Posts from the past: remnants of a colonial era

D. Madhavan
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D. Madhavan takes a look at three jobs that have survived in the system over 100 years — perhaps unnecessarily
At 10 p.m., when most of his colleagues are going to bed, 42-year-old K. Sekar, a head constable with the Armed Reserve wing of the State’s police department, leaves home for work.
Dressed in khaki and holding a torch, he mounts a government-issue motorcycle to pick up a superior officer, who is on patrol duty, at a previously-arranged location.
This is Sekar’s only job: to ride the motorcycle and ferry a superior officer from one place to another. The officer, who is generally of the rank of a sub-inspector, organises surprise checks on sensitive areas in the city, where the armed reserve police are generally deployed for security.
“We are just like all other police officer in terms of the training we received and salary we draw. But someone has to these jobs, so we end up here. The work is monotonous and has hardly any prospects for career growth,” said Sekar, who has been a bike-rider for a decade now.
‘Bike rider’ is a post that was created in the Armed Reserve wing of the Imperial police by the British, based on guidelines given by the First Police Commission in 1860. The idea was that officers, who were then mainly British, could be deployed to various duties and since they were not familiar with routes of sensitive spots or the locations of VIP’s houses in the city, a rider would be useful to them.
“Bike riders are usually not given any other work, as they are the ones who are most familiar with the patrolling routes. Also, during the day, bike riders are our official couriers within various wings of the police and also between departments. They carry classified orders, letters and information about VVIPs visits,” said a senior police officer.
At present, the Armed Reserve wing in the city has eight companies and each company has at least two bike riders. Between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., working in two shifts, a bike rider and his superior officer inspect around 160 spots covering a distance of 150 km.
“The post is a waste of a highly-trained human resource. Such colonial practices should be abolished and a scientific way of handling these duties should be brought in,” said D Suresh Kumar, an advocate at the Madras High Court.
A few visitors to the Madras High Court were somewhat surprised and a little curious recently, when they witnessed a mace-bearer whispering, “shush…shush,” when accompanying a judge from his chamber to the court room. Whispering is an archaic indication of the arrival of a judge and is meant to ensure his path is obstruction-free. Everyone present there, including senior advocates and journalists obliged, and stood aside until the judge passes.
This is the only visible ‘duty’ of a mace-bearer. This is the only task he performs every day, all through his career. Dressed in a white suit with a red belt across his chest and elaborate headgear, a mace-bearer begin his day by receiving judge at the entrance to the court; his day ends once the judge leaves in the evening. As a mark of his designation, he carried a 5-ft. silver mace that weighs around 8 kg. When court hearings are on, he stands a few feet away from the judge, but without the mace.
“We are recruited as office assistants but we seldom do that job. Most of the time, we are just idle in the courthouse. Sometimes, we step outside and chat with the court staff. There is real sense of work in this job,” said P Mohan Raj, a mace-bearer at the Madras High Court.
The concept of an official mace-bearer was introduced by the British during the 19th century in courts headed by the British judges. District collectors and mayors were also given mace-bearers then, as they represented the government’s authority. Over the years, collectors and mayors did away with the post. But, courts especially old high courts including Madras High Court follow this colonial-era protocol.
A few years ago, when vacancies were filled at the High Court and the number of judges increased from 28 to 50, additional silver mace were commissioned to continue with the protocol. But there are a few judges who have abolished this practice in their court halls. Justice K Chandru and Justice D Hari Paranthaman discontinued with this practice, terming it inhuman and against human dignity.
Unlike many old buildings in Chennai, the nearly-century old officer’s bungalow in Perambur is beautifully maintained. Thanks to the efforts of 38-year-old K. Parasuram, who is Dak Khalasi, the floor is cleaned, weeds on the roof and walls are removed, and the inside is regularly dusted.
Parasuram is one of 15,000 ‘bungalow peons’ employed to serve senior railway officers at all officers’ quarters across the country. They take care of any personal needs an officer may have and as well as any official work given to them. Senior railway officers of the rank of director and above are entitled to such a service. The peons are deployed at officer’s bungalows and also at their workplace mainly to cater to a specific senior railway officer.
“We do whatever our superior officers ask us to. This ranges from cleaning floors in their bungalows to carrying files,” said a bungalow peon on condition of anonymity.
A British legacy, the bungalow peons were then a large group of workers mainly natives employed by senior British railway officers to cater to their personal needs. The practice began during the 1850s when the British were in the process of establishing a modern railway system with Madras as its nerve centre. Many official bungalows and public buildings were built between Royapuram and Wallajah, including Perambur where loco, carriage and wagon works were set up. The peons were employed in these bungalows. They accompany their senior officers when they travel or go to meetings, generally to carry their personal belongings. At the bungalows, they clean floors, wash clothes, take care of the children of senior officers and also guard the premises. Their presence at offices is mostly seen when an office assistant is on leave.
The number of peons an officer can have depends on rank and seniority. Some officers have one, who works both at the bungalow and the workplace, while some have up to four. “These workers have mostly finished schooling till class X. For them, at least a decade of experience is required to get a promotion,” said a senior railway official.
Railway sources said that similar jobs could be found in other government and private entities, but in the Railways, the practice has been in existence since colonial days. In fact, the sixth pay commission has recommended the abolishing of such posts and the promotion of those who are currently doing it.