Square Pegs in Round Holes

By Sanjeeb Kakoty

A small news item caught my attention. Mr Arun Kumar Kembhavi IAS, who was serving as the Deputy Commissioner of West Khasi Hills had been transferred and  appointed as the new Registrar of Co-operative Societies. I am sure transfers are a routine matter of the government and hundreds of them happen on a routine and regular basis. But for each officer to be able to discharge his duty to the best of his ability would require a minimum time frame for it. If officers are transferred too often, the functioning of the department is affected. This results in the public suffering and also a wastage of public money. Public money is our hard earned money levied by the government by way of taxes  and hence it is our  right to demand that the government has to be held accountable for misusing public money! But when an officer of the caliber of Mr Kembhavi is shunted around in a not so routine and regular manner, one is forced to think that something must have gone alarmingly awry with the system.

My first encounter with Mr Kembhavi, goes back a couple of years. As he walked into my office room at IIM, Shillong, I thought he was another student who wanted to discuss something. When he introduced himself as the Deputy Commissioner of Jaintia Hills, I was mildly surprised, as he had absolutely no airs about himself. He wanted to discuss what could be done to develop the district and how could IIM Shillong help in this endeavour. Starting from health to education, environment to tourism, development issues to social problems afflicting the young, we discussed a wide range of subjects and bounced ideas off each other. That was the first of many meetings.  It was obvious that he was an idealist and was committed to ensuring a Transparent and Effective Administration. We often spoke of how a good education can empower the individual and how a good education system can transform the society. Not surprisingly, he soon he came up with a scheme to transform education in Jaintia Hills. He worked hard on creating a detailed plan that won national acclaim and soon he roped in no less a person than Prof Nirupam Bajpai to collaborate with the project. Since not many people, in this part of the world would know he is, I am copy pasting Mr Bajpai’s profile as given in the Wikipedia:

 “Nirupam Bajpai, a US-based Indian educationist and economist, is the Senior Research Scholar at the Earth Instituteof the Columbia University and the Senior Development Advisor and Director of its South Asia Program. He is the founding director of the Columbia Global Centers South Asia, an office he held between July 2010 and August 2014, and is the author of a number of publications, including India in the Era of Economic Reforms.

Bajpai, after graduating from Lucknow and securing a PhD in economics in 1988, moved to US in 1992 where he worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before joining Harvard Institute for International Development of Harvard University in 1995. He worked at Harvard University till 2002 during which time he also worked at the Kennedy School of Government of the University and led the Harvard India Program. In 2002, he joined Columbia University and is associated with the institution since then, working in various capacities. He has been a part of the team under Jeffrey Sachs who served three successive Indian governments from 2002, two of them led by Manmohan Singh and one by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, as advisors on rural health and education services. The Government of India awarded him the fourth highest civilian honour of the Padma Shri, in 2008, for his contributions to society.”

Thanks to Mr Kembhavi, the highly  credentialed  Mr Bajpai came to Jowai on his own,  to initiate the start of the programme. I also invited him to come and interact with the students of IIM Shillong. He seemed keen to help and was full of ideas and resources to help our state. To cut a long story short, it was at this crucial juncture that Mr Kembhavi was transferred out of the District and that was the last I heard of that particular project. He was then shifted to the West Khasi Hills.

Assuming charge of West Khasi Hills as the DC, he started working with his characteristic vigour once again. Ensuring transparency in recruitments and making the administration responsive to the needs of the public were his signal achievements. At his initiative, IIM students went to West Khasi Hills to take part in Career Counseling and interaction sessions with high school and college students.

He was discussing with me the prospect of sustainable development models such as community managed tourism, community managed resource management, producer companies etc. Before any of this could take roots, he has once again been shifted.

I write this letter not to question the prerogative of the government to transfer its official. What I am trying to put across is the need to acknowledge the importance of district and block officials as  the proverbial  last mile that is so crucial to ensure proper governance. Unless we use the pool of scarce idealistic and competent officials properly, we can never hope to transform our state. Mr Conrad Sangma’s pedigree and education  gives him the ideal combination to take governance to the next level.  If he allows political compulsions to take governance a level down instead of a level up, history will conveniently forget the political pulls and pressures that forced his actions but hold him personally responsible for them. This is the sad fact of life that any leader would ignore only at his own peril.

(The writer teaches at IIM, Shillong)


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