The tricky question of VVIP visitors

Budding IAS officers, returning to their training academy for the final polish after a year in the field, were asked how they coped with VVIP visitors. Their replies make interesting reading.  By Vivek K. Agnihotri, former secretary-general, Rajya Sabha, Parliament of India

This is an example of how initial experiences of newly recruited administrative officers may to some extent be responsible for their future conduct.  It is also about the different administrative milieus prevailing in different states of our country, despite its somewhat uniform culture.

I am going to provide a snapshot of what happened during one presentation session of Indian Administrative Service trainees who, after their one year training in the districts of their allotted states, had come back to the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration at Mussoorie for their final rounding-up Phase-II training.

I must admit that I cannot vouch for how deep and lasting an impression their initial experiences made on them, and whether those experiences actually informed their future conduct.  But the range of experience, for an observer, is mind-boggling.

But before I begin, let me put in a disclaimer.  This business about Phase-II training was new to me as the Joint Director of the Academy (1992-98).  My batch (1968) was actually the last one to have only one phase of training in the Academy, before we went into outer space (read State) with a one-way ticket.

Against this backdrop, I must make another confession.  During my first year as Joint Director (1992-93) I thought of trainees at the Academy as persons who were on a normal learning curve.  Being the Joint Director I had to prove my acceptability to the existing faculty.  As a matter of fact, during my first meeting with the faculty a couple of days after joining the Academy, one of them asked: 'Which subject(s) would you like to give lecture(s) on during the forthcoming Foundation Course?' Foundation Course (or FC in common parlance) had a mix of trainees from various services and was only a couple of weeks away.  I had to think hard, because my PhD was in Public Policy.  It was of no use to new trainees who wanted to know the tips and tricks to deal with situations that would come their way during the first 4-5 years of their career.  Policy formulation comes a little later (if I am permitted to make an understatement).

I chose Panchayati Raj, because I had not only served in that department in the State of Andhra Pradesh, but also coordinated the elections to the Panchayati Raj bodies held in the State after a gap of 11 years and, additionally; put together a long-pending report on reforming the system, as Secretary of a High-Powered Committee.  It was also very much in the news due to the 73rd and the 74th Constitutional Amendment Acts.

So be it.  But I am digressing and according to my spouse I have crossed the Laxman Rekha.

Learning and experience
Going back (before I go forth), despite my wife's warning, I failed miserably in helping the coordinating faculty in getting a guest speaker to lecture on Ethics in Public Administration.  But I must say that I am a quick learner, maybe I am wrong, because you have to learn at the end of each conversation and demonstrate that learning at the next encounter.  But I learnt, at least on this 'first' occasion.

I became wiser about the sea (in high tide) change in the learning curve of the trainees, when they came back to the Academy after their 'exposure' in the districts.  They had undergone an attitudinal change.  In classic training terminology, training is about KSA (Knowledge, Skills and Attitude).  The trainees had all of these attributes much above mine.  If I may put it a scale of one to five, I was 3 at best, when they were approaching five on all parameters, except attitude.  But their attitude was dictated by their age (primarily), knowledge and experience, in that order.

Our job during Phase-II, I was advised by the old hands, was to 'soften the edges' of trainees' angular experiences in districts.  Accordingly, several experience sharing sessions formed the core input of Phase-II of training at the Academy.

Now I shall come to the core issue (I shall not use the phrase 'meat of the menu' for obvious reasons).  We had an experience sharing session for the trainees of Phase-II on 'Touring', because that is one of the basic responsibility of a field officer during early part of his career, particularly as Sub-Divisional and District Magistrate.  There were three trainees who had volunteered to present their experiences.  After they had made their presentations highlighting the duties and responsibilities of a district officer on the topic, based, of course, on their specific (read 'angular') experience of just one year in one district, there was a question and answer session, during which God's own truths were revealed.  And that really is the meat or vegetable of the matter; the choice is yours.  I am again digressing at my peril.

The question was ''How do you 'look after' the VIPs (meaning mostly the senior officers and, occasionally the ministers etc) ''during their visit to the district?''  First presentation was by a trainee who had spent his one year in a northern state.  The gist of his presentation gave the impression that there was no problem at all.  It was the job of the tehsildar concerned, with the excise official in tow, to look after them, in whichever way they could.  As a matter of fact, he said that he stayed in the State Guest House and was not required to pay anything for the rent or the food and other services for one full year because his collector told him that they were all on the house.

The second presentation was from a State in south India, ruled by a left coalition.  That trainee too said that he had no problem.  All VIPs, including Ministers, used to demand the actual (not notional) bill and pay it without any demur.  The third presentation was a real revelation.  This was by a trainee from a north-eastern state.  He had a very different type of problem.

Let me give you the background at the cost of an umpteenth digression.  He was holding independent charge of the post of the tehsildar, to boot, when his Collector / District Magistrate/ Deputy Commissioner decided to inspect his office.  As first impressions count, our new recruit sought advice of the old guard on the ticklish issue of 'making necessary arrangements' for the VIP visit.  He was provided full information (including the brand of whiskey, and the meat preparations) on the arrangements that had been made in the past on such occasions in order to earn an 'excellent' report from the boss.

My friend enquired about the amount of money that would be needed to get the crucial items.  He was told that it would cost about Rs1,000, which was almost one-fourth of his salary in those days (1992-93).  He withdrew the money from his bank account and gave it to the tehsildar-in-waiting.  When the trainee had finished, there was pin-drop silence.  One of the members of the faculty started clapping slowly and the house picked it up.

While summing up the three presentations, a faculty member told the trainee from the north-east that he should not worry too much for the monetary loss, because it was investment in character building!

Now I can digress, not really.  As an Additional District Magistrate I found myself in a similar situation.  A member of the Board of Revenue had come to inspect the collectorate.  I was made the officer-in-charge to look after him.  Actually he did not need any 'looking after' because he had no special needs.

After the inspection was over, I sheepishly asked him as to how had it gone and was he satisfied with our work.  He laughed and said: ''That would depend on the quality of your fish''.  I had invited him for dinner at my place that night, and he was a Bengali gentleman.  Luckily we had a good cook.  But those days were different or were they?  Perhaps I got the lucky number.