Highlighted by the tale of one inspirational Indian government official who refused to become corrupt.
Cochin, in Kerala, has a high quality, clean and efficient international airport. Unlike many airports in India, it also makes a profit. The reason why can be attributed to one man: V.J. Kurian, the senior IAS officer who took charge of Cochin airport in 1992.
When the airport was being redeveloped, he had to negotiate an assault course of hurdles to achieve the commendable end result. “The most difficult moment was when I was called by a very senior politician. The politician wanted me to choose the second lowest bidder for the contract to build the airport runway, and that I should discard the lowers bidder. When I said I wouldn’t break the rules, he said there was 1 crore (10 million rupees/$200,000) in it for me. I stood my ground. The politician didn’t know what to say,” he told.
Shortly afterwards, Kurian was transferred to an obscure job with little appeal or glamour. In India, it’s almost impossible to sack a civil servant, so if the carrot fails, the politician will usually get the offending official transferred to an isolated district or marginal department.
However, within 2 years, Kurian was recalled. The airport was making heavy losses. Under his guidance, by 2005, it was achieving profit margins of 70%.
Despite the airport being professionally managed, Kurian is still plagued by “requests” from ministers and other civil servants. “One occasion, the Minister for Corporations and Electricity lost his temper with me because I refused to hire 200 of his people as airport labourers. I told him that I’d contracted almost every single job to the private sector, so I had no control over who I hired or fired. On another occasion, the project was almost torpedoed when Air India, the state owned carrier, said it would refuse to fly to Cochin unless it was given the contract to manage the ground handling operations — a traditional source of patronage. On that occasion, I had no choice but to concede”, he said.
When asked about why so few other IAS officers acted like him, Kurian explained, “People say if you’re not making money you must be really stupid. Keralites have a word for honest officials — pavangal, which means a highly moral person of good intentions, but it can also be defined as naive and gullible. Likewise, those who know how to give bribes are described as buddhi, which means cunning and implies the power of discrimination which distinguishes adults from children.”
Kurian also claimed that most people underestimated the difficulties in cleaning up India’s system of administration. “The true exploiter class in India is the bureaucracy. About one or two percent of the population work for the government and they live off the people. These are the exploiters. If you look at the new recruits to the IAS, they are worse than my generation. They want money straight away. They want to be wined and dined in the most exotic holiday resorts, and they make no attempt to disguise their love of money. Nowadays, they can see how much money their friends and peers are making in the private sector. This is why it’s getting worse.”
This story appears in a book called In spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India by Edward Luce. It’s an excellent and revealing book about contemporary India, and how the country works. I’ve been reading a lot of these books lately, trying to make sense of and unravel the mystery that is India. It’s interesting to say the least!
© 2010, Diary of a White Indian Housewife. All rights reserved. Do not copy and reproduce text or images without permission.
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