Ajit Singh Chatha says every challenge offers an opportunity to move up
Adversity often leads to prosperity. Ajit Singh Chatha, 83, a former chief secretary of Punjab, has lived by this adage.
“Partition was painful but those who accepted it as a challenge, moved up in life. Forced to migrate leaving behind their property, many realised the importance of professional education and diversified into varied fields. Today, Punjabis are the most progressive and prosperous communities across the world,” he says.
Chatha, the eldest of five brothers and the first graduate in his family that comprised farmers and soldiers, migrated from Chak No. 46 in Sheikhupur district of Pakistan to Gharaunda near Karnal before his grandfather was allotted land at Batala in 1949.
He opted for the non-medical stream and graduated with honours in electrical engineering from Jabalpur before joining the Indian Administrative Service in his second attempt in 1963. Today, he is the lone engineer in a family of doctors. “The horizon has expanded manifold for youngsters now. The economy is growing, getting diversified and globalised. They should endeavour to grab opportunities,” he says.
But the first step is to explore the inner self and discover what one wants to be. “Choose your subjects accordingly, stay focused and work hard. A career in the IAS is still the best opportunity to alleviate the problems of the people, provided the officer has the right attitude.”
Chatha’s tip for a smooth sailing in the service, which includes dealing with politicians of all hues, is simple. “The IAS officer, who proposes policies, shouldn’t forget that the decision-making power rests with the political executive. In case of a difference in opinion, politely explain the pros of cons. A pragmatic approach works best.”
He started his career as the sub divisional magistrate of the remote Spiti valley before the reorganisation of Punjab. “It was a tough but rewarding assignment. We were cut off for six months in winter and lived without electricity. I was entrusted the powers of the state government and was called the ‘Zila Sahab’ by locals. The best part was that every little step for the well-being of the people was appreciated.”
Chatha went on to become the deputy commissioner of Patiala, Sangrur and Ludhiana. He was recalled from central deputation in 1985 and served as secretary, industries, irrigation and home before being handpicked by then chief minister Beant Singh as chief secretary in 1992, superseding eight officers.
EAR TO THE GROUND
“Beant Singh was the district Congress chief when I was the Ludhiana DC. He was a grassroots politician and was clued in to the activities of militants. He considered them nothing more than armed goondas,” he recalls.
The brief to Chatha was clear: Restore law and order, improve the fiscal situation, reinstate the democratic process and accelerate development. “Within the first year of the elected government, Punjab became peaceful. The credit of eliminating militancy goes to first, the people who gave correct intelligence about the movement of militants; second, to Beant Singh, who was determined to root out militants; and finally, to then director general of police KPS Gill, who unified the force and acted swiftly,” he says.
The priority shifted to putting finances on track. “Freebies don’t work. If quality service is provided, people don’t mind paying. We revised the electricity tariff, raised water charges and hiked college fee for resource mobilisation.”
Even today, he says, Punjab needs financial discipline. “The state is urbanising rapidly but the infrastructure needs to match it. Property should be taxed. On the rural front, modernise agriculture, particularly post-harvest operations. Punjabis are good at mechanical skills so conditions should be conducive to set up modern industry. Once India-Pakistan ties improve, Punjab can be the land port for trade to Central Asia but till then government intervention is needed to boost industry and create jobs. The silent migration to Canada and Australia points to lack of opportunities,” says Chatha.
He suggests a new industrial hub at Machhiwara between Ludhiana and Jalandhar with textile, auto part and agro industries besides thrust on quality of education.
On changes in Chandigarh, he says, “While the basic concept behind the city’s planning should be sacrosanct, its bylaws need to be revised from time to time for ease of living and working. The rise in population and the emergence of peripheral towns have led to civic problems. With the administrative head on deputation, review of policies also gets affected.”
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