Tuesday, December 08, 2015

How to react when cabinet secretary invites you for a cup of tea? Coal secretary Anil Swarup’s tech talk

Anil Swarup, 1981 batch UP cadre IAS and current coal secretary argues that an administrator does not need to be a technologist to use technology in government. In a speech delivered in 14th Star Nite Awards 2015 recently (it’s available in YouTube), Swarup narrated how the then cabinet secretary Ajit K Seth called him for a cup of tea and gave him an assignment he was not very happy about. Edited excerpts of his speech on use of technology:

“Joining the coal ministry was scary”
When I joined coal ministry, many of my colleagues were sympathizing with me...to say it (the assignment) tough is an understatement; to say it is difficult is an understatement; to say it is scary will also be an understatement. It's all of it and more. It’s the technology that did the trick (coal ministry’s spectacular performance in coal block e-auctions).

“If you are a technologist, then you put other technologists in trouble”
Having done my masters in political science...I have now come to a conclusion that you really don't need to be a technologist in order to use technology. What is most important is your ability to understand the implications and nuances and utility, and not futility of technology. For that you don't need to be a technologist. In some cases, I found in my career that if you are a technologist, then you put other technologists in trouble. Nothing moves forward then.
To my mind, the job of a person like me (an IAS) would be to manage the environment. And let the technologists do their job. Perhaps in some occasions, they are unable to manage the environment that is required to do their work.

“I can barely operate my laptop, but…”
I had the first brush with technology at the very initial period of my career. In government, technology can be a game-changer. I remember, in early 1990s, when I was a district magistrate, I did not know much about technology. Even now, I can barely operate my laptop. My son does much better than I do.
But at that point I understood how technology could be used.
We prepared the first ever software for carrying stuff during an election, and also assigning duties to officials, something which was later used nationally by the Election Commission under TN Seshan.
It was then I realized that a lot of drudgery can be eliminated by simple use of technology. And I have done that throughout my career.

“My biggest tech moment in my career”
The biggest moment for me in technology was when we created a health insurance scheme for the poorest of the poor in the country (when Swarup was in the labour ministry). It used to be the only paperless health insurance scheme in the world, where a poor person could carry a smart card to any empanelled hospital anywhere in the country and get his treatment with no question asked.
The UNDP (a United Nations agency) recognized the scheme as one of the topmost schemes in the world. It was only when I was invited to Washington to give a presentation to (US President) Obama team to make them understand how health insurance could be done in the manner, it was done in India, then our government recognized it here.
As soon as the then government recognized it, they found Anil Swarup and plugged him out of the scheme and asked him to serve the richest of the rich from the poorest of the poor. I was then asked to head the project monitoring group in the cabinet secretariat to fast-track the (infrastructure) projects...

“When cabinet secretary invites you for a cup of tea…”
I remember, I was in Cambodia talking about the (paperless) health insurance scheme when I got a message that the cabinet secretary wants to meet me. So, the moment I landed up here, I rang him up:
"Sir, you wanted to talk to me?'
"Can we have a cup of tea tomorrow morning?"
When cabinet secretary, the top most bureaucrat, invites you for a cup of tea, it's either very good or very bad. I thought it was pretty bad. He did not reveal why he wanted to meet me.
The next morning, I was informed that I was plugged out of that (insurance) assignment and was given the new role in cabinet secretariat.
I tried to do a few things there. By then the government changed. Then, I was asked to look after the coal sector.

“The Secret: How I get less number of file…”
I remember, I walked into the coal ministry office. My predecessor was an outstanding officer but probably he loved files. I was aghast when I saw those files on his table. I can't stand huge number of files getting piled up. What do you do? You can't throw them out of the window.
In any case, there were scams going on. The CBI was asking where all those files had gone (referring to coal ministry’s lost files)! You can't lose your files, but you can create a situation in which you can eliminate many files.
Many are redundant files. I should not be revealing the secret, but today, I get 10 to 15 files a day.
It's simple. 60 to 70 percent of files in the government are files either seeking information or sending information. What typically happens in the government, and some of you may be suffering because of that, is that a paper comes to me and I mark it to somebody down the ladder, then it's put up on a file and put up to me again. If I don't have the information, then I mark it to the field officer. The similar thing will happen there. All that information will come to me at some point of time, after two three reminders, then I consolidate it and send it. It (the process) takes months. Why should you do it that way? All that can be put on a portal. All that can be accessed by people you want them to access.
I have not understood the complexity of technology, but understood the simplicity of technology.


  1. That is quintessential Mr.Swarup. A man on mission to make India a better place by his leadership, passion and determination. Outstanding professional. India needs more leaders like Anil Sir. God bless him.

  2. It's something we learnt when worked with Sh Swarup for sometime. Adoption of simplicity of technology in my routine work has paid me over the years owing to exposure at Team Swarup. However when I came back to field, none of the senior officers and machinery down to section ever welcomed my approach.
    Steam inside me emanated elsewhere and I made my presence felt globally in my own speciality and I know it will keep on paying me after my retirement from Govt. Service.
    One more positive approach of Mr Swarup is, as he always said, our approach should be to find rules and regulations helping the people within reasonable framework and not to find such rules to obstruct others' work. And whenever we honestly help others within directed regulations, no body would be able to harm us.
    There's lot of gaps in field through India as yet.
    I wish present Modi Government entrusts him with implementation of PM's dream plans of technology rich India.

  3. 'जहाँ रहेगा वहीँ रौशनी लुटायेगा ,
    किसी चिराग का अपना मकान नहीं होता .... is apt for Mr.Anil Swarup. He has given new meaning and definitions to 'work' wherever he has worked. Only if the governments could learn to discern and identify the talent and put the right man in the right job, India will get its much deserved orbit. But then it is not convenient to have one outstanding man outshine others and set new benchmarks for a bureaucracy dominated by mediocres....