Several students and parents ask us about careers in Public Service, especially the coveted Indian Administrative Service (IAS). Most enquiries are related to exams and preparations. But the IAS is much bigger than an exam. It is about Leadership, Conviction and a Vision for Social Good.

We are extremely happy to have Dr Kalpana Gopalan IAS, our next path-breaker, Additional Chief Secretary, Youth Empowerment & Sports, Karnataka, amidst us.

Dr Kalpana talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her initial years that led to taking up a career in the IAS and the challenging but immensely fulfilling role of being a change agent with the responsibility of making a direct impact on society.

For students, IAS is not just a job but a way of life. Read on if you would like to know what it takes to join The Indian Administrative Service!

Dr Kalpana, please tell us about your background?

Let me start at the beginning. I am a daughter of the original “Two States” marriage, my father a Tamil, my mother a Gujarati. Childhood alternated between school days in Madras and holidays in Ahmedabad. My family placed a premium on education. I grew up with the responsibility of high expectations; academic excellence was taken for granted. I was a nerd long before the word was even invented.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I was a very good student, standing first in my school in the SSLC exam. This was the year when the plus-2 model was introduced in my state. All expectations, among my schoolmates and teachers, were that I would choose a Science-Mathematics combination.  To the chagrin of my Maths teacher, my love for Humanities won; and I chose an Economics-English-History-Ethics combination. I followed this with an English major in Undergraduate and Masters. Credit goes to my parents; not only did they support my choice of a higher education at a time when most of my schoolmates in conservative Madras were getting married; they were also fine with the unusual choice of a Humanities stream. 

In my life, serendipity and choice have both played a role. Unlike my career in the IAS which, in hindsight, was brought about by a series of fortuitous events, my choice of doing a Masters program, trivial as it may seem to a young woman today, was the real life-determining choice. In fact it is an illustration that simple short-neck choices can have long-term consequences that one hardly foresees at that time. I made one such choice as a naive and nervous college girl some 30 odd years ago.  As I was nearing the completion of my undergraduate degree, one of my officious uncles decided that it was time for me to get married. I was generally an obedient child, so this was one of the rare confrontations with my parents that I remember. I was preparing for my B.A. final exams at the time. I used to dart out from my room in the middle of my studies to insist “I want to do my MA; I want to do my MA”. That was the extent of my horizon and ambition at that time, an MA degree was as far as I could dream. Anyways, it worked; I did get to do my MA, and then the IAS, and two more Masters Degrees, and then a PhD. That rare instance of stubbornness defined the rest of my life thereafter. 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

Entering the Indian Administrative Service, India’s elite premier civil service, was not a burning ambition. Being good in studies, I naturally drifted into a PhD program. But Serendipity had other plans. I got into the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology Madras, but my social science interests and their technological expertise were not a great fit. The civil service exam was a fallback option. I prepared with my usual diligence and cleared it in my first try, standing fairly high in the merit list. My All-India Rank (AIR) is 19. 

Tell us about your career path in the IAS

The IAS was the first major turn in my hitherto simple student life. The job comes with all sorts of challenges and complexities. I got married around the same time, so I had a new life, new place, new job and new husband to adjust to, all simultaneously! Fast forwarding the next two decades, working, bringing up two children, promotions … life was pretty much full and very very busy. IAS officers are situational managers; leadership is neither a choice nor a position but a way of life. Therefore, I picked up quite a bit of multi-sectoral experience along the way. Some positions are more memorable than others; as when UNESCO awarded me for the best literacy program in the country that I stewarded; this was the first of over twenty-five awards, citations and commendations I have received in my career. Another unusual experience was the rare opportunity to set up the new district of Udupi as its first District Collector. 

The next major turn in my life, again unplanned and unforeseen, came when I entered the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore. I joined as a Masters student for their Public Policy Masters program in 2002; and returned as a doctoral student in 2007. Well, I was teased quite a bit for going back to school mid-career and mid-life; one cousin asked me if I was having a midlife crisis! Yet, both professionally and personally, the years I spent in IIM Bangalore were among the most rewarding in my life. I loved the intellectual stimulus, and made lasting friendships that I cherish. Well, all good things come to an end… unless you really work hard to see that they don’t! I continue to research in academic institutions of repute; I am frequently invited to speak in conferences, and I have written three books and quite a few articles. For me, reading, research, writing and speaking, along with fitness and music, help me relax from my work pressures. Sharing the learnings that life, academia and work have given me great joy.

What are some of the challenges you have faced in your career and how have you dealt with them?

I desire not just to be different, but to make a difference. My career in the Indian Administrative Service gives me an unconventional leadership role; and gaining new skills enables me to give creative, inspired leadership to benefit my country. As the IAS provides diverse cross-sectoral experience, I enjoyed a variety of postings and exposure to leadership challenges in every post. Let me narrate three instances of my leadership and courage in decision-making. 

First, the IAS affords the power to do good, and quite often, if not always, to be remembered for it. Many, most significantly Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, have commented on the unconditional love of the people of India. It sounds corny when you say it in words, but it is a feeling that words can hardly describe. In 2013, as Managing Director of Cauvery Handicrafts, I toured Bidar district, and visited an NGO which produced sandalwood products. Normally, when I visit a unit, I am received well, but this reception was heartfelt and truly warm. Hesitantly, the promoter asked me if I knew who he was. I did not. He began to explain. In 1996, about 18 years earlier, I was a young Director in the Rural Development Department, and he was a middle aged entrepreneur. A file to release Rs.10000/- seed capital had reached my table, and he travelled from Bidar to my office to request me to sanction it. I was quick with files; before he reached Bangalore or met me, I had cleared the file. At my office, my PA handed him the order, saying “Your work is done, you need not meet Madam”, and sent him on his way. Badappa had waited 18 years to meet me, and the meeting had happened purely by chance. That seed capital had provided livelihood not only to his family, but about 150 destitute women whom he employed. It is a feeling of fulfillment I will carry with me for life.

Second, in the year 2000, I worked as Director, Mass Education (Adult and Non-formal) and Secretary, Karnataka State Literacy Mission Authority. I rejuvenated the literacy program by launching the Continuing Education Project for Adult Literacy. I conducted workshops on Low Female Literacy, Adolescent Literacy, Writing Skill Improvement and a 3-day Conference of Neo-literates. My proud moment came when I received the National Literacy Mission – UNESCO Award 2000 on behalf of my state. 

Third, I was posted as District Collector, Udupi District in the late 1990s. It was a unique experience because Udupi was a newly formed district and I was the first District Collector. I was responsible for setting up the entire institutional machinery ab initio. It was a hectic time, carving out every district level institution, identifying the district’s development needs, while at the same time battling for its place in the financial and resource map of Karnataka. 

These three instances stand out in what has been a challenging and fulfilling career throughout. As a career woman, I have faced my share of obstacles, and I have had to work extra hard with little recognition at times. I have juggled the demands of work and family and especially my two children. What has kept me going is that I see myself as a change agent with a growing ability to find creative solutions to complex problems, nurture my talents and build enduring relationships

What does your current role entail?

I am now the Additional Chief Secretary, Youth Empowerment & Sports in Karnataka. Youth are my constituency; they energize me with their intelligence and enthusiasm. In my present position, I stewarded the first ever International Sports Climbing Championships in Bangalore in 2020, the first ever National Sports Climbing Championships in Bangalore in 2019,  the Belgaum and Dharwar Kusti Habbas and a slew of National Social Service schemes and National Integration Camps in Belgaum, Devenahalli, Bellary, Bangalore, Udupi and so on. I promoted the Yuva Spandana program to address mental health issues in youth in collaboration with NIMHANS; and motivated the Karnataka team to earn fourth place in the medal tally of the Khelo India Youth Games for two years consecutively. When the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, I initiated a series of efforts under the National Social Service Scheme (NSS) in collaboration with UNICEF India, the Rajiv Gandhi University of Health Sciences and NIMHANS to provide curated medical information, stress management, stigma removal, online and telephonic counselling, field level dissemination, mask preparation and distribution, food preparation and distribution and so on. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you.

I think you will remember the 2008 floods in Kodagu (Coorg) district of Karnataka. Hundreds of people lost their livelihoods and homes overnight as they witnessed everything they possessed being washed away. At the time, I was District Secretary of Kodagu district.  I was tasked with overseeing the rescue and relief operations. I was at my desk in my office in Bangalore around 11 am on the 16th of August 2018; and I was asked to leave immediately. I left right then, without even time to pack, and reached Madikeri after a somewhat risky journey. On reaching Madikeri, I immediately began coordinating with the district administration, the army, navy, air-force and so on, to expedite the rescue operations. The prospects were bleak in the first few days. Many thousands were stranded, and the rescue teams were struggling to reach them in hostile conditions. It was a tense time, many lives hung on our decisions, and delays could be fatal. We had put the resources of the Army and Air force to the rescue efforts, but it wasn’t enough.

It was at that time, on the morning of 17th August 2018, that I was approached by GETHNAA, the General Thimmayya National Academy of Adventure. They volunteered their skills; and they wanted to participate in the rescue efforts. Though we were in need of manpower for rescue operations, I was always cautious about earnest volunteers who wished to help, without understanding the perils of nature’s fury. But something about the GETHNAA team inspired my confidence. I questioned them carefully, satisfying myself regarding their skill and professionalism. Then I decided to give them the go ahead. It was a decision fraught with risk. At that time, I had no one to either consult or take advice from, nor time to postpone the decision. It was done, then. 

I was exhilarated to see that GETHNAA not only participated in the efforts, but they rescued a baby girl, just 2 months old, carrying her across the angry river in spate. The video of this rescue effort, and the baby herself, became inspirational for an anxious public. The media reported as follows: “As Karnataka’s Kodagu is getting back to normalcy, one heroic visual of a rescue operation involving a two-month-old baby has caught the attention of many, including Karnataka CM HD Kumaraswamy. The team was led by GETHNAA, under G. Kalpana (IAS), Additional Chief Secretary, in-charge of Madikeri at Control Room in DC office”. For me, that split second decision saved that little girl baby. It was one of those moments when I thanked God for making me an IAS officer. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I volunteer with social organizations. Thirty-two years ago, as a young officer-trainee, I got together with some young doctors in Mysore, all of us believing that we could make a difference. This grew into the Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement with which I associate as Technical Advisor. Today I continue to associate with initiatives like the Akshayapatra Foundation, the Centre for Health and Development in Mangalore and the Her initiative in Maharashtra, because I believe our youth can make a difference.

I believe in Personal Social Responsibility. What is PSR? You are familiar with Corporate Social Responsibility. But I want you to go beyond CSR to acknowledge your Personal Social Responsibility. It is not possible for most of us to give up our ambitions and dedicate our lives to social service. But it is entirely doable to set aside some time every day, week or month to repay the debt we owe to our fellow beings. I suggest that you choose an area where you have a particular interest or talent in; if you sing well, go to hospitals or old age homes and sing for the residents; if you love poetry, teach your neighbourhood children to delight in the joys of a Shakespeare or a Byron or a Subramania Bharati. Seek out those nearest to you, family, friends, neighbours, and do something, regularly and without publicity, to make their lives better. Many problems that our country faces can be mitigated, even if wholly not resolved, by simple and ordinary solutions, practiced with extraordinary discipline and conviction. Just do it, Now. 

Future Plans?

At this point in my life, I want to leave a legacy. I have a body of work- I have a body of my work as a practitioner; and I have a body of academic work. My body of work is large, varied and enriching too. I have created institutions; like the Udupi district I spoke of earlier. But there is not any single thing of which I can claim: “This is what I leave behind” … except perhaps my children. 

In terms of leaving a legacy, what I would like to be involved in is Building Capability. As a citizen of the world, I feel that the future of civilization lies in Building Capability, in education, in employment and in ethics.  This is what I would like to invest my future in. 

*Short note on the author.

Practitioner, scholar, policymaker, author and mother, Kalpana Gopalan’s 32-year work experience in the Indian Administrative Service and public policy research spans urban and rural development, land management, infrastructure and public private partnerships. Kalpana holds a Masters and Doctorate from the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore and was Visiting Fellow in McGill, Concordia, Salerno, Syracuse & Sussex Universities. Dr. Kalpana is recipient of the Mother Theresa Women Empowerment Award for “outstanding contribution to excellence in leadership” and the International Human Rights Award under the Women of Courage category. She was recognized as a “Great Warrior of Humanity” by the International Human Rights Advisory Council for her “outstanding performance, commitment, contribution and dedication towards the humanitarian services and best practices on Covid-19 prevention”; and was appreciated by UNICEF and the Rajiv Gandhi University of Health Sciences for support in Covid-19 response. She is a LinkedIn Wonder Woman and Inspirational Leader. She lives in Bangalore and presents and publishes globally.

Views are personal, and meant for academic and intellectual discussion only.