Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Real Truth

I am a smart man. You may ask how I know that, but there are some things which could not be explained. A smart person just knows that, period.

If you still do not believe me, I do not care. My neighbours also did not for a long time. But now you should ask them and they will tell that I am a smart man. Their attitude changed the day I was appointed an Inspector. No, I did not become a cop; they do the boring job of running behind criminals, I became an Inspector in the Social Welfare Department. People do not appreciate the work that our department does, but it does great work and the reason they could do that is smart inspectors they have.

The first day when I went to office and met my boss, we looked in each other’s eyes and there was a spark. It was something that happens when two intelligent people meet. He immediately understood what I was made of and decided to give me a tough job.

Our department looks after many NGO run home for kids. These NGOs claim that they rehabilitate abandoned/poor kids but one look at these urchins and you will know that they were happier on railway tracks. Which child ever preferred a, b, c, d to the exciting life of railway platforms?

For years they worked under our guidance, but recently this home received the prestigious Golden Tortoise award and in their indolence, forgot to mention my boss in the thanksgiving speech. There was extremely no problem with that, but an institution which commits such folly at international stage could not run the home well. That was the day my boss understood something was wrong. He gave me the tough task of finding the real truth and sent me there for inspection, with even more powers that departmental inspectors had.

As I am different from rest, I decided that this inspection should be done in an unconventional way. Only kids of that home knew what real truth was, and to know that I had to become their agony aunt. The administrators of that home shivered when I went there, and I told them straight that I was not there to inspect old registers, but will take children to the nearby beach.

It was the kind of beach whose exotic pictures in magazines, showing blue water and unblemished sand, ensured that everyone drove down there and spent rest of the time contemplating if it was the same place they had looked at. I knew that it was just another place where sea met land, and both were exploited by a large number of human revelers but it would have served my purpose.

Anyways these were children from a ‘Home’ and as I stopped my jeep, all of them ran in different directions of the beach. This is what I do not like about children; they have no respect for the person who brings them to the beach.

It was high tide when we reached and the sound of waves hitting the beach had a cheering effect. The beach was spread across a large span, and the one frequented by tourists was the worst. Area just right of it was covered by fishes and nets, and the fishermen used that place to unload their catch. It was full of stink which ensured that only fishermen with strong nose stayed there. On the left, there was a beautiful isolated patch and no one went there because of the red crabs. These fiery looking crabs appeared from holes, again drilled the beach and disappeared in the sand.

These children were attracted to this part and started playing amongst the crabs. One of them started building a castle of sand, another found a handball and the rest went for sea bath. The only problem was that although they did not mind mingling with crabs, they were not ready to include me in their games. I had to become their friend first to uncover the truth, but every time I tried to join, they went to another spot. I tried to woo them with snail shells, beads and jute hats but they were not impressed.

I decided it was the time to play trump card. I went to a nearby stall and bought some chocolates. Children are a real greedy lot, and if nothing impresses them, a chocolate does. Once I had collected enough chocolates, I called Akash who was youngest of them all. I told him to calls the kids so that I could give them a chocolate each and he would be given one extra to do this task. He was a dumb sort of kid, whose response to stimuli was not up to the mark but it worked nonetheless.

When all of them came, I asked them if they liked chocolates. I showed them the ones that I had got but did not give it to them. A person never values a thing which easily comes. I had to ensure that my investment gives good returns. I allowed them to touch the chocolates, smell its flavour and imagine its taste.

When they were excited, I told them that we will play a game. I would tell them how chocolates were made and in turn they will have to tell me something interesting about this world. Since I was a smart man and knew everything about this world, the only thing left was information of their home, the kind that outsiders did not know.

I told them in detail how chocolates are made. I started from selection of cocoa beans, extraction of butter and it’s mixing with sugar and milking. I slowly described the process of developing taste and flavours and I could see them salivating over the taste.

They wanted to eat the chocolates immediately that but I insisted on finishing the game. They told me that they did not like the wooden beds on which they slept, there were bugs in their clothes and the cow next door mowed all the time making it hard to sleep. They told me other things as well but still I was not at the top of this world. I had to get some specific information by which my boss could prove that no home could run without the able guidance of officials of social welfare department.

Getting no results, I parted with my chocolates and decided to proceed to my B plan. Akash who looked extremely sad had not told anything and I knew he had something serious in his mind. I took him for a long walk. The sea breeze had turned strong and we walked past the fishermen’s nets. This part of the beach had dense shrubs and it looked like a painter’s image of a beach.

I told him that since he was an extraordinarily intelligent chap, I would tell him more about chocolates. When chocolate is made, best cocoa beans are separated from rest and then special chocolate milk is mixed with extremely tasty sugar and milk and stirred for days to prepare an exotic chocolate. This chocolate was costlier than gold and only fortunate people got its taste.

I took out the one left in my pocket, and allowed him to touch that. It was packaged like pearl and I could see his pupil dilate with greed.

‘Just tell me one thing about your home, and the chocolate is yours.’ I saw him thinking hard and I knew I had hit the bull’s eye.

‘You know uncle, this home is not bad but there are certain things which no one knows. They never allow anyone to discover that.’ His voice cracked.

‘Hmm.’ I gestured him to continue.

‘In the morning they give us tea and snack. That is ok. After that give lunch in the afternoon and dinner in the night and even that is not bad. But the real problem lies with the evening snack.’ He spoke slowly to ensure that no one else could listen that. A boat full of sea catch landed nearby and he was distracted by struggling fish in the nets. He looked at it for some time and then again started.

‘They prominently display that they give us special puffed rice mix as a snack. Actually it is a mixture of many things and the names of the ingredients like peanuts, chilli etc. is approved by the social welfare board and they are not allowed to mix anything else in that. They ensure that everyone finishes it and no one is ever allowed to leave that. In fact even if we are sick, we have to eat that.’

‘Carry on.’ I said. The sun was setting in the sea and it appeared that this was indeed a beautiful beach. The scenery was perfect and my quest for real truth was also coming to a perfect end.

‘Since last seven days you know…..’ and then he took a deep breath.

‘You know peanuts, since last seven days there are no peanuts in that.’

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Treating a Symptom is not the Cure

        Recently I had to meet a special fact finding team sent by a National Commission. It consisted of motley of NGOs along with a beautiful Bollywood starlet who worked with the commission as a part of her social responsibility. The team was concerned about the state of affairs and was equally vociferous in articulating it. I specifically remember this starlet describing sad tales of victims, the weaknesses of our system and changes that we needed to make. Despite great diversity amongst team members there was one thing common; no one had any experience of working in government; and though we appreciated their enthusiasm, none of their ideas were implementable.

         In the last sixty five years of independence, the government has fallen short to live up to the expectations of people. Not only have we failed to provide good governance, we have corruption cases of astronomical magnitude and crimes against weaker sections of society are increasing. People have started losing patience. Their anger was visible in the support that Anna movement generated in its initial phase (How they lost it later is another interesting case study). Who has not suffered at the hands of clerk who buries file in his desk, who was not been harassed by traffic constable who searches papers diligently to find a fault and how many of us could get a driving licence without depositing the ‘convenience fee’. The feeling is of utter disgust when common man faces double digit inflation and there are scams like 2G where counting zeroes of magnitude is an exercise in itself.

       Electorate want results and in a democratic polity like ours, can a solution be far behind. To deal with corruption we have Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), Lokayukta in many states and CBI. Finding it to be insufficient, we are en-route to formulate a leviathan Lokpal. To give justice to the weaker sections of society we have National Commission for SCs, for STs, for Backward Classes and the same have been provided for Women, Children and Safai Karamcharis. We also have Information Commission, Human Rights Commission and corresponding state commissions for all these commissions. It is as good as response to stimuli, you pose a problem and we will give you a commission.

      In this hurry to deliver, we should take time and ponder if the solution that we are being offered is the best. A friend of mine who was against corruption refused to pay bribe to take delivery of his driving licence. Every time he went to the RTO office he was told that his licence was not ready. He complained to the vigilance officer, filed various queries under RTI and after these efforts received his licence without paying any bribe; indeed a way to fight corruption. An imaginative departmental secretary mandated that no driving licence will be delivered by hand and since applicants give address, it should be sent by post. This is another way to tackle corruption. A colleague of mine often found complaints that files of a vital section are frequently lost. This resulted in numerous complaints most of which related to seeking a bribe. He found its solution by implementing e-office where all files are digitally maintained and processed. No physical files exist now and hence it is not possible to hide one.

     In our hurry to find solutions, we should find time to ponder if we are putting cart before the horse. Are we serious about doing administrative reforms? Have we devised a method to punish the erring bureaucrats and reward those doing good work? We are yet to put an end to the game of revolving chairs amongst bureaucrats and provide them a stable tenure. According to a research, the average tenure of IAS officers in the period 1980-2000 was sixteen months. Even this time period would appear too long in certain cadres. In her first stint of four months and fourteen days, Mayawati transferred 550 IAS officers, in her second stint of six months it was 777 and in her third stint the number of transfers stood at 970. The total authorised strength of UP cadre is 537.

     No effort is being made to restructure work procedures. We largely follow British era rules which are based on distrust. No one has time to think why a particular thing is done, why it is being done that way and how it can be simplified. An example can be attestation of various certificates. There is a huge demand for government jobs, and even if there is a single vacancy, thousands apply. We ask candidates to submit attested copies of certificates along with their application form. These thousand applicants will run around in government offices to find that mighty yet kind Gazetted officer who will take time out of her/his busy schedule to sign these. On one hand we give extreme trouble to these applicants and on the other we waste time of government employees on an unproductive work. Some other organisations ask for self attested copies and then thoroughly verify the certificates of one who is finally selected. Why can’t we make it mandatory for all?

    There has been a consistent increase in crime but has proper attention been paid to shortage of manpower in police force. In 2010 the vacancy in the police force stood at 24.4% with more than four lakh posts vacant across the country. We have 133 policemen per lakh people against the United Nations (UN) prescribed figure of 222 per lakh. The number in some other countries is Italy (559), Mexico (491) and Saudi Arabia (386). Even if we recruit the missing personnel, our average would be way behind the one prescribed by UN.

     The magnitude of work that any government office does is huge and till Information Technology (IT) is effectively used, service delivery can never be satisfactory. An ambitious National E-Governance plan (NeGP) was launched in 2006 which consisted of 27 Mission mode projects. Some of these initiatives like e-district/digitisation of land records etc if and when implemented would simplify some extremely cumbersome government procedures. Thus to say that government is not doing anything would be wrong. To say that it is doing enough would also be far from truth.

    The budgetary allocation for entire NeGP in 2009-10 was 700 crores. The money that CBI got in the same year was 335 crores. A National Commission may roughly be allocated 20 crores per year. The figure would be around 160 crores for the eight commissions mentioned above. Then there would be corresponding expenditure on state commissions. Unfortunately there is no separate State E-governance plan. This does not mean that CBI or various commissions which have been set up are without merit. They have their legitimate role in settling outlying problems but routine issues will have to be addressed as a matter of routine.

    The point that is being made is that corruption or delayed service delivery is just a symptom. The real malady is that our governance is still not SMART i.e. Simple, Moral, Accountable, Responsive and Transparent. All problems cannot be solved by forming special bodies or commissions. Even heinous crimes are a symptom that our police forces are not well equipped and trained to prevent such an occurrence. These initiatives do not find favour with politicians because they do not yield immediate electoral dividends. The number of opportunist politicians in our polity surpasses that of statesmen who can sell these to electorate and provide the political will to implement them.

    It is time we look beyond these symptoms and cure the real malady.