Yes, Minister!

This article is part of the author's column: By Grace Of God

Sometime in May-June 1992 I called on Forest Minister  Harishchandra Baxipatra and expressed my desire to go on central deputation. But his reaction was very sharp: “Why do you want to go on deputation? Your services are more required in the State. I have decided to post you in Sambalpur division. I am the Minister in charge of that district and you will be my nodal officer there. There are many people lobbying for the position, but I have chosen you.” He was a strong Minister, a lawyer by profession, very learned and intelligent person. I also felt quite good that he had chosen me. Before leaving I said, “May I say something.” “Yes,” he mumbled. “Sir, you are posting me to Sambalpur Division, I haven’t asked for it.” He just gave me a quizzical look and smiled.

I joined in Sambalpur in July 1992. The Forest Rest House (FRH) at Sambalpur is located on a hill-slope amidst a picturesque landscape, but still inside the city. It used to be a favourite destination of influential people for relaxation. As a result, sometimes officers on duty or transit had to look for other accommodation. I decided not to give reservation to anyone who was not on official duty. One day, late in the evening a Forest Guard (FG) came to my residence along with a gentleman in his car. He introduced himself and said with a smack of egotism, “Does my name ring a bell in your mind?” I immediately knew who he was, but feigned ignorance. “I am such and such, the right-hand man of the Hon’ble Minister. I need 2 rooms in the FRH tonight.” I explained why it cannot be given to him. He never expected such a response. It hurt his ego; as such he appeared to be drunk, and started getting abusive. I ignored him and asked the FG to ensure that none of his guests were allowed to stay in the FRH.
As the Minister in charge of the district, Baxipatra used to visit Samalpur regularly. He would spend the day attending to various official engagements, meet people in the FRH in the evening, have dinner there and proceed to Hirakud for night halt. I, as DFO, gave him company for dinner and he didn’t want anyone else to be around during dinner. I was wondering what would be his reaction in view of my altercation with his supporter. On his next visit, during the entire day and in the evening, he didn’t mention about the incident. When we sat down for dinner, he broached the topic. “Why did you refuse him? He is furious.” I politely explained that FRH is not meant for partying and frolicking. It would have ultimately shown the Minister in a bad light. He responded, “I know. But I have my compulsions. I have to keep these people in good humour. Anyway, you don’t bother. I have explained to him that the DFO is a young boy and is very adamant, but I will talk to him. And you also can be rest assured, he won’t bother you anymore.” Then he winked at me and said, “So that’s what you meant when you said I was posting you to Sambalpur and you didn’t ask for it?” I just smiled. He was very matured and understanding as a Minister indeed.

Bijayshree Routray was our Forest Minister for quite long a period. I knew him form college days; he was a few years senior to us. He started his career as a Lecturer in Geography but subsequently stepped into the shoes of his father. His father Nilamani Routray was Union Environment and Forest Minister during 1989-90 and Chief Minister of Odisha from 1977 to 1980. One day in April 2000, when I was posted as Executive Director in the Odisha State Disaster Management Authority, I got a call from him. “Siddhanta, how are you? Are you in your room?” After a few pleasantries he hung up. Lo and behold! he was in my room in 15 minutes. “Sir, you could have asked me to come to your chamber.” “No, no, I have some work with you. I have come to you as the people’s representative of my constituency to plead for restoration of some school buildings. I came personally to impress upon you how important this is for me.” Let me narrate the background. Odisha was hit by the severe Super Cyclone in October 1999, which devasted the coastal districts. His constituency, Basudevpur, was very badly affected. After the Super Cyclone there was a paradigm shift in disaster management policy of the State and the focus shifted from ‘Relief, Restoration and Rehabilitation’ to ‘Planning, Preparedness and Prevention’. As one of the consequences, it had been decided to upgrade all the schools within 10 kilometres from the coast to serve as cyclone shelters during future emergencies. Routray had come with a list of 100-odd schools in his constituency and requested to take up as many as possible in the first phase. I told him not to worry, since it was a severely affected block, we would take up all these schools on priority. He expressed his gratitude quite eloquently and told the people accompanying him, “go and tell people in your villages, they must all be personally grateful to Siddhanta babu for his support in the time of crisis.” That was very magnanimous of him.

He was a nature lover in the true sense of the term. He was also a philatelist and was President of Eastern India Philatelist Association. As Minister of Forest, he was very supportive, very polite and suave. One day he telephoned me, “Siddhanta, you have recommended termination of that chap. He is from my constituency. Can you please lessen the punishment? I know, when you have recommended it must be well justified, but I am requesting you whether you can do anything.” I explained why I had to recommend such harsh punishment as the Inquiring Officer and also told him that it is just a recommendation, the government always had the option of taking the final call. “No, no, no! How can I modify a decision taken by you?” He was a perfect gentleman and a gentle soul. It is so very unfortunate that he succumbed to COVID-19 in June 2021.

Dr. Harshvardhan was my Minister for most of the time when I served as Director General, Forests (DGF) in Government of India. He is a fine human being and a thorough professional. He made it quite clear that he will respect the technical advice of the DGF in all matters relating to Forests and Wildlife. And he meant it. During one of his visits to Dehradun a retired IFS officer met him and wanted his intervention in certain issues. “In such technical matters, I go as per the advice of the DGF, you better talk to him,” he said. The retired officer protested, “Sir, I am brining this to your notice, because he won’t listen to me. But he will do it if there is a bit of pressure from your side.” His response was interesting, “Siddhantaji is a very sensible person, I don’t see any reason why he would not listen to you. As such this is a technical matter and I won’t take any decision that doesn’t have the endorsement of the DGF.” This was narrated to me by the same retired officer who said, “It appears you are the Minister and I have to plead before you.”

There were at least three occasions when he persuaded Chief Ministers to discuss with me to find out ways to resolve their problems. He used to tell them, “The DGF is a very positive and rational officer and he will definitely provide a just and workable solution.” On a particular issue relating to diversion of a good patch of forest land our ministry was being pushed to a corner. A meeting was convened under the chairmanship of our minister to resolve it. Three Union Ministers, Chief Minister of that particular State, the respective Secretaries and Chief Secretary attended the meeting. Secretary, MoEFCC, C K Mishra initiated the topic and said, “Our DGF is conversant with the details and would respond to all your queries.” I felt like Abhimanyu in a Chakravyuha. The bureaucrats were more aggressive and virulent compared to the politicians. One Secretary went on to announce that she could prove that forests that come up in mined-out areas are better than natural forests. I defended and ducked brickbats for more than an hour and then Dr. Harshvardhan took over. He summed up, “In your anxiety, what you all are proposing us to do would create more problems than it would solve. Our ministry has already devised a mechanism to get the issues examined by a reputed institution and we will come up with a solution that would provide the most optimal solution acceptable to all the stakeholders.” Unlike Abhimanyu, I was lucky to get a very respectable return path. I salute you, Sir.

After all, the politicians are not always the demons they are made out to be, in many instances by vested interests.

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