Notes, Drafts and Rats

Most people believe they have to go to banks to see notes and drafts. There is another place where too these could be found in greater abundance.The Secretariats of governments have notes and drafts strewn in innumerable files all over.But they are of a different kind. The notes of the Secretariat variety are the considered comments of babus who scrutinise the merits of proposals received by them, or explanations of blueprints conceived by them. They become shorter and shorter as they go up the ladder of hierarchy. It is a pyramid at the apex of which the top man’s contribution shrinks to mere initials of his names, or at most his signature. If he initials the note, it means that he agrees with the proposal. If he doesn’t agree, he says something negative before he puts his signature. In most cases, however, it is so arranged that the proposal is in accordance with his wishes.

Note & Minute

A technical point. A note is so called up to the level of the Joint Secretary. If the Secretary or the Minister writes anything, it is called a ‘minute’. I suppose if the Prime Minister were to do the same, it would be called an ‘hour’. It is apparently indicative of the relative value of their time

Unlike bank notes, these notes are not immediate cash; nevertheless they are potential money. There is the well-known case of a Chief Minister who used to write ‘Not approved’ and then sign below it. The fact of his disapproval, however, was made known to the party concerned and enough time was allowed to lapse before sending the file down. Meanwhile the concerned party came up with adequate financial consideration. Thereafter, an ‘e’ was added after the ‘t’ whereby ‘Not’ became ‘Note’. That meant the proposal was approved. The Secretariat note was transformed into numerous bank notes. Everybody was happy thereafter.

The acuity of the mind of the officer is judged by the sort of note he writes. The underlings up to the level of Under Secretary are required to provide the necessary documentation including precedents which facilitate decision making. For a civil servant nothing is more of a heaven-sent than a precedent. That saves so much waste of time in arguing for and against the case. And of course the risk of taking a decision.

Decision Making

In some difficult or delicate cases, the process of decision-making is pushed upwards. Alternative possible decision are suggested and the choice is left to the top man. Mostly, out of sheer habit, he merely initials. Once I sent up a file –‘resubmitted’ – is the officialese – for it – for specific orders ‘Two alternatives – A and B were suggested’, I wrote meekly, ‘kindly indicate which one is approved’. The file came back with the minute – ‘Whichever is more appropriate’. Some officers who acquire a rare degree of perfection in a signing notes are transferred to a job especially reserved for such persons – Governor of the Reserve Bank of India. One such person was the late Ranganathan. Once on a foreign trip, a lady asked him what he did for a living. He replied mischievously: ‘I am a writer. I write notes. They are small; but have very good circulation’.


‘Draft’ is the other important component of the work of the babus. It is a rough and tentative suggestion for a reply to a representation, a suggestion or a letter, or a parliamentary question. It is prepared by a subordinate official for the approval of his superior. In important cases, the draft passes through many hands before it reaches the appropriate level for approval. The speeches of ministers are also drafted at different levels depending on the importance of the occasion where they are to be delivered. Prudent ministers rehearse the speech to check whether they can pronounce all the terms used in the draft.

Once a Minister asked for a draft speech for ten minutes. However, its delivery took twenty minutes. On return, he asked his Secretary why he had given him a speech for twice the length. The Secretary replied coolly that he had prepared the speech for ten minutes but the Minister had read the carbon copy of the speech also. Since then, the carbon copy is carried by the Minister’s P.A. to keep the copy secure from the Minister.


Normally, the original draft is prepared by a Section Officer or an Under Secretary A rare enterprising Deputy Secretary might attempt a draft himself if it is to go up to the Secretary or the Minister That is one occasion for him to be noticed. One of my bosses, a Joint Secretary always used to claim before the Secretary and the Minister that he had vastly improved my draft. He used to record in the file: “As amended”. The improvement mostly consisted of changing the closing compliment from ‘With best wishes’ to ‘With kind regards’ or vice versa. In order to ensure that the immensity of his contribution was not exposed, he would remove the original draft and replace it with one of his own. It was most frustrating to see one’s composition so unceremoniously removed, but it couldn’t be helped because he did it to everyone.

In contrast, my next boss had a large and golden heart that gave more than full credit for his subordinate’s work. Even when he amended the drafts, he did not claim any credit for that. Once I was asked by him to draft a speech for the minister for his use as an intervention in the debate for grants for the ministry. The Joint Secretary, Sabanayagam of the Tamil Nadu cadre went through it, signed it and sent it up. In the afternoon the minister, K.C.Pant summoned the Secretary, R.C.Dutt and Saba (as we used to refer to him affectionately) discuss the draft. Pant complimented Saba for the good draft. Saba told him that it was not prepared by him but by me. Back in his room he called me to pass on the compliment I felt flabbergasted because it was for the first time that my boss had let an opportunity to grab the credit slip by Noticing a look of wonder on my face, he said he was past the stage of being judged by his drafting skills whereas I needed to be acknowledged As it happened, the Secretary was to write my annual confidential report the same evening The incident still fresh in his mind, he paid me glowing tributes. That washed down to some extent the effect of the remark of the previous year.

Tempering with bank notes, and drafts is a criminal offence, in the Secretariat species, it is a duty. In the former case, those guilty of making counterfeit notes are punished; in the Secretariat they are rewarded with advancement.

Excuse my perversity, but I am glad to say that while my boss who stole credit for my drafts, did not go up, Sabanaygam deservedly rose higher, prospered and is still doing well. May his tribe increase.

Government service is not all about rat race. There are also human beings in it who do not join the race And still they win.