My Years in Service
We still had about an hour to the top from the base camp and we had hoped to reach the summit at sunrise. The thin crust of slippery ice on the surface made our progress slow the next morning. Along the way we saw tortured, twisted and stunted trees. Weathered by the rough extreme seasons and reduced to a parched form without bark or leaves, the whole area looked like a cemetery of skeletal caricature that once were full-fledged trees. It however added to the weird scenic panorama of Saramati. The climb was hard but we were finally on the top at sunrise the next morning and the weather was an extra clear blue sky day. The whole of Myanmar was spread before our eyes without a single human habitat and virgin forest all the way to Irrawadi.
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]HE respect for administration had clearly been stamped in the earlier part of my arrival to Kiphire through an unpleasant incident. Mr. Toshi, Asst. Commandant VG, (the elder brother of Mr. Rothrong, the Minister) had a rather unruly son who mostly used to stay in Kohima with his uncle. He had come to town, asked a pan shop keeper to make him pan and took a few packets of cigarette and was pushing off without payment. When the shop keeper requested him to pay he threatened him, got into his vehicle and was reversing in anger. In the process he rammed down the one of the wooden house pillar and the main shop’s front door and had carried on without a botheration. The house owner was a Sangtam and he lodged a complaint. The boy was immediately arrested and locked up. Mr. Toshi came fuming up to my residence demanding that his son be released at once. This was the picture of the esteem people had towards the administration prior to my arrival that was being displayed by Mr. Toshi with all the arrogance of being a Minister’s elder brother. I warned him to take note of who he was speaking to and dressed him down to his size first in complete annoyance. Thereafter I offered him an option to pay up the debt that his son had created in the pan shop, repair the damaged house to its original status and to the satisfaction of the house owner and only then would his son be considered for release. If he refused I cautioned him that his son would be produced to my court and in which case it would entail a more severe punishment of paying the debt of the shop, the requisite amount for the repair of the damaged house and a jail sentence penalty added for his son’s misbehaviour. He chose the first option. He paid the debt and spent two days to have the house repaired to the satisfaction of the house owner on an emergency basis. Mr. Toshi regained his son only then and I earned a very staunch supporter of a patriarch of the town called Yankimong. He is now perhaps close to 100 years, still up and about the last time I paid him a visit sometime this year. He was and is a fair minded man with less tribalistic attitudes and stood by me through thick and thin during my entire tenure at Kiphire. The first exemplary action against the Minister’s nephew had a sobering effect in town and I had very less problem of rowdy misbehaviours thereafter.
When I fixed a walking tour to Sangkumti village there was a strange uncomfortable vibe from my DBs. Their problem was that this village was known for their traditional voodoo poisoning of people through food or drinks or anything else linked to you. Without telling me a few of them had gone ahead and had warned the villagers that should anything happen to ADC the whole village will be made answerable. I was also cautioned over and over again not to leave anything unfinished or leave behind anything that belonged to me. I was amazed at the length they went to do this. They were dead serious. They even entrusted a DB to ensure everything that I had left unfinished was collected after me. According to them all that was needed was a strand of hair to do their voodoo job. We drove up Pungro and further towards Phokphur and walked the remaining distance to this village. My EAC Pungro joined me at the junction of the village footpath. What did frustrate me most was the level of downright ignorance these people were living under. After walking for over an hour we came to a vehicular road close to around 2kms length to the village. The villagers were constructing their village vehicular approach road starting from their village rather than doing so from the nearest road head to the village. Their simple logic was: it was easier for them to work at close distance from the village. This line of thinking was plainly visible from their intended VDB village annual plan to continue the extension of this road toward the main road. After reasoning with them to reverse their plan and start the work from the main road to reduce the distance of their head load transportation of goods, they understood. The VDB was functioning reasonably transparently since all the Grant-in-Aid fund was being pumped into the village approach road project. Their fixed deposit was negligible with only around Rs.25,000/- I encouraged them to try and raise another Rs.20,000/- more and once they were able to do this I would allow them loan to reach their maximum limits and accrue matching grant for them. They would then be proud owners of Rs.1,50,000/- which was an unheard of money for the villagers at that time. They showed some enthusiasm on hearing my promise and assured me to do their best. As for the voodoo scare…nothing happened because I am still alive but as they say, prevention was better than cure. We then trekked on to Kiusem the next station and halted for the night. It consisted of about thirty households max. A desolate God forsaken wilderness like that of Khongkha. Hardly any administrative officers had set foot in this sector for years on end. The terrain here was reasonably modulated with milder hills and plains and soybeans was being extensively cultivated. They presented me with a Naga basketful of soybeans. I presented them with a promise to give them a Circle Head Quarters which could cover six/seven contiguous villages all completely isolated. A well analysed report of the terrain and the purpose it would serve was submitted to the Government which was approved and Kiusem was inaugurated as a Circle HQs, though well after I had left Kiphire. Our return trip included a drop in at Phokphur village where our vehicles would be waiting. This is a fairly big village consisting of Yimchungru and Tikhir mixed population and had constant visits from the Geological Department personals because of mineral deposit excavation in the neighbourhood. They too had a fixed deposit of around Rs.30,000/- so they were encouraged to put in another Rs.15,000/- for a maximum ceiling effort with loan that could be got from the Bank. The operational transparency was questionable and the VDB Secretary and the Village Council Chairmen were left with a lot of unanswered questions that they had to explain to their public. In a weeks’ time petition for the change of guard for a new VDB Secretary and Village Council Chairman was received from Phokphur by my office and accepted. Real change in the rural areas was beginning to get visible as this change of guard was consistently occurring in most of the villages that I and my officers had visited. The first VDB Secretary who went into the lock up happened in Phisami (Sumi) village. The misappropriation to the tune of around 45,000/- rupees was detected during my visit. He was asked to report to Kiphire and kept in the Police custody until this amount was recouped. His family members brought him down and requested me for his release so that he could round up the money, which I refused. I asked them to do the honours if they wanted him back. Within a week the amount was brought after selling livestock and ‘pani kheti’ belonging to the VDB Secretary and was deposited into their village VDB Account. He was only then released. The news of this lockup had a desired impact in the Sub-Division. Even without our visits a great many other villages were submitting petitions for a change of guard of their VDB Secretaries and Village Council Chairmen. By the time I was due to depart from Kiphire in 1986 October, the Villages with a maximum deposit of Rs.1,50,000/- inclusive of their matching cash grant had shot up to around 37 within the period of three years.
One of the memorable episode during my tenure at Kiphire was the trip made to surmount Saramati summit. I had dropped in on Mr. S.B.Chettri, DC, Tuensang who said he was taking a very serious walking exercise to the ‘Surprise Corner’ 12 kms from his residence and back for the past six months to climb Mt. Saramati. He was as serious as hell…not that I know how serious hell really is. A week later, he reached Kiphire in the early hours of the morning with his whole officer entourage which included Mr. H.K.Khulu his young IAS SDO ( C ). While all the other officers were replenishing their requirements in town, Mr. Chettri sat in the corner-most chair in the outer Common room with a cup of tea refusing to have anything else. I later found him with an opened packet of ‘salty’ biscuit protectively eating it as if someone else would wrest it away from him. I left him in peace to complete his chores. All Officers of Kiphire Sub Division joined this expedition. The convoy left for Pungro and stopped at the Pingkim village footpath. From then on it was trekking all the way to Thanamir with our beddings. Early next morning the villagers of Thanamir lead us forward to the base camp on a whole days’ difficult trekking. The spritely younger Officers who took the lead and had started in high spirit were beginning to slowly drag their feet as I brought up the rear keeping Mr. Chettri company as we went. I was privy to the happenings at close quarters watching Mr. Chettri negotiate the difficult terrains. The VG Deputy Commandant (VG DyC) was his static support backup for this trip. In the earlier stages Mr. Chettri was being able to do just fine climbing the difficult segments on his own. Later in the day however, the scenario was slowly taking a turn for the worst. The VGDyC was half propping him and pushing him from behind on every difficult sections of the climb. Though I felt sorry for Mr. Chettri having such a hard time but still as determined as ever, my thoughts went out to VG DyC who was directly behind Mr. Chettri with both his hands stuck securely on the buttocks of Mr. Chettri and receiving the full blast of unfiltered air being blown without a silencer by his charge from between his hands and smack in front of his nose. With all the fresh air in the world this poor VG DyC was more in need of an oxygen mask and an ear plug as well. Later in the night the villagers had set up an arrangement for me to separately sleep under the same makeshift encampment with Mr. Chettri. I fought real hard from laughing out loud hearing Mr. Chettri complain rather seriously about the armpit odour of VGDyC. “It’s nauseating” he concluded. I couldn’t help wondering how the Deputy Commandant VG would have described the air he had taken in almost the whole day from the rear end of Mr. Chettri. It was a hilarious thought considering that both of them were stuck to each other for the rest of the long trip still ahead.
We still had about an hour to the top from the base camp and we had hoped to reach the summit at sunrise. The thin crust of slippery ice on the surface made our progress slow the next morning. Along the way we saw tortured, twisted and stunted trees. Weathered by the rough extreme seasons and reduced to a parched form without bark or leaves, the whole area looked like a cemetery of skeletal caricature that once were full-fledged trees. It however added to the weird scenic panorama of Saramati. The climb was hard but we were finally on the top at sunrise the next morning and the weather was an extra clear blue sky day. The whole of Myanmar was spread before our eyes without a single human habitat and virgin forest all the way to Irrawadi. What a magnificent sight it was watching the river Irrawadi meandering through the lush green vegetation from horizon to horizon. It made our trip worth the while. A clear day like this was very rare said our village guide who had been up here on several occasions before. We planted the National flag and then Mr. Chettri stood at attention and saluted. In that saluting stance he whispered “sing the National Anthem”. No one made a noise until Mr. Khanikar ADC Tuensang took the lead and began the Jana Gana at such a high pitch that we could not complete the anthem except Mr. Khanikar who had no difficulty because he sang it in the same flat tone throughout. We all laughed out in unison on completion, unable to help ourselves. That was a classic presentation locked away at Saramati that never will be heard ever again. We were the lucky select few honoured with Mr. Khanikar’s rendition of the National anthem. We spent a pleasant 45 minutes or so over a cup of tea at the peak. Many of the officers stripped off their shirts despite the chilly air and flayed it around in excitement. We posed for a lot of photos from the only mal functioning camera in the group and so landed up not having a single photographic evidence of our being in the summit.
The back trekking to civilisation was a disorderly retreat. We could only hope no one was left behind. I couldn’t help wondering whether it was the armpit odour or his stamina running out but Mr. Chettri was a human wreck by the time he was half carried by his ever caring VG Dy. Commandant to his vehicle. The DC decided to head straight for Tuensang without stopping at Kiphire so I wished him safe journey at Pingkim road head. That the VG Dy. Commandant survived the leather tanning industrial smog for so long and still be in a position to not only stand but support the deadweight of Mr. Chettri without an oxygen mask was in itself an achievement worth noting considering that all others with fresh air were thoroughly knocked out. I could only hope that VG DyC would be spared further foul air since both would be carried by the vehicle from this point onwards. The common man will now perhaps understand what a call of duty means from this story! It stinks.
The writer is a retired IAS Officer Forest Colony, Kohima