Mohammad Shafi Pandit, IAS, Jammu & Kashmir
Being the very first person from Jammu and Kashmir State, belonging to the majority community of the state, who had made it to the mainstream Indian Administrative Service, as a direct recruit, way back in 1969, my friends and well-wishers have always been urging me, and repeatedly so, after my retirement, to pen down my memoirs, capturing the gleanings from my administrative career.
Let me frankly admit that I have never felt inclined enough to do so, for reasons, even eluding me.
But, when, in the context of the 1969 Golden Jubilee Reunion Memoir, some days ago, my batch-mate, Ashok Jha, sent me a message, requesting me to write a couple of pages, recollecting my important experiences, either of the Academy days, or pertaining to my administrative career, I just couldn’t resist the inherent pressure of the friendly request, despite the obvious excuse I had, that I was about to leave for my visit overseas. I chose to write about my experiences outside the Academy, leaving it to my batch-mates to share their more ‘interesting’ and ‘pleasing’ episodes of the training period at the Academy.
The Indian Administrative Service has the distinction of providing its members with the opportunity of getting maximum interface with the people, and, therefore, the unique advantage of trying new administrative experiments for enhancing the impact and reach of the administration, so as to maximize the flow of benefits to the people.
It has been the endeavor of most members of our service to bring in new approaches in dealing with various developmental issues, with a view to improving efficiency and speed, and thus leaving behind good memories, and legacies. A good number of our colleagues, from the service, both senior and junior, have done us proud, by introducing new systems of administrative handling of various issues, which became models (like the Lakhina Model, for instance), to be followed by other officers and even received recognition from the state and central governments.
In this context, (without claiming any comparison), I have also tried many ideas and approaches, during my career, which I can share, with my friends, with a modicum of pride, of course tempered with a sense of humility. But, for the purposes of this article, I shall restrict myself to only three such initiatives.
Single Line Administration
Towards the end of 1975, when my first posting order as Deputy Commissioner, was under consideration, I was called by the then Chief Secretary, late Sushital Banerjee, (a very able and kind officer, who had earned a great reputation when he had been specially sent on deputation, as Divisional Commissioner, Kashmir, during the Indo-Pak War of 1965), called me over to his office, and alerted me that he was posting me to the most difficult and challenging district of the State. He added that he was confident that I could handle it well, and, in his view, if I could handle this district successfully, I could handle any other district or, for that matter, any assignment, well. This was greatly inspiring for me.
The problems of Doda district were of a multiple nature, arising from its immense geographical spread, then having an area of 5,500 sq. kms (is split into three districts), next only to the then Ladakh district, having an area of 59,000 sq. kms, without having the required infra-structure. The people were steeped in low literacy and economic backwardness, despite its rich natural resources like hydro-power potential, forest cover and minerals such as gypsum and the blue sapphire of global repute. This district also didn’t have any special dispensation, in terms of administrative organization, such as had been created in Ladakh, after the Indo-China hostilities of 1962, under which the Deputy Commissioner had been vested with full authority over all spheres of the government, because the district used to remain practically cut off from the rest of the State, for more than six months in a year.
The district was also known to be highly sensitive on law and order, because of its delicate population mix, with about 55% Muslim population, the only district in Jammu, with Muslim majority).
True to the vows of the civil service, to which I belonged, I gladly picked up the gauntlet thrown to me by the boss, and, soon after my orders of posting came, I proceeded to join my new assignment, with a mixed feeling of excitement and trepidation, in the second week of January, 1976.
While going to take up my charge, I was faced with my first challenge, the road closures, caused by massive landslides, on the main National Highway, as well as the road leading therefrom, to the district headquarter of Doda. My predecessor-in-office had already left the district, after handing over the charge to a junior officer, without waiting for me. Thus, I had a daunting task before me, as the road restoring operation, then without many resources at my command, required a lot of skillful handling. It took me a couple of days to finally reach Doda. This gave me the first feel of the problems of the district, requiring tremendous coordination between the various agencies of the government, which unfortunately, was lacking.
In the summer of 1976, the then Chief Minister of the State, late Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah (popularly known as Sher-I-Kashmir), visited my district, and took a review of the functioning of various developmental schemes. There were some shortfalls in expenditure under various heads, which came to his notice. I was surprised that he didn’t give any adverse comments during the meeting. In retrospect, I can safely say that probably he did not want to embarrass me in presence of the other officers.
However, the following day, while I was accompanying the Chief Minister, in a car, to the other historically important town of Bhaderwah (known also for its literary richness and political acumen), he asked me the reason for the shortfalls in expenditure under several schemes. I submitted to him, very politely, but intrepidly, that while he had every reason to question me on this, as the head of the district, who could I call to explain, because the concerned officers, owed their explanation, if required, to their own departmental line of command, whose officers were located either in the nearby district closer to Jammu, or the divisional headquarter at Jammu, or the State headquarter. I told him that the Deputy Commissioner was only a titular head of the district, and his effective authority was confined only to the Revenue and Law and Order matters.
I further informed the Chief Minister that most of the development departments, then, had no presence at the senior level in the district of Doda. Moreover, in view of anticipated shortfalls in expenditure, the higher officers used to divert the funds from this district for utilisation, in other districts. So, the people of the district were feeling cheated and continued to suffer in disgruntlement.
The Chief Minister asked me what could be done to rectify the situation. I told him that the answer lay in introducing the concept of single line administration in the district, about which I had sent a note to the higher authorities. I explained to him that the concept involved designating the Deputy Commissioner as the effective head of the district, with the powers of a head of department for all the development departments, retaining the powers for technical supervision with the concerned line departments. I also mentioned to him that some of the schemes, for which shortfalls of expenditure had been reported repeatedly, had been based on the priorities found appropriate for other districts, and failed to take note of the problems at the ground level in this district. So, the Deputy Commissioner should have the authority to determine the priorities for various schemes, taking into account the ground situation. As an illustration, I mentioned that lots of funds had been provided under irrigation, which was not of high priority, and was, in fact, proving counterproductive, in view of the hilly terrain of the district. On the contrary, schemes which had great potential in the district, like road connectivity, were starved of funds.
The Chief Minister kept mulling over my observations, while I was talking to him in the car, and didn’t give any reaction then. But, to my pleasant surprise, when he addressed his public meeting in Bhaderwah, after his preliminary remarks, which included a few laudatory comments, describing the Deputy Commissioner as a young and dynamic officer, he stated his strong resolve to take the district, out of its economic backwardness, and immediately, thereafter, announced his intention to give the powers of a major head of department to the Deputy Commissioner, under a new dispensation, to be called Single Line Administration. He received a huge ovation from the gathering.
A few days later, after the return of the Chief Minister to the state capital, I was called by the Chief Secretary, late Sushital Banerjee, for a discussion, at which he asked the then Planning Commissioner, late R K Takkar, to join. I was subjected to a grueling session of questions, by both of them, for explaining the rationale for the proposal mooted by me with the Chief Minister, at the end of which the one sentence (which still rings in my ear), mentioned by the Chief Secretary was: “If we have to give a fillip to the development of Doda, we should introduce Single Line Administration in that district “. The Planning Department was asked to put up a proposal to the Cabinet.
A couple of weeks later, while I was on a tour in a far-flung area of the district, Marwah, I heard on the radio that the government had decided to introduce Single Line Administration in Doda district, and invested the powers of a head of department in the Deputy Commissioner for administrative purposes. A District Development Board, under the Deputy Commissioner, re-designated as Deputy Commissioner/District Development Commissioner was also constituted. Thereafter, I was specially tasked by the Chief Minister to draw up a plan, for development of the district, based on the priorities, to be determined by the DDB. The Board included various public representatives, including the MLA’s and MP’s of the district. The plan allocation for the district was also doubled, in a single stroke.
One month or so later, the then Chief Minister, along with his entire team of cabinet colleagues, and the top level bureaucracy, including the Chief Secretary, and Heads of all departments, travelled in busses, from the State capital, which by then had shifted to Jammu, and descended in good numbers, in the poorly endowed town of Doda town, the district headquarter. We had just a couple of rooms in the PWD Rest House, which could barely accommodate the C.M. and the Dy C.M., late Mirza Afzal Beg. Consequently, we had to lodge the Chief Secretary and senior officials in a makeshift tented colony that we set up at the Rest House lawns. The other cabinet ministers were adjusted in the official accommodation of the DC/SP.
The next day, the Cabinet gave approval to my plans in toto and also endorsed my suggestion to sanction a post of Superintending Engineer, and some XEns, and also some other positions at the district level. In course of time, senior positions were also created, in other departments as well.
The news about Cabinet-on-wheels, taking on-the-spot decisions for giving a push to the development of Doda district (sometimes referred to as the ‘and’ in the name of Jammu and Kashmir state), received a lot of publicity, nationally as well as internationally, and also caught the special attention of politicians from the opposition, who, for no good reason, smelt a conspiracy, on the part of the Chief Minister, to separate the district of Doda, from Jammu and annex it with the valley of Kashmir.
Taking note of this, and also reports about the potential effectiveness of the new system, the State Government decided to bring all the other districts, under the concept of Single Line Administration, months after the sanction of the administrative structure exclusively for Doda.
Single Line Administration was indeed a bold step for introducing an innovative concept to secure the participation of people at the district level, for development and optimisation of resource endowments.
There has, no doubt, been some dilution in the original model, over the years, in regard to the role assigned to the District Development Board, for determining the priorities for allocation, based on the actual requirements of the district. Instead of the Deputy Commissioner, a minister of the state government is now designated for each district as the Chairman of the DDB. The Board now has a role, primarily, in locational planning. Having said that, it needs to be added that, at the same time, the institution of Deputy Commissioner, has also been strengthened in many other ways. He has been delegated higher administrative and financial powers in various fields and given a key role in implementing the flag-ship schemes of the central and state governments.
The High Court of J&K has also upheld the powers of District Development Commissioners to suspend and take disciplinary action even against senior officers, up to district level, recruited through State Public Service Commission, acting as appointing authority under Single Line Administration.
The introduction of the new system has truly represented a paradigm shift in the development process of the state, creating a visible impact, especially on the development process of the backward areas, which were getting neglected under the earlier system.