The thrill and pressures of running a district

Govindan Nair

A favourite pastime of babus (to use the term for civil servants favoured by the media nowadays) is to ruminate about their District Collector (DC) days. Regarded as the most exhilarating phase of an IAS career, the DC’s position gives the youthful incumbent a power rush unmatched in any other profession. Inveigled by the description of DC Garhwal (in the Himalayas) by Philip Mason, the colonial civil servant and historian, as “the best job in the world”, this reviewer fervently coveted that dream assignment; alas, he was consigned to the Chambal badlands instead, for a stint that compensated in challenge what it lacked in romance, which he reminisces about, nonetheless, with deep nostalgia.

This book comprises recollections and meanderings of long-retired IAS officers about their exploits as DC. Likening one’s first district to first love, V I Rajagopal lists “textbook idealism, the rule book and a frenetic impatience to achieve” as the guiding factors. Disappointments occurred, as when Sharad Behar complained that “nobody wants fairness and impartiality”, but all the writers took away significant learnings from their tenures. In a dacoit-ridden district, Shekhar Dutt learned from a notorious ex-outlaw that “the image of the administration or the police depended on whether the people … saw them as benevolent or insensitive instruments of the state.” Many contributors underscore the importance of team building: providing assurance that “the Collector will not let them down”.

Disagreeing with the impersonal approach, P N Bhandari found the key to success in deep personal involvement with the people. Babu Paul ascribes quick-thinking and common sense as critical for a DC. Releasing families from bondage and exploitation, distributing pattas to the landless poor, chaperoning inhabitants of a border district of Rajasthan through the peril of the 1972 war, organizing food rations and wage labour for thousands of drought-stricken people, rescuing a marooned town by personally locating and helping dig drainage trenches, are a sampling of the supremely satisfying accomplishments of contributors to this book as intrepid DCs. They faced their share of trauma and frustration too: pressure from vested interests and ambivalent support of superiors, grave physical threat and arduous working conditions.

A limitation of the book is that 18 of the 23 articles relate to Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh — eastern and north-eastern India, and even Uttar Pradesh, do not find place; and the contributions are somewhat dated — pertaining mostly to the ‘sixties and ‘seventies, and even earlier. The collection, therefore, does not reflect the diversity of administrative experience across the country. Issues like sectarian tensions, insurgencies, urbanisation and industrialisation — pressing concerns of contemporary district administration — are missing, whereas drought relief, civil supplies and tribal empowerment are discussed repeatedly. Had it been more geographically representative, and addressed subjects of higher concern to today’s DCs, the value of District Collectors would have been greater.

The editors hope to convey to the reader the “thrill” of the experience of running a district. While some of the articles do communicate a sense of adventure, the uneven quality of the narrations and inadequate editing detract from the reader’s pleasure. Aspiring DCs will, nevertheless, benefit from the varied experiences and insights of their forebears. Times have changed though: the days when politicians and ministers were generally considerate and gracious, and when even high priority telephone calls could take several hours if not days to materialise — factors that enhanced the respect and autonomy that DCs enjoyed, and contributed in a major way to the allure of a district posting — are far removed from today’s reality.

Following an inspection of famine relief operations in Rajasthan, a parliamentary delegation complimented the efforts of the DC and reported back to the prime minister that if “Collectors of all Districts in the country work with (such) missionary zeal … the face of the country will change very soon.” Forty years have elapsed since then. Accounts in this book about heroic and path-breaking feats of generations of District Collectors make one wonder why inequalities and iniquities persist in our country in so glaring a manner, why large sections of the population continue to be marginalised, why governance is so venal and irresponsive. This book does not attempt to tackle this conundrum.

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