Memories of a Receding Past: 31



I was back in Nagpur in March 1978. This was about 17 years after I left the place which. I had to do as I was given a regular posting at Ahmedabad after completion of the two-year training. Nagpur was the place where I cut my teeth in the Department.It was something special for me.I kept coming back to the place for some reason or the other even during the intervening two years. Here, after all,I had lost my father in 1962. This time I came here as a middle-level officer in the Junior Administrative Grade of the Service in charge of a region of the Maharashtra Postal Circle.

Maharashtra had four regions each headed by a Director in Junior Administrative Grade with more or less like numbers of divisions or units under each. All the regions barring Nagpur had their headquarters located at the circle or state headquarters in what was till then known as Bombay. In fact, under a new experiment three regions of the country, viz. Kanpur, Coimbatore and Nagpur were detached from the headquarters and were brought closer to the units they were required to supervise and control. It was generally because of the insistence of the officers concerned that the regional headquarters were soon wound up with Nagpur standing out as the only region continuing to exist away from the state-level headquarters. The credit for this deviation has to go to the local staff unions which fought tooth and nail to keep the regional headquarters close to them. To say that the Nagpur Unions were strong would, therefore, be an understatement. That is precisely why the post of Director Nagpur had remained vacant for months as no officer would like to accept it. It was in these circumstances that I landed up at Nagpur.

Things had changed quite drastically since I left Nagpur in 1963. The PMG’s office was moved to Bhopal and the units of Vidarbha Region were put under PMG Bombay. This had to happen after the Re-organisation of States on linguistic basis in 1956. The entire upper floor of Nagpur GPO that was in occupation of the PMG’s office fell vacant and was occupied by the non-operational branches of the GPO, short of accommodation as it was. Since there were no posts of PMG and directors the sprawling bungalows in Civil Lines and the Seminary Hills were made use of to build staff quarters. I had, therefore, no place to stay and had to hire accommodation. The regional office that came into existence during the interregnum too was accommodated in a cramped space on top of a sub-post office.

Vidarbha districts had very little to commend themselves. Inhabited largely by Maharashtrians, the district headquarters gave an appearance of poverty, besides I found them filthy. Nagpur had hardly changed in appearance. Earlier known as “the largest village in Asia” its appearance had not changed during the intervening sixteen or seventeen years. Nonetheless, it continued to be the biggest market in Central India – after Indore. Vidarbha thus was a backward region and the departmental establishments also reflected the same backwardness. It needed to be lifted from its boot straps.

Soon after I took over the PMG was transferred to Delhi. He took a flight that touched Nagpur on the way. That’s when he thanked me for opting for Nagpur as he said he was being inundated by telegrams by various staff unions of different levels. But, he said, soon after I joined the telegrams stopped. He was sympathetic to them and said my predecessors had not given them anything. One couldn’t always look at the demands of the unions with a pre—conceived negativity. The telegrams did stop but the tide had turned in my direction. Everyday some union or the other would land up with some petty demands. With show of some understanding, they would leave happily having been able to extract an unofficial meeting from the regional director.

There, indeed, was a long list of their demands – some petty and others somewhat weighty. Slowly, with hard work and dedication of the officers of the inspectors’ cadres, we could nibble away at the long list of demands. Within six months or so the union meetings at my level had no pending item but a meeting would be held nonetheless. Nobody wanted to forego the tea and biscuits at government expense. Likewise, I used to travel overnight to Bombay to attend the quarterly meetings of the unions with the head of the circle but my region would have no item.

While I put the sub-divisional inspectors on the job to bring about operational efficiency I advised the superintendents to choose some big offices for improvement in their ambience. During my casual visits I saw how miserable the office furniture were and naturally the staff wouldn’t like to hang around for a minute more than what was necessary. I asked them to use sunmica – a kind of laminate – for topping up the working tables and give the rest much needed coat of varnish. I also suggested the use of air coolers which were available practically everywhere. Vidarbha is a hot place with the noon temperature often topping 45 degrees Celsius in summers. In that heat the offices were still using the khascurtains to be watered by a daily-wage employee. I thought this had to change as better working environment was likely to improve the standard of performance.

Most dramatic change took place at the Nagpur GPO where the staff and officers seemed to have been infused with new enthusiasm. While the massive front yard which once had a lawn was being worked on by the P&T Civil Engineering wing preparing flower beds and re-grassing the dried up lawns inside the office carpenters were busy with rolls of sunmica to be glued on table tops. The contractor himself was seen supervising scraping off of old accumulated layers of paint and polish which had successfully concealed the beautiful and even grains of the around 70 years old CP teak  counters. The potential of the heritage counters was knowneven as it was thoughtlessly overlaid with layers and layers of paint and polish.

I had told the Postmaster of the GPO, who was of gazetted rank that he would have to get rid of the Khas curtains and the complementary daily-wage staff for the summer. True enough during another visit to the GPO I saw massive coolers at two ends of the office were being tested. The effect was remarkable. It was the month of April when day temperatures cross 42 degrees Celsius. Inside that massive hall it was very comfortable, in fact, a trifle too cool. No wonder, later I was informed that even in May they would shut off the coolers for a while when the temperature outside would be around 46 degrees Celsius.

The department is one of those rare ones which measures its staff requirements on the basis of principles of operational research. It was a difficult process and the operative offices would seldom find a worker who could fill up the forms and project the staff requirements for the office. The result was offices would mostly function short-handed even though the work load would increase with efflux of time.This was a constant complaint. The excess work would be managed by payment of overtime allowances. As under the regional scheme officers of my rank could create Groups C and D posts I launched a campaign to have the overdue reviews of establishment carried out. Even during inspections I used to have such reviews carried out simultaneously. The result was around 80% of the Circle’s budget meant for the purpose was consumed by Nagpur Region. There was a little heartburning in other regions but I could not have helped it.

I knew I had to change the location of my own office. We were too short of accommodation and were very uncomfortably off. The junior members of staff were also keen to move out of this departmental building. Soon we got an offer of a house on the famed Cement Road of Nagpur owned by a former judge. Finding it adequate we organized a meeting of the Rent Assessment Committee. Even the Internal Financial Adviser was amenable to the shift. It went through the processes of examination at the headquarters like a shot and the office moved in quickly to the new location with brand new items of furniture. Nevertheless, a chronic complainant, one SC and ST association chief, complained to the CBI about my alleged ulterior motives. The CBI seized the file from Bombay headquarters but returned it after a month without any comments. My colleagues rang up to say that I was on the clear.

Assaults on matters that had been pricking the staff for long quickly paid dividends and the reputation of the Region in respect of the works that were being carried out spread throughout the Circle. Union leaders of other regions would come and meet me whenever I would be in Bombay. During my two and a half years three PMGs came and went. Each had come with a little trepidation about Nagpur. After arrival, however, they found Nagpur was largely quiet. The kind of steps taken by our office, examples of which have been given above, enhanced the level of satisfaction among the staff.

As I mentioned earlier there was not one place in the region barring Wardha that could claim to be important. Wardha had Mahatma Gandhi’s Ashram and yet it seemed to have lost traction with visitors. There were two wildlife National Parks, one each in Chandrapur and Amravati but these did not have much of wildlife then. In fact, once I drove through TadobaAndhari sanctuary in Chandrapur without making eye-contact with any animal. Tadoba now seems to have a flourishing presence of wildlife with a thriving population of tigers.

With a fresh redistribution of units four more from Western Maharashtra were transferred to my jurisdiction. Among them were Nanded, a place of Sikh pilgrimage, and Aurangabad, known for its rock-cut temple at Ellora and Buddhist cave paintings of Ajanta. Aurangabad had pretty good traffic of tourists, especially from abroad and hence there were a number of starred hotels. All the four units were districts that were again economically backward.

What was evident was that the Western districts of Maharashtra suffered from apathy and neglect.

Although Aurangabad used to get substantial numbers of tourists yet the tourist sites like Ajanta, Ellora, Tughlakabad or Kultabad were not properly looked after.I recall having asked the tourism receptionist at Ajanta for a rest room. He directed me to a cave converted into a cubicle by curtaining it off with a torn and frayed jute cloth. Inside there was an enamel pot which was full to the brim with urine. After managing somehow I came out only to see a large elderly American follow me into the same cubicle. On inquiry I was told it was none other than Robert Goheen, the then US ambassador to India. I couldn’t help feeling terribly ashamed about the shoddy and thoughtless arrangements.

One of the happiest experiences was a visit to the rural office at Virud, a village in Chandrapur district. Here a Sikh gentleman had settled down as a forest contractor. He had migrated from Pakistan at the time of partition. Over time he became prosperous and bought around 10 acres of land. Here he developed a flowering and fruiting garden. The remarkable thing about the garden was it grew temperate and tropical fruits at the same place. He grew apples and mangoes together. Likewise, he had cashews and almonds growing side by side. Even coconuts would grow in profusion with very sweet water. He had arranged for watering the roots by laying pipelines underground all over. He would play music for his plants early in the morning with the belief that it kept the plants in happy “frame of mind”. For his expertise in horticulture he was made a member of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research even though he did not possess any formal degrees or diplomas.

I was soon asked to move to the Indian Institute of Public Administration at Delhi to join the Advanced Professional Programme on Public Administration. After around two and a half years it was time for me to leave Nagpur. The departmental staff gave my wife and me a very warm send off. It reminded me of the send-off I got at Ahmedabad in 1965.


More by :  Proloy Bagchi

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