Call of the Mandar
A recollection of a former district Collector, of multifaceted challenges, faced and cultural wonders experienced when he was suddenly posted in the tribal heartland
I was fast asleep on the train, having travelled all night by road from Ambikapur, where I was posted as the Collector. I was on way to Bilaspur and then to Bhopal, to attend a collector's conference scheduled for February 25, 1997. The train reached Durg around 4.30 pm. An announcement on the PA system woke me up, "Sri Pravir Krishna who is travelling to Bhopal may please disembark at Durg. There is a message for him".
Half asleep still, I concentrated harder to figure out what was going on. As I was tidying up for disembarking, there was a smiling Ajit Kesari, Additional Collector, Durg in front of me. "Chaliye Sir, aapko Bastar jana hai, aapko kal wahan join karna hai, CS aapse baat karna chah rahe hain", he continued in the same breath.
There had been a lookout notice for me since the last night, by the CS Office. Driving as I was during that time between Ambikapur and Bilaspur to catch the Bhopal train, I missed being intercepted at every possible point. Living in the era before the advent of the mobile phone, I remained oblivious to the frantic paging announcements on my car radio. Intercepted thus at Durg, I embarked on the unexpected trip to Bastar to start my innings as Collector of the undivided Bastar district of MP.
The imminent challenge would be to ameliorate the 'Malik- Makbooja' storm centred around the illegal felling and unauthorised sale of a huge number of trees belonging to tribals.
The train of my thoughts on Bastar had to halt when we reached Durg Collectorate. Here, I rang up the Chief Secretary at Bhopal and he briefed me that that I needed to assume charge at Bastar the first thing in the morning the next day.
My brief was very simple: I was tasked to prepare a reply for the Supreme Court where a PIL was on fire; proceed to punish the guilty; douse the raging fire and put the development story back on track!
To work in Bastar was a dream come true for any young IAS officer then, and to be posted as Collector to work for the tribals in perhaps the largest district of the country spread over a landmass larger than Kerala state was surreal.
Fantastic, I thought, as I spoke to my wife, informing her of the development and she did not know whether to congratulate me or to worry.
After an early dinner, I was on my way to Jagdalpur, the Headquarters of the district of Bastar. I planned to reach Jagdalpur after midnight, have a little sleep and then be on my way to my new office the next day to beat the 10:30 deadline.
When I reached Charama, to my utter surprise, there was a small welcome party led by the SDO along with a tribal dance troupe. A little embarrassed at the exuberant and dramatic traditional welcome, I unsuccessfully tried to dissuade them, but soon found my self dancing hand in hand with the group.
With stops at Keshkaal, Kanker and Kondagaon meeting a section of my very large team, we finally reached Jagdalpur at 12:30 in the night. The pulsating beats of distant Mandars (drums) working up to a crescendo, in a tribal settlement nearby, welcomed me as we negotiated a bend in the Indravati river. This was just before we entered Jagdalpur. It was a lovely welcome indeed. This capped a lovely drive on a road which could be rated as amongst the best in the country then. We literally flew. The journey was full of stories from my driver, who cautioned me against the guiles and tyranny of the 'dadas' and the emerging menace of Naxalism.
I met the outgoing Collector, in the morning, who had done a great job, joined and went straight to the Malik Makbooja unit where at least 100 heads were huddled over files, preparing the reply to be filed in the SC court. Twenty-four hours later we were ready and off I went to Raipur, took the flight, blissfully ignorant of the plight this would put me in soon.
I filed our reply and the action plan along with the resolve of the Government to remedy the glaring lapses and punish the guilty. Mission accomplished, I got back to Jagdalpur. And, soon enough, there was a note from GAD to the effect that I had overshot my eligibility and entitlements of travel by flying when I was entitled to travel only by train!
It was a serious admin and financial embarrassment! While I could live through the admin part but if I had to pay for the two way travel between Raipur and Delhi from my pocket, it would have meant a substantial chunk out of the monthly budget! I promptly wrote to GAD, explaining that if the journey was not negotiated by air, I could not have reached the Supreme Court on time; that there would have been a contempt of court; that I had just 12 hours to reach Delhi; and, above all, it would financially hurt me.
I gathered courage and marked a copy to the CS, he at least knew the circumstances well. To my great delight, the next morning, I received a faxed order, permitting the air travel undertaken but with the advise to be more careful in future. I was not only careful after that, I would not look at a 'Hawai Jahaaj' for the next three years. We qualified to travel in and on-air after that.
A fortnight later, we had Holi, and by then my wife and my two little daughters had joined me.. I played Holi with everybody who came visiting and instead of the customary 'teeka' on the forehead, I splashed them with buckets and showers of water. The news spread and the Adhyaksh Nagarpalika, sent a water tanker to add to the fun. The whole city flocked at the Collectorate and what followed was a feast full of colour, Holi songs and laddoos.
We had beaten the Malik-Makbooja enquiry ghost. The law would take its course in the matter and we were ready to take on the challenge of doing what ought to be done for the tribal folks.
The next big event was to be a visit to a Haat Bazar (near Kondagaon), a congregation which is the heart and soul of the tribal society, the pulsating socio-economic and cultural hub, where tribals did their trade and socialising. And, what an event it turned out to be but more on this next time.
The writer is the Managing Director of TRIFED, Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Government of India. Views expressed are personal