A chronicle with a difference
Reviewed by G S Cheema

Poor but Spirited in Karimnagar: Field Notes of a Civil Servant
By Sumita Dawra.
Harper Collins. Pages 281. Rs 350

While going through Sumita Dawra’s Field Notes of a Civil Servant, I was inevitably reminded of my days as a district officer. To my embarrassment, all I could recall were the hours wasted in rest houses waiting for VIPs, the monthly meetings of the district rural development agencies (memorable mainly on account of the lunches served by the lead bank), and tedious court sittings, trying to concentrate on the arguments of advocates. Of course, we did other things too, but I would be hard put to recall any particularly significant or meaningful achievement, certainly nothing memorable, except for the occasional gaffe or blunder, like, for instance, when the stage collapsed under the weight of local notables rushing on to the dais, to sit with the VIP.

The cynicism of age tends to view everything with a jaundiced eye, but certainly, the world of Sumita Dawra is very different from that of the 1970s and 1980s. Maybe the young just look at things differently, maybe the Andhra of Dr. Chandrababu Naidu was very different from the Punjab of Zail Singh or the early Badal. But certainly in our time collectors did not have to bother too much about the state of school education, literacy or public health, except in a limited sense while reviewing the performance of particular departments in specified “schemes.” 

Certainly district officers have to work harder today, and their sphere of duty is much broader. The author has put this across very effectively, and there is also the hint that this not very easy, for in parts of Karimnagar the People’s War Group held sway, and the fear of landmines and ambushes was ever present for government officials. On one occasion, there was actually an attempt to kidnap her. The precautions that had to be taken while touring Naxal-dominated areas are touched upon. She would travel incognita, sometimes in a private car. If she used her official car, it would be minus flag and beacon, with false number plates.

Karimnagar is only a starting point; she discusses the problems of other districts, and looks at the general problems of poverty and development from the viewpoint of the state capital as well. The district days are over and she has put in some years at the secretariat too, gone on study tours to neighbouring countries like Thailand, Indonesia and South Africa (presently she is posted with our mission in Belling). There is a refreshing optimism about the book; one gets the feeling that though problems remain, things are improving.

ln spite of her enthusiasm, she is candid enough to admit that targets were not always met and sometimes figures might have been cooked and it was not always possible to catch the officials at their game. While discussing garbage removal she observes that, “lt required a willing suspension of disbelief to believe that each of the garbage removal system's bullock carts actually lumbered down this distance to perform the high number of trips claimed.” One wishes she had written more about her clashes with difficult politicians or obstinate officials, but as Dawra is till in service, some discretion is advisable. 

Therefore names are seldom mentioned, no politician, not even the CM has been named anywhere. I have only surmised that she was a collector in the days of Chandrababu Naidu.

I cannot resist observing how utterly different this book is from the 19th or 20th century narratives of civil servants like Sleeman, Meadows Taylor, or even Malcolm Darling. They would have told us all about the tribes and communities inhabiting the district, their historical backgrounds, Dawra does not mention any of these things. All we are told is that Karimanagar, once a part of the Nizam’s dominions, is the poorest districts of the state. And it is, or was then a part of the Red Corridor. But why the Maoists found this district so receptive to their revolutionary propaganda is not explained. One wishes she had expressed her thopughts on the subject. The needs of all poor people are the same. They all need more food in their bellies, education for their children and healthcare. As long as the state is perceived to be doing something along those lines, all is well. Poor they may but their spirit remains upbeat. As long as there are a sufficient number of dedicated civil servants (like the author), there is hope for the country.