Before he agreed to meet me, Sanjiv Chaturvedi asked me to send him a few samples of this column. His intention was to figure out whether his meeting with a journalist was strictly under the framework of service rules. He never has, nor does he ever want to, flout any government rule.
Clad in a grey shirt and jet-black trousers, Chaturvedi - a man seen as one of the reasons behind the unceremonious transfer of Harsh Vardhan from the Union health ministry to the low-profile science and technology ministry - arrived bang on time at the Zaffran restaurant in Connaught Place in New Delhi.
Chaturvedi, chief vigilance officer (CVO) of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) till a few months ago, left it to me to choose a restaurant: as long as I picked a place that served decent north Indian vegetarian food.
Zaffran appeared elegant and soothing to the eye, and we quickly settled down. Before Chaturvedi ordered a portion of tomato soup - which he asked the attendant to split between the two of us - he regaled me with stories of his hunts for good food, from Chandigarh to the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat to the Sundarbans in West Bengal. I realised food was one thing that kept Chaturvedi going. He loves Bengali sweets; especially rosogulla made with gur (jaggery), but prefers South Indian meals because they are light.
Within a short time, I learn a great deal about my loquacious guest, a 39-year-old with a disarming smile. He loves to sleep, is a movie buff and has the characteristic accent of Uttar Pradesh, in which forest becomes "farest" and majority becomes "maijarity".
For me, the word that meant the most was Haryana and I lunged at it. I was looking for an entry to talk about his troublesome career, which had begun in Kurukshetra, where the greatest mythological battle between right and wrong was fought.
Chaturvedi had no idea that the next 10 years in Haryana, where the scope for an Indian Forest Service (IFS) officer was limited to a few sanctuaries, were going to be the toughest years of his life. His blunt objections to illegal forest activities and rampant corruption resulted in his suspension within seven months of his joining. The suspension was followed by 12 transfers, many "false" FIRs, vigilance inquiries and a chargesheet under a major violation that could have led to his permanent dismissal from the service.
In these inquiries, Chaturvedi came out as clean as a whistle, but not before he went through harassment, faced threats to life and suffered irreparable personal ties.
Today, he wants to skirt these issues.
"Sahilji, our forefathers, especially Patel (Vallabhbhai Patel) were foresighted. Patel was a true administrator and ensured that civil servants were well-protected through ways and means of the Constitution while discharging their duties," Chaturvedi points out, in between enjoying his portion of the soup.
It is true that the Constitution explicitly protects bureaucrats from politicians. For instance, the administrative control of the all-India services - Indian Administrative Service (IAS), Indian Police Service (IPS), IFS, and so on - rests with the Union government. These officers are deputed in states as agents of the central government, which is the ultimate deciding authority regarding their promotions, disciplinary actions and postings. Though the Union government is mandated to consult states, it is not bound by their advice. Chaturvedi read up on all those constitutional provisions and laws governing civil servants during his suspension period - and, unlike other harassed officers, he decided to take on the Bhupinder Singh Hooda-led Congress government in Haryana.
"Because of Patel's vision, I was saved," quips Chaturvedi.
The President of India, through four environment ministers - Namo Narain Meena, Jairam Ramesh, Jayanthi Natarajan and Veerappa Moily - all from the Congress, quashed decisions taken against Chaturvedi by the Hooda government. If the first was related to his suspension, the second and the third were about chargesheets filed against him. The fourth action was even worse, as his performance rating in the annual confidential report was changed from "outstanding to zero." But the central government restored it to exceptional - leaving its own chief minister red-faced.
These developments were unprecedented in many ways. Chaturvedi was the first officer ever to get a Presidential reference - a record four times. Secondly, the central government usually doesn't oppose a state government in bureaucratic matters, especially when the latter is run by the same political party.
"Many harassed officials don't approach the Centre for respite primarily for two reasons. Either they are corrupt or have something to hide. Many sit quietly, knowing that at the end of the day, they still have to work with the same set of politicians," Chaturvedi explains.
Perhaps this could have been one of the reasons behind a long stand-off between Durga Shakti Nagpal, an IAS officer who was suspended over her actions against the sand mafia in Noida, and the Uttar Pradesh government. The Centre did not come to Nagpal's rescue on the ground that she didn't approach it with a formal request to intervene in her matter. Today, Chaturvedi teaches the same rules and regulations to probationary officers at the IAS academy in Mussoorie.
By now, we are through with the dahi ke kebab and vegetarian galouti kebab we had ordered for starters. We savoured the first dish with green chutney and made faces at the second. We were the first ones to arrive at the second-floor restaurant that gives a clear view of the old façade of Connaught Place. The place filled up faster than we had anticipated. Now surrounded by people talking nineteen to a dozen, we ordered our lunch.
Chaturvedi asks the attendant to suggest dishes: he quickly suggested dal makhni and makki khumb masala for him and Hyderabadi biryani for me.
I jokingly ask him where, besides food, he draws his energy from to fight the system; his answer is as simple as the man appeared himself: "I am not fighting the system. I am just doing my duty." To me it appeared, unlike most civil servants, that he lacked ambition. He doesn't play golf, live a luxurious life, or travel abroad. All he wants is to sleep comfortably on Sundays, after a late-night movie on Saturdays, at his small apartment on the AIIMS campus. "The government really takes care of us even after retirement. One can actually live a respectable and comfortable life with the remuneration," he says, while enjoying daal and tandoori roti using one hand. He doesn't stop short of complimenting the attendant for the daal, which I had to share with him to make my undercooked meat and rice more palatable. The mushrooms didn't impress either of us.
I ask him about his work at AIIMS. "I was CVO for the last two years and right now I am without a post." Harsh Vardhan removed him; many attribute this action to letters from a party colleague who is now, ironically, Union minister for health, but the health ministry issued a statement in September last year saying this "had nothing to do with his (Chaturvedi's) re-profiling". There was also a lobby that was unhappy with Chaturvedi's unearthing scam after scam at India's elite medical institute. In his short stint at AIIMS, he has made many enemies, including senior IAS and IPS officers. He jokingly calls them "friends". When he was posted to New Delhi from Haryana, at least seven central ministers refused to take him in their respective ministries, given his history.
It is also odd that when the Haryana government opposed him, people in the central government came to his rescue. Now that the central government is not giving him his due, leaders of the Haryana unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party are throwing their weight behind him. Currently, he is using his time to settle the false cases filed against him in Haryana and waiting for the central government decision to change his cadre from Haryana to Uttarakhand.
"Sarkar jab bhi moka degi, seva karenge" (whenever the government gives me a chance, I will do my duty).