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