Archive | June 2016

Why I am not a son to my parents?

“So you don’t have a brother or a sister?”

If I had a penny for each time I have shrugged my shoulders , shuffled my feet and blown bubbles through a straw into the Gold Spot bottle in my hand, at this question as a child I would have been able to buy personal chalet in Switzerland by now.

As every Army brat worth his/her father’s CSD card will tell you,childhood is about being on the move constantly and consequently making newer friends and smiling at and wishing newer adults. Conversations with adults is a sine qua non if you grow up with your father in the army. Social events, people coming over to welcome you (well-your parents actually) to the new place are commonplace. If you spent a greater part of your childhood in a cantonment you probably have had your head petted a number of times by an avuncular officer and his wife while answering the umpteen questions on “which class-which school-favourite subject and favourite game”. In my case this questionnaire would dissolve at  a defiant”I AM AN ONLY CHILD” reply.

Officers’ wives at the army ladies’ club would pause between scratching out their “two little ducks ; twenty twos” on the  perforated pink and yellow tambola tickets look down their patiently powdered noses at me and then questioningly at my mother as she sipped her drink and looked for her “any line” without a hint of concern at the apparent vacuum in her world. Some older women were more direct in voicing their concern. “you don’t have another child? No  son? Aren’t you planning on doing something about it?”

My parents, my mother in particular was largely unperturbed by the barrage of questions, suggestions and advice that came her way regarding the discernible “lacuna ” in her life created by the presence of only one child-and that too a girl.There was an inherent problem here in the eyes of all the well-meaning people-not only was the family a little incomplete-the greatest void here was the absence of  a son.At times the persistent prying by the ladies would make me get cranky and teary eyed by the time we got home. My mother however, would dismiss all the suggestions of “you-must-have-another-child-but-a-s0n-is-a-must” with a pointed “she is all we need”

As I grew older and was fortunate enough to do well academically and in a competitive exam that enabled me to get into the government, the well-meaning advice to my parents grew into an understanding” oh-it’s-wonderful-your-daughter-has-done-so-well-now-she-is-just-like-the-son-you-never-had”remark. I have often wondered why most people I meet tend to use a son as a benchmark for anything that a child should be.

They love their daughter just like a son.

Their daughter is awesome, they’ve never needed a son.

There is something fundamentally odious about this comparison. Have you ever heard it said for a boy who is an only child- his parents treated him like the daughter they never had?! Laughable isn’t it?

My parents thankfully chose to bring me up without putting me into the pigeon-hole that often comes pre-built for daughters in this country.There were no pink sheets and pink frocks when I was born. Nor was I clothed in blue to be a stand-in for a son who was not there. Instead there were mauve and orange sheets and frills and lace and a kaleidoscope of colours.  In fact my mother chose to dress me in every single colour in the palette. Sunshine yellows, soothing lavender, fuscia pinks, baby blues,creams, whites- my wardrobe was a testimony to all hues and vibrant shades that would make the Asian Paints shade card wince with a feeling of inadequacy. My toy shelf was the same. Cabbage patch dolls and bunny rabbits fought for space with dinky cars and battery operated airplanes. Once when my father arrived home with a set of toy cars for me he was severely admonished by my mother for spoiling me and replied that a friend had been buying toy cars for his son’s birthday so dad had decided to do the same-although my birthday was a few months away. I played with dolls and kitchen sets just as much as I did with lego sets ,board games and doctor sets. Knees were meant to be scraped and holidays were about running races with friends in the morning , cycling in the evening and putting the dolls to bed at night. There were no clear lines between what was meant for the “boys” and what was territorially mine. Friends included boys who also liked playing with my dolls and then  start a spirited game of cricket which ended with everybody aiming the ball at each others shins.

There were no references to what”good girls” do and what normal behaviour for a girl was. What was important was being well-behaved and a good human being. At a social event when her sons cheekily swore and yelled back at their mother as she admonished them for something; the exasperated mother despaired the fact that her son were a little “boisterous”. I  recall her congratulating my mother for having a well-behaved daughter . The praise was peppered with a disclaimer, “girls are not as wild as boys- you are lucky-boys just refuse to listen to parents”. It smacked of an unpalatable explanation for the boys completely obnoxious behaviour. My mother who listened politely and followed it up with “it has nothing to do with her being a girl,I would expect any child of mine to do the same”

Thankfully my parents did not treat me like the son they never had. I am and always have been the daughter they doted on, pampered and were proud of.

I am often asked if I have to work harder to prove myself in a career which is largely male-dominated. My reply is always,”harder than what”. The underlying premise behind this seemingly innocuous statement is the rather loaded stereotype that being a girl places on me, of not being competent enough to get a job done well. Is it possible to be a good officer despite being a girl? Does one need to be more masculine to be taken seriously in organisations that are dominated by men? Do emotions like sensitivity or empathy get taken as a given when the manager/leader is a woman? I don’t think I have all the answers but I have realised in my workplace that there is no point being defensive about my gender. I work for the government. I worked long hours in difficult circumstances and not because I am trying to act or be like a man, but because the professional exigencies of my career call upon me to do so.

During my tenure as District Collector I recall an event when  a group of angry men and women had marched into the water supply office and thrown a pile of bangles at a rather bemused official claiming that he was incapable of resolving their water supply problem. This is actually a common affliction in India. “Chudiyan pehan lo“( go wear bangles) a euphemism for incompetence . After showering the glass bangles on the official, the group came to me as District Collector and requested me to ensure regular water supply in their area. As I wrote out the order for them, the bangles on my own wrist jingled and I pointed out to them the irony of the situation, I was sorting out the water supply problem for them, despite wearing bangles myself!

(Needless to say in the district there were no further attempts at berating officers by throwing bangles at them)

There is much talk of girls equalling the boys, out doing them perhaps, of stereotypes in the media and in our lives , of the tough times girls face in their workplace and out of it. I too am one to post and retweet any and everything on gender equality. In the midst of all that noise I sometimes pause to think and say a mental thank you to my parents for allowing me to be their daughter and not a stand-in or replacement for someone who was never there.

 

 

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Nightly Tales

The black tar top road matches the blackness of the night as the car hurtles down the desolate highway. Dark silhouettes of scrub trees stand silent in the vast expanse of Rajasthan’s landscape. A half-moon casts a pale silvery glow into the car through the window, cleanly divided in the middle, the man in the moon visible partly in the silver light and partly in the dark semi-circle. A faint star flickers in the silver halo of the moon the lone star out tonight.
In the pitch blackness an ocassional light flickers in the horizon , a tiny home in the distance perhaps, flickering like a lone fire fly. Thorny bushes give way to tiny hamlets. School buildings stand dark and quiet waiting for the noise and pattering feet to return in thr morning. A speed breaker and a white metal board it’s paint peeling off point out the exisistence of the school. A tiny lamp gleams behind a metal grill gate guarding the idol in the temple for the night. The pujari and presumably the God in the temple have retited for the night. In a house lit up by a clear white bulb brass utensils gleam telling a tale of an evening meal taken. The hamlet gives way toa limtless expanse of scrub divided in the middle by the road .
Red reflectors on the back of trucks cut through the black night, the only spot of colour  in the blackness. The white  line marking on the road race towards the car almost being swallowed by it as the driver accelerates ahead of the gigantic trucks. We whizz past a bus, most passengers are aleep their heads resting againt the glass panes rolling ocassionally. Save one little girl.She has her nose pasted against the glass pane ,her mouth flattened against the window staring into the night. Another one fascinated by the world the shadows and night creates.

Reading Lately

Participative Governance in District Administration (Memoirs of Collector Raigarh)

Author : Dr Nipun Vinayak

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  • Pages:164
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9352072766
  • ISBN-13: 978-9352072767

In an era where cynicism for the system in general and  Indian Administrative  Service (IAS) officers in particular is a pandemic across the country, Dr Nipun Vinayaks’s memoirs of his tenure as District Collector in Raigarh, Maharashtra comes as a breath of fresh air. IAS officers have a penchant for writing their memoirs post retirement, this one  Participative Governance in District Administration has been penned by a serving officer and is a refreshing change as it does not delve into self glorification and instead objectively summarises the issues prevailing in the district. In their foreword the champions of Right to Information Act in India, Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey describe the author as one of the “exceptional and rare committed officers”and set the tone for what is an extremely perceptive, sensitive and reasoned account of some extremely complex issues before any young administrative officer in the district today.

The author in his role as a district administrator displays a keen power of understanding the issues of the people across sectors and schemes as well as an insight into the workings of administration. His uncanny ability to go into the details, separate the grain from the chaff, understand the mind-set of not just the local people but also of key civil society organisations as well as senior bureaucrats, display exceptional “faith in the wisdom” of the local people make this book a must read for all interested in the working of district administration and present and future district administrators. Nipun Vinayak belongs to that rare breed of officers who have un-learnt several “principles” of bureaucratic administration and projected themselves not as “providers” but as ” facilitators” in the system. He is not wrong when he describes himself as a “social physician and the running motif through the book is that of an administrator willing to reach out to all rungs of society in order to maximise “good” for the people.

As the title suggests the book delves into the subject of Participative Governance across sectors and programmes in not just a theoretical manner, but by illustrating the implementation of the principles of participatory democracy at the  grass root level . Participative Governance is the central thread which runs through the entire book as  the author’s narrative takes words like transparency, accountability and participatory democracy out of the shrouds of conceptual papers  to the citizenry.

The book deals with the extremely challenging and controversial subject of land acquisition under the erstwhile Land Acquisition Act 1984. It also enumerates the experience of the District Collector in implementing programmes and schemes.Right from its inception at the time of  Warren Hastings the post of the District Collector has been the keystone in public administration. Although the bureaucratic and administrative systems have undergone considerable transformation and transition the post of Collector has retained its relevance and significance. As this book illustrates in all its chapters, when a District Collector has courage of conviction, clarity of thought, faith in the principles enshrined in the constitution and democratic processes momentous changes can be made within the existing system as well.

Land is the over riding theme in the book, a greater part of the part of the book deals with the process of land acquisition and resolution of disputes related to land. Land revenue is the pivotal responsibility of district administration  or “revenue administration across the country. Land acquisition has in the last few years become an extremely complex and challenging area for all levels of governance.

In the first part of the book Vinayak illustrates the story what can be called India’s first referendum on land acquisition for the Maha Special Economic Zone (SEZ) for a private company. Much has been written and said about the issues surrounding the land acquisition in Singur (West Bengal), POSCO (Odisha) and Niyamgiri hills (Odisha). The narrative is  a first-hand account of the entire process of reaching out to the affected people of Raigarh and soliciting their opinion on the land acquisition process. Stating  that this referendum will have a far reaching impact on policy makers and legislators who chart out the course of land acquisition in India would be stating the obvious. But for the 71000 people in 45 villages whose land was to be acquired this referendum obviously had life changing impact.Such was the result of the process that eventually the entire process had to be shelved. The book elucidates the details of the process and analyses the methodology adopted as well as the role of the various players in the process. The underlying theme in these chapters are the tremendous possibilities before a sensitive administrator willing to think out-of-the-box and yet stay within the confines of the legal system in order to implement an “unpopular law” while strictly adhering to the principles of natural justice.

In the remaining part of the book the author delves into issues pertaining to land disputes, implementation of the MGNREGA , tribal welfare, relevance of agriculture and importance of simplifying the implementation system through use of e-Governance.

At a  time when legal disputes are growing exponentially and the legal system bursting at its seams with un-decided legal cases the methodology expounded by Vinayak in the chapter on the Tanta Mukti Abhiyan or an alternative dispute resolution system by co-opting local wisdom and synthesising it with  modern day law is exemplary. By demystifying the land revenue laws and involving the entire revenue machinery in the process, this abhiyan exemplifies how the participatory processes can be applied to regulatory framework of administration as well. Through a strategically planned and closely monitored mechanism the author in his role as District Collector was able to demonstrate a system that can have far reaching impact on putting in place a “sustainable people led justice system” as well as working to prevent legislation by freeing the people from the clutches of the grass root revenue machinery by empowering them through a process of educative workshops.

In the chapter on Working with Katkaris ( a tribal group in Maharashtra) the author illustrates how the two acts MGNREGA and the Forest Rights Act can be subverted by an indifferent administrative system as well as implemented effectively by a system which appreciates the spirit behind these acts. As Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey point out in their foreword, much has been written by economists and civil rights activists on these two acts but very little by those tasked with the actual implementation of these acts. Vinayak’s analysis is therefore an insight into the real issues that crop up before young administrators today. One of the most commonly used reasons for poor implementation of the MGNREGA is the absence of “demand for work”.Through careful planning and working in close co-ordination with civil society organisations, the author was able to get past these administratively created hurdles and use MGNREGA as a means of empowering brick klin workers and the katkaris. What is demonstrated in this chapter is the necessity of changing the “mindset” of administrators before actually undertaking the process of involving people. As collector the author was able to take up the rights of forest dwellers by convincing the lower administrative officials that this was a “God given opportunity to do service”.

Agro-tourism is enunciated in the penultimate chapter.This is probably one of the most striking examples of an administrator marrying his knowledge of newly emerging sectors like tourism with the age old practices of agriculture. Despite the urbanisation and industrialisation, agriculture remains the key to India’s economic development. Vinayak displays a keen insight into the problems of this sector and makes an innovative attempt to find a solution to these problems. By recognising and attempting to learn from local innovators the author highlights the necessity of breaking out of the mindset of finding solutions from the top.

E-Governance is a rapidly expanding sector in India and it is believed that by doing away with human interface at the cutting edges of the administrative system, a lot of corruption and inefficiency can be weeded out. However there is an inherent systemic resistance to e-Governance. In the chapter on e-Governance ,the author goes to the root of the malaise and identifies the reasons for employee apathy. Many a project has failed to deliver effectively because no efforts were made to communicate with, involve and motivate the staff. Vinayak understands that government employees will remain the “face” of the government and no amount of involvement of “consultants” and /or “private” players can replace their relevance and role.
Through the book Vinayak displays extreme humaneness and sensitivity to the needs of the people. He comes across as a pro-active administrator willing to learn at all times from those working at the grass roots as well as in civil society . One of the refreshing aspects of this book is the authors genuine appreciation of government employees and his attempts to involve them in ensuring delivery of services and proper implementation of schemes by creating a “sense of ownership” in them. His sincerity of purpose is apparent in the manner in which the programmes were executed.The book is an optimistic account of a passionate officer who by his own admission used the 3 P approach of participation, partnership and passion in his job as District Collector. It makes for easy reading yet compels the reader to think about the complexities of governance. The leitmotif of the book can be defined by the author himself when he states “passion needs no explanation”. This is indeed a passionate account by an officer driven by passion for his work with the people. A must read for anyone in administration.

 

 

The Long and Short of It

(At the outset let me confess that I am not just a dog lover. I am fanatically in love with my dogs.To the extent that I treat them as people. Sometimes better than I treat people.Or family. As a disclaimer,may I add that I am a nice,humane,gentle person to be with…just that the “nice-ness”,”humane-ness” and “genteel-ness” goes up a notch or two when it comes to the four-legged creatures. In my defence, being an only child who was raised in a house over-run with dogs has probably led to this peculiar phenomenon.)

All my plans to begin the weekend by sleeping in late today were laid to (un)rest by hysterical whining,scrabbling and scratching. “Twiddler,let it be” I muttered with my eyes closed trying to block out the sound knowing deep within that Twiddler never lets-things-be. With sleep heavy eyelids that refused to open more than a crack I tried peering into the pre-dawn darkness to catch a blurred glimpse of the black shadow at the bedroom door, persistently attacking it and pawing the edge while letting out tiny yelps and whines. A cold wet feeling swept over my toes sticking out of the covers. No I was not coming in for a paralytic stroke. I tried drawing  my feet back inward, with as much energy as a sleep deprived half awake person could, but the wet feeling followed. Tudloo , the younger dachshund was also awake and though not entirely involved with the other dachshund trying to crawl out from under the bedroom door, had also been woken up enough to proceed with his “good morning” act, sniffing and drooling over my toes.

As a long time owner of two dachshunds ( also known as the wiener dog), I have learnt that words like “no” and “stop” are not processed by the wiener brain. Don’t get me wrong, dachshunds are smart,intelligent,sassy, brave creatures. Twiddler for one has a hugely diverse vocabulary with a fair understanding of words like “walk”,”let’s go”,”khana” and most importantly unsaid words and sounds from a biscuit packet being opened. A mere whisper or rustle of these sounds are heard from a mile and he rushes to you with eyes wide open and expectant.

A lizard, a baby one at that was responsible for the early morning scrabbling.It isn’t  Twiddler’s fault really. Dachshund’s were bred and trained historically  in Germany to hunt and flush out badgers and rabbits from under ground with their long snout and short legs. Twiddler is a miniature dachshund, who may not hunt badgers and rabbits but the legacy he has inherited from his German ancestors means that no lizard is safe from his twitching nose. I hauled myself out of bed bleary eyed aware that either I needed to shoo away the lizard myself or risk Twiddler scratching the fragile government house door down. Obviously the lizard had long vanished and Twiddler continued to twiddle his long tail and paw the door hoping it would come back.  Tudloo the second dachshund had joined in. My morning had been effectively ruined.

I proceeded to step out into the garden , the super excited Dachshunds close at my heels. Once out I nearly put my foot into a hole right in the middle of the lawn. Tudloo’s attempt at destroying the lawn last evening apparently. “Tudlooooo” I yelled, startling a few early morning birds out of their perch on the trees. I didn’t need to. Oblivious to my obvious consternation,  Tudloo, had found his happiness dose for the day. Snout safely buried in the hole and paws digging up the loose earth his tail was wagging in gay abandon as mud flew in all directions. The weekend was well and truly under way I thought to myself as I sunk into one of the garden chairs trying to position myself away from the missiles of mud flying in all directions. Tudloo is a regular dachshund who loves to burrow as deep as he can. A few minutes later he came running and flopped at my feet panting, paws, nose, snout and ears caked with mud. The gardener had his task cut out for the day with filling the giant pit in the lawn.

Tudloo and the gardener have a unique love-hate relationship. Tudloo loves the gardener and all the work he does and the gardener hates Tudloo and all the work he does! Summers are not so bad . A few holes in the lawn every now and then.  It’s winters when all the baghwan bhayia’s detest for Tudloo peaks. Winter is about a packed kitchen garden.And radishes. And ecstasy for Tudloo. Tudloo loves radishes.And some unique dachshund instinct enables him to sniff out  in the radish bed, the largest ripest radish, scrabble it out, yank it by the leaves, and then bite into the white, ripe root till nothing is left but a pile of green leaves and a day (and night) of endless cursing by the baghwan bhayia not to mention a host of  groaning and rumbling sounds from Tudloo’s tummy .

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Tudloo post vandalising the radish bed

In my entire lifetime of growing up with dogs I have not known of dogs to hunt out and swallow pungent ,acrid radishes. But like human-beings I believe each dog is born with their own unique kinks and weaknesses and so it is with Tudloo.

In the meantime Twiddler is off on his own hunting expedition. I yell out his name in vain ,he is stone deaf when busy in the bushes. If you have a dachshund in your family, you will know that there is no human or animal more stubborn than a dachshund who has made up his mind to do  something( or more importantly avoid doing it). Twiddler came back a little later with a largely satisfied expression on his face. “BOTH of you are mean waking me up this early ” I grumbled as  Twiddler proceeded to launch into a stretching routine sticking his legs outward. His normally twiddling pointy tail was still pointing straight upward. A concerned innocent stare met my stern gaze as Twiddler rolled his eyeballs upwards showing the whites of his eyes.

Twiddler has a repertoire of facial expressions to match the tone and tenor of my voice. Stern admonishing is met with the rolling of eyes and a “I-didn’t-do-it” look.  Biscuit packets and papaya slices  or any form of food really, usually get firm-unto-death stares where the  dark-brown eyeballs stare at you fixated hypnotically until a biscuit/papaya slice slides down from your fingers onto the waiting pink tongue. Then there is the all innocent look especially reserved for moments when you are trying to  get  the canine off a bed or a sofa. I have so many years later realised that this is a waste of time. Dachshunds will find the softest cushion or pillow in the room and stretch out on it and there is nothing you can do about it.

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Tudloo and Twiddler taking a nap

I wish my parents would realise that. Particularly my father. The battle of man and dachshie was won by the dachshie eons ago,and the cushion was the trophy reserved for the dachshie. My dad however believes otherwise. Pointlessly so I may add. Dachshunds know cushions belong to them and will go to any extent to brainwash humans into believing that as well.

A little later I snoozed off in the garden itself with the dogs at my feet and the refreshing morning breeze. Woke up about twenty minutes later when the dogs started to bark in unison at the newspaper delivery boy. Between the two of them the barking was enough to wake up the entire lane. Ordinarily Twiddler is quite welcoming of guests. In fact when friends come over he put his head on to their knees, begs to get petted and then proceeds to take everyone on a conducted tour of the house-room by room. Which does not bode well for the safety and security of the house- isn’t that why people keep dogs?! But thankfully there is Tumble my brave Pinscher who was brought home as a dachshund puppy but grew into a tall ,lanky strong pinscher in a very ugly- duckling-who-was-not-aware-he-was-a-swan-esque way but that is another story for another blog post.

 

Madness,Muslin,Musings in May

May just whooshed by without being noticed. Well, come to think of it five months of the year have gone by. It’s almost been a roller-coaster and a scorching ,sweltering one at that. As the month draws to a close, I came back home to an empty house (if you don’t count the dogs that is!) with the parental unit having left for the home-town. So May was partly a rushed ride because having one of the parents come over makes it more eventful. Watching them leave is a wee bit depressing and although I cannot be all forlorn like the dogs , sitting near the front door waiting for the father to pop back in ,it is still all quiet in the house now and the dogs are depressed and lost.

The mercury  seemed to want to out-do itself in a hugely competitive drive of wiping out hundred year highs and setting new benchmarks which made the headlines and the heads ache. Mornings became the only time when the outdoors were pleasant thanks to the cool winds from the desert as it cooled off in the night but as the sun rose the sweltering day would begin.  Probably the only relief from the  oppressive heat during the days was the one night it rained in Jaipur. Raindrops ran down the glass panes of the guest house, streaks of lightning split the dark skies into two and the all too familiar smell of wet earth in the rain engulfed us as I sat with my nose glued on to the window of the guest house room wanting to absorb as much as I could of  the sight and smell of rain that one lone rainy night.

Isn’t life a pot-pourri of contrasts, highs and lows,  searing ,stifling days and nights with a blast of cool air?  Sunsets and the skies exploding into shades of muggy yellow amidst the shriek of honking cars and rush of people to get home from work and the watching the serenity of the sunrise sipping my morning cup of tea with in the silence of the morning broken by the wind whispering through the chimes in the verandah.

May has been about soaking the plants early in the morning hoping that they survive the onslaught of the scorching winds during the day. Bare feet trying to soak up the drops from the freshly watered grass as it lifts its head preparing to be singed by the day’s unforgiving sun. Muslin fabric on the skin and open sandals. A fresh batch of mangoes in the kitchen waiting to be popped into the fridge and their sweet smell permeating the house , one of summer’s most distinctive smells almost over-powering the pungent smell of last night’s tortoise coil burnt to drive away the swarm of buzzing mosquitoes and still hanging in air like a veil that is waiting for the breeze to lift it.

 

It’s been about fretting about the potted plants wilting under the hot,dry winds and lusting after the bunches of golden yellow laburnums dotting the road side and photographing the blazing gulmohar against a blazing blue sky. Waking up early just to feel the breeze on my face and then sweating it out as the rest of the day progressed.

 

So the month raced by leaving us gasping for breath. Work and work related travel continued and in between the two a need to slow down and take in the moments that make up life. May has been a study in contrasts ,insecurity, disappointment, miserable lows ,inexplicable highs, over-the -top joys and heartfelt satisfaction, emotions that range from one end of the spectrum to the other. As Pema Chodron said,” Rejoicing in ordinary things is not sentimental or trite. It actually takes guts. Each time we drop our complaints and allow everyday good fortune to inspire us, we enter the warrior’s world “. As I look back at month gone by I hope I have tried to be inspired by the little moments of joy and make those moments count. Above all I am glad I have learnt to make the tiny bits , the “ordinary things” that make up the days and the weeks and the months go zipping by.