A District Odyssey

Bhupendra Hooja

Bhupendra Hooja (1920-2008) studied in Lahore before partition. He worked in All India Radio (AIR), BBC London and Delhi Administration before joining the IAS. He served mostly in Rajasthan. Post retirement, he was active as a seminarist, writer, editor, pamphleteer, inspiration and mentor for many NGOs and authors. He was editor of the Indian Book Chronicle, Jaipur for 21 years. In 1994 he published A Martyr's Notebook, an edited and annotated version of Bhagat Singh's jail notebook, which has subsequently been brought out in many English editions by various publishers and translated into multiple languages.

There is something memorable about one's first District assignment; something in the nature of a first love that even after decades one can recall quite vividly, the varied impressions and experiences of the district life. This was in the erstwhile district of Mahasu in the then Union Territory (UT) of Himachal Pradesh in the early 1960s.

My posting (or deputation) to Mahasu district in Himachal had come to me as a surprise. Perhaps, in those days, there was no established practice of consulting a prospective deputationist before he was sent out of his parent state to a different state or UT or on an assignment under the Government of India. Somehow, I had neither been consulted nor forewarned, though in the early summer months of 1962, I had a vague feeling or premonition that I would soon be shifted from my assignment as Secretary to the Chief Minister of Rajasthan. The orders came and I set out for new adventures amidst unknown frontiers.

I had a quick run through the length and breadth of the district stretching along the Sutlej river almost immediately after my arrival because there was a message awaiting me from the Lt. Governor that after assuming charge, I should proceed towards the Indo-Tibet border along the newly laid out road to meet the LG while he was on tour. So, the very next day, after my arrival, I got into the jeep and started my journey.

When I met him, the LG, Raja Bhadri, was on his way back from a visit to the border posts at Shipkila and the border district of Kalpa along with his entourage which consisted of most of the senior officers of the UT, both in the Secretariat as well as in the Administrative Departments, particularly those connected with police or law and order, roads, PWD, forests, electrification, etc., from the rank of Chief or Director or Chief Conservator, etc., down to the operative officers at the district level. There is no doubt that considerable government work can be speedily transacted on the spot and mutual differences of interest sorted out rough this strategy.

Dealing with Detractors

I remember fairly well one of the first such missions on which LG deputed me. I had to go and survey the possible alternate alignment of a proposed all-weather road between Nashanda-Thanedar hill feature and Kotgarh ridge at a height of 5,000 feet against the existing road at 7,000-8,000 feet. Naturally, there were many opponents, especially whose orchards were likely to be curtailed. For me it became a test of physical endurance as well as my negotiating skill as I climbed up and down the steep paths on foot or horseback, met hundreds of people at their homesteads every day.

The scheme was shelved but I got experience of strong lobbies of elite farmers who were very shrewd and highly educated but wanted to be left alone. In this context, the government orders, or may I say the wishes of the LG, were very clear (at least they came to be pronounced very soon following reports of rapid erosion in various parts of the land) that whenever any mountain slope or hill surface was disturbed during the road construction operations or otherwise, and wherever due to the blasting or road-cutting operations, the hill sides shifted or caved in, suitable protective and soil conservation measures should be taken up immediately. Thus, the concern for protection of the forest wealth and the natural environment was emphasized along with the stress on development activities, particularly road making, etc.

The raising of potato seed as a cash crop had become a widespread agricultural activity in Himachal Pradesh. It so happened that my district, Mahasu, was the key area for the production of potato seed in ideal and almost disease-free conditions. But, the farming practices and techniques had to be explained to the people, and ultimately their product had to be gathered, transported and marketed in the face of stiff competition and almost market monopoly conditions imposed by the traders, some of whom were known as 'potato kings'. Substantial time and attention of the district administrative officials, particularly those connected with transport. Co -operative marketing, agricultural operations and general bandobast, had to be given to the supervision of various stages and facets of these large-scale and widely spread out operations. And, all these things had to be done in the face of inclement weather, when keeping the roads and the kutcha hill tracks open was the biggest worry for all of us.

The district administration remained on alert round the clock for these few crucial weeks but the preparations had to be done well in advance. In two seasons of my involvement, both as District Collector-cum-District Magistrate and Member (later Chairman) of the District Cooperative Federation, matched every move of the private traders and managed to channelize 40 per cent produce through the cooperatives, thus breaking the monopoly of the private traders.

Simple People, Strong Hopes

Next to economic activities came various social services, particularly arrangements for safe drinking water so that various hill streams were tagged and harnessed through rubber pipes and the places or sources of drinking water were protected or so located as to keep them free from pollution. Electrification through micro hydel sets as well as by taking the newly available Bhakra power to the high mountain tops and deep valleys, the provision of educational facilities along with incentives, and the expanding of medical services, were some of the other important items on the development agenda.

It was indeed an atmosphere of upsurge, hope, self-confidence and determination. The people were hard working, self-dependent and peace-loving but still very much within the old traditional social folds of brotherhood and village loyalties and not much infested with the fever of competition and aquisitiveness. Most were simple and straight-forward, honest and trusting. Their local disputes or problems with each other or with the village and area officials were not too complex. They had their complaints and grievances but none so involved and complicated as to result in long-lasting litigation or court battles or even tensions. The overall result as far as the district authorities were concerned was that it was a district which was easy to administer, if the logistics of physical distance could be managed.

Apart from the involvement in various development activities on many fronts, every visit, every tour into the interior became a pleasant experience, a friendly meeting with the local people without any apparent complications, almost like an invigorating restful picnic, the joy and beauty of which was heightened by the natural environment, the endless folds of mountains, sloping curves of the green hills, deep gorges, mountain paths along slopes covered with pine and fir trees with winds swirling and swishing through them. However, there was work aplenty, from fire-fighting on one occasion to the spot enquiries into the total accidents, from supervising civil supplies and the drudgery of court work and office routine to the ceremonials and receptions of VIPs and inspections. Since the district was so close to the UT headquarters, there were numerous calls from the LG or the Chief Secretary for meetings or discussions. However, as departmental supervisory officers were also close at hand, there were less of district level coordination meetings.

Knotty Problem of Land Reforms

The introduction of land reforms and resumption of jagirs became interesting and instructive experience for most of us in district admistration in states as well as in the UT administrations. The Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India had been pressing the Himachal, Administration to go ahead and expedite the work and with this end in view, a few months before I went to Shimla, the post of Land Refoms Commissioner had also been elevated and was filled up by a very senior seasoned officer who had spent most of his working life in different positions and was otherwise also held in high esteem. A few years ago, he had worked as Deputy Commissioner, Mahasu and hence he knew the district quite intimately. Because of close physical proximity because Mahasu happened to be the main district of the UT, it was natural that the district should have been selected for the detailed preliminary exercise and implementation of the Act in the first round.

We started a series of discussions with each one of us going through the letter and spirit of the Act and the rules made there under so as to properly appreciate and grasp the implications as well as the procedures be followed. A round table discussion was also organized both at the level of the Land Reforms Commissioner and at the district level, so as to get some idea of the nature and type of problems or complications which have to be faced. Thus, all along the line in the hierarchy of the district, revenue administration, proper orientation was facilitated.

If I remember correctly, there was a rather strange provision in original Act, which laid down that on the prescribed date (to be notified in due course through the official gazette etc.), all lands in excess of the ceiling would stand resumed by the government, and there was provision for a prior notice to be given to the affected jagirdan landholders whose surplus or excess lands were to be resumed. In other words, all that was required to be done was to identify these lands and the khasra numbers etc., and bring about the necessary amendments or corrections in the records of rights.

Yet another clear anomaly was there was provision which enabled the government to take over almost all the lands surrounding residential buildings (or a palace in case of erstwhile rajas and chiefs) up to the building site itself or its approach road. However, there were some lacunae as well, since there was no system or arrangement by which lands of the same jagirdars or landholders lying in different villages or in different tehsils and districts could be taken together. The utmost we could do by way of some short-cut device was to arrange for data or notes to be compared between the field level revenue officials, the patwaris or at the most at the tehsil or sub-divisional level so that in many cases it was possible to identify persons holding land in different parts of the district (sub-division and tehsils).

Taking the Plunge

In a nutshell, after preparatory detailed examination of the law and the legal procedures and after a mock trial or a simulated rehearsal in respect of some holdings on duplicate copies of the land records, it was decided to take the plunge. Within a couple of weeks, necessary corrections were incorporated in the records of rights. However, to play safe and not to go against the spirit of the law or of natural justice, we had taken the precaution of informing in advance the various affected parties and also given them notices that the records were being corrected in the light of the Land Reforms and Resumption of Jagirs Act so that before the final entries were made, both in the revenue papers and in the field maps, they could raise their objection or offer valid and acceptable proof or evidence on the basis of which they sought exemption or objected to the entries being made in favour of the government. I also remember the concrete case of one or two important persons (VIPs, ex-rulers) in whose case all the land of their residence/palace right up to the plinth of the foundation level came under the axe of resumption.

Naturally, there was a big hue and cry with representations and deputations being sent to the Lt. Governor and the Union Home Ministry, the ex-rulers leading the jagirdars or owners of large orchards and large holdings, as well as political leaders of various shades of opinion rushing to and fro. I think, ultimately, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs had to issue a directive to stay the proceedings on the ground that the existing law would be suitably amended. I do not remember exactly what followed next because soon after these operations, I fell ill and was transferred from the UT.

Smooth Administration

Meanwhile, there was a change in the administrative set-up as well, after elections to the Territory Council and by about middle of 1963, a new popular representative government had taken over. But I can make bold to say that in the process of implementing the law, the entire administrative machinery had moved in unison almost like one man and the manner in which the whole exercise was conducted, hardly left any scope for outside and undue influence or pressures or even occasions for corruption and such other social evils which are usually laid at the doorsteps of revenue administration.

In fact, whatever little I could see of the functioning of the revenue machinery as well as other district or sub-divisional and tehsil level officials, whether in revenue matters or in connection with the provision of civil supplies and other multifarious functions, it can be said unhesitatingly that at least until then the administration had a fairly clean image. Here and there, village loyalties, caste considerations, political influences or pressures might have influenced some decisions or certain allocation or distribution of concessions and facilities, but what goes under the name of bribery or corruption was not there, at least not in a big way. I would not say that temptations or the opportunities were not there or that there were no parties like various contractors connected with road, building or transportation activities or those connected with marketing etc., but the manner in which the administration had evolved and was then functioning, the frequent tours for routine inspections or surprise check even by the LG and his team of senior colleagues moving around in the area, rapport with the local people and their representatives, the ease and the confidence with which the common citizens or the aggrieved person could approach the local authorities as well as the supervisors and the seniors—all these factors contributed and supported each other in creating a very favourable atmosphere for a clean and welfare-oriented and helpful administration. Much of the credit for this image as well as for the real picture should go to the then Lt. Governor and the group of senior dedicated officers, the secretaries or the heads of the departments who were brought together to forge new directions.

But one could almost feel some undercurrents of vaguely expressed protest against the heavy presence or intrusion of outsiders. The Himachali people, even the ordinary citizens, were then quite sensitive, somewhat hurt and wary, about the manner in which the outsiders, be they army officers or the bureaucrats and their minions who used to immigrate to Shimla in the past, or be they Punjabi businessmen or traders, who had made Shimla their temporary capital from the British days and later after 1947, their home. Somehow or the other there was a general feeling that all these outsiders were there to exploit the Himachalis and to deprive at least the growing younger generations of their rightful claims and opportunities. When the UT administration came to be run or managed by more and more senior officers from outside, from Punjab or Uttar Pradesh or Delhi and Rajasthan, naturally, there was some increase in the simmering feeling of resentment. Even, the slightest slip or default on the part of the lowest functionary was brought out into sharp focus as a possible ground for grievance and a grouse against the existing administrative set-up.

Escorting the Eminent

During my two years' stay in the district, I had an opportunity and pleasure of looking after, escorting and entertaining a number of interesting and important visitors, particularly in respect of those who were extended official hospitality or were treated as state guests—ministers and senior officials from Government of India, ministers from the neighbouring states, especially when some inter-state or zonal meetings were held, teams of army officers who would come out for establishing contacts with the civilians, one or two well-known writers and painters, and a host of others with a variety of interests and presenting a wide spectrum of professions. Some of these VIP visits or contacts somehow still stand out in my memory.

In a crowded and colourful atmosphere, the visit of late President, Dr Zakir Hussain, who was then holding the high office of Vice-President, remains in my mind for a number of reasons. First, because of his very pleasant and benign nature, his polished, yet very simple manner, his dignity in every movement and in his speech, his command over North Indian Urdu or Hindustani, his sense of humour and his capacity to make the other person feel at home—all these personal attributes made it a very pleasant assignment for me when I had to accompany him on his visit to various places of interest near about Shimla. Dr Hussain was very keen on gardening, horticulture and besides he was a lover of animals.

Another visit worth remembering was that of His Holiness Dalai Lama, who had come to Shimla as a guest of the Punjab government. In any case, he had to stay in a building under the control of the Punjab government (Public Works Department) and apart from visiting a couple of Tibetan centres and other institutions where Tibetans were residing in or near about Shimla, his itinerary included visits deep into the Himachal territory, where hundreds of Tibetan men and women were living in camps and were engaged mostly in road building operations.

For the Tibetans, Dalai Lama was and remains a living God, a highly exalted personage at whose smiling, friendly, youthful and intelligent face they dared not look. Escorted by senior civil and police officers of the Himachal Pradesh government and the district officers, His Holiness went out to meet his people to give them solace and comfort and to rekindle their faith in their future. His visit seems to have acted as a miracle, one sign of which was that all the camps which only a couple of days earlier appeared to be in shambles and were like hovels, were all cleaned, polished and decorated so that it became a very pleasant experience to walk through the areas or even to approach the camp sites with flutter of flags and buntings high up on poles touching the skies, while drums were being beaten. There were holy dances to strange melodies as if the Himalayan rocks had begun to sing. Men and women in their colourful costumes, bright and cheerful, full of emotions, yet controlled with their heads bowed, had joined the ceremony of exchange of scarves or for offering their scarves to His Holiness.

Dalai Lama spent almost two days in the Himachal area where I had the good fortune and privilege of being very close to him and `feeling' the simplicity of his nature and his direct friendly approach and the curiosity or the depth in the range of his mind. He would ask about the welfare of his people, their wages, and medical facilities available for them, particularly about and education of the younger generation who were all being looked after and educated in centres away from the camps and were getting the best that was then possible. He would also enquire about the flora and fauna, the forest produce, the agricultural and horticultural developments and the life of the Himachali people. One enquiry made by him still rings in my mind. He had asked us how soon or when the road works would be ready for traffic up to the Tibetan border. Did he have a premonition of the coming events? His visit preceded the Chinese aggression in 1962 by a few weeks only.

The Challenge from China

The Chinese intrusion into the north-eastern frontier areas of India came as a sudden and unexpected bolt from the blue. Its shocks were felt in Himachal Pradesh as much as anywhere else in the country. Suddenly, the administration was jolted into action and the emotions of the common people were electrified. But, there is no doubt that we were not prepared for such an eventuality. Though slowly over the years the new all-weather and motorable Indo-Tibet road was being laid, the slowness of these preparations and their inadequacy suddenly became apparent. The challenge before the Himachal Pradesh Administration as well as the Western Command of the Indian Army was to keep up the morale of the people and the army units of the border posts, inculcate among them a fighting spirit and build up the supply lines for provisions, stores, etc.

Vigilant action was also necessary against any possible anti-national or anti-social elements. An idea of how sudden and unexpected these developments were can be realized from the fact that at the headquarters of the Himachal Pradesh Administration, there were no previous records or precedents or existing instructions and procedures for internal/external security.

I am not suggesting that nothing had been done in this respect but somehow the various pieces of the jig-saw puzzle had never been put together to present a coordinated or comprehensive picture of the steps and measures to be taken in the event of a national crisis or calamity. I remember having returned to my office from a discussion at the Secretariat and mentioned to my colleagues about this problem (what appeared to be a dilemma at that time) when a Superintendent in the Deputy Commissioner's office who mentioned to me that perhaps in the English Record Room (room in which records or documents in English were kept) there would be some references. Curiously, I asked him how he could say that. His explanation was quite simple that during the Second World War years, he was working in the office of the Political Agent as a junior hand and recently while checking up the record room of the Deputy Commissioner's office in the course of routine annual inspection, he had noted that there was a basal (heaps of papers properly filed) or two, which had some reference to the war-time instructions. Within an hour , we were able to report to the Himachal Pradesh Administration in Shimla (few miles from Kusimti) that we had come across some war-time reference and guidelines.

Managing Scarcity

Daily meetings and conferences, mostly business-like and to the point, followed by issue of instructions or inspection and field visits and such other frantic activities became the order of the day. The more the Himachal Administration or the district authorities looked at the problems and the likely challenges or threats, the more we learnt that we were not at all prepared for or attuned to this task. All the sub-divisional magistrates in the interior even near the Indo-Tibetan border were not mobile and had to depend on the public transport system which was also not very well managed. There were no fire-fighting arrangements, or even arrangements or facilities for first aid. However, within a few days, it was possible to make reasonably satisfactory arrangements all through the district (as in other neighbouring districts) even though the machinery was constantly under constraint and had to be spread out in a rather thin manner. But, whatever little show of the arrangements could be made was perhaps enough to keep up the spirits of the local people and deter any possible anti-social or criminal elements.

Yet another problem was to somehow keep the roads open and safe so that army vehicles going up and down had an uninterrupted flow of traffic. This was also the time when the gathering and marketing of apple crop was just coming to a close but the potato seed crop had to be collected and transported to the main rail head at Shimla. Thus, there were dangers of traffic congestion and jamming at various crucial and vulnerable points but with the PWD gangs constantly in attendance, the district or police authorities being very vigilant about the matter and the local sub-divisional officers also being alive to the situation, there were no unnecessary jamming or hold-ups anywhere.

We had another problem to cope with when hundreds of soldiers not used to the heights and not even properly clad or equipped for the local environment started moving up towards the border posts. The local people, particularly citizens of important towns on the way, wanted to display their support and sympathy with the soldiers and they started organizing way-side rest and recreation or refreshment points for the moving convoys where tea or coffee or milk, sweets, biscuits, food, etc., used to be served with scores of local people—old and young men and women—on duty round the clock. Their enthusiasm was really remarkable and overwhelming and one could see hundreds of soldiers from the plains being overwhelmed by the attention and keenness they were receiving.

However, our job as local administrators was also to see that there were no unnecessary hold-ups at these points or that the soldiers were not repeatedly fed or fettered time and again. It did take some time to bring about some sort of system and organization in the whole affair. A message was received that not only soldiers but the gangs of PWD workers or labourers, who had to keep the roads open or to keep on shovelling snow or loose soil or debris from the roadside were also in need of woollen clothes or protective cloth against the on-setting cold wave. The Lt. Governor, being a man of innovations, experience and ingenuity, suddenly thought of cotton-padded jackets and trousers as a possible protective wear for such workers as well as others on duty in the border areas. The local citizens also came out with whatever little help and cooperation they could offer.

Thus, within a very short time, it appeared that not only the administration, but also the people were ready for any eventuality. It is indeed fortunate that no serious threat or challenge arose in that area so that our preparations were never put to a severe test.

Preparing the People

At the outset of the external emergency, one of the first steps taken was to send senior officers out into the interior for a quick survey or appraisal of the mood of the people and to acquaint and brief them about the impending threat, stressing the need for discipline and preparedness. I remember covering hundreds of miles up and down the district, meeting my field colleagues and others as well as leading citizens, teachers and lecturers of the schools and colleges, doctors at the hospitals and dispensaries, various officers, engineers and traders. This mass contact programme perhaps set up the tone and created suitable conditions for mutual trust and confidence and subsequent cooperation. In the process, I happened to visit almost all the parts of the district which were not easily approachable by road including kaacha tracks or forest roads. I remember hearing from the local people I met that I was the first Deputy Commissioner in quite some time to have visited these areas

By way of people's support and contribution, efforts to collect National Defence Fund or contributions of gold and silver ornaments by the people had also been initiated. Though perhaps Himachali people did not have much ready cash or gold and silver to offer, their response was quite good in terms of the number of people who came forward with their small contributions. Suitable instructions had been issued to all the field-level officers of the district to exercise proper care and direction in handling such donations and in keeping proper record and bringing the funds to the UT headquarters.

Tragedy around the Treasury

It so happened that some important temples in the country as also in Mahasu district had a lot of collection of gold and silver received over the centuries by way of offerings to the presiding deity. Far away from Shimla and even Rampur Bushahar on the old Indo-Tibet road, there is the famous Hima Kali temple at Sarahun. On a visit to the area, I was told that a lot of temple treasure, consisting of gold and silver ornaments, coins, jewel-studded daggers, silver trophies, etc., which had been offered to the deity, had been donated for the national war effort. In any case, it was considered prudent to remove most of these treasures from the temple premises for protective custody. With the help of the local Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM) and the Citizens Committee as well as the temple management, we drew up lists of possessions, properly sealed the various boxes and brought the chest to the treasury at Rampur Bushahar. Some of the collection was of historic value. But it really broke my heart when I saw that in their eagerness or carelessness, the local people had tried to fold together a beautiful silver plated umbrella so as to place it within a small box. Somebody in our party seemed to murmur that this action would highly displease the goddess. We did not pay any attention to this mild protest based on local tradition or superstition. But when after depositing the treasure at Rampur Bushahar treasury, I proceeded towards Shimla and reached the Narkanda Rest House, I got the message that the local SDM had suddenly collapsed a victim to heart attack. Though I did not believe in local superstition, for an ornament, however I thought that perhaps Goddess Bhima Kali had claimed her first victim for the desecration of the temple or the removal of the temple treasure. A few days later, the treasure chest had been brought to Shimla and displayed in the Raj Bhagwan. Even the Lt. Governor and Chief Secretary present were really amazed at the collection of its grandeur and variety. The Lt. Governor decided to take a few specimen pieces like old Mughal coins or jewel-studded daggers, etc., to show to the Prime Minister so that these might he placed in the National Museum. But that was long after the dust raised by the Chinese intrusion had settled down and the conditions appeared to be somewhat normal..

Au Revoir

But perhaps, there is an interesting end to this episode as far as I was personally concerned. In the months of June-July 1963, due to the strain of the previous months and may be my own negligence, I suddenly fell ill. Unfortunately, I took my illness rather lightly and continued to work as before until suddenly it was discovered that the infection (some sort of measles that I got from my neighbours) had affected my heart and damage seemed to have been done because at the early stage of my illness, I had kept up my usual routine. There was no choice before the doctors but to advise me complete rest. It was true that I had to cope with the pressure of hectic touring because the Lt. Governor was going away after about a decade of service in the Union Territory and very detailed and comprehensive programme of his field visits and farewell had been planned. I remember that the day I was advised complete bed rest, I was expected to proceed with a fairly high-powered team of senior army officers on an uphill journey into the interior to select and identify a suitable site for high altitude training and firing practice by the army jawans. That might have happened if instead of medical check-up and the bed rest, I had proceeded on this visit.

Thus came an abrupt end to my very interesting though short but eventful stay in Himachal as Deputy Commissioner, Mahasu. I seem to have been so much carried away by my experiences that after a few months' rest in the plains, I was once again willing and ready to go back to Shimla and resume my charge. But my well-wishers and senior colleagues from Rajasthan, who had come to serve the Government of India, advised me, while I was on my way to Shimla that I should not proceed there and take unnecessary risk.

Thus, in a way, I withdrew or retreated from my karmabhoomi of a sort, and returned to further service in Rajasthan without even saying the usual goodbyes to the people with and for whom I worked in an interesting period of my career.

Add new comment