“Lal-Batti”: Some Reflections on VIP Culture

The other day I was listening to a TV discussion on a theme which has led to filing of a PIL by an eminent lawyer, Harish Salve, which has resulted in disclosures by the State Governments on the number of security personnel they have deployed on socalled ‘VIP security’. To say the least, the numbers which are being shared by state after state are simply shocking. If I am not mistaken, Uttarakhand has mentioned a sum of Rs 30 crores per annum on this count. It has been rightly commented that even this shocking
number is just the ‘tip of the iceberg’ that lies hidden underneath – meaning the actual number deployed is far, far larger. And, if one were to include what would not be covered technically by the term ‘security personnel’, i.e. home-guards and similar non-civilian uniformed personnel who are also deployed at the cost of public exchequer, the figure would be even bigger. One only hopes that disclosures such as these do not result in getting the stick of ‘contempt proceedings’ from the Supreme Court!

Well, in these days of RTI ruling supreme, such issues could be raised at any time later. What I wish to highlight is how well Uttarakhand had started on this count, but the golden days were soon overtaken by political and bureaucratic megalomania. Yes, this obsession with ‘Lal-Batti’ is nothing but simply a megalomaniac streak in human beings – at least this is how I have viewed it
always and continue to view it as simply a psychological aberration.

A Good Beginning:
I do not know if the current breed of civil servants would remember that for the first five years, from November 2000 to 2005, no red-beacons adorned the staff cars of Chief Secretary downwards. No Secretary to the Government of Uttarakhand, leave aside other junior officials, was allowed a ‘red-beacon’ atop his or her ambassador staff car. And, it was a conscious decision on the part of the civil service. I distinctly remember very early in one of the informal weekly meetings the then Chief Secretary, Ajai Vikram Singh, sought suggestions from his colleagues about ‘doing something positive, something different’. Doing away with this nasty megalomaniac tradition i.e. no ‘red-beacons’ atop at least the staff cars of the civil servants was one such decision. No sooner was the decision strictly enforced in the state, the only exceptions being the District Magistrates, SSPs and SPs and others were allowed to carry them, e.g.
ambulance vans, etc., the others were simply not allowed. I remember the news travelled far and wide across the country, as I was approached by one of my relations, serving in a southern state, whether this news was true? Many civil servants, in other states, considered it as a looming threat which was likely to invade their states as well!

The First Cabinet Meeting:
As it is no state secret, I guess, I could share this development now, in the context of this raging controversy over VIP security, what it costs the states and the inconveniences that get caused to the suffering citizenry, day in and day out. In  the very first Cabinet meeting, one Minister suggested that Uttarakhand being a new state, a small relatively peaceful state, at least in the mountain regions, there was
just no need for even the Ministers while travelling in the mountain areas to be accompanied by security guards, and the escort following them everywhere they went. The majority of the Ministers supported the novel and welcome idea except for a Minister (I would rather not divulge the name for the sake of civil propriety) who hailed from a ‘plainsdistrict’ opposing the suggestion on the ground that all districts of the state were not as peaceful as our hill-districts! That was enough cue for others to follow suit and it saw the sudden death of incipient signs of ‘good-governance’ in the very first Cabinet meeting! The second blow was dealt when Chief Minister Swami offered to stop the unconstitutional practice followed in Uttar Pradesh of allowing a residence to all past Chief Ministers (Kalidas Marg colony is a veritable cluster of so many former CMs of Uttar Pradesh!), when he was accosted by a senior Cabinet Minister asking what message did he wish to communicate through any such intended announcement! We all know that the early months of the then Uttaranchal were anything but days of cordial relationship amongst several CM aspirants. All I wish to say is that this state could have started as a model state in good-governance and best administrative practices, but for a few such mindless and unfortunate blockages of good intentions.

Not Too Late
Thanks to Harish Salve, these matters of public interest have now come before the Supreme Court and the very basics of good governance and sensitivities are being discussed in the public domain. By the way, this also reminds me that when I took over from Madhukar Gupta, who stood by all decisions taken by Ajai Vikram Singh and continued them during his tenure, a file was put up before me to review this major decision. All I could say to kill this issue once for all that not only this good decision would continue but if this file was brought up again, i.e. for resuming the ‘red- beacons’ of staff cars, the person who brought it again would be held personally responsible for such a temerity and would be severely punished! The matter did not surface till I relinquished the charge. It would be an interesting matter to know through an RTI application as to who despite such a warning on the note, recorded by the then Chief Secretary, was able to scuttle one of the very few things the civil service of this state could have been proud of (not that it is such a big deal to tomtom) and got away with it?
Now that the ‘Lal-battis’ are making all of us red-faced, I would strongly recommend that we revert to the ‘Lalbatti- less’ days and become normal Indian citizens, and while in the ‘civil’ service be really civil to our countrymen.Finally, it is totally personal and no one can force a civil servant to be shamed by a ‘red-batti’. I ensured that while I became the Chief Information Commissioner, who then carried no threat to his person or who did not wish to be identified with the help of a ‘security guard’, I carried no such burden. I see
no reason why all those civil servants who find it simply obnoxious should come forward and do away with these signs of megalomania, because that is what a ‘Lal-batti’ is. It is highly do-able, so just do it and set an example. It is still Not Too Late to become just a normal human being!

R S Tolia

Late Dr. R.S. Tolia, Ph.D., was former Chief Secretary ( 2003-05 ) and Chief Information Commissioner ( 2005-10) of Uttarakhand. He also served in various voluntary positions after retirement and devoted his time for Mountain Development Agenda.

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