Monday, September 24, 2012

Why babu is as sweet as Barfi!, and bureaucrat a tongue twister

Barfi! is the new buzzword in the town. And this Anurag Basu film has been selected as India’s official entry for the Oscars in the Best Foreign Language Film category. This Rs 30-crore film based on a story of mute Murphy "Barfi" Johnson and his friendship with Jhilmil (Priyanka) and Shruti (Ileana), grossed Rs 62 crore in the first week of its release. Isn’t babu, a hated word for a few, is as sweet a word as Barfi!? BoI reproduces excerpts of an old piece on brand babu:
“… babu is a small and sweet-sounding word which people would continue to use and hear in lieu of the tongue twister “bureaucrat” or more official type “civil servant”. Though most civil servants blame media, and probably rightly so, for corrupting the word babu to make it synonymous with comfort and laziness, it’s a fact that media will continue to use it for humour and space. It’s space because “bureaucrat” is a lousy word for a headline, and “civil servant” is too big to fit into a space which demands large font-size! Mind it, the word “bureaucracy” is no longer a positive word, and it won’t take much time for the media to belittle the word “civil servants” either. Before I air my views, let’s first see how popular dictionaries are interpreting the word. In which is considered to be the Bible for tech savvy netizens looking for word meanings, here are the meanings for babu: a) Hindu title of address equivalent to Sir, Mr., or Esquire. b) A Hindu gentleman. c) A native Indian clerk who writes English. d) Usually Disparaging. Any native Indian having only a limited knowledge of English.
Will you agree with this set of meanings for babu? I don’t. Let’s now read what Wikipedia, which is the most respected free encyclopedia used by net users across the world, has to say. It says, “In British India, ‘babu’ was a term used to describe a native Indian clerk. The word was originally used as a term of respect attached to a proper name, the equivalent of ‘mister’, and ‘babuji’ was used in many parts to mean ‘sir’; but when used alone without the suffix, it was a derogatory word signifying a semi-literate native, with a mere veneer of modern education. In the early 20th century the term babu was frequently used to refer to bureaucrats and other government officials, especially by the Indian media; in this sense the word hints at corrupt or lazy work practices. It can also mean the pimp or client of a sex worker. The term babu has thus fallen out of favour in polite society, since it may be taken as an insult.” I strongly feel that Indian bureaucrats should engage in a brand-building exercise to convert “babu” into a neutral word if not bringing it straight into the positive zone.
First, the connotation of the word will automatically change if administrative reforms are being carried out from time to time. I feel many Indian bureaucrats are very hard working and disciplined and there are cases where they have proved to be better managers than India Inc’s top ranking CEOs. I personally know many bureaucrats who are not only the products of top Indian B-schools, but have the quality of the best managers of the country. Here is my big dilemma: If a St Stephens pass-out or an IIM guy joins Infosys or HSBC, he earns respects and reputation, forget his fat salary for a moment. But how can the same person turn into a lazy babu if he cracks the UPSC exam to join as an IAS? That’s the irony which administrative reformers need to look at very carefully.
The 6th Pay Commission has introduced, though symbolically, a performance incentive for those who are better than the rest. I feel it’s the high time healthy competition should be encouraged within the government. The time-bound promotion needs to be weeded out if the government wants its schemes to be successful, and more significantly, if India aspires to be a truly developed nation by 2020. Also, why not encourage entry of professionals into the bureaucratic set-up at mid-career level? If Nandan Nilekani can join the government, or Cornell professor Kaushik Basu taking up a full-time job in North Block sacrificing his high salary, there would be many mid-career professionals with rich experiences in their own domain, won’t mind taking a joining bureaucracy and becoming babus? Let’s induct professionals at the joint secretary level and make them the mission heads of various programmes across the country.
Yes, babu remains in your mind-space. Let’s change its meaning forever. If you spot a smart bureaucrat call him a smart babu, if he is lazy, call him a lazy babu.”


  1. Read commerce ministry official and senior IAS JS Deepak's piece in Times of India today. He writes how a few officers "consider themselves too sexy for the job of a babu". What's becoming increasingly fashionable now-a-days is to become "bureaucratic crusaders" or BCs, he writes. BCs discover press, and sometime press discovers them...

  2. I sincerely agree with the above writeup.The term BABU is most often related with negativity.Its an insult for those bureaucrats who serve their nation sincerely.Just read about those young IAS officers defying Maoist threats.I dont think any MNC CEOs will risk their own lives.As far as the entry of professionals in the mid-career level is concerned it should be in a contractual basis the period of which can be extended depending on their performance

  3. Let every bureaucrat aspire to be a smart babu. I personally prefer babu to bureaucrat