Their First Lady

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Meenakshi Hooja is an IAS officer who has served in both Government of India and Government of Rajasthan. She is a published poet in both English and Hindi. She has authored books on Panchayati Raj and tribal development. She was a visiting fellow at Queen Elizabeth House, University of Oxford (U.K.).

19 May 1984. Place: Sirohi Road railway station. A bright afternoon.

My mother-in-law, two children and six packing cases getting down the train with me and so many unfamiliar yet familiar faces standing at the platform—some holding garlands, some bouquets and the others just staring away—wondering whether the person they are receiving is really their Collector!

I remember this scene vividly as if it was only yesterday. No doubt, it did not happen very long ago to have assumed some of the golden halo of a hoary past, but even so a number of years have passed since I detrained at Sirohi Road with my family to join as Collector and District Magistrate, Sirohi.

The feelings that were expressed in the scene at Pindwara railway station continued for some time after I joined there. I was the first lady to be posted as Collector of Sirohi. Quite understandably, the desire to welcome the new Collector was there amongst the officers and the people—but the fact that I was a lady made the welcome a little more ceremonial and everybody appeared to be on his best behaviour. This trend of ceremony, best behaviour, courtesy lasted throughout my stay in Sirohi including the last fortnight of farewells in the end.

An Object of Curiosity

As far as acceptance of a lady as a District Collector is concerned, it took its time. Sirohi is a small compact district with a preponderance of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe population. Industrialization has just started after it having been declared a 'no-industry' district by the state government entitling entrepreneurs to higher subsidies and incentives. The place, as a whole, is quite behind in the race towards modernization, and old attitudes are very much there. And, certainly, my posting then took everybody by surprise, if not by shock. The stares at the railway station gradually turned into friendly smiles, once they got to know me a little better.

However, the word 'lady' before Collector stuck to me like glue. There were times when I told my colleagues that I was a Collector, belonging to the IAS cadre, and functioned like any other officer who held this post. But this could not go fully down their gullet. As a response to this, I started enjoying all the privileges of a lady that were accorded to me, over and above those due to a Collector.

I began to settle down in the house as well as in the office. One of my first important assignments was to receive His Excellency, the Governor, who was coming to Mt. Abu for his annual visit. As usual, there was a lot of rush at the Abu Road railway station-upon his arrival, which was on a hot May afternoon. My sweating must have been due to heat as well as nervousness However, the whole show went off satisfactorily. A few days later, a sudden awareness dawned upon me when I read in a small item in a newspaper that many women had come to the railway station to see the Governor as well as the new mahila ziladhish (lady Collector). I realized that I would he an object of 'seeing' for quite some time and should not feel unduly self-conscious or worried about it.

The Prime Minister's Visit

The challenge of having to make arrangements for the PM's visit (late Smt. Indira Gandhi) planned suddenly within less than a month of my joining, was very thrilling. My only experience of a VVIP visit was that of Mrs Gandhi coming to Ajmer in 1976, when I was doing my district training there. However, in Sirohi, it had to be planned out afresh with a lot of responsibility on my shoulders. It was the first serious test of my administrative capacities after having joined the service in 1975. Rakesh, my husband, also an IAS officer, was there on a tour at Mt. Abu when information about the PM's visit came and this announcement gave him the `wifely' jitters. I told him to relax and leave it all to me and employ his mind in looking after special schemes (He was then holding the post of Special Secretary to the Government, Agriculture Special Schemes). Once the programme got concretized, then, there was a lot to do; plan, programme, issue orders and as is common in our bureaucratic echelons, follow it up. What I had studied in theory had to be turned into reality—how much to delegate, how much to decentralize, how to establish priorities, how to involve everybody and yet get work out of a solid, small team of officers and how to say a 'no' without being rude.

Mrs Gandhi's visit included a public address to an adivasi sammelan at Abu Road, where we had to construct a rest room almost overnight. She spent some of her time with the tribals who had come to perform a dance in her honour, which really encouraged the excited participants. Her visit, on the whole, was a big success, this being her first visit to Mt. Abu and Abu Road. No one, of course, knew then that it would also be her last.

With the VVIP visit, came the major advantage to me of getting to know all the officers, political representatives, non-officials, so early after joining. This paved the way for the coordination and team spirit that was there in the district throughout my tenure. No doubt, I understood quite fast as to which officers and persons were sincere and intelligent ones and those who were not — this might not have been to the liking of the latter.

Business and Busy-ness

After my parents-in-laws and children left Sirohi towards the end of June (after a fairly pleasant one month stay at Mt. Abu), the environment suddenly turned lonely. Living alone in a fairly big house (as it was a modern house, it had no semblance of being ghostly) posed a difficult question to which answers had to be found especially for spending the evenings. Gradually, the answers came slowly like scattered raindrops and then as a heavy downpour. House decoration, cooking, games, music, parties, cards, ghazal recitals, picnics, gossip sessions and what have you! In no time boredom turned into a busy schedule, in which at times I myself felt trapped.

The first social evening was a contributory dinner, being a dabba (a dish of food contributed by each family) variety prefaced by a cultural evening in my living room lined with gaddas and lakiyas, reason—I had no regular furnished drawing room). Officers from administration, police, judiciary, teaching, medical, banks—all joined it. It all went off very well till the compere announced that the Collector would wind up the programme with a song. I had not touched singing with a barge pole for years and it was a ghazal of Ghalib, learnt many years ago from my father, that came to my rescue. I was quite determined, after the evening that in future no such programmes would ever be held again—but as we all know in government, once a scheme starts, vested interests often develop for its further continuation—so in this case, the officers and their families loved the idea of such gatherings, which picked up their own momentum.

By July-August, office schedule had become quite well settled. Meetings, tours, court work, interviews with petitioners, were fixed in a systematic manner. The officers, staff, non-officials and people in general got used to my style of functioning and were less inhibited in discussing their problems.

Faux Pas to Remember

One of the faux pas I committed during my meeting with a petitioner is something I will never forget. The Income Tax Officer (ITO) posted in Sirohi was a Muslim. Once he had come to call on me at home in my absence, and hence I did not know him by face. One day, a slip came with a Muslim name and a smart gentleman walked in. I asked him to be seated. He sat down. Thinking that he was the ITO, I dwelt at length on the role of income tax and various organizations where I thought the income tax and state government departments should combine to check tax evasion. He listened very patiently and replied that such exercises would be helpful. While getting up, he said that apart Tr,pm tax evasion, could I also help in improving the electricity supply in village D..., of which he was a resident! My face just fell at hearing this—I looked again at the slip and knew at once what an oaf I had been! I promised to help with the supply of electricity and saw him walk out, much to my relief. Later, when I met the ITO and his wife, I told them about this incident, remembering which always had me in fits of laughter. At least I had the courage to laugh at myself. Later on, the ITO and his family became very good friends and an integral part of my social life at Sirohi.

Eschewing Imitation

District administration and the office of the Collector and District Magistrate has been much written of and is no doubt one of the most discussed issues in official, non-official and private forums. As a child, my ideas were based largely on my father's experiences, who held charge of as many as seven districts for about eleven years. Later on, as a student of Political Science and Public Administration, we read standard texts as well as biographies and commentaries of British bureaucrats and writers. In the Academy at Mussoorie we received all kinds of instructions and during our training and later holding other posts, we were directly exposed to officers functioning as Collectors. When my husband was Collector at Sikar, I could only visit him occasionally at weekends and thus did not really get an idea of the Collector's work. As such, over the years, many ideas about the office of the Collector had developed in my mind with a crystallized set of do's and don'ts. However, I realized very early after joining that one cannot and should not entirely be guided by what one has read; the style to be adopted, priorities to be assigned and goals to be set, have to generate from the environment of the district—social, economic, political. To be successful, the Collector and his thinking should adjust to the local needs and potential, without compromising on general principles of efficiency and integrity. Answers to problems lie, not merely in what one has read, heard or seen, but many times in the problem itself.

As a Collector, I had the onerous task of not only performing well in the eyes of the people and officers of the district, the state government, etc., but also competing withing the family. Apart from my father (who has had one of the longest spells as Collector in the Rajasthan cadre), my father-in-law and husband had held this distinguished office and were always ready to advise (a more sophisticated way of saying 'criticize') on all and sundry issues, including how to dress up, what to eat, what to read and whom to meet. Only my mother-in-law came to my support and said that I should be left free to run my district the way I wanted: women's liberation in practice.

A Mistaken Adventure

Combined with a desire to do what I wanted as also to ensure that I was not less than any of my breed, including the ICS, I decided to go in for some adventure and heights. Mt. Abu is not only a beautiful hill station situated within Sirohi district, but also a place full of temples and sacred places. The temple of Adhav Devi, the presiding deity of the Abu hills, is located in the caves and has about 200 steps of ascent. The prasad of coconut and elaichi dana that is offered there satisfies not merely the feeling of bhakii, but also the bodily needs, after the tough climb.

Another sacred place is the Gomukh, which has an eternal spring and is supposed to be the place of origin of the Rajputs (Agnikula) from the fire. I went there with the SDO and his family, going down and then climbing up 700 steps. It was a fairly exhausting but totally rewarding adventure rejuvenated by the shikanji of the Baba at the Hanuman temple. A few more visits here and there, and then came the peak. We had gone to Anadra dak bungalow for a picnic, inspired by the SP and his wife. Anadra is a point from where the local villagers, including tribals, climb a steep six kilometres path to reach Mt. Abu at a height of approximately 5,000 ft. Mt. Abu did not seem far from Anadra at all and I decided that I just had to go there by walking up the old bridle path. On such occasions, it is good to know you are the Collector and District Magistrate—everyone obeys you. So, the SP, Divisional Forest Officer and the District Judge's wife, along with a few forest and police guards, agreed to obey their whimsical Collector—with the exception of the District Judge's wife who did not have to, but was inspired by the same spirit of adventure as the lady Collector's. A bold beginning in the adventure was followed by a simple middle—the only thing that kept me going were the periodical replies of the forest guards that Mt. Abu was very near. Of course, it made us feel frustrated when these replies kept coming from them for hours.

We had started around 4 o'clock in the afternoon and by 6 o'clock it appeared as if the adventure was all a mistake. But, battles begun have to be fought and won, especially by the Collector. So, the climb went on the SP and District Forest Officer had marched far ahead (these are not the days of chivalry) and by 7 p.m. we also saw the Honeymoon Point of Mt. Abu, where the path ends. On reaching there, we felt elated, reminding me particularly of the trail to Gomukh and Tapovan above Gangotri which we had gone to from the Mussoorie Academy during our probationer days. The climb was the topic of discussion amongst officers at Sirohi for a few days and many persons thought it fitting even congratulate us on this. The festivals of Dashera and Diwali are occasions when one likes to be with one's own family. As it was not possible for me to leave headquarters during these days, my husband and children came over to Sirohi (with breaks) and the whole month of October was spent in festivities and social get-togethers. As the weather was also turning beautiful, it was very easy to combine office work, together with a fairly hectic social life. On Diwali, I had to even go round the market to adjudge the best decorated shops and face a lot of stares, generated perhaps by my heavy sari in which I was not seen anywhere else.

Tragedy and Anguish

Things seemed to be going all too well, when suddenly on 31 October, we heard of Mrs Gandhi's assassination. The news came during an inspection of my office being conducted by a Member, Board of Revenue. For the first time, I had to completely forget my role as Collector or a Development Officer and concentrate purely on law and order duties as District Magistrate to maintain peace in the area, and later to see that order was maintained at the railway stations where her ashes came for darshan of the people. It was impossible to believe that the woman who had just come a few days ago to Mt. Abu was no more and it was her ashes which were in the urn. This time, we were preparing not to receive her, but the ashes or phool of her assassinated body. It was only in due course that administration returned to normal; but for me, the photographs of her first and last visit to Mt. Abu became a highly nostalgic and treasured item, which I keep with a lot of care.

Preparing for the Poll

As expected, elections to Parliament were announced thereafter and the government machinery had to gear itself to conducting them on the basis of a one-day poll. I had attempted in the past few months to evolve a system of holding regular meetings, say monthly, on fixed dates of revenue officers, on tribal area, Standing Committee of Bankers, coordination meetings with police and prosecution, municipalities, and other departments. I also attended tehsil level and panchayat samiti level meeting with as much regularity as was possible. It was as a result of these meetings and extensive touring that I knew the area, the people and the officers and even the vehicles quite well. This knowledge came in very handy during the elections and it was a pleasure to organize the elections as District Election Officer. The amount of cooperation that I got from the officers and those roped in to perform election duties. (by and large, teachers) is something I will never forget.

Later on, on 26 January, India's Republic Day, we even gave merit certificates to those who had worked hard to make these elections a smooth affair. The elections to the Assembly which were held in March, became relatively easy to organize. During the Assembly elections, we managed to send some vehicles to the neighbouring Pali district, where as my ADM and Deputy Electoral Officers later revealed, it was considered a new thing in the history of administration that the district Sirohi was exporting instead of importing vehicles! The new Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi also made a short election tour to Sirohi during the Assembly elections. This visit put no one under any stress, as by now elections and VVIP visits were something everybody had got used to.

It would not be wrong to say that Sirohi is known largely because of Mt. Abu, the only hill station in Rajasthan, also still very popular amongst our Gujarati neighbours. Many VIPs from the state and outside visit it during summer as well as winter. During my stay there, apart from Mrs Gandhi, the President and Vice-President of India and Governor of Gujarat also visited the hill resort and the Governor of Rajasthan camped there for about a month during the summers. The Raj Bhawan at Mt. Abu is very beautifully located and those who have privilege of staying there must consider themselves extremely lucky. Of course, for us, the best thing during VVIP visits was the delicious eats, which the Raj Bhawan staff turned out so ingeniously round the clock.

Camaraderie and Team Spirit

Tours, village visits, gram sabhas and night halts are considered integral parts of the functioning of the Collector. I wanted to visit as many villages of the district as possible in order to get a first-hand knowledge of the problems and issues involved. Normally, one or two officers accompanied me on these visits and they had the onerous responsibility of noting down the points that came up and then preparing a visit note based on them.

Many times, these drafts were amended in a very big way by me. If ever these officers felt hurt by these corrections and amendments, they never said so and I just liked to think that they were not too unhappy about it Similarly, as I made my night halts quite religiously and regularly, a lot of energy of the officers must have gone into making necessary arrangements But, ultimately, the atmosphere of camaraderie and team spirit that emerged from these tours and visits not only helped in improving performance, but also made work a pleasure. In one case, I remember, my officers and I had to walk about 3 km to reach a village cut off by rains but when we did get there, we met all the people and got their views and coup understand the problems in their correct context. Such visits are far more useful in analyzing a problem or situation than a mere study of files with indifferently written reports.

The inevitable question that everyone asks a lady officers is: How is her family life harmonized with a career and officer work. Let me say at the outset, that such a combination is difficult. In Sirohi, I was staying along while my family was at Jaipur; whenever I thought about this I could not decide whether to place myself in the category of the erstwhile British ICS Collectors who kept their families back home in England or the tehsildar / girdavar / patwari whose families always stayed behind in the village and they made their once in a month ghar sambhalnewali (to look after the families) visits! However, my husband did not give me much chance to portray a 'single woman' image and take advantage of it, as his visits as those of the children were quite frequent. He made sure that my identity of Mrs Rakesh Hooja never got lost in files or village visits. In the long run, this image did enable me to enjoy my work as well as the social life at Sirohi and finally when I did get transferred after about a year, could leave the place amidst farewells with mixed feelings and lot of satisfaction and happiness.

The Return

Just as I was beginning to adopt myself to the life of Secretariat and horn, at Jaipur, I was asked to go on duty to a village in Sirohi, which the Prime, Minster, Rajiv Gandhi was due to visit. It was so pleasant and wonderful to go back to the district and meet all the officers, friends and people and see the beautiful scenery of hills and colourful bright flowers. A few days later the government announced the award of a merit certificate to me on IIndependence Day for revenue work during my tenure as Collector of Sirohi. Behind this recognition was the support of my team members who always put in their best with ungrudging smiles. What more could I expect?

Editor's Note: This article first appeared in the anthology Bureacracy and Society: The IAS at Work edited by Rakesh Hooja; Rawat Publications; 2009.

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Subodh Varma   |2016-07-16
Wish you had also dwelt on your personal interaction with Mrs. Gandhi.
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