Mumbai: The first Tanaji Patole heard of a terrorist attack on Mumbai was when his mobile phone rang, very early on the morning of 27 November. “After watching the India-England cricket match, I had switched off the television and gone to sleep," Patole, a tehsildar in the Mumbai Collectorate, recalls. “Then I got the call at 4 in the morning, and I made my way to St George’s Hospital, where bodies were starting to come in. When I reached, Madam (the collector, Idzes Kundan) was already there. She’d been there for some time."

Quick relief: Mumbai collector Idzes Kundan in her office. The Mumbai collectorate was able to compensate all 396 eligible families within two months, largely due to Kundan’s efforts in the aftermath of the attacks. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint

For Kundan, though, she couldn’t get there fast enough. Through the night, as a yet-indeterminate number of terrorists prowled the city, sections of south Mumbai—the area around the collectorate, in particular—were cordoned off. “The fear was, if anybody drove up in a VIP car, they may be shot at," the 39-year-old Kundan says. So even as her husband, deputy commissioner of police Niket Kaushik, suited up and left, “I had to stay at home with my kids, even though I knew I should be at the office. I couldn’t leave until the early hours of the morning."

Kundan went through the next two weeks, she says, as if they formed one extended dream. Patole remembers her calling meetings even at midnight, and photographs from that time show her looking perceptibly haggard. But if it was a dream, it was a particularly productive one. Within two months of the attacks, the collectorate had disbursed state government compensation to every one of the 396 eligible families, of the injured as well as the dead—making it, according to Kundan, one of the quickest such disbursals ever.

The collectorate’s promptitude in the immediate aftermath of the attacks has earned Kundan a rare honour: a measure of goodwill and approval that seems to extend across the political spectrum. The disparity between how rapidly the state government distributed compensation and how slow the Centre has been at the same task is due in large measure to her. But it is also a sign of the difficulties of managing such an effort in as fluid a city as Mumbai, lives as well as addresses can be extremely temporary.

Kundan drew upon the accumulated experience of the Mumbai collectorate in distributing compensation. “As much as possible, we gave cheques to the injured when they were still in their hospital beds," she says. From the relatives who appeared to claim their dead, her staff procured information about bank accounts and legal heirs, to be then verified by the tehsildars in their home districts. “We had learnt from previous instances that you should note down every possible scrap of information about the victims," she says. “Now we have a form that includes every possible detail. This kind of event teaches us how to upgrade our standards."

Some cases moved with astonishing speed. Selvan Durairaj had travelled to Mumbai from his home in Tuticorin, in Tamil Nadu, to collect the body of his brother Jaykumar, who had been mowed down, in the midst of his vacation, at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. “Just one week after I had returned with the body, I received the state government’s compensation of Rs5 lakh," Durairaj remembers.

Logistical problems intervened in other instances. Shahbuddin Khan had left his family behind in Jharkhand to come to Mumbai, and he was working as a tailor near Leopold Café last November when he was killed. “After 15 days, we’d heard that others had received their compensation, so we wondered why we hadn’t received anything," says Ziauddin Khan, Shahbuddin’s brother. “There was some delay because, while the money had gone out from Mumbai, but the tahsildar in Jharkhand had held up the paperwork. But the collector’s office here did a good job. They assured me the money would be credited soon, and it was."

Shahbuddin’s widow has, however, not yet received the other parcel of compensations promised to her, by two arms of the Union government. By the time the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund and the home ministry began to collect bank account numbers from the state authorities, many families had moved, often returning to their home elsewhere in India. “We might get word from the Thane collector, for instance, that a recipient has gone back to Bihar, so then we would have to try to trace him in Bihar," Kundan says. Even a few days before the anniversary of 26/11, down the hall from Kundan’s cabin, a member of her staff named Deepak Londhe is working the phones, confirming account numbers and names to pass on to Union government authorities.

In protest of the delay of various compensations, Kirit Somaiya, a former Bharatiya Janata Party member of Parliament, has filed a petition with the State Human Rights Commission. Only 29% of the victims, he says, have received any relief from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), although he grudgingly accepts that the collectorate “performed well in the month after 26/11. They were attentive to issue cheques then. It was in sending on the list to the Centre that they performed poorly".

An affidavit filed by the Maharashtra government, in response to Somaiya’s petition, claims that the addresses of 20 families are “not traceable", and that the remaining cases will be dealt with “expeditiously". “How is that possible?" Somaiya asks heatedly. “These families received the state government cheques, so go ask the banker where the cheques were cashed. Even if those 20 families have moved, they should be traceable." The shortfall can be attributable, he alleges, “to corruption, nothing else".

Somaiya’s own documentation, however, is somewhat disingenuous. A slim, yellow-covered booklet, which he hands out freely to visitors, mentions, for example, that Mukesh Agarwal, the portly owner of the food court at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, has not received any money from the PMO. But Agarwal, who was shot in the abdomen last year, says he got that money—Rs1 lakh—in March.

“There were problems, and I admit that because I am educated, I was able to follow up the issue. A lot of the poorer people might not have been able to do that," Agarwal says. But he is unwilling to ascribe the problems to corruption. “It was only a question of miscommunication between the collectorate and the PMO. When I began going to the collector’s office to clear up my bank account number and so on, her staff was very helpful." Then he muses: “I heard just last Friday that there’s another compensation payment due from the home ministry. If that’s true, I haven’t received that."

Kundan will readily admit that snarls crept into some compensation claims. “An account number would have been off by one digit, or the bank branch name would have been wrong, and then we would have had to start the whole cycle again, of collecting the correct information and sending it to the PMO," she says. “But we often hear, in the media, about how, in compensation cases, out of Rs10, Rs5 goes into somebody’s pocket. I can tell you that that hasn’t happened here. The work is still going on. Even after 5 minutes, the numbers will change, and we would have tracked down somebody else."