A night in the life of an IAS officer. A small error(later realised a big blunder) on my part made me to face a cliffhanger night.The following incident which is one tensed night which I underwent when I was a SDO in Jhargram Subdivision in West Bengal.
Jhargram is a very old Subdivision in West Bengal. It borders with Jharkhand and is a very beautiful subdivision. Jhargram Subdivision is blessed with 2 rivers,one is called Kangsavathi river which flows in the northern part of subdivision and the second river called Subarnarekha river which flows in the southern part of Jhargram Subdivision. I was working as the Sub Divisional Officer of Jhargram Subdivision, West Midnapore District, in West Bengal. Jhargram Subdivision has 8 blocks (Block is an administrative unit.Many blocks together form a subdivision and many subdivisions together form a district). It was first week of July 2007. It was raining heavily for 3 consecutive days. Only 2 blocks of Jhargram Sub division(Nayagram Block and Binpur 1 Block) were flood prone. I was busy in sending relief material to these 2 affected blocks. Even though the remaining 6 blocks were partially affected,only these 2 blocks were historically and geographically flood prone and were drawing attention all these years.
It was around 9pm and I got a phone call from BDO ( Block development Officer) of Sankrail Block. He told me that water level in Sankrail was increasing. Sankrail Block is located in the eastern most part of Jhargram Subdivision and even though River Subarnarekha flows through it, its drainage system is proper and historically no severe flood was reported from this Block.The BDO of Sankrail was an efficient officer but one problem i found with him on several occasions was, he always over reacted even for a small problem. So when he told that water level was raising, I started laughing and told him not to overreact and told that I was busy in sending food material to Nayagram and Binpur 1 Blocks. Boss is always right and so he had to keep the phone. Around 10 pm, District Magistrate called and reviewed the flood situation. Mr.B.P.Bharat was the District Magistrate & District Collector(DM) at that time and he was a friend, philosopher and guide to me.He used to protect me, whenever I, as a young officer fought with ruling party. He always used to tell that I was like his son and really took care of me. After reviewing the flood situation of 2 worst affected blocks, he told that he recieved a call from Sankrail BDO. I laughed and told him,“Sir, Sankrail BDO is like a child and over reacts for everything. Historically no flood is reported from Sankrail”. In bureaucracy precedents decide and I was a bureaucrat. Mr.Bharat laughed with me and he kept the phone.Then around 12 midnight,after planning for next day’s relief operations,I went to bed.
I was in deep sleep and I heard heavy knocking of door. I got up and saw the time was 2 30AM. I could hear the voice of my Bungalow peon. I opened the door and asked him what happened. He told that BDO Sankrail was on phone line. Generally no one has the guts to disturb his officer at midnight unless the issue is really important. So I went to my Bungalow Office(Bungalow Office is attached to residence but has all communication facilities like phone, Computer,Fax etc and the officer can meet public during holidays). When I lifted the phone I could hear that BDO Sankrail was breathing heavily. He was stammering.He was almost crying. He told that around 10 villages had been marooned(Villages had become island- fully surrounded by flood water) and within next few hours those villages would be submerged totally. First time, I realized that situation was grave and very dangerous. I asked him whether country boats (boats used for fishing by local population) can rescue the marooned villagers. He told that country boats could not go beyond a point because the current was heavy. BDO also told that the youth who went for rescuing in country boats could not go near the villages but could hear villagers crying for help that many were in trees because water level was increasing. So it sent a chill in my backbone. If people were in trees, then any person with common sense would understand that within next 3 hours,these people would be submerged if water level increases. I asked him about water level. He told that still it was raising. I asked him not to worry and kept the phone even though I was thoroughly shaken inside. Immediately after keeping the phone I dialed District Magistrate’s Bungalow Office. I could hear the beep sound which indicated that BSNL phone was dead due to maintenance in Midnapore town(As I did not have BSNL connection,my phone was alive). I then dialed his mobile but unfortunately his mobile was also BSNL connection.I redialled several times hoping suddenly it may ring. It didn’t ring.
I was sitting and smoking continuously without knowing what to do next. I saw my Bungalow Office clock showing 3AM. I thought to wait till 6 am and pass the message to DM through special messenger but again what DM could do.He could requisition army but army cantonment was located in Fort William in Kolkata and it would take at least 5 hours for the Army to reach Sankrail. So even if I sent a special messenger, he could reach DM’s Bungalow in Midnapore not before 4 30 am and so army can not reach before 10 am to Sankrail even if all paper formalities to requisition army were completed in 30 minutes time. If rescue was not completed by 8 am, many would die. Therefore option of sending a special messenger to DM was ruled out.I was cursing myself for not taking BDO’s warning seriously.
I was smoking continuously and was totally helpless.Suddenly it struck me. An IAS probationer who was undergoing training in my Subdivision told me the previous day that she went to purchase some items at subsidised rate in Kalaikunda Airforce Canteen. Kalikunda is an airforce station located in a place called kalaikunda which was in my neighboring Sadr subdivision.But as per protocol, only DM could requisition Army. Another thing which worried me was, even if i broke the protocol whether Airforce would listen to SDO, as later they may have to face serious problems because defence rules are very stringent. Another worry was, who would respond at 3AM. I thought for a minute and decided to take a chance.I took the telephone directory and found Kalaikunda Air force station’s number.I dialed and no one lifted. Again I tried.This time after several rings, a person asked who I was. I explained the grave situation. He told that it was 3 AM and he was just a telephone attendant and asked to call at 8AM. I again explained. Finally he transferred the call to next level in hierarchy. I explained to the next person. He was polite and transferred to some Wing Commander. It was a surprise to me when I heard the voice of Wing Commander. I could make out from his voice that I awoke him when he was at deep sleep but he asked me politely what he could do for me. I told him the situation. He told that he will call me back after discussing with his seniors and got my telephone number. I thought Air Force door was closed because according to their rules they can be asked for help only by DM. So I thought he tried to avoid by telling that he wanted to discuss with seniors, which is a common practice in civil service to buy time without hurting the other party. So again I was back to square one without knowing what to do next.I started smoking another cigarette.
My telephone rang in another 5 minutes and wing commander told that “Station Commandant” of Kalaikunda Airforce Base would call me and kept the phone. Station Commandant is a very very senior person in defence hierarchy and was the senior most officer of airbase and I was very very junior in civil hierarchy. So I was surprised because hierarchy was inbuilt in my system. Another 2 minutes my telephone rang and I heard the friendly voice of Station Commandent. He asked me why I disturbed his sleep at 3 AM in a laughing tone. I explained him the situation. He told me not to worry. From his voice,first time I felt in that night that people would be rescued. In a friendly but firm voice he told that he would start the rescue operation with motor boats immediately and with helicopters from 6 AM onwards. When I thanked him he said," Young man, who are you to thank me.Its my duty for my country".It happened at 3 15 AM when in normal days I would have been in deep sleep and if any person would have asked for help at 3 AM, I would have kicked the telephone if not the person away.After few minutes of explaining the details of rescue operation he kept the phone. Around 4 15 AM, again my phone rang and Sankrail BDO was on the line. He told that IAF personnel had reached the spot with trucks loaded with speed boats.Around 6 AM I could see a helicopter flying. I saluted the helicopter and Indian Air Force and it was a salute from my heart.
(P.S. As usual my DM protected me for breaking the protocol.)