Memories of a Receding Past: 50

End of the Road

As we sat cooped up in the plane for almost two hours a train of thoughts passed through my mind. I was going to take over as a Member of the Board which was the most that we could get to. But currently departmental officers were becoming secretaries. Things seemed to have opened up considerably. When I was a probationer the same man who tarried over my transfer back to Delhi from Kolkata had told me at Nagpur in 1962 that there was no future for me and that I was going to retire as a probationer. Obviously, it was a joke but he too, perhaps, saw no future for himself. But, later, there we were: he working as Secretary and I as a Deputy Director General. Even my second brother had told me that I could at best go up to the Junior Administrative Grade – a level that was four levels below the one that I retired from.

Nobody could foresee the changes that came through during those thirty-odd years. Although our growth rate was laughed at as a Hindu Rate of growth of 3.5% yet the government did well in boosting up the economy with all round development. In the field of communication it was planning that was the trick and when I entered the service planning for expansion had just commenced. We harvested the results as we went along. The data that is touted today about the number of post offices – around 150000 – was all the result of planning and when the ground level got spread out the superstructure too got fleshed out. Throwing one’s mind backwards one can imagine how miserable a condition that the British had left us in before they finally said good bye. A man in a village had to walk miles to get to a post office. It must have been a herculean task for our economists and planners to pull the economy up by sheer boot straps.

The day I was to join I was told that Secretary was heading towards Australia and that I should take care nothing untoward happened. He was away for more than a week and nothing untoward happened. During the interregnum I found that I was appointed Member in-charge of planning and development. However, because of shrinkage of allotment of resources there was no scope for any planning or development. The work relating development was that of computerization and that was all being looked after by Secretary. He, obviously, did not wish to shed this item of work for reasons known to only him.

I went and told him that it was becoming very embarrassing for me as in meetings with private sector men I was introduced as Member in-charge of development but when they asked me what developmental work I was doing I could hardly specify any. I asked him either to share developmental work like induction of technology or, in the alternative, change my designation so that I could sit in my room and twiddle my thumbs in peace. I had to put it straight that if there was no resolution of the matter to my satisfaction I would be compelled to approach the minister or the Cabinet Secretary, or both.

He was taken aback and said that he would not part with computerisation of the department. I said, he needn’t give me anything and keep everything with himself but the condition would be that he would have to have my designation changed. I came away and after some time the internal phone rang. It was the Secretary. He said he would pass down the induction of satellite technology. Though it was only a fig leaf I said, fair enough.

I never imagined that I would have to fight some more, though without any gain. Some officers came and told me that the five-yearly Congress of the Universal Postal Union was being held at Seoul, South Korea. The delegation generally includes the Minister, Secretary, a member or two of the Board and the DDG in-charge of international (postal) relations. What the officers conveyed was this year no member was going, i.e. I would not go and instead the Additional Secretary in the Department of Telecom – a Postal officer on deputation – would be going. The Addl. Secretary was known for his skills in maneuvering things in his favour because of which he spent around 20 years on deputation in Delhi. He was a boot-licker of politicians and he would do anything to please them.

Soon the President of our Service association showed up. He narrated the same story and was vehemently opposed to the inclusion in the delegation of the Telecom man. He feared that this would set a wrong precedent as it had never happened that the UPU Congress was attended by a non-postal man. He wanted me to do something. I knew the futility of it all and yet I said I would go and lodge my protest with the Minister.

I first went to the Secretary and asked him whether he knew of the developments regarding the delegation to Seoul. He said he knew and when questioned whether he had advised the minister against including the Telecom man he said he had not done that. I had to give him a mouthful and told him he had failed to uphold the interests of the Department and its officers. I then went to the Minister and asked him when I was sitting in the adjoining building as a Member of the Board how was he taking a Telecom official to Seoul? In reply he said he did not “visualize” me and that next time he would keep me in mind. I had to tell him there was no next time and that he was not properly advised by the Secretary and that what he had done was wrong. He got annoyed and never spoke to me again. 

A favourite of the Secretary had been transferred to Chandigarh when the militancy there was ruling high. He had a government house in Delhi which he had not vacated as his family was residing in it. After a specified period the government started charging market rent which was in thousands. A proposal was made out with the approval of the Secretary for the Accommodation Committee of the Parliament to allow retention by him of the house on usual terms as Punjab was highly disturbed and lives of the members of his family would not be safe. I saw the untenability of the proposal as the officer’s boss, the Chief PMG, was residing in Chandigarh with his family and that too in the busy Sector 22. 

And, yet a proposal was made out which was to be defended in front of Central ministers one of whom, NKP Salve, was the chairman of the committee. As the matter came up, Mr. Salve asked me whether the officer had been asked to control law and order. As this was not within his purview I half-heartedly explained how he could not move his family. Nobody agreed and Mr. Salve said hundreds of officers were working in Punjab despite the militancy. A prince-ling from Dhenkanal, who too was a minister, came and told me that I did not defend the case properly. I told him I found it like defending the indefensible. But the whole process was very embarrassing.

I had, on the other hand, the good fortune to take part in a meeting with Prime Minister Narsimha Rao on the subject of Mahila Samriddhi Yojna. It was a Yojna that was made out by him for strengthening the women and was run by the Department of Posts. Officewise data was fed to the PMO every month which was monitored by PM himself. Officials from PMO would often visit me and ask for various kinds of information. Once a Jt. Secretary came and asked me to submit figures block-wise which I said was not possible as the departmental structure was not designed keeping in view the blocks.

The same month there was a meeting at the PM’s house and the Jt. Secretary, like a busybody came and warned me about the block-wise information desired by the PM. The Department for Social Justice officers were also there with whom there was quite an animated discussion. During these discussions a man appeared from somewhere and kept an ethnic small stone vessel in front of the PM. Obviously, it was some kind of a potion that the PM rolled it around and took it in one gulp. 

When the matter regarding submission of the Yojna figures came up I told the PM the same thing that I had told his Jt. Secretary and said that if he insisted we would supply some data, accuracy of which, however, we would not be able to certify as our departmental structure was not built keeping in view developmental blocks. The PM immediately said that he would not like a change in the system. 

There the matter ended. The bureaucracy never would say no to a minister, more so to the PM. They must learn to do that for good and proper reasons.

I was asked to attend meetings arranged by the Cabinet Secretary for opening of a school for the children of officers of and above the level of Deputy Secretaries of the All India Services working on deputation. On the first day I had to raise the point if the school was meant to be for the children of the officers of All India Services on deputation to the Centre then why were we asked to attend the meeting. Our officers were not classified as belonging to All India Services and were not on deputation; they were occupying cadre posts. The Cabinet Secretary quickly retracted from his earlier statement and, visibly embarrassed, said that the school would be for children of all officers of the level of Dy. Secy. and above of all services. The school named as Sanskriti School came up later in Chanakyapuri headed by the wife of the Cabinet Secretary. From the look of it, it appeared that it was a kind of a means to provide employment to the wives of bureaucrats. Things, however, may have changed since then. The instance only shows how bureaucrats devise means to benefit them and their families at the cost of the government. For this school a huge area in Chanakyapuri had already reportedly been earmarked.

Around four months before I was to retire I received a call one morning from the Secretary that I was from that day onwards was in-charge of Operations and not of Development. I did not get any reply to my questions as to why the change was being made so late in the day when the post could have been given to me in the first instance. No coherent reply was forthcoming. Later I realised it was where computerisation was most intense and the man whom I was to replace was not playing ball with the Secretary. I thought, so be it and why make an issue of it for four months. I thought it was best to go along inatead of creating more bitterness.

In fulfillment of my responsibilities I occasionally went out to the operational offices of Delhi where they were working on computers. The invoices from Bombay to Delhi would take pretty long to reach. It was pre-Windows 95 times and while the carriers were suffered from in adequacy our men also not very adept. The net was painfully slow. And yet there was this tiny hope that all were very keen to learn. I occasionally got a culture shock when I saw Postal officials working the computers.

This is precisely what happened when I was asked to inaugurate the computerized Park Street Post Office in Kolkata in September 1994. On the counters there was an array of desktops which the officials started working on as soon as the inauguration was over. Obviously, they had learnt the ropes and were only awaiting the opportunity. Only the unions were holding them back.

A heads of circles conference came along in 1995. It was to be held in Odisa and a resort on the Puri-Konark road was booked for the officers. It was a two-day affair after which my wife and I moved to Konark. She had not been to Konark and this was a good opportunity.

The curtain came down on my career on 30th September 1995. In the office, however, it was business as usual; only a farewell Board meeting was scheduled in the evening. I spent 34 years in the department most of which were sweet and happy despite a large number of changes of places. Only the end came with a bitter taste which too I got over in a matter of weeks. I knew there will be some withdrawal symptoms and I had warned my wife about them. I had told her not to take notice if I talked nonsense or lost my temper for small breaches of routine. People sometimes went under depression when official positions and work were withdrawn from them and behaved irrationally. So, on the last day of September 1995 I bid final good bye to the department.

It is now 25 years since I retired and some of the memories are still so fresh. To have memories so vivid even after a quarter century is no mean achievement for an 83-year old.


More by :  Proloy Bagchi

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