Balance between what’s right & what’s wise

A new column on leadership and decision-making in the civil services


Mukesh Kacker | August 7, 2012

I am not an admirer of the soap opera entertainment dished out by Indian TV channels but a chance viewing of the Zee TV offering “Afsar Bitiya” led me to watch a few episodes of the serial which portrays the travails of a young block development officer (BDO) somewhere in Bihar. There are obvious flaws pertaining to details and the BDO has been wrongly shown to be carrying out regulatory work which is more in the domain of the magistracy but these can be forgiven. What is more important is that the serial does succeed in building a credible intermeshing of various forces in a semi-urban setting – the enthusiasm and idealism of a young civil servant, the interplay of vested interests and local politics, the inability of superior officers to recognise and support honest but unpopular work and the constant turmoil in the mind of the civil servant whether to take a tough decision or shelve it. These are issues that play again and again over different settings across the country in the lives of countless civil servants.

I am reminded of an episode in the life of a friend of mine when he, as a young direct recruit IAS officer, was just starting his career as a sub-divisional magistrate (SDM/SDO) in a sleepy district of Madhya Pradesh, much like the semi-urban setting shown in the serial. His immediate boss, the district collector and district magistrate, was also a direct recruit IAS officer, a few years older than my friend and in his first posting as collector. It was rumoured that the chief minister had promised him a much bigger and more important district as his next posting.

The area was dotted with dozens of brick-kilns as the soil of the area was considered perfect for brick-making and the place had become an established centre for supplying bricks to all the nearby districts. One can say that brick making was the dominant industrial and business activity of the area. This business, in turn, was dominated by the family of the local MLA who belonged to the ruling party at the state level and had been victorious in the last three successive elections. The MLA was very close to the chief minister and was one of the general secretaries of the ruling party.

The MP from the area belonged to the main opposition party in the state which, incidentally, was the ruling party at the centre. The MP and the MLA, though belonging to different political parties, had cordial relations with each other. The next general elections, at the central as well as state levels, were due a little less than a year later and both of them were sure to run again as their respective parties’ candidates. In view of the impending elections, the political scene was heating up.

Against this backdrop, one day the MP led a delegation to the office of the district collector, protesting against the treatment meted out to the labourers at one of the brick-kilns falling under the domain of my friend. The collector assured the MP that appropriate action would be taken and sent the complaint to the SDM for action.

My friend, the SDM, promptly organised a small team and raided that brick-kiln. Incidentally, that kiln did not belong to the family of the MLA. The SDM not only found the complaint to be true but also detected a plethora of violations of many relevant laws. Most importantly, the SDM felt inclined to treat the labourers at the site as ‘bonded labourers’. The owner of the brick-kiln remonstrated with the SDO as to why he had been singled out for raid leaving out the kilns owned by the family of the local MLA.

The SDM, an idealist and a stickler for upholding the rule of law, decided that the entire sector needed to be cleansed and that the kilns owned by the MLA did not deserve special treatment. Although he sent a brief report of the action taken against that particular kiln to the collector, he did not inform him of his plan to take similar action against the other kilns as he felt that it was not required. He also realized that it was a big opportunity for him to make a name for himself. He organised ten special teams, impressed upon them to keep the operation secret and without wasting much time raided ten big brick-kilns belonging to the MLA’s family simultaneously.

The raids sent shock waves through the district bringing great upheaval in the usually placid political waters of the area. The media gave it a very high billing and splashed it in bold letters. The opposition lapped it up and described it as the ‘bonded labour scandal’ of the ruling party. The managers of the remaining kilns closed their units promptly and sent their labour away quickly. The opposition created a huge uproar in the state assembly, which was in session, and demanded the arrest of the MLA and his family members.

The chief minister was very unhappy at this turn of events and gave a severe dressing down to the district collector for not keeping him in the loop. The collector vented his anger on the SDM, berating him for his impetuosity and for his failure to inform him before the raids. The SDM stood his ground and told the collector that he presumed that the collector was with him as the entire action had started on the collector’s instructions only and that he could not have made a distinction between brick-kiln A and brick-kiln B.

The sustained media attention on the issues raked up by the raids did act as an impetus for reform in the sector. The state government was forced to constitute a task force to go into the issues and a little while later issued fresh guidelines for enforcement. However, a couple of months after the incident, when the next reshuffle of bureaucracy took place, the collector was shifted to the state secretariat as deputy secretary and the SDM was transferred to a remote and backward district.

The young SDM exhibited great sense of purpose and resolve in this episode. He also showed the admirable quality of assuming leadership and not surrendering it to his boss, the collector. However, while his action led to some reform and cleansing, it also led to his boss’ and his own transfer from the district.

The question here is whether the transfer of the two officers should be accepted as a worthwhile sacrifice for achieving some cleansing. If the two officers were to be succeeded by more pliant replacements, as happens quite often, the quick gains of cleansing would be eroded very soon. So, should the SDM have put higher price on his continuation and tried to achieve his objectives by different tactics? Should he have first tried to enlist political support for his action? Or, should he have surrendered the leadership of the operation to the district collector? If so, would the district collector have taken any action or would he have first taken his superiors – the commissioner, the chief secretary, the chief minister – into confidence? And if alerted by the district collector, would the superiors have given the go-ahead against an influential MLA and a senior party functionary? Should an officer take decisions entirely on merit or should he/she ‘manage’ the environment also? And what are the limits of ‘managing’ the environment? After all, the dividing line between ‘managing’ environment and playing politics is very thin.

What do you think the SDM should have done?



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