OVERNIGHT,a first-time MP was appointed Minister with independent charge for Human Health. The nurses union had been staging a dharna for weeks in a tent at the main gate of Nirman Bhavan. This dharna was staged annually to air grievances. In the daytime, a contingent of nurses in camel-coloured salwar uniforms would take turns in guarding the tent. The previous year’s agitation had been about their refusal to wear white uniforms. A woman High Court judge, after hearing the matter for months, concluded that white uniforms were in the interest of patient care. But the nurses had forced the government to accede to their preference for the camel-coloured uniforms.
So accustomed was the Ministry to their strikes and their clout that no officer was willing to cross swords with them. They shouted their wants, led by a virago who had brought the government to its knees many a time. On that fateful day, the new Minister, sporting a Clark Gable moustache and a safari suit, screeched to a halt beside the tent. Having been briefed by his escort that these were Florence Nightingales, his heart bled for the ministering angels. He leapt out of his car, sprang into their tent, and settled down to confabulate with them. He introduced himself as the Health Minister and asked them what the problem was. The nurses moaned about how the Ministry had mistreated them and how its officers had been harassing them over a paltry increment. The Minister asked how much money was involved.
“Not even a couple of hundred rupees per nurse per month, sir.” The Minister held independent charge for Health for the entire country. Perched at the very pinnacle of the Bharat sarkar, he thought, if he could not give the poor women such a trifling raise then what was the point of being a Union Minister?
So accustomed was the Ministry to their strikes and their clout that no officer was willing to cross swords with them. They shouted their wants, led by a virago who had brought the government to its knees many a time.
He came bounding up the stairs, thunderstruck with the glory of single handedly doing the right thing by these deprived women. He sent for me and everyone else dealing with “paramedical services” and announced his decision. “I have decided to give them what they want. It is such a small amount and you should not grudge them this paltry increase,” he said.
In the taut, condescending tone officers use for first-time Ministers, I told him what I had told his six predecessors: “Sir, this cannot be done without the approval of the Finance Ministry. If you give them an increase, relativities involving the entire gamut of medical staff would get disturbed. Doctors, paramedics down to karamcharis would also demand a hike. That would amount to a virtual Pay Commission for the health sector and the Finance Ministry will never agree.”
This spiel had worked on the others but this time the reply was: “Oh, bha bha bha, what is it to you, Ma? You must feel for these women, Ma. I have given them my word, Ma. You people have troubled them for too long. Women, Ma. You should feel for them, Ma.”
There were wooden faces in the phalanx of officials behind me. Although new to government, the Minister could tell from our hostile faces his order was not going to be obeyed. He must do what none had ever done. He must change the system.
As the seniormost officer (the Health Secretary was on a foreign jaunt), I felt bound to warn the Minister that fools rush in where angels fear to tread. More important, an escape route had to be found at once. “Sir, the nurses union has a long history of belligerence. Any move will open a Pandora’s box of fresh issues. If you have given any assurance, you should immediately attribute everything to a language misunderstanding. You can blame your officers, if need be. But this avalanche of demands would be impossible to contain, once started,” I said.
Hardly had I uttered those words, a bevy of nurses poured into the room with flowers, sweets and trailed by television cameramen. The Minister leapt up, patted the nurses in brotherly fashion, accepted their bouquets and was garlanded with roses by the nurses’ union president.
The evening news gave full marks to the Minister for this historic “samjhautha”, overruling his pesky babus and displaying such compassion for the poor nurses. At 10 am the next day, the RAX (the inter-ministerial hotline between Ministers and senior officers) rang. The Cabinet Secretary himself was on the line. “Bhai, yeh sab kya kar diya apne? You know perfectly well you cannot do this without the approval of the Finance Ministry. Why could you not advise your Minister? Gaddar machega. Go immediately to the Expenditure Secretary and sort it out.”
I was reminded by the Cabinet Secretary of earlier instances of such inexcusable incompetence. All eyes in the room bored through me. A waiter sidled up to me, asking,‘Chai ya coffee?’
Irushed to the Ministry of Finance. The Expenditure Secretary knew perfectly well what had happened but feigned ignorance and enjoyed listening to the story and observing my discomfiture. He was a past master at overturning the best proposals unless they came with an “ishara” (signal) from above. He took delight in rejecting laboriously argued requests by hectoring about financial recklessness and shortsightedness. And here was the perpetrator of such acts of profligacy standing before him in person. He was ready to chew me up but when the phone buzzed he decided to pass me on to smaller fry in the Finance Ministry. “You’d better sort it out with the Joint Secretary,” he ordered. I ferreted my way to the room of one of the most difficult officers in the Finance Ministry – thoroughly trained by none other than the mountainous office of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India.
“This cannot be tolerated, Madam,” said he, enjoying an opportunity to talk down to a typical woman officer (all rhetoric and no substance) and IAS to boot. “You should have stopped the Minister. This is unheard-of. The Finance Ministry cannot agree to such an absurd proposal and you, Madam, will be squarely responsible for the fallout.” He rolled his tongue in contempt as he clapped another dose of paan bahar into his mouth.
I returned to the Health Ministry, grinding my teeth at the sheer injustice of it all. Hardly had I entered my office when the nurses’ union president stormed in. “Who are you to try and stop the Minister from taking a just decision?” she said. She threatened a strike and told me that 10,000 nurses in Delhi would join it if I did not issue orders. The afternoon news bulletin announced the lightning strike by Delhi nurses. I went to the Minister’s office and told him what the Cabinet Secretary and Finance Ministry had said and the crisis we were in. “What should we do, Ma?” he beamed back.
SINCE he was on good terms with the Prime Minister, I suggested, he could alert the latter at once because no one in between was going to do anything and a nurses’ strike could bring health services to a halt. “Request the PM to set up a committee,” I said. The Minister pounced on the idea and spoke to someone on the RAX, asking whether he could drop in. Sirens screeching, we went to Yojana Bhavan, to the room of the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission.
I was asked to state the case. I poured forth whatever I knew about the long history of strikes that the Ministry had witnessed over the years. I mentioned how many times efforts had been made to give all kinds of allowances to every member of the medical fraternity but how anything done in isolation would most certainly lead to a slew of strikes which we could ill afford. I warned that in the past the strikes had invariably gone in favour of the employees and in view of the impending strike, it might be prudent to persuade the Finance Ministry to part with something straightaway rather than wait for it to snowball into sympathy strikes from the entire medical and para-medical cadres. Silence followed my monologue. Then, the vice-head of India’s biggest policymaking empire placed the fingertips of both hands together and pronounced: “You have two alternatives. You can be firm or not be firm.” He rose, signifying that the meeting was over. The Minister thanked him profusely. “I don’t know how to thank you, sir. We will do just as you say, sir.”
In the taut, condescending tone officers use for first-time Ministers, I told him what I had told his six predecessors: ‘Sir, this cannot be done without the approval of the Finance Ministry.’
By the time we reached the Health Ministry, news had come in that the PMO had appointed a Punjabi political stalwart from Delhi to negotiate with the nurses union. Everyone heaved a sigh of relief because at last the matter was going to be handled politically. Someone in the PMO had had a brainwave and suggested negotiations between two Punjabis, biradari connections being more durable than cement.
At 4 pm, the emissary strode beaming down the corridors of the Health Ministry accompanied by cameras and a gaggle of women journos. In the vanguard came a team of officers from the Ministry of Finance and the Department of Personnel. Whoever had thought of this ploy had really thought it through. The condescending Joint Secretary from the Finance Ministry was there, smiling away. Another surprise was the arrival of a battleship from the Department of Personnel famed for her toughness in handling union negotiations. She too had been dispatched to defuse the tension and “protect Government’s interest”. Obviously someone high up in the hierarchy had understood that it was better to find a face-saving solution than have a strike on hand.
BUT if the powers that be had thought that the loquacious negotiator could soften his female namesake in “assi-tussi” Punjabi, they were hugely mistaken. The lady turned out to be a no-nonsense negotiator. She had lost no time in bringing 27 government hospitals to a halt throughout the city. BBC and CNN had already relayed pictures of hapless patients lying unattended, ventilator wires snapped, and injection trays lying unused.
Behind the scenes, an ebullient young woman Director gave the Punjabi political envoy a brilliant smile with an equally brilliant idea scribbled on a scrap of paper. Of course she had neither consulted Mr Woodenhead from Finance nor Battleship from Personnel. A first time entrant to the Ministry, she was acutely aware of the fact that proximity to political stalwarts did more to push careers than following systems and procedures. The envoy accepted her advice gratefully and entered the conference room from a side door, clasping the scrap of paper to his chest. Handpicked as he was to conduct negotiations with the nurses, surely he was not expected to consult anyone. In full view of television cameras and a packed conference room, he gushed forth into the microphones in an avalanche of three languages.
As he beamed before the cameras, the nurses clapped and thumped the table. The adrenalin shot up in the negotiator’s veins, making him blind and deaf to what the emissaries from the bastions of Finance and Personnel were cautioning at full volume. What the interlocutor had announced amounted to an increase of 50 per cent over what the nurses had been seeking. His jaw dropped when they pointed out sternly that what he had just announced was simply not feasible and he had no power to make such pronouncements. The ensuing melee turned into a free-for-all between the nurses and bureaucrats. The plenipotentiary crumpled the scrap of paper and slipped away from the scene, ruing the day he got entangled with the Ministry of Human Health.
News of the debacle reached the PMO and we were duly summoned before the Prime Minister at 6 pm. My heart was in my mouth by then and my only thought was that I would be lucky to keep my present job, knowing full well that chances of becoming a Secretary were now doomed.
The gathering before the Prime Minister was 15-strong. The Cabinet Secretary was already there, warbling nonstop, speaking so fast that it was impossible to know whose side he was on. It sounded as though he was annoyed and sympathetic at the same time. The Secretary-General of Human Health Services was in cahoots with the nurses, slumped in the second row, making himself as unobtrusive as possible. The Prime Minister was calmly helping himself to vadas and chutney proffered by gloved waiters who sashayed around, balancing silver trays.
The main trouble-shooter on behalf of the Prime Minister ordered me to start the briefing. I did so, skipping any mention of how the situation had arisen. As soon as I finished, the bureaucrats swooped. What a sorry pass the Government had been brought to because of rank ineptitude, they said. I was reminded by the Cabinet Secretary of earlier instances of such inexcusable incompetence. All eyes in the room bored through me. A waiter sidled up to me, asking, “Chai ya coffee?”
The Prime Minister wiped his chin and said, “Resolve the matter quickly.” The tea party was over. As we shuffled into the foyer, I wondered to myself what I could have done differently.
The nurses managed to extract 100 per cent more than what they had been asking for from the great Indian bureaucracy. The Secretary-General of Human Health Services, the lone representative of the medical profession, licked his lips in the knowledge that the doctors would be the next to get the bonanza – and effortlessly at that.
The next morning, the Human Health Minister, back from his constituency, sent for me. Grinning broadly, he said, “What did I tell you, Ma? Take it from me, your Women’s Reservation Bill will never be passed. These men don’t want it, whatever they may say. You are a woman. Only women can feel for other women. You must feel for ‘sisters’. When you have the chance, help them, Ma.”