‘No option but being IAS’
Once nominated as one of the top 25 most powerful women in India, Vineeta Rai looks back on what was a successful and distinguished career
I retired long ago….I am still working….each job has its satisfaction level. Here, I am working as a member in the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission. People have enormous expectations from us to settle issues between consumers and the services or the manufacturing sector,” says Vineeta Rai alias Vinty, a 1968 batch officer who in every sense of the term is the perfect candidate for being nominated as the people’s bureaucrat No. 1. Almost like a living Santa Claus, whose mission is to help people and spread reasons to smile, she is totally dedicated to the cause.
A flashback into her life reveals a distinguished career in pursuit of a goal, mission and purpose to serve the people and earn their goodwill. There were ups and downs along the way but that is what life is all about. From the highest level postings in the Revenue, Finance and Insurance, Health and Home Ministries to her middle and junior grade postings in Chandigarh, Delhi and Arunachal Pradesh, her life always revolved around people. “All jobs are people-oriented, tell me one job which is not people-oriented….even when you make a law you have to look at people. It’s all about people….I cannot imagine any job which is not about people,” she explains.
Life in a way was kind to her in the sense that she got ample opportunities to serve the people. Her tenure in Tirup District of Arunachal gave her an opportunity to interact with the tribal people. And to go about changing their lives. The awe and shine in their eyes when they first saw electricity, continues to be the most cherished moments of her life. But forget the bureaucrat for a moment, the sacrifice which she made for her job is an inspiration in itself. Her daughter was born soon after she went to Arunachal. She felt that she could not do justice to both – her posting and the daughter – and so, she asked her mother to bring up her child till her posting ended.
Another similar experience happened when she had to refuse a very prestigious and challenging job (as a Joint Secretary in the Prime Minister’s office) because her son had a medical problem. Like this, there were many occasions when she had to choose between her personal life and career. Sometimes it was the IAS officer and sometimes the mother, but only one of them won.
Her stay in Chandigarh, where she served as an Advisor to the Administrator, proved to be an equally challenging experience in urban management. Initially, she was taken as an outsider and an intruder trying to change things, but as the people started knowing her they came to realise the actual meaning of her belief that ‘cities are living organisms, they need to grow. Even as Mission Director, Immunisation, in the Union Health Ministry, she was shocked to see how things were and lives were being unnecessarily lost in the States. In such a dismal scenario, bogged down by procedures and red-tapism, she was in a race against time. Today, looking back, she is happy that she at least got the opportunity to try and help.
But above all, her career peaked when she was offered to take over as the first woman Revenue Secretary. “When glass ceilings are broken…. It is always significant….It is something that gets captured as a landmark. But if someone asks me that as Revenue Secretary what would I like to be remembered as, I would say that I would like to be remembered as a professional civil servant who had been given the honour and responsibility to play a significant role as a member of the Government team.”
I am in the twilight of my life. I am active physically, mentally and I am not cynical….sometimes I like to interact with young people.… I have a vested interest in doing so.” Well, in case you are wondering what Vineeta Rai is all about, wait till you realise the terror she used to be as a bureaucrat? She was a ‘propah’, no-hanky-panky bureaucrat, who wanted everything to be done in a proper manner. No wonder, she was once nominated as one of the top 25 most powerful women in India.
Much though she dislikes being called a lady, she is hardly what you might call soft or mushy. She was a boss that most men were scared of. Not because she made mince-meat out of them, but because she always seemed to be a step ahead. “There were just 10 women in my batch of 103. Times have changed. I don’t think that I was deprived of any job nor did I feel that there was any discrimination. But mine was an individual case. I cannot generalise…. I sometimes used to push hard because that was my way of working.”
Most of the administrative skills she has are things she unknowingly learnt from her father, L P Singh, who had a very distinguished career in the Indian Civil Services. Even though he was hardly at home, the little time he could manage had a big impact on his daughter. One of the things she picked up was the value of reading. “In the early years, we did not see much of him. But he made it a point to spend quality time with us by reading books. He was very particular about what sort of books we read,” she says.
Still one of the trickiest questions for her is to answer how she was inspired to join the IAS after graduating in History Honours, specializing in American history of all things. “Well 40 years back, we did not have so many career options…What was the option for someone who did history honors? It was the academics essentially or the civil service.”
Today in the twilight of her life, 68-year-old Vineeta Rai is still a diehard public servant who feels it’s her duty to solve people’s problems. Though the garbs might have changed– she retains every bit of her spirit for public service. Her advice to all IAS aspirants and young officers is: “If you are straight and right, you need to have the courage of conviction. I do realise that you work in a system where the minister has the last word and even if you put on your views honestly, you might get over-ruled. In such a case, you carry the order out unless it’s something unconstitutional. Put across your point of view fearlessly, correctly and with a sense of responsibility. You are a public servant, give your views as a public servant and then if you are over-ruled so be it.”
At the end of it, she sees it as a big responsibility, “There is an enormous accountability and responsibility but then you have got to realise that you are not a messiah, somewhere if you realise it then you are not going to be deterred or disheartened and you won’t become cynical.”
Her last word of advice is: “You have to have the courage of your conviction. Ultimately, when you are working so hard and you are not appreciated, you feel bad. These are all human qualities. But I think you have to say that this shall pass and I have done many good things that have happened; many more good things shall be done, tomorrow.” g
(As told to Neeraj Mahajan)