Art of Navigating through Loopholes in Rule Books – [Sankupurana – Memoirs of an Engineer] M.S.Menon, New Delhi

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March, 1965, was a month of tremendous activities in my office since many official letters reached me informing the transfer of experienced engineers and posting of locally recruited clerical staff and helpers to my office. A jeep for my use, a truck carrying field equipments and some stationery items were also on the way, I was told. The staff and the equipments reached Gopalapuram during the first half of the month itself. Jain was true to his words.

The postman, Venkateswarlu, continued to be helpful in his inimitable style. He introduced me to a local zamindar who had a couple of residential buildings, then vacant. The postman told me that the zamindar would be able to help me by sparing the requisite number of buildings for my office and the residences for the staff.

For getting  the approvals for renting out private buildings for official use, Jain had told me that I would be required to justify the area available and the rent sought by the landlord, and also enclose a certificate from the Central Public Works Department (CPWD) or in their absence from the State PWD about the rent being reasonable. I would be also required to get an agreement signed by the owner agreeing to spare the accommodation to the office on rent at the rate specified. These documents were required to be sent to the regional office for getting the requisite sanction.

Renting out private accommodation for the staff was not a problem since all the staff members being bachelors, they were happy to share the accommodation and hence two buildings were adequate to meet the staff needs. Hence out of the three buildings promised by the Zamindar, I had to get the approval for only one building meant for our office.

Private buildings are never constructed to suit government norms prescribed for office purposes. As per the guidelines received from Jain, allowable accommodation for my office was about 50 sq. Metres whereas the smallest building spared by the Zamindar had a plinth area of 100 sq. Metres. I did not know how I would be able to justify such a building for my small office.

Venkat, one of the senior engineers posted to me had more than 10 years experience in the field. I sought his advice. “We can easily justify this accommodation”. He assured me. I just could not understand his optimism . I asked him “How can we bridge the gap between the permissible area of 50 sq.m and the available area of 100 sq.m.?”

Venkat clarified. “These guidelines specify the permissible areas for the head of office, the subordinate staff, space for keeping files etc . but there are loop holes- for example, the provision for storing equipments ,the normal and special store items needed for a field office like ours ,etc., is not detailed here. Likewise, space for a transit camp for visiting field staff is also not included in these guidelines. If we include these special requirements, we could justify an accommodation requirement of more  than 100 sq.m.”

“Then it is o.k. But what about getting the requisite certificates from the State PWD?” I asked him. The local officials in the revenue and agriculture offices here had told me that this is a time consuming process, taking more than 6 months in the normal course.  We cannot wait so long to start our office and other activities.

Venkat said. “I can get these papers from PWD within a few days since my friend is working as an engineer there. You may please address a letter to the local PWD office for the requisite certificates. I would personally carry the letter to that office and hand it over to the concerned and personally follow it up.”

Venkat could get the certificates within a week. As suggested by him, after getting the lease agreement from the land lord, I deputed him with all the requisite documents to Vijayawada to pursue and get the sanction for hiring the office building.

“Till we get the approval, it is better to continue our office at the PWD guest house”, Venkat cautioned me. “At times the concerned staff in our regional office might create hassles. If we take over the building now and that office does not give the sanction, our credibility here would be at stake.”

“We have justified the space requirements and PWD has certified the rent reasonability. Then why there should be any problem?” I asked.

“Our finance people are a class by themselves. It is very difficult to satisfy them.” Venkat said with a sigh. “Unless they are convinced, no approval would come. In fact they enjoy the true powers without having any responsibility on work matters”.

“Let it be as proposed,” I told him. “Let us now start thinking of programming the work with the available staff”.

Being fresh from college I had only the theoretical knowledge of going about planning the investigations for a hydroelectric project.  Venkat with his years of field experience could help me to put that theoretical knowledge into practice. Together we planned the work schedule specifying the tasks to be entrusted to each of the junior engineering staff so as to commence the field investigations.

Venkat advised me a few days after the works started “we have to send periodically the progress reports on the works carried out on a weekly, fortnightly, monthly, quarterly, half yearly and yearly basis to both the offices at Vijayawada and Delhi.”

I wanted to know “Why should we send the progress reports periodically to Delhi? What would they do with our reports? Is it not for the Vijayawada office to apprise the Hqs. about the progress of our works?”

”Normally, the Delhi people open a file to put it in that and tick mark the check list of having received the report,  nothing else,” Venkat  said. “No body even bothers to read it but if we fail to send any one such report, they would start sending reminders as if for want of some important information to be received from us, the Officers at Hqs. would face embarrassment! Then the regional office would call for an explanation from us for failing in our duty.”

“Suppose due to some reason, the work could not progress. What are we to do then?” I asked.

“We have to send a ‘Nil’ return,” Venkat clarified. “The more one wastes stationery, the better one gets appreciated for being diligent in the work.”

Venkat, though a junior in the hierarchy, proved an asset to my office and me in particular, helping to tide over difficult rule book stipulations without attracting the objections from the administrative and financial wizards of the regional office and head quarters. Due to his positive approach, the works could be pushed ahead instead of waiting for approvals to proceed with the works. He always used to find some method to do the work instead of blaming the system and the archaic PWD rules of the 19th century.

One day, while we were discussing the procedure for getting our vehicle repaired, Venkat pointed out. “Rules stipulate that for any office work or purchase, quotations have to be called and work awarded to the  lowest tenderer. Normally what I used to do was to go to the best mechanic in the town and ask him to get me 3 quotations from different mechanics for the work to be done, so that his quotation remains the lowest to award the work to him.”

“Does it not tantamount to circumventing the rules to benefit an individual?”, I asked him.

“Certainly not”, he asserted. “We are following the rules which say that work is to be awarded to the vendor who gives lowest tender.  In practice, big workshops would not even bother to submit a tender / quotation for small and petty jobs and if we follow strictly the rule book, we would be wasting only our time without getting any result. Further, we would be hauled upon by the bosses for not getting the job done quickly.  Finance people would bark upon us for not following the prescribed codes if we deviate from the procedure. The via media is to go about like this so that the mechanic carries out the repairs and in the meanwhile we complete the formalities needed.”

“What I meant to say was that we would follow the rules to complete the works.” Venkat added.

By the time monsoon showers came, and the river water levels rose, we could complete the requisite survey works and drilling works for the dam as planned without breaking the rules.

According to the schedule prepared by us, we were to prepare the site drawings during the monsoon period. We had no difficulty to start the drawing work in the office as we had taken over the accommodation for the office from the Zamindar. By September end we were ready with our dam site drawings based on site surveys and had progressed well in the geological explorations and other data collection.

Meanwhile, there were some changes at the regional office. Jain got transferred to his coveted posting in Delhi. His successor was one Subbaiah, a native of Andhra Pradesh. On receiving the transfer orders, Subbaiah rushed to Vijayawada without wasting any time and relieved Jain.

It was sometime at the end of October that I got a message about the tour programme of the new incumbent to inspect our office and the site works. The visit was scheduled from 13th November and according to the programme, he would also bring an expert from the Delhi Hqs. to finalise the dam alignment.

The dam site surveys on the Godavari river were being carried out at Polavaram, about 25 kms. from Gopalapuram.  State PWD had constructed an inspection bungalow there during the British period for the inspecting officers. As very few such officers came for inspecting the works at Polavaram and beyond in the interior areas notified as ‘Agency’ areas, the accommodation was not in demand by local officers and hence was not being maintained properly.

After we took up the survey work we got it furnished as per our requirements so that the field staff and the visiting officers could comfortably stay there. We had also made arrangements for mess using the facilities available in the kitchen and dining hall attached to the building. Being in an interior location, vegetables were always in short supply there and we had to get them from Rajamundhry, an important town in the East Godavari district, about 50 kms. downstream of our site, but, chicken and eggs were available here and the river had plenty of fish.

Subbiah’s visit to the site was only for a day as he had to attend meetings with local irrigation engineers at their head quarters at Dhowleswaram, famous for the century old anicut (diversion dam) constructed by Sir Arthur Cotton . The anicut, situated about 4 kms. downstream of Rajahmundhry, ensured adequate water for irrigation in the delta areas making it the rice bowl of south India.

“What have we got for lunch?” Subbiah suddenly asked me while we were discussing the work scheduled for the season.

“Apart from rice and other vegetable dishes, I have also arranged for some special non-vegetarian items,” I said.

“But to-day is Tuesday, man,” he told me. “Being an orthodox Hindu, I do not like to take non-vegetarian items on this day”.

“Our cook has made a delicious chicken curry,” I told him.

“Chicken! Then it is o.k. we should not disappoint the cook”. Subbiah seemed to reconcile with the situation.

Later on the day, Venkat commented that the boss accepted the menu fully knowing that while Tuesdays came every week, chicken might not oblige to present itself that frequently.

The Chief Engineer (CE) of the Godavari anicut and canal system, Tata Chari, was famous in the department as the most ‘Abominable No Man’ the department had ever seen. According  to his subordinates, any proposal put up to him for approval would be initially returned with a ‘no’ and unless pressure comes from top officers, the proposal would ultimately find its way to a ‘miscellaneous file’ till retrieved due to references from very important persons (VIPs). Hence when Subbaiah wanted to have a reconnaissance of the river from an upstream point where the tributary Indravathi  joins Godavari, till the anicut, I knew that it would be difficult to get the PWD inspection boat spared for the purpose if I approached the CE. Venkat  took upon himself the responsibility. He told me that he knew the Executive Engineer (EE), Nageshwar Rao, who was always willing to help colleagues and fellow engineers in times of need. He contacted him with the request and it was readily approved at the EE’s level and we could carry out the survey without any problem.

Subbaiah’s approach to work was entirely different from that of his predecessor, Jain. During my interactions with Subbaiah for a short period before lunch and during the meetings with the irrigation officers, he appeared quite casual towards work and his views lacked in-depth knowledge of the subject, be it in the technical field or in the administrative and financial issues. To me he appeared to be a shirker, avoiding to take responsibilities and in giving decisions. Hence I knew that I have to be very careful while dealing with him.

“Have you met Partha and Prasad, your colleagues in the other sub offices at Tiruvuru and Eluru?”, He asked me while we were having dinner that night.

“No. I did not get any chance.”

“I think it would be a good idea if all of us meet at some small town other than at Vijayawada to discuss our common problems as also to have a comprehensive work programme chalked out for the regional office.”He spelt out his idea. “At Vijayawada, it would be difficult to get accommodation for all the officers in the PWD guest house. During my tours, I have seen a nice Travellers’ Bungalow at Kalluru which is rarely in demand. You can come via Kovvuru, Prasad from Eluru and Partha from Tiruvuru and meet at Kalluru, say in the first week of every month so that we can discuss and sort out problems if any to expedite the work.”

“I would be too glad to come”, I said. The prospects of meeting my senior colleagues made me very happy.

Sanku,

Engineer of An  Ancient Cadre.

A chapter from [Sankupurana – Memoirs of an Engineer]

Read the earlier chapters in the links below

A lucky Job with Pension Benefits

Stepping into the Uncharted World of Officialdom

Labyrinth of Official Procedures and Codal Formalities

 

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