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Budding bureaucrat's dates with disasters

Budding bureaucrat
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Budding bureaucrat's dates with disasters

Highlights

My first experience of a natural disaster was when adverse seasonal conditions occurred, during June 1971, in Ongole sub-division of Prakasam district, where I was serving as the Sub-Collector.

As it often happens in those areas, with the rainy season came floods, in other parts of the division which were in the Krishna delta. I remember spending an entire day in a rowboat visiting the affected areas and supervising relief operations. The most interesting thing I remember about the experience was my visit to a village called Thimmasamudram. Upon noticing that the village had no proper road facility, I offered to get a road laid using the funds expected for drought relief operations. The entire village, in one voice, turned down my offer! And the reason was that they did not want nosy parkers from different government departments entering their village and making their lives miserable, something which was not possible just then!

My first experience of a natural disaster was when adverse seasonal conditions occurred, during June 1971, in Ongole sub-division of Prakasam district, where I was serving as the Sub-Collector. Chandraiah, the Collector, asked me to proceed on an intensive inspection tour of all the affected areas. The most significant part of the exercise was that I was given powers to sanction works, intended for mitigation of the suffering caused by the drought conditions, literally on the spot. Those, certainly, were the days! Today it is doubtful whether such decisions could be taken even at the District Collector's level and, even then, without the concurrence of the elected Panchayati Raj and Legislature and Parliament members of the areas concerned (although , as a matter of fact, Panchayati Raj Institutions were really at their zenith those days compared to the situation today). I remember how I used to return home, late in the evening, every day, having sanctioned works worth several lakhs of rupees, a huge sum in those days.

As it often happens in those areas, with the rainy season came floods, in other parts of the division which were in the Krishna delta. I remember spending an entire day in a rowboat visiting the affected areas and supervising relief operations. The most interesting thing I remember about the experience was my visit to a village called Thimmasamudram. Upon noticing that the village had no proper road facility, I offered to get a road laid using the funds expected for drought relief operations. The entire village, in one voice, turned down my offer! And the reason was that they did not want nosy parkers from different government departments entering their village and making their lives miserable, something which was not possible just then!

When I was promoted to the senior scale, I should, under normal circumstances, have been posted as a District Revenue Officer (called a Joint Collector these days) in some other district. However, in view of the ongoing anti-Mulki agitation, the government felt that I should continue in the same area, as I knew the people and places well. Most of the district, outside my erstwhile subdivision, was a dry and rainfed area and drinking water shortage was a persistent issue. It was that which took most of my time for the four months or so that I was in that post.

It was three years later when I had my next experience with a natural disaster, a drought once again, but this time in Kurnool and Anantapur districts (which comprised my jurisdiction as Deputy Commissioner of Commercial Taxes in Kurnool). Severe drought conditions were persisting, and the government of India, at the request of the State government, had sent a Central team to make an assessment of the extent of damage as well as the assistance required. One person of the team came to Kurnool district, one Swaminathan from the (then) Planning Commission. After going around several affected areas, we reached Gooty (about halfway between Kurnool and Anantapur), for an overnight halt. As is usually the custom, the Tahsildar of that the area had arranged dinner for both of us. Swaminathan and I had become quite close especially after he came to know that I could speak Tamil fluently. It was probably that intimacy which made him ask, halfway through the meal, for some 'ooruha' or a pickle in Tamil. I was totally at a loss about how to meet that sudden (though not unusual), request! But then the Revenue Department is practically omnipotent, and Tahsildars are not Tahsildars for no reason! Some really strong 'avakaya' was produced and eaten with much relish by my companion from the government of India. While I fail to recollect the precise details, I feel confident that a reasonably generous recommendation was made about the requirements of the districts!

The next time I got involved in disaster management was when a devastating cyclone and tidal wave struck the coast of Andhra Pradesh. Krishna district was the worst hit although the neighbouring Guntur district had also been affected. Sharda Mukherjea, although I had only just joined her office, was good enough to allow me to go to Guntur district to help the Collector, Kamalanathan, in the relief and rehabilitation activities. Senior colleague Shravan Kumar had also been sent to the district to supervise the operations. Essentially, I played the role of an assistant to the Collector, largely confining myself to ensuring that the decisions taken by him were carried out quickly and effectively. I also supported him in communicating with the officers in the field and verifying their doubts about the nature and extent of relief and rehabilitation measures. As Kamalanathan was too busy to handle public relations, I also dealt with that part of his duties. In that process I met one Olga Tellis of India today who, subsequently, did a very good job of ensuring that fair and generous coverage was given to the work being done. Many young IAS officers had been sent to the district to help the Collectors. In Guntur we had Sujatha Rao who retired recently as the Union Health Secretary and has made an excellent name for herself in the health sector internationally. Having assisted the Collector for about ten days, I returned to Raj Bhavan. The Governor also got busy arranging assistance for the victims of the disaster and, very soon, a substantial sum of about Rs 75 lakh was received from a non-governmental organisation in Maharashtra through the well-known Rajni Patel.

(The writer is former Chief Secretary, Government of Andhra Pradesh)

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