Is Idealism Only For The Young?

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We have set our bar really low. It is a measure of our extremely low expectation from officialdom that something that should have been par for the course is being hailed as an extraordinary act. This column by no means wants to berate Nuapada Collector Dr. Poma Tudu, who trekked 4 kms to reach Samadpadar village located on a hill top to listen to the grievances of the people there. Given the gross apathy that is endemic in our bureaucracy, it is perhaps only natural that her gracious act has earned all-round praise, even eliciting effusive praise from Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. But viewed dispassionately, wasn’t it part of her duty as Collector of one of the most backward districts in the state?

The one example where a government official really went well beyond the call of duty in recent memory is the one involving Dr. Omkar Hota, who carried a pregnant woman on a cot in a remote, inaccessible Malkangiri village on his shoulders for 8 kms to reach the hospital for a safe delivery. As a doctor, nothing – not even the Hippocratic Oath – obliged him to lend his shoulder and undertake the arduous trek in a highly difficult terrain. But he did and hence deserved all the kudos that came his way, including the felicitation from the Chief Minister. But does Ms Tudu’s act come under the same rank of exemplary, selfless work? Not by a long shot, I am afraid.

This piece, however, is not about Dr. Tudu or her admittedly praiseworthy act in taking the trouble of trekking to that remote village. It is about our low expectations from babudom. It has not come out of thin air but from actual experience of watching and experiencing the government machinery at work up close for years. As I read about Dr. Tudu and her act, my mind went back to an incident sometime in 2001. I was in Kashipur in Rayagada to cover the series of starvation deaths (22, if I remember correctly) that had created quite a stir in the national media at the time. I had to trek some 6 kms to reach the cluster of villages where the deaths had been reported from. Having known while leaving Bhubaneswar that a senior administrator (now retired) had been sent by the state government the day before to conduct what is called an ‘on-the-spot’ inquiry in officialese, I enquired from the people if the administrator had come to their village. “No, Sir. He sent word through the tehsildar asking us to come to the place up to which his vehicle could come (the same place where I had to deboard and begin my trek the next day) and depose before him.” Seated on a cot under a tree, the officer apparently went about doing his ‘on-the-spot inquiry’ on the serial deaths while the people, having trekked 6 km, cowered with folded hands. And to think that this man had the reputation of an honest, hard working and pro-people officer!

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In my three decades as a journalist, I have seen and heard about many officers like Dr. Tudu, who have gone out of their way to reach out to people, listen to their problems and make genuine efforts to solve them. But the one thing common to all of them was that they were all young officers when they really worked for the people and earned their genuine love and appreciation. For reasons that are still not clear to me, the same officers steadily lose their idealism and love for the people as they rise up the career ladder. There is something about the state secretariat that makes officers, who have earned the genuine love and appreciation of the people for their work in the districts, turn a cynical, power hungry and anti-people lot. I know of one officer who did exemplary work as Collector of Sundargarh, but ended up in a maze of controversy amid serious accusations of malfeasance by the time he retired as the Chief Secretary.

What exactly leads to this transformation? Why does the idealism that spurs them to do exemplary work when they are young die down when they move up the ladder? Why do people with impeccable credentials as honest officers when they are young end up earning the corrupt label when they reach the wrong side of 40? Is idealism something meant only for the young?

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These are all questions that I have pondered over long and hard over the years, but haven’t found any answers. But I have no doubt whatsoever that the answers to these questions hold the key to a committed, empathetic and responsive administration.

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