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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Attempts at becoming immortal

I am now seriously contemplating having an inaugural ceremony at my residence, the next time I purchase a Television, Music System, Refrigerator or any costly household appliance. The ceremony will be replete with an inaugural plaque mentioning of-course my name in bold, which will be stuck to the equipment. After all being the boss of the house I shall be doing the honors almost every time. At times I may also invite senior neighbors for the ceremony and their names will also be displayed on the plaque in an appropriate capacity, generally as the Guests of Honor.

Sounds strange, to the extent of being ridiculous. Well a similar scenario is what we indulge in regularly during the course of discharge of our official responsibilities. So what is strange about it if we extend the same to our homes.

Jokes apart, my wife and daughters have just now warned me that my plan is outright foolish and they would go to any extent to prevent me from putting it in action. They are certain that my scheme is going to make me not “amar”, but a laughing stock in the railway colony. If engraving names on foundation/inaugural plaques started conferring “amaratva”, on the person so named, then perhaps I would have been permitted to indulge, but not otherwise. My daughter also sarcastically reminded me that Gandhiji and Pandit Nehru are “amar” not because of their names having been engraved on plaques, but because of their contribution to the society they lived in.

My recent visit to Simla shocked me. Worthy attempts at glorifying heritage bridges by placing granite plaques mentioning the significance of the heritage structures, had fallen terribly short of the professed objective because the plaques also glorified the officials responsible not for building the structure, but for putting the plaque. Again crude attempts at sycophancy and also attaining “amaratva”. Well think of a scenario 100 years hence when it would appear that the names on the plaques are those of the builder. History would then stand rewritten and the engineer who was born 50 years after the bridge was built would come to be identified as the builder of the bridge. I am also reminded of an inaugural ceremony held in Delhi a couple of years back when a minister inaugurated a “dustbin”. I was told that the ceremony itself attracted a lot of sniggers, but what are few sniggers on the road to “amaratva”. But one occasion which was really the cause of great entertainment for the participants was when two ministers jointly inaugurated a toilet block at a public place.

We have become a nation of inaugural and foundation stone ceremonies. Open any newspaper and you find innumerable instances of public figures vying for amaratva. Full page advertisements announcing inaugural or foundation stone ceremonies have become common. The ceremony itself becomes larger than life and the very cause of the ceremony becomes insignificant vis-à-vis the Chief Guest. Omnipresent sycophants contribute in no small measure by leaving no stone unturned during such occasions and well after the event is over, the cause can go to hell. Very often it so happens that first it is decided to “maskofy” a public figure and then the foundation or inaugural ceremony is suitably evolved. Well on a more sombre note, comparing the two, I am supportive more of the inaugurals because they signify completion of an activity even if it is a dustbin, a toilet block or the plaque itself. What really annoys me however are the foundation stone ceremonies, which are a dime a dozen these days and no one really has even the foggiest of idea of the day when the foundation stone would get consummated. You lay a foundation stone with great fanfare, achieve amaratva and then conveniently move on to another ceremony elsewhere. But think of the positive side. Every activity has so much potential for ceremonies and there are so many petty activities to be performed. Everyone who is a somebody can always remain busy either cutting ribbons or marking attendance during these ceremonies. The potential is immense and I am confident that we as a society will leave no stone unturned in lapping it up ad infinitum.

I just am not able to appreciate this great national pastime of laying foundation and inaugural stones for almost about everything under the sun. Is it not the job of Governments to provide roads or say public toilets or say railway lines?. Why the hell do we then lay foundation or inaugural stones for carrying out routine obligatory functions. Or is it that the Indian society has become so bankrupt of achievements that even a toilet block or a new dustbin is considered a national achievement which should be celeberated and whose builders should be immortalised in stone for posterity. I am not deriding these stones totally. Definetely we should lay foundation and inaugural stones for long 8 lane highways or new power stations, fertiliser plants or if I let my imagination run wild, say a new quadrilateral for the railways. These would definetely be achievements of stature and the builders or dreamers of them deserve being immortalised in history, but not those of toilet blocks, dustbins or even boundary walls.

We ape the west in almost every sphere of our life. I once asked a Britisher whether in his nation they have such ceremonies as frequently as in India. He smirked and said that such ceremonies send a signal that the nation is bereft of real achievements. It is sad but it is the truth, a truth which dawns on me every day when I open the morning newspaper. Besides the routine and the sensational stuff, there are news stories about cultural events being held, CD’s being released, exhibitions being inaugurated, petty structures being renovated and many other insignificant events trying to rev up our national pride. What is glaringly missing are significant achievments in any sphere of activity, achievements which would make a positive contribution to the growth of the nation. Does it mean that we have become a nation of non achievers, the conformists or the status quoists. Again sad but true. A very high acceptability of the status quoists by the Indian society is what is ruining the nation. A society which feels uneasy with achievers is what we have become today. And therefore the foundation and inaugural stones, which give a false sense of achievement from mediocre run of the mill accomplishments.

If my point of view were to prevail, I would place an immediate ban on laying of any type of stone other than the tombstone. Let people be known and remembered for what they have achieved in life or contributed to the society, rather than by having their names engraved in granite or marble stones for petty activities.

Is corruption a dirty word

Even after fifty years of existence of which twenty-nine have been spent in the governmental sector in the country in various capacities, I am still not able to decide whether corruption is a ‘dirty’ word. I often find that majority of people I interact with, are apparently living beyond their known sources of income, have no convictions or morals, lack basic commitment to the organization and the nation and even then are considered not corrupt unless proved otherwise. My brain then long conditioned by the prevalent norms of the society says, “No, it is not” while my heart tempered more by ethics and moral values and a spiritual upbringing shouts, “Yes, it is”. The dilemma continues!

Recently a contractor who worked for me in one of my previous avatar of a CEO visited me, perhaps out of regard some people command irrespective of the seat they are sitting on. After initial small talk, I bluntly asked him whether he, while executing the contract had to grease the palms of the minions working under me. An embarrassing and also uncommon question! But I have been known to be rather blunt in matters involving integrity. After beating about the bush for some time, he finally summoned the courage to accept that he too, despite my direct involvement in the contract could not avoid paying the ten-percent. The only saving grace, he mentioned was that the system had agreed to provide him, as a very special case, a single window under the table service. I felt upset and also hurt. I wondered why he did not bring this to my attention, even when he and everyone else knew of my clean image and swift and also ruthless decision making ability. The answer he gave says it all

“There are so many people involved and the file keeps on shuffling between so many tables for perpetual checks and clearances. Everyone out there uses his negative powers and the bureaucracy is immense. If I had told you and you had taken up one person, the rest of the gang would have created enough hurdles to have stalled my contract or penalized me otherwise. I therefore chose the practical option of buying speed.”

The guy was dead right. It was the complexity of the stifling bureaucracy to blame not the poor individual in its grip. The bureaucracy out there was not stifling corruption by making things difficult to happen, but stifling deliverance and promoting corruption. In my view, it is very simple. If a hundred thumb impressions are required for every decision or action, then a lot of people will make money, pass the buck or delay matters as the system gives absolute immunity from being nailed directly, either for making money or for incompetence. If only one or two thumb impressions were involved, the owners of the thumbs would get easily identified and exposed and matters would be set right without delay. My failure in overhauling the system and making it simple and transparent then slowly dawned on me. But it would have required a major surgery with its attendant complications. Perhaps, then being under siege on so many fronts, I could not summon the courage required for the surgery. But I have always firmly believed that the answer to most of our ills lies in making things simple to happen. When are we as a society or as a system going to realize the benefits that will accrue by reducing the number of thumb impressions from hundred to one or two? Besides eliminating corruption, as the immunity provided by numbers would cease to exist, productivity would also shoot up and as a by-product generate clear accountability for deliverance or the lack of it. However, while making things simple to happen would be the correct thing to do, we perpetually continue to live in a fool’s paradise that making things difficult to happen will make it difficult to make money.

It is the same everywhere. There is not a single contract anywhere in the system where money is not changing hands, also under the table. Every checkpoint or a check-post has converted itself into a moneymaking business, and that is why we have lucrative, not so lucrative and dry postings, cutting across services and levels. If we think otherwise, we are living in a fool’s paradise. This is happening despite the presence of elaborate vigilance setups, which instead of curbing corruption are in fact making a significant contribution to the cause of escalating it. One more sentry to be taken care of at one more checkpoint. Perhaps I have become paranoid. Obsessed with the need for deliverance and the need to maintain high standards of probity in public life, I find myself compelled to take issue on tasks generally found pleasant by the majority. Perhaps being a Bharatvasi to the core, I feel hurt when the country is being bled by the corrupt and non-performers, both categories being Omni-present in our rotten system.

My younger daughter is thirteen years old. If someday I go senile and implement true democracy at home and in the process allow everyone including the thirteen year-old to take their own decisions, there is absolutely no doubt that she will end up ruining her life and in the process also cause a lot of discomfort to the other members of the family. This is exactly what happened to Bharatvarsh in 1947. An immature and non-visionary society, a society with a ridiculously low literacy rate was allowed to govern itself and that too democratically. And look where we have arrived, at the bottom of the list of nations with the exception of perhaps Bangladesh, Nepal and few other countries of no consequence. Is this the path we want to continue to follow in the 21st century? Do we want to be a country of glaring contrasts, a superpower that does not even raise an eyebrow when a large chunk of the residents of its capital city use railway tracks for morning ablutions? A country which wants to be a global preacher without even being able to provide basic education, water, electricity, sanitation and housing to most of its citizens?

I am of the firm opinion that corruption is more a symptom of a deep-rooted malaise within the decision making processes in the governmental system, than a disease by itself. I also strongly believe that corruption and productivity are linked directly not inversely. I do not see any merit in beating about the bush and living in a world, which does not believe in but still keeps on harping, that sincere efforts are being taken to eradicate corruption. I would rather just make things simple to happen and then see the last nail on the coffin of corruption. How I wish that we Indians who ape the west in so many superficial and cosmetic things, for once, starts aping their working systems, procedures and decision making processes for the good of the society.

Rampant Corruption

The most preferred drawing room subject of today is financial corruption. I sometimes wonder what we would be discussing at intellectual gatherings if ours had been a corruption free society. However all of us Indians having experienced it in some form or the other and at al levels, down from the class four employees to the political masters, have almost achieved expertise in the art of corruption. Corruption is taken for granted and any act having a financial bearing taking place without exchanging the green notes is viewed as an aberration.

It is unfortunate that the malaise of corruption has become rather deep-rooted and also wide spread, touching almost the entire spectrum of life within India. While the malaise that is omnipresent makes life difficult, if not impossible, its one good feature is that it does not differentiate between people on the basis of caste though at times it does on the basis of the financial or power stature of the person concerned. What is really unfortunate however is the national acceptance of corruption as an acceptable social evil with even the corrupt blaming the system for his acts of corruption.

Is this malaise restricted only to India? The answer is NO. Almost all countries of the world are effected by this disease though in varying degrees. While the developed countries are witness to corrupt practices, generally in mega contracts and deals, the population in general remains unaffected by the malaise. The situation in developing countries is worse, with almost every system that effect the life of ordinary citizens, becoming accustomed to the practice of graft. India has however acquired a rare distinction of emerging as a nation where no system has been left untouched by the malaise of widespread and deep-rooted corruption and where nothing gets done, except for the high and mighty, without greasing of palms. All international surveys on the issue of corruption have been unfailingly placing India at almost the top of the index of the most corrupt countries.

In India, God may not be present everywhere, but corruption is omnipresent. Be it obtaining a ration card or getting an electrical connection for a new house, making a driving license or getting your property registered, bending the building rules or getting some one a job in the sarkari sector, getting an FIR registered or obtaining a berth on a train at the last minute, even obtaining a Vespa scooter or a telephone connection two decades ago, almost every activity with the exception of perhaps acts like withdrawing your own money from the bank is carried out under the umbrella of graft, often called speed money. Even solemn occasions like Tsunami or the earthquakes are occasions of joy for the corrupt in the supply chain as there is potential to make good money. Even the judiciary, that was earlier considered beyond reproach is not averse to giving favorable judgements if the price is right. There are kickbacks in almost all official contracts of reasonable value. One may however ask, what are the agencies, and there are many, that are entrusted with the task of curbing corruption doing? They, in my opinion are like one more sentry at one more check-post to be taken care of.

Is the situation redeemable?

Difficult but possible, provided the will is there and the flesh is also not weak. It can happen only if within the sarkari systems, we change the way we make things and contracts happen. “Make things simple to happen” and then things will happen simply without the attendant complications that lead to corrupt practices. Besides things will then happen even at the hands of the so-called average and mediocre and then the country would also have no option other than taking off for the big league. Unfortunately the primitive feudal mindset still continues. During the British rule we were slaves, and the system was accordingly designed to make untrustworthy slaves work. Why we are still carrying on with the same system is what I am unable to fathom. The same old system, which required a hundred thumb impressions for a job as trivial as even buying a spoon, continues. The same old system where everyone is considered unworthy of trust and you have to have a countersignature over the signature of every responsible person continues. Somehow we have ended up believing in and therefore practicing “Make things impossible to happen” as the solution to all ills including the all-pervasive corruption. I quite often wonder why we don’t make it easy to do things. Why even simple matters spin out of control requiring phenomenal effort to execute? Why things happen so easily in the developed and even the developing countries and never happen in our motherland? Why our motherland even after fifty years of independence is still grappling with primary issues like water, electricity and housing? Why we can make one rocket and one atom bomb beautifully and fail in mass quality production of even petty items? Why projects initiated with great fanfare are found rotting only after a couple of months? All this, I feel is because we have made doing anything impossible. I really dream that the country would one day adopt the philosophy of “Make things simple to happen”.

Let us reduce the number of thumb impressions per decision. Let us if possible eliminate or drastically reduce files. This will radically improve productivity, fix accountability and in the process eliminate corruption. Everyone will then be fully accountable for his or her acts of omission or commission and will either pay the price for non-deliverance or enjoy the fruits of achievement besides standing the risk of immediate exposure for acts of impropriety. Another step is to de-complicate the complex mechanism of contracting. Our contractual procedures are so harrowing that ultimately one ends up purchasing poor quality products and services at unreasonably high and sometimes unworkable prices, and also in the process creating ample opportunities for loot.

The only way, in my way, of eradicating corruption is by making the system simple and then coming down swiftly with a heavy hand on offenders.