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“What I was not taught at College”

A talk by Dr. A. Didar Singh to the St Stephen’s College Assembly
on Thursday, 11th August 2011

 It is a singular honor for me to be invited second year running to address College Assembly.

I entered government service 35 years ago this summer and will retire as Secretary to Government of India in a few months. Just as you are beginning the next chapter in your lives, so will I be.

On being asked to deliver today’s lecture by Principal Thampu, my initial thoughts were to share with you some lessons arising out of my recent postings that I have had in Government. During the last 10 years, I have been fortunate to have had some interesting assignments whilst posted in Delhi. In early 2000, as Joint- Secretary in the Ministry of Heavy Industries, I had a stint looking after Public Sector Undertakings. Subsequent to this, I was the Finance Member, of the National Highways Development Authority (NHAI) - an autonomous body with a budget of over Rs 30,000 crores per year, assigned with the task of building Indian highways. Finally, today as Secretary, Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, I am involved with the Indian Diaspora which is 25 million strong and spread across 190 countries. Therefore based on the knowledge I gained in the above postings, the subject of my talk today could have possibly covered any of the following 3 topics:

No.1      Relevance of State-Owned Enterprises in the 21st Century.

Or

No. 2     Is Public Private Partnership in Infrastructure projects workable?

Or

No.3      Some recent trends in reverse-migration: Is it a blip or the beginning of the next phase of the India growth story?

Talking to a diverse audience such as the one present today, the aforesaid specialized topics would not have generated great interest. So the choice was to select a subject, perhaps arcane, that would keep your interest alive for some 15 minutes irrespective of your academic background. I also wanted to dwell on a subject which is not usually a topic of discussion in a school of further education.

The reflections that I shall share with you today are based on my experiences as I trudged along through the trials and tribulations of my daily life. In all humility, it would not have been possible to make my observations without my five years of education at this great institution which went a long way in honing my analytical skills. The chosen topic of my talk today ladies and gentlemen is –“What I was not taught at College”. I am therefore going to share with you some lessons that I learnt which hopefully you may find interesting. Let me begin from across the road. During my time here at College, and probably it is still the same, the only thing Hindu College offered better than St Stephen’s was the view across the road! Interaction with Hinduites was also frowned upon. They were like our perpetual rivals, especially in Cricket. Today, I spend my weekends with a reprobate from across the road playing golf – mostly as his partner. As life moves ahead, one’s narrow sphere of activity grows as do friends and possibly enemies. That is Lesson#1: There are no permanent enemies, provided of course that you have a forgiving nature and can learn to accept the frailties of non-Stephanians!

Five years in college, and school before that, meant growing up together with loads of pals at the most impressionable time in life. Irrespective of what influence those relationships must have had on me as a person, with the passage of time, I lost contact with some friends with whom I was very close. We all know that end of college is like an explosion where friends and colleagues step out to pursue different career paths. With the graying of life this loss of contact does usually turn into a matter of regret. That is Lesson#2: As you pursue different careers, continually communicate through mails/phone calls/Facebook whatever, to close the distance with your close friends from school and college. These are the buddies who will be with you throughout your life. To me success came rather easily and almost naturally, early in life. Good grades opened the doors at St Stephen’s, good teachers and peer pressure here made me sufficiently competitive to pass the IAS exam and enter what I thought was a steady and assured career. Until graduation I had never really handled adversity, which came in ample measure later on and took me by complete surprise. Not everything happens as you plan or hope for. Handling failure and disappointment requires a different set of skills. Remember that learning comes naturally. So do mistakes. So learn from your mistakes also. Father of our nation, the great Mahatma Gandhi, advised us by with the following famous words: “Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes”. And that takes me to

Lesson #3: For character building, it is good to take a few knocks early in life and become hardened, so that failures later in life can be handled with composure and poise.

Upon reflection, I feel that I have been privileged - received top class education, have a happy family and successful career as a public servant. You too, like me, are fortunate and blessed by joining the student fraternity of such a great institution - you have received a great break early on in life. That is Lesson#4:- Count your blessings- a bright future awaits you.

Dr. Charles Eliot, a renowned professor at Harvard University was once asked, “How had Harvard gained its reputation as the greatest storehouse of knowledge?” His clever reply was “It is because the freshmen bring in so much of it and that the seniors take away so little of it”. That is so true of St Stephen’s College. I used to teach here and in my very first year out of some 60 students in my class – 1st year British History - 58 got first division and 2 had high second! Believe me, I had very little to do with it. It was all about you being the brightest and the best! The story however doesn’t end there. As the years progressed the grades of some of the brightest students came down. Maybe that is normal, yet not always expected.

Lesson#5: Even Gold can rust!
And that brings me to the last of the lessons I want to share with you. I always remember that great number from Pink Floyd called “Time”

‘And you run and you run to catch up with the sun, but it's sinking Racing around to come up behind you again The sun is the same in a relative way, but you're older Shorter of breath and one day closer to death”

That is unfortunately one lesson, I did not learn. It is important to extricate yourself from your present and ponder over the irrelevance of today’s pursuits. Getting into St Stephens and the competitive world that will follow, a lot of you will focus only on maintaining your academic record. Such single-minded pursuit could deprive you some of the finer things in life. What I want to say to you is that while you’re about the paper chase business, make sure you - Get a life. Get a life in which you are sensitive and generous. Make sure you also look around at the flowers in the neighborhood park where you grew up, smell the dirt after the first rain, get drenched in the monsoon. Pick up new hobbies, new books, new ideas. And realize that life is the best thing ever, and that you have no business taking it for granted. That is Lesson #6: Live a full life. In fact live many lives together. We all actually do. Our family life; our student or academic life; our careers and professional life; our fun, entertainment and party life! All these lives can only be lived in the full through optimizing priorities and time management.

So here is what I will end with:

Don't ever confuse your life and your work. The second is only part of the first. And don’t forget the famous words: "If you win the rat race, you're still a rat." Or what John Lennon wrote before he was gunned down in the driveway of the Dakota building in New York City in 1980. "Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans."

Cheers and have a good morning.


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