Thursday, August 6, 2020
 
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BYGONE MEMORIES





Mohammad Shafi Pandit



Being the very first person from Jammu and Kashmir State, belonging to the majority community of the state, who had made it to the mainstream Indian Administrative Service, as a direct recruit, way back in 1969, my friends and well-wishers have always been urging me, and repeatedly so, after my retirement, to pen down my memoirs, capturing the gleanings from my administrative career.



Let me frankly admit that I have never felt inclined enough to do so, for reasons, even eluding me.



But, when, in the context of the 1969 Golden Jubilee Reunion Memoir, some days ago, my batch-mate, Ashok Jha, sent me a message, requesting me to write a couple of pages, recollecting my important experiences, either of the Academy days, or pertaining to my administrative career, I just couldn’t resist the inherent pressure of the friendly request, despite the obvious excuse I had, that I was about to leave for my visit overseas. I chose to write about my experiences outside the Academy, leaving it to my batch-mates to share their more ‘interesting’ and ‘pleasing’ episodes of the training period at the Academy.



The Indian Administrative Service, has the distinction of providing its members with the opportunity of getting maximum interface with the people, and, therefore, the unique advantage of trying new administrative experiments for enhancing the impact and reach of the administration, so as to maximize the flow of benefits to the people.



It has been the endeavor of most members of our service to bring in new approaches in dealing with various developmental issues, with a view to improving efficiency and speed, and thus leaving behind good memories, and legacies. A good number of our colleagues, from the service, both senior and junior, have done us proud, by introducing new systems of administrative handling of various issues, which became models (like the Lakhina Model, for instance), to be followed by other officers and even received recognition from the state and central governments.



In this context, (without claiming any comparison), I have also tried many ideas and approaches, during my career, which I can share, with my friends, with a modicum of pride, of course tempered with a sense of humility. But, for the purposes of this article, I shall restrict myself to only three such initiatives.



SINGLE LINE ADMINISTRATION



Towards the end of 1975, when my first posting order as Deputy Commissioner, was under consideration, I was called by the then Chief Secretary, late Sushital Banerjee, (a very able and kind officer, who had earned a great reputation when he had been specially sent on deputation, as Divisional Commissioner, Kashmir, during the Indo-Pak War of 1965), called me over to his office, and alerted me that he was posting me to the most difficult and challenging district of the State. He added that he was confident that I could handle it well, and, in his view, if I could handle this district successfully, I could handle any other district or, for that matter, any assignment, well. This was greatly inspiring for me.



The problems of Doda district were of a multiple nature, arising from its immense geographical spread, then having an area of 5,500 sq kms ( is split into three districts), next only to the then Ladakh district, having an area of 59,000 sq kms, without having the required infra-structure. The people were steeped in low literacy and economic backwardness, despite its rich natural resources like hydro-power potential, forest cover and minerals such as gypsum and the blue sapphire of global repute. This district also didn’t have any special dispensation, in terms of administrative organization, such as had been created in Ladakh, after the Indo-China hostilities of 1962, under which the Deputy Commissioner had been vested with full authority over all spheres of the government, because the district used to remain practically cut off from the rest of the State, for more than six months in a year.

The district was also known to be highly sensitive on law and order, because of its delicate population mix, with about 55% Muslim population, the only district in Jammu, with Muslim majority).



True to the vows of the civil service, to which I belonged, I gladly picked up the gauntlet thrown to me by the boss, and, soon after my orders of posting came, I proceeded to join my new assignment, with a mixed feeling of excitement and trepidation, in the second week of January, 1976.



While going to take up my charge, I was faced with my first challenge, the road closures, caused by massive landslides, on the main National Highway, as well as the road leading therefrom, to the district headquarter of Doda. My predecessor-in-office had already left the district, after handing over the charge to a junior officer, without waiting for me. Thus, I had a daunting task before me, as the road restoring operation, then without much resources at my command, required a lot of skillful handling. It took me a couple of days to finally reach Doda. This gave me the first feel of the problems of the district, requiring tremendous coordination between the various agencies of the government, which unfortunately, was lacking.



In the summer of 1976, the then Chief Minister of the State, late Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah (popularly known as Sher-I-Kashmir), visited my district, and took a review of the functioning of various developmental schemes. There were some shortfalls in expenditure under various heads, which came to his notice. I was surprised that he didn’t give any adverse comments during the meeting. In retrospect, I can safely say that probably he did not want to embarrass me in presence of the other officers.



However, the following day, while I was accompanying the Chief Minister, in a car, to the other historically important town of Bhaderwah (known also for its literary richness and political acumen), he asked me the reason for the shortfalls in expenditure under several schemes. I submitted to him, very politely, but intrepidly, that while he had every reason to question me on this, as the head of the district, who could I call to explain, because the concerned officers, owed their explanation, if required, to their own departmental line of command, whose officers were located either in the nearby district closer to Jammu, or the divisional headquarter at Jammu, or the State headquarter. I told him that the Deputy Commissioner was only a titular head of the district, and his effective authority was confined only to the Revenue and Law and Order matters.



I further informed the Chief Minister that most of the development departments, then, had no presence at the senior level in the district of Doda. Moreover, in view of anticipated shortfalls in expenditure, the higher officers used to divert the funds from this district for utilisation, in other districts. So, the people of the district were feeling cheated, and continued to suffer in disgruntlement.



The Chief Minister asked me what could be done to rectify the situation. I told him that the answer lay in introducing the concept of single line administration in the district, about which I had sent a note to the higher authorities. I explained to him that the concept involved designating the Deputy Commissioner as the effective head of the district, with the powers of a head of department for all the development departments, retaining the powers for technical supervision with the concerned line departments. I also mentioned to him that some of the schemes, for which shortfalls of expenditure had been reported repeatedly, had been based on the priorities found appropriate for other districts, and failed to take note of the problems at the ground level in this district. So, the Deputy Commissioner should have the authority to determine the priorities for various schemes, taking into account the ground situation. As an illustration, I mentioned that lots of funds had been provided under irrigation, which was not of high priority, and was, in fact, proving counterproductive, in view of the hilly terrain of the district. On the contrary, schemes which had great potential in the district, like road connectivity, were starved of funds.



The Chief Minister kept mulling over my observations, while I was talking to him in the car, and didn’t give any reaction then. But, to my pleasant surprise, when he addressed his public meeting in Bhaderwah, after his preliminary remarks, which included a few laudatory comments, describing the Deputy Commissioner as a young and dynamic officer, he stated his strong resolve to take the district, out of its economic backwardness, and immediately, thereafter, announced his intention to give the powers of a major head of department to the Deputy Commissioner, under a new dispensation, to be called Single Line Administration. He received a huge ovation from the gathering.



A few days later, after the return of the Chief Minister to the state capital, I was called by the Chief Secretary, late Sushital Banerjee, for a discussion, at which he asked the then Planning Commissioner, late R K Takkar, to join. I was subjected to a grueling session of questions, by both of them, for explaining the rationale for the proposal mooted by me with the Chief Minister, at the end of which the one sentence (which still rings in my ear), mentioned by the Chief Secretary was: “If we have to give a fillip to the development of Doda, we should introduce Single Line Administration in that district “. The Planning Department was asked to put up a proposal to the Cabinet.



A couple of weeks later, while I was on a tour in a far flung area of the district, Marwah, I heard on the radio that the government had decided to introduce Single Line Administration in Doda district, and invested the powers of a head of department in the Deputy Commissioner for administrative purposes. A District Development Board, under the Deputy Commissioner, re-designated as Deputy Commissioner/District Development Commissioner was also constituted. Thereafter, I was specially tasked by the Chief Minister to draw up a plan, for development of the district, based on the priorities, to be determined by the DDB. The Board included various public representatives, including the MLA’s and MP’s of the district. The plan allocation for the district was also doubled, in a single stroke.



One month or so later, the then Chief Minister, along with his entire team of cabinet colleagues, and the top level bureaucracy, including the Chief Secretary, and Heads of all departments, travelled in busses, from the State capital, which by then had shifted to Jammu, and descended in good numbers, in the poorly endowed town of Doda town, the district headquarter. We had just a couple of rooms in the PWD Rest House, which could barely accommodate the C.M. and the Dy C.M., late Mirza Afzal Beg. Consequently, we had to lodge the Chief Secretary and senior officials in a makeshift tented colony that we set up at the Rest House lawns. The other cabinet ministers were adjusted in the official accommodation of the DC/SP.



The next day, the Cabinet gave approval to my plans in toto and also endorsed my suggestion to sanction a post of Superintending Engineer, and some XEns, and also some other positions at the district level. In course of time, senior positions, were also created, in other departments as well.

The news about Cabinet-on-wheels, taking on-the-spot decisions for giving a push to the development of Doda district (sometimes referred to as the ‘and’ in the name of Jammu and Kashmir state), received a lot of publicity, nationally as well as internationally, and also caught the special attention of politicians from the opposition, who, for no good reason, smelt a conspiracy, on the part of the Chief Minister, to separate the district of Doda, from Jammu and annexe it with the valley of Kashmir.



Taking note of this, and also reports about the potential effectiveness of the new system, the State Government decided to bring all the other districts, under the concept of Single Line Administration, months after the sanction of the administrative structure exclusively for Doda.

Single Line Administration was indeed a bold step for introducing an innovative concept to secure the participation of people at the district level, for development and optimisation of resource endowments.

There has, no doubt, been some dilution in the original model, over the years, in regard to the role assigned to the District Development Board, for determining the priorities for allocation, based on the actual requirements of the district. Instead of the Deputy Commissioner, a minister of the state government is now designated for each district as the Chairman of the DDB. The Board now has a role, primarily, in locational planning. Having said that, it needs to be added that, at the same time, the institution of Deputy Commissioner, has also been strengthened in many other ways. He has been delegated higher administrative and financial powers in various fields and given a key role in implementing the flag-ship schemes of the central and state governments.



The High Court of J&K has also upheld the powers of District Development Commissioners to suspend and take disciplinary action even against senior officers, up to district level, recruited through State Public Service Commission, acting as appointing authority under Single Line Administration.



The introduction of the new system has truly represented a paradigm shift in the development process of the state, creating a visible impact, especially on the development process of the backward areas, which were getting neglected under the earlier system.



PROMOTING CONSUMER RESISTANCE AGAINST EXPLOITATION BY THE TRADERS



About 85 per cent of Kashmiris eat non-vegetarian food. It is estimated that Jammu and Kashmir annually consumes a whopping 51,000 tonnes of mutton worth Rs 2000 crore approximately, of which about half is imported from the neighbouring states, especially Rajasthan. The quantity of mutton consumed by the people, has been growing at a rate higher than that of the population growth, because of improvement, over the years, in their capacity to pay. Quite obviously, therefore, availability of mutton at reasonable prices, has always been a sensitive issue, with the people, especially in Kashmir valley. The prices of mutton have always been fixed by the Consumer Affairs wing of the government, based on the advice of the district administration. In the city of Srinagar, the rates are based on the recommendation of the Divisional Commissioner. A Citizens’ Advisory Council, comprising representatives from all walks of life, was always taken into confidence, in dealing with matters of common public concern. The rates fixed by the administration have always been broadly followed, within a certain tolerance limit, not exceeding 5-10%.



Towards the end of 1987, while I was posted as the Divisional Commissioner, Kashmir, the mutton wholesalers decided to hike the prices of mutton, unilaterally, without taking the administration into confidence. At first, I tried to talk to the representatives of the wholesalers of mutton, and assured them that rates would be appropriately hiked after taking into account all the relevant factors. But they were defiant and continued with their illegal actions. This involved public interest, on the one hand, and the prestige and effectiveness of administration, on the other.



THE STRATEGY



1. After taking the then Chief Minister, Dr Farooq Abdullah into confidence, I took several punitive measures to discipline the wholesale traders (referred to in the local parlance as Kothedars), including their arrests (from various locations, Delhi, Jammu and Srinagar), cancellation/suspension of their trading licenses, and issuance of new wholesaler licenses to new applicants from mutton dealers.



2. I also realized that legal action was not enough and enduring, and recalled what we had been taught (during our training at the National Academy of Administration), by our professor of Economics, Mr Monga, that the prices of commodities could be kept under control, only if the demand could be reduced. This involved the difficult task of persuading the consumers to give up, or at least reduce, the consumption of meat for a limited period.



3. I enlisted the support of a very distinguished and highly respected physician, Dr G Q Allaqaband, and together, we started an all-out campaign, for convincing the public about the adverse effects of meat consumption on health. While Dr Allaqaband participated in several interviews, on television and radio, explaining the medical justification for reducing meat consumption, I enlisted the support of the media as well as public for starting a consumer resistance movement against getting exploited at the hands of wholesale traders. I was lucky enough to get willing cooperation from the media as well as the people, and they reposed tremendous confidence in me. Lots of write ups appeared in the newspapers, urging the people to give up meat consumption temporarily, in order to support the endeavours of the divisional administration to discipline the black marketeers. It was a rare development, unseen ever before, that the administration received full support from all the three organs of State, the legislators, the executive, and the judiciary, as well as the fourth estate, and the people, in whose interest this action was being taken. Thus, all the stake holders were on the same page.



4. I also called upon one of the public sector undertakings, Sheep and Sheep Products Development Board, to organize a limited supply of meat through their trucks, which would be used as mobile meat shops, moving from one locality to another. This met only a small portion of the demand but convinced the people about the genuineness of the campaign launched by the administration. What was remarkable about the public response to this effort, was that people would stand in queue, for hours, in a disciplined manner, waiting for their turn, and even exhorted others to cooperate, in order to show solidarity with the administration.



5. I, and a few other like-minded persons from various walks of life, including doctors, journalists, social activists and other opinion builders, started a social reform movement, under the banner of Samaj Sudhar Society, urging people to avoid ostentatious expenditure on marriage and other functions. The immediate thrust was on urging the people to avoid wasteful consumption of meat in ‘wazwan ‘, the traditional feast served on marriages.



6. This situation continued for several months. The people, almost giving up meat consumption, for more than three months, was seen by one and all as no less than a miraculous development. The demand fell and butchers didn’t have demand for whatever little supplies they could muster. During this period, they shifted to other vocations.



7. Meanwhile, there were attempts to bribe me and intimidate me, but I didn’t budge. I understand that there were attempts made to bribe the political executive as well. Public rumors have it that they had their way with some politicians. But, to be fair, rumors always need verification.



8. The defiant wholesalers, finally, surrendered, and made a submission for conforming to the revised prices to be fixed by the administration. We responded positively and set the process in motion. Based on the recommendation of the Citizens’ Council, tempered marginally by the then Chief Minister, who, by then, had become inclined to give some weightage to political wisdom, as well, the revised rates were fixed, which prevailed, as effectively as before.



This episode created a lasting impact on the minds of the local people, and even after a lapse of three decades, people of that generation keep mentioning about it to their younger ones. It is gathered that this also became a case study in at least one administrative institute of the country.









PAYMENT OF SALARY THROUGH CHEQUES



In 1995, while I was serving, at the Central level, as Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Welfare, and militancy was at its peak in my home state, my services were urgently requisitioned by the then Governor, J&K State. With pressure from the PMO, I had to yield and get repatriated to my cadre, somewhat prematurely. I got my posting as Additional Chief Secretary, in charge of Finance.



One of the first, among the many challenges for me, was to deal with multiple requests for allowing double drawl of salary for some field formations, on the pretext that the militants had looted the cash dispatches, while being carried to far flung areas.



I was taken by surprise, because, in the central government, payment of salary in cash was unheard of. Although, back in the State, payment of salary in cash had been the norm earlier, but I could not imagine that this would have continued after the imposition of Governor Rule in early nineties. I immediately took it upon myself to make it obligatory for all government employees to open bank accounts and receive salary only through their accounts.



As soon as the orders were issued, all hell broke lose, and employees took out processions against me, and banners carrying my caricatures were taken out in the city. Some sections of employees gheraoed my office in the Secretariat. Surprisingly, even disciplined forces like the Police Organization, sought exemption from the order.



Little did I realize that payment of salary in cash, meant huge flow of money to certain sections of employees, especially the cashiers. It was shocking to hear that in the case of teachers, the cashier’s cut (shared with the supervisory staff/officers) could be as high as 40%, the reason being that some of the teachers were operating only in name, or in absentia by proxy. One of the untenable arguments advanced by the employee’s unions was that, in far flung areas, there were no bank branches. I countered by saying that, wherever J&K Bank Ltd did not have presence (others had little or no presence at all other than cities), the cheque could be cashed through accounts at post offices, which had a presence in almost all the village clusters.



I stood my ground, and with some temporary reprieve granted to police organization, (in the interest of saving our own lives!), the order got finally implemented in full.



The antagonistic feeling of employees towards me didn’t continue for long. They soon started looking upon me as their best friend, after seeing good balances accumulating in their accounts, at the end of each month, which would normally have gone to cashiers. It didn’t take much time for them and their union leaders to convert their attitude of grumbling into gratitude for me.



The implementation of this decision had both short term and long-term impact. The state finances benefitted immediately, because the need for double drawal of salary was avoided, and the possibility of fraudulent drawals was much reduced.



As regards the economy, the impact came through the Jammu and Kashmir Bank Ltd, which received a bonanza of three and a half lakh accounts, without any labored outreach on their part. They could now, hugely enhance their consumer loan portfolio, through the employees, without incurring any risk of default, because the bank now controlled the salary flow, keeping in view their own demands on the employees. The spread of this portfolio, which has witnessed a phenomenal increase over the years, has become a major source of income for the bank and has given a makeover to their balance sheet.



At the same time, the quantum of money in the state economy, also massively increased, over the years, without involving the state finances.



I lay no claim to having done wonders through any of these initiatives. Any of my colleagues could have done it as well. But I was lucky enough to have been there at the right time, to fulfil the need of the hour, and find the propitious circumstances to implement these ideas, and take them to a logical conclusion.



The joy created by these experiences has been enduring, as their impact has been extraordinary. As time went by, they have become happy memories, which give joy not just once, but as and when recollected, or narrated.





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