third attempt. He was allotted his home state of Maharashtra.

First assignment: As the sub-divisional magistrate of Gadhinglaj, Khemnar had to supervise an assembly election soon after he joined. “I was in charge of the one assembly seat being contested in my district and had to do everything to conduct the election," says Khemnar. He scrutinized nominations, appointed booth-level officers, a video-surveillance squad, flying squads to monitor unaccounted cash or liquor that might have been used to influence voters, and maintained law and order.

The diversity of his job as an IAS officer is so satisfying that he says he doesn’t miss being a doctor

Daily duties: Revenue issues are a big part of his job. He hears them twice a week at his office. The procedure is similar to that of a civil court, with lawyers arguing on issues of land ownership. “There are currently 250 ongoing disputes on land ownership in my revenue court," says Khemnar, who is also involved in digitizing the land ownership records in his talukas.

On other days, he travels with district officials to remote villages to help villagers access government services. “We hold camps in remote villages to bring essential government services to the people. These include issuing of official documentation, like caste certificates, income certificates, job cards, etc."

He was back from one such camp at Tilari Nagar village, on the border of Maharashtra and Karnataka, where he had detailed meetings with members of the gram panchayat on the problems of poaching and encroachments into the forest.

His day ends by 8pm, and Khemnar walks back home, which is across the road from his office. On weekends, he travels to Kolhapur, where his wife Prakriti is posted: She is an Indian Revenue Service officer. The two met in Delhi while preparing for the UPSC exam.

Most challenging assignment: Handling a mob angry about a coal-tar distillation company setting up its plant in Chandgad taluka. Khemnar had to pacify them and seek additional information from the company on its compliance with Maharashtra Pollution Control Board conditions.

Skills needed: “You need to know how to address a large crowd of people and keep them calm. There have been incidents of strikes and rasta rokos where I have had to speak to a crowd of agitators and try and defuse the situation. It is also important to be up to date with all the different rules and regulations—I constantly refer to the different government Acts—the Maharashtra Land Revenue Code (in four volumes), the Arms Act, the Civil Procedure Act, etc.," says Khemnar.

Money matters: Approximately 48,000 a month, plus benefits like housing and allowances.

Sanjay Sahay. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
Sanjay Sahay. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

SANJAY SAHAY, 50, Bengaluru, Additional director general of police, public grievances and human rights

Dressed in a suit and tie, Sanjay Sahay looks more like a technocrat than a policeman. His office in Bengaluru’s police headquarters building has a giant poster of the late Steve Jobs, whom he considers his hero, and books like Future Crimes by Marc Goodman and Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think by Peter Diamandis. This history graduate, who dropped math and science after class X, is now a firm convert to technology and its use in governance. “At the back-end of everything there is only one thing that operates—source code and the algorithm," he says.

How he got here: When Sahay was still in school in Daltonganj, a small town in Jharkhand, a neighbour’s cousin came to visit. “He was studying in St Stephen’s College in Delhi. And looking at him, I somehow wondered, ‘Shouldn’t I be doing the same?’" says Sahay. So he did. At St Stephen’s, there was a large group of students preparing for the Civil Services. “It was a college tradition, and being from Bihar, where the Civil Services are considered the most glamorous profession, I anyway had a fascination for the Services," says Sahay. He took the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) exam and got into the Indian Police Service (IPS) in 1989. He was allotted the Karnataka cadre.

First assignment: Sahay was an assistant superintendent of police in 1992 in a small sub-division called Putter, near Mangaluru. “It was during this time that the Babri Masjid riots had broken out. My sub-division was badly affected. There was rioting on the streets; around 27 people were injured and the tension continued for four-five days," says Sahay. The then 27-year-old police officer spent the entire period in the field, patrolling the 36 different road blocks set up by the police and trying to bring the situation under control.
Daily duties:
Sahay’s current role is largely administrative. Grievances come to him through emails, letters and in person. “I spend most of my time in the office looking into different matters, looking into public grievances," he says. The complaints range from high-handedness to inadequate investigation. Sahay records each grievance, following it up with officers.

You need the ability to see the larger find solutions that make sense to every stakeholder

There are meetings related to police housing societies, schools and other welfare issues. Sahay also liaises frequently with the State Human Rights Commission, a government body.

Then there are the technology-related issues. Sahay recently organized a conference on smart policing, with modules on cyber security, video surveillance, the use of analytics in policing and best practices in information technology. He often gets requests to conduct such sessions, the latest being part of a mid-career training module conducted by the army.

Most challenging assignment: Being in Wau in Sudan in 2005 as part of the United Nations peacekeeping force. “The temperature in the village ranged from 42-48 degrees Celsius; there was no electricity, no phones and no roads. It made me understand people better, after having seen death, be it from malaria, yellow fever or river blindness, or from gunfire," he says.

Skills needed: Physical fitness and endurance. The ability to see the larger picture, to connect everything from governance to technology, to find solutions that make sense to every stakeholder.

Money matters: Approximately 70,000 a month, plus benefits like housing and allowances.

Every month, we explore a profession through the lives of three professionals at different stages in their careers. Tell us which profession you want to know more about at