Exclusive Interview With Dr. Kalpana Gopalan IAS

February 10, 2017, Chennai

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“In Social sector infrastructure it is not just the product, but the process which is important.”


Dr. Kalpana Gopalan is a serving officer of the lndian Administrative Service for 29 years. She has worked in land administration, urban management, rural development and education, and is now Principal Secretary to Government, Administrative Reforms & Training and Director-General, Administrative Training Institute, Government of Karnataka.


A practitioner, policy-maker, scholar, author, advocate for social causes and a mother, Dr Kalpana Gopalan wears many hats. She has a unique mix of academic and practical experience. She honed her research skills as a Doctoral and Masters Student in public policy in llM Bangalore. She was rated among the 'top two percent of Doctoral Candidates in the past decade,' for her research on infrastructure public private partnerships. 

A gold medalist and university topper in her undergraduate and master’s, she was fellow in the University of Salerno in ltaly; Chevening scholar, UK; and Maxwell public policy scholar in Syracuse University, USA. 

While serving as a public service professional, Dr Kalpana Gopalan concurrently continues her academic activities as a Senior Research Fellow in the National Institute of Urban Affairs, New Delhi, Visiting Professor/Fellow in the Institute of Social & Economic Change, Bangalore, lndian Institute of Science, Bangalore and lndian institute of Management Bangalore and Guest Faculty, Kuvempu University, Shimoga.

In an exclusive interview, Dr. Kalpana Gopalan IAS shares with Marie Banu her views on Public Private Partnerships.


About your childhood, education?

I studied at Vidyodaya School in Chennai and did my Graduation and Post-graduation in English Literature at Stella Maris College. My parents had an inter-regional marriage; my mother is from Gujarat, and my father is from Tamil Nadu. My father grew up mostly in Orissa and Andhra, so most of our family members, the older generation, speak very good Oriya and Telugu as well. We always had a pan-Indian ethos in the family.

I was a very good student, a gold medalist in both UG and PG. I joined IIT Madras for PhD and was an All India   topper in the Common Examination for Research Admission.  I was there for a year, wrote the Civil Services Examination, and joined Indian Administrative Service.  

What inspired you to join Indian Administrative Services?

It was serendipity! My father set the goal. He always had this as an option, but I was interested in academics. I did not find a PhD programme tailored to my research 0interest, therefore I looked elsewhere. The real encouragement came from my paternal uncle and a. neighbour. In the Chennai, of those days, were all in and eminent out of each other’s houses and the whole street was like a family. I had a neighbour who used to like me because I was good at studies. That’s how I got encouraged, wrote the Civil Service Examination, and passed in the first attempt, standing 20th rank in the All-India Merit List. 

Any momentous occasion in your career that you wish to share with us? 

Several perhaps. In IAS, we work very closely with people and that is the real strength of IAS. That keeps you going. I have worked in several parts of Karnataka—in Dharwad district about 25 years ago which has now been bifurcated into three districts and in coastal Karnataka. Even now when I go there, people recognize me, especially in the rural areas. They come and tell me that “you gave me a house” or “you gave me a piece of land and I have set up a dhaba and my life was made because of you.” This is not one such incident, but happens frequently. . 

In 2013, I served as the Managing Director of Cauvery Handicrafts Development Corporation and as part of my work I used to meet artisans across the state. When I visited Bidar, I came across an NGO that was specialized in sandalwood handicrafts. They used to buy sandalwood from us and engage artisans and make figurines, etc. The reception was over the top and they offered me a garland made out of sandal wood. I was surprised as people are usually nice but not so very welcoming. I went around the unit and met the women working here. The owner of the unit came towards me and said “you are not able to recognize me, but when you were in the Rural Development Department, you had sanctioned the seed money of Rs. 2 lakhs for me to set up this NGO.”  This person had come to Bangalore, was waiting in my office for my approval, but as I had cleared his file and sent it, I did not get to see him. This happened around 20 years ago. You really see the fruits of what you have done, although it is your responsibility and duty, it is still a great feeling!

Your experience with social work organisations?

In IAS, you have a lot of opportunity to get involved in social work, but you do it partly with the mantle of authority which the service gives you. I have been associating with NGOs since my probation period.  One of the earliest association that dates back almost 30 years is with Swami Vivekananda youth Movement which is promoted my Dr Balasubramanian in Mysore.  When I was serving as a Probationer at HD Kote, Dr Balasubramanian and his colleagues were young doctors who had just come out of medical school and were trying to do some service. I used to walk along with them for 14 kilometers every day to work in the villages and even lunched together. I still tease him about his poor cooking! Many years later, I took on a more formal honorary association with GRAAM (Grassroot Research and Advocacy Movement), which is an offshoot of SVYM, as their Technical Advisor... 

The informal association I had over the years with social organizations, crystalised when I took a sabbatical to do my PhD in IIM Bangalore.  That is a whole different kind of experience where you are without your regular portfolio or network of authority, and are looking at things from a different perspective. You might have an open mind even otherwise, but to look at it from a different vantage point was very good.  This also coincided with my children growing up and family responsibilities being lesser. After that, I began to associate in a more formal way as an advisor to several social organizations. After completing my PhD, I committed to give more and more of myself, not only with GRAAM, but with also several other organisations like Bangalore Women’s Forum, The Akshayapatra Foundation, and so on.

Why is the social sector infrastructure and service delivery challenging? How can Public Private Partnerships enable meeting these challenges?

In Social sector infrastructure it is not just the product, but the process which is important. You can build a bridge or construct an airport, but you need mindfulness, involvement and empathy in the social sector. PPP can definitely enable meeting these challenges provided they are well designed and managed. 

The formative phase of PPP project, whether hard or soft infrastructure, is critical. Networking or working together becomes easy when public money is not involved. When public funding is involved, it calls for two things—from the public side it calls for greater flexibility which should be built in the structure, it is not just a mindset change as is popularly believed. There should be some lee-way for delegation, financial flexibility, and dispute resolution. From the private side, (what is largely lacking in the NGO sector), is that there should be an assumption of fiscal responsibility. You cannot expect that it would be ‘free for all’. There is an attitude that people feel that is it the government money, so there need be no accountability. This is the crux of the problem. NGOs and Government have equal commitment, passion, and hard work, but with structural financial flexibility on the one hand and financial responsibility it is possible to succeed in social sector PPPs.  ..

Marie Banu

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