Field Investigations- Some Lessons Learnt – M.S Menon, New Delhi [Sankupurana – Memoirs of an Engineer]

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After arranging for the closing and shifting the office and staff from Gopalapuram to Venkatapuram, I went to Vijayawada to apprise Subbaiah of the actions taken by me to facilitate an early opening of the office at Venkatapuram and about our plans to start the work for the new project after the monsoons. I also briefed him about the communication problems as informed to me by Ram Babu just to make him know that correspondence through postal department would be unduly delayed and any urgent matter for my action should be sent through a special messenger.

When I told Subbaiah that it would take one day to reach Bhadrachalam from Vijayawada, another day by launch or bus to reach Venkatapuram, he said. “I find Gopalapuram village is better considering the multi modal transports required to reach Venkatapuram,.”
“During heavy floods, the launch service gets cancelled and in that case one would have to stay put in Bhadrachalam till the service restarts”, I cautioned him.
“But at least you can contact me on phone in case of emergency”, he said.
“Provided the lines are not damaged due to rains uprooting the poles or trees falling and snapping the lines, thus disrupting the service, a feature regularly occurring in the Dandakaranya area during monsoons “. I said.
“Well I would keep this in mind”, he said. “After you open the office, you may prepare the work schedule and send me the reports regularly.”

The first correspondence I received on arrival at Venkatapuram was from the Delhi office addressed to my office at Gopalapuram, redirected to Venkatapuram, courtesy, Venkateshwarlu, the postman. The letter, sent in a routine manner as evident from the cyclostyled format, called for my explanation for failing to send the year’s progress report. My failure had put that office in a very embarrassing position for not being able to inform the government about the progress of work.

I was surprised to see the letter in spite of sending regularly the monthly, quarterly and half yearly reports to the headquarters. While shifting office in the month of May, I had sent the half yearly report from Gopalapuram, but did not send the annual report as we were on the move.

“That office could have used the data available to compile the annual progress, instead of putting themselves in an embarrassing position to reply to higher ups”, I told Venkat.
“The tenor and tone of the letter show that the Delhi office sent this to complete their check list”, Venkat said. “After all, they are paid to do their duty!”

I was reminded of Partha narrating an incident on the ‘return mania’ of the Delhi office after he opened his office at Tiruvuru.
“For a few months after opening my office, I did not think of sending any progress report since the staff was to be posted, survey equipments procured and many issues to be sorted out even for planning the project surveys, leave alone actual surveys in the field.” Partha told me. “But, luckily Jain had cautioned me of the dangers of not sending the relevant progress reports to the Delhi office even if the progress in the work is shown as ‘Nil’.
“Then one day I got a letter from that office asking my explanation for having failed to send the reports on time. I replied that I had already sent the information as nil, every week and enclosed copies of these ‘nil’ reports along with the explanation. Instead of acknowledging their mistake, pat came the reply that these reports were not in the prescribed formats, nor properly superscribed as weekly, fortnightly, monthly, reports! The headquarters pardoned me only when I sent 4 weekly, 2 fortnightly and one monthly report all stating the progress achieved as ‘nil’.

“So do not get annoyed or perturbed when you get notice to send the specified returns. Simply send it. “
Venkatapuram cannot be treated as a town under any stretch of imagination, but can be considered as a village stranded in the backwaters of history, satisfied with a life style of its own. The most important news any day would be the arrival of bus from Bhadrachalam during the summer and of the launch in monsoons. As newspapers in English were seldom available, a battery operated radio was the only link I had to know the national and international happenings.

A suitable site for another dam on the Godavari river as identified from the Survey of India Maps was near the Albaka village, about 10 kms. downstream of Venkatapuram. After settling down at the new place, myself with a team of engineers went there to reconnoitre the area and to mark the alignment roughly on the ground to plan the field works needed. We completed the reconnaissance of the terrain in a couple of days and marked the base line based on which ground surveys and geological investigations were to be started. During the site visit we also identified suitable locations for pitching tents for the survey teams to stay for carrying out the work on both the banks of the river. We also consulted the local village Chiefs for finalising these locations.

On the left bank of the river, there was an old traveller’s bungalow (TB) at Albaka village rarely used by travellers going towards or from Venkatapuram. Hence the village Chief advised us that tents could be pitched in the compound for those working on the left bank. On the right bank, the nearest village, Ravanakkapetta was about 2 kms. away from the river bank. Hence it was decided to pitch the tents by the side of a cluster of trees there near the river bank. The Chiefs of both Albakka and Ravanakkapetta villages assured us all the help to provide labour force and also our daily requirements of milk, eggs etc.
On the basis of the site visits and discussions with the local villagers, we prepared a schedule of work for the season and sent it to Subbaiah for his information and comments.

As planned, tents were set up, survey equipments and drilling machinery shifted and staff deployed in a week’s time to start the work. Experience had already taught me that I should not forget to send the progress reports in the prescribed format without fail even if it be a ‘nil’ report. Hence I scrupulously followed that direction as a ritual so that the higher offices are not embarrassed for want of the reports.

I had requested the head quarters to post an experienced engineer to my site for expediting the drilling work. In response, Delhi office promptly transferred one Swapan Das, for the work.
“The seniority list shows that he is more than 54 years old”, Venkat told me. “Considering the speed with which the administration acted, it looks that they are posting him here to complete the administrative requirements of field experience for making him permanent.” I was reminded of what Partha told me sometime back of the posting of the 56 year old Himanshu in his office.

Swapan Das, a bespectacled , bald man, reported to our office within a fortnight of my receiving the order.“I have been asked to report here to complete my requirement of field experience of one year”, he told me while handing over his papers of posting to me. “I do not know whether the administration would consider the period of one year from the day I was relieved from Delhi and if so I have already completed 15 days out of that one year period.”\

I told him. ”As far as this office is concerned, you have reported for duty today and hence I would be sending the report accordingly. It is for the head quarters to decide about the period of experience. Till you get your transfer orders back, I am sure you would put in your best in this project.”
“What am I supposed to do here?” he asked me. “At Delhi, I was required only to file the letters received in the Section. Here there does not appear to be having much paper work.”

I was annoyed with his comments and also about the attitude of Delhi office in posting staff just to fill the vacancy instead of facilitating the field work. However, suppressing my feelings, I explained to the officer the details of the work involved, the plans we had made for the geological investigations and the locations where the drilling has to be done -two in the river bed, one each on the river banks and also on the right and left abutments.
“Here I am assigning you an important part of the dam site investigations to assess the rock levels.” I further explained to him. “You would have to manage a team of drill operators, helpers and some labourers and ensure adequate progress to complete the work within this year itself.”

“I have not done any such work all these years” He replied.”At the fag end of my service, I do not know why I was posted to this god forsaken place to do this job.”
“If you are willing to take up the assignment, you can be here.” I told him sternly. “Otherwise, you are free to go back to Delhi and seek some other posting.’
“I did not mean that I am not willing to work”, he said.”I know that while in service whatever work is assigned has to be done. So I would certainly try to complete the work allotted to me.”
With the experience gained during the past few months, I could make out that he was not sincere in his reply. Now that I could not complain about the shortage of staff impeding my work, I would have to get the optimum output from Das instead of condemning him, I decided.

As days went by, I found that Das was more interested to find excuses for not doing the work than facilitating the work. I had advised him to start the drilling work in the river bed first in view of low river water levels then. But when I came back to the site after a fortnight, I was surprised to find the drilling equipments being shifted to the abutment side rather than to the river bed. When I asked Das why he preferred the abutment site, he defended saying that the site being nearer to the camp, it would be easier to start the work there. I pointed out to him that we had planned to take up drilling on the abutment side during monsoon months and the work in the river bed and on river banks was to be completed in the non-monsoon months as indicated in the work schedule given to him.
“If you want it that way, I would shift the machinery to the river bed.” He assured me.
“We have already lost a fortnight”, I pointed out to him.” Please take up the work in the river bed without any further loss of time.”

I had to go to Vijayawada next week urgently for getting some approvals for procurement of drilling items needed for the work. When I returned to Albaka after a month, I found Das shifting the machines to river banks to start the work there.
“Last time you promised me to take up the work in the river bed, but why are you now planning to do the job on the bank?” I asked him a bit irritated. “You had asked me to use my discretion while taking up work in the river bed”, he told me without batting an eye lid. “As I felt that the river water level is rising since last few days, I decided not to take any risk and therefore shifted the machine to the bank “.
“In fact you had been only shifting the machine ever since you were entrusted the work and have not been able to drill a single hole” I told him. “How can I then send a good report about your field work?”
“I am new to the field work. You give me any office work and I can show you the progress in no time.” He requested.

I felt that I would be losing the season if I continued to entrust him with this job. I therefore shifted him to Venkatapuram office to prepare the plans on the basis of the surveys done. I instructed Venkat to arrange sending the completed survey books to him every week end. Venkat was given the charge of drilling work.
Once at Venkatapuram, I guided Das about plotting the survey data on drawing sheets showing the levels, village locations, existing structures including small tanks etc.
“The office staff would provide the needed stationery”, I told him. “Being an office work, I expect a better output from you.”Das nodded.

For a fortnight, I had to be away to Vijayawada in connection with the office matters. When I came back, I was surprised to see that not even a single drawing was prepared by Das during this period. I came to know from the staff that he was not idle, but busy throughout, first plotting the details, then erasing the data entered.

I asked him why he could not do any work in the office so far.
“Sorry sir, I wrongly plotted the data.” He said. “I got confused and in some cases I plotted the data pertaining to the right side of the axis on the left side and vice-versa. But I could locate the mistake in time and am now completely erasing the data to enter afresh”.

“Good that I could feel that there was something wrong while plotting. Otherwise, it would have put us in an embarrassing position while preparing the project report” he continued. “Don’t you appreciate my timely decision?”
“If you had done the wrong entries, the plan would have shown the river flowing towards upstream,” I told him controlling my anger. “I would have appreciated you if you had done the work properly so that we could report some progress in the case to the head quarters.”As usual, he nodded.

By the time rains started, we were able to complete major part of the survey work and some drilling on the river banks. Venkat told me that he was going to take up the work on the abutment side during the monsoons. Swapan Das continued to be busy more with erasing job than plotting the data. I was convinced that he would be a liability for me and I should try to give him some easy job as he seemed to be unfit and not keen to do even the drawing work.

While I was debating on how to use Das effectively, one day I got a letter from Delhi transferring him back to Headquarters with immediate effect. The administration also wanted my assessment about his performance during the period to decide about his eligibility to be made permanent. A welcome relief, I thought. I informed Das of my decision to relieve him without waiting for a substitute.
“Thank you very much for being considerate, “he said. “I enjoyed working with you and am sure that I have worked to your satisfaction.”
I did not reply since he had worked only to his satisfaction and hence there was no point in discussing such an issue. I would have given a bad report about his performance, but for Partha’s advice earlier on a similar issue about an officer posted to his office.

“Look the department could tolerate the guy for so many years, otherwise, they could have dispensed with his services years ago. Now that he is to retire shortly I thought that let the family be not deprived of the benefits of his pension, though undeserved. Hence I reported that his performance was satisfactory.” Partha had then justified his reason for giving the officer concerned such a testimony.

Within a week, we gave Das a farewell party.
The experience I had with Das taught me a lesson- that a good team work would be affected if a wrong person is inducted into the team and it is better to keep the post vacant rather than filling it with undesirable elements. Throughout my service, I continued to keep this in mind.

A chapter from [Sankupurana – Memoirs of an Engineer]

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