'No compromise as long as our priorities are clear'

'No question of compromise as long as our priorities are clear'

Interview with Charulata Somal

Charulata Somal during her 2017 trip to Antarctica.

Charulata Somal is currently the Deputy Commissioner of Kodagu district. In 2017, Charulata shot to fame when she made two expeditions to Antarctica, the first IAS officer to do so.

During her stint in Shivamogga as the Commissioner of City Corporation in 2019, she was appreciated for her handling of the floods in the city.  

Charulata speaks with DH's Prajwal Suvarna about her decision to join the civil services and her experience so far.


What prompted you to join the civil services? How did you prepare for the exams?

I was born and raised in Mumbai, and graduated in Economics Hons from St Stephens College, in Delhi. I was inspired or rather, coaxed by my parents to write the UPSC exams post college. Discussions with my parents over a few months helped me arrive at the decision. 

I started preparing a few months after graduation. My subjects were economics and public administration. 

I had enrolled in a few coaching institutes that were not so great. Then, I bought my own reference books and notes and focussed on self-study, taking tips from people who were previously successful in the exams. Many teachers and other fellow aspirants also helped me at each stage. 

Any tips for cracking the interview?

In the interview, I think it is important to be authentic. Very often, we are tutored to give responses, which are not necessarily our natural responses. Ultimately, every person has their own style of interacting and responding.

One of the most important things, in hindsight, is that when you do not know the answer to something, it is okay to say that you do not know.

There is no point trying to bluff the board or guessing unnecessarily.

How has the experience in the service been so far? 

I started off as the Assistant Commissioner in Kundapura. This was not just my first assignment in the services, but also my first job. I had not worked previously. There is so much learning from that first posting — learning a new language, adapting to a new work set up and culture. 

And this also was the first time that I was staying away from a big city. In the cities, I don’t think we realise what the country has to offer. The small towns and cities are charming in their own way. 

After that, I was the Zilla Panchayat CEO in Kodagu. That is when I got introduced to the Forest Department and was surrounded by some wonderful forest officers. This stint piqued my interest in nature. That was also the time that I had the opportunity to do my two expeditions to Antarctica.

One of the key lessons in working with local bodies, whether it is rural or urban, is that we learn people management. Working with an elected body involves a lot of teamwork. It is never in isolation.

Even within our office, I work with my subordinates who work to get the results. We are working towards a common goal.

My first posting in Bengaluru was working in the Chief Minister’s Secretariat. Bengaluru gives you a very different perspective, because there you are able to observe how senior officers and the system work much more closely. So learning doesn't always have to be direct, you can always learn from the experience of your peers.

What was your experience in Shivamogga like? 

While working with urban local bodies, like my stint as City Corporation Commissioner and Smart City MD in Shivamogga, I realised that the public scrutiny is all the more intensified. 

One such intense experience was during the rains of 2019. It was not something that was expected or anticipated. But we worked for three-four days without any sleep, rescuing thousands of people within the city and opening up rehabilitation centres and hosting 7,000 people there for two days. We did not have any deaths. Everybody rose to the occasion.

What are the challenges of working as a Deputy Commissioner?

As a DC, one is working across fields and your days are divided between office and field visits, attending to public grievances, office files, court matters and meetings. 

In the recent past, Covid management has been a big challenge along with other routine work related to revenue, tribal development, regulatory functions.

The responsibilities are always quite high. And you also have to be aware of how we interact with people and how we conduct ourselves. 

Personally, one thing that I believe in is treating people with grace and dignity.

It is very easy to get carried away when you are in a position of authority. But irrespective of who is walking into your office, and irrespective of the entitlement the person may have, you should treat everybody with equal amount of courtesy. 

It is not that we don't make mistakes. But just being a patient listener and being respectful towards people is very important. Treating people well goes a long way. And even if we agree to disagree, let it be with dignity.

As a young officer, how do you handle situations of conflict or friction? Is there some compromise?

There is no question about compromise. As long as our priorities are clear and boundaries are set, there is nothing that prevents officers from doing what is right.

That is the only clarity we require. And as I said, we can always agree to disagree politely, it does not have to be acrimonious.

Sometimes, another party may come to us with a request. And if we listen to them, we may realise that what they are asking for is not unreasonable.

As long as we keep an open mind, there is nothing that prevents us from doing the right thing as per the law or the mandate of our job.

Does disaster management take up a lot of your time in Kodagu?

The landslide season is from May to August. So from April onwards, we went into preparation mode. There were alerts issued by the government from time to time, we are always in a wait and watch mode. If there were any red flags, we can start evacuating immediately.

The motto for us this year was that there should not be any casualty.

Fortunately, this year the rains have been quite kind. And on the disaster front, the district did hold up, compared to the previous years.

How does one cope under high pressure / stressful situations? 

Apart from pursuing one’s personal faith, whether religion or spiritual practices, having an interest outside of the services does help keep one happy. 

Some are very good at tackling stressful situations, some not, one learns with time and experience. Self-care, through emotional, mental and physical health also would probably hold one in good stead over the years. 

Which city would you choose between Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru? 

Each city has its own charm. But I love Bengaluru. It is a beautiful, young city, with so many avenues for recreation. It has amazing running clubs, yoga clubs, cycling clubs and trekking places. It is a nice melting pot of various cultures.

I think Bengaluru is also a very small city  — everybody knows everybody — but you still have your anonymity.  

I think as of today, I would choose Bengaluru over Mumbai and Delhi.

Any other advice for young civil service aspirants and working professionals starting out? 

The first question one must ask is why does one want to do it — be authentic.

Do it if it is your choice, and be committed 100%. There can’t be a Plan B. The harder one works, the luckier one gets. Of course, this holds true for every profession and the civil services are just one of the many great career options available today. 

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