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A bureaucrat for 'the little guy'

By Aditi Phadnis
March 06, 2021 12:17 IST
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Rahul Khullar's guiding credo was that a civil servant must never lose sight of his client: The little guy. The evil men are those who are decision-makers but abdicate their responsibility of taking decisions, leading people to lose confidence in public institutions.
Aditi Phadnis mourns the passing of a rare bureaucrat.

IMAGE: Rahul Khullar. Photograph: Faisal Mahmood/Reuters
 

In a governance ecosphere inhabited increasingly by soft-voiced bureaucrats with flexi-spines, Rahul Khullar (1975 batch, UT cadre IAS) stood apart: He was always outspoken and he would not bend. This was evident till the last.

Though grievously ill, he signed an open letter along with other colleagues counselling the government to listen to agitating farmers for, quite apart from violating the federal spirit of the Constitution, the farm laws passed by Parliament simply did not consult those for whom they were meant: The farmers themselves.

Many of his colleagues despaired of him precisely for this trait. But Khullar made no concessions for status or rank when asked for advice.

He had returned from Arunachal Pradesh after a short posting in 1991, having spent five years in the prime minister's office, when the P V Narasimha Rao government appointed one of his teachers at the Delhi School of Economics as finance minister. Manmohan Singh was in need of a personal secretary and Khullar, his student and topper of the batch, got the job after a short interview.

The Budget followed in weeks. On the eve of Budget day, Khullar was summoned to the FM's office. A wan Singh put out his wrist to Khullar and said: 'Rahul, just see... do I have fever?'

'No, no, Sir,' Khullar declared bracingly, realising this was a 'I have a stomach ache' moment before the first day of school. 'You'll be fine, Sir.'

It was, therefore, with some surprise -- and some malice -- that his colleagues noted he was not included in the PMO in 2004 when Singh became prime minister. But Khullar was doing another important job. He is one of the few bureaucrats to have had more than seven years in the ministry of commerce in one or other capacity (he ended up as secretary), and there was little about trade he did not know.

The year was 2010. India was sitting on 60 million tonnes of foodgrains, although it was required to maintain only 21 million tonnes as buffer stock; and an argument had broken out between those who felt the ban on foodgrains export should be lifted, and those who believed it shouldn't.

The case for export was strong. Because of a few successively good crops, India was flush with grain while a drought was being predicted in the wheat granaries of the world: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Russia.

But a stubborn procurement policy and the fear of the unknown was preventing India from making a killing in the international market. The government had become the biggest hoarder of foodgrains which was dictating market prices.

Khullar, as commerce secretary, had only one mission at the time: To somehow knock sense into government's head that rather than letting grain rot, it was better to sell it, even give it away in return for some goodwill. He was arguing energetically at a meeting of a group of ministers that the ban on export of grain should be lifted.

Others could see the warning sign, but Khullar ignored it: Then finance minister Pranab Mukherjee's face becoming redder and redder. The explosion was not long coming. 'Sell, sell, all you think about is selling. Why are you turning India into a trader nation?' Mukherjee roared at Khullar. You could have heard a pin drop.

The only person who came to Khullar's defence was Deputy Chairman of Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia. 'He is commerce secretary. What else do you expect him to say?' said Ahluwalia mildly.

Undeterred, Khullar spoke up, reiterating the logic of export. But by the time the government saw the sense of what he was saying and decided to export a small quantity, international prices had dropped from $350 a tonne to $250. India was $100 per tonne poorer.

Others might have opted to stay quiet, preferring to be safe rather than sorry. Never Rahul Khullar. He never minded saying sorry but not when the option was to be safe.

Khullar once told this reporter that anyone, any bureaucrat, no matter how smart, could make a mistake. It was doing nothing, for fear of making a mistake, which was unforgivable.

He articulated this belief in the foreword to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India's report issued when he became chairman, on the valuation and pricing of spectrum.

Khullar's remarks come on the back of a raging controversy on the comptroller and auditor general's observation on valuation of spectrum and was at the heart of the spectrum allocation scam.

Khullar wrote: 'The authority is no soothsayer; it is impossible to predict what the value (price) of spectrum would be 5 or 10 years from now, much less 20 years hence, the terminal date for a spectrum licence. In fact, valuations 5 to 10 years forward may be far higher than today's estimates.

'Trying to estimate a price, say a 2023 valuation, for spectrum, would be foolhardy. Worse yet, even if it could be done accurately, who would be willing to buy spectrum at estimated 2023 prices in today's auction?'

He went on to say: 'The driving consideration throughout this paper has been Carveth Read's observation that: 'It is better to be vaguely right rather than exactly wrong'.'

As commerce secretary, his predecessor G K Pillai recorded his objection to a coal import tender via traders who were politically well-connected. Pillai moved out and Khullar got signals that it would be in his interest to reverse Pillai's observations. He investigated and recorded additional grounds to reject the bid.

Irascible, but always ready to listen, Khullar's guiding credo was that a civil servant must never lose sight of his client: The little guy. The evil men are those who are decision-makers but abdicate their responsibility of taking decisions, leading people to lose confidence in public institutions, he told this reporter once.

In recent meetings with Business Standard, Khullar voiced fears, concerns and worries about the growing duopoly in the telecom sector, especially when the adjusted gross revenue issue led to the Vodafone CEO's blunt assertion that there is regulatory bias in India (Khullar, as was his wont, agreed). But he was out of the TRAI and having 'totally retired' (as he put it) from the government, he was teaching schoolchildren economics and math, thoroughly enjoying it, he said.

Few people know that he had two weaknesses: Biscuits (not the glucose ones but the confections created by the Italians, the French and the Scots, especially the shortbread); and whodunnits. He loved a good mystery/crime story and would always buy a book that got good reviews.

Somewhere, up there, he is probably scouting for the latest Nicci French. Stay in good heart, Sir!

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Aditi Phadnis in New Delhi
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