Wednesday, December 6, 2023
FictionLife in Dandakaranya- A New Perspective- M.S Menon, New...

Life in Dandakaranya- A New Perspective- M.S Menon, New Delhi [Sankupurana – Memoirs of an Engineer]


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September came and with that the fury of monsoon receded permitting more sunshine in Venkatapuram and surrounding Dandakaranya forests. It also heralded the welcome news that the bus from Bhadrachalam had arrived bringing news papers as also the V.I.P., Sreenivasa Reddy, the owner of the local theatre, the Modern Talkies, to start daily film shows. Villagers were happy that they would be able to enjoy music blaring out from the theatre every evening till the show starts and there after their favourite films based on religious or social issues.

There were many offices of the State government functioning at Venkatapuram. However most of the officers and staff were with family and were keeping company amongst themselves only. Luckily, the local doctor, Ramesh was a fresh recruit in the Health Department and was living alone in his quarters attached to the Public Health Dispensary. I met him when one of my drilling staff was injured while operating the drill machine.
After the doctor was free, I introduced myself to him and invited him to my place, a bachelor’s den, whenever he found time. Being tied down to the hospital work ever since his joining duty at the place, he told me that he did not know any officer in the locality and hence was happy to hear that I was also a bachelor. He promised to meet me whenever possible at my place.

Once we got to know each other better, our meetings became more informal and we even used to go for watching the films together.
“Here there is hope of change in films every third day, ”Ramesh told me one day while we were going to see a movie. “You would have been bored if you were in cities like Vijayawada since there films run for days together.”
“But here also we have no choice but to watch which ever films are brought by the owner.” I told him. “At least in Vijayawada we have many theatres showing different films and we have a choice.”
“That is true, but here the change is fast, though the movies shown were released years ago”, the doctor said.

Dr.Ramesh had opted to work at Venkatapuram solely with the intention of serving people and hence looked only at the advantages of the place. He never complained to me at any time during discussions with him about the lack of facilities here but he was vociferous about how the nature had been magnanimous with the place, providing a healthy, pollution free environment.
“In any city you have to take a transport to reach your destination, be it an office, a shopping complex, or even a place of entertainment. Here one can take a healthy walk of few minutes to reach the place.” he said.
I liked his philosophy to take life as it comes and enjoy its blessings fully. I made a mental note of it for my use.

The advantage of watching a film in local talkies is that apart from improving the vocabulary and knowledge of the dialects, one with a positive outlook on life would never be bored of the situation he is pushed into. He would find that the entire audience becomes a part of the film story sympathising with the heroine supporting the hero and showing contempt of the villain by their gestures and actions in the theatre. Also on demand from the audience, the film would be rolled back to repeat the scene of the hero assaulting the villain or the gimmicks of a comedian and hence the show would continue invariably 4- 5 hours every evening. When grandmothers among the audience worry about the fate of the heroine in one scene, the children accompanying them would console them saying that the hero would come in the next scene and save the hapless lady! After watching a couple of films, I also started enjoying the actions of the audience making the place lively with cat calls by youngsters, sympathetic moans by the elderly, and hilarious situations mimicked by the children forming the majority of the active audience.

With the redoubled efforts of Venkat and other JTOs, we could make up the progress lost due to the indifferent handling of the drilling work by Swapan Das. By the end of February, we were ahead of the scheduled plans and were hopeful that before the onset of monsoons the works could be completed.

The experience with Das made me cautious in asking for a substitute in his place. If the administration posts another person like him, I would have no choice except to keep him irrespective of whether he is a dull or a diligent worker. Hence while sending the staff position return to Delhi, though I used to show a vacancy, I used to give a remark that the post was not to be filled as the works were to be completed and office to be closed by July that year.

In between there were inspections by Subbaiah, sometimes accompanied by geologists. They were happy with the progress of works.
While the field surveys, drilling etc. were in progress, we also collected the details of villages which would be affected by the project. Venkat was a good PRO since he could converse in the local dialects and also could deal with the concerned officers and get their whole hearted cooperation.

Field offices are subject to a plethora of inspections. Audit parties from accounts section make a bee line to the field offices every year to ensure that expenditure incurred was as per prescribed procedures. Regional office would inspect the office annually to confirm that administrative work proceeded as per the prescribed manuals. Organisation& Methods Unit from the Delhi office preferred to inspect how the files were recorded and to ensure the business rules were scrupulously followed, while the Vigilance team from there wanted to plug loop holes for corruption. There were many more such teams such as the Disaster Management team, the Fire safety team etc. burdening the field office with inspections, leaving very little time for the officer to concentrate on the technical works.
Luckily I was spared of many of the inspections from Delhi as the office had not completed 2 years at Venkatapuram and the place was not a hill station nor of tourist interest, but located in an inaccessible place in the Dandakaranya area.
By the time monsoon arrived, we had completed all our field works. We closed our site camps and moved the men and machinery to the office premises. The daily labourers recruited from Albaka were relieved and only those from Venkatapuram were retained for the upkeep and maintenance of the equipments.

I had started enjoying the life at Venkatapuram by then since the doctor and other local officers gave us all the help needed. The place being inaccessible, for all purposes like getting provisions and other bulk purchases, the officers had to take the help of each other. We had an understanding that any vehicle going towards Bhadrachalam or Vijayawada would take a list of requirements of any of the family members to be brought from there; hence all officers were very friendly. There was one exception, the Treasury Officer, Thimmayya. He was arrogant and considered himself to be a superior officer because he was in charge of the treasury to make salary and other payments to all the offices and every one had to depend on his good moods to get their dues from the government.
“The only difficult person in Venkatapuram is the treasury officer who believes in harassing other officers to show his importance”, Ram Babu had warned me at Gopalapuram. “He is the only person who puts hassles while all others are there willing to help you. So you have to be extra cautious about him and take care of his whims.”

I had met Thimmayya a couple of times after I opened the office there, once as a courtesy call and thereafter, while hoisting lunch/ dinner for visiting officers from Vijayawada and Delhi. Our pay bills and other claims had to be submitted to the treasury as there was no branch of the State Bank of India at this place. Unfortunately, the staff of the treasury had no idea of dealing with central rules and decision on our claims had to be taken only by the treasury officer, who was not aware of these rules either. They had made it a practice to return the bills invariably raising some objections and my office superintendent had to personally meet the treasury officer and get the objections cleared. At no time the bills were passed at the first instance. My superintendent, Keshav, never brought such incidents to my notice as he felt he could somehow deal with such minor irritations from that office. Hence I was under the impression that everything was working smoothly.

One day, Keshav came into my room very much agitated holding some bills returned by the treasury.
“I am tired of the whims of this officer”, he said. “All along, I had been putting up with his idiosyncrasies whenever he returned the bills with some silly objections, going to him personally and giving certificates whenever he wanted so as to facilitate the clearance of the bills. Now he has reached the limit, demanding the life certificate of Venkat when he was on leave during July so as to release his leave salary for July.”
“Why does he want such a certificate?” I asked him surprised. “The treasury had passed his pay bill for his duty period in August and also in September. How can any sensible person think that Venkat was not alive in July during his leave period, while he is alive to claim his pay for subsequent months?’
“The treasury officer says that as per the treasury rules, a leave salary bill of an officer should be supported by a certificate that he was alive during this period of leave. He showed me the relevant section in the State Treasury Rules, 1940, the latest he had with him.”
“You should have told him that ours is a central office and the state government rules are not applicable to our bills.” I told him. “You should have also shown him the Central Treasury Rules where no such requirement had been shown for claiming leave salary.”
“I had shown him the relevant central rules as per which the only certificate required is the leave sanction order. But when he insisted with his objection, I told him that the state rules are not applicable in the case of central staff.”
“Now he wants me to show the rule which mentions that state rules are not applicable to central officers! Kindly try to convince him”

I telephoned Thimmayya and explained to him that our bills are to be audited as per central rules only and not as per the state rules. But he was adamant. He told me that till he got directions from his superiors, he would not pass the bills. I discussed the issue with the local officers. They told me that the District Treasury Officer at Warangal was notorious in creating problems according to their colleagues at that place and hence it would be better for me to approach the Director of Treasuries at Hyderabad, and the issue would be settled once for all.

I sent Keshav with a letter addressed to the Director of Treasuries bringing out the issues involved and seeking a direction from him to the Sub Treasury Officer to pass the bills returned by him taking an unusual objection. I had also pointed out that since that officer had passed all subsequent bills of Venkat, how he could doubt about my officer being not alive during the leave period.

Within a week, Keshav returned with a copy of the letter from the Director of Treasuries addressed to Thimmayya and copies endorsed to the District Treasury Officer and me. In the letter, the Director instructed Thimmayya to pass and pay the bill in question pointing out to him the Government Orders in this regard wherein the need for life certificate in the case of leave salary bills of serving officials had already been done away with.

“Just read the amendments”, the Superintendent told me pointing out to the copy of that specific order enclosed with the letter. “They made some corrections, but did not accept the fact that earlier orders demanding a life certificate for a serving official on return from leave were foolish!”
Subsequently we found that the instructions from Hyderabad office had a sobering effect on the local treasury office since they passed all our bills without any objection. Also when we submitted a number of bills towards advances for pay, travelling allowances on transfer etc. on the closure of our office at Venkatapuram, Thimmayya cleared all these bills without any hitch.

In our system of work, I was told that the opening or closing of an office would generally be in accordance with the financial year starting from April and ending in March next. This would facilitate payment of outstanding bills, closing of the year’s account, and completing necessary formalities etc. Hence the relevant orders including the transfer and further posting of staff would be issued in the month of January to give sufficient time for doing the needful by the officer in charge of the office.

Subbaiah had given instructions that on closing of the office as scheduled on completion of works, the records etc. would be transferred to Tiruvuru office along with a skeletal staff to attend to any remaining work. I had then suggested that as Venkat was well versed with the work and data, he should be retained at Tiruvuru and being from Andhra, he would be willing to continue there.
After my bad experience with the Delhi office regarding submission of routine returns on time, I had decided that I should monitor the timely despatch of the weekly, fortnightly, monthly, quarterly, half yearly and yearly returns to the head quarters as per the proformas prescribed even at the cost of the field work. Hence while packing the documents during the closure of the office, I had kept the relevant returns ready for despatch on 31st March.

By the end of February, we had received the orders for closing the office by March 3ist. The transfer orders for all the staff were issued by the headquarters. I was transferred to Delhi and was advised to get further posting orders from the administration. Venkat was transferred to Tiruvuru office and he was to take charge of all the records and equipments to that office and work under Partha’s directions. Others were posted to the offices at Vijayawada and Eluru.
I went to Tiruvuru in the month of March to brief Partha about our works and also to hand over to him a copy of our report on the Albaka dam project. I also told him about my transfer to Delhi and my plans for taking a few days’ leave before joining at Delhi.
“The order says that I am to get further posting from the administration. Why can’t they straight away issue the order posting me to a specific Unit”, I asked him.
“Experience has taught the administration that whenever a person is transferred, he does not join the post immediately, “Partha told me. “If the person is not happy with the posting, he would proceed on leave and would try all tricks to get the transfer cancelled. By the time the case is decided, taking may be 6-9 months, the vacancy position in the Unit may change and hence this safe approach by the administration”
“I am not going to object to this transfer,” I told him. “They could have easily shown the Unit where I am to join”
“How would they know your intentions?” Partha asked me. “For administrative staff, everybody is a crook, unless otherwise proved!”
“Jain had told me of this principle”, I confessed.
”Do you know that you are eligible for joining time and also for expenses to shift your possessions from Venkatapuram to Delhi?” Partha asked me. “If you prefer, you could go to your native place during this period and meet your people before joining at Delhi. Once in Delhi, you may not easily get leave.”
“Prasad had told me that life in Delhi is comparatively stress free and there would not be any difficulty in getting leave”. I pointed out.
“It depends on the Unit where you are posted”, Partha clarified. “Some Unit Chiefs make you work like hell, but are good enough to give you freedom to attend to your personal works. They also give you due credit for work. There are also others who make you work hard, take credit for the work themselves without acknowledging your contribution and also would not give any facility like leave. There are also many who avoid doing work, do not bother about your work or giving any facility to you, but blame you for all the mistakes committed by him in the working of the Unit. These are the most dangerous species in WADA.”

“Since I am going to get exposed to a new way of life in Delhi, I would need all your advice to move on, once I am assigned a Unit,” I requested him. “Please do not mind my troubling you frequently on phone from Delhi in this connection.”
“You are welcome.” Partha said. “But better than me, I have a friend in Delhi who would be much helpful to guide you. Kishanjee is a senior officer, an encyclopaedia on rules and regulations and a walking library on water related issues. He is a workaholic if the work is his; otherwise, he takes things easy. He is a jovial man and though many years senior to me, I consider him as a friend, philosopher and guide not only in technical matters but also on all mundane matters. So, before joining any Unit, go and meet him for his advice. I shall write to him about you shortly.”

I was surprised to see Yadagiri, peon of Subbaiah entering the room with some files for Partha’s approval. Seeing him unexpectedly at Tiruvuru, I asked him whether he had brought some urgent files from Vijayawada office for immediate action.
“I have been transferred here, Sir”, he told me.”Boss was waiting for a chance to punish me and your closing the office at Venkatapuram gave him that opportunity to do that”
“I know that Boss was against you and never a well wisher for you. But then why did he help you by posting you nearer to your village?” I was curious to know.
“Last year he told me that he was not happy with my performance. So I told him that he could transfer me to any place other than Tiruvuru as the place is far away from my village at Sreekakulam, the northern most Taluk of Andhra Pradesh. I also explained to him that it would take 2 days for me to reach my village from Tiruvuru. He must have kept a note of my request and hence decided to punish me by posting me here when the opportunity came after he verified from my service records that my native place was at Sreekakulam. “
“But in fact he helped you since your wife’s family is settled here and all your brothers are also working near here.” I said.
“This is what happens when anger blinds a man’, Yadagiri philosophised. “If he had seen my applications for transfer in a previous file when the Tiruvuru office was opened, he would have known that only my grandparents are at Sreekakulam, but my preference is for posting at this place.”

“Also I had checked up the antecedents of the officer here from my colleagues who had a chance to work under him and they were all in praise for him. Hence though for form sake I protested about the transfer orally, I wanted to join Tiruvuru early. My protest made the boss relieve me immediately since he did not want to give me any chance to bring pressure to get the transfer cancelled!”
After Yadagiri took away the files, Partha said.”Look, this is a revelation for all of us. Just like we check up the antecedents of the staff being posted to us, these guys also enquire about our way of working before joining our office.”
By week end, I was back at Venkatapuram overseeing the closure of the office.

A chapter from [Sankupurana – Memoirs of an Engineer]

Editorial Team of Indian Ruminations.


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