Reconstructing the bureaucracy

The Gadfly Column

Anyone familiar with the “Yes Minister” and “Yes Prime Minister” television series that highlighted how the British government bureaucracy ran rings around their political “masters” would have realised that its Indian counterpart is no laggard when it comes to teaching its political bosses some of the tricks of the trade (and more). It was only after forty years of mutual coexistence of the babu and the neta that the political class, in a crisis situation in 1991, started to tinker with the apparatus of controls that had placed the babu in an all-powerful position. But there was a flaw in this approach: while the license-permit raj was dismantled, the babu raj was left to flourish merrily. Successive governments in the past twenty years have blithely ignored the recommendations of the Fifth Central Pay Commission (FCPC) (1997) on downsizing the bureaucracy as well as the weighty (literally!) reports of…

View original post 1,707 more words


Just another Indian Railways employee

I sensed it, before I heard it. There I was standing on Platform No. 1 of Nagpur Railway Station. Checking out which newspaper to buy. I glanced sideways. The train was moving! Bloody hell! I had not heard any announcement. Nor the normally loud horn of the diesel engine pulling my train. The superfast Tamil Nadu Express.

I turned and ran. Straight into a man carrying a steel trunk. It hit me on the shin. But, now was not the time to think about the pain. Now, was the time to run. And to catch the train. “Don’t get down from the train, before it reaches Madras” my dad had warned me last night, before the train left New Delhi at 10 PM. And here I was, running after a train that was accelerating out of Nagpur.

Well, now was the time to put all the skills learnt catching those DTC buses to school and back. I had been using the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) buses for the last 2 years. Initially, I would patiently wait for an opportunity to push others in, or get pushed myself into the narrow doors at the rear of the bus. That was when I was 13. Things had changed in the last one year. Running behind a bus that had started and jumping onto it had become the norm.  It was all a matter of timing. Yeah. That and the girls to impress. Were they? I will never know!

Back to the TN express. The Pantry car was going past me now. Run man! Run faster! I heard someone yell “Jaane do!” (Let it go!). Nopes. Not an option. I was now almost at the same speed as the train. As I reached for the handle of the door at the end of the pantry car, I realised that the door was closed. No time to wait. I had to grab the handle and jump on to the top step. Just as my right foot hit the step, I realised I had made a mistake. The step was wet. And I was wearing flip flops. Net result – poor grip. Just as my mind said “Oh oh”, the door was yanked open from inside, a pair of strong arms lifted me in. It was one of the pantry guys.

And then started the tirade. To my good luck, my knowledge of Tamil was not all that great. Otherwise, I might have been tempted to open the door and jump out again. In between the many unmentionable, unprintable words hurled at me, I was told in no uncertain terms of how I was a maniac who deserved to be admitted to the nearest mental hospital. I tried to say thanks. Thanks for saving my life. But it only caused him to flare up even more. Perhaps one of his colleagues felt sorry for me, and pulled him back into one of the resting areas meant for staff.

As my compartment was ahead of the pantry car, my walk across the entire length of it was one of the longest in my life. Silent they may have been, as I was limped past them – the other staff and fellow passengers in the pantry car- but I could feel the collective term they were using in their minds – Irresponsible Idiot.

The pain where my leg had been hit by the steel trunk now hurt badly. I dragged myself back to my seat 3 compartments away. As I collapsed into my seat, I understood how lucky I was. It hit me now. I struggled to keep my emotions in control. Not to cry in front of my fellow passengers. I decided to climb to my top berth in the sleeper II class and lie down for some time. The summer heat made it almost impossible to lie down there. But, I must have been tired. Overwhelmed. Because, the next thing I remember is being woken up by someone shaking my leg. Right where I had been hit earlier! I was ready to curse whoever it was. It was him. We recognised each other. I swallowed the curses. “Saapad” he said. And left the steel tray and it’s cover at one end of the berth.

He had taken the food order earlier this morning while I was still in my berth. Without my prescription glasses on, he was just a blur, from my bunk. I tried to catch his attention to try and thank him again, but he had other customers to attend to. I was hesitant because I did not want him to flare up again.

Later, after the night meal, as we were speeding through Andhra Pradesh, he came to collect the dues. I paid him. As he was collecting from others in my seating area, I hesitantly asked him “Ungal per?” (Your name?). “Muthu” he said. And he smiled at me. “Thanks Muthu” was all I was able to say.

Muthu. Just another Indian Railways employee.


Values to Cherish

“Garage ka chaabi de jara” said my brother (Give me the keys to the garage). He normally does not keep anything there, so as I gave him the key I asked him what he wanted to keep inside. “Nahin. Plastic chairs nikal na hai andar se” (No. I have to remove the plastic chairs from inside).

Apparently a family was taking shelter under the solid shade of the Honge tree in front of our home, and there was an elderly lady and gent among them, and he wanted to offer the chairs to them.

The tree and the pavement

The tree, the shade, the pavement

I have mentioned earlier about the Hospital that is virtually next door to us. These folks were visiting the hospital to be with a loved one. They had brought packed lunch with them, and in the absence of a canteen in the hospital, needed a place to sit and have their meal in peace. I noticed that they had brought their food in steel containers. They were having their meals in disposable plates.

Later in the afternoon, when I went out, I noticed that the chairs had been kept back on our verandah, and there was no food or disposable plates at the base of the tree. Yes, there was traces of water at the base of the tree where they had possibly washed their hands. My heart swelled with pride for my fellow Bangaloreans actions. In spite of their personal situation, they had made sure that there was no litter left behind. Along with it came a sense of shame that I had expected them to litter the place, if nothing else, at least with the disposable plates. They hadn’t.

My thinking was based on an incident a few days back. An early morning, when I had seen a number of disposable plates that had been littered by the roadside in front of our home. I felt that it was a Ganesha immersion party that had done the deed. I had heard several processions go past our home the previous night. And then there are the many smartly dressed youngsters who often come to the store next door, pick up ice cream or chocolates, and think nothing of dropping the sticks or the covers on the pavement in front of our home. Naturally, I wished Bangalore had more people like that family, and less of the latter.

Also, is there not a common thread between my brother’s and the family’s actions? A mind (or is it heart?) that cares for entire strangers. One which thinks about not inconveniencing others. This to me , is a value that is to be cherished. A value that anyone has to be thankful to one’s parents and teachers for inculcating in us. A common refrain is “It is not easy to practice this value in this age. Everyone cares only about themselves first.”. Do try. The more you do, the better you will get at it. And the world will be a better place for it. Agree?

Token of gratitude

For a moment, I was transported back in time. To a time when I fought with a book shop owner in Gandhi Bazaar. He had chosen to put a stamp of his bookshop on a photograph of a miniature painting in the book I had just purchased, to forcibly advertise the fact that I had purchased the book from his store. I made him replace it and give me a copy without his customary stamp! He did mutter that no one other than me had a problem with his shop’s stamp on the first page of their books. In true Bangalorean spirit (when it still existed), all mutual cursing n cussing was done silently, under the respective breaths taken through inflated nostrils!

The letter below is what took me back to that event of a decade ago.


While cleaning up old snail mail, I found this letter from the Chief General Manager, Circulation for The Week magazine.

I had recently renewed my subscription for the next 5 years and as a token of gratitude, here he was…offering me the unique privilege of pasting a sticker to my car that read “I read The Week. Do you?”.

Thanks Mr. Nair, but I just cannot accept this magnanimous honour that you have bestowed upon me. I am overwhelmed! How can my small, little car, carry the huge responsibility of advertising freely for your esteemed magazine?

Sarcasm apart, I do wonder whose brainwave this “gratitude=car sticker” idea was? Going by Peter’s principle, he or she needs no further promotion…they have already arrived at their level of incompetence.

Meanwhile, I eagerly await the next “Dear valued subscriber” letter from them …a long wait… 5 years from now… if i subscribe once again. Maybe by then, they will send me a new car instead of just a “sticker”! 😀

Using smart phones smartly

Just earlier today, my classmate Anoop Nautiyal, had tweeted about the need for the Uttarakhand government to not just build good roads, but also build long-lasting bridges, and possibly maintain those already built. This was in light of a recent bridge collapse …

I would not be surprised if the Uttarakhand government does not even have a readily accessible list of bridges on it’s highways and smaller roads, that is classified by say location, river, type of structure, year of construction, and a set of repeating data like when was it last inspected, by whom, what repairs, if any, were suggested, when, if at all, were the suggestions executed. This along with countless other technical and useful-to-the-public parameters that could assist the residents ensure that their local representatives and government officials are accountable. Even if a list exists, we can be sure that it will be treated as a top secret document, that the common man will never have access to. Transparency and accountability are not really what we get from the govt.

So, can we bypass them, and create our own database of bridges? While it may not provide for the level of detail that one would expect from the official records, this one could be created by the people for creating awareness, as well as putting effective pressure on elected representatives and government officials.

How would one go about building a public database in this age? By personally visiting all the places and recording the details? I hope not. Smart phones penetration is quite deep into all parts of India. Many of them have GPS built in too. I expect them to become even cheaper than they are now, and thereby expect a further increase in the penetration levels to the remotest corners of India. If we could create a simple application that could allow capturing GPS-based location or even basic GSM triangulation-based location, and photos, and some pre-defined and free form data, and sending this to a server, we would have solved the data collection aspect . Imagine a database that is represented on the Internet, with one page per bridge, and multiple posts that share the current condition – both through photos, and through data!  If it is a website that is administered and controlled by the local citizens, it would have good credibility too. Those who are not local, but interested, could help out in other support roles…bet it the creation/maintenance of such a database, it’s visual representation on the internet, or creating and simplifying the apps to use on a phone. The intended consequences of creating such a database is to ensure that the elected representatives and government officials are kept on their toes by the open display of the state of affairs. Newspapers and television channels could access this database too for their content. So could Gram Panchayats, or MLA’s, or MPs, if they are sincere about their constituencies. I am sure that there will be some unintended consequences that one would need to pay more attention to. Not of the security kind, but one of deliberate misinformation being fed into the system …that is exaggeration on either side of the correct picture.

Recently our PM mentioned that the problems of all our hill states are common, and that there is a need to create solutions that can be implemented across them in a uniform manner. This is a part of the good governance agenda that has been promised to the nation. I am skeptical about it’s success in the short term (next 5 years) because of the various vested interests involved – be it politicians or government officials – who do not like being held accountable. As always, will be happy, if I am proven wrong, as it is my fellow citizens who would benefit! 🙂

I hope that as a nation we can start involving more and more people in matters of governance. Empowering them to be able to give instant feedback would itself be a big step forward. Using smart phones smartly would be one of the steps in that direction.

Cleaning up the Ganga

Most of us here in India are looking forward to see how the NDA government, and Mr. Modi in particular are able to live up to their promise of cleaning up the River Ganga. Others, starting way back in the 80’s with Rajiv Gandhi, have made promises that have been, at best, only partially met.

Pollution may not be visible in the upstream tributaries, where the river roars down where it is not constrained by the multiple dams.  The exception: construction waste being dumped into the river.  It is untreated human waste from all of the growing towns in the hills that is most certainly an undesirable addition to the river. Setting up mini waste treatment plants using the latest technology should be a priority for those areas.

As we come down to the plains, Industrial waste takes on a much larger proportion of the pollutants added to the river. Most likely, if the laws that are in place were to be implemented properly, we could reduce this pollution significantly. Therein lies the biggest hurdle. Apart from corruption in the concerned state and central departments, there exists a factory owners – politician nexus that does not allow the implementation of the existing rules. Pollution control equipment is seen by most as optional or even as a cost that needs to be cut.

This is true for even for the smallest industrialist. In the early 90’s, I worked for a PCB manufacturing firm in Bangalore, and they had no qualms whatsoever in letting cyanide (used in the process) flow out into the nearest storm water drain. In connivance with the relevant department officials of course! All to ensure that the profits were not impacted. Justifying it was simple. After all, the customer was not willing to pay more, and the other competitors did the same thing.

It is in this context that news of of how in some parts of China, personnel responsible for pollution control, are being held accountable for their performance is worthy of emulating in India too. One interesting aspect is that in some parts of China, factories are being set annual quotas on the amount of river pollution that they cause.  Like carbon trading markets in the west, in China, factories wishing to increase their production, and as a by product increase the river pollution, can go and buy credit from other factories as needed. Where they seem to have gone ahead of the world, is in giving the ability to pollution control officials a remote control switch to the valves on the outlet pipes from the industries! Turn off the valve, and the production comes to a grinding halt.

The challenge for us in India is quite large, and one hopes that professionals and politicians can join together in making a positive difference to the status of the River Ganga by 2019. Will being tough on polluters and those who collude with them, reap political dividend for the NDA? Time will tell.

Count the poles

The summer heat beat down upon the train. We were traveling by the Grand Trunk Express. Day 2 of the journey. An afternoon in May. We were somewhere in Madhya Pradesh. Maybe in Maharashtra. I was seated by the open window. The breeze was hot. The rexine seat was hot. My dad sat on the other window seat.  Dozing actually. Head propped up against the top of the window and bobbing up and down in tune with the rhythmic movement of the train. I reached out and shook him by his knee. He opened one eye. His eyebrow went up asking me the question that he did not mouth “What now?”. Well, I did have a question for him. “Why are we going so slow? Why can’t this train go faster?”  Dad looked out. Saw his watch. Looked out again. Silence. I knew that I had to wait. I would get an answer. Eventually. When he was ready to give it. He looked at his watch again. Murmured something to himself. Closed his eyes and said “He is not slow. We are going at approximately 70 kmph now.”

There was that moment again. I watched open mouthed…while thinking “How does he know the speed?” Of course, as any 5 year for whom his dad was his hero (He played Cricket. Regular leather ball cricket. He hit sixes. He took wickets. He took awesome catches. Yes, hero he was), it never occurred to me that he might be fibbing about the speed. It took me another 7 years, and perhaps 3-4 more such travels, before I got to understand the science behind those seemingly magic numbers.

So, here is what was happening. It was all about counting the poles. No, not the polish poles. Count the good old telephone poles. telephone pole

Put up right next to the railway tracks, connecting cities, making trunk calls possible. Yes, trunk calls. Remember them? If not watch “Chupke Chupke” here – skip to 20.49 to see what would happen when there was a trunk call.

But, we digress. Like links on the world wide web. So, lets get back to the poles. Telphone poles. Someone, I don’t know who, but sure would like to know who, used to number them. On these silver coloured poles would a patch of black paint. On it, would be painted in silver or white numbers like 511/1 or 841/9. The slash would be horizontal. The top number indicated the distance in kilometers from some city to the pole. The smaller number was an indicator of the pole number within the next kilometer. In different parts of the country, the Department of Telecom would have differing standards for the number of poles that would make a kilometer. Some had 15. Others 16.

So the trick, or the science was to look at the seconds needle on your wristwatch exactly as the train passed a pole with a fresh kilometer marked on it. And then you waited. Till you passed the pole, 10, 12 or 15 ones later, that marked the next kilometer. You counted the seconds in between the two events. You now had the time taken in seconds to traverse 1 km. You just had to divide 3600 (seconds in one hour…you knew that right?) by the number you had to get the speed in kilometers per hour or kmph.

Later, on my frequent trips between Delhi and Banglore in the mid 80’s, I used to do this to keep myself occupied. Or, at times, to impress the girls traveling in the same 2nd class cubicle. No. Not one of them was impressed. Ever. Not that I learnt. 🙂

Recently one my journey to Delhi and back, traveling in AC comfort, and with broad wide clean windows, I took the next step in impressing a 7 year old with this image as soon as he woke up on day 2 of our journey. I had made a deal with him the previous night that we both would stay awake and watch the journey unfold. His parents were suitably unimpressed with this deal. So, sleep he did. And me…well.. at 4.26 am, this is what I was doing 🙂

GPS showing speed of train

GPS showing speed of train

While he was suitably impressed, his dad, did not like this uncalled for  intrusion into the father-son relationship, and promptly showed his son the application on his smart phone that could do the same thing. The next night, both of them stayed up late into the night watching stations as we flew past them…after all, we were in the Rajdhani.

Maybe by the time he grows up, google glasses like devices will be common enough, for him to coolly say to no one in particular (but the girl  in the cubicle that is)…”You know, we are going at 180 kmph right now”, for him to be suitably rewarded with a smile. Then he can continue “I counted the poles, you know? Learnt it from this great guy who I traveled with when I was a 7 year old”

So, the next time you travel by Indian Railways…go slow.. and count the poles. Who knows…you may impress someone too? 😀

(Inspired to write this after viewing this… post … shared by my friend Chandana)