The first posting of an All-India Service officer, often in a predominantly rural setting, has been likened to one’s first love. It remains firmly etched in memory. Therefore, visiting that place after a few decades would naturally evoke a lot of mixed emotions.
I still remember the day in Mussoorie’s Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration when I was informed about the allotment of Andhra Pradesh as my cadre state, and later, of Srikakulam as the district of my training in 1976. My first reaction was not euphoric. As one born and raised in Calcutta, my idea about Andhra Pradesh and Srikakulam was fairly rudimentary, the latter having been known for Naxalite activities. On completion of my probation in the IAS, I was posted as the officer in charge of Tekkali sub-division during 1977-79. Since understanding breeds love, my three-year stint in this district, remotest from the state capital of Hyderabad and nearest from Calcutta, made an impression that remains indelible.
Recently, accompanied with my daughter, I visited Vizag, Araku, Srikakulam and Tekkali, in coastal Andhra. Evidently, positive changes were noticed everywhere. The national highway from Visakhapatnam is of world standard, small towns and villages appear more prosperous, men and women look healthier and better dressed, government offices are no longer as shabby as before. The Araku valley is now a tourist's delight and its coffee widely admired.
The ubiquitous jeeps and Ambassador cars for officials have now been replaced by air-conditioned SUVs. ATMs are scattered everywhere. These changes could be anticipated, given India’s steady growth over the past decades and the state’s uninterrupted rise in most fields.
The Indian elephant moves slowly but surefootedly. Thus, spectacular changes observed in cities like Hyderabad and Visakhapatnam cannot be discerned in small mofussil towns and villages. But quiet, fundamental changes can be noticed as shaping life everywhere.
After reaching Tekkali, I was enquiring about the personal staff who had cared for me those days — the jeep driver Veerabhadra Rao, the daffedar Damodar Patnaik, Tirupati Rao, Raja Rao and others. The local gentry that befriended me included the noted scholar in English literature, Ronanki Appalaswami, who used to explain the nuances of T.S. Eliot’s poetry and showed me the facsimile of Eliot’s manuscript of The Waste Land with extensive suggestions by Ezra Pound, Dr Rama Rao, who wrote a long essay on Tagore, and my neighbour, Dr Joga Rao. I also forged a life-long friendship with Dr Y.V. Krishna Rao, the government physician at nearby Palasa. Sadly, they have all passed away. But what gladdened my heart is that the son of Raja Rao, who delighted us with preparations like caramel custard and prawn curry, is currently the tehsildar there.
Has the quality of administration or delivery of public services changed for the better? Without falling into the trap of senior citizens who find it difficult to appreciate the new tidings and feel that things are steadily going downhill, one observes that the administrative processes have been simplified, public grievances are better responded to, and affirmative actions by the state have been yielding good dividends. Discussions with the district collector and functionaries of the revenue and forest departments seemed to confirm my impressions.
Take the disposal of land acquisition cases, for example, that revenue officials used to spend considerable time on. Once an award was finalised, started the long legal process for the aggrieved landholders demanding enhanced compensation. This process has been shortened and streamlined under the new law, benefiting the affected individuals considerably. Besides, responding to enquiries under the Right to Information Act, constant updating and digitisation of land records, initiating environment impact assessment and protection measures (for mining and irrigation projects, for instance), etc, engage the attention of officials much more than before. Providing rice at `1 per kg through the public distribution system has been standardised. All these have been possible on account of extensive use of computer and appropriate technologies. Video-conferencing has become the new normal.
State governments are generally chief minister-centric. Andhra Pradesh is no exception.
Posters and framed photographs of the chief minister are visible all over. Of the people we spoke to, many appeared critical of the “freebie” culture and lack of industrialisation, among other things, but such criticism has not so far turned into anger.
While the facade of the sub-collector’s office remains the same, giving a sense of continuity, the interiors look spic and span. The adjoining residential quarter is a much more modern structure now, the old one having been demolished. It suddenly crossed my mind that the government during my time was addressed for sanctioning a compound wall for the modest, single-storey residence, after wild bears had been noticed to be loitering around at night!
Immediately after my marriage, I recollect the long jeep drive with my wife from Palasa station on the Howrah-Madras line to Tekkali. After a busy day, when the night descended, we used to spend some quiet time together in our little abode, undisturbed by the hustle bustle of city life that we were used to. Gradually, the joy of discovering the place and its people started permeating our whole existence.
Travelling back in time, I derived some satisfaction from the visible development all around, tinged with some sadness for the days gone by.