Taming crafty millers, traders of Krishna
Taming crafty millers, traders of Krishna. A District Collector is accountable to two sources of leadership as we saw earlier, namely, the Chief Minister on the one hand, and the Chief Secretary on the other as the communicator of the policy priorities of the former.
I had to protect Vijayawada, my most important city, from becoming a restive incubus again after returning it to normalcy after the separatist agitation
A District Collector is accountable to two sources of leadership as we saw earlier, namely, the Chief Minister on the one hand, and the Chief Secretary on the other as the communicator of the policy priorities of the former. The Chief Minister as the leader of the Government is supreme but the authority of the Chief Secretary as the head of the civil service and of the Secretaries to the Government and heads of departments in the 1970s, is not to be understated. Ministers certainly would speak to the Collectors, especially those hailing from the district. In dealing with life as a Collector, a word about the politics of the district would be relevant. Despite reservations in the legislature for scheduled castes, upper caste dominance was considerable, especially in the Zilla Parishad (ZP).
While the Collector was the chairman of all the seven ZP standing committees, in the general body, he was but just a member. There was an underlying hostility to me in the ZP, Krishna district, because of two reasons: one, my having handled firmly the separate Andhra agitation which had been overwhelmingly supported by the upper crust ZP leaders, and secondly my commitment to the Government’s land assignment and weaker sections policies. Other frictions included our efforts at equitable distribution of fertilisers that were in short supply, to help the marginal and small farmers. Rice millers were an important power centre being financiers of varied political interests. Big landlords were shareholders in mills. For this and other reasons the millers’ associations of Krishna (and the other delta districts) tended to think that they could determine their own mill levy targets. They had the support of the powerful ZP leaders in this.
However, Krishna district being one of four key delta districts of coastal Andhra had a heavy responsibility to contribute to the State’s rice procurement effort to the central pool and its PDS. This apart, the captains of trade of the busy commercial centre of Vijayawada controlled the wholesale distribution and transportation of many essential commodities including rice, dal and condiments that are people’s everyday needs and therefore their prices over a wide area. This miller-trade combination existed as if it was above the law. I, however, had other ideas about this rooted in the supremacy of the Essential Commodities Act, 1955 and various orders made under it like the Levy and Licensing Orders which gave the Collector enormous powers to regulate the manufacture, movement and distribution of essential commodities. The Defence of India rules were also in force at this time following the Bangladesh war. During the period I was Collector (1973-75), the dynamic and fearless EV Ram Reddy, IAS, was the Commissioner of Civil Supplies and VK Rao, ICS, referred in my last article held the civil supplies portfolio as Adviser to the Governor.
As part of the revival of governance on all fronts as the Separate Andhra movement tapered, Government’s priority naturally in February 1973 was the already delayed khariff rice procurement efforts. Part of my procurement strategy was to encourage cooperative mills and I brought in 15 of them. As work kick-started, the rice millers threatened a strike unless I scaled down the procurement targets. This threat was tacitly backed by the top ZP leaders. In support, the millers association of neighbouring West Godavari threatened to cut off supplies to Vijayawada town as this large city drew substantial quantities of rice from there. Vijayawada was therefore vulnerable and I had to protect my most important city from becoming a restive incubus again after returning it to normalcy after the separatist agitation. This was a make or break situation for me as a second law enforcement battle, this time on the economic front, was being thrust upon me. I called Commissioner EV Ram Reddy and Adviser Rao to tell them that the millers needed to be confronted and sorted out once for all that I would do it and would they stand by me. Yes, and go ahead, was their reply.
They agreed to my request that the entire 3000 tonnes of rice then available in the FCI warehouses in the district and in the cooperative mills could be drawn by me at my discretion to protect Vijayawada in an emergency. I now dared the millers to go on strike and ordered simultaneously physical verification of stocks in every levy-delivering rice mill in the district to check if they tallied with the entries in their books of accounts prescribed under the Essential Commodities Act. In addition, till I completed the verification which might take several days, I would not allow any sale or movement of rice within or outside the district.
I mobilised the entire district revenue and civil supplies staff, put them on stock verification, cordoned off the mills clustered in Gudivada, Machilipatnam and Vijayawada and sealed Krishna district’s borders. The implication of this was there would be no business for the rice mills for an indefinite period of time till their huge stocks were verified bag by bag and prosecutions for stock violations would be swift.The message was: if the citizens were going to be blackmailed for their essential needs, retaliatory action under the law by the Government would be prompt. I reasoned: Which businessman can vouch for the accurate weight of his inventory and how long would he keep his capital idle? Predictably, the response came in just three days. The millers’ representatives appeared in my office led by a top ZP leader, the latter appealing to me to “call off these horses and elephants”, a Telugu idiom suing for peace. Promises were made of compliance with every order issued relating to procurement. I agreed. Upon one condition.The millers association would tender and publish in leading newspapers, including national newspapers, a public apology. They did. And the district proceeded to fulfil and exceed its procurement targets not only for the season but for the rest of my tenure there. The lessons everybody learned in this confrontation would serve the state of Andhra Pradesh decisively when in ten years’ time NT Rama Rao launched his historic two rupees rice scheme and I would be the Commissioner of Civil Supplies architecting and implementing it.
As the district watched this confrontation and its dénouement the media backed the administration to the hilt. Media’s role can never be separated from the common man and the weaker sections as stakeholders in a District Collector’s work, identified in my last article. If this was proved to me earlier in Warangal it was even more decisively seen in Krishna district. The media constantly gave me objective advice, information and warning on the trends of public opinion - inputs that were invaluable. The highest example of this came when my next confrontation occurred with the powerful traders of Vijayawada, who refused to heed my suggestions for moderating their profits in essential commodities, the prices of which had gone through the roof. This was despite my sitting with them for several nights analysing their balance sheets as part of the negotiations. This eventually resulted in the trade inviting from me a response similar to what the millers earlier had, featuring a ban on movement, leading to a crash in prices before quickly stabilising at lower levels. Quoting this, the Deccan Chronicle demanded of the Government of India, in an editorial dated the August 2, 1973, why authorities cannot take similar action “everywhere” and concluded “Somewhere, sometime, somebody should stand up and stop these shameless crimes against society, namely hoarding and black marketing”.
Despite all these events unfolding, some leaders were never averse to pressuring the administration in the ZP’s general body meetings, particularly in relation to fertiliser distribution. After the President’s rule was revoked, in one meeting a concerted barrage of unfair criticism was mounted against officers, which I felt was designed to demoralise them. I instituted an investigation into these allegations and in a voluminous Inquiry Report, Abbanna, RDO, Gudivada brought out systematically the gross irregularities committed by a leader who had been the most vociferous in criticism. This led to his detention under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA). Government of Andhra Pradesh and the High Court of Andhra Pradesh upheld my orders.
Even as these battles raged in the context of the socio-economic offences following those affecting law and order, normalcy fully returned and developmental work progressed farther enough to witness frequent visits to the district of Chief Minister Vengala Rao, other ministers and senior officers. The star visitor, however, was Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to Vijayawada on April 7, 1974, to lay the foundation stones for two big projects - one the Railway Wagon Workshop and the other the Vijayawada Thermal Power Station.
The episodes I have described here illustrate the exemplary leadership that the senior civil servants at the Government level on the one hand and the top political leadership on the other, in different contexts, provided to the district administration. And the sensitive support the media extended. These are priceless preconditions for efforts at good governance.