Excellence at work: Additional Chief Secretary – Dr. Kalpana Gopalan (IAS), PGPPM 2004 & FPM 2013

She calls herself a learner, continuous learning brings her joy. This can only be the true virtue of a humble savant. Her learnings and triumphs on her personal journey as a civil officer are no short of an example. A ‘woman’ wearing many hats, author of her own life, she shares her experiences in this exclusive interview.

Please tell us something about yourself.

If I were to describe myself, the most appropriate description would be that I am a composite public policy professional. I wear several hats- a practitioner, policy-maker, scholar, author, volunteer; I am a hybrid leader with a unique mix of public service, business school and academic credentials; and I combine a unique mix of academic and practical experience.  Yet this would be an external perspective.  From the inside, my primary self-identity is that of a learner, that is how I view myself. Learning is what gives me the greatest joy, that is what I jump at,  at every opportunity.

What was the motivation behind joining the civil services?

Looking back, my life has been a continuous dance of chances and choices. Entering the Indian Administrative Service, India’s elite premier civil service, was not a burning ambition. Being good in studies, I naturally drifted into a Ph.D. program. But serendipity had other plans. I got into the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology Madras, but my social science interests and their technological expertise were no great fit. The civil service exam was a fallback option. I prepared with my usual diligence and cleared it in my first try, standing fairly high in the merit list.

The real acid test, where I stood my ground and made a life-defining choice, was a few years before entering the IAS; a choice that I made as a naive and nervous college girl some 30 odd years ago. As I was nearing the completion of my undergraduate degree, one of my officious uncles decided that it was time that I get married. I was generally an obedient child, so this was one of the rare confrontations with my parents that I remember. I was preparing for my final exams at the time. I used to dart out in the middle of my studies to insist “I want to do my MA, I want to do my MA”. That was the extent of my horizon and ambition at that time, an MA degree was as far as I could dream. Anyways, it worked, I did get to do my MA, and then the IAS, and two more Masters degrees, and then a Ph.D. That rare instance of stubbornness defined the rest of my life thereafter.

Can you share some experiences (or projects) that have been close to your heart?

A career in the Indian Administrative Service throws up many opportunities for leadership, but the once-in-a-lifetime experience I recall is that of District Collector & Magistrate, Udupi district. It gave me the unique experience of establishing a new district. The Government of Karnataka had taken a policy for the creation of new districts for administrative efficiency and convenience, of which Udupi was one. It was my first posting as a Deputy Commissioner, and I was also Udupi’s first Deputy Commissioner. I was anxious to prove myself. Expectations were high; but infrastructure, funds, staff all were lacking. I decided then and there that my first task would be to create an identity for my district. In government, one is running in different directions at the same time! But I had a good idea of what I wanted and proceeded systematically. My first priority was to locate suitable accommodation for government offices. I wanted to try and take the citizenry along with me, as Udupi had a literate and aware populace. Together we launched the process of district building. An action plan was chalked out for the development of the district without disturbing the rich ecology of the district. Industrialization in the Western Ghats area is fraught with tension, so from the beginning NGOs were inducted, and the agenda drawn for the district was more in tune with its educational, pilgrimage and tourist potential. At the time I did not realize it, but I seem to have earned a place in the hearts of the people of Udupi. When I visited the district last year, one gentleman introduced himself as an advocate who argued in my District Magistrate’s court. He pointed out: “See Udupi today, and compare it with the other new districts; see the progress and development; this is because you laid a good foundation with a good honest heart!”

Who and what has been the biggest inspiration in your life?

My inspiration? I am inspired every day, by women like you and I, who are scripting their own narratives, forging their own life-paths. In my work in the government or my voluntary work outside it, I get to interact with women who inspire with their stories of determination, challenges and survival. One thing I find in common among these women is their authenticity. These women are not seeking money or fame or power. They are not looking at what their neighbour or co-worker has, they are busy living their own life. They do not waste time in petty rivalries or envy or badmouthing someone else, their days are full with balancing their own joys, disappointments, and chores. And ticking their many many To-Do lists. From their lives and from my own, I draw strength- to struggle, to stand, to survive and still to smile.

Let me narrate Mallika’s story. She drives a buggy at the KLE Medical College Belgaum. Mallika lost her husband when she was very young, and had to bring up her two children, a boy and a girl, as a single mother. Luckily for Mallika, the women’s wing of the KLE society took her under its wing. It is one example of how women can help women. She was trained to drive, provided employment, and over a period of time she got her daughter married, educated her son, while she continues to drive. As Mallika told it to me, her story was a happy one. Looking at her with her bright cheery smile at 7 am in the morning, you would never guess the struggles she has had to overcome in life. For me, Mallika is a heroine.

Can you tell us about your family?

I am a daughter of the original Two States marriage, my father a Tamil, my mother a Gujarati. Childhood alternated between schooldays in Madras and holidays in Ahmedabad. I grew up with the responsibility of high expectations; so academic excellence was taken for granted. I was a nerd long before the word was even invented. I told you I made a choice of pursuing higher education over marriage as a college student. I did, however, get married subsequently. I got married around the same time that I entered the IAS, so I had a new life, new place, new job and new husband to adjust to; all simultaneously! My husband of 32 years is my rock, simultaneously my best friend, worst critic and ardent… (I hesitate to use the word admirer), believer is more exact, I would think. .

I have two children, grown-up now, I take motherhood seriously, but my mothering style is a combination of watchful interest and healthy neglect, something neither my mother nor my mother-in-law could understand. For example, I encouraged them to cook from childhood, rather than rushing to fix them a snack when hungry. My son is super-specialising in neurosurgery, and my daughter is a corporate lawyer; but I rest easy that wherever they are, they can fix themselves a meal, Covid notwithstanding. What I cherish most is this self-reliance, as also their authenticity, and essential decency.

Any advice for aspirants to want to join the civil services.

The CSE is only an exam; the IAS is a career like any other. Public service goes beyond the IAS. We tend to dismiss social responsibility as the job of governments or corporates(CSR). But we each have a Personal Social Responsibility to share, to serve and to be a soldier in building our nation. I recommend a dual career for everyone: If we take up a career to pay the bills; we have to take up a second career of service to pay back our debt to society. For me of course the IAS is my bread-and-butter career; but I also have a parallel career as a speaker, mentor and volunteer, through which I try in some measure to share the rich learning and experience that I have been fortunate to receive.

Role of IIMB in your journey.

Choosing higher education mid-career is a big step, and for me this major turn in my life, unplanned and unforeseen, came when I entered the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore. I am two-time alumnus, I came as a Masters student for the first public policy program; and I came back again as a doctoral student a few years later. Well, I was teased quite a bit for going back to school mid-career and mid-life; one cousin asked me if I was having a mid-life crisis! But both professionally and personally, the years I spent in IIM Bangalore were among the most rewarding in my life. I loved the intellectual stimulus, and made lasting friendships that I cherish.

Well, all good things come to an end… unless you really work hard to see that they don’t! I continue to research in academic institutions of repute; I frequently get invitations to speak in conferences, and I have written three books and quite a few articles. For me, reading, research, writing and speaking, along with fitness and music, help me relax from my work pressures. Sharing the learnings that life, academia and work have given me gives me great joy.

A favourite quote.

I remember the words of the Victorian poet Robert Browning:

“Oh that a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,

Or what is heaven for?”

So I would say Dream Big, Reach for the stars; let your head wander in the clouds. At the same time, let your feet be grounded on the earth, never lose touch with reality.