By Neeraj Mahajan
In the prime of her life, Vineeta Rai was voted as one of the 25 Most Powerful Women in India.
“I am in the twilight of my life… I am active physically, mentally and I am not cynical,” that’s the shortest possible description of Vineeta Rai — without any make-up or bureaucratic façade.
Daughter of a former ICS officer, she served a stint each in the Ministry of Urban Development, Ministry of Health & Family Welfare and Ministry of Home Affairs before being appointed as India’s–first women Revenue Secretary in the Ministry of Finance. The importance of this portfolio is that the revenue secretary, presents or tables the Union Budget in the Parliament. Even while holding on to the revenue secretary’s post, she continued to hold additional charge of banking and insurance secretary—another first for a lady. She was a boss- that most men are scared off. Not because she made mince-meat out of them but because she was always a step ahead and difficult to please.
Overall, it was a life well lived and enjoyed to the fullest. There were ups and downs– from Revenue, Finance & Insurance, Health and Home Ministry to Chandigarh, Delhi and Arunachal Pradesh—her life always revolved around people. “All jobs are people-oriented, tell me one job which is not people oriented…even when you make a law you have to look at people. It’s all about people… I cannot imagine any job which is not about people…. At the district level, you look at things much more on a one to one basis…Though obviously sitting in the Secretariat as the Revenue Secretary you cannot sit and interact with the taxpayers, but then you come to know what are the problems. And in a way you can’t shut your eyes…” she explains.
Well in case you are wondering who Vineeta Rai is all about – wait till you realize the terror she used to be as a bureaucrat? She wanted everything to be done in a proper manner and the files back on her table with the right notings as systems and procedures demand. This was another reason why she was nominated as one of the top 25 most powerful women in India.
She dislikes being called a lady. In fact she is hardly soft or mushy but rather tougher than most men. For this very reason, she was picked up as the first woman Revenue Secretary as well as Secretary Banking and Finance.
Life too gave her ample opportunities to serve the people. Her tenure in Tirup District of Arunachal gave her an opportunity to interact with the tribal people—many of them were headhunters… To changing their lives by implementing a Hydal project and get them to grow cash crops were a great achievement but the awe and shine in their eyes when they first saw electricity and lighting—continues to be the most cherished moments in her life. She explains how communication with the locals was a big problem, because their language and tribal culture and customs were quite different. The gleam in her eyes—– betrays how seriously she took her job. “In their culture, it is either yes or no – maybe is something they cannot understand”, she chuckles.
Let’s forget the bureaucrat for a moment, can you imagine the sacrifice that Vineeta Rai made for her job? Well soon after her daughter was born; she left her daughter with her mother and went to Arunachal all alone because of a fear that she could not do justice to both her posting and the daughter. It was her mother who brought up the child during the good two years she stayed in Arunachal.
Another experience of a similar kind was when she had to decline a very prestigious and challenging job as Joint Secretary in the Prime Minister’s office because her son had a medical problem. It would have been a great honour but then life does not always give you what you want. Like this, there were many occasions when she had to choose between her personal life and career. Sometimes it was the IAS officer, sometimes the mother but only one of them won.
Chandigarh where she served as Advisor to the Administrator–proved to be an equally challenging experience in urban management. Initially, she considered her as an outsider but later came to realize what she meant by saying that cities are living organisms, they need to grow. And in order to preserve the city, you need to make sure that it does not get frozen in time. How else are you going to make it into an IT destination? This was a herculean task but then she managed to get people to understand.
Immediately on posting to Health Ministry she was shocked to see how bad the things were and lives were being lost in the states. Maternal mortality rate was very high. Children were not being immunized properly and many of these children were still getting polio despite the fact that the entire infrastructure had been given to put in place and training had been given. It was a dismal scenario, some kind of a race against time. Then was when she decided to tone up the department. Today looking back at those days she is happy that she at least got the opportunity to try and end human suffering… At least she tried too…
The peak of her career came when she was offered to take over as the first woman revenue secretary. In her brief tenure as the first woman Revenue Secretary Vineeta Rai who helped two Finance Ministers present the budget in the parliament and ended up collected more taxes than expected.
When asked about the unusual combination of – health and finance in her profile, she says, “one is a social sector, the other is an economic sector… But they all deal with people. “
Her father L P Singh was a role model for her. He was Chief Secretary of Bihar before taking over as Home Secretary in Delhi. He was also Indian ambassador in Nepal and governor of all the five North Eastern states. But then you notice a tinge of regret in her voice as she tells you that this may be one department where she might have failed miserably – the fact that none of her two children was so mesmerized by her to join the Civil Services as she and her brother did. Neither of them wanted to join the civil service – and she too stopped insisting.
Her brother Vijay Singh too has retired as Defense Secretary. Today in the twilight of her life, 68-year-old Vineeta Rai – retains every bit of her spirit of public service.
She still avoids talking about how she was thrown out as Excise Commissioner Delhi – that too when she had just come back to Delhi after staying away for seven years. “I was thrown out as Excise Commissioner Delhi. There were some problems with political leadership…It did not work out, so I said ok, I left. Why bother now… those people are no longer there.”
“A public servant works in a system, the political government might have its agenda. But the bureaucrat has to see that long term public goods are met.”