IT was a house and family commitments that more or less brought Vinod Vaish into civil services. Son of Nihal Chand Vaish, a Barrister at Allahabad High Court, Vinod was interested in science and was supposed to join Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) as a scientist at Trombay after completion of his education.
“Raja Ramanna, then head of the Atomic Energy Commission, visited Allahabad University in 1961 when I was studying in BSc. I was selected for a scholarship and supposed to join as a scientist. The department had even asked me to sign a bond,” Vinod recollects, sitting in his drawing room.
House was the factor that finally kept him away from joining the AEC. His father had passed away when Vinod was only 14 years old, leaving him to fend for his mother. The house they lived in was on rent and the landlord filed a case in 1964 seeking its immediate vacation.
“Mother was dependent on me. I needed to take her and my unmarried sister along. When I checked with AEC, it said no accommodation was available. I would have spent the salary (Rs. 400) in paying rent in Mumbai. Therefore, I expressed my inability to join and, luckily, I was released from the bond,” he reminisces.
Number of his friends had appeared and qualified for the civil services. Vinod felt civil services was the most ‘transparent and fair opportunity’ available at that time for a ‘dignified employment’. A supportive system existed in Allahabad for it. “Senior people were willing to guide. Books and literature was easily available,” he remembers. Moreover, private sector was ‘messy and cumbersome’ and required a candidate to have the right contacts to join.
His sister got married in 1965 and, in the same year, he appeared for the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) examination and qualified for the IAS. He joined Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration (LBSNAA) in Mussoorie on July 2, 1966. He brought his mother along to the hill station and took a house on rent for her in the city. But she did not find its cold climate suitable. Ultimately, he had to leave her with his uncle and aunt at his ancestral house in Ghaziabad.
Vinod’s first posting as Assistant Collector was in Khandwa district in Madhya Pradesh. His District Collector was PK Lahiri, who later served as Revenue Secretary at the Centre. During his training, he was required to make all records of a patwari in hand after camping in the village for 15 days and pick up details of the revenue administration. He also trained under various district heads like Superintendent of Police (SP), Civil Surgeon, Executive Engineer PWD and District Judge.
His next posting as Sub Divisional Magistrate (SDM) was in Jaora, a princely state in Ratlam. He was also a municipality administrator there and was provided with a rickety jeep. Moreover, there was not enough budget to buy petrol. He had sold off a part of his ancestral property to buy an ambassador car. In those days, it was very unusual for an Assistant Collector to travel in a personal car. He would travel in his car on the metalled road and then ride to the village on a bicycle arranged by the local revenue officials.
Once his Collector came on a tour to Jaora. While the Collector was going around, he noticed a vacant space behind Vinod’s office building. The space had a platform, unfinished columns, weeds and grass all around. He told Vinod to earmark the place for construction of a town hall. He said the building should also have a badminton court. Vinod, however, dismissed the suggestion as an imaginary thought.
Subsequently, the Collector called up one day to inform Vinod that he had invited the State Governor to inaugurate the town hall building and a date for the same had been fixed in February. Vinod only had about four months, no budget and no engineering staff to plan and execute. “The senior most person in the municipality was an Overseer called Om Prakash,” he recalls. Fortunately, Municipality had Rs. 70,000 for construction of a new municipal office building. After realising it would be futile to get the Collector change his mind, he, somehow, arranged for the inauguration of the construction of a building, which would serve as the Municipality Office and a Town Hall with a centre that could also be used as a badminton court. For the Overseer, this was a lifetime opportunity to show his talents and the municipal staff was looking forward to moving out of the existing office building that was quite old and cramped.
On D-day, the Governor arrived to do the honours. But 40-50 urchins followed the Governor’s cavalcade to the inauguration site. There was some irritating disturbance during the ceremony from the direction of the roof but the function was somehow concluded. He was told later on that the urchins had climbed on top and were leaning on the walls trying to peep into the hall by lifting the tent when the Governor was unveiling a plaque. “It was an extremely risky situation. Had the wall collapsed the dignitaries would have been grievously injured and I would have surely been dismissed from service,” Vinod remembers. Luckily for him, the Overseer and his team had clutched on to the fragile walls to prevent any mishap.
In Khandwa, the very first meeting he attended, called by the Collector and the SP with prominent citizens, was on how to control eve-teasing in the district
IN Jaora itself, Vinod, then 25, as Sub-Divisional Officer (SDO), inspected work of all patwaris. The inspection work was usually done under a tree sitting on a ‘khatia’ (cot) as the patwari did not have an office. He found that the latter were not doing their work properly. He ended up reprimanding many of them. But when he admonished one patwari in public, the latter took him aside, took off his shoe and told him with folded hands. “Please hit me with the shoe here and now as much as you want. But do not scold me in the public. Here in the village I represent the government.” Vinod says he learnt a very good lesson and never again censured a subordinate publicly in his career.
During his posting at Sarguja in 1972, Vinod made a shocking discovery. Then second-largest district of MP, Sarguja, which had a large tribal population, was in throes of a crisis due to monsoon failure. Vinod was asked to assess the drought situation and whether and how much compensation and relief should be given to the affected population. He did extensive touring of the district to gauge damage to the crops. During one such tour, he discovered that the tribals ate only one meal during the day. When he asked them when they last had two meals, the tribals said they had it in 1967 when there was a drought and the government had arranged for local employment and cheap foodgrains. “They were again hoping for two meals. I never saw that kind of poverty. It remains etched in my memory,” he says.
During the same posting, Vinod realised district administration did not have enough support from the higher ups in government to deal with politically connected people.
It so happened that one early morning he found a man weeping near his camp office. The eye of the man was bandaged. When Vinod inquired about the reason, the man told him a local muscleman, Devanand, had gouged his eye after he went to the latter to fetch his daughter. Devanand had taken his daughter away because the man failed to pay for the liquor he had consumed on credit. Devanand was liquor contractor’s man. When Vinod summoned police officials, they told him many cases were pending against Devanand but nobody dared to depose against him. He registered a case under MISA (Maintenance of Internal Security Act; DMs could directly register cases under MISA) and Devanand was placed under detention. He sent a report to the State government. He says the local MLA was in cahoots with the liquor contractor and used his connections in Bhopal to get MISA detention cancelled. An explanation was sought from Vinod as to why he had invoked the Act.
Subsequently, in another matter, he tried to book a village sarpanch because the latter had cornered huge quantity of quota sugar and not distributed even a grain to the villagers. He says he was summoned to Bhopal and received his transfer orders before he could impose any punishment. In a meeting with him, the then state Chief Secretary likened the DM’s role to that of a ‘jamadar’ (sweeper) who was supposed to clean the main road. Vinod countered this by asking what if the garbage flew on the main road from bylanes. But he was chided for not being sufficiently mature in administration. He found the two cases very ‘disheartening’.
IN 1976, when Vinod was posted as District Magistrate in Gwalior, he got to know that Ganesh, a harijan employee of Defence Science Laboratory, set himself on fire and died in a hospital later during the night. In the morning, District Superintendent of Police called him and expressed concern about the situation. The two decided to keep a close watch. When the body was handed over after postmortem, some disgruntled elements with the son of the deceased sat on a dharna in front of the lab gate, kept the body at the centre of the road and refused to cremate it until strong action was taken against the Defence Lab Director. A faction of scientists, who were not getting along with the Director, appeared to be adding fuel to the fire. Scheduled Caste association of the State government employees threatened to carry the body in a procession across the city and, after handing over a memorandum to the Collector, cremate it on a main road. This would have thrown traffic in a disarray and given ample opportunity to anti-social elements to create mischief and escalate it into a major law and order problem.
It was the month of June and by afternoon it had become uncomfortably hot. A magisterial enquiry into the circumstances of the death of the person had already been ordered. Everyone realised that it would take some time to be completed. Since Vinod and the SP were present at the spot, the agitators were told that the proposed handing of the memorandum could be achieved at the spot itself. At one point, Vinod and the SP were asked why they were talking only to the son of the deceased.
They got a cue and immediately got in touch with the widow of the employee. She opposed the procession and wanted a proper cremation at the earliest. Vinod warned the gathering that the widow was unwell as she had fasted since the morning and if something happened to her, leaders of the crowd would be held responsible. This is how they could diffuse a volatile situation that could have become an ugly law and order issue. It was an exercise in patience and endurance and a battle of wits.
In 1983, he was appointed Commissioner (College Education) in the State. There were 250 colleges under him. During one of his tours to the colleges, the principals complained that the college education administration never replied to their letters for grants.
When he sought explanation from the concerned officials, he was told the administration had no budget for colleges and that is why it preferred to sit on Principals’ letters. He got registers prepared for the receipt of different categories (seeking funds for college building, sports, laboratory, etc.) of letters and told the officials to answer each letter. “The letters promised that funds would be released as soon as the department got a budgetand that their demand had been duly registered in the relevant register the serial number of which was also communicated to them. This gave hope to the principals,” he recalls. This taught him an important lesson—in any given situation, people would want to be heard and treated respectfully.
Motilal Vora was then the minister for higher education. Vora had asked him to inform what was possible under the rules and not to follow every direction of his blindly. He developed great respect for Vora on this count. During this period, Vora ordered transfer of an Assistant Professor of Chemistry in Mhow. He subsequently ordered cancellation of the transfer but before doing that also recommended transfer of 17 other lecturers in the position. When the seventh plan for college education was being discussed, Vora called him and sought an explanation why he did not execute his various transfer orders. Vinod told him why he could not have followed all the recommendations. Ironically, while the seventh plan was cleared in five minutes, the minister took two hours in discussing transfer issues with him.
IN October 1999, Vinod was transferred from the Ministry of Environment to be Secretary, Department of Telecom Services, to oversee corporatisation of the department. Telecom engineers opposed an IAS’s posting (before Vaish the seat was always held by an engineer) as the Secretary. His transfer was cancelled and PS Saran was appointed in his place. On May 31, 2000, after Saran’s retirement, Vinod was reappointed to the same post.
Telecom engineers were enraged at this decision and decided to block his entry into Sachar Bhawan where his office was located. Initially, Vinod was to reach at 10.30 am and the telecom employees, particularly the officers, had planned to lie down on the entry passage. But he reached office at 9.45 am and took charge. There was major opposition to the move. Telecom engineers and staff went on nationwide strike. The government was quite firm and determined, but showed willingness to consider favorably the reasonable demands of the employees.
Against all hostilities, through intensive dialogue and discussion with the various associations, bulk of the 350,000 employees were persuaded that their legitimate interests were being protected. It was a herculean task and required long meetings to satisfy various stakeholders that their grievances were being addressed, preparation of elaborate documentation for large number of inter-ministerial meetings and the meetings of the Group of Ministers constituted to steer the progress. Vinod considers this as the most challenging and troublesome assignment given to him in his entire career. Ultimately, corporatisation was achieved and Bharat Sanchar Nigam (BSNL) came into being on October 1, 2000, the date set by the Prime Minister’s office. Vinod issued the letter abolishing his post of Secretary, Department of Telecom Services, and he was appointed Secretary, Ministry of Labour on the same day.
Vinod retired from the government on January 31, 2004, from the post of Chairman, Telecom Commission and Secretary Telecom. Later he also served as a member of Telecom Dispute Settlement Appellate Autho-rity for three years. Vinod and Kikki Vaish have a son Bharat Vaish and a daughter Yamini.
As told to Narendra Kaushik