About the Author
C. Balagopal studied economics
at Loyola College, University of Madras, and then enrolled for a PhD programme
(unfinished) at the University of Kerala. He joined the IAS in 1977 and worked
in Manipur and Kerala before resigning in 1983 to set up a pioneering venture
to make cutting-edge medical products. The enterprise today employs 1,100
people and ships products to more than fifty countries. He has retired recently
and spends his time consulting, writing, reading, travelling and playing golf.
He lives in Thiruvananthapuram with his wife.
THE ANECDOTES NARRATED IN this collection dwell on the
quotidian events that mark the work of a district official in Kerala,
especially in Kollam (formerly called Quilon). To that extent, it is a continuation of the
narrative from my earlier book On a
Clear Day You Can See India. But the reader will soon find that while
the work of the district official remains almost the same in Manipur and
Kerala, there are glaring differences. These contrasts are less to do with
language, customs, culture and history of the regions, considerable though
these differences may be.
The warp and woof of which that narrative was woven
used the thread that was spun and dyed in special circumstances. The
looking-glass impression one would have got of the administration in Manipur,
more farce than comedy, had less to do with the quality of staff and
processes--execrable though both sometimes were-and more to do with the fact
that politics and governance were heavily influenced by the 'colonial' aspect, as
much as the tribal and ethnic factors.
There was an undefinable
air of 'otherness' among non-local members of the administration, a sense of
their not really being part of the machinery of governance, that they were
merely playing a role, albeit reluctantly. There was a sense of being
'connected' to other non-locals among the businessmen and traders there. This
aspect was never far from the surface in any matter, howsoever trivial and
quotidian it appeared. It surfaced in conversation and social transactions so
casually that I often wondered whether someone in the room would take offence.
But it appeared to be the most natural thing to do, almost a stating of
something that was obvious.
In this collection, no such
colonial flavour or otherness appears, because such a feeling does not exist in
Kerala. While some amusement is derived by locals when a north Indian attempts
to speak Malayalam, many cultural, historical, religious, and social factors
come into play that have gone into the making of the merging pan-Indian
identity. Differences are real, and often quite difficult to ignore, but they
do not disturb the social fabric, and in fact serve to enrich the mosaic that
modern Indian society is. Kerala can be cited as an excellent example of such a
pan-Indian identity, having been since ancient times a crucible in which many
different ethnicities and cultures and religions have been mixed. The modern
identity of the Malayali has less to do with ethnic
and religious factors and more to do with a distinctive lifestyle and culture
and the unmistakable Malayali accent.
It is the deteriorating
government processes and the consequent decline in effective governance that is
the bedrock of all the anecdotes. Each story brings out yet another instance of
a small bur nevertheless important process of administration, observed only in
name, but not in substance, robbing it of its purpose and meaning.
The story of the building of the mosque, for
instance, highlights the high price a society often has to pay for procrastination,
in terms of social tensions and stress, when timely action by a junior official
would have ensured that justice was delivered without any dire social
consequences. The tale of jamabandi underlines the
problems resulting from not ensuring that the village accounts represent a true
picture of the dues to government. Various layers of officialdom conduct this
important exercise more as a ritual, affixing their signatures to reports that
merely serve to push matters under the carpet, making the official records
diverge even more from reality.
The story of the assessment of flood damage gives
insights into how government statistics are collected and employed, pointing to
the unreliable foundation on which major planning exercises conducted in
distant capitals are built. This is again illustrated in the story about the
Another set of stories brings out the weaknesses in
key government processes that hinder effective working. The saga of the
modernization of the village office shows how ingenuity and clever networking
were needed to ensure that a village office was provided with the bare
necessities such as a table and chair.
The story of the sub-divisional magistrate's (SDM)
court brings out an important aspect that undercuts the very essence of
governance, that is, the fact that government officials do not take their jobs
and responsibilities with sufficient seriousness, leading a common man to think
that most things are negotiable and flexible, when in fact they are not. This
aspect is brought out amusingly in the anecdote of the discussion in the
district collector's (DC) conference hall, where representatives of students'
unions were incensed when a young sub-collector gave them a lesson in the law
and how it works.
The story of the disappearance of Sarasan, and the one about the missing young man who was
feared to have been detained in a police station, both bring out the uneasy
relationship between the police and the citizen. This relationship has been
steadily vitiated by the political control over the police, espoused as an
article of faith by one political formation, and as an expedient instrument by
the other. Both, however, have had the unfortunate consequence that a citizen
views the police as the henchmen of the political party in power, and not as
guardians of the law. This has had a serious impact on the citizen's 'social contract' with
government, leading him to be cynical about government actions.
A couple of stories deal with attempts by citizens
to use these shortfalls in government processes to their own ends. One deals with two warring brothers, who seek ways of harassing
one another using various provisions of the law and relying on the creaking
government machinery to gain some leverage in terms of delays and expense. Another deals with the abuse of courtroom processes to
prolong matters, forcing the other party to come to the negotiating table even
though they may have a strong case.
It is the gradual wearing away
of these quotidian processes, unnoticed or dismissed as trivial when they are
noticed, that has led to the present situation where governance is seen as
ineffective, where the rule of law is not seen to prevail, where only powerful
mobilized groups are able to get their dues, and where the individual citizen
feels helpless. This has happened through a thousand little failures happening
every day, in every office and courtroom and police station across the nation.
One only has to see the great changes wrought by wind and water over aeons to
understand that the change may be gradual, but can still have a devastating
impact on the original form and structure.
Majesty of the Law
Divorce and Income Certificates
the Man for the Job
Homeless and an Antiquated Statute
Glass is Half Full
The Maidan and Vanishing Commons
Census and the Merchant Ship
from the Same Cloth
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