A Defiant Subordinate And A Smuggler
I was the Course Director (CD) for the 1993 and 1994 batches of officer trainees of Indian Forest Service (IFS) in the Indira Gandhi National Forest Academy (IGNFA), Dehradun.
As the CD I was expected to enforce strict discipline to shape careers of young probationers. However, I had a strong conviction that discipline can be enforced without being harsh. Of course, this would require a lot of patience. Therefore, I was spending a lot of time with the probationers and was available to them 24×7.
In spite of this, there was an occasion when a bitter confrontation threatened to blow up. One of the probationers had decided to revolt against the system on a particular issue, precipitate the same and leave the service. I somehow got a whiff of it and tried to resolve the issue before it surfaced. It was a testing time for me. To cut a long story short, I had to put in a lot of effort to make him see reason and to persuade him to climb down. On the face of it, the probationer appeared to be obstinate and opinionated. However, contrary to overall perception about him, he went on to become quite successful as an officer and made a name for himself, particularly in the field of medicinal plants. Appearance and demeanour could be deceptive. I narrated this as a prologue to two incidents in early years of my service that now I am going to recount.
In August 1986, I was posted as Divisional Forest Officer (DFO), Dhenkanal, my first independent posting. In those days Dhenkanal was considered to be a tough division; field staff were considered difficult and there were serious smuggling issues. My first field visit was to Hindol range. Before proceeding on the field tour, my experienced Assistant Conservator of Forest (ACF) and a few office staff warned me that I was likely to encounter a Forest Guard (FG), who could misbehave with me. In the meantime, a senior colleague had advised me that during the first tours I should take tough action (at lease place 1 or 2 staff under suspension) so that I could send a message that I am a very strict no-nonsense officer. I set off on my maiden field tour as DFO with a bit of uneasiness. Right in the midst of Kandhara Reserved Forest I did meet the FG who was supposed to misbehave with me. And he really did. Contempt was writ large in his conduct. I was prepared for him. After a brief interaction, he challenged, “Why don’t you put me under suspension? I get Rs 206 per month as salary, if you suspend me, I will get Rs 103 per month. Do you think I make a living out of my salary? Everyone here knows me; I will continue to make money from other sources. As such I am used to remain under suspension.” Even though I was warned well in advance I still was shocked, to put it mildly. What hit me was, why his monthly salary was only Rs 206 when the basic pay of an FG was more than Rs 700.
I didn’t want to create a scene there, somehow wriggled out of the situation and returned. On reaching headquarters, I promptly asked my office to put up his personal case file. A bigger shock was in store. I discovered he joined service sometime in the 1960s. After 1 year of service, he remained absent from duty for about 2 months as he was suffering from malaria, which was quite common in interior areas. When he reported back for duty, he was asked to produce a medical fitness certificate duly countersigned by a government doctor not below the rank of a Sub-Divisional Medical Officer (SDMO). But all he could produce was a “certificate” from the local Vaidya who had actually treated him. And that was not acceptable. He was allowed to join duties but his services could not be regularized. He kept on representing and the office kept on slapping letters written in English to submit medical fitness certificate duly countersigned by an SDMO. He could never produce that and gave up after a few years, out of disgust. Therefore, his services still remained “not regularized”. In the meantime, pay structure of state government employees underwent revisions on three occasions, but he continued with basic pay in the old scale.
He was also denied his annual increments. He was against a wall. My office advised me to ask for the blessed “medical fitness certificate duly countersigned by an SDMO”. My Head Clerk insisted that it would not be advisable to do anything otherwise at the peril of inviting objection during audit by the Accountants General (AG) office. And objections by AG are dreaded by government officials (rather possibility of inviting audit objections is a good excuse for inaction, rent-seeking and harassment). My ACF advised me to pass the buck by seeking instructions from higher authority. But I was not convinced, as it defied commonsense (my grandma used to say all rules, regulations and procedures are nothing but commonsense). So, I decided to overrule the noting by the office and passed orders to regularize his services; get his pay fixed and disburse all pending arrear dues.
On further inspection I came to realize that pay fixation, increments, leave sanctions of more than 60 per cent of the FGs and Foresters were pending due to various “procedural” reasons. Those in fact were the main grievances of the field staff and the reason for them being branded as “difficult”. It took me six months to regularize all those after giving speaking orders in each individual file at the “risk of AG objection” and “objection by higher authority”. I was taunted by a few colleagues that I might get away with it for the time being as my father was the DG (Vigilance), but these would definitely come back to haunt me at a later stage of my career. However, I felt it was worth taking the ‘risk’. In the bargain I got full support of my field staff, and had a very smooth sailing during my tenure of more than three years in the division.
The FG from Hindol was very embarrassed for his behavior and profusely apologized for the same. His performance as FG could be rated as average, but he definitely was no longer a burden on the system. What was more important, it was a great learning process for me and also gave me immense satisfaction.
The second incident I wish to narrate took place within first couple of months of my stay in the division. During a field visit deep inside a forest in Kamakhyanagar we saw a person wandering around with a big sack and an axe. My field staff immediately apprehended him and produced before me as a prize catch, a smuggler. He looked emaciated and hungry but had an expression of defiance. My FG insisted that he was hand in gloves with smugglers and was an informer. However, intuitively I felt there was more to it than what met the eyes. Initially, he was very reluctant to open up. After a lot of cajoling, he mustered up courage to speak out. What I gathered, horrified me. He belonged to village Ekul-sekul deep inside the woods having no road connection to anywhere. People from this village earlier used to be engaged by Forest department for various operations. In the meantime, timber operations were banned and routine forestry operations were also not being taken up due to budgetary constraints. So, their only source of employment was to work as agricultural labourers and hardly managed to get four months of employment in a year. Rest of the period they wandered around in forests to collect fruits, tubers, firewood for sale, etc. During this period, they hardly got two square meals a day and had to starve at least for a day in a week. In his sack he was carrying a freshly dug tuber, which in local language is called “pita aloo”, bitter potato.
It is so bitter that it has to be boiled and decanted for about 12 hours to make it edible. The man looked to be around 50, although he claimed he was 35 years old. In fact, he said no one in his village had ever lived up to the ripe old age of 50! They did not have any access to school or healthcare facility or for that matter any civic amenity. What a person like him was supposed to do? At the same time, what was the poor FG expected to do? If there was any illicit felling in his beat, he would be held squarely responsible and invariably taken to task. I was in a real fix. On the one hand, if I were to ask the field staff to ignore such incidents and look the other way, it would have given them a license to kill. On the other hand, my conscience would have never permitted me to take any action against such a person. I preferred to painstakingly explain to my field staff how to use one’s discretion, and deal with situations like this on a case-by-case
basis with empathy. I advised them to engage such people in forestry/ departmental operations to keep them on our side.
Unfortunately, in those days hardly any budgetary provisions were made for any kind of operations. This was a systemic problem in which even the DFO had little role in providing any solution. National Rural Employment Programme (NREP) and Rural Labour Employment Generation Programme (RLEGP) were the only two government programmes for generating employment, but were grossly inadequate. Starvation deaths were rampant and one of the main jobs of the official machinery was to deny such deaths in the Assembly.
I am so very happy that due to the present social safety net no one is at least dying of starvation these days. This village Ekul-sekul was in news in 2017 because of deaths of children due to malnutrition. There was a lot of public outcry and the state government took a decision to have all-weather road to this village and provide sustained healthcare and maternity care at doorstep.
Where lie the maladies in these two cases? The ministerial staff in the first case and the field staff in the second were perhaps discharging their duties in tune with laid down norms. Did they have liberty to use discretion? It was only the DFO who was required to apply his mind, interpret the spirit of the laws and not miss the wood for the trees. But people generally try to play safe and go by the letters of the rulebook. The thumb rule being: it is always better to err on the safer side even at the expense of completely missing out on the spirit of the laws.
Unfortunately, there is hardly any encouragement for thinking out of the box, rather in many cases indifference/ inaction is incentivized. However, I can emphatically assert from my long experience of working as a public servant; the pleasure and satisfaction one gets by following one’s conscience has no parallel. Self-actualization at the end of the day is the ultimate reward, which one can carry to the grave.