Impressions of a “not very busy”, busy man

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In a brief chat with Coal Secretory Anil Swarup our correspondent Charu Mittal learns the steel that a Coal man is made of
The fact that I am about to interview the Coal Secretary of India, the man behind the recently concluded coal block auctions, has only now started to sink in, as I sit in the waiting room anticipating to be asked to enter, any moment now. No matter how prepared you go in, there is always clumsiness to initiating the interview. After the first couple of minutes of making an attempt to give the interview a proper structure, I realise that the joy lies in the little unexpected details.

Anil Swarup is a man who knows exactly what he wants, and does not mince words. He planned to enter the Civil Services after completing a master’s degree in Political Science, pursuing a carefully nurtured childhood dream. And now, just 5 months into his new portfolio as Coal Secretary, coming in during a tumultuous time in the Ministry’s history, he has already left a lasting impression by spearheading and deftly managing the e-auction of some 67 coal blocks. Despite this, he maintains he is not such a busy man after all.

Swarup’s strength lies in his clarity of thought and conviction. It shows, as he neatly deciphers for us the meaning and significance of incorporating IT and e-Applications into the day to day working. He emphasizes that the basic role of e-Initiatives in the ministry relate to doing away with paperwork related to exchange of information — on how information is sought and sent.

Ask him in what way does a paperless work environment promote accountability and transparency, and how exactly the use of technology reduces manipulative human interference, and he will explain how it “lays bare the delays”. Having done away with all the files which had to do with receipt and sending of information, all such data is now housed on a portal, through which all information seeking and sending takes place.

He recounts one of his earlier experiences of heading a Project Monitoring group for fast tracking projects, which emerged as the only “file less office” in the country, where all work is carried out through the net. The transparency, he indicates, comes in terms of where the file is residing and who is sitting on it. The IT portal makes accessible the movement of the file, the stops it makes, the duration of the stops and so on.

These e-initiatives create a productive interface with human nature, because the tendency is to place a high value on appearing efficient. The flow of information becomes smoother and streamlined, besides removing many communication-related bottlenecks.

The moment we shift gears and start speaking of the family man in him, there is a perceptible lightness in his voice, and a twinkle in his eye as he notes that his children are now well settled and leading independent lives of their own. He has a lively set of hobbies of his own, which range from reading, travelling, and surprisingly, playing the guitar. He dismisses any notions of being a supremely busy man, and says he finds enough time to enjoy and pursue these interests. His wife also doubles as his willing and reliable travel companion. Crediting IT applications for enabling him to get a lot of his work done from anywhere, he adds that it gives him ample time to fulfill his domestic obligations as well as indulge in leisure activities.

He is proud to be a bureaucrat and is quick to point out the flexibility in the functioning of the machinery, so often maligned by the lay person without understanding. For him, it is a service that provides abundant choice and opportunities galore to those with the right attitude and positive approach, as also a position from which it is possible to positively influence the lives of huge numbers of people.

In his own words, “If you want to do good work, it allows you to do good work; if you don’t want to do any work, it allows you not to do any work; if you want to remain honest, it allows you to remain honest; if you don’t want to remain honest, it allows you that as well… The best thing about this service is it gives you a lot of choice…the choice is yours….I think not many services offer that.”

Speaking of which, he has fond memories of the time he was posted in the Ministry of Labour, especially for the scheme he helped implement and which turned out to be his biggest challenge as well as his most treasured achievement. No wonder, as it was meant to cover the lives of 35 million families consisting of the poorest of the poor in the country!

Launched in 2007, it was called the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY). The first “paperless health insurance scheme”, in the world , and rated as one of the top schemes by the World Bank, the main idea was to have a standalone smart card that made it possible for a poor person, to avail treatment at any of the 12,000 empanelled hospitals around the country, “no questions asked”.

While this would count as one of his major trysts with smart technology and the ease of paperlessness, it is also a source of inspiration in other ways. We are talking about a particular event that left an impression on him. Spoilt for choice, he picks one from his time while working with this scheme.

On a certain visit to a hospital, he was beckoned by a very old lady admitted there, probably almost 100 years, eagerly flashing her health smart card at him, as she beckoned him. When he inquired about her well being, she honestly answered that she was in distress. While he tried to reassure her that she’d be fine, she kept stressing that the people at the hospital had looked after her very well, at the same time indicating,

“Nahi beta, ab mera samay aa gaya hai, ab main upar wale ke paas jaaongi…lekin usse ek baat zaroor kahungi….tumhari scheme bahut acchhi hai”. (I am near death I know…but when I see God I will tell him one thing for sure…your scheme is really great.) Swarup was left speechless by these words of a lady, who despite being on her deathbed, wanted to, and saw “hope for others in the scheme.”

While there has been no dearth of role models throughout his life – starting from his parents, his family, friends and men like Gandhi and Swami Vivekanand, who have influenced his thought and action at every step in life – he is quick to point out that it is the inspiration one finds in the most unexpected of places that keeps him going every day. “Even a street vendor can inspire….it’s about keeping your eyes and ears open,” he affirms.

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