Bureaucrat-sacrifice to placate Brahmapuram spirits

Dr G Shreekumar Menon

Brahmapuram waste treatment plant | Photo: Mathrubhumi

Civil servants, especially IAS, IPS and those from Central Services, often undergo the ordeal of sudden transfers, compelled by political interference, media reports, and displeasure expressed by influential personalities. A public servant is always open to scrutiny and assessment by external and internal agencies. Many a time, it can be motivated out of prejudice, rivalry, enmity and communication gap. But a sudden transfer saps the confidence, morale and zeal of any officer.

When Dr Renu Raj assumed the office of District Collector of Ernakulam District in July 2022, little would she have thought, that a smouldering heap of garbage, in a place called Brahmapuram, would eject her out of the seat, effortlessly, in just a span of seven months! The Brahmapuram Waste Plant, sitting on an expansive 110 acres of pristine, scenic land, became a waste dump in 2007. Modern lifestyle has ensured that the place becomes a toxic ground for every kind of conceivable waste. On March 2nd 2023, the piled-up waste of over two decades decided to imitate a volcano, on its own accord. For five days, it burned and burned, polluting the city of Kochi. Ultimately when the fire subsided, a transfer order was served on the District Collector! This is how things work in India. Everybody escaped responsibility, a plethora of government agencies, several elected Councillors of Municipalities, MLA, and MP, as also the people dumping waste recklessly. Only the District Collector had to shoulder the responsibility for decades of neglect and apathy. Everybody wanted a scapegoat, and the only entity that could offer zero resistance was the District Collector, hence she got axed, as though this human sacrifice of a lesser kind would placate the spirits of Brahmapuram and eradicate pollution!

Although many transfer policies are in place in almost every service, in actual practice politicians and senior officers violate the policy with brazen impunity. Many outraged officers have knocked on the doors of the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) and High Courts for justice, but departments rebuff by citing “Administrative reasons” and “Public interest”, which Courts are reluctant to probe. In practice, there is very little that an officer can do to obstruct or nullify an arbitrary transfer. This makes most of the officers to be subservient and docile at all times before superiors and politicians.

Of all the departments, it is the Police department that faces the heat of arbitrary transfers. Constant political interference makes the life of most Police officers miserable. This writer, when on Election Duty as an Observer in a State in North India, was informed by the District Superintendent of Police that the average tenure in that District was just about nine months! He was told as a matter of fact that he just had one suitcase of personal belongings so that he could quickly pack up upon receipt of a transfer order!

One major relief for IAS/IPS/IFS officers is that they can be flung only within the State and after a certain level, it is just musical chairs happening in the State Capital, whereas, for Central Services, they are kicked around like a football across India, throughout their careers.

Bureaucratic apathy and procrastination are often defensive mechanisms to ward off arbitrary transfers. Those who perform their duties diligently are the ones who run the maximum risk of facing arbitrary transfers. Subordinates are uncomfortable working with diligent officers, superiors are wary that mistakes will occur, and colleagues are contemptuous. Everybody is happy if work progresses at a snail’s pace, as it is risk-free, and no decision needs to be taken. This writer recalls an incident where in a meeting of senior officers, a particular officer got openly rebuked for doing quick work. The presiding officer had arrogantly shouted, “You are a fool, and therefore will put me also in the problem”! That brings to mind the words of Brooks Atkinson “The perfect bureaucrat everywhere is the man who manages to make no decisions and escape all responsibility.”

The general fear is that doing work will invite trouble, queries, and suspicion. If no work is performed, nobody can find fault, they can only bemoan the delay, for which bureaucrats have the stock reply of shortage of manpower.

The Brahmapuram incident is not the failure of any single officer or institution. The real problem is that multiple agencies are doing overlapping functions, a paucity of funds, convoluted and time-consuming procedures that need to be mandatorily followed, and the all-pervasive problem of political interference at every stage. Merely transferring an individual is not going to resolve the issue, the problem is in the bureaucratic processes and procedures, which have evolved over a period of time and are replete with checks and balances of all kinds, all for the safety of bureaucrats! “What you have to understand is that bureaucracy is an organism, and the prime goal of every organism is self-protection. Bureaucracy exists to protect itself”, said Emily St. John Mandel in Sea of Tranquility.

Many Kochi residents are also expressing concerns about a sabotage angle. Only a Police investigation can bring out the truth. Nothing can be ruled out in this State.

What the authorities need to do is to send a team of experts to Indore, which is the cleanest city in India, to learn the techniques and processes used there. Already, many officials and local politicians are eyeing a visit to the USA at public expense, to learn about garbage disposal there, which needs to be shot down.

The Government needs to put in place strict anti-pollution measures to curtail unnecessary packaging of products. For example, if a shirt is purchased in any shop, it comes with many kinds of plastic clips, metal needles, paper and cardboard cut-outs, transparent plastic packing and finally a cardboard box. All these kinds of accessories and packaging for a single shirt! Finally, only the shirt is utilised, all the rest are discarded and contributes to the unending pile of the garbage accumulating at places like Brahmapuram. Even in the USA, branded shirts are just sold as a shirt, with no wrappings or packaging whatsoever. This is what needs to be implemented in India. Ban all kinds of unnecessary packaging.

Crippling fines need to be imposed on those throwing garbage all around. The Courts should also consider sentencing offenders ranging from traffic violators to white collar criminals to do garbage cleaning by their own hands, as a measure of social service, for periods ranging from three days and up to a week, at the individual’s own expense. Such a measure will prove a great deterrent for all violations, including drug offences, and there will be a dramatic decline in offences and throwing of garbage. The length and breadth of the Indian railway network is a veritable necklace of garbage, and nothing is being done either to discipline the travellers or clear the garbage.

Dr. Renu Raj and many other young bureaucrats need to learn important lessons from this incident. Nobody comes to the rescue, neither associations, nor seniors, nor colleagues, nor politicians. Bureaucratic battles always get lonely, you must be prepared to be alone and brave.

(Author is a former Director General, National Academy of Customs, Indirect Taxes & Narcotics)

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