In the early years of my career, I was fascinated by the way a very high-ranking officer ran meetings. At the very beginning, he announced the decisions he wanted to make on the items on the agenda, then said with a smile: “Decisions will be made by consensus and the meeting will continue until you all agree with what I am. propose.” In due time, I realized that was how most bosses operated and this gentleman was just candid enough to say so.
Dr Hrushikesh Panda served as Forestry Secretary for a brief period when I was Conservator of Forests of Bhubaneswar Circle. Shortly after his arrival, he attended a meeting of senior forest officers to explain how he would like to lead the department: “Forests like air and water are common property resources and communities have the first right on them. They don’t need commercial species like teak. From now on, no DFO will start planting such species, only local species that are traditionally used by communities will be planted. I will issue an official order specifying the native species that will be planted. I wish I could go further and ask DFO to uproot the teak seedlings planted in the last three years and replace them with native species.
Although I am a strong supporter of community participation in forest management, I always had a strange feeling about his idea. I replied, “Sir, two years ago your predecessor lectured that at the time of independence, Odisha and Maharashtra had almost the same area of teak plantations, but the latter opted for teak plantations. teak on a large scale over the past six decades and their revenue from selling teak skyrocketed while in Odisha it plunged. He wanted us to plant only teak, nothing else. Now you want us to uproot all those seedlings. Who knows after two years, your successor would like us to uproot those seedlings and plant something else. Dr. Panda only stayed a few months as head of the Forest department and with his transfer, his idea was abandoned .
Dr. Aurobindo Behera was a strong advocate of forest management by communities and community organizations. But, one of his illustrious predecessors felt that community forestry was a sham and was a mechanism to facilitate the scam. Under the enthusiastic leadership of Upendra Nath Behera, Odisha was the first state to prepare the National Action Plan on Climate Change, while his successor questioned whether climate change was real. With such drastic changes at the political level, the best foresters have shuttled between learning and unlearning management strategies specific to each person; but the rule was simple “my way or the highway”. Luckily for us, most secretaries were receptive to technical advice, and extreme opinions were more an aberration than the rule.
Anindita Das has been a close friend of my wife since her school days. She leads a non-governmental organization (NGO) and is active on several contemporary issues. She once told me that social workers, especially women, are the biggest victims of the “my way or the highway” attitude. She cited an example from her experience: “A young girl I had cared for once told me about her fate. I won’t name her, but you listen to her predicament and say what options she had. As the head of a small NGO, she had applied for a small project that was to be funded by the government. After being selected, she was excited and met the relevant officer to thank him. But, the gentleman told him, ‘You are not selected yet, only your name has been recommended by the committee. He still needs my approval and the file is on my table. Now let’s go to Puri for one night and I’ll clear it up tomorrow. It was ‘her way or the highway’ and she chose the highway.
A dynamic young civil servant joins a large private company for a substantial salary. His main job was to facilitate obtaining government approvals for various company projects. But the owner-president of the company was not satisfied with its production. The youngster entering the new environment explained, “In government, you have to follow certain rules and regulations and it takes time to get things done after complying with established standards and conditions.” But the president was quite affirmative: “Sir, when you joined us, the agreement was quite clear: ‘I pay what you ask for and your work is what I assign you’. I think your strength is your experience working in the government system. I gave you carte blanche, you are expected to do the job using your skills and contacts. Now don’t throw the rulebooks at me. In that case, why should I hire you to such a high position, I would prefer to have someone with experience and market qualifications. He had no choice but to resign. Today, he runs his own NGO.
Once, I too almost took the highway. As Conservator of Forests, Bhubaneswar Circle, I upheld orders from a Divisional Forest Officer revoking a sawmill’s license. The aggrieved party appealed to the High Court. Knowing full well that they had a weak case, they manipulated to ensure that I received no notice from the Court. Surprisingly, the government lawyer, who was supposed to plead on my behalf instead of talking to me, told the court that I was deliberately avoiding to appear and portrayed this as arrogance on my part. The Honorable Court ordered the government to replace me with another officer, while I remained blissfully unaware of all these developments. However, the State preferred to appeal to the Honorable Supreme Court and the Supreme Court overturned the High Court orders and ordered that I continue in my position.
Unfortunately, this is the situation in many cases and many are left dry on the highway!