Autobiography of a Lucky Man - Part 1

Author: 
K. K. Bhatnagar

Shri K. K. Bhatnagar was born in 1938. He was brought up and educated in Kota, Rajasthan. He joined the 1962 batch of civil services as an IAS officer. During his 34 years of service in his home cadre of Rajasthan, Shri Bhatnagar held many important and challenging charges, the most memorable ones being his stint with the Jaipur Development Authority Jaipur and HUDCO, New Delhi. Based on his rich experience in urban planning and development, he served as a consultant post retirement for several international agencies on issues related to urban living.

At present, Shri Bhatnagar is living a retired life with his wife, Sudha, at Jaipur. He spends most of his evenings indulging in his passion: playing bridge.

Part 1: Collector and District Magistrate at Jodhpur - 6th July, 1974 to 26th October, 1976

Mr. S. L. Khurana (under whom I learnt the first lessons of service) was the Chief Secretary in Rajasthan when I returned from Delhi. Incidentally he was fully in command for postings of IAS Officers in the State.

He had adopted the policy of posting direct recruits of my seniority to various districts. He picked me for Jodhpur which also happened to be the most important district in the state after Jaipur.

Clock tower near Girdikot, Jodhpur.

The clock tower is a popular landmark in the old city of Jodhpur, located near Sadar Bazaar, Girdikot. Photo courtesy Shri Rajesh Vasavada.

Jodhpur happened to be the hometown of the then Chief Minister, Mr. Barkatullah Khan. It was also the base for aerial and land operations of the country on the Indo-Pak international border.

Jodhpur was the hot bed of politics with senior politicians like Nathu Ram Mirdha, Ram Niwas Mirdha, Paras Ram Maderna, Mathura Das Mathur, Khet Singh Rathore and Punam Chand Vishnoi jostling for power.

Jodhpur district was notorious for its caste-based politics, often leading to violent incidents involving the hot-headed student community and other notorious elements.

For me, it presented a big opportunity for doing development work in the district. Incidentally, my predecessor and colleague, B. K. Zutshi, had given a very good account of himself. The place also had its own administrative culture, having been the seat of administration of the erstwhile Marwar State and the seat of High Court of the State.

Initially, for three months I held the charge of Administrator of the Municipal Council as well thus vesting in me almost all administrative responsibilities of the district. In a manner of speaking I became ‘serve sarva’ of the District. So much power in my hands also cast many challenges for me and that included accountability as well. It was a heavy burden to bear.

 
Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur

The thick walls of Mehrangarh Fort soar 410 feet (125 m) above the city of Jodhpur, Rajasthan. Built around 1460, it is one of the largest forts in India. Photo courtesy Shri Rajesh Vasavada.

 

A Challenging Job 24x7

Before joining at Jodhpur, I sought the advice of a dear colleague, Satish Kumar, a year senior to me and posted in a similar capacity at Bikaner, another important district of the state.

His advice was that in the changed circumstances prevailing in the state, the Jodhpur assignment would keep me engaged 24x7 and I should forget all luxuries of private time and enjoyment.

This proved to be literally true. I was generally busy and occupied for 12 to 16 hours a day, with calls disturbing my sleep even late in the night.

Looking back at my career of almost 34 years (1962 to 1996) in terms of hard work, achievements, experience, and self-confidence in dealing with top political leaders and officials, I would unhesitatingly rank my Jodhpur assignment as the most important one of my career.

 
Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur

Jodhpur Fort, a watercolour painting by Rajesh Vasavada, 14 inches by 11 inches on fabriano paper.

Editor's note: Click here to see more paintings by Rajesh Vasavada on our website.

 

Challenges of District Posting

In Rajasthan, posting in the district also means dealing with several different types of challenges in almost all sectors of the district administration.

My task became even more difficult in the absence of the existence of the institution of Divisional Commissioner. Thus the Collector was to deal directly with the government at Jaipur. I would divide my work in the following main areas to recapitulate my experience of 2 years and 3 months. Items of work at numbers 4 and 5 were peculiar to me adding to the enormity of the task:

  • Collector (Land Administration including implementation of various relevant laws, maintenance of land records, Collection of government dues.
  • Personnel management of employees and revenue department and Collectorate,
  • Removal of grievances of the peasantry and ensuring that the villagers received relief during scarcity period within the district.
  1. District Magistrate (Maintenance of law and Order including coordination with police department, Exercise powers available under Cr PC, Visits of VIPs).
  2. District Development Officer (Coordination with all departments of the government including overseeing implementation of plan schemes and special projects like “World Bank assisted Draught Prone Proofing Project.
  3. Chairman Urban Improvement Trust (Administration of new and old schemes, Execution of development works in the city, Regularization of Kutchi Bastees).
  4. Chairman Western Rajasthan Milk Union (A recently created body to organize societies of milk producers in the rural areas of Jodhpur, Barmer, Jaisalmer, Jalore and Pali districts.
  5. Setting up milk processing plants at Jodhpur and Chilling Centers in all these districts along with setting up Milk Collection Routes, Collection, processing and Sale of milk and its products to consumers.

My stay became memorable since I was able to devote myself fully to all these tasks and come out successfully which was evident from the memorable send off by the people in the region when I left the scene.

Role as Collector

With no significant receipts from Land Revenue and exclusive staff for collecting sales tax, excise duties, taxes on vehicles, the traditional role of the Collector as Collector of revenue has declined considerably over the years. The main emphasis then was maintenance of land records, management of land resources in rural and urban areas, and removing the grievances of the peasantry and people in general.

Another big area of work was distribution of essential commodities and maintenance of Law and Order. There was considerable emphasis on increasing productivity of land. Even the term land records acquired a new meaning for the land holders.

In Jodhpur district with its larger land mass being arid, agricultural activity was restricted to Bilara Tehsil and area around Bhopalgarh.

In the remaining areas agriculture was totally dependent on rains and the peasantry at large used to look forward to cultivating at least sufficient Bajra (small millet) to last for the entire year for the family and fodder for the cattle.

Animal Husbandry was becoming important with greater emphasis on mulch cattle.

With more and more land earlier reserved for fodder also being transferred to cultivation, non-availability of fodder in the area also poses a problem, particularly during the months of scarcity.

The district was also notorious for sporadic rainfall creating acute shortfall of water for cultivation of local food grains, fodder for the cattle and even drinking water for a moderate population of 8,00,000 souls.

After the British left and the erstwhile princely states were merged into India, the onerous task of arranging the essential commodities was handed over to the State Government.

They did have buffer stocks of food grains, sugar and kerosene at the central and state levels and district administration was responsible for their distribution targeting various human settlements according to the allocation made by State government.

In the scarcity affected areas of the district these became the main source for the survival of the citizenry, particularly for the poor as the prices were subsidized for this section of the society.

The allocations were generally sufficient but in times of scarcity the availability also became difficult and the year 1974 was one such year.

Role as District Magistrate

Maintenance of Law & Order – Incidents of Rioting on 2nd & 3rd October, 1974

A situation soon developed in which the city was also faced with acute shortage of essential commodities like wheat, sugar and kerosene.

The allocations from the State pool to the districts were meager. The lack of adequate rations also led to occurrence of daily demonstrations and processions, raising demands for more rations.

There was a Food Grains Advisory Committee set up at the district level with the District Magistrate as its head to decide on the pattern of distribution of these meager allocations to be followed every month.

Till then the pattern was that attempt was made to give a larger share of rations to SC/ST and the poor but there was no enforcement staff to ensure this priority. This resulted in all round dissatisfaction. In the earlier meeting of the Committee the overwhelming opinion was to change the system to equal amount to all, even though ration was resulting in distribution of a ridiculous figure of 800grams wheat and 500g of sugar to each member of a family. This gave a ready opportunity to the opposition parties to exploit the situation.

The opposition parties called for Bandh in the city on October 2, 1974 and a Joint Action Committee was set up to ensure its success.

Elaborate arrangements were made by the district police with adequate forces assembled at various key points.

Yet there was a skirmish in the morning near the bus stand and later at the Sojati Gate (A central point in the city) where a huge procession was to be dispersed.

This resulted in heavy pelting of stones at the police party stationed causing grievous injuries to the some members of the police force, including one senior police officer.

The crowd subsequently started damaging private and public properties. This forced the police respond with enough force to disperse the crowd.

This resulted in a ding-dong battle between the police force and the miscreants in the congested lanes of the city. The pitched battle continued till late hours of the evening. Police made several arrests throughout the night of suspected miscreants. This created considerable unrest in the city without my knowledge.

Law and Order Incidents - October 3, 1974

Even though the administration had no prior knowledge any likely untoward incidents taking place but it turned out to be a day of many serious incidents of looting, arson and rioting. The police top brass was asking for permission to fire on the rioters and miscreants.

Around 8 am I received reports that a small procession of school students was preceding towards the police lines, probably to demand release of some of their colleagues. They were soon joined by the leading miscreants of the previous day. The crowd moved towards the same area of Sojati gate attacking police parties, looting shops and vendors on the way.

It soon developed into a ding-dong battle scene just like the previous day but with more intensity.

Similar reports were then received from other areas and soon confrontation with police parties started. We called in the Rajasthan Armed Constabulary but they were also not able to control the situation. In fact, they only took superficial action to chase the miscreants from one place to the other.

DIG, SP and I remained in the field almost for the whole day. At one stage we had all put on helmets. With the help of a megaphone I tried to disperse the crowd. But soon we were forced to resort to order use canon and tear gas charges repeatedly on the crowd to disperse.

A couple of times gun shots were also fired in the air but to no avail. There were a few serious cases of arson including fire in the municipal office at Sojati gate, cases of looting of liquor shops, some other shops and vendors.

Towards late afternoon when situation there was slightly under control, I went to the police control room and was informed that reports had been received from other parts of the city as well of looting of shops and harassment of civilians who were seeking protection.

I immediately requisitioned the help of Border Security Force (Central Forces). They were deployed within in an hour at strategic points.

Mere presence of BSF personnel brought some amount of sanity and also prevented a major incident of attempt to set a petrol pump on fire.

Towards evening the situation came under full control of the administration. Once it became quiet towards late in the evening we all gathered to take stock of the situation and planned out the preventive steps for the next day.

Late Night meeting with Prominent Citizens

By then I realized that there was immediate necessity of a new line of action and take the people in confidence.

After discussions at official level, I took the initiative of calling prominent citizens of the city to my residence at 9 pm for consultations.

They were obviously angry due to the serious incidents of riot and arson and indiscriminate arrests of young students made by the police. I gave them ample opportunity to give full vent to their feelings.

In turn they promised to come out on the streets in the night to keep an eye on likely miscreants and help the district administration in maintaining peace in the city. They kept their promise fully.

Next day we were also able to nab most of the known leaders of the movement which further helped in controlling the situation. Prohibitory orders under section 144 CrPC were imposed in the night itself and arrangements made for effective patrolling.

Late in the night the SP informed me of the possibility of occurrence of a communal incident. Police had noticed a dead body being taken out in a Muslim locality, a possible casualty of day’s incidents.

We rushed some forces including a BSF party to the area but the event passed off peacefully since it turned out to be a case of natural death.

A dispassionate analysis of the incidents further revealed that though we did exchange our views on the subject but there had been no in depth discussion between the DM and the SP on the subject about the likely repercussions. As a result we had no policy either at the macro or micro level to deal with the situation and were later caught in the midst of actual action leaving no time for such introspection. Unfortunately, the police itself had no strategy to effectively deal with the miscreants in city areas like Sojati gate which had many lanes and by lanes around permitting the crowds to melt and recollect at regular intervals.

Rightly or wrongly in the state law and order continues to be the joint responsibility of DM and SP and both have to ensure effective communication between themselves in their own personal interest and the larger interest of administration.

Yet another weak point was the functioning of the police control room where a senior officer of RAC was posted but with no direct responsibility and acted in an indifferent manner. Imposition of prohibitory orders with enough strength to enforce them, particularly in the major cities, should be resorted to as a precautionary manner.

It would be in keeping with the democratic traditions of our state to allow people to express their views but no chances can be taken, particularly in urban areas beyond a particular limit and the district administration should be made effective, made accountable and give all support to maintain law and order.

I, of course, felt completely free to deal with the situation within the limits of policy of the state government to use minimum force and avoid firing till the last resort. Firing in such cases leads to its own serious fall out, both for the administration and the political leadership. I learnt this bitter lesson in the case of firing in Bhopalgarh during collection of levy of wheat after some time.

Police Firing at Bhopalgarh

The incident took place early in June 1975 while collection of levy on wheat was on. These were difficult times for availability of food grains and the central and state governments were keen on procurement of maximum quantity of wheat for government godowns. The central government had even announced that allocation to the state from its coffers would be in proportion to the levy collected by them.

The state government issued orders under the Essential Commodities Act for direct collection from the growers at a price fixed by the government. Jodhpur was earlier exempted, probably because the Food Minister Mr P. R. Maderna represented the district and more probably since wheat was grown only in villages of Bilara Tehsil and in some villages of Bhopalgarh constituency represented by PRM himself.

However, the exemption was later withdrawn and there was intense pressure from the government to start the collection. We opened collection centers and made extensive personal contacts and efforts to start the process. Procurement did start in Bilara area but there was considerable resistance in the Bhopalgarh area.

I personally brought the tense situation to the notice of the Food Commissioner at Jaipur who put it in writing and brought it to the notice of the CS and FM. Since the pressure was continued and we had to show results the ADM was dispatched to the area with a strong police force to initiate search and seize operations in accordance with law.

The first such attempt met with resistance in a outlying hamlet from the villagers and the seized wheat had to be returned.

The police party returned to the Dak Bunglow after arresting some villagers. Soon a big crowd collected outside the rest house and the ADM called their representatives for talks. After certain discussions it was agreed to release the arrested people but rather than dispersing, the crowd started heavy pelting of stones on the police. This resulted in some serious injuries to the police personnel and the RAC fired in self defense. This led to death of 3-4 persons on the spot and one more casualty in the hospital later on.

The authorities at Jaipur were quite upset, particularly the CM and the FM but were able to appreciate the difficulties of the district authorities. The earlier note of the Food Commissioner also came to our rescue since the government had already been alerted.

The government initially appointed me as the Enquiry Officer but later a judicial enquiry was ordered and a High Court judge was appointed to conduct the enquiry.

I also submitted an affidavit but was not called for evidence. I did not have the occasion to see the report of the Judge but obviously there was no further action in the matter.

Editor's Note: Stay tuned for Part 2 in which Shri K. K. Bhatnagar will deal with the declaration of Emergency and other incidents.

Comments

Mr Bhatnagar's account of his posting at Jodhpur, as Collector and DM, is a very matter of fact. He has given a peek to the readers about his real work as a beaurocrat and "Sarve-Sarva" of the District. He has been totally matter of fact and has narrated the challenges faced by him and how he was able to tackle them successfully.
It is a frank and true narration, which is a role model for future generations of IAS officers !
I found it to be very enlightening as it is a useful guide for the young administraters.

Good to read this - not many first hand accounts available. Look forward to the Emergency story.

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