Janus’ Musings

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Battling the Babu Raj

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The Economist has a special briefing on India and what’s holding India back.

RIGZIN SAMPHEL, a 33-year-old civil servant, wakes to the screeching of peacocks outside his bedroom window. Stepping into the gentle sunshine of a north Indian spring morning, he hears the lowing of three brown cows tasked with providing his milk. A scuffling attends him, as armed guards, peons, gardeners and orderlies—tasked with catering to Mr Samphel’s other needs—hop to attention.

A four-year veteran of the elite Indian Administrative Service (IAS), Mr Samphel is the district magistrate of Jalaun, in Uttar Pradesh (UP) province. More often called the collector, or district officer, the district magistrate is the senior official of India’s key administrative unit, the district. In Jalaun, an expanse of arid plain between the Ganges and Yamuna rivers, Mr Samphel is in charge of 564 villages and 1.4m people.

After a hearty breakfast, he leaves his residence—requisitioned from a local maharajah around 1840—and gets into his car: a white Ambassador, curvaceous clone of the 1948 Morris Oxford, complete with siren and flashing blue light, which has symbolised officialdom in India for six decades. Mr Samphel takes the back seat; a policeman rides machinegun in the front; and in two minutes they arrive at Mr Samphel’s main office, the “collectorate”.

There for the next four hours, beneath a portrait of a beaming Mohandas Gandhi, Mr Samphel receives a stream of poor people. A turbaned flunkey regulates the flow, letting in a dozen at a time. Many are old and ragged, or blind. Paraplegics slither to the collector’s feet on broken limbs. Most bring a written plea, for the resumption of a widow’s pension that has mysteriously dried up; for money for an operation; for a tube-well or a blanket. Many bear complaints against corrupt officials. One supplicant wants permission to erect a statue of a dead politician: a former champion of the Hindu outcastes who comprise nearly half of Jalaun’s population.

Mr Samphel listens, asks questions and, in red ink, scrawls on the petitions his response. For desperate cases, he orders an immediate payment of alms, typically 2,000 rupees ($50), from the district Red Cross society, of which he is president. More often, he writes a note to the official to whom the petition should have been directed in the first place—or, wretchedly often, to whom it has already been directed: “Act upon this according to the law.”

Mr Samphel reckons he spends 60% of his time dealing with individual supplicants—also outside the collectorate. As the Ambassador turns back on to the road, it is waylaid by a tractor bringing a cartload of petitioners in from a distant village. Then one of Mr Samphel’s three mobile phones bleeps. Someone wants firewood; Mr Samphel calls a forestry official to relay the request. It is a hugely impressive performance. Mr Samphel works 16 hours a day, seven days a week, and reckons he has had two days off since 2003. But this is hardly an efficient way to minister to a needy population almost half the size of New Zealand’s.

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Written by janusmusings

March 16, 2008 at 7:43 am

Posted in Asia, India

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