The frills and thrills of district administration
Lunminthang Haokip, IAS Retd
THE AURA ATTACHED TO A DISTRICT ADMINISTRATOR: Considered a prize and crucial cutting-edge administrative posting, several rounds of confabulations, usually at the highest levels, take place to avoid a ‘wrong decision’ at one’s own expense, before a Deputy Commissioner is posted. Once the consensus order comes out, the onus of taking stock of everything that happens, may happen and may not happen in the administrative circles of a district, squarely lies in the ‘imagined wisdom’ of the otherwise just ‘another top-cadre officer.’ The incumbent DC, like Socrates, knows the ‘other’s point of view’, but unlike the philosopher, cannot freely express his own views. The liberty of the new Dist. Admin as a tradition, is restrained by many baffling local issues, which, if not tackled with utmost caution, could turn out to be the quickening of his premature exit from his slot as an ‘over-rated’ crisis manager.’ So, the poor man can’t afford to rest his head ‘just to keep his earlobes apart.’ He has to constantly caution himself to be extra careful in managing people.
THE FRILLS THAT SPILL OVER: The new arrival in town is passionately welcomed with capital ‘P’ by a pre-conceived ‘potioned notion’ of his subject, generally. His moves are observed with greater pessimism and harsher judgement by the ‘less-favoured’ lot who have axes to grind with the powers-that-be. ‘Who had brought in the officer to their district,’ is a subject of animated critical discussion in the roadside tea-stalls. Those who enjoy political favour are game to assistance. The rest, with attitudinal cynicism, keep a distance. The new dist-level top-seat occupant’s future lies uneasy. Yet, the officer-incumbent, feigning ignorance of nuances of grudges aired, laps up every invitation that befits his hard-earned status of being perched in the helm of affairs within the confines of his jurisdiction. Dinner and other social invitations keep coming from those who matter. The schedule-rich Admin attends some and politely excuses himself from the rest. The few favoured hosts soon forget the gesture, but the declined overtures are double-clicked in the minds the ‘offended.’ The rest of the rejected ‘wannabe’ hosts feel ‘neglected,’ and in ‘Devdas-mode,” remembers the ‘sad episode’ with the memory of an elephant.
TACKLING SUDDEN STATUS-HIKE: At times, the ‘Dist-boss’ struggles to hide his clumsiness in getting normally adjusted and habituated to the sudden status-hike. Unsought respect (or is it flattery) is received in abundance in the ‘honey-moony’ period of initial interactions with his ‘apparently’ happy, but ‘secretly unpredictable’ public. Later, the conflict of endless pressure of demands and limited means to please all, do not augur well, and create fissures in the ‘coloured’ perceptions in the administered ‘wishers’ heads. Old friends begin to look at the familiar ‘Babu’ with unfamiliar hope to fulfil which could be ‘taboo’ for the latter. Urges to fete the new incumbent are reserved, only to be let loose after a favour is done, or assured to be done. Imagined assumptions from all sides makes the ‘poor man’s guru’ who is made to bite off more than he can chew, ‘untrue.’ The Minister’s desire makes the Admin get cracking as a ‘mini-stir.’ Even when he goes the extra-mile to get odd things done somehow, he seldom gets back a smile.
DEALING WITH SUBTLE SUBORDINATES: An administrator’s level of performance depends heavily on his subordinates’ savvy support. White-collar-supposed-to-be 10 to 5 jobbers in our land may be classified in four categories. The first lot are the few sincere functionaries who know their duty well and will to perform. The boss relies heavily upon them. The second group are equipped with the know-how but lack the will to work hard. They get things done pretty fast and do a vanishing act, soon after. The third type of incumbents lack knowledge but, given proper grooming, are willing to put in their best. They are the most qualified candidates for capacity building trainings. I myself reinvented myself with the series of domestic and overseas trainings I was privileged to undergo. LBSNAA, Mussoorie and HSMI, New Delhi, groom future administrators like FTII Pune does to wannabe actors. They add skill to will. Superior finery confers superior training. The football striker can net the ball when he gets a fabulous passing from the fellow player. It’s the same with working in offices. ‘Goals’ are scored with a letter-perfect ‘passing’ from a fit assistant. Misses in the opportune time creates ‘hisses’ in both the fields.
MUCH ADO ABOUT DOING NOTHING : Sincerity of dutiful lower-rung staff has a ripple-effect in the smooth work-flow in the higher levels. Yet, such efficient assistants are a rare species. The headache of the boss is the fourth category of ‘supporting’ subordinates who do not know much, and are not inclined to learn such. They are the ones who gossip away precious office hours in the canteen corner, and whose cup-of-tea does not taste sweet unless they talk bad of someone, as an added flavour. Gossip, in essence, is the art of saying nothing in a manner that leaves nothing unsaid ! They do nothing in the morning and take a good rest in the afternoon, for doing nothing much in the morning. Such escapist staff members vociferously demand, as a birth-right, their fave dish from their naive wives by the evening. Some sozzled type office-non-workers, get worked up with petty lapses at home, and give vent to their ‘frustration’ by beating up their poor spouses black and blue. The saying goes, ‘An idle mind is the devil’s workshop.’ How true!?
OUTSTANDING SMART OPERATORS: While some staff are overloaded with dealing piled-up urgent matters to be delivered one after another, a few nattily dressed among their colleagues couldn’t care less. Typical of their ilk, such side-trade runners, having given their prime-time to more lucrative non-official ventures, visit their places of work often in a School-Inspector style. This type of flippant lot try to make up their lack of office-hour presence with wrapped presents to their boss. They are smart enough to preempt possible reprimand with honeyed diplomacy. If the peeved Office-head raises a finger to take them to task, the well-connected upwardly mobile class, politely throw in broad hints that they have big shots in the charmed circle to back them. Admins often come face-to-face with such ‘con-men’ in an employee’s garb. Getting mad at the brazen audacity the ‘occasional office visitor’ displays, yet holding back an impulse to fly off the handle, the boss reads between the crafty lines and reluctantly lends a patient ear. He has no choice but to entrust the ‘delinquent frequent absentee’ to run around and pursue certain pending official files at higher corridors.
FALLING IN LOVE WITH THE MIKE?: Excepting the diffident few who’d rather clean up a stinking toilet than speak from the podium of a large gathering, there is no DLO who misses an opportunity to speak his mind on issues after his heart. Every DLO is a store-house of knowledge in his own departmental subjects. He wants to occasionally blow his own trumpet when no one else does the same. Given undue attention by mushrooming ambitious KTVLPBs (keen-type village-level power-brokers), the District Admin is in a vantage position to pick up invites of his choice. The event managers are hell-bent on roping in a dignitary to cobble up a semblance of ‘dignity’ to a meeting they arrange. Such dos are staged ostensibly for the welfare of their locality, but in reality, is to gain person-to-person proximity to the ‘man of the moment’. A rapport with the ‘centre of administrative power’ is what they seek, but apparently hide. The invited dignitary, soft-pedals the pregnant imaginative reason for the profuse attention showered upon him. He coolly plays safe nonchalantly by falling in love with the mike in delivering speeches that would earn him brownie points elsewhere, in his scheme of things. A wise verbal stitch in time saves nine.
CONFLICT BETWEEN THE FILE-PUSHER AND THE FILE-PURSUER: While some favour-seekers are more knowledgeable in a particular subject than the man to whom favour is being sought, there are no dearth of ignorant ‘blind-hitters’ who are regularly irregular in knocking office doors. Such office-goers heavily tax the already tapered patience of the livid bureaucrat. Every alternate visitor would absent-mindedly enquire sans scruples, “What is the status of mine, Sir”, thinking that the ‘beleaguered Sir’ would know all about the status of a particular file of pursuance. Some file-followers have the memory to recollect minute details of an application submitted to the boss in a noisy function several months back. When the man in the revolving chair, holding his head fair, makes a bid to resolve the issue and ask, “What do you mean by ‘mine’ brother”, pat comes the answer before the boss can take a belated sip from his, by now, cold cup of tea, “I mean mine, that which I told you three months back.” Unless one is born with the patience Job of the Bible was endowed with, nothing can stop the irritated office-head from letting his steam off, to quell such an untenable situation. Within the confines of the action station, shrill voices are bound to echo from wall to wall.
THE ADMIN’S MIDNIGHT PLIGHT: Agreed that in a democratic set-up, one can get up, in any get-up, to put up a stray grievance. But there are office hours in all working days when one may do so. Sapped of his fast-exhausting energy, by the evening, the Admin’s mood is driven to the brink of ‘intolerance’ to sulk in ‘isolation mode’ by the sad tales of public grudges he has been fed to the brim with the whole day. By night time, the tired public servant desires to retire or unwind. Being human, domestic problems crop up all of a sudden. Calls from one’s children to settle sibling feuds or from one’s spouse who ventilates grouses on her hubby’s ‘owlish indifference’ to a serious request, further burdens the hassled dad. There are routine headache stuff like complaint on power-cut that denies folks access to a final soccer match, or a request for help at midnight to rescue a vehicle that had turned turtle. The mortal man at the receiving end, who is wrongly perceived to be capable of fixing everything, and expected to be more tolerant than ‘tolerance’ itself, is more often than not, reduced to being a mere bundle of nerves.
UNVEILING VEILED THREATS: To deftly or openly brag about one’s closeness to people in high places, some of who are powerful, some fearful, is an old habit the ‘crudely credible’ able-doers cleverly refuse to undo. Giving due respect to the chief administrative functionary of a district, calculating office-file-pursuers narrate anecdotes involving himself as the ‘main actor’ in such a way that the ‘Babu’ sitting opposite to him may know his ‘con-connections’ and push files faster. There and then, one’s LBSNAA training modules surface in one’s mind. It’s not for nothing that RR IAS Probationers are being taught practical horse-riding. If the rider pulls the reigns too hard, the horse would neigh and jump; and if let too loose, it would wander left and right. The best way to control the sturdy ‘stallion’ is to keep on heel-tapping its body from the saddle and pull the reign as and when the animal deviates from its track. It fits in even in people management too. Yet, there are certain areas in managing public affairs where academic or institutional techniques do not work. That’s where you need to apply your emotional intelligence. Being endowed with native wisdom is an asset when unwanted elements upset the balance of your educational sanity.
CONCLUSION: All said and done, having become ‘tired’ and not yet ‘re-tyred,’ with fresh memories of ‘Babudom’, I am still ‘ekdum khush’ that My God made me choose the hectic action-packed profession I was in. The slot paved the way to meet and interact with a galaxy of a variety of multi-dimensional characters. District Administration, to put succinctly, provides frills, thrills and shrills that together leave a lasting impact on the man in the odd hot-seat. The shrills that one cannot avoid but endure, are more than made up for by the frills and the thrills that assure governance that, although causes one’s hair to grey faster, makes one a lot saner and wiser. If I were given the chance to start all over again in a career as a raw beginner, I’d choose the challenging and mind-blowing field of administration, all the same.
The only hitch in having spent the better part of your life in ‘Babudom,’ is the incorrigible habit of a sub-conscious penchant to expect your family members to be at your beck and call, like your subordinate staff were. And there lies the conflict of desire and misfire.