gfiles magazine

September 8, 2011

‘The political class is uncomfortable working with a woman officer’

The first woman to head several departments in Maharashtra recalls breaking the glass ceiling. She is currently Election Commissioner, State Election Commission, Maharashtra 

neela satyanarayana

I joined the Maharashtra cadre in July 1972, just days after the worst drought the State had witnessed in recent memory. I began my career as Supernumerary Assistant Collector, Nagpur. But my first real break came as Additional Collector and later as Collector of Thane district. To be posted as a Collector of Thane district, so close to Mumbai, so soon was unimaginable for many. In those days the political class was not comfortable working with or having women as bosses, that too of important government departments. Instead of key departments like Infrastructure, women IAS officers were considered fit to head departments like Women and Child Development, Health or Education.
But if you, through your honest and upright conduct and impartial decision making, are able to establish your image then you are given important postings. I was the first woman officer to head many departments like Social Welfare, Women and Child Development, Health, Education, Cultural Affairs, Maharashtra Maritime Board and so on. One of my semi-fictional Marathi novels, Ratra Vanvyachi (Night of the Forest Fire) talks about the career experiences of a woman officer, Anjali Verma. The kinds of people that she has to interact with while discharging her duties as Collector of a district. The way the middlemen and politicians size you up, how they extract information about an officers’ likes and dislikes and get their work done. Over the years, the interiors or the façade of the Collector’s office or any government office have hardly changed. But even in these challenging situations she has to dispense justice and be impartial.
It is not just the political class that finds itself uncomfortable working with a woman officer, but also your male counterparts and subordinate staff. In those days, key departments like Home, Revenue or those related to Infrastructure were exclusively meant for male officers. [After Satyanarayana, another woman officer, Chandra Iyengar, became ACS, Home. But no woman officer in Maharashtra, which has had a number of women’s empowerment crusaders, has become Chief Secretary.]
My first real challenge came when I was posted as Secretary, Food and Civil Supplies, in the 1980s. It is one of those departments that come in direct contact with people from the middle or lower middle classes. In those days it was not just wheat, rice, kerosene and sugar that were sold in the ration shop, but also cloth! Even the middle class depended on the ration shops for their monthly quota of essential commodities.
DURING the festive seasons dealers, in their habitual arm-twisting exercise, would stop lifting supplies from government godowns. The situation was worse during 1985-86, you had to use all your administrative skills to ensure that all the essential items reached the people on time before the festival season started.
Another turning point in my career came when I was posted as Additional Chief Secretary, Home. The lowly constable is the most neglected in the whole system. He is the most overworked and over-stretched. He has to put up with long hours of bandobast duty on VVIP visits, he has no proper house, he has to live with domestic hardship. And his holiday is cut drastically due to the festive season and he is expected to do his best job.  

The constable is the most neglected in the whole system. He has to put up with long hours of duty on VVIP visits, he has no proper house, he has to live with domestic hardship.
After taking over this present posting as Election Commissioner in the State Election Commission, I once again came across gross injustice being meted out towards constables who also have to do election duty during municipal elections. While all the rest of the staff engaged in poll duty got an honorarium or allowances, the constables got nothing. So I have decided that in the coming 2012 civic elections, the constables shall be included among the election staff and given honoraria.
During my tenure in the Home department, I was also in charge of Jails. Ninety percent of the inmates are not hardened criminals. They are there because they have committed some crime in a fit of rage. Often they come from good homes but now have a “criminal” stamp on their foreheads. The situation was more so after the textile mills strike effectively shut down all the mills. My hands used to tremble as I signed extermination orders of unemployed Maharashtrian youths aged around 29 years, the sons of jobless mill workers who had taken to crime to augment the family income. The young girls were sucked into undesirable professions. Another problem I came across was related to women inmates. In 2006, I tried to implement my concept of open jails at Attpaddi in Sangli district wherein inmates, especially women in the last year of their incarceration, were allowed to live amongst their families. My intention was that they should be able to earn something from the trades they had learnt in jail and effortlessly mix in with the rest of the family after release.
IN January 2012 the State Election Commission (SEC) will hold civic elections to important bodies like the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), Thane and numerous other civic bodies. In the case of bigger corporations like Mumbai and Thane, the challenge is to hold elections to multi-member wards. To ease the problems and facilitate office-goers’ voting, the SEC is going to launch online voting in the coming civic elections while ensuring that the security and identity of the voter are kept total secret.
In the ensuing civic elections, for the first time the SEC is going to introduce a Braille strip on the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) so that the visually challenged can easily identify the candidates and political parties. We have asked the Electronic Corporation of India, Hyderabad, to develop a feature on the EVM which will ensure that once a voter presses a button against the name of a candidate, the vote will be registered against that particular candidate’s name alone.
Amidst all my work I have kept alive my passion for poetry and prose. I began writing poetry at the age of seven. But it was the birth of my son, Chaitanya, in 1983 with Down’s Syndrome that changed my life. My daughter, Anuradha, my husband, PV Satyanarayana, my personal assistant, Ramchandra Waghmare, Pramod Pandit and a host of other people and colleagues helped me in managing my career and home. But it took me 13 long years to write onefull, onehalf as, every time I tried to write, I was overcome with grief. I was particularly overwhelmed when President APJ Abdul Kalam paid a moving compliment to the book. 

Amidst all my work I have kept alive my passion for poetry and prose. I began writing poetry at the age of seven. But it was the birth of my son, Chaitanya, in 1983 with Down’s Syndrome that changed my life.
It was due to years of painstaking help, care and coaching from the doctors, teachers, friends, colleagues and the governess that Chaitanya is today able to lead a normal life. I got a glimpse of that when he asked the BEST bus conductor for “one full, one half” tickets for him and myself and so I titled the book accordingly. Since its publication in 1996, the book has been translated into Hindi and Marathi. The drawing on the cover is by Chaitanya.
Another book in Marathi, Satya Katha (True Stories), is aimed at educating Marathi youth about entrepreneurial skills. I wrote Ek Divas JeeVanatla (A Day in One’s Life or A Day in the Jungle) when, as ACS, Forests, I toured the forests in Maharashtra. Being a nature lover, the forests taught me a great deal. They offer a lot to anyone who wants to understand what nature has to offer or the true meaning of life.
I have penned 14 books and also composed music. Some of my poems have been converted into songs for Marathi feature films like Tuch Majhi Aai. I also have 11 CDs and cassettes in Hindi and Marathi. I won the Government of India award for non- Hindi-speaking writers in 1985, the Mahatma Gandhi Award from Karnataka in 1986 and the Editors Choice Award in 2005 from the International Library of Poetry, Maryland, US. g
—As told to Prashant Hamine

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