Andhra Pradesh IAS Office Blazed a Trail for Women

Minnie Mathew, a former Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer who served as only the second woman chief secretary of Andhra Pradesh, travelled a journey that is not only compelling but also inspiring.

A native of the Trichur District of Kerala, Mathew joined the IAS in 1976 as part of  the Andhra Pradesh cadre and rose to chief secretary in 2012 before retiring a year later. Mathew said she wasn’t at all confident in her ability to pass the civil service examination at first. Because she lacked the advantages of an affluent family, exceptional educational qualifications or speaking skills, Mathew wondered if her preparation was a waste of time. But what inspired her to continue studying and working hard toward becoming an IAS officer was her father’s encouragement.

My father’s solid support and faith in me helped me to overcome my fears and apprehensions and write the examination,” she said.

She describes her father, M.L. Francis,  as “the greatest inspiration in my life.” 

Mathew did the majority of her preparation in her home in Kollam, a small town in southern Kerala. Fortunately, her friend, Urmila Raghavan, who had already been selected for the IAS in 1975, gave her valuable tips. They included reviewing past exam questions to understand the pattern of the examination and the standards expected from the candidates

Although she was strong in English literature, Mathew faced difficulties in preparing for the British, European and Indian history sections. The absence of coaching facilities and the lack of a good library in her hometown forced her to move to Trivandrum three months before she sat the exam

“This move proved to be very beneficial as it gave a considerable boost both to my preparations and to my confidence levels,” Mathews recalled

Although the Civil Service Exam has changed much since 1976, Mathews suggested that students planning to take the exam start at least three years in advance. 

They should set for themselves targets and set apart at least 10 hours a week for their preparations, even while pursuing their graduate or post-graduate studies

Minnie Mathew

Coaching facilities, peer groups, wide reading of a variety of subjects and note taking are essential, she said. She also advised students to carefully consider the optional papers, especially if the subject is a new one

However, Mathew’s biggest piece of advice is simple: “The big differentiator between a successful and an unsuccessful candidate would be the systematic hard work and time invested in personal preparation. There is no substitute for systematic personal study.”

Mathew acknowledged that young candidates can have many doubts and worries during preparation. She encouraged students to discuss their concerns with supportive people they are close to, such as a parent or friend

“Giving expression to your anxieties and fears and sharing them with people you trust may help to relieve stress and rebuild confidence in oneself.”

At the same time, the importance of meditation and praying cannot be underestimated, she said. 

“Belief in the providence of God and his protection can be the biggest weapon in one’s battle against worries and anxieties,” she said.

To become a successful IAS officer, professionals should adopt a “servant leader” mentality, she advised.

The concept of servant leadership focuses on the need to serve the people and the society where one is placed. An officer who emerges as a servant leader and who commands respect by his actions will be a successful IAS officer,” she explained

Being a team leader who leads by example, has empathy, promotes fairness in dealing with people and issues, and is polite but firm are all qualities that are essential to a successful IAS officer. 

Another important trait they need is being  forthright and giving the correct advice.

“It is more important for an IAS officer to possess the moral force to speak up for what is right even if he or she is in a minority or just a lone voice in the wilderness. He or she should be uncompromising on principles and should be able to express his or her honest opinion without fear or hesitation.” 

She also notes that IAS officers need to consider specializing in one or two sectors

Acquisition of domain knowledge becomes very essential as one goes on to occupy senior positions where policy formulation takes priority and becomes the primary responsibility.”

Mathews identified a few of the traits that could cause an IAS officer to fail. The first is complacency, or the idea that “one has arrived.” Resting on one’s laurels is “naive and foolhardy thinking,” rather than understanding that the journey has just begun for new officers. 

The second error is a disinclination to grow and learn. “IAS officers should not believe that they already know anything, but instead look at each day in the service as a joyful learning experience,” Mathews said

Finally, lack of humility and insensitivity can be the bane of any civil servant, she said

Mathew also highlighted the importance of having a mentor. For her, it was the late Zacharia Mathew (no relation), an officer who joined the service in 1957 in the Kerala cadre. During the time Mathew worked in Kerala, she recalls how Zacharia Mathew “inspired me with his simplicity, composure and ability to take on any crisis without losing his cool. But it was his greatness (in how) he treated all his juniors with a lot of affection and respect.” 

Mathew said she learned many lessons from how her mentor guided others, including people management and the importance of expressing oneself.

It was always his stand that the political executive may or may not accept the advice given. But this should never deter us from giving the correct advice,” she said

To find a mentor, Mathew emphasizes looking for qualities like integrity, kindness, and commitment to one’s principles. However, it is important to note that many times it is simply luck in being placed close to a role model, she added

With allegations of corruption and abuse of power among IAS members, many perceive it to be an elitist service that doesn’t benefit the people. Mathew, however, believes the IAS still has much to offer the people of India and still makes meaningful contributions to society

In every crisis, it is the IAS officers who come to the forefront and take the brunt of the responsibility and restore some amount of order in places which are ravaged by natural calamities, man-made disasters, epidemics.” 

And the leadership exhibited by the IAS stretches farther than their responses to disasters, the service also supports the most vulnerable populations and plays a crucial role in program implementation

“If the servant-leadership style can be imbibed, the service would regain some of its old glory.”

Throughout her career, Mathew, who was the first woman district collector in Hyderabad (1986-88), has impacted several lives and faced much adversity. She learned one of the biggest lessons of her career in her first posting as sub collector in the Penukonda subdivision in Andhra Pradesh soon after completion of her training at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration Mussoorie

Mathew requested and received a post closer to Bangalore so she could be a closer train ride to her husband and fellow Kerala cadre member, Mathew C. Kunnumkal. She arrived in July, which was a very hot, dry period, and was welcomed by a large crowd with garlands, flowers and great fanfare.

It so happened that it suddenly started to rain. There was jubilation all round because there was no expectation of rain at this time of the year. The arrival of the unexpected rain when the fields were all dry and parched was considered to be very auspicious and some of the tahsildars generously attributed the rain to the arrival of the new sub collector!” she recalled.

The next morning, Mathew visited the district headquarters for the customary call on the district collector. She was promptly informed that she was being reassigned and her predecessor would be resuming the job

“Crestfallen and traumatised by the turn of events at my very first posting, I went back to Penukonda. I found that the whole crowd of tahsildars, revenue inspectors, village karnams and munsiffs who had been waiting for me since my arrival had vanished from the scene. There was only one solitary attendant who looked as if he was punished by having to wait on an officer who was without a job. 

That day I received a very sobering enlightenment that I, Minnie Mathew IAS, did not matter one bit. It was only the chair that I occupied that really mattered,” she said. “People are deferential to you because of the position that you hold.”

While being humble about one’s position and power are helpful, Mathew notes that using both in the service of others and with great heart and soul are appropriate uses of position.

The “Penukonda realisation,” enabled her to realise the transient nature of the power and authority that IAS officers wield.

This experience has helped to plant my feet firmly in the ground. In one sense it was an adversity. But then as the bard famously put it, ‘Sweet are the uses of adversity.

Minnie Mathew