The Bluffer of Ajeebpur
By: Debraj Bhattacharya
- A worried DM
The District Magistrate of district Ajeebpur, Mr. Hari Sachdev IAS, is a worried man. He has just received a letter that a high-profile delegation from UN is coming to see the present condition of planning in the district. He is new in the district and not sure what the situation exactly is. He is hoping that if he does well for a year then he will be transferred to the state capital. Hence it is vitally important that the high-powered team does not make any adverse comment about what they see.
DM Saab therefore decided to call a meeting of his close officers. I could see that he was nervous but he was pretending to be in command and holding a routine meeting. Mr Salil Chaturvedi,one of his ADMs, gave a rather grim picture. He said that the district is lagging behind in terms of training, in terms of raising awareness, in terms of convincing the people of the villages that they should participate in the planning process for their own good. “It is a dismal situation, Sir. Everything is backward in a backward district, Sir.” I could see that the face of the DM becoming tense and sad. The other officers present looked bored, they were least interested in the future of the district or the future of the District Magistrate or the team that was about to visit.
However, there was one enthusiastic young officer. Mr. Surjeet Singh, one of the Assistant District Magistrates, said, “Sir, can’t we cancel the meeting saying that there is some urgent disaster, flood for example?”
DM Saab looked at him in disgust and asked, “How can I say that when there is no flood? Do you think the state government does not know?”
Mr. Singh said, “I mean Sir, if there is no flood, can’t we create a flood?” The other officers laughed aloud. DM Saab was not amused though. He said, “Surjeet, this team is coming after doing their research. They have a retired civil servant with them who knows all the tricks you are talking about. Try to think out of the box. Besides they have researchers, UN officials. If you show them a fake situation, they will know. That will be even worse.” The bored officers once more returned to their bored appearances. One of them looked at his watch just to check how long he would have to wait before leaving for home. DM Saab then looked at Surjeet Singh and said, “I am counting on you. They must go back with a good impression. But don’t try to fake the situation.”
Now, this is the advantage of hierarchy. DM Saab had no clue as to what needs to be done to manage the situation. But being the boss of the district, he could simply order one of the subordinate officers. He was of course gambling. But given the situation, he thought Surjeet could arrive at a solution. The rest of the team was useless.
“Tomorrow, I want to see the plan of the visit.” DM Saab said and concluded the meeting. The officials left nodding their head.
2. The Delegation Visits Ajeebpur
The UN Delegation consisting of state level UN officials, country level UN officials and experts from one of their partner organisations, met DM Saab. The DM had told them that there was an urgent meeting at the state level for which he will have to leave within half an hour, but his deputy, Mr. Surjeet will coordinate the tour.
It was important to be busy. If he stayed long enough, his lack of knowledge on planning issues could be revealed. Nor indeed does it look good if the top officer of the district is not busy with some urgent issue.
But he quickly showed a power point presentation to the team about the progress the district was making. Power Point is a wonderful thing. What you present is more important than the truth. It must look convincing with lot of graphs and quantitative data. So, DM Saab presented the overall development scenario of the district and offered tea and snacks to the visitors. He quickly gazed at the retired civil servant who was part of the team. He looked quite bright, but not really the aggressive type who would suddenly start asking questions. He was enjoying his tea. He then looked at the researcher sitting next to him. This person also looked intelligent but did not seem to be keen on raising tough questions. I could see that DM Saab was feeling reasonably confident of handling the situation. Mr. Surjeet was sitting next to him while the other officers were sitting at the back with files and papers, to be called if necessary.
Since the delegation was from the UN, the presentations were also made according to the themes that are close to the heart of UN – Children, Sustainable Development Goals, etc. There were other presentations for the Government of India, World Bank, so on and so forth. Same data, different package. Experience has taught our DM Saab that a smart power point presentation can make all the difference in a meeting. Who is going to check whether the data is correct or not? What is important is that the statements must be told with humour and confidence. Some Economics or Statistics graduates can be used to make these presentations. They also find it an opportunity to associate themselves with the mighty government and get the blessings of the DM.
Thus, truth has a new name – power point.
DM Saab figured out that the foreigners did not know much about India, let alone his state and district. So, he let out a sigh of relief. He texted Surjeet to keep an eye on the two Indians from the partner organisation. The UN agencies usually do not take the risk of speaking against the government since they have to work with them. But one cannot be too sure about the consultants from partner organisations.
Surjeet replied to the text – No worries Sir, there will be no problem. Everything under control.
3. The Field Visit
The Gram Panchayat where the delegation was to visit was nicely decorated for the occasion. There were plastic bottles of “mineral water” for the VIP guests. All members and staff were informed by the President to attend the occasion. There were some thirty odd people waiting for the delegation to come. The President and the Secretary had also prepared a power point and were going through the last-minute details. Gram Panchayats are also these days very keen on showing that they are not lagging behind the city dwellers and hence they also like the power point. The Secretary, who is a government employee, has carefully prepared the data to be shown.
After a while, the cars arrived. The delegation was received with garlands by the chosen women of the village. The foreign staff of UN were very happy to see so much colour and vibrant flowers. They sat down for a round of discussion and were served refreshments. One little girl came and sang a song to inaugurate the discussion.
The retired civil servant, Mr Agarkar, and the young researcher asked a few questions, mainly to understand how the Gram Panchayat carries out their planning activities. The Secretary explained that everything is done according to the Guideline sent by the state government. Local people do their own planning for their own benefit but according to the guideline sent by the state government. Only humans can have a system like this, I thought.
The discussion continued. The most important activity, the Gram Panchayat Secretary explained, is building roads. Everybody wants concrete roads. I almost felt like adding that after all, contractors also love roads. That’s where the money is.
Someone asked whether health and education were also a priority for the local government. The Secretary explained that the guideline is not giving them any opportunity to spend on such issues but some school textbooks are distributed. Health and Education are the business of the Health Department and the Education Department respectively. One of the foreign delegates, Mr. Owenaka Akintola, was a little puzzled. He said, “But as local government, you should be looking after agriculture, health and education also, no?” The Secretary was now a little puzzled. He said, showing the guideline, “But Sir, we can only spend according to the guideline.The guideline clearly says that.” The inexperienced foreigner looked confused. I felt sorry for him. He asked, “But aren’t you the government?” Now the Secretary looked confused. He could not understand the question.
At this stage, the veteran civil servant broke his silence. He explained to the foreigner that although the Constitution of India says that a local government is a government it is actually not a government but something that carries out orders from central and state governments. “What do you mean?”, Mr. Akintola asked. The veteran Consultant stood up and said, “Sir, this is called decentralisation. When there is a local government, but it is not really a government. It is like a banana republic run by the CIA.” The foreigner immediately understood what the veteran consultant was saying. “Ah, banana republic. Now, I understand. My country is also a banana republic. But tell me, why then are people doing participatory planning? Can’t the higher-level government simply say what to do? Makes it simpler, no?”
The veteran consultant smiled and said, “No Sir, that would not be decentralisation. When you do decentralisation, people must feel that they are participating, but you must pull the strings. What you are saying is simple top-down approach. That’s not sophisticated enough. What you need to do in a democracy is to do top-down but make it look bottom-up.”
The foreign delegate looked puzzled. The mischievous veteran consultant said, “India is the land of maya Sir. You understand maya?” The foreign delegate nodded his head. He didn’t understand the concept of maya but he was ashamed to say so. After all, he was holding a prestigious chair in his office. I looked at him and felt sorry. Then I quickly ran off and got inside one of the cars, since I had to reach the district office along with the delegation. They took some more time, visited some more households, especially the poverty-stricken ones, asked some questions and then got into the car.
4. The Final Briefing
The delegation reached the office of the ADM Zilla Parishad, Mr. Surjeet Singh. I was watching Surjeet just before the delegation arrived. He looked a little nervous. Whenever he feels nervous he watches a cricket video of Sachin Tendulkar to boost his own self-confidence. That’s what he did this time also. Then he welcomed the delegation and called for tea. He grinned as widely as he could and said, “Was everything alright? No problem?”
The UN delegation was somewhat tired but they said that everything was well-organised. The official who had come from the “banana republic” said that he had a few questions. Singh once again grinned as widely as he could and said, “Yes Sir.” I could hear his heart pumping faster.
Mr. Owenaka Akintola, said, “I was happy with your local government’s dedication to its work, but I could not understand why they do not take decision on their own? What do you think Mr. Singh?”
Mr. Singh grinned once again and said, “You are absolutely right Sir. Such an acute observation Sir. Please have your tea Sir.”
Mr. Akintola said, “Thank you but I didn’t get the answer.”
Singh grinned once more. Then he said, “Things are moving in that direction Sir.”
Akintola was not impressed. He looked at the veteran Consultant, Mr. Agarkar, and asked, “what do you think?”
Mr. Agarkar looked up from his mobile phone, where he was busy playing a game. He said, “Mr. Singh is right Sir. Things are moving in that direction. The local governments are now getting lot of funds which they can, formally speaking, use as they wish. This is called, ‘untied fund’. However, at the moment, there is a guideline as to how they will be using the money. This is tied untied, you may say.”
Ms Aimi Ozu, another delegate, who is originally from Japan, said, “But why not give them the money to do what they want to do?”
Mr. Singh grinned once more and said, “Things are moving in that direction Madam. Under the careful guidance of our PM, CM and DM. We call this handholding support, Madam. Very soon the people of the villages will be making plans on their own and spending money as they wish.”
Ms Ozu asked, “And how soon do you think that will take?”
Mr. Singh said, “Actually, there is a meeting with the State Government today on this because of which our DM has gone to meet the Chief Secretary. It is top priority Madam. However, a lot of capacity building is necessary.”
Ms Ozu asked, “What do you mean? Could you explain a little further?”
I could see Singh’s eyes becoming brighter. He said, “You see Madam, ours is a backward district. People are poor, they are uneducated and they are lacking in exposure. So, we have to build their capacity. Our PM, CM and DM are working tirelessly on this. But there is a shortage of funds.”
Mr Agarkar, the Consultant, once again looked up from his mobile phone and said, “That is true Madam. You can think of supporting the district administration in this regard.”
Mr. Singh once again grinned and said, “Thank you Sir.”
Mr. Akintola was still not convinced. He said, “But I saw some really poor families, who were not aware of anything related to planning. How could this happen?”
Mr. Singh grinned once again. Mr. Singh said without losing his composure, “Very big problem Sir. Very difficult to make them understand Sir. But we are not giving up. Under the able guidance of our PM, CM and DM we are soon launching an Information-Education-Communication campaign. This will start from next month.”
Mr. Akintola said, “What are you proposing to do?”
Singh was bluffing. There was no such plan. But he continued, “Actually, the guideline will be prepared by next week. After that we shall issue a tender for Public Private Partnership with reputed NGOs. Till then Sir, I cannot divulge anything. But our DM is closely working on it, Sir. Radio, television, posters, folk art, facebook, whatsapp – everything will be used Sir.”
Mr. Agarkar once again looked up from the mobile phone, and said, “There are lot of interesting projects coming up it seems Mr. Singh.”
Singh grinned once again and said, “Yes Sir. We have found a Very Dynamic DM or VDDM Sir. This is his brainchild Sir.”
Madam Ozu smiled and said, “Let me go back to office, and see what kind of support we can give to Ajeebpur district.”
Mr. Singh said, “Our DM Sir will be very happy to receive your support Madam. He is always full of ideas and enthusiasm.”
The delegation left.
The next day, the DM congratulated Singh and told the other officers, “See, he understood everything I wanted him to do. Remember that the art of governance is walking the fine balance between the possible and the impossible.” His officers didn’t quite understand what that meant. Not their fault as the DM himself didn’t know the meaning of the profound statement. It meant nothing, but sounded good. Then he looked at Singh and said, “But Singh, you must not become overconfident.”
“No Sir. Your guidance will always help me to grow Sir.” said Singh, carefully oiling his boss’s ego.