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I fought corruption, communalism and 17 transfers under 3 Haryana CMs: Ex-IAS officer

I could not compromise the principles of democratic governance. So I took voluntary retirement in 1985 with 15 years of service left, writes MG Devasahayam.

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On entry into service every civil servant takes this oath: “I do swear/solemnly affirm that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to India and to the Constitution of India by law established, that I will uphold the sovereignty and integrity of India and that I will carry out the duties of my office loyally, honestly and with impartiality.” The ongoing rampant cannibalisation and blatant violation of the Constitution and its core values/norms, though instigated by political power-wielders, cannot be carried out except with orders from civil servants belonging to IAS/IPS/IRS. In the event, adherence to the oath taken by these civil servants has become a matter of public debate.

Standing by one’s oath is a matter of honour. In this context the diatribe between Hotspur and Falstaff on ‘Honour’ in one of Shakespeare’s best-known classics, Henry IV, is worth remembering. Whereas honour was lifeblood for Hotspur, for Falstaff honour doesn’t “live with the living” and was worthless. Where do the modern-day civil servants stand – with Hotspur or Falstaff? As one who took this oath over half a century ago and to the best of my conscience have stood by it, I thought I would share my experience for whatever it is worth.

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Decentralised development

When I joined the Haryana cadre of the IAS in 1968 after a five-year stint in the Indian Army, Chaudhary Bansi Lal was the Chief Minister. His advice to the freshers was simple: “Please work towards the development of this backward state with sincerity and honesty and I wish you all the best.” Little did I realise that I would soon be doing this in his own home ground as the first District Collector of Bhiwani, which was formed on 22 December 1972.

On assuming charge, I first structured a functional district framework and then got to the task of putting together a sui generis model of rural development. For this I had to understand the district and its people quickly. This was done together with CM Bansi Lal during the innovative ‘Meet-the-People’ mission. Within a year, we visited all the 471 villages in the district.

Starting early in the morning every day, on an average 20 to 25 villages were covered adopting the leap-frogging method. In every village, the PRO would be ready with the list of demands raised by the villagers. The CM would go through it and hand it over to me. The interaction would last about five minutes and we would move on. By the time we reached the next village, we would have discussed and decided on most of the issues, particularly irrigation/drinking water schemes in the arid areas. On returning to Bhiwani, these were compiled and sent to the concerned departments at various levels for compliance and report. Progress was reviewed regularly.

As the ‘Meet-the-People’ mission was going ahead, I worked on the district’s development model in collaboration with the Haryana Agriculture University. Result was the Master Plan for ‘Integrated Development of Bhiwani District in Agriculture, Irrigation, Afforestation and Dairy Farming’. Bansi Lal was highly appreciative of the decentralised development model. Soon, the initiative was launched with a grand ‘rural-mela’ and various steps were initiated to implement the schemes, which was a success.

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Defending democracy

From Bhiwani I moved to Chandigarh as DC-cum-Estate Officer. I was the District Magistrate there when the Emergency was declared on the night of 25/26 June 1975, which suspended the Constitution and extinguished democracy. Upholding the cause of media freedom, we in the Chandigarh administration defied the direction issued by the Centre through Punjab chief minister to raid and seal The Tribune office and arrest its editor.

On 1 July 1975, Jayaprakash Narayan, the leader of the massive JP movement and the ‘Enemy No 1’ of the State, was shifted to Chandigarh from Delhi. As District Magistrate I was his custodian. During this period, I developed a humane and warm relationship with the architect of ‘India’s second freedom’, which sustained after the Emergency and lasted till he passed away in October 1979.

In the process I disobeyed central government’s rules that would have inflicted the torture of ‘solitary confinement’ on the old man. I also saved his life on two occasions. First, in August 1975, when JP decided to go on fast unto death if the Emergency was not lifted; and second, when I initiated a ‘pincer movement’ to pressurise the MHA and the PMO to get JP released and sent post-haste to Bombay’s Jaslok Hospital just in time. JP lived for four more years, defeated Emergency in the polls held in March 1977 and returned India back to democracy. The rest is history.

JP himself recorded my role in his letter (03-11-1977) in Hindi to then-Union home minister and Haryana chief minister: “When I was a prisoner in Chandigarh Sri Devasahayam, while strictly adhering to his official duties and responsibilities, dealt with me in an extremely humane manner. For his many acts of kindness towards me I shall ever be grateful. Even leaving aside this personal affection, I was deeply impressed by his exemplary qualities of administration and governance. He is a deeply patriotic, strong-willed and dedicated officer.”

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Basic governance

While dealing with Emergency and JP, I also took upon the governance task of urban development and transforming the ‘City Beautiful’ from an exclusive habitat for the well-heeled into a more inclusive and equitable one. This brought me into confrontation with certain vested interests. I also took harsh steps to deal with corruption, encroachment, illegal construction, adulteration, hoarding and black marketing. This had annoyed those who indulged in these illegalities. My bringing Mother Teresa to Chandigarh and setting up her ‘Home’ for the disabled, abandoned children and dying destitute had angered the communal fringes. These elements came together to form a corrupt and communal coterie, and were keenly awaiting an opportunity to take revenge on me.

The opportunity came their way when Janata Party captured power in Haryana in June 1977. The coterie managed to manipulate the new set of politicians and key bureaucrats and succeeded in turning them against me. For this purpose, they mobilised the might of Haryana and Punjab politicians. Haryana forces were led by Deputy CM Mangal Sein and Punjab by Devi Lal’s long-time political advisor, M.S. Pannu.

When Chaudhary Devi Lal became CM in 1977, an inquiry commission was constituted to probe into the death of an old Rajput woman in Rewasa village (Bhiwani district) in early 1974 due to alleged police excess instigated by Surender Singh, politician-son of CM Bansi Lal, who was a Jat. At the time of this incident, I was the DC of Bhiwani and my intense enquiries had revealed the allegations to be untrue. The main complainant was Chandravati, the Bhiwani MP. In her complaint she had listed me as a witness, meaning there was no complaint against me. But the matter was twisted and I was ‘coerced’ to depose against Bansi Lal, so that he could be implicated in the heinous offence of ‘murder’. I refused to commit perjury. So, the coterie prevailed upon the retired judge holding the inquiry and spent huge resources to smuggle some untenable words written about me to the effect that ‘I was supine’ during the Rewasa episode since I did not take drastic action against the police personnel of Bhiwani district.

In its effort to hound me, the coterie was facilitated by the media. The Tribune, edited by Prem Bhatia, blew it out of proportion with an editorial calling Bansi Lal, Surendra Singh and myself as “Butchers of Rewasa.”

In a pre-planned manner, Mangal Sein went for my jugular at the Haryana Cabinet meeting on 1 November 1977 (Haryana Day) presided over by CM Devi Lal, when the inquiry commission’s report came up for consideration. He demanded my immediate arrest. Protest by some ministers was overruled. When the matter was referred to legal scrutiny, Mangal Sein wanted me to be placed under suspension. Chief secretary S.D. Bhambri said that since I was still with Chandigarh UT, the Haryana government had no powers to suspend me. So, the Cabinet passed a resolution urging the Centre to place me under suspension and the same was sent to Delhi post-haste. This did not materialise due to the timely intervention of Jayaprakash Narayan.

CM Devi Lal was not convinced about this tirade against me but was going along due to political pressures. The coterie, however, managed to recall me from Chandigarh administration and got me posted to a junior position in Haryana Secretariat. Later, Devi Lal posted me as MD, Haryana State Industrial Development Corporation. Unfortunately, Mangal Sein was the industries minister and he saw to it that I was removed from that position within weeks. And I landed up as Chief Administrator, Haryana Urban Development Authority (HUDA).

When Chaudhary Bhajan Lal became chief minister, I was with HUDA. In 1980 Indira Gandhi became prime minister again and Bhajan Lal defected with the entire Janata Party and waited on Indira for his survival. Gandhi’s important condition was that K.P. Singh of DLF should be permitted to develop an urban estate at Gurgaon. By that time, DLF, which was doing real-estate business in Delhi, had bought about 3,000 acres of agricultural land at Gurgaon, at cheap price, and wanted to build a high-rise-high-intensity ‘world-class’ city. Since Gurgaon did not have the ‘carrying-capacity’ for this, I refused licence to DLF. But CM Bhajan Lal had to obey Indira Gandhi’s directive.

So, sometime in the mid-1980s, I was transferred and made State Transport Controller (STC). My protests did not work. Soon, in 1981, the first licence was given to DLF for 10 acres and the ‘DLF City’ came up. Other realtors joined in and there was no stopping Gurgaon from morphing into a ‘monster city’, in the process destroying every vestige of town planning, urbanism, environment and sustainability. Gurgaon is a living example of how not to urbanise India.

But my transfer from STC to Excise & Taxation Commissioner (ETC) overnight and back as STC was bizarre. In December 1981, a hooch (illicit liquor) tragedy in Haryana saw the death of more than 40 people. This was the second such tragedy in two weeks and Prime Minister Gandhi had pulled up CM Bhajan Lal and he desperately ordered me to take over as ETC to salvage the situation and save his chair.

There was jubilation in the camp of transport minister Jagannath claiming that at long last they have succeeded in shunting me out. So, I declined to move out of STC. A panicked Bhajan Lal asked me the reason and I told him. Within hours, Jagannath was removed from the transport department. I got the message and the very next day took over as ETC. This crucial department contributing over 75 per cent of state revenue was suffering from triple whammy – corruption, severe loss of revenue and demoralised officials. I had to work overtime to rectify these and put the department, its officials and revenue generation back on track. Over months, this was achieved through stringent administrative measures and motivation to curb corruption and enhance efficiency.

Then I proceeded on the long-pending annual leave to my home town. In the assembly election held in May 1982, Bhajan Lal’s Indian National Congress got only 36 out of 90 seats. To return to the chair, the CM had to bring some MLAs to his fold. So, the trademark game of Haryana – Aya Ram Gaya Ram – played out in full measure. One such ‘Ram’, a trader from Jind, was first-time MLA. He had a group of MLAs with him and so bargained hard and became Excise & Taxation Minister.

When I returned from leave, I found that this minister was indulging in open loot and corruption by commandeering the “heavy files” from Excise & Taxation Officers (ETOs) and “settling them” on payment of hefty bribes. I put an end to it but one ETO from Faridabad defied. So, I transferred him to a far-off place in Sirsa district. He approached the minister and got the transfer order cancelled. I placed him under suspension. He got it stayed by the government and started celebrating.

So, after obtaining legal opinion I issued a speaking order withdrawing the powers from this ETO. It was immediately served on him and he became an object of derision. The minister could do nothing unless the Act itself was amended. So, the concerned ETO rushed to me and apologised profusely. Having achieved the purpose of upholding basic governance principles, I restored his powers, sent him to the place where he was transferred earlier and the matter came to a close.

Having lost face, the minister made my transfer a prestige issue and started conspiring to overthrow Bhajan Lal by mobilising MLAs against him. That was how I landed back as STC for a second term.

Putting it to an end

During the chief ministership of these three Lals, I went through 17 transfers/postings in as many years, most of them during Bhajan Lal’s tenure.

I could not take it any longer – being used and discarded and the senior bureaucracy remaining impotent. I could never compromise my honour and the principles of democratic governance. So, I took voluntary retirement in 1985 with more than 15 years of service still left.

M.G. Devasahayam is a retired IAS officer and chairman of People-First. He also served in the Indian Army. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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