Tea for the president

IAS officers always remember their first posting with nostalgia, reminiscences Vivek Agnihotri, IAS (Retd), former secretary-general, Rajya Sabha

Vivek AgnihotriThe first posting of an IAS officer as a sub-divisional magistrate (SDM), also termed as assistant collector, assistant commissioner et al in some states of the country, is some thing that officers always remember fondly or, sometimes even obsessively. 

The aura of independent authority is like a heady wine. It creates a sobering sense of responsibility in most of us; but sometimes it goes to the heads of others.  There are sagas of yeoman service to the community rendered by young and dedicated (I am wary of using the word 'committed') public servants; there are also stories of abuse of power and other  misdemeanours.  Careers have been made and lost during that brief stint of about two years.

My first posting as SDM (in the then united Andhra Pradesh) was as assistant collector, Hyderabad East.  Frankly speaking, I was delighted when I got the news.  My posting was also the envy of several of my batch-mates, particularly non-Andhraites; while they were going to have to rough it out in some far off sub-divisions across the state, I was going to have a supposedly cozy and comfortable time in the state capital!  So be it.

However, things turned out to be quite different when I reported for duty. I stayed in the state guest house for several months, before renting a private one-bedroom accommodation in a multi-storey apartment close to my office. 

Since I did not want to misuse my official jeep for my private forays into the city, I bought a second-hand car with a government loan.  Soon enough we had a son.

On account of these developments, my monthly budget went totally haywire.  Out of my take-home salary of about Rs500/- in 1971, Rs125/- went to paying the rent and another Rs125/- went into paying the monthly installment of the car loan. 

Milk for us, particularly with a small child, was a priority.  That too accounted for a princely sum of about Rs100/- per month.  For most of the months, therefore, we were living hand to mouth by the end of the fourth week of the month. 

Actually, we had a long empty talcum powder box in which we used to keep loose coins.  During the last week of the month, we used to move around in our Standard Super 10 (1956 model) with tghe powder box tucked under the armpit.

On the house front, as per the prescribed procedure, upon arrival in Hyderabad I had duly applied for government accommodation.  But, being the junior most officer in the city, I had practically no chance of getting.  I was, however, helpfully informed that I could be given a section officer's quarter, which was much below my so-called officer's status. 

Nonetheless I plumbed for it because my monthly budget was bursting at the seams.  I moved into the first floor of a double-storeyed set of apartments occupied mostly by orthodox and seasoned bureaucrats, almost twice my age and with daughters, who were cohorts of my wife. 

We had no problems and made friends with several of them.  But they had a big one coming.  When my batch-mates posted in dur-daraz (far off) sub-divisions came to know about it, they were delighted, and landed up at our place on account of the impending Annual Collectors' Conference. 

All hell broke loose on the eve of the conference when the lot started trooping in to our first floor one-bedroom apartment to celebrate 'our reunion'.  At the end of it all ('the day after'), I became a persona non grata in my colony of section officers.  They forbade their daughters from visiting us; some of them hastened to get them married to their mamas (mothers' brothers) post haste.

But it was the official role and responsibilities that took the greatest hit.  At this pointit would be fair for me to define my 'jurisdiction'.  Even though my office was located in the heart of Hyderabad, my jurisdiction was entirely in some of the rural areas on the outskirts of Hyderabad city. 

I, therefore, was a nobody in Hyderabad where I had an office and somewhat of a residence. 

Once my old rickety car stopped on the prestigious Tank Bund.  I opened the bonnet of the car and was trying to figure out the problem, when a cop appeared on the scene.  His first straight and obvious question was whether I was unaware that it was a 'No-Parking' zone. 

I, of course, said yes and tried to explain my predicament; but to no avail.  I tried to impress the cop by giving him my official address, when he started preparing the challan for a traffic offence. 

''No, no, your residential address'', he said.  I sheepishly gave him the number of my section officers' quarter.  I could see a smirk on his face.  Things did not end there.  After a couple of months, sure enough, I got a summons from the court. I sought divine intervention then from a gem of a Policy Commissioner in Hyderabad (Dora garu), and the matter was luckily sorted out.  Amen!

As the regards my role and responsibilities, the less said the better.  When the batch reached Hyderabad in 1969 after completing the training at Lal Bahadur Shastri Academy of Administration, the Pratyek' (separate) Telangana Movement was in full swing.  There were police firings all around and we saw agitationists burning tyres at road crossings. 

When I later joined as assistant / sub-collector of Hyderabad East in 1971, I was saddled with the inevitable responsibility of enquiring into deaths that occurred due to police firings. 

These magisterial enquiries took a heavy toll on my time.  In any case, I was not required to do the normal court work under the Criminal Procedure Code on account of the Policy Commissioner system having been put in place in the then Hyderabad District as a whole.

I lost out the most in terms of learning to be fluent in Telugu.  While my other non-Andhraite colleagues, had ample opportunity to try out their broken Telugu on the unsuspecting and tolerant ryots in the interior districts, my attempts to do the same in the rural areas of Hyderabad district met with the stock response: ''Why do you trouble yourself, we can understand Urdu''. 

I was complimented for my excellent command over Urdu, by which they, of course, meant Hindi.

But the most embarrassing and, therefore, memorable experience of that 'posting' was my attempt to serve tea to the President of India, who happened to be passing through my rural jurisdiction.  One day late in the evening, I received a letter from the General Administraion Department that the then President of India (late Shri V V Giri) was going by train from New Delhi to Madras (now Chennai) and on the way his train would stop for about an hour at 6:00 am at a station called Ghatkesar, about an hour's drive from Hyderabad. 

I was ordered to make the 'necessary arrangements'.  I did not know what to do.  I called tehsildar of the concerned taluk, a venerable old gentlemen brought up in the traditional nizami culture.  We tried to decipher its implications of the curt official memorandum. 

Why was the President stopping at a god-forsaken place like Ghatkesar for an hour?  Weren't the chief minister and the chief secretary required by protocol to be present to receive and see him off? 

The seasoned tehsildar said that it was not for us to question the wisdom of the state government.  We have been asked to be there so we should be there and attend to whatever was required to be done on the spot to the best of our ability. 

Then the idea came to us in a flash.  Six am was the time for the arrival of the train.  Surely the President would like to have a cup of tea.  Since we could not have offered Railway platform tea, I asked my wife to prepare half a dozen cups of tea to carry in a thermos flask.

I was nervous and couldn't sleep well during the night.  Soon the alarm clock rang.  It was 4:00 am.  I got ready and the tehsildar arrived at 4:30 am.  He had helpfully brought a couple of packets of biscuits.

Armed with tea and biscuits, we reached Ghatkesar railway station by about 5:30 am and waited with bated breath for the train to arrive.  To our surprise, apart from us and the station master and a few members of the railway staff, there was no gathering on the platform. 

Punctually the train arrived at 6:00 am on the platform.  We waited for the doors to open and the President to alight.  It was summer time, and in spite of the early hour of the day, I was sweating profusely inside my woolen bundgala.

A large contingent of Railway Protection Force and other security personnel got down from various bogies and took their positions along the platform.  The President was nowhere in sight.  We enquired from the security personnel as to when the President would alight and what was his programme.  They were clueless. 

As a last resort we approached an un-uniformed person who had got down from the train.  He informed us that the train had stopped in order to enable the President to visit the loo in the train, because it would not have been very convenient for him to do so in the moving train.

We waited till the train had departed and had tea and biscuits, in the august company of the station master. 

The pleasantries exchanged among us about the entire episodes are best left unrecorded.