Having just shifted to the US on a posting in January 2000, I took my first domestic flight to Detroit to meet a friend who taught at Ann Arbour nearby. A little nervous about locating him at Detroit airport, I was taken by complete surprise to see him waiting for me as I came out of the vestibule. Together we walked to collect my luggage. Used to Indian airports where such meetings take place outside, this was a complete surprise.
And this I used to good effect when I was seeing off an Indian friend flying back. Since he had flown in from London, I received him only after he had cleared immigration and customs. When I went to see him off, he said his bye-byes at the security after checking in, but I told him not to be in a hurry and that I would see him off at the gate of the airplane. He laughed, thinking it was a joke, but when I cleared security, he was shocked. Sadly, a year and a half later, all that was to change with 9/11.
Till the late 1990s, only very senior IAS officers had dedicated vehicles; middle-level officers had pool vehicles. Directors like me in GoI used our second-hand Fiats.
When people are nostalgic about the ‘good, old days,’ it is often because memories are blurred as our brains have filtered out the unpleasant experiences. Growing up in the 1960s, there was a sense of shame in being an Indian. India was dependent on wheat shipments from the US, and we essentially lived ship-to-mouth. American kids were told not to waste food because kids in India were going to bed hungry. The Chinese comprehensively defeated us in 1962 and though the 1965 war with Pakistan somewhat restored our self-confidence, it was followed by a series of unfortunate developments — Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri’s sudden death at Tashkent, the massive drought of 1966 and the savage devaluation of the rupee under IMF pressure. But in many ways, especially life styles of the upper middle class like senior government officers, public security arrangements and access to VIPs, it was an age of innocence, the likes of which will not come back.
When IAS took the bus!
As the Chief Secretary in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands recently, I received what I thought was an unusual request from one of the districts. They proposed buying a car for the IAS probationer who had joined the district for training. I almost fell off my chair. My own days in Tiruchi (1980–81) made me an expert on local bus routes, from Kajamalai Colony to the bus stand and then the shortcut to the Collectorate as well as Mofussil buses to travel to Karur, Musiri and Perambur, with an occasional trip to Thanjavur to meet a fellow probationer.
Coming back home by bus to the Kajamalai Housing Board Colony, hanging outside the crowded bus, my fellow ‘hanger,’ a college kid recognised me as an outsider. He asked me pointed questions, which I tried to avoid. When he pinned me down to where my office was — Collectorate — he asked incredulously, “Are you an IAS officer?” He almost fell off on hearing my reply.
In fact, till the late 1990s, only very senior officers at the State Secretariat had dedicated vehicles, with middle level officers having pool vehicles. Directors like me in Government of India used our second-hand Fiats. I called in the probationer, told him that he should try and manage with help of local Tehsildar and BDO when he was attached to them, remembering how long drives are conducive to conversations, gossip and lots of learning. He went off, probably convinced that I had gone senile, not appreciating his IIT/MBA education, and the financial sacrifice he made to join the Civil Services. And that he had certainly not got into the IAS to travel by bus or sit next to ‘lowly underlings’ in jeeps!
The Islands taught me that the sea can trap you in ways that non-islanders would never understand. You can’t hop onto a bus or a train when you want to get away.
The Andamans is now a major tourist destination, particularly for deep sea divers, young Israelis released after compulsory military service, and the LTC crowd. There are 8–10 daily flights, depending on the season, primarily to Chennai and Kolkata, as well as Bhubaneswar and Vishakhapatnam. Just over 30 years ago, the first direct flights were started from Calcutta and Madras (as they were then known); earlier the Indian Airlines flight from Calcutta was via Rangoon, necessitating a ‘technical’ passport. Direct flight meant newspapers twice a week from Calcutta and from Madras, on Sundays. We would eagerly wait for them, and read them datewise so that we knew what was happening in the country and beyond. The Andaman Administration, then and now, takes out India’s only government-run daily newspaper, The Daily Telegrams. Letters home took weeks and once you settled down, it did not seem to bother, unless there was an emergency.
Unique Island experience
Phones were limited to the Capital, Port Blair, with no concept of STD services to mainland India. Booking a long distance call was pointless as probably one in five matured. All Government communications, within the Islands and with GoI were through police wireless. It was our lifeline in more ways than one. I remember being in an island which was a few hours sailing from Port Blair, and scheduled to reach home only by evening. Impulsively I invited two touring officers to dinner that night as they were leaving the next morning. Having made the promise I was in a fix as I had no way to contact my wife till a local officer told me that the police wireless was used to send ‘unofficial’ messages also, which would not show up on the log. This was standard practise not limited to senior officials devised to help maintain sanity in these remote locations with no other means of communication.
The Islands taught me that the sea can trap you in ways that non-islanders would never understand. You can’t hop onto a bus or a train when you want to get away. Ship services were, and still are, comparatively speaking, inadequate with a week’s wait in many islands not uncommon. The Pacific Islands have high levels of alcoholism, substance abuse and suicides. The Andaman Islands, despite extremely high per capita income and good quality of life, has India’s second highest suicide rate, after Pondicherry, though this needs deeper investigation.
The Andaman Islands are densely wooded, and in those days many villagers located near creeks or in deep forest could only be approached by country boats and by trekking. Today, the Andaman Trunk Road links the major Andaman Islands, and the government-run helicopter services go from the north (Diglipur) to the extreme South (Campbell Bay), a distance of around 700 km. The big advantage is that senior officers can tour so much more, with good guest houses, electricity round the clock and phone coverage. This has helped develop very high quality infrastructure in the islands. The bad news is that easy conveyance means American politician style ‘whistle stops’ have become common.
In 1974, I delivered mangoes to Indira Gandhi, then PM of India, at the verandah near her living room. At no stage was I, the car or the mangoes checked.
I remember going to this lovely village of Bengali settlers in North Andamans, after a two hours ride from the nearest town in a country boat through beautiful creeks followed by a three-hour trek. Just before we reached the village, we heard this terrific racket, which we located to an active woodpecker high on a tree. We spent the evening with the villagers at the local school, lit a campfire and spent the night in the two classrooms. Of course there was no electricity but it did have an Indian-style toilet, and a well nearby for water.
Such interactions are now missing. Unfortunately, in those days governments were cash-strapped, so our ability to work with the community and meet its needs was limited. Now, the money is there, government officers are tech-savvy and we all talk about ‘stakeholder participation,’ but has the two-way interactive dialogue become better is the moot question.
I will end my tale with an incident that sounds like fiction. The year must be 1974 when I was in second year in college. A senior MP from Bihar, known to my family, had sheltered me for the months I had spent in Delhi getting first my college admission and then waiting for hostel accommodation. One day he asked me to deliver to various VVIPS a huge crop of mangoes from his orchard, which had been packed into baskets. I engaged a black and yellow taxi, and went from house to house delivering these mangoes. One of the locations was 1, Safdarjung Road, whose resident was a certain Mrs Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister.
At the gate, I informed them that I was carrying mangoes, the taxi went in and I dropped the basket at the verandah next to the living room. If she was in her living room, I could not have been more than 10 ft from her but at no stage was I, the car or the mangoes checked. Her assassination in 1984 changed all that completely.
Whether in India, or across the world, surrounded as we are by thousands of closed circuit cameras, the sense of trust and safety is gone completely.
(The author, a retired IAS officer, is Director, South Asian Institute for Strategic Affairs.)
Pictures by Shakti Sinha