Of Muster Rolls and Bedrolls

It was at the peak of a blistering summer that the young DM assumed charge of his new district. He felt a lingering nostalgia for the much-loved smaller neighbouring district he left behind, where he had spent two productive and happy working years. But at the same time he braced himself with keen anticipation for the challenges of his new responsibility, a much larger and far more complex and politically sensitive charge.

Barely a-couple of days after he joined, he began to tour the district to familiarise himself with its people, its terrain, and its problems. It was a scarcity year and relief works employing sometimes as-many as one lakh workers each day were in full swing. So it was natural that much of the time of his initial touring was spent in routinely inspecting the relief works that fell along the way.

What he saw astounded him. Consistently, in work after work, he found that brazenly, openly, actual construction work done was far below what was shown on the records, and clearly large fractions of the allotments had been siphoned away. Muster
rolls recording the daily attendance, work done by and payments made to the workers, were found to be very frequently fabricated. These records were crowded with false names and false thumb impressions of workers claimed to have laboured on works that were just not there on the ground. The majority of the works that had been taken up were earth-works, mainly deepening of existing village ponds and earth roads without consolidation, in which intrinsically it would be difficult to verify or prove the actual quantities of work done or not done, after the first monsoon.

The officials who accompanied the DM during his tours were embarrassed by his consternation and outrage, and the detailed enquiries that he made at each work, examining the records and talking at length to the relief workers. Although they did not say so openly, they laid this at the door of his youth and inexperience.

They patiently explained to him that what he was seeing was not new, but in fact had been going on for years, even decades. Almost every year, in the kharif harvest after the monsoons, patwari records and crop estimates were vigorously manipulated to enable the political declaration of a scarcity, and relief works were opened on a massive scale. It was an unwritten but universally accepted convention that a large proportion of the funds allotted to the works would be diverted by the implementing departments, and false muster rolls fabricated. These funds were shared between the government officials at various levels and public representatives. In more recent years, a large number of works were handed over for implementation to the public representatives at the panchayat level directly, so they did not now require in these works the intervention of government officials to achieve their ends. This is a universally accepted practice, they explained to the DM, everyone knows about it and accepts it. If this was not the case, what would be the rationale behind the clamour to declare scarcity year after year?
The DM spoke to his older and more experienced colleague in a neighbouring district. Don't be so worked up, was his advice. This, after all, is the price of democracy. There is nothing you can do about it. At the very most, if you feel so badly about it, try to control these practices in the future, for the few remaining months of scarcity that remain before the monsoon. But don't dig up old graves of the period before you joined.

But his mind was made up. Within 15 days of his joining at the district, he announced that he proposed to immediately institute a full-scale enquiry into all the scarcity works, and to complete the enquiry before the onset of the monsoon.

He had anticipated muted opposition to his declaration, but nothing had prepared him for the tempestuous storm that immediately greeted his announcement. Senior politicians of the district of all hues described the announcement of the enquiry by the new DM as a violent and shameful assault on the dignity and honour of the public representatives. Each day, the front pages of the newspapers hotly debated the issue, with local correspondents carrying only the statements of the local politicians decrying the arrogance and anti-democratic, anti-people character of the DM. There was nothing at all in their reports of the version of the DM which they had heard in their occasional interviews with him. The DM was amazed at how an issue which appeared to him clearly one of black and white could be so drastically distorted. It was only the editorials and letters to the editor that came out in his favour.

Shortly after his announcement, an all-party delegation of senior politicians, MP's, MLA's and Sarpanches, called on him at his office, demanding immediate cancellation of the infamous enquiry which constituted an open insult of the people's representatives. The DM urged that where public money has been spent on such a large scale, the public has a right to be assured that the money has been usefully and honestly spent. Even the most honest official cannot claim exemption from an audit; on the contrary, he should welcome it. The enquiry was being undertaken not only into Panchayat works, but also all departmental works. It was not an arbitrary of whimsical decision; he had personally seen enormous prima facie evidence of embezzlement of relief funds in numerous works. And by the violence of their uproar against an enquiry, the public representatives were in fact indirectly admitting the charges. He told them politely but firmly that there was no question of going back on the decision of the enquiry; on the contrary, their opposition had increased his determination to conduct the enquiry with even greater vigour and depth.

The meeting ended in an uproar.

The ferocity of their opposition gained strength from the previous history of the DM. In the neighbouring district where he had been posted earlier, in the first month after such scarcity works had started, he had conducted such an enquiry. As a result, criminal cases were registered against more than 40 Sarpanches and government officials, who were subsequently arrested and charge sheeted in the courts. Unproductive and unverifiable works like deepening of tanks and earth roads without consolidation were banned. The result had been that for the remainder of the scarcity reason, leakages were kept severely in rein, and for the first time villages found relief translated into innumerable durable productive community assets, including over 1000 new village tanks.

After his abortive meeting with the senior public representatives in his new district, the DM immediately constituted teams of district officers for the-enquiry, each comprising one technical officer with one revenue, development or other district officer. He selected a few officers in whose integrity he had faith, and said that they along with him would concurrently cross-check a sample of the works enquired into. He also drew up a programme of enquiry to be completed well before the rains. He called a meeting of all his district colleagues who would be aiding him in his enquiry, and urged them to work fearlessly and impartially. He reassured them that everyone knew that the enquiry had been initiated and was being pursued entirely by him alone, and therefore no blame or consequences would fall upon others bound by his orders to assist him in his enquiry.

As a first step in the enquiry, he decided to call for all muster rolls from all departments and panchayats. He directed his officer placed in charge of the development department in the Collectorate to ensure immediate action in this regard. The Development Officer issued a circular, marked to all panchayats, saying that the DM had ordered the immediate 'seizure' of all muster rolls.

The use of the word 'seizure' (in Hindi ‘zapti’) in the circular was a handle to raise a fresh storm. The word 'seizure' proved the prejudice and arrogance of the DM, declared many politicians. It presumes our guilt even before the enquiry, it is an insult, we are being treated as criminals. The DM said that he was not bound by prestige, and that he was quite willing to modify the wording of the circular, replacing the word 'seize' by ‘called for’, but that would not change the substantive content of the circular. This however did not satisfy his critics, who wanted nothing short of a public apology and a withdrawal of the enquiry.

As time progressed, the DM slowly realised that much of the outrage being voiced by the politicians was being instigated, planned and orchestrated by the government officials of the district themselves. It was, for instance, the Development Officer who, deliberately used the word 'seizure' in his circular and then advised the local politicians to raise a protest against it. In truth, in the fight that he had taken up, the DM was almost completely alone. It was only the young SP, who in a short time had become a close friend, who constantly gave him strength and support during this stormy period.

In the next two weeks, the enquiry gathered momentum, and dramatic results started pouring in. The senior most Minister of the district indeed one of the most respected persons in public life in the state, toured the district at that time. Late at night, after he had met, according to his practice, a large number of local politicians and officials, he sent for the DM to meet him at his room in the Circuit House.

As soon as the DM walked into the room, the Minister asked, in a voice laced undisguisedly with deep and biting sarcasm - How many crores of corruption have you unearthed?
The DM, a little taken aback by his uncharacteristic open hostility, replied in an even voice - Not crores yet, Sir, the enquiry is still under progress. But we are finding that things are really bad.

What followed was a fifteen minute tirade in which the DM mostly remained silent. Only at one point, he interjected, somewhat moralistically - I am doing only what I feel to be my duty.

The interview of course ended inconclusively and in bad grace. But it did not trouble the DM so much as another incident that took place a few days later. News came that a young sub-engineer from the Irrigation Department had hung himself by a rope he had tied to the roof of his room. He was the eldest son of a widow, the only bread-winner. In his suicide note, he said that there was much that he had done wrong under the guidance of his superiors, in the relief works under his charge. He could not bear the hurt, the exposure, and the shame of the enquiry. Therefore, he had no option but to take his life.

Meanwhile, newspaper reports became increasingly more shrill and partisan, with only the editorial page coming out occasionally in the defence of the DM. The DM himself enjoyed a satirical poem that appeared as a 'middle', which indignantly declared that it was the birth right of all those in power - the officials and those elected - to make money and the DM was committing a grave injustice against democracy by conducting his enquiry. The chorus of the satirical poem read (in Hindi).

'Muster roll, bhai, muster roll!
Kare Collector bister goll!

which freely translated, would mean :

'Muster roll, brother, muster roll!
It's time the Collector packed his bedroll....

Finally, as a climax to their protests, one especially hot summer afternoon, almost all the sarpanches of the district, from all political parties numbering over 500, and the elected-MLA's, all of the ruling party, marched through the town, raising slogans against the tyranny of the DM. They ended their march at the Collectorate, where they demanded to see the DM. He came out of his office, his friend the SP by his side, and amidst a fresh bout of sloganeering, was handed over the joint resignation letters of all the sarpanches of the district, in protest against the humiliation of the enquiry.

It was a thunderbolt, entirely unprecedented. All the newspapers of the state carried the news in front page banner headlines the next morning with extensive editorial comment. The DM received summons to meet the Chief Minister at the State capital immediately, and he left by a special plane.

He was ushered into the Chief Minister's chamber without much delay. He had carefully rehearsed in his mind what he was going to say, right through the plane journey.  And he said it right away, with a trace of defensive aggression in his voice Sir, if you call off the enquiry, I will be forced to put in my papers.

The Chief Minister, to his surprise was very conciliatory and supportive and the DM was disarmed. He heard out the full story, assured him that he had done completely the right thing, and went so far as to say that he would ensure that his principled stand would not be basically compromised and that he would take no step unless the DM consented to it.

He went on, however, to explain his own constraints and political compulsions. Although the DM had acted entirely on his own initiative, people would believe that he had done what he had done with the tacit approval of the Chief Minister, to humiliate and expose his powerful opponents within the party. Therefore he had to find a path which satisfied his opponents, yet did not compromise the DM's stand.

With this extensive preface, he proposed that the enquiry be taken away from the DM, and given over to a senior commission of enquiry. Would he accept this mid-path course? the Chief Minister asked. The DM replied that the purpose of such a proposal seemed clearly to scuttle the enquiry. The wrong kind of people may be chosen to enquire, and any delay beyond the monsoon would render the entire exercise meaningless.

The Chief Minister, however, gave him his word of honour that he would ensure that fearless and independent officers would be entrusted with the enquiry, and that they would complete it before the rain.

The DM saw no reason to withhold his consent.

The Chief Minister was as good as his word. The enquiry commission was announced, the local politicians were relieved that the enquiry was not in the hands of the DM. and the explosive joint-resignation of the sarpanches was withdrawn. The tirade in the press and public platforms ceased. The DM immersed himself in planning for the development of the district, in fields close to his heart.

A team of respected senior officers of impeccable integrity were appointed to the commission of enquiry. They camped for the next month in the district to conduct their investigations. The resources at their disposal were far more than those available to the DM, and their enquiry was far more extensive than it would have been possible for the DM himself to undertake alone. The DM extended his full and open support to the entire exercise.

The results of the investigation were even more damaging than that imagined by the DM. There were same works in which as much as 80% of the construction had simply not been done. Of a total of 18 crore rupees spent in that district that year on relief works, as much as 10 crore rupees had completely been siphoned away; not a rupee of this had reached any villager coping with starvation from famine, nor had a square-inch of community rural assets been created out of this massive resource of 10 crore rupees.
The enquiry report was submitted to the State Court, with a copy to the DM. The DM decided on his own to immediately institute criminal cases with the police against government officials and sarpanches with regard to each of the specific reports, because any delay would again mean that evidence would be washed away by the rains.

A few mornings later, the DM woke up early, and sleepily reached out for the newspaper. He sat quietly alone in the garden outside for half an hour, then went inside to wake up his wife. He told her that the morning papers had announced his transfer. She packed the entire house in one day.

It was just three months since he had joined the district. The whole day, a number of people streamed in to meet him, mostly ordinary people from the district, and many officials from the neighbouring district of his previous jurisdiction, but very few politicians or officials from his present charge.

As the enquiry report gathered dust in the State Secretariat, many of his friends would later ask him - Was it worthwhile? What in the end did you achieve?

He was not so sure. He felt a great anguish to leave unfinished the many plans he had made for the district, particularly a massive programme to provide housing and basic facilities in the slums of the city, the largest in the state, and a programme for dignity and self reliance to the thousands of beggars with leprosy.

A number of other questions also crowded his mind and heart for a long time after he left the district. Is corruption inevitable in our system, and is it futile to fight it? Is it enough, as so many of his friends argued, to be personally honest, without trying to control corruption by others? Should he have listened to his senior colleague who advised him to try at the most to control corruption in his own period of posting, but not attempt to probe corruption even in the immediate past? Why was it that everyone in the local power system united against him? Why was the undoubtedly enormous support of ordinary people so passive? Could he have achieved his objectives by acting differently? Why did his successor not pursue the action that he had taken? Why is it always this way? Was there nothing he could do even after his transfer to ensure that justice was done in this case? Can anything be done to tackle corruption and injustice to the poor in a more permanent way? Why is a struggle against injustice and corruption so lonely?

He did not have many of the answers to the anguish of these searching questions. And yet, about one thing he felt sure. If he had another chance to go back in time, there was nothing he would have liked to do differently.   


More by :  Harsh Mander

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