August 02, 2020
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A Crusader’s Platform

Ashok Khemka, Bureaucrat of the Year

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A Crusader’s Platform
Photograph by Getty Images
A Crusader’s Platform

Ashok Khemka is known for having exposed cases of all­eged high-profile corruption, such as the Robert Varda-DLF land deals and the pesticide scam in Haryana. But last month, he took up another worthy cudgel. Travelling on a Rajdhani Express from Delhi to Allahabad, he found the train dirty, food unsatisfactory and had to endure a delay of about 13 hours. But he couldn’t get any complaint book on the train. “The staff kept making excuses and even promised me a special dinner. But they just wouldn’t give me the book.”

At his wit’s end, the principal secretary in the science and technology department of the Haryana government decided to tweet to Union Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu. “@sure­shpprabhu Travelling in 12424 DBRT Rajdhani from Delhi to Allahabad. Poor food and not as per menu. Complaint book not provided.” Later, he tweeted again, “Got complaint book after 5 hours at 8:10 pm. Registered the complaint. Thanks.”

Khemka believes social media should be used as an eff­ective tool to improve government-public interaction. He himself remains accessible to people through his account. “When I was handling transport, people would give me direct feedback on overloading of vehicles. When I handled archaeology, they provided information on encroachments around monuments. I took action in all these cases,” he said.

Khemka has also not hesitated to speak up on issues of public welfare, as he did in a tweet after the railway ministry’s recent decision to introduce surge pricing in premier trains. In a profession where plainspeak isn’t a virtue, it is not surprising that Khemka has been transferred 46 times in the past 25 years. He sums up the dilemma of a bureaucrat who is outspoken, that too on social media, with an Urdu saying: Mera qatil hi mera munsif hai (My murderer is my judge). “In our case, it is especially difficult because our employer, the government, also happens to be the judge of our critical views. But one needs to understand, corruption is neither part of government policy nor action. So my fight against corruption should not be seen as being anti-government.” Khemka, however, admits it would be a lie to say that there is no fear in speaking the truth. “I am scared about losing my job but I alw­ays strive to overcome it,” he said.

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