Renuka Vishwanathan belongs to a rare breed of Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers from Karnataka. It goes without saying that she has many broken barriers to her credit. She was a member of the Planning Commission of India, and the first woman Deputy Commissioner in Karnataka posted in Uttara Kannada District, and subsequently posted in Dharward District for a second term. She was also the first woman to become the Managing Director of the Karnataka State Finance Corporation, and the first woman Transport Commissioner of Karnataka. Before retiring she held the coveted post of Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat of Rashtrapati Bhavan. She completed a doctorate on Public Finance in French at Paris University, she also is a prolific contributor to the Economic Political Weekly magazine.
Renuka is banking on her connection with slum dwellers in the constituency. The eagerness to put up a fight came through months before assembly elections were announced, as her face was noticeably plastered on the signboard at the entrance of Shantingar. Despite being 69 years of age, she hopes to put up a strong fight against two-time Congress MLA N A Harris on home ground.
Back in 1999, she protested the appointment of former Bengaluru police commissioner, T Madiyal, by attempting to resign. This was to express discontent over her late husband’s (DGP R Vishwanathan) seniority being overlooked by the government. The overwhelming need for justice and administration runs deep through her veins. (Both her younger siblings followed her into the IAS after she graduated ahead of them from the 1971 batch. Vatsala Vats (1973 batch) is a former Home Secretary in Karnataka. Raghunandan (1983 batch) was the Joint Secretary, Panchayat Raj, from 2004 to 2009.)
Today, she pronounces herself a feminist on twitter. She was instrumental in drafting the rules of inquest into ‘unnatural deaths’ and getting the procedure gazetted in 2004. Though the implementation of the inquest is non-existent and remains bleak, she continues with equal motivation to battle BBMP on behalf of women garbage-pickers.
With 37 years of experience as a civil servant, what is the one thing about the Indian bureaucracy that needs to change in your opinion?
After many years, I am planning on putting it all down in a book, looking back at everything that I’ve observed in my long career. The first thing I noticed was the Indian bureaucracy functioning without democracy. They don’t subscribe to the principle of equality in their own organisations. They live in hierarchical worlds. Some of us tried to bring in election modules into our own associations. Even though it is the letter of the law, it did not work. How many bureaucrats actually vote in every election? How many Chief Election Commissioners have voted so far? I believe unless you take part in the things around you, it makes lives difficult to change.
Secondly, technocratic brilliance is let to overshadow the needs of people. I was against issuing Aadhaar cards from the very beginning. I knew it would not work in favor of the poor. I have fought with many bureaucrats to make them understand this dilemma. Do you want to give them more suffering by excluding them from another round of counting ? You will be surprised to know how few bureaucrats are responsive to that message. Even fewer bureaucrats care that the poor are dropped from the national agenda.
Thirdly, they are a scared lot afraid of losing their privileges, and the little world they have worked hard to build. The system will turn around and attack them if they go against it. After speaking out, there is a moment of reckoning for journalists, judges, and activists. Bureaucrats hardly do this sort of thing. The general ethos is to conform, conform and keep conforming. A herd mentality is predominant.
Do you think you hold an advantage since you have an awareness of the system ?
No, I don’t think I hold an advantage due to my work experience in the government. It differs from person to person. The different experiences people bring to the table are invaluable and worth just as much as my experiences in the government. In Aam Aadmi Party we have an auto driver contesting from Shivajinagar. I am sure he has wonderful perspectives to offer from his journey of working as an auto-driver. It all depends on the passion the candidate has for public service and how much he cares about issues. All a person needs is the commitment to bettering governance to be a good MLA.
What drew you to a new party like AAP ? How does the young party mirror your goals?
I like the thought process of thinking outside the box in AAP. It is the way young people in Delhi have found simple, direct and workable solutions to our most common problems. Door delivery of services is one of them. Some of us were struggling to hand-hold citizens through the process of procuring documents needed in daily life (driving license, income certificates and ration cards). In Bengaluru, we thought we should develop a mobile application and were tediously putting together information to make it happen. We thought we should write a guide on how to navigate RTOs to get rid of the several difficulties encountered in locating the nearest one. The information seems scattered deliberately to confuse people. Suddenly, while conceptualizing the app, we found the Delhi government had cut through the entire process and removed the requirement of approaching government offices for certificates. There was no need to come up with a guide to go about this. From 40 government offices, services were to be delivered at home.
Officers themselves go to the doorsteps of Delhi residents to help them obtain legal documents. The result has been: no harassment, no corruption, and no humiliation while waiting in queues. The officers concerned know your income by a quick assessment of your house when they come to meet you. They were able to do it in Delhi, of course. We could not do it here as we are not in power. This is why I ask all my opponents whether they can show me a single income certificate obtained without corruption in Karnataka. I will give up my politics and go home if they can prove it. I want to convert Karnataka from being the most corrupt to the least corrupt part of the country. I do think this is possible.
What do you think are your advantages and strong points compared to incumbent MLA NA Haris who holds a stronghold over constituency in majority?
The first time I met N A Haris, I had just started doing my door-to-door campaigning near the Indira canteen next to Garuda mall. He was crossing the road with four policeman walking behind him. He should be the darling elected MLA of the people. Why does he need policemen to protect him from the citizens who elected him in the first place? That is the primary difference between MLA Haris and me. I spend all my evenings at a slum. Next to St Patrick’s Church, right under the noses of the richest in the city, I was told by the slum dwellers that not a single MLA or CM ever came to meet them. I have worked with people in the hinterlands of the state in many capacities, clearly differentiating me from other politicians.
What made you stand for Shantinagar constituency ?
I want to take part in all the procedures and budgeting in assembly. I would like to contribute my expertise to political issues and financial decisions. I am not standing only for the constituency. I will also be here for the state of Karnataka. The efforts will be immediately felt and reflected in the constituency I represent.
Tell me about some of the work you have been doing after joining AAP..
Nanu Nagarika (I am a citizen), an informal group within AAP of 14 members, for four years has been working with garbage-pickers. It all started with initially going along with them to houses to educate people on segregation and composting. I began to realise they were badly treated. The officials, the corporator and contractors, work together in different ways. It came to light they were not recruited by BBMP directly, but through contractors to whom BBMP has given the responsibility to provide vehicles and staff for road cleaning. Contractors have very little to do with maintenance. This leads to the fabrication of a muster roll of 40 odd garbage-pickers, of which only about 25 people are actually hired and grossly underpaid. ATM cards are supposed to be issued by BBMP to the garbage-pickers, but the contractors draw money on their behalf and cheat them with little or no pay. The largely female workforce has never been issued provident funds and ESI cards.
All over Bengaluru, the garbage pickers have not been paid for the last four months. Going to court on this matter has not yielded any result. I have sent a detailed report to the Accountant General of Karnataka. The only thing left to do is take up the issue in assembly and initiate a political process. No politician really cares otherwise. I have taken videos with some of the garbage-pickers showing a willingness to talk. Most of them are actually scared they might be harassed.
Can you elaborate on the details of the pending case?
We wanted to give a self-help group the opportunity to bid on road tenders. This could not go forward because the corporator and contractor were related. Anand Reddy and Sridhar Reddy, were brothers in Doddanekundi ward working together some time ago. No tenders were invited because the two brothers handled it by themselves. The Mahadevapura BBMP Joint Commissioner’s office also refused to give the mistreated garbage-pickers experience certificates despite 12 years of service. I have picked them up from work on the spot and taken them to court for hearings. I appealed against false certificates giving incorrect details about their work experience to IAS cadre Subodh Yadav, who was working with the civic body at the time. Still, BBMP Joint Commissioner in Mahadevapura zone did not obey the court’s direction to provide the work certificates. In November, Additional Chief Secretary TM Vijay Bhasker instructed the JC to do something within 24 hours. Till today, I have not received a reply from BBMP. The contempt of court application against BBMP is still pending for the past one and a half years at the High Court.
What have you learned on the ground while working with city schools in the field of RTE?
Unaided private schools hold a 25% reservation for poor children under RTE act. I have helped underprivileged children by helping them fill RTE application forms in Mahadevapura, Whitefield and Marathahalli areas. The other reason for children to get excluded from RTE reservations is the difficulties posed in acquiring Aadhaar cards. I kept on begging my colleagues sitting in Vidhana Soudha and the Education Department to exempt migrant children from the unique identification document requirement. They are definitely children who are living in this country, you can go and see them for yourself. You can verify their existence by other methods. They can be accounted for by other organisations who you recognize, inspect and have audited, who have picked up such children and put them in schools. Are we going to live in a world where we exclude the poor from our consideration? If not given Aadhaar cards, the access to midday meals and RTE becomes difficult for these children.
You don’t know how people react to your schemes unless you pilot it. Schemes are getting implemented in unexpected ways. There is a logic in the way it functions among people which you can’t predict while cleverly ‘drafting’ and enforcing it. I am not talking about privacy. Aadhaar is compulsory for every resident of the country, not just the citizens. It might seem easy to accomplish. The reality is the numbering on shacks is absent and the streets are virtually nameless inside slums.
The real problem lies in bio-metric software asking specific details of the address. I was directly told by the woman handling the technical procedure to pay a bribe for all the poor people I had brought with me. She said blatantly, ‘you’re an NGO, why don’t you pay for them ?’ The insensitivity is horrendous. The government’s duty is to ensure Aadhaar cards are given to validate more people. You cannot expect them to know how to go about the new procedure without walking them through it. I have sat with people leaving a day’s work without pay to help them get Aadhaar cards with Nanu Nagarika’s help. I can do it even today in my constituency.
You were a woman ahead of your times. We would like to hear about the beginning of your journey.
I just wanted to be part of the world around me for a feminist reason I realised much later. History books did not show women engaged in decision-making, except to be observers confined to houses. I decided that this kind of a life did not interest me. I did want the feeling that I am part of important changes, it had nothing to do with power. Being in the IAS helped me become part of it. I decided to take the exam in high school itself. I prepared for the IAS exams largely on my own by looking at old questions papers. Political sciences always interested me and I chose to appear for those subjects. In fact, I have always exercised the right to vote. I have not missed a single election till date. There is a disdain for politics among the bureaucrats themselves. You will be surprised to know that unlike me how many bureaucrats actually vote. I joined AAP for the same reason because I wanted to be a part of political change. I never work from the party office and I always want to see how things work on the field level. I I wanted to see the policies I helped frame at the planning commission in action.
What is it like to be a woman calling the shots?
A woman bureaucrat has some power for sure as she is in the government. I don’t see why a woman bureaucrat should be disadvantaged. They are perfectly capable with no specific difficulties as such. Other than some limited ideas of people around you. You did the same job as a man and you should. You should be open to transfers. You can travel to backwards parts of the state, work hard, and do night shifts. You should be willing to take on jobs in the farthest corners of the country like the North East. I hope women are open to more challenging jobs that are out there. It is purposeless to be in Bengaluru behind a desk doing paperwork. You can do so many other things that need to be done.
Right now, looking at my life, I would say campaigning is a full time job. It’s very strenuous. I have to be available from early morning up to late at night to anyone and everyone. The timings are unpredictable. Man or woman, you should have no expectations back home to successfully campaign with peace of mind. It is also essential to have an environment where the regulation of one’s coming and going is not tightly bound. It can reduce their time to do a political job. But it does not affect me at all as my husband passed away last year. My mother and daughter support me wholeheartedly but do not live with me. So, I come and go as I please. It makes no difference to me. I am talking specifically about campaigning. Of course the job of a politician has its similarities to that of a bureaucrat.
Is this the same advice you would give to young women who are aspirants?
Social requirements of some women might make it difficult to fulfill some professional duties. You can of course defy your family and still do what you want. However, it is just less stress with their support. But I have nothing to advice. Every woman should be free to do what she wants in the public sphere, just like any man can. Look at Theresa May in England and Angela Merkel in Germany, they reached the top because they have proved themselves to be the most capable at leading their countries. There are women doing it. It is happening everywhere.
As a young IAS officer many years ago, can you tell us how you overcame gender bias?
I was working as a director in the Department of Economic Affairs in the Finance Ministry in Delhi. I was performing well, my boss was happy with me and I was expecting a promotion. I had been empaneled for the vacant Joint Secretary post in the Department of External Commercial Borrowing. No woman had held this post before on this level in this particular section of the Department of Economic Affairs. It was a big deal at the time. Rather unexpectedly, I heard from someone they were planning on sidelining me and finding a replacement. I, being a direct person, approached my boss and asked him if there was something lacking in my work that might need improving. He assured me it had nothing to do with the quality of my work. He directly told me the reason behind why I was not being considered. One of the main tasks of the job as Joint Secretary was to routinely update the Finance Secretary in the Department of Economics about the current Balance of Payments. We were monitoring the BoP continuously in 1989 to bring the country out of economic turmoil pre-liberalisation. Being a woman, he assumed that I might not be available round the clock to report the fluctuating BoP.
After years of working, proving myself in various roles, working past midnight in remote villages, it was depressing when my gender still got in the way on an assumption made by my immediate boss. They never give you credit. They still never think of us as equal. I explained to him that I was able to handle the job constraints on power with my male counterparts. I specifically assured him that erratic timings would not be a problem. It never made a difference to me, and I never felt the need to go back home early. To be fair, he did overlook the opinions of colleagues who planted the idea in his head when agreeing to my reasoning. In the end, it was the most challenging post I have ever held and everyone was happy. Women till today have to overcome this kind of ingrained gender-bias.
Women like DGP Roopa are emboldened and reporting corruption in the departments they work for. Is today’s environment more conducive to be outspoken for women ?
These are very courageous, and bold women. Over time, circumstances have worsened as corruption has increased manifold in the government. It would have always been difficult to stand up and be honest, but the consequences are far worse today. There is so much scrutiny on all fronts and women are attacked on everything. I am very happy such women are doing their work honestly, according to their conscience. I just pray that nothing should happen to them when I hear them say something. It’s a very good thing and I wish them all the best.