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'Gap between India's rich and poor is growing'
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March 04, 2008
While he believes the gap between the rich and the poor is growing, the Cabinet Secretary is convinced things are improving, though the pace could be increased.

When I explained to the Cabinet secretary's principal secretary that the lunch is a column which needs time (the lunch with the former advisor to the finance minister took me three hours, I cite as an example), he got back to say that the Cabinet secretary had said he couldn't spare three hours for lunch.

Thank god, I think to myself (at least someone in government is working), but hear myself saying that we'd make do with whatever time he can spare. And so, after three cancellations, I'm at his office on a Monday afternoon, for what turns out to be a relaxed and leisurely lunch, writes Anjuli Bhargava.

K M Chandrasekhar finds his new assignment a bit like being a journalist (a bit like what you do, he says); one deals with one issue today and then forgets about it for a while. Unlike his previous assignments ("a narrow area of activity"), there are no clear objectives to work towards and no advance planning to be done to reach set goals.

He no longer worries about meeting revenue targets or changing the structure of indirect taxes, and so on. It's more "fire-fighting" on a daily basis. "If you can resolve the issue before it blows up, it's a day well spent," he explains as we sit down to begin a Rashtrapati Bhawan-cooked meal.

He says he misses "working in the field", of which he's had plenty of experience at least till 1997 (when he came to the commerce ministry). It helped that he was on the field in his state of birth, Kerala, from 1972 to 1997, and he found himself quite often doing jobs no one else wanted to do. He was the first IAS officer to land up as director of fisheries in Kerala, the Kerala State Cooperative Marketing Federation (with 24 employees and a turnover of less than Rs 50 lakh) in the late 1970s ("an assignment no one really wanted to take up") and then as the managing director of the civil supplies corporation in Ernakulam.

At the state marketing federation, Chandrasekhar recalls pushing up the turnover and wiping out the losses. He remembers starting Onam fairs (in his tenure in civil supplies), a novel way to keep prices of many essential articles under check by creating competition for the retailers. He wistfully recalls a massive publicity campaign he launched to popularise palmolein oil from Malaysia, used as a substitute to edible oil, whose prices were going through the roof.

With some satisfaction, he elaborates on what are now known as "maveli" stores in Kerala, a chain of public distribution outlets that buy stuff from different parts of country and sell with a minimum profit in Kerala. He was also involved in starting the "Spice Fairs", which are popular even today.

Yet, the assignments he enjoyed the most can be described as anything but low-profile. As India's chief negotiator and envoy to Geneva during 2001-04, he found himself in the midst of hectic negotiations and hard bargaining with the Americans and the EU.

He recalls with some amount of pride the complex negotiations and shenanigans that went into the formation of the G20 (the Chinese ambassador agreed to join the group without seeking permission from back home - quite unusual, considering the process of Chinese decision-making), which he believes changed "the dynamics of negotiation in Geneva", allowing the developing countries group to emerge as a strong third entity, whose voice could now no longer be ignored by the Americans or the EU.

As we are offered second servings of a delicious yellow dal, mutter-paneer and mixed vegetables - all cooked home-style - our conversation moves closer home. He says that the widening gap between India's rich and poor is an "undisputed fact" and that in the process of growth, distributive justice has been a "bit of a casualty", but to his mind, things are improving.

Purchasing power in the country has gone up, prices are improving, terms of trade are changing in favour of the farmer, there's an openness in exports and, whenever needed, imports. Things are slowly but surely changing, he believes.

What makes him think so, the cynical journalist in me asks. He's speaking from the confines of his grand room and the ubiquitous files that, to me, convey no progress. But I find I'm quite wrong. Chandrasekhar has been taking a team of officers and visiting - I'm sure to the team's utter horror - the remotest villages in some of the less progressive states. He's been to Jharkhand, Chattisgarh and Assam (in the last six months, he's been to three states).

He's seen for himself that the NREGA is actually being utilised in these states - in varying degrees, he admits - but says that BPL families were being covered - they were getting between 60-80, if not 100 days of employment. He follows up his development meetings in the states with security meetings, and barring West Bengal and the North East - where he sees a whole "kettle of problems" - there is progress even in states like Bihar, he contends.

The south Indian states, west Gujarat and Maharashtra and Rajasthan have done well. Though irrigation is a priority area, the employment is primarily being provided through building rural roads and improving connectivity. "It's not something that will happen overnight so things may not be very visible but things are changing for the better," he is convinced.

What about delivery? Leakages, I point out, are growing at alarming rates with more slipping out of the system than staying in it. He agrees - citing an ORG study that showed 38 per cent of the rice and wheat allocated didn't reach the target audience - and then offers a way out. "If through the panchayati raj system, people are aware of their due, leakages may be curbed to some extent". Till India's information systems develop, he feels that may be the only recourse.

I ask how the Cabinet secretary's typical day passes. He says he invariably has two or three committee of secretaries (CoS) meetings, he attends most of the prime minister's meetings and then spends at least two afternoons in the week preparing for Cabinet meetings. "Then I meet people like you." I look extremely doubtful, and he quickly clarifies that maybe not quite, but he meets senior officers and secretaries who come to him with specific problems.

And what does he do when he doesn't meet people like me? He spends his free time playing with his three dogs in his newly occupied Prithviraj Road residence while he waits for his two grandchildren to visit from Bangalore. They are expected later that week and that is what the Cabinet secretary is really looking forward to.

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