“Consider Public Service as a Career Option.” – Talking To Vini Mahajan at IIM Calcutta

A 22nd batch PGP alumnus of IIM Calcutta, an Hubert Humphrey fellowship awardee by the United States’ Department of State and the Principal Secretary, Health & Family Welfare Government of Punjab, Vini Mahajan was at IIM Calcutta to address the 50/20 PGP Batch during their induction. We caught up with her for a candid interview.





Q: You have held many diverse portfolios in civil services, looking back, which one has been the the most challenging phase of your career?

A: It is always hard to answer such a question because different roles offer different opportunities and challenges. To some extent, earlier on in your career when you’re relatively new and when you have the opportunity to work directly in the field, when you are meeting people in large numbers, going to the villages and cities and have a disproportionate amount of power in the system – that is a heady feeling and one has to manage that. But I still would put my time in the Prime Minister’s office as more challenging in some sense because of the nature of the role and the high standards which are expected of the job and the sheer range of issues which one has to handle. The 7 years in the PMO and especially the last five as the Joint Secretary to the PM were perhaps the most challenging.

Q: You mentioned a disproportionate mount of power which one gets in the beginning of the career in civil services – how much of it is a challenge to prevent that from getting into your head?

A: That is an excellent question because it can be very heady and it can lead you to believe that you are larger than life and it is a challenge to make sure that you remain democratic and grounded in your functioning. It needs a level head to make sure you continue to listen and to correct your own approach because you can make mistakes. On the whole, most of us go in with an intention is to do a larger good, if that intention is in place and you are fundamentally bright and well equipped with the tools and techniques which are needed for acting in such situations you generally don’t go wrong.

Q: A question you must have answered a number of times but nevertheless we would love to hear why IAS after an MBA?

A: Lovely question, answered it breakfast lunch and dinner <laughs>. When I was studying I went to my finance professor at IIMC who I went to to ask what books to read for the civil services exam. He retorted by asking “Why do you want to join the Government? Do you know what a Block Development Officer does?” He paused and then said “He blocks development!”.  There was this very strong perception that the government is inefficient and not doing its job and not expected to do so. More importantly there was an impression that civil servants have to work under political pressures and is not the happiest of the careers. But I think I always wanted to join the government and to some extent it was foreclosure because I had seen my father and I thought that this was the work I would like to do. I can only say that now having served for 25 years, even if all the choices were open to me, I would make that same decision all over again. I think it offers a huge opportunity for touching peoples lives and doing good in very basic ways. Where would you get the chance to put water supply or sewerage in a village, develop a bus stand, do a literacy campaign, look at issues related to swindling and financial fraud – the whole range of things you can do and the manner you can intervene in these things is just amazing. That is the rationale for joining the government and at a relatively senior level through the IAS.

Q: How is an IAS coming from a management background different?

A: Clearly, management and public administration are like twins. What you are doing in a smaller organisation in the corporate sector would be called management. And when you’re doing pretty much same things in a large setup of the government then it is administration. But the same issues confront both jobs, whether it is HR related, productivity related, financial management issues etc. You name it, the issues are pretty much the same. In fact it was around the time I joined the government, that the govt itself realised that it is very important that IAS officer have managerial skills. There was a module introduced at that that time and I think it still continues in which the IAS officers under training are imparted basics management skills through a crash capsule. That is one part of it – the approaches you learn in B-School are similar to the approaches you need in the government. A little spin off is that IIMs being such a merit based process puts a stamp on you as someone who has been through that process and similarly IAS is a very merit based system and being in the IAS automatically means that you have cleared a difficult process. So if I know that someone is from a top B School, I don’t need to find out too much about his ability to work hard. Of course one has to find out about his value system and ethical convictions, but I don’t need to find out whether he is bright or capable of doing hard work or whether he has come from a good educational background.

Q: Do you feel that our prolonged suffering from social inequality in the face of economic growth somewhere has roots in policy paralysis?

A: I think the problems of poverty inequality  are problems we have been grappling with a very long time now. These are problems of pre independence India, partly triggered by colonialism and are fundamental problems which go very beyond than what is now days termed as policy paralysis. That is one thing. My second take on your question is that I don’t think there is as much of a policy paralysis as the media would have us believe. There are enough people who are still trying to their best to do a larger good. It is true that the recent explosion in 24X7 journalism has resulted in a lot more of scrutiny and public gaze but not all of it is constructive because at one point of time it becomes critical in an uninformed or a partially informed manner and tends to distort public opinions rather than provide facts, which in turn tends to influence judicial oversight and oversight by other constitutional bodies. To that extent, the side effect is that well meaning people might tend to withhold action rather than take a decision which is bold and which can be criticised. Usually we all now that in administration you have to take decisions based on what is before you, sometimes on the basis of less than 100% facts, without the benefit oh hindsight and you need to ensure that the best does not become the enemy of the good. Hence you might do things in a bonafide manner which may get criticised and this tends to disturb the delicate balance between risk taking and decision making making people more risk averse. In any case we low that in the government there are very few incentives for doing the right thing and there are a lot of disincentives for taking a bold decision for there is the fear that it might turn out bad. Now any decision has risk involved in it and if you are not able to reward the successes and you only penalise the failures then obviously by definition you are discourage risk taking and decision making.

Having said that there are still people in the system who are trying their best and we need to be concious of the fact that we are increasingly discouraging risk taking which is affecting decision making and this is what is leading to what is called policy paralysis.

Q: We have less than 1 hospital bed per 100 persons in our country. How do you see this situation improving and what is the issue paging us here?

A: Health is a very very imp factor for both individual citizen as well as for economic prosperity. The individual needs to be healthy for his own sake and secondly he is then a productive meaner of the economy. We have a complex situation where we need to focus on a large no of things. One is the preventive aspect of healthcare. Number of beds is actually the curative part of healthcare. So let me start from preventive and promotive aspects of healthcare. If we can discourage people from smoking and reduce the risk of their lung cancer, then we do not need a bed for oncology. If we are able to ensure that people get clean water, then they will not come down with water borne diseases like gastroenteritis. If we can do vector control, we will have less of morbidity. So we need to promote healthy behaviour, we need to educate people to eat right food, ensure vaccinations etc. The public health part of the story is critical and in a country like India, I think that can really make a difference. But of course you nee curative facilities as well because people will fall ill and they need to go to a hospital and there are issues of pvt vs public and those of asymmetries of information. A person who goes to a doctor does not know whether he should get a test done or not whether to take a particular drug or not- it is the doctor who decides everything for him. The doctor may prescribe an MRI or give him a steroid both of which might be unnecessary. You need regulation, it is a professionals’ setup, only professionals can regulate each other. Eventually public provisioning become important because in general public sector is less likely to indulge in all this, of course there are issues with that too. Hence the expansion in public hospitals, making sure government hospitals have requisite infrastructure, drugs and doctors is very important. Then of course there is a question of how much of healthcare investments should be in primary, secondary and tertiary healthcare. Health is a large question but what each one of us has to be conscious of is health seeking behaviour and health promoting clean environment to prevent vectors and encouraging good nutrition.

Q: You made a distinction between the preventive and curative aspects of healthcare. And we sometimes tend to quantify and oversimplify the healthcare question as in terms of hospital beds which is just a part of the curative aspect. So, looking at the good schemes India currently has for the preventive aspects, such as ICDS, what do you thing we should do – Do we need more such schemes or do we need to improve efficiency of existing schemes? My question is on whether the government needs to spread its roots or deepen them.

A: I think in many things we have actually we know what needs to be done, the problem lies in actually getting down and doing those things. But we need do be aware that whether the reason why we are not able to do these things is because we are just not geared up or are there some systemic issues in the way we are trying to implement these schemes. Is ICDS not working well and all we need to do is put more money into it ? Or is it that it is structured in such a way that incentives are wrong and the people who are expected to deliver will normally not deliver. There was an effort sometime back to move from supply side to demand side interventions. Through TV, Radio and media if we can make people concious of, for instance the importance of polio drops for a child as a prevention for the crippling disease, perhaps during drives people would be more receptive to getting their children for polio drops. Instead of simply focussing on making health workers go from house to house we perhaps can benefit from people demanding that service as well. Therefore I would say we need a mix of deepening and widening, one does need to engage more effectively and deeply but also we need to constantly examine our assumption and ask whether the approach we are taking is leading to the results we are looking at or whether there are any inherent problems in our approach which require rethinking of strategy.

Q: Taking you back to Joka times, could you share with us some of your memorable moments at IIMC and especially the Ramanujan Hostel?

A:<laughs> My most cherished memories memories are of the lakes and walking around them. I have been known for being a very much of a walker around the lakes. The memories which also stay are those of ones closest friends, late night crashers before exams, one of the nicest ones are of Finance-1 at that time. We had a dragon of a professor – Prof. Ramachandran, God bless his soul, he was determined to make all chartered accounts rub their noses in the dirt. We used to see all CAs in finance-1 hide wherever they could because there were only 4 As in Finance-1 and half the class was in Bs and Cs. As one of the 4 As, I really got a lot of hate mail from the CAs because Economics students were not supposed to be acing finance. Those were good times, our faculty was great. I took it a little easier than I would advise youngsters to . In our times we were not as well geared to take advantage of the opportunities that IIMC offers. Now youngsters will get into everything and do everything because this is really one of the last times as a student. I would say just let your hair down and do everything, don’t just do academics. Academics are great but it shouldn’t be the end all.

Q: How was your experience during your batch reunion at Reminiscence a few months back?

A: Oh it is always a mixed bag, people have aged the way they shouldn’t be doing <laughs> and they do not look the same. But it is always fun to meet old batch mates and relive those moments.

Q: Your advice to the incoming batch at IIMC and especially to those who wish to go for IAS.

A: I would tell the batch to consider public service as a career option. It is a great career, it could be through the IAS which is a wonderful opportunity. Do not worry about situations such as politicians browbeating you etc. It doesn’t really work like that. You can withstand everything, it is really possible to do a lot of good. There are many other ways to do public service, just remember to give back to the society, find your own way and this would definitely make your life more enlightening.

Interviewed by

Siddharth Malhotra
Pallab Kumar Dutta
IIMC PGDM 2012-14


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