BY BHASKAR PHUKAN
Amidst neatly pruned hedges and tiled pathways, an edifice spread over eight blocks, the Assam Secretariat complex stands tall and proud against the skyline in the heart of the State’s capital at Dispur. This massive structure, housing the fifty odd departments of the Executive arm of the State Government is also called: Seat of the Government. The eight blocks are linked by a network of spacious corridors that meander through the complex like giant arteries. But unlike arteries, the corridors do not converge at a centre that could be called the heart of the structure. The eight blocks are actually independent buildings.
Passing through two security gates and stepping into any one of the eight blocks of the Complex for the first time, one is surprised by the grand design of the building’s interior. Just beyond the entrance, at the centre of the building, on the ground floor within an octagonal shaped enclosed area marked by well-tended potted plants, a fountain spiritedly jets water throughout the day. Around the fountain, ringed by huge pillars is an atrium- an open space – going right above the building’s fifth floor where it is capped by a cone shaped frosted glass roof. This brilliant display of water, light and space occupies almost half of the building’s plinth area. Looking around the impressive design, one may momentarily forget that this is a government office. Each block, designed alike, has its own fountain and atrium.
Once, an officer of the Meghalaya Government accompanied by her daughter met me inside the Secretariat on an official matter. Both were visiting the place for the first time. They were taken back by the grandeur of the place. “Mummy, this building looks like a resort,” the young lady exclaimed. The hurly burly of a government office is conspicuously absent here. Leading out from the outer edge of the wide rim overlooking the atrium at each floor is the working area of the building where the departments are located- unobtrusive and hidden.
Taking the layout of any one of the eight buildings in perspective, one visualizes a large circle with its core area taken up by the atrium and only the peripheral area spared for the offices. One draws a reasonable inference that the architect of the building designed the structure giving more prominence to the aesthetical aspects than the functional ones. The actual working area of the building is located along the circumference of the circle. The offices do not exist in a unilinear pattern. It is easy to get lost searching for a department inside the Secretariat. Once a friend, after an exhaustive search for a particular office in the Secretariat almost threw up her hands in despair when someone showed her the office she was looking for- just behind the spot from where she had begun her quest.
Describing her travails, this friend made an incisive comment, “The building is a metaphor of how governments work, empty at the core, confusing at the periphery.”
Usually a department in the Secretariat is divided into branches or sections and occupies a single floor in a block or may even be spread over two floors. Sometimes two departments exist on a single floor. The space occupied by a department is proportionate to the amount of work done in the department which could roughly be assessed by the number of files processed daily in the department. Indeed the daily movement of files in a department is a fair indicator how much work is done there. The Home and Political department where I worked almost three years straddles two floors of a block. This is one of the busiest departments in the Secretariat with tall stacks of files at each table across all sections of the department. Working beyond office hours and on holidays is de rigueur in the Home and Political department. There isn’t a day without a mad flurry of activity in some section or other in the department. “You won’t even find time to die here”, a colleague wise cracked when I first joined the Home department. How true, I found out gradually.
Tucked away in a corner of the same block, just across a branch of the Home department, is another department where the work load is minimal and everyone works in a relaxed manner. One can count on one’s fingers the number of files processed daily in this department. No marks for guessing the name of this happy idyll of a work place: department of Assam Accord Implementation. The administrative assistants who belong to the Assam Secretariat Service are the custodians of all files. In office jargon, they are known as “dealing” assistants as they are the ones who deal with any matter by “putting up” the matter in the appropriate file. The progress of work in Government is really about how fast the files move in the bureaucratic pecking order.
Inside each branch or section of a department at one corner or just outside it are the chambers of the under secretaries and the deputy secretaries who are mostly officers from the Assam Civil Service or the Assam Secretariat Service. These chambers are actually cubicles built against a wall by hedging off three sides with aluminum partition boards having provision for a door also made of aluminum. The chambers are sparsely furnished with a table and a few chairs and a rack or a steel almirah. In a system where rank and privilege often go hand in hand, the spartan and minimalist appearance of these chambers stand in stark contrast to the luxurious suite like air conditioned chambers of those at the upper end of the hierarchy. This disparity doesn’t go unnoticed even to the first time visitor. Once a deputy secretary brought along his teenaged son to his office to meet his boss, the commissioner and secretary of the department, an affable IAS officer. The young fellow was introduced to the senior officer who affectionately patted him on his cheeks and made small talk with him. Later the young fellow announced to his father, “When I grow up I will be like that Uncle. He has a much bigger and better room than you.”
The Secretariat Administration Department (SAD) is the caretaker of the Secretariat, responsible for maintenance and upkeep of the huge Complex. It is also responsible for allotment of chambers to the officers posted in the Secretariat. Since transfers and postings of officers in the Secretariat are not dependent on availability of office space, often the SAD finds it difficult to provide ready accommodation for a newly posted officer in the Secretariat. Available space is already stretched to the limit in the Secretariat, hence it is not possible just to close off three sides and build a new chamber.
Even if space is available, it takes some time for things to move as it is the PWD Department which does the actual construction. The SAD makes a formal requisition to the PWD through the General Administration Department (GAD). It is the latter which provides the fund for the construction of a new chamber. A newly posted officer is considered very lucky if he is able to secure a chamber on his very first working day in the Secretariat.
Twice in my career so far, I was posted in the Secretariat. And on both occasions, the first problem I faced was getting a chamber with more than one month passing before I was finally allotted one. The first time, in 2007 when I was posted as an under secretary in the Elementary Education department, the administrative officer of SAD, a good friend and junior colleague in the ACS was hard put trying to accommodate me. There was no available space in the department to build a chamber for me. The prospect of finding a vacant chamber also appeared bleak. As the days passed, my patience was wearing thin. Then, one morning the administrative officer rang to say, “A chamber has been located. Could you come to see it?” I rushed to the spot near a corridor where my friend was waiting to show me my good fortune. He led me towards a room at the end of the corridor and opening the door of the room stepped inside. I followed him. My eyes almost popped out in surprise. It was a large room having a neat and sleek look with Venetian blinds at the windows. There was also an attached washroom at one end. This was a chamber usually allotted to senior most officers at the level of secretary and above. Is my friend pulling my legs? Watching the dazed expression on my face he explained, “Till the other day the room was occupied by a secretary of a department but he has since left it. Everything is fine about the room but there is one small problem one faces coming through the corridor.”
“What is it?” I was eager to know. My friend slowly divulged the truth. “A drainage problem in the toilet nearby brings the stench of urine into the corridor outside the chamber.”
“So, nobody wants this room?” I said. My friend nodded sheepishly with an embarrassed look. He wanted me to take this rejected room. He waited for my decision. I mulled over the situation for a while before deciding.
I finally decided. “It is a small price to pay for such a large room. I take it.” I announced. My friend shook hands with me. I noticed a huge expression of relief on his face which was soon covered by the handkerchief he pressed to his nose as he stepped out of the room.
After occupying that room, I too covered my nose every time I walked down the corridor for the rest of my tenure.
My second posting at the Secretariat was in 2011 as deputy secretary in the Home and Political Department. This time too I waited for more than a month for a chamber before lady luck finally smiled at me. I came to know that a fellow deputy secretary in my department would retire soon. On the last day of service of my retiring colleague, at his farewell meeting, unknown to the others, I was the happiest person around. The very next day, I took possession of his chamber, thus redeeming myself from the miserable status of a person without a working place of his own.
Looking back at those days in the Secretariat without a chamber of my own with my little name plate that gives me an identity for all its worth, I realized how difficult it is for a person like me, to exist anonymously. A feeling of being left out from whatever it is that I am supposed to do; of being irrelevant to the system I was part of for all these years, gripped me deep within. It was a terrible feeling. Whatever little work was given to me during those days, I completed, sitting in the chambers of my colleagues. I could not imagine what I would have done without the camaraderie and affection of those colleagues. Most of the times, I roamed through the corridors of the Secretariat, often bumping into old friends who realizing my condition, genuinely commiserated with me. However, in some strange way, those were also cathartic moments for me, in that, beyond the feeling of bitterness I learned to look at myself, shorn of all trappings, only as a person not a designation. It was an important lesson of life for me.
At the beginning of this article I have mentioned how a tenure in the Secretariat makes one realize the full worth of working in the ACS. For me, nothing was more edifying than those days in the Secretariat without a chamber of my own. It was then I realized what it really meant to be in the ACS – Assam Corridor Service.