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Monday, June 25, 2012

Making things happen

I often wonder where we went wrong in the last sixty five years. Why despite a stable democratic system inherited after centuries of foreign rule and oppression, Bharatvarsh did not really take off? Why, on the economic front we are still at the bottom of the list of nations. Why even basic infrastructure like decent roads and highways were non-existent till now, and it required a major resolve to start building them at a pace unimaginable, only a couple of years earlier. How is it that every Bharatvasi who leaves our shores becomes a success story, despite being an abysmal failure in his own motherland? Why, Why, Why, Why and Why. These Why’s, I think will haunt me to my grave.

Yes we all have to start questioning and start asking why? Isn’t it ridiculous that in the system we live in, a procedure or a rule or a policy is easily and almost always allowed to take overriding priority over deliverance? Isn’t it equally ridiculous that the same system lays such a strong premium on non-deliverance that at times the achievers stand the risk of being victimized. And in the process, deliverance suffers and has suffered in the first sixty five years of the existence of a free Bharatvarsh.

My first discourse on deliverance was after my visit to Germany in 1991 where I thought, I unraveled the secret of deliverance and then shared the experiences with my wife and all who came in contact with me. During visits to German locomotive builders whose productivity was fifty times ours, I understood why the purchasing power of an average German was as many times that of a Bharatvasi. And this ratio of fifty was not due to just technology. The major factor was an enthused human being who delivered for the eight hours he worked as opposed to remaining or appearing busy for eight hours. The crux is delivery, not deliberation and the sooner we understand this as an individual, as a society and as a nation and relate it to our capacity to purchase even household items of everyday necessity, the better.

Over three decades of being wedded to sarkar has left me thoroughly confused. In the hallowed sector, one is generally assessed by how busy he remains, how rule and procedure oriented he is and how subservient he is. How productive one is, generally remains immaterial unless it is to be twisted and used against him. Procedure orientation is welcome but output orientation is considered an unacceptable trait, and delivery, if at all it happens is always looked at with suspicion. Cutting across a plethora of official buildings spread all over the country, one comes across a sea of babus, who appear busy but have no interest whatsoever in delivery and are therefore not delivering. And if deliverance happens, it is more by chance, less by choice. And so we have become a rashtra of non-achievers. A rashtra where anything happening is considered an achievement and so one has all the foundation and inaugural stone ceremonies galore for things, which should have been there as a matter of routine.

“Make things simple to happen” and then things will happen. Things will happen at the hands of even the so-called average and mediocre and then the country would 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”. 

If even buying a spoon is a project, how will factories and powerhouses get built? And therefore as a first step there is a need to de-complicate the over complex decision making process. And I am not talking only about the big decisions. Even petty decisions at the field level also require being de-complicated. 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. Let us for once accept that our decision-making processes and the contractual mechanisms have failed the country and therefore deserve to be overhauled.

The remarkable book “Maverick” by Ricardo Semmler tells us about a multi billion dollar organization, which has no policies, no rulebooks and believes in absolute delegation. The employees decide their own wage, decide their timings of work, take decisions about production and create their own working environment. And instead of bringing about a chaos, which we Bhartvasis believe such a system shall, the organization is growing at an annual rate of more than 40%, besides being rated as a model organization in Brazil. If structured and complicated decision making systems, strong procedure oriented budgeting systems, elaborate vigilance setups and an over bearing bureaucracy has brought the country to the present situation, we would be better off without them.

Let us make things simple to happen and then they will happen. 

The Mumbai Nightmare

The recent incidence of a major fire at Sachivalaya at Mumbai shocked the nation. That an uncontrolled fire could take place literally at the seat of power that too in broad daylight is a shining example of unacceptable scenarios that we have over time learnt to expect as well as accept. The aftermath of the incident saw the media losing little time in questioning the fire prevention and fire redressal systems that apparently led to the catastrophe. The prompt initiation of the blame game and an enquiry, both failed to inspire confidence.

The simultaneous incident of Mahi, a child aged five falling into an uncovered borewell in Haryana is also a mirror of the state of affairs in the nation. Despite the full might of the state being activated for recovering the child from the sixty five feet deep pit, timely recovery of Mahi appears a bleak preposition. And once again there is a clamor at the root of which is our purported failure to learn a lesson from the similar case of Prince that happened around six years ago.

What catastrophe are we facing next? This question is always on the minds of the common citizen, for India is not the United States of America where one shattering episode is enough and never repeated. The 9/11 incident to be precise, howsoever horrific it may have been, had been enough to stir a nation into action and say “So far and no further”. A resolve so strong and so successfully implemented, that the country has since then not witnessed even a single act of terrorism.

But India is different. We have a brand new disaster almost every month. It may be a major fire, an act of terror, an accident or even children falling into uncovered borewells, incidents that shock and lead to widespread outrage and anguish, yet to no avail. The incident that is more of a symptom than a disease in itself is conveniently forgotten in a few days and remembered only when something similar happens somewhere else. 

When shall we learn to differentiate between a symptom and the disease it causes? Yet, it is sad that platitudes not resolves continue to be mouthed by the men who matter. The blame game remains on, only the subject matter keeps on shifting and what the nation gets are mere assurances of taking necessary action to ensure that such incidents do not recur. All till the next incident surfaces.

And then the whole story gets repeated again ad-infinitum.

The cause of such incidents that happen with amazing regularity has perhaps much more to do with the way things are made to happen in the realm of the governments. Expecting an isolated sector to perform well in isolation shall always remain a futile expectation. The fact however remains that in this country of over a twelve hundred million, we have miserably failed in even providing the basic necessities of sanitation, housing, education and food after almost sixty seven years of existence as a free nation. Does this not raise eyebrows, or have we started accepting this stark reality as fait accompli? I bet we have! Moreover how does one expect a nation that has been only a limited success in certain areas, be expected to do exceedingly well in all sectors. Yes we have entered the select club of atomic powers and space, but to what avail. We still have widespread poverty and beggers can be seen thronging the roads almost everywhere. 
The delivery orientation of the various organs of the state needs to be looked at in depth. The decision making and implementation mechanisms need overhaul. The delivery mechanisms in vogue in governments cutting across sectors and states, exceptions apart, have since independence remained archaic and over complex, thereby enabling only a cosmetic treatment of even minor issues plaguing the nation. The fault lies in the system that was designed to rule over a foreign populace, but being continued in a democratic setup in almost its original form with mistrust being at the core of it, and that hampers delivery. The complexity of the tantra leads to low productivity and massive corruption that touches the lives of the ordinary citizen almost always. 

How does a nation that accepts rampant corruption as a way of life, expect its organs to be efficient in delivery orientation and prevent the occurance of incidences that we inspired by the regularity are even forgetting to abhor. Yes, corruption exists even in the developed world but there it has neither emerged as a way of life, nor affects the common citizen in the manner it does here. It is perhaps only in India where a common citizen is unable to get anything done from the sarkari system, be it getting an FIR registered, a ration card, an electricity connection, a contract or the house registered without the customary greasing of palms. Here any act that requires interaction with the Governmental machinery is invariably sticky with exceptions that are a rarity. 

If we as a nation are really concerned that the nightmare like the one in Mumbai or in Haryana are not repeated, a determined effort to bring probity in public life will be needed. Integrity will then have to take a front seat, but that would also need a churning of the entire system of governance, decision making and implementation. Easier said than done, but nation building, peace and prosperity do not come easy or cheap. A hefty price would have to be paid either way. Are we ready?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Obsessive designations

Whether the designations in railways are obsessive or we are unusually obsessed by rank is a subjective matter but the fact remains that rank has a major role to play in the lives of senior railway officers. Else how does one explain railway wives being addressed even in formal functions as Mrs GM, Mrs DRM, Mrs CRB and so on and the gentleman carrying his rank on his sleeve, even during morning ablutions.

I always been under the impression that jobs, unlike human beings remain singular in nature, but my return to railways amazed me no end when I realized that each job or a designation also has a spouse attached. So while the gentleman sits on the official chair, the spouse occupies the spouse chair with pride and authority, that often exceeds that of the gentleman and gives others a simpler access route to the official.

My above impression is based on experience, for I never heard the wife of an army officer being addressed as Mrs Chief of Army Staff or the wife of an IAS officer as Mrs Chief Secretary or Mrs Cabinet Secretary or Mrs Tourism Secretary. Blasphemy it shall be, if ever a railway officer is placed on these pivotal positions for then the better half would demand creation of designations that never were.

And it is not untrue that being formally addressed as a Mrs CRB/GM/DRM confers authority that merely being addressed as a Mrs X fails to give. And therefore we regularly witness the shameful spectacle of senior railway wives blasting railway officers in full public view or placing undue demands on the system that she would have been unable to do as a mere Mrs X. Outside railways, I have witnessed the wives of senior officers being given the respect that they are due but without even a tinge of any sycophantic connotation, yet it is only in railways where in their eagerness to please the boss through the wife route, the wife of one rising star was even equated to Julius Caeser.

He came, He saw and He conquered and She came, She saw and She conquered.

Yes the eulogy was conducted in full public view to the accompaniment of atleast two pairs of beaming smiles. Hats off to  the winner of the sycophants trophy.

Perhaps the obsession with designations especially the general management ones, lies in the low esteem we have of ourselves. As an assistant officer we compare ourselves with our IAS & IPS counterparts and curse ourselves. As the difference in status widens, so does the levels of frustration. And therefore at the first available opportunity, when we occupy a general management chair, power goes to our head. Power to ridicule and demean, power to shout and abuse and the power to punish and obstruct, it is almost like the tandav of Shiva. With passage of time, the officer rises in rank and the tandav that is conducted in pairs also reaches its pinnacle. Ugly sight it is for all those who have even a bit of self respect left in them.

As one turns sixty, so do the tables. The man who never thought of himself as a human being and was always glorified by the seat he rested his backside on, is left high and dry. But by then it is too late to make amends, the lady however is luckier for she gets her true name back, though much to her discomfort.

Amusing it is!


Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Path Breakers

Being a conformist is what conventional success is all about in the railways. Conforming to what, I have always wondered. Is it conformance to the grand spectacle of rank mediocrity on display at all levels, the higher one goes in the conventional sense, the bigger and deeper it is.  And if the answer is yes, being a misfit is the only acceptable alternative.

I often wonder whether people like me, and I realize there are many, are misfits? Or whether the system is a misfit for an organization that needs to rise for its own sake and the sake of the nation? Unfortunately or perhaps fortunately, there are no clear answers as subjectivity rules the roost in all such matters.
Recently a top gun advised that keeping in view my age profile, I would complete 39 when I hang my boots, now is the time when I should take a cool job and work under a guy who is certain to give outstanding reports. However there is a catch. Turning cool right now shall ensure that I remain cool even when I occupy slots that really matter but generally serve only a ceremonial role. And in that scenario, the occupant would cease to have any relevance whatsoever to the organization and its cronies, except that he may hasten the demise. And that leads to another question, what the top slots are meant for? I bet there are no clear answers even with the occupants. Top slot just for being the top guy is the motive. 

Acceptance of the railway working in its present form is beyond me. With the operational issues being handled at supervisory levels that generally handle it much better provided   the officer clan does not interfere, we have miserably failed in performing our role that primarily constitutes imparting vision and direction and making things easier for the field levels. Yet what we remain busy in, defies logic and rationale. Perhaps our work study teams would make a much bigger contribution if they train their guns at the officer clan and start with the upper crust. 
Being misfit also implies feeling uncomfortable and angry in even witnessing sycophantic acts that are on display almost non-stop everywhere. Rampant disbursal of flowers and costly gifts to superiors in rank and their partners in tow, at every conceivable opportunity is sickening, yet the round of applause that accompanies such a spectacle makes the misfits have serious doubts about themselves. The foundation and inaugural stones for activities as insignificant as a new commode, that one bumps into at almost every corner are also an impeccable example of sycophantic behaviour. Yet the round of applause at the unveiling of such stones and the clamour for being mentioned on the stone itself, by almost everyone confuses. Is this the right thing to do, or the revulsion that many feel at such ceremonies is in order?

What however hurts the most is the rampant harassment of employees in the garb of disciplinary action for minor lapses. That the focus of an officer clan singularly responsible for the grand mess and also bringing the organization to near bankruptcy, should remain imposing punishments to its staff is definitely not in order.
The men ruining the organization, screwing the men running the organization.

During my stint at the division, I came across many youngsters who often felt suffocated by the mediocrity of superiors in rank.  Perhaps they may either break down with passage of time or join ranks with mediocrity. Yet how I wish that despite the road blocks and there would be plenty, they continue to be path breakers, for in path breakers lies the true salvation of the organization.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Leadership Blues!

Karnail Singh, Gujral and Ravindra have perhaps been the only top bosses that railwaymen remember fondly, also with awe and respect. Ravindra in fact had a halo that was clearly visible, a halo formed  by the purity and clarity of his thoughts. There have also been a few others who contributed a bit, but their numbers can be counted on the fingertips with a few fingers to spare. The rest merely occupied the corner room and threw their weight around.

Why is it that a HR dominant, not centric, organization like the railways miserably fails in selecting its chief executive, with the result that the primary quality that one seeks in the role, the quality of leadership always remains conspicuous by its absence. The malaise however does not remain confined to the top job, but manifests itself in almost all positions that have more of an administrative or leadership requirement than technical. I wonder if that has to do with our direction less grooming on the job and the irrelevant training that our training institutes so carefully devise?

It is always the easiest to start performing or even supervising the role of the subordinate. And what a supervision galore, almost everyone is in the role of a monitor and the doer is always absent. I fondly remember my days in the school, when every section had one monitor who maintained discipline and relayed complaints. At that time, I could not have visualized a situation where everyone, right from top to bottom is in the role of a monitor and worse still, also trebles up as an advisor rendering unsolicited advise to all and sundry and a complainant par excellence.

My recent tenure as a head honcho gave me tremendous insights in the working of this great organization. The tremendsous backlog of infrastructure, the cultural decay, the lack of values and the lack of trust, but great on sycophantic behavior and aggressive on misuse of facilities and railway staff said it all in the beginnning itself. It also made me sad that many of those in leadership positions demanded things that they were neither entitled to, nor they had the guts to ask for in writing, yet the demands and the outflow continued. The tremendous verbal focus on the daily position and self aggrandizement and the vulgar display of power, not for growth and development, but for demeaning and ridiculing subordinates, are symptoms of decay, not even of status quo in any organization.

Recently a retired railway officer told me that a minimum of two out of the three traits of corruption, mediocrity and sycophancy are the essential ingredients of success and rise in this organization. It is indeed sad that things have come to such a pass in an organization that was once referred to with a "great" affixed to its name.

Mere lip service to issues is not going to help. Mere lip service to infrastructure is not going to lead to infrastructure in much the same way as lip service alone shall neither improve punctuality nor safety that are mere symptoms of a deep rooted malaise. We have to give inputs, if we desire outputs and this organization is crying for long for want of a good dose of administrative and leadership acumen.


Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Logging out

The sound of drums and the murmer of the crowd gathered outside had almost reached a crescendo when I decided to walk out of my chamber in the late afternoon of the 15th of May 2012, my last working day as the Divisional Manager of the largest division of the national railway network. The impatient yet emotional crowd of railwaymen that numbered over five hundred had a large sprinkling of the pahari people, who like me had their origins in the state of Uttarakhand.  Garlands, music, dance and emotions flowed and I almost drowned, drowned in memories that I knew would be with me all my life. I earlier never believed that railways can make me cry, but here I was, almost in tears, saddened by parting of ways with what was never mine. Love for what is never ours is the root cause of sorrow, yet some people like me never learn and should never learn. The animate and the inanimate in this world is there to be loved, a love as pure as that of a mother and that is what makes this world beautiful for many.

It was only in the morning that I had witnessed an outburst of emotions and love from my men (and women) working in the divisional office. Almost every section in the office clamoured to bid me farewell, but for want of time only a few succeeded and what I got were bouquets of emotions and love. The official lunchtime farewell by the divisional officers also continued past four in the evening with speeches coming straight from the heart. Only the previous day, the formidable Northern Railway Men’s Union had organized a farewell, the first they ever organized for an officer in history, and the three station managers of the major delhi stations had organized farewell gatherings at their stations. The zonal Association of SC & ST also organized an emotional farewell in their office, a farewell that almost had me in tears.   

The round of office farewells ended with the warm send off by the pahari people, people of my clan, many of them necessarily not working with me, but associated with the northern railways. Even my car was decked up with flowers, flowers that reinforced in me the goodness of men almost everywhere. 

And as an officer I felt small, small at the pettiness of the officer clan in general that fails to treat its men as human beings. Our longing to occupy high chairs, not for the welfare of the organization or its men, but for self gratification of the pettiest kind made me feel small in front of this crowd of humanity that in one single moment taught me what being human and humility is all about.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The first page!

The science of Management or the art of Leadership? While a good manager can give growth exceeding the conventional growth rates, a good leader can cross the conventional, by leaps and bounds and give stunning growth generally considered impossible by the uninitiated.

The nation however requires both, at various levels and cutting across sectors to propel it out of the state of inaction it finds itself in today. Yes it is possible to turnaround organizations, states and nations in time frames barely considered adequate even for mere planning purposes.

I am neither a manager, nor a leader, yet my team delivered a stupendous performance at both these places and that is what amazes me and also confuses me. What is important, to be a top notch manager or a leader or both. Or just to be. Perhaps just being myself without being conscious of the invisible cloak that the chair provides was the only thing that helped in what could be achieved. And this leads to another internal turmoil, whether delivery leads to self actualization or self actualization leads to delivery. Confusion reigns supreme, silently though in my own mind and that wisely brings me down to earth after the “high” of my last assignment. I need to remain firmly wedded to the ground.

My last two stints, at Madhya Pradesh Tourism for around three and a half years followed by two and a half at the Delhi division of the Northern Railways, both times as the head honcho of the organizations have been experiences beyond compare. While the first was an open territory waiting to be unleashed, the second was a closed domain that needed to be pulled out of the abyss. The important point was that both responded favourably to resuscitation attempts at the first go and that further reinforced my belief in the belief that this country is just waiting to happen.

This is not a book on how. This is a book on what really happened at both these places, the silent revolutions that my team brought about, without ruffling many feathers.

What finally resulted was amazing, even though it was fun along the way. And fun it has to be. Even the renowned Walt Disney had once said:

“It is kind of fun to do the impossible”