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Friday, Aug 16, 2002

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Overcoming `subtle resistance'

Rasheeda Bhagat

Ms Chris Raikhan Chhibber

WAY back in 1979, she was a real rarity as a woman IAS officer in the Manipur cadre. Actually, she is a rarity even today as the 100+plus IAS workforce of this tiny North-Eastern State has only two women officers.

"For a while they did not know what to do with me. They refused to give me a field posting (as sub-divisional magistrate), saying, `how can a woman go to the field?'. So they said, `let her handle revenue for some time.' That was a desk job, and they made me Under-Secretary in the Revenue Department," says Ms Chris Raikhan Chhibber, who has today risen to the rank of Principal Secretary, Health, and is the third senior-most in Manipur's bureaucracy.

But reverting to 1979, after a while she protested, demanding a field posting. So she was given the post of SDO, Kangpokpi, a northern district in Manipur. But then it was suddenly discovered that she was a Naga and in that region, the ethnic conflict between the tribals was just beginning. "Now they said, `she is a Naga and will not do justice to the Kukis out there.' So they refused to let me join and kept me in the Secretariat for about two months."

Ultimately, the exasperated and frustrated woman officer had to seek the intervention of the Chief Secretary and the Chief Minister, after which it was decided to send her as SDM, Churachandpur, about 70 km from Imphal.

Did she have a good stint and was she able to make a difference to the situation on the ground?

"Yes, I think so", Ms Chhibber. "The major challenge was ensuring that the government programmes and schemes reached the actual beneficiaries, because I found that a lot of money was being siphoned off. That was the biggest challenge."

When asked if this does not continues to be a challenge even today, she says candidly, "Oh yes, today it is a bigger challenge, because earlier at least they would accept that this was a problem; today they do not."

Ms Chibber's early childhood was spent in Imphal, but since her father was in the Railways, he was posted all over Assam during the earlier years. When it was time for her post-graduation, he got a posting on the Railway Board and she did her M.A. in Sociology from a Delhi college.

Her reason for opting for IAS was simple enough: "Basically we were all — my friends and I — at a loose end and did not know what all the options were...In those days the options were limited and we were all quite nave too. So a whole lot of us said, `why not give the IAS a shot' and we took the exam, and I made it the first attempt!"

She chose and was allotted her home cadre of Manipur. After the first battle, the field postings came — as SDM and then deputy commissioner; followed by posts at the Secretariat in departments of Home, Vigilance, Tourism, Cabinet, Tribal Welfare, Sericulture and Veterinary and Animal Husbandry.

Like most IAS officers, Ms Chibber too feels that she enjoyed her field postings most.

"It gives you a chance to make a difference. These assignments are extremely challenging because nothing is predictable; everyday the situation changes and brings a new problem or a challenge. At one point, you are handling revenue matters, trying to resolve land disputes, at another you are grappling with the disputes between one village and another not only over land matters but also sorting out other problems. Then the human aspect also comes into play, because you are actually dealing with people." Now that is a different aspect, indeed... very different from the general perception of an IAS officer pushing files most of the time!

Twenty-three years down the line, how does it feel to be the third senior-most officer in the State?

"It feels very good, and is very satisfying that one has managed to come this far. I would not say I have encountered jealousy from my male colleagues, but I admit they are wary about how I would handle a greater responsibility. My capability to do any assignment well is also being put under test and questioned all the time. Whether I can take the right kind of decisions, whether I would be impartial...those kind of questions are being asked constantly."

That brings us back to the stereotype of a woman officer/manager having to prove herself all the time. Ms Chibber believes that a woman "has to be a little more aggressive, a little more pushy than men to get work done. A man's authority is accepted without too many questions. But because of our socio-cultural background, a woman trying to get similar kind of work done is bound to meet with a sort of subtle resistance. Among colleagues, they will not say so openly, but you can sense it. It remains unstated, but is discernible beneath the surface," she says.

Ms Chibber is married to a Punjabi batchmate she met at the IAS Academy. The career they have chosen and the frequent transfers have meant that they have had to live apart for several years. "At the moment, we are together in Imphal. But most of the time we have had to live apart, and have managed to be together during central deputation."

For a woman officer, that must have been another question mark.

"Oh yes, most of the times your own relatives find it more questionable, with the major complaint being that you are not taking adequate care of the children." The couple has two sons; the elder one is qualifying as a computer engineer in a Bangalore college and the younger in a high school in Delhi.

On how far away she is from the Chief Secretary's post, and whether she is looking forward to it, Ms Chibber says matter-of-factly: "I should think it will take about 10-12 years. And yes, I am looking forward to it. Why not? One should look forward to good things in life. I think only Kerala has had a woman chief secretary till now."

Commenting on the gender situation in Manipur, she says that on the surface, Manipuri women seem to enjoy a better socio-economic status, compared to women in other parts of India. "But I would say in actuality, when you dig a little deeper, they are as deprived as their counterparts elsewhere. The woman here is free to move around in the socio-economic sphere; education-wise, she is better off than women elsewhere in India and she is given the liberty to do what she wants in the field. But when it actually comes to decision-making, which is the crux of the matter, her domain is confined to the house and the hearth."

Ms Chhibber regrets that women have been short-changed even in the political arena. "In the present Assembly, we have only one woman MLA who is now the minister. The political parties have not even tried to give a few seats to women." Like in most tribal cultures, in Manipur too, the men tend to be laid back, leaving the women to do much of the work. "And it is not only more work; women have to do all the tough work; in the fields, look after the children, cook and even provide financial support to the husband when he is out of work. They slog from dawn to dusk." Concerned about the growing drug addiction in the State and sharing of injecting equipment, which is spreading HIV/AIDS, particularly among the younger generation, she says,

"Now the impact of HIV on women and children is being felt. We do not know the extent of the damage already done; we are just waking up to the problem and we will have to work very hard in this area."

The continuing insurgency and unrest in this belt is another major concern and her dream is "to see a peaceful and prosperous and HIV/AIDS-free Manipur, where the youngsters have the opportunity to do what they want without being inhibited by local conditions."

On why the State remains so economically backward, Ms Chibber says, "There are many factors; insurgency is one of them. We are also latecomers in the development field. The rest of India has gone far, far ahead and it was only in the Fifth or Sixth Plan that we actually got some attention. We were also not aware of what was happening elsewhere in the country and the world. But now we are awakening and there is much more awareness about how to prepare project proposals and get them funded and also how to get funding from foreign agencies. We are learning fast."

On the economic front, she says that tourism has tremendous potential as well as agro-based industries, such as horticulture and floriculture. "On the tourism front, all the loose ends have to be tied up and a perspective plan prepared to help the State."

Over the last decade, though restrictions and permission norms for foreign tourists have been relaxed, because of the State's proximity to Nagaland, it fails to attract the higher end of the international tourist segment. With permission from the State Home Department, groups of five/six tourists can visit Manipur for a week, but prior permission is required. For a lesser number, the Central Home Ministry's permission is necessary. "That puts the brakes on, and hurdles for, tourists. Even for domestic tourists, most of whom come by road, the problem is that this road goes through Nagaland and while we may not require the `in-a-line' permit, it is mandatory for even domestic tourists visiting Nagaland. So they keep checking people coming into Manipur and there is a lot of harassment of tourists and this puts even Indians off visiting Manipur."

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