The stories I get the most satisfaction from are usually about the neglected margins of India, where struggle is enmeshed with life. The ones I will upload have been written for The Sunday Guardian and (the now defunct) Covert Magazine. I'll be putting up any articles here at least until The Sunday Guardian website is up in a couple of months. Thank you for reading.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Dousing India in Kerosene

In English, August, Upamanyu Chatterjee’s superb novel about a year in the life of a young Stephanian who has just joined the Civil Service, there is a revealing passage where the District Collector of Madna, Ravi Srivastava, refers to a sweaty underling of theirs as “just a promotee”. In the uniquely abstruse language of the Indian Adminstrative Service, a promotee is someone who joins the Service via promotion from one of the lower grades of the Administrative Services, usually State-level; an officer who has not cleared the much-hyped annual Civil Service exam but works his way up the ladder. It is testament to Chatterjee’s skill as a novelist that he is able to show through a single throwaway remark the sneering disregard officers of Srivastava’s ilk have for these junior officers. But, having come through the State ranks, often these junior officers are the ones who know the areas they serve best. Their knowledge of the minutiae of the political, social – and criminal – dynamic in an area can be of invaluable aid to the Collectors and Additional District Collectors who hop from posting to posting around the country. Additional Collector of Malegaon Yashwant Sonawane was one of these “promotees”.

“This matter will be taken very seriously. He was a very upright officer and this probe will continue until we take all the required action.” - P. Velarasu, District Collector, Malegaon.

Smack in the middle of that quote crops up another favourite word in the IAS lexicon, though their officers have less cause to use it: “upright”. From the use of this adjective, the astute reader will immediately understand that Sonawane, in contrast to the wide majority of his colleagues, was impeccably honest, dilligent and guided by such foolish values as patriotic pride and right and wrong. A look at his years in government reveals that Sonawane was all that and much more; it is open to conjecture, but it is just as likely that he was not only the most “upright” officer in Malegaon, but in all of Maharashtra.

By every account Sonawane was a truly remarkable man. Born into a poverty-line poor rural Dalit family, he managed after college to get himself a job as a clerk in the Mantralaya in 1988. In 1994 he cleared the state civil services exam, where he worked dutifully for fifteen years before being promoted to the IAS rank of Additional Collector in Malegaon.

Recognising that one of the major impediments to development in Malegaon was Hindu-Muslim tension, he worked hard to reduce the faultline, campaigning hard for a branch of Aligarh Muslim University to be set up there. He was also the driving force behind a plan to set up a unit of Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation there. If his life had not been so cruelly interrupted, he would have had the chance to do a great deal of good in one of India’s most troubled areas.

At the very least, Sonawane’s story should strike against those who oppose caste-based reservations in low-level government jobs (self-regarding elitists like Anish Trivedi, please note). Here was a man who worked himself up from penury to a position of undeniable influence by dint of hard work and honesty. He lost his life taking on a dangerous mafia because he was fighting for poor people’s right to government-subsidised kerosene. How easy it would have been for him to turn a blind eye and extend an open palm, as surely most of the other administrators, “promotee” or not, were in the area.

Sonawane believed he could alone wage a war against the venality of India. Yet we continue to laud a system when he has been proven so tragically wrong.

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