Excellence at Work: IAS Officer – Nitin Ramesh Gokarn, PGPPM 2006

From making changes at the grass-root level to bringing about big changes in the society or largely a nation is often a reflection of effective governance and it wouldn’t be wrong to say that good bureaucracy carries the weight of such responsibility on its shoulders. IAS officers in the country hold the highest esteem and command immense respect for the knowledge and wisdom they bring to the table.

Nitin R Gokarn, currently serving as the Principal Secretary to the UP Govt (PWD), has become a role model for many youths. He has adopted new technologies, transparency in the system, and encouraged to get best practices across the world to bring about a big change in the working of the department. His dedication and commitment are truly commendable.

In an up and close interview with Nitin R Gokarn –

Please tell us something about yourself.

I was born in Hubli, Karnataka in 1964 and did my school and college education from Mumbai. My father was as a Scientist in BARC and my initial schooling was from Atomic Energy Central School. My mother was a Homemaker. My college education was initially from Wilson College and I studied Economics from Ruparel College for my Graduate Degree in which I stood first. I started studying for Masters at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Personnel Management and Industrial Relations and was also a topper there. I am also a qualified Chartered Financial Analyst from ICFAI, Hyderabad (1998) for which I studied while working.

With so many opportunities around, why did you choose to join the Civil Services?

I consider myself to be an “accidental bureaucrat” as while studying in Mumbai, I had not known anyone who had qualified for the civil services. There was also no one in the family working in the civil services. Most of my cousins who grew with me and were studious left for higher education in the USA and have not returned since. For Mumbaikars of the 1980s, civil services were more of an unknown career path and not a career of first choice, as the focus was on jobs in the corporate sector and banks or going abroad. IT and Financial services growth in India were yet to take place and they took off in the post liberalisation era of 1991. In fact for the decade of the 1980’s Maharashtra State as such had no aspirants qualifying in either the IAS or IPS for several years.

During my college education days, I was a daily local train commuter in Mumbai commuting from Borivali to Dadar/ Matunga commuting for 45 minutes each way and later from Borivali to TISS Chembur commuting two hours each way. Railway stations then had newspaper stands that showcased beside newspapers and magazines on Bollywood, papers for jobs such as Employment News, and magazines such as Competition Success Review, Competition Times, etc. The latter became my staple diet for reading during the daily commute and I started appearing for all kinds of competitive exams that were notified in them, among them was also the UPSC Civil Services of 1986. I also qualified in several of these exams and got job offers in State Bank of India, Air India, HSBC bank, Bharat Petroleum, etc but did not take up those jobs. I was still studying in TISS which had a well-stocked library and with no other guidance for civil services exams except the Gazette notification detailing the syllabus for the exams for each of the papers, the books in the Library were the only source of study material. I qualified in 1986 exams while studying for UPSC mains during the few days of the Diwali vacations during TISS. I was offered the Indian Police Service and joined the Uttar Pradesh Cadre in 1987 and worked as Asst Supdt. Police in Allahabad and later at Agra.

It was only after joining the IPS and visiting DU and JNU in Delhi that I realised that studying for the Civil Services was a serious pursuit especially in North India and Delhi with students taking up a year and more of time to be completely focused on UPSC and not doing anything else. No wonder most civil servants in the late 1980s were from the twin States of UP and Bihar who had studied in Delhi.

Did you always be an IAS officer?

Before joining the Civil services I did not know much about the differences in the services and thought they were very pretty much similar. However, once I was in the Civil Service, I realized that each of them were very different in scope and exposure.

I was working in Agra as ASP when I was invited for tea by SSP Agra Shri Karamveer Singh at his residence. I had joined the IPS at a very young age of 23 years in my first attempt and he asked me if I had considered reappearing for the Civil Services in order to qualify for the IAS. He also analysed both the services and said that the Police services are mainly focused in crime control, Law and order, VIP duty and Intelligence gathering while the IAS assignments vary and cover a wide arena of subjects enabling continuous learning throughout one’s career path besides enabling specialisation in any area of one’s choice. Every assignment in the IAS is like changing a job and specialisation, and the District Magistrate and Secretary actually represent the Government in the field and the State. He was most gracious enough to enable me to take leave for a fortnight in order for me to study and appear again for the UPSC civil services exams in 1989 after a gap of three years. It was from whatever I could study during this period of 15 days of leave that I qualified again, this time in the IAS, and was again allotted UP cadre.

What has been the most fulfilling and significant aspect of your role? Any incident you would like to share?

Each assignment has had its share of success, trials and tribulations and so it’s difficult to pinpoint any single one as the most fulfilling. However, several incidents and contributions stand out in my memories. 

My first exposure to rural India was ASP Allahabad during the Mahakumbh Mela of 1988-89 where one had to patrol on horseback for crowd management continuously for days during major bathing (snana) days. ASP Agra assignment is memorable for controlling the Panwari village caste riots between two communities 25,000 and 10,000 strong that were heavily armed and intent on violence; as also catching an entire gang of dacoits in the Chambal ravines and releasing a hostage without any harm to anyone and Agra Police being given an award of Rs 25,000 by the then Chief Minister Shri Mulayam Singh.

My initial years in the IAS began as Sub Divisional Magistrate (SDM) in Jalalabad in Shahjahanpur which in those times was cut off from the rest of the District due to lack of bridges across the Ganga and Ramganga rivers and the only means of transport was bareback horse riding for officials and local villagers. I was the last Joint Magistrate of  Padrauna at Kasia, as the Sub Division got upgraded as a District and the ICS/ IAS tradition of Joint Magistracy postings of new officers there came to an end. I was the only IAS officer to be posted as Chief Development Officer in Almora before the State of Uttarakhand was carved out and faced the brunt of the Uttarakhand agitation. Almora is also the place where I learnt actual grassroots development by activating Block Development Councils (BDC) and working with village Pradhans for participatory rural development. The Pentium computer arrived in 1995 and was used for project monitoring. The office had a dot matrix printer and it would take two days just to print out the long list of projects that we had undertaken in the rural areas of Almora through the BDC’s.

First District posting as District Magistrate (DM) was in the Glass city of Firozabad and the arrival of piped gas to replace the use of kerosene as fuel in the glass industry while enabling products that could now compete internationally on quality parameters is still a memorable contribution as the gas pipelines had to be laid through congested areas. Lalitpur posting as DM for two years is remembered by me for the contribution in completion the land acquisition and rehabilitation of villages that enabled the completion of the Rajghat dam and raising of its gates for the first time after 25 years of start of its construction; this also enabled the Jakhlaun pump canal after its electrification, to start its operations and irrigated hundreds of acres of parched land and enable wheat cultivation in its command area.

My first deputation to Govt of India was for four years as Secretary Coffee Board, Bangalore during 2000-04, which was the worst phase for coffee growers as international prices plummeted to their lowest in one hundred years leading to distress in farm loans and rise in pests in estates. Relief given through Coffee loan rescheduling and providing technical assistance to growers to tackle pests was a huge challenge.

On return to the State, I was posted in 2005 as DM Varanasi which saw a series of law and order challenges through the terror bomb blasts and loss of lives in Shramjeevi Express, at Sankat Mochan temple and Varanasi Railway Station. My tenure later as Divisional Commissioner in 2007-08 saw the bomb blasts at District Courts and its challenges to law and order. This tenure is the most memorable for me as I held additional charges of Vice-Chancellor to VBS Purvanchal University which had over 9 lakh Graduate students and 425 affiliated colleges of Eastern UP along with the charge of Vice-Chancellor of Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapeeth University. I also held the post of Chairman of the Shri Kashi Vishwanath Temple Trust which was my toughest and most memorable assignment as during 2007-2008, my team undertook and completed the first ever expansion of the Shri Kashi Vishwanath Temple in its known history by merging the complexes and rebuilding two adjoining temples of Tarakeshwar Mahadev and Rani Bhawani with the main temple thereby increasing the temple area from 3,000 sft to 10,000 sft enabling easy access to pilgrims. It was tough as the project received heavy opposition by the locals and bad press, including malicious personal attacks, and there was no political support either at the local or the State level.

My second central deputation was in 2008 as Director JNNURM, Ministry of Urban Development which was then the largest Government initiative in the urban sector anywhere in the World with a total investment proposed of Rs One lakh crore and an ambitious urban sector reforms program. State level reforms to usher in the 74th Constitutional Amendments in devolution of power and capacity building of urban local bodies were focused during my tenure as I monitored progress of reforms and projects based on MOUs with States.

On coming back to the State, I was posted as Divisional Commissioner Varanasi again from 2015 to 2018, when Varanasi had become Hon. Prime Minister’s constituency. Implementation of several Central projects including Swachh Bharat Mission and cleaning up of the ghats and the city, Ring road, multimodal hub, Textile centre, underground cabling of electrical wires in the main crowded city area through IPDS, Sewage Treatment Plants and underground  trunk sewage network, Water supply projects, City beautification projects, Varuna River rejuvenation and development etc prominently stand out. I had the privilege of organizing about 13 visits of the Hon. PM, each of which had their own challenges including the ones which hosted the Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe in 2015 and the French President Emmanuel Macron in 2018. 

I was promoted as Joint Secretary in Govt of India and worked in the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways looking after the Road Transport sector. We were able to launch the National Transport portal and the National Register of all Driving Licences through “Sarathi” and of all Registration Certificates of vehicles through “Vaahan” applications developed by NIC linking up 970 RTO offices across the country, a project that was awarded the Platinum Icon by Ministry of Science and Technology.

I joined as CEO of NATRIP in 2012, when the project had been called a “failed project” as the test tracks at Indore and Chennai had come to a halt for two years due to faulty design issues. Civil construction of all labs envisaged in Manesar, Indore, Chennai had been abandoned after state of the art imported equipment worth Rs 1500 cr had been procured and were lying in containers at these sites for three years as the buildings structural designs had been mismatched with their load requirements and footprints and there were no designs for utilities and HVAC needed for the equipments. Equipment vendors and civil contractors along with several key project personnel had abandoned the project and it was tough to understand each component of the project and undo earlier mistakes to restart work on the projects. It was the tough decisions taken at that time that has resulted in most of the test tracks at Chennai and Indore and the Test labs getting dedicated to the Indian automotive industry enabling them to do new product design and testing within the country.

In 2018 I joined as Principal Secretary Housing and Urban Planning and contributed towards PMAY Housing policy and implementation of the project by starting construction of over 2 lakh houses. From October 2018 as Principal Secretary in Public Works Department, some notable contributions include taking up of 3000 kms of Main District Roads as State Highways, construction of an average of 9kms per day of new roads and one bridge completion every 3 days in the State, ushering in eGovernance through Emeasurement book, “Chanakya” for financial online real-time monitoring of expenditure on works, “Prahari” software for evaluation of technical bids obtained from contractors through online e-tender portal, implementing World Bank, ADB, NABARD funded projects, reviving over 65 stalled bridge and ROB projects and completion of several delayed projects. 1500 kms of plastic roads are being taken up in the State using plastic waste, herbal roads are being developed along roads in 175 locations in the State, etc. I have been recently awarded the Skoch Gold award in October 2020 for the dedicated work done by my team to assist migrants from Uttar Pradesh in Maharashtra during the COVID-19 lockdown with food, shelter, medicines and emergencies on the thousands of calls daily that were attended through the helplines that were made functional in the Principal Secretary PWD’s office.

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

 The biggest inspiration has been President A P J Abdul Kalam who throughout his life epitomised excellence and simplicity in public life as well as inspiring others in their life journey to contribute their best in nation-building. I also had the opportunity to meet him in person during my posting as District Magistrate in Varanasi when he had come to the Benares Hindu University’s Annual Convocation ceremony in 2006. He was the same modest, inspiring person about whom we had read through the newspapers and his books. I still remember the loud cheer that the students gave him when he rose to deliver his address and his popularity also amongst the parents who came to meet him.

You also have write, can you please tell us about your books.

1. “Kashi Sarvaprakashika” was released by Hon. Governor U.P. Shri Ram Naikji on the 9th of February 2018 at Jangambadi Math, Varanasi. The book is based on Narayan Bhatt’s Sanskrit treatise on “Tristhali Setu” composed in 1584 AD encompassing all known writings on Kashi till that time. Narayan Bhatt wrote 28 treatises in Sanskrit and his grandson Gaga Bhatt performed the Rajyabhisheka of Chattrapati Shivaji Maharaj in 1674. Publisher Sharda Sanskrit Sansthan, Varanasi Shri Vinodrao Pathak contact sharadabhawan@yahoo.co.in

2. “Bhaj Vishwanatham” is the first ever attempt towards presenting a pictorial story of the Shri Kashi Vishwanath Temple. Amongst the Twelve Jyotirlingams (radiant sign of Almighty Shiva representing the infinite nature of Shiva) in the country, this is the only Jyotirlingam situated on the banks of the holiest river Ganga. Lord Shiva’s current form was built here in 1780 by Rani Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore in the then remaining southernmost part of Vishweshwar Anturgrihi (innermost circumambulation area) in the Naagar style of temple architecture. This book pictorially presents a brief history of Kashi, the descent of river Ganga, Shri Vishwanathji’s arrival in Kashi, the five Aartis of the temple, and the different Festivals celebrated in the temple complex. HH Jagadguru Shankaracharya Bharati Tirtha Mahasaannidhanam blessed the public dedication of Bhaj Vishwanatham (Hindi) at Sringeri Math, Karnataka on 28th April 2019.

3. “R&D Infrastructure Project Management on NATRIP” coauthored with Pradeep Agarwal was presented on 3rd June 2015 to Dr Rajan Katoch, Secretary Dept. of Heavy Industry, Govt of India. This publishes all the technical papers in the project on which the team worked and turned around a stalled technically complex project having several facilities that are being introduced for the first time in the country and are not there in the private sector. The project upon completion will bring in facilities that are globally benchmarked and enable India to bring in stricter Regulations in emissions and vehicle safety in the automotive sector.

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

Civil Services may appear to have glamour from the outside but from the inside, it is a tough life to lead. The initial years in the field are also tough as one may be posted in remote areas. The exams preparations require a deep study of a humongous variety of subjects and the interviews are also varied with questions from any possible subject thrown at the candidate. The core subjects that one has studied for the UPSC require a level that is at least of a Post Graduate, with analytical abilities and good grasp of subjects, although the minimum qualification expected is officially that of a Graduate level. One has to be a voracious reader absorbing all possible news and events and their implications for the General Knowledge papers. It is important to keep a positive attitude and bear pressures while trying to imbibe subjects and topics that may not be of one’s core competence or liking. Despite studying hard one may not qualify in the exams but still one should try to avail of the number of attempts available as there are umpteen examples of candidates not clearing prelims in their first or second attempts but standing in the top ten in their third one. Lady Luck is therefore a big factor in whether one qualifies in the UPSC and which service or cadre one ultimately lands up in. However, all aspirants may consider that the civil services despite all the liberalisation and corporate opportunities, even now gives exposure to working and contributing to the betterment of the lives of people across the entire spectrum of village, Block, Tehsil, District, State and Central Govt something which no other career profile can offer today.

Role of IIMB in your journey.

PGPPM course of IIMB enabled a mid-career review of one’s life priorities besides getting updated on several academic subjects in management and economics. Several emerging areas such as Policy analysis, Regulation, Globalisation, etc had evolved after the 80’s. The most interesting thing about the course was the group activities that enabled one to interact with civil service professionals across State cadres and services with diverse backgrounds and experiences. Though it took a while to get back into academics after last attending college 15 years ago, all of us enjoyed the sabbatical immensely. Experience sharing and lifelong friendship with several course mates developed during the phase of high-intensity learning in IIMB which we had termed as the “Pressure cooker”. Skills such as creating a framework for presentation on diverse topics in defined timeframes and defending one’s viewpoints got honed as we progressed. Public Policy Analysis and strategy frameworks have enabled me to think through issues and possible solutions and available feasible options to implement within the defined time. While several courses at IIMB remain memorable, the courses on “Policymaking and implementation as a negotiation process” by Prof RVV Ayyar and “Public Policy in international comparative perspective” at Syracuse stand out for their continuing relevance in my practical work.

A favourite quote.

Bhagavad Gita comes immediately to mind whenever one gets thrown in tough situations requiring tough solutions and endurance in the face of criticism from entrenched interests and lobbies- just do your duty without expecting any fruits of your labour, a sort of nishkaama karma

कर्मण्येवाधिकारस्ते मा फलषु कदाचन।

मा कर्मफलहेतुर्भूर्मा ते सङ्गोऽस्त्वकमज़्णि॥

(द्वितीय अध्याय, श्लोक 47)

Also when faced with policy alternatives Mahatma Gandhi’s quote comes to mind 

Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man [woman] whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him [her]. Will he [she] gain anything by it? Will it restore him [her] to a control over his [her] own life and destiny? 

Mahatma Gandhi – The Last Phase, Vol. II (1958), p.65