Occurrences in my life

Bengaluru vs Delhi: The Grass Is Always Greener on the Other Side

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The last month was momentous but in a different kind of way. Just when everything seemed to be going okay my Sunday morning was shattered by an urgent call from Bangalore. A close relative had been hospitalised with what sounded like life- threatening symptoms. A huge 2 cm clot of blood had been discovered wrapping his brain. The choice was obvious – immediate surgery or sudden paralysis – even death. But can any family reconcile itself to such a situation so easily? Could there be a third option? How successful are cranial surgeries known to be? What was the prognosis about likely outcomes? In all my 15 years in the Ministry of Health, I had never heard of this phenomenon. I tracked down a neurosurgeon in the GB Pant Hospital in Delhi who thank God, answered the phone that Sunday morning! Imagine my surprise when he said:

“It is a very simple procedure. They will just make a couple of holes and drain out the stuff. Besides your surgeon was my student and he is very competent.”

I forthwith conveyed these words of reassurance to the Bangalore branch of the family and booked the first available flight. My own heart was thumping and my brain was full of forebodings. As things turned out, the surgery was over before I landed but then followed several days when we made rounds of the ICU. Each day began not knowing how it would end. For the first time I felt helpless shorn of my Delhi support systems. But the neurosurgeon was right. Once the clot had been drained, the patient was on the road to recovery.


To change the subject, what were my impressions of Bangalore? This was the first time I had stayed in the garden city minus the regatta of being met at the airport with hotel and transport provided by the host organization I walked out of the posh granite floors of Bangalore airport received only by the refreshing evening breeze outside. Two large boards hung outside. One said ‘Airport Taxi’ where around 20 “corporate” sorts stood in a queue, laptop bags, black shoes and black trousers announcing their business backgrounds. A long line of white Toyota Etios limousines were waiting to navigate them into the city. Another board said, ‘Airport Shuttle’ with an arrow pointing to a yard where several buses awaited the arrival of passengers. A smiling,English-speaking official waved me in the direction of shuttle Number 5 where I was greeted by another friendly face. The bus conductor wore a white uniform with BMLTA- short for the city Transport Authority monogrammed on his shoulders. With an unreserved beam and outstretched arms he yanked me and my trolley aboard. I paid the princely sum of Rs.206 for a 50 km ride in an air-conditioned, Volvo bus seated in the company of clean, neat, smiling and helpful co-passengers. All my companions were keen to tell me the most convenient place to disembark.

Almost immediately on arrival my forays into the hospital had to start. The next few days meant finding my way through the hierarchy of doctors and a labyrinth of hospital staff. Pharmacies, cybercafés and grocery stores filled in the rest of the time. Each interaction left me with three thoughts. What pleasant people these were; so keen to please; so keen to be of help. Through more than 40 exchanges with complete strangers I always came away feeling good.

But another facet of the city detracted from all the decency that had impressed me so much. And that aspect was quite off-putting I was staying in a pretty up market residential colony though not equivalent to Bangalore’s version of Lutyens Delhi. But it was Jayanagar where well-to-do Bangalorians live- some original residents and some recent derivations of in-migration. On earlier visits I had admired the wide roads shaded with enormous trees cascading with dense foliage. Those emblematic giants who had stood their ground for over half a century had been hacked down and replaced by monotonous municipality tiles. Even these had been broken and cast aside to relay all kinds of pipes, girders and cables which had been dumped all over. Clearly the right hand knew perfectly well what the left was doing but if hefty commissions flew in through chosen contractors staying hand in glove was well worth it. Huge stretches of entire streets now looked like trenches with heaps of mud capped with rubbish piled on either side. Aggravated by scanty street lighting every step I took spelt disaster for my bones. It made much of Delhi look quite pristine in comparison.

“Don’t the residents complain?” I asked. “What is the local corporator doing? Is there no Residents Welfare Association? Don’t people use RTI out here?” I need not have asked. The morning edition of The Times of India 25th September headlined as follows:

“Garbage tourism takes corporators to Salem”

“The picnic had begun: Three buses ferried 140 corporators.. Dressed for the occasion, they were busy clicking pictures of each other. It was an enthusiastic bunch, armed with tablets and smart phones, which set out to solve Bangalore’s biggest civic issue. And they made no bones that it was a pleasure trip. Roars of joy went up from the occupants, off on a trip to Salem to study the scientific disposal of garbage in that district of Tamil Nadu.”

Even as the politicians make hay, highly educated citizens do not seem to care. That is because the demographics have changed completely. The simple, almost austere men wearing a tilak and spotless white lungis, the womenfolk resplendent in Bangalore silks and fragrant flowers in their hair seemed to have vanished. Everywhere one saw smart young girls in salwar – kameez or skintight churidars hopping out of buses headed for hundreds of offices. Young men roar down the streets pillion riding on motorbikes, swerving precariously at every turn. Was this progress? I did not see a single traffic cop while even riding on the wrong side of the road was treated casually-even by other drivers and passers-by.

I longed to see the old cantonment bungalows distinguished by their brilliant bursts of bougainvillea and hibiscus flowers. Where had all those multihued croutons gone? Instead monotonous palm trees guarded landscaped lawns within the boundary walls. Those rambling houses which once grew mangoes, coconuts, avocados and grapefruit have been supplanted by hospitals, banks, jewelry shops, departmental stores and gyms. Restaurants advertising Biryani and kebabs were heralded by kitschy plaster of Paris elephants on the pavements. The aroma of fresh South Indian home-made filter coffee had been wafted into scores of red air-conditioned Coffee Café Days- each a copy of the other. I returned from Bangalore with mixed feelings. Is it better to confront broken pavements, rubble, construction material and mounds of rubbish or was it better to live in a city like Delhi which at many places has permitted pavements meant for pedestrians to be devoured by flyovers, the fourth family vehicle and the nth sentry box?

But having kvetched about pavements let us ponder about common courtesy. Has anyone met hospital staff in Delhi who give their mobile numbers and add, “if you have a problem please call me?” Is it better to live where people are pleasant, helpful and efficient or is it better to be in Delhi where “kal aaa jana?” is forever the first response? Where paying a bribe is the second response and brokering a deal the third?

Has anyone in Delhi found cheerful, helpful staff at Mother Dairy vegetable booths or in the Kendriya Bhandars? Bangalore’s Reliance Fresh, Big Bazaars and Nilgiris were a treat to enter and to shop in. Enough reason to change one’s habitat? No!

When all is said and done, the lone factor for which one might be willing to trade at least retired life in Delhi with retired life in Bangalore would be the bracing, temperate climate of the Garden city. Imagine a place where there is no need for even a fan for most of the year; the joy of snuggling into a blanket come September. Picture fruit and vegetables lying without refrigeration and still remaining firm and crunchy after 3 days. Dream of setting creamy curd made from delicious cow’s milk.

But at the end of the day there is a practical side to enjoying all this quality of life business. Delhi residents are highly organized as groups.NGOs and the media are never too far. When the cacophony gets louder, government organizations have to listen and respond. The RWA phenomenon has come to stay. In Bangalore there is no collective voice leave alone naming and shaming those in charge.

How long then can one live only on fresh air and courteousness?


Loreto Convent Tara Hall Revisited

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In 1955 I was admitted into one of the most elite boarding schools for girls in India- Tara Hall in Simla. (I just cannot say Shimla.) The six years that followed turned out to be among the most impressionable ones of my life. As I revisited the school recently I recount my memories and feelings.

Loreto Convent, Tara Hall belongs to the worldwide Loreto family founded in the 16th century by an English woman Mary Ward. The Loreto Sisters came to Simla in 1895 responding to a request to establish a girls’ school in the British summer capital. After a long search the nuns selected a perfect plateau on the edge of the town overlooking the Himalayan mountain ranges. Nine years later the first pupils were admitted into a school whose guiding principle has not changed: “women should find their rightful place in society by learning to reflect, to show discernment and to make correct choices.” Tara Hall is one of 15 Loreto schools in India that share this vision.

I can never forget Tara Hall’s grey and scarlet building set off by a lush green lawn. Enormous glass windows sparkled across the valley to the opposite hills-a flawless picture even today. Walking down the driveway after 58 years I felt a lump in my throat. Here I was facing the school building making my way to what was once the school parlour. I missed the gleaming brass pot holders with cascades of green asparagus inviting visitors to step within the graceful arches. Iron grills had closed those handsome arches; what was once a polished drawing room with pictures of the sacred heart and the Virgin Mary smiling down, was now locked from sight. It was there Mother Superior regularly met visiting parents to share nuggets of information about their daughter’s progress- always measured by goodness and talent and never by marks. Being the only ‘government servant’s’ child I knew I was different in some way but at 10 it was not possible to recognize why that was so. Tara Hall did not teach the vast difference between the upper and the middle class.

The 80 girls that constituted the whole school from kindergarten to senior Cambridge lived together for nine months of the year, studying, learning to play netball and badminton, practising to sing the operas of Schubert and perform in the plays of Shakespeare and Moliere. Eight of us shared a table in the refectory where we ate breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner day after day, like a family. Mealtimes were watched over by the Mistress of schools — Mother Patrick, who she sat all through each meal on a solitary high table, her Irish eyes observing and correcting broken table manners — talking with one’s mouth full; stretching for the bread instead of requesting for it to be passed; clattering the cutlery and talking noisily. It was there that I learned to eat mangoes with a spoon and bananas with a fork! It was there that I saw a large tin of cheese which lasted a month in my parent’s frugal Maharashtrian home, devoured by eight hungry girls in less time than it took to butter one slice of bread.

Not until I was much older did titles, flags, palaces, Rolls Royce’s and Bentleys mean anything to me. The daughters of the Maharaja of Patiala , and the Rajas of Faridkot and Jubbal received the same princely sum of Rs 8 a month as pocket money as I did. We wore “coloured clothes” only twice in the year and otherwise dressed in the same uniform, spending each day as ordained by the nuns – regularly attending Sunday Mass and singing hymns at evening rosary with fervour. The granddaughter of Mohan Singh Oberoi who founded the Oberoi Empire occupied the cubicle next to mine and I watched her rapped on the knuckles with a ruler for pinching my share of apricots. Eight daughters of the Thai royal family were regularly pulled up for chattering in Thai and not learning to mix with the rest.

During this visit to Tara hall nearly six decades after I left school, I felt saddened by many things-unavoidable in their own place. The once spotless dormitories with their cream coloured casement curtains and perfectly made beds had been replaced with overcrowded desks. I opened the door of one particular dormitory and memories of a midnight feast that my class had organised, flooded back. Of course the nuns were smart enough to catch us and that was sadly before we could get our hands on the patties and cakes we had spent our entire savings on. It was the biggest disgrace the school had seen. Were it not for Bijou Patnaik’s daughter Gita, some four years older than us congratulating us for this midnight foray, we might never have been able to lift our chins again. Nothing was more humiliating than listening to the harangue of two red-faced Irish nuns as they berated us in the middle of the night stared at by so many pyjama-clad little girls. And paradoxically for the nuns the biggest sin of all was “they did not even have a knife to cut the fruit bread!” Even midnight feasts according to Tara Hall standards needed cutlery!

On the way to the chapel my eyes brimmed with tears as I got a moment to chat with a 93-year-old nun whom I did not even know when I was in school. Each time I mentioned the name of one of my favourite nuns she smiled and told me, “she was called by God dear.” She helped me (despite an arm in a sling and an unsteady gait supported by an orthopaedic walking stick) to locate the address of a Mother Bernadine who was still alive the best teacher I have ever had.

It was Mother Bernadine who had taught me most things that have stood by me in life: to write English simply – far more effective than long descriptive prose. To “project your voice and keep your eyes on the last row in the audience,” whilst on stage. Under her tutelage I mastered the skills of acting and elocution – “never raise your arms in useless gestures; unless you raise them well above your waist they are pointless.” She forced me to open my mouth wide so that four fingers in a row could stand inside and the sound of the vowel “aaah” could be heard at the end of the hall. She listened again and again to the sound of the ‘t’ and the ‘d’ at the end of every word I spoke, something that set apart good diction from bad.

Was all this important? Yes- because it gave me a head start in life to speak and write fluently and with confidence which marked the difference between a leader and a wallflower. Perfect gait, head held high, and stomach in, had to be learnt the hard way by balancing on 2 inch wide beams, 3 feet from the ground without falling off. I learnt the foxtrot and the samba and to waltz to a perfect finish; also to jive and cha- cha- down the wooden floor- gratuitous skills but they taught mental and physical dexterity as nothing could.

Wasn’t it more important to learn physics and chemistry -which the school hardly taught? How useful was to learn about lumberjacks in Alaska and the Canadian Pacific Railway when there was no mention of Indian history and geography? Not very as knowledge goes. But what I learnt mattered much more in the long run because knowledge could be acquired anytime but the art of learning could only be learnt from good teachers. What Mother Bernadine taught me could never have been imbibed from books.

Most important of all Tara Hall imprinted values on our young minds which unfortunately have become complete anachronisms today. The words of the school song, “high ideals of purity, duty and of truth,” have resonated in my ears throughout life. No one howsoever big could budge me from those principles. And though I was repeatedly ridiculed and asked, “What was the use of you’re joining the IAS?” the values of integrity and duty have anchored my life.

The visit to Tara Hall was lovely but very sad. I missed the nuns that had given me so much affection. As I walked back with tears in my eyes and precious memories in my heart I thanked them for finding the best in each one of us and nurturing talent no one might have detected. Some of the best writers, painters and musicians have been products of Loreto and of Tara Hall. My getting into the IAS was not a matter of luck — the ability to express oneself and to hold one’s own with confidence is what the school taught me — more valuable than all the general knowledge I might have absorbed like a blotting paper and still fumbled in the examination.

I salute the school and the Irish nuns that moulded me to discover myself. And for teaching me to be grateful to the Almighty for whatever he gives.

Sloth, corruption dog civil services

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The civil services are in a mess. Though IAS officers enjoy lot of power and clout, they also draw flak for lethargy, incompetence and corruption. And this has not only corroded the steel frame but also affected good governance. The Indian polity needs to replicate the Indonesian model to stem the rot in the system,

There was a time when joining the civil services was a matter of prestige. Increasingly now the public looks upon the entire gamut of civil services as self-seeking, greedy and corrupt. Some perceptions and realities need to be juxtaposed sequentially and re-stated because they impact hugely upon the quality of governance.

The civil service is not an island floating on its own, but a reflection of the ethics and mores that exist in society. When the arena of politics is so highly contaminated, it is too much to expect that civil servants alone would be distilled purity. Particularly when instant protection is given by the law makers to inveterate lawbreakers on grounds of caste, community, religion, and money power, there is really little hope that the civil services alone will rise and miraculously provide good governance.

But first a little reverie about the times when things were different. As the seven-year-old daughter of a woman officer recruited to the Central Secretariat Service post independence, I spent my childhood in the fifties playing with children of my mother’s colleagues in the Ministry of Home Affairs. A picnic at Surajkund, a family movie and an occasional dinner party were the highest points of the evening life of the officer class, otherwise spent in the corridors of New Delhi’s Khan Market where they bought everything from groceries to the first gas burner.

Looking back, the most distinguishing feature was the complete absence of anyone outside the civil services in this select group and their modest-even spartan lifestyles. (Notwithstanding that ICS households baked a caramel custard pudding instead of the pedestrian sooji halwa.)

In the late sixties, after I cleared the IAS, I was trained in turn by three stalwarts — T.N. Seshan and later B.N. Tandon and Gopi K. Arora. All of them (at least then) maintained unpretentious lifestyles both in the office and at home. A game of bridge or an evening of classical music helped tie a familial knot that has lasted more than 40 years.

Conversations always carried a sense of admiration for honesty and hard work and an abhorrence and intolerance for wheeling-dealing. The minimalism of their homes, the simplicity of their families and their self-made children was what I observed.

But elsewhere something else was happening. The children of once deprived families had grown older, entered the civil services yearning to announce their arrival. There was also a need to look after the biradari which had nurtured them through a disadvantaged childhood. Some longed to flaunt their new-found status and a realisation came that proximity to power could help to leapfrog into positions of even greater influence out of turn.

Postings with the power of patronage and great visibility could actually be manipulated quite effortlessly just by using the right connections. One powerful connection led to the next. The colours and contours of the civil service began to change, making this the preferred route for an increasing number of officers as the years passed. Products of the old school were not eliminated altogether because all governments need honest, hardworking officers to have credibility and substance. But they had to be really exceptional to reach the top.

For the greater part, garnering and wielding visible authority became heady business. To take a rather extreme example of encounter killings criminals were regularly liquidated in stage-managed episodes all in the name of saving the public. A former Chief Secretary of Maharashtra said emphatically: “Many policemen hang out with criminals and are often engaged by rival gangster groups to eliminate their rivals. Sometimes politicians promote these killings. Sometimes it is a purely police enterprise.” But he added, “How else can extortion by the underworld be stopped? Ultimately, a society gains; does it not?”

In direct contrast stands another phenomenon which has demoralised the service ethos incalculably. In every state, there is a section of officers (and they come from rural, small town backgrounds or could be the products of elite backgrounds and institutions,) who spurn the politician-businessman nexus. They neither hanker for powerful jobs while in service nor crave Governorships, constitutional posts, or government perks after retirement.

Regardless of what bosses wish to hear, such officers can be infuriatingly straightforward and brutally frank. The political executive and a pliable senior bureaucracy complain about their pig-headedness but use them like kitchen devices — indispensable, but easily replaceable. Over the years, their marginalisation has destroyed idealism and initiative; also given a mistaken message to young officers: the future does not lie in following the rulebook. Honesty and uprightness can actually flush you out.

Instead, amassing and displaying wealth and wielding visible authority are seen as the true signs of success. When the bureaucrat-politician-businessman links are strong and interdependent, no Civil Service Authority or Public Service Law (we hear of) can alter the picture significantly. Only a Lokpal (Ombudsman) can investigate alliances in high places founded on dishonesty.

Sadly, however, the Lokpal concept has been shelved repeatedly for 44 years. The Benami Transaction Act (1988) is bereft of rules for 22 years because notifying the rules will immediately render all benami transactions at the risk of forfeiture. Despite the Second Administrative Reforms Commission prodding the government to move promptly on both these fronts, there is no tangible progress. So we continue to rely on the Central Vigilance Commission and the Central Bureau of Investigation who have given ample evidence of being inept, partisan and inefficient for too long.

Alternatives have been tried elsewhere. Indonesia established a Corruption Eradication Commission — born out of public reaction to the brazen corruption during 30 years of President Suharto’s rule. So irrepressible was the public outcry in 1998 that the incoming government was forced to create a powerful anti-corruption agency — Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi — as an Act of Parliament. KPK’s resounding success (at least until early 2010) — carries some lessons for India.

The KPK has reportedly prosecuted and jailed over 100 high-ranking officials in five years. It has won every case before the corruption court and had all verdicts upheld by the Supreme Court. Indonesia says her ranking in the International Corruption Perception Index has improved thereby, giving the country a more ethical reputation worldwide.

Among others, the KPK has jailed a Minister, Members of Parliament, heads and key officials of the Central Bank, the Election Commission, the Competition Commission, Governors and Mayors, as well as senior officers from the police and the Attorney General’s office. It has also jailed businessmen, heads of private companies and notably the father-in-law of the President’s son. Because KPK is headed by a five-member Commission which operates as a collegium, the manipulation of the entire body becomes very hard. KPK Commissioners are identified by a special selection team appointed by the President from among known leaders in society and representatives from the prosecution and the police. Names of prospective candidates are placed on a website for public scrutiny. Ten candidates are recommended by a selection committee to the President, who then sends the names to Parliament which makes the ultimate choice of five Commissioners.

The Indian polity badly needs a similar system to stem the rot. Meanwhile, there is a lot members of the civil services can do by refusing to join the world of corruption-ridden interdependencies. Also by refusing to keep mum. When a few in every service still have a sense of ethics left and feel disturbed and angry when they see trade-offs taking place, they need to rally together and tell colleagues that following the rulebook may not bring immediate results but will ultimately give peace of mind — more precious than anything money or power can buy once retirement comes.

Governance Grumbles–a one-act play in Hinglish in three scene

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Kvetching literally means grumbling, finding fault, whining and complaining. Research by Universities like Cornell has concluded that “complaining fosters a social bond within a peer group stuck in the same leaky boat”. The content of the complaint is not as important as the joy of complaining because it provides “breathing space within an occasionally suffocating culture”. This one-act play captures the archetypal kvetching that goes on within bureaucracy and Ministerhood.

(The characters mentioned in the play are imaginary.)

Act I Scene I:
Starring in order of appearance:
Joint Secretary: Suresh Sinha
Joint Secretary: Ravi Mishra
Joint Secretary: Madhulika Bannerji
Peon: Brahmpal

Room of Joint Secretary Suresh Sinha in the Ministry of Power.
(Joint Secretary Sinha walks over from the desk to the coffee table where Joint Secretary Mishra is opening his tiffin carrier.)

Joint Secretary Sinha: Yaar, this Ministry is a real pain. My batchmate in the Health Ministry is eternally in Geneva. In Power we guys hardly get a chance to step out—whatever opportunity comes is grabbed by those techies.

Joint Secretary Mishra: My wife wants me to lose 5 kg. So she has packed me kheera and gajar once again for lunch. But I’m not very hungry. I ate two huge samosas in the Central Electricity Authority meeting today. They serve such unhealthy snacks at sarkari meetings, yaar. In the private sector they get doughnuts and cappuccino coffee. I am told they even have gyms for workouts.

(Enter the third Joint Secretary, Madhulika Bannerji, wearing an ethnic chic sari and a big bindi and kajal.)

Joint Secretary Sinha: Hi, Madhu, you’re looking pretty stunning today. What’s up?

Joint Secretary Bannerji: What rubbish! (Adjusts her pallu and pats her hair.) Suno, guys, I am so mad at the Secretary. He has sent my keen type Director for the third foreign trip in six months. Whenever my file goes with a foreign trip proposal, he turns it down saying that I am indispensable here. Real MCP.

Joint Secretary Mishra: Yeah, he is so unpredictable. One day he grins at you and asks about the family and the very next day he freezes when you walk in.

Joint Secretary Bannerji: I think he’s trying to become the Chief Electricity Regulation Commissioner when he retires. I heard him on the RAX. He was saying that he was the most qualified but the grapevine says the Mantri is gunning for him because he turned that Bimbani contract into a real spin. He even squealed to PMO and CVC as peshbandi.

Joint Secretary Mishra:Madhulika, you really talk too much. If the Secretary gets to hear you, you’ve had it.

Joint Secretary Bannerji: Why should I be scared? Although the Secretary is a pain, I’m on his side if he stopped all that gadbad.

(A peon enters, carrying three glasses of water.)

Joint Secretary Sinha: Yaar, Brahmpal, mere liye dosa lana. Now I say, jaldi!

Peon Brahmpal: Sa’ab, canteen band ho gaya. Kela ya amrood la doon?
(Phone rings and Joint Secretary Sinha shuffles from the sofa back to the desk.)

Joint Secretary Sinha: Hello! Yes, sir. No, sir. I will bring it now, sir. No. No. Rightaway, sir. I am on the way, sir.
(Puts down the intercom receiver, walks back and continues dialogue.)
This Additional Secretary is a real soand-so. Ever since he got promoted he has become so bumptious. I used to know him so well when we were both JSs. He has changed completely ever since. Just because he wants to impress the Secretary at the 3 pm meeting, he is
demanding a briefing just now from me. I’m famished, yaar.
(Sinha grabs a cucumber slice from Mishra’s tiffin carrier and eats it hungrily.)

Joint Secretary Bannerji: But then why were you sucking up to him so much? You should have told him that you had not eaten lunch. On the one hand you crib about him and on the other you really pander to his demands.

Joint Secretary Mishra: Sinha, yaar, don’t listen to her. You had better go. Madhulika’s ACR will be written after one year. Yours will be written by the Additional Secretary in two months. You’d better keep the AS on the right side.
(Joint Secretary Sinha staggers out of the room carrying a big file, his spectacles hanging on his chest, a notepad and a pen in the other hand, the straps of his sandals remaining undone because of the hurry.)

Joint Secretary Bannerji: You guys are such down and out careerists. I think there is more to life than becoming an Additional Secretary. Forever looking over your shoulder. I believe in calling a spade a spade.

Joint Secretary Mishra: It’s okay for you to spout all this, Madhu, because you have at least 10 years to go before you are considered for becoming AS. Sinha can’t afford to take any more chances, Madhu. Don’t bhadkao him. He’ll get even more disheartened. His last ACR last year was just “Very Good”. Between us, he’s already sunk.

Joint Secretary Bannerji: But, Ravi, there is such a thing as self-respect. Why couldn’t he just say he hadn’t had lunch? He’s got to stand up for his rights. ACRs cannot supersede your health.

Joint Secretary Mishra: Don’t be daft, Madhu. It sounds as though he puts lunch before the Additional Secretary. That will finish him for good. Grow up, kid!

Joint Secretary Bannerji: Ravi, don’t you start getting patronizing with me. My mood is bad already. This place sucks, yaar. Everyone here sucks.

Act I Scene II
Starring in order of appearance: Secretary, Power: Padmanabhan Secretary, Development Commission: Ramanathan

(Secretary Padmanabhan is sitting at his desk, telephone receiver to his ear. On the other side of an invisible screen is Secretary Ramanathan, also on the telephone. The two Secretaries exchange notes while sipping tea. A red light is on in both chambers, indicating that the Secretaries are busy with important matters of state.)

Secretary Padmanabhan: Hi, Ramu. How are things in Development Commission? I’m so tired of all my Joint Secretaries in this Ministry. I don’t know how people become JSs these days. They can’t write two sentences straight and are always sniffing around
for foreign trips without doing a stroke of work. Give even one of them anything less than an “outstanding” chit and they go howling all over the place. Give me a good Director any day.

Secretary Ramanathan: You are right, Paddu. But at least you get the better lot in your Ministry. Most of mine in the Commision can’t see the big picture. But they are preferable to those allknowing armchair experts who keep pontificating all day. They have never seen a district leave alone knowing how a State government functions. And these guys actually decide how the country should be run. I am long past taking “Marg Darshan” from them.

Secretary Padmanabhan: Yeah, I agree. My chhota mantri in Power wants to be in Foreign Affairs next time around. Generation of power just does not interest him leave alone any talk of transmission lines. He can’t tell a Megawatt from MVA and thinks that a supercritical power plant is like an ICU. He is desperate for a change in the next reshuffle. He has been walking on air ever since he heard that the chhota Foreign Minister is being sent as Governor.

Secretary Ramanathan: By the way, what happened to your becoming Chairman of the Electricity Regulatory outfit?

Secretary Padmanabhan: I think the Bimbanis have done me in. They have gone around saying that the Secretary is inflexible. You will have to set me up as Member, Energy in the Development Commission after I retire. They will need someone to look after that in the Commission.

Secretary Ramanathan: I wish such things were in my hands, my friend. But I’ll give it a shot, Paddu, for old time’s sake. You can return the favour when I retire after a year. And, by the way, don’t forget that your Mantri can do a lot for you. Keep on his right
side. The real powers that be have a huge soft spot for him. Old boys plus bachcha network. Deadly combination, man.

Secretary Padmanabhan: I did not know that, Ramu. Thanks for the tipoff. I’d better call off now. That eager beaver Additional Secretary has been jhankoing in twice already. He is just panting to replace me when I retire. What example is he setting to those poor youngsters? The old values have disappeared completely.

Act I Scene III
Starring in order of appearance:
Minister for Power
Minister for Industry
Secretary Padmanabhan
(Dept of Power)

(The Minister for Power and the Minister for Industry are sitting on a sofa, chatting. They both wear white kurta-pyjamas. Both Ministers are very young. Minister for Power wears designer sunglasses and Minister for Industry has spiked hair.)

Minister for Power: PM is very happy with the power sector’s performance. He said so himself. But the trouble with this sector is that it is too national. I’ve not been able to do a thing for my constituency – there are no schemes or projects at the district evel. And the officers are so dull and unimaginative. My Secretary works like a Manager. Always bringing sheets of paper with big fat graphs to show how something extraordinary has been pulled off. The guy has no political sense. When my constituency visitors are sitting around he gives them the cool ignore. If it weren’t for the PSUs doing all that CSR stuff I’d be sunk. Good thing he is retiring soon.

Minister for Industry: I’m new to this Mahan Bharat Sarkar business. All I can say is that these officers cram up all those figures and then throw around all that jargon and statistics at briefings. They see ghosts of corruption everywhere. The latest alibi they have now is this awful RTI thing. One would think they are paid only to find ways of scuttling everything that comes from the Mantri. But were the Cabinet Secretary to tell them even once, they will turn somersaults. It’s all the fault of the bureaucracy, I say. India has not improved because of these blokes.

Minister for Power: You know, I would rather have my Additional Secretary as the Secretary. He is down-to-earth and understands political compulsions thoroughly. What is the basis for posting officers? I have three Joint Secretaries who have been here even before I joined. They’re nice people but I think they have been terrorized by the Secretary. And as for that big bindi woman Joint Secretary, she would have been so much better off in Tourism or Culture, even Women and Child Development. It’s impossible to talk
once she gets started. If such women become Secretaries they will be a disaster. But who can say this? The whole nari brigade in parliament will gang up and shout the place down and make a ruckus on TV too.

Minister for Industry: There will be a reshuffle soon. The grapevine has it that you are going to get a promotion, might even land up in the Foreign Ministry. Good for you. You will have much more visibility there. Everything is so civilized in MEA. The only bad part is that you won’t be able to do anything for your constituency there either. And if you think your big bindi woman JS talks too much, you haven’t heard the Foreign Service varieties – both men and women. They can really stretch a five-minute briefing for five hours. Anyway, I’m leaving for the US tonight for Modernization of Fast Developing Countries Conference. I’d better go now.

(Exit Minister for Industry, talking into a gadget stuck to his ear while holding a mobile phone in each hand, both ringing simultaneously.)
Enter Secretary Padmanabhan: Good evening, sir. Namaskar, sir, vannakam, sir
Congratulations, sir. Did you know there is this great gfiles magazine, sir? It’s all about the bureaucracy. In the latest issue I have with me here they have rated how bureaucrats rank the Ministers. Sir, you have been rated as Numero Uno, sir. Congratulations, sir!
You can show this magazine to the PM, sir. And this is really something huge because gfiles is really the last word on the subject.You deserve the number 1 ranking, sir. It’s all your vision for 2121, sir.
(Getting up to go, Secretary Padmanabhan stands up as if to go and suddenly sits down again.)
By the way, sir, I was going to mention that I am due to retire at the end of the month, sir. I don’t have to say anything more to you, sir. You have always been my benefactor, sir.

Minister for Power: Of course I’ll do what I can. By the way, that Sunil Bimbani industrialist met me the other day about his power plant in Bimnagar. What’s the problem with his case? You are such a good manager, sort it out.

Secretary Padmanabhan: Bilkul, sir. It’ll be done, sir. It’s a small thing, sir. Aur koi mere layak sewa, sir? And don’t forget to show the PM the gfiles article, sir. By the way, I’ve got the National Power Corporation to set up an amusement park in your onstituency as a part of CSR. Every child will remember you forever, sir. g

A dangerous admission

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I’m so scared” said Arjun Bhatia’s mother to his beleaguered father. Arjun, three and a half, jumped on and off the sofa unmindful of the “trauma and tension associated with nursery school admissions” — precisely what the Ganguli Committee report (2006) had sought to prevent. That well-intentioned scheme, with marks assigned for proximity to the school, alumni status, sibling presence and girl child applications, has unfortunately been twisted out of shape.

Thousands of hapless parents continue to hurtle from one school to another to get a child admitted. The government says it is helpless, because the scheme is not of its creation but the result of judicial fiat. The maximum manipulation takes place when the management assigns a whopping 20 per cent to 40 per cent marks for “educational and professional qualifications” of parents — with no criteria. Another area where schools fiddle admissions is the 10 per cent “management quota”. When some upmarket schools command up to Rs 10 lakh per seat, this quota is stretched elastically.

For these and several other reasons, the nursery admission process remains unfair and convoluted. Nothing can be explain how a kid from Bengali Market, with both parents in professional jobs, was denied admission to every school in New Delhi. And what is a toddler from Anand Vihar in East Delhi doing in a school on Mathura Road 20 km away if the neighbourhood concept is being implemented?

Hundreds of bleary eyed four-year-olds are wrenched out of bed, lifted bodily and dispatched in a trundling school bus at 6:45 am, to return only at about 4 pm. “It’s torturing the child” says Dr R.K. Sharma a veteran of the Delhi education department.

What then is the bigger picture? Half of Delhi’s 1200 recognised public schools admit children into nursery; between them they account for 40,000 nursery seats throughout Delhi. With approximately 250,000 infants born each year calculating the numbers seeking nursery admission is child’s play. The bulk of children from the lower middle and working classes go to government or municipal schools, whether owned or aided. That still leaves at least 50,000 families, mainly from the upper-middle class, seeking admission in privately-run schools.

Of the 600 private schools offering nursery admission, only 150 belong to what the education directorate’s officers tend to call “hi-fi” schools. And because these are predominantly located in three districts — New Delhi, south, and south-west Delhi — upwardly mobile parents make a beeline there. East Delhi with a huge and upmarket resident profile has only 10 “hi-fi” schools. Another 130 schools in the district are termed “moderate”, a euphemism for “simply not good enough”.

Given these numbers, and that at stake is not just a nursery admission for a four-year-old but the child’s 14 subsequent years — and perhaps his college prospects and career options— it is inevitable that the managements of sought- after schools are battered with influence and money.

What is the way out? First, the education directorate plays an important task while “recognising” private schools. Inspections are conducted to check existence of prescribed benchmarks which include infrastructure, the presence of properly trained and salaried teachers, water and fire services and a range of extracurricular activities. When all this information is available, it ought to be shared on the the directorate’s website, with the result of the last inspection and the previous year’s school-leaving examination results. That would give a better idea of the school’s quality and educational attainment.

Second, segregate unaided private nursery and primary schools from the middle and secondary schools. The entry point for middle school should be Class 6. Until then children should attend nearby schools as a matter of right — and use their precious childhood to learn socialisation skills, the three “R”s, and to play and express themselves with abandon. That is the system the world over. Why not here?

Admission into Class 6 should be done on the basis of an objective-type test among recognised private schools, seat allotment made on the basis of merit-cum-preference, and finally through a lottery within the qualified group. The Delhi Education Act of 1976 should be amended to ensure that primary and middle school management is separated and the merit-cum-preference test for admission to middle schools is administered much like centralised examinations for professional courses. The idea has worked well in the United States, which runs “magnet schools” which attract the best students, and no pressure and stress issues stand in the way there.

The result would be fewer panicky parents, an authentic picture of school performance to guide them, and little or no stress on the young child whose real chance will come at age 12, not 4. The present laissez-faire approach has been disastrous.

Of course the RTE Act will need amending, to allow for middle school admission tests after Class 5. This screening has produced tens of thousands of shining students, via the Jawahar Navodyas and the Delhi government’s Pratibha schools. We need more of that ethos and less shackles on children’s childhood.

Images of exclusion?

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The elderly are major consumers of media and entertainment. Yet they continue to be portrayed in negative, gendered stereotypes, as victims. Are these images promoting social segregation?

The danger is that stereotypes reduce people to simple categories and convert assumptions into realities…

Beyond stereotypes: Growing old and loving every moment.

More and more Indians are joining the ranks of the educated elderly. They are the most avid among readers of newspapers and magazines, and even more ardent as television viewers. It is hence ironic that despite their growing numbers and their propensity to devour all that media has to offer, the elderly are either discarded by media or relegated to age-old stereotypes. The depiction follows a set pattern which, far from reducing the gender-based divide, perpetrates social segregation.

First, there is the belief that the best things in life are the preserve of the young and upwardly mobile. Producers, editors, copy-writers, and marketing buffs naturally target a world which has influence or money or they resurrect the world they are accustomed to. Like Jane Austen who never describes two men in conversation, because she never witnessed such scenes in her own life, the drivers of image creation appear unconvinced about women’s empowerment, career advancement and economic independence; certainly not representative enough to be captured and projected. In conversation, Professor Srivastava of the Institute of Economic Growth queried whether this had only to do with the spending proclivities of the elderly, or it might also relate to the historically conservative role that media has played when it comes to social issues.

Disproportionate coverage

A study conducted last year by Archana Kaushik from the Department of Social Work in Delhi University has looked at the images of the elderly portrayed by newspapers, television, and cinema. In the case of print medium, her samples covered six English and Hindi newspapers having the widest circulation in India. In 30,000 articles that she scanned, the print media accorded less than one per cent space to the subject of the elderly. Considering that 60-plus people are eight per cent of the population, with a projected doubling of this proportion within the next 10 years, it is surprising that the elderly are of so little consequence to the print media. Kaushik also scanned 500 articles featured by two leading magazines over three months and found only one article on the elderly — that too on dementia, where only the threatening aspects of what lies in store received primacy.

Easy victims?

What the print media does however cover with ghoulish interest and that too on its front pages is the susceptibility of the elderly to become victims of crime, so reinforcing images of old people as feeble, lonely and vulnerable. The media’s portrayal of such stories immediately gets a knee-jerk reaction from governments. The result: insecurity of the elderly takes centre stage for a few weeks while the more important issues of their positive well-being get ignored.

The experience with telly-commercials is diametrically opposite. In over 300 TV commercials scanned by the research study, the elderly were featured in double their proportion in the population. Another difference — while elderly men were shown as jovial extroverts, the wives were invariably confined to home settings. Observes Professor Srivastava, “A fundamental aspect of this (difference) has to do with sexuality. Such depictions of elderly men leave open possibilities that are closed off to women; it is one of the enduring taboos of Indian society.”

Perhaps the only rather refreshing exception was the Asian Paints advertisement where the grandmother contradicting her husband recalls the colour of their grand son’s knickers, smugly asserting, “I’m always right!”

Again all insurance advertisements project men as ‘providers’, and by inference show women as dependent beneficiaries. Another stereotype is the use of young models for selling products like disposable syringes, gels for the treatment of wrinkles and arthritis — as though images of the elderly who primarily use these products might attach some kind of odium to their marketability.

Among television serials, the elderly occupied almost 30 per cent of the major roles — four times higher than their proportion in the population. The obvious difference was that the men were shown in their sixties whereas the women were octogenarians swathed in traditional white saris reinforcing the belief that old age spells detachment from vibrancy. Similarly, while elderly men exercised power and patriarchal authority, elderly women were shown as family bonders, willing to make huge personal compromises to restore domestic accord. Although the manipulative genius of both sexes was depicted, women’s roles were confined to making and breaking families while elderly men played challenging roles as patriarch, villain or Godfather.

An exception is a mammoth Marathi telly serial “Chaar diwas sasu che” where the main character, acted by Rohini Hattangadi, plays the protagonist’s role, even influencing the selection of the state Chief Minister and the Home Minister through her proximity to the High Command at Delhi. What is refreshing is how her intelligence and strategic thinking surmount obstacles, in contrast to her industrialist husband and sons who come through as naïve wimps. If an elderly woman protagonist can dominate a Marathi serial for years together, it is a sign of what people may just like watching — might even welcome.

In cinema the research found that the elderly constituted almost 50 per cent of the total characters — almost five times more than the proportion of older persons in the general population. But no elderly woman played a single central character and less than a fifth of them played a major role. On the other hand older men played both central characters and major roles in several films like “Umar”, “Shararaat”, “Lage Raho Munna Bhai” and “Baghban” where elderly abuse was fought. But everywhere women played only the supporting role. Even while fighting the system as in “Virrudh” and “Dhup”, only the male lead is shown taking up the cudgels while the woman actor simply tags along.

Gendered take

On the whole, cinema seems to depict the elderly at a turning point — at risk, yet resilient; abused by some but respected by others. Be that as it may, elderly females do not move out of their age old stereotypes and the conclusion that emerges is that the box office would prefer no change.

At the end of the day, news, entertainment and advertising perforce hunt for the widest possible audience to absorb their messages. Hence the compulsion to create stereotypes. The danger is that stereotypes reduce people to simple categories and convert assumptions into realities, so accentuating inequalities and prejudice. They even resurrect taboos and cultural traditions which in practice may actually be on the wane. With life expectancy and disposable incomes of the elderly increasing each year, it is time the elderly, particularly women (who outlive men) are projected as leading fulfilled lives. Otherwise far from integrating in society, the elderly will believe what they see and read — and accept their roles as appendages, afraid to relate with a wider society.

The media’s role as an agenda setter for society, as an information provider and an opinion maker is critical because of its inherent power to alter awareness, priorities and mind-sets. The media does not need a regulator to oversee these things. They need only ask the educated elderly what they think. The fear of being discarded for being incompetent and unwanted needs to be allayed, not reinforced.

The donkey’s SADDLE Or, a symbol of the feudal mindset of the Indian bureaucracy

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MANDARIN MATTERS | Attestation Of Documents

AMBASSADOR Nigam Prakash (vintage 1966 IFS) tells this story about a souvenir received from a Governor in Tunisia when bidding adieu. He was gifted a donkey saddle with the Governor wishing that his honoured guest would always possess the capacity to rule (the privilege of burdening, beating and kicking people into subjugation). The donkey symbolized the people and the saddle the power to control them. Nigam once used the anecdote to illustrate the attitude of the Indian bureaucracy, which, he felt, embraced the Governor’s philosophy.

Let’s pick an example – attestation of documents. While I was a serving government officer, I had the authority to attest documents certifying that they were true copies of the original. How many people approached me during the 38 years that I possessed this power? I cannot recall more than 20 occasions when I attested documents. As a rule, I did it for someone I knew directly or a colleague’s friend or a friend’s friend.

I do not recall a single instance when a stranger sought attestation of documents. There was a very simple reason: how could a stranger ever approach me?

And how many times did I need to get attested copies of documents for myself – proof of residence, ration card, children’s mark sheets…maybe 500 times.

And how many times did I need to get attested copies of documents for myself – proof of residence, ration card, children’s mark sheets, driving licence, house tax receipts? Maybe 500 times. If you ask me to recall who attested all those documents for me, I do not know. “Madam’s” work just got done.
True, there might be several thousand gazetted officers in the country who would be more accessible to the proletariat than I was but, in the nature of work, gazetted officers function from designated offices. The question of attesting copies for strangers just does not arise. I wonder how the hoi polloi (the donkey) actually persuaded a gazetted officer to attest documents. What, then, is the logic behind insisting on a gazetted officer’s attestation? When the colonial rulers bestowed this legacy, it was founded on the principle of depending only on the dependable. The government’s own servants (gazetted because their appointment appeared in the official gazette) were selected by the British because they could be trusted like head boys. But, after Independence, and three decades beyond, the practice continues. Even after photocopiers replaced carbon copies, the need for attestation by a gazetted officer remained unchanged. What if some bounder made 40 per cent look like 90 per cent while photocopying? So the gazetted officer continued to attest photocopies even after they replaced carbon copies.
And then, in the 1990s, came the age of computers. Scanned copies of documents and signatures began to be freely accepted not just for humdrum daily work, but by banks doing global business, by international organizations and even foreign universities. But here in India the gazetted officer continued to attest documents and affix the rubber stamp under his signature. So what if 99 per cent of people did not fudge documents? That was unimportant. The safety of the donkey’s saddle was more important to the ruler. The low penetration of computers continues to be spouted as the reason to disallow change even now.
A friend who frequently tours rural areas found that young people, frantic to meet deadlines for admission and job applications, and finding it impossible to get hundreds of attestations done by gazetted officers, had simply dumped this donkey business for monkey business. They merrily stocked the rubber stamps of gazetted officers and signed and stamped the documents themselves, sure that no one would ever find out. Impersonating signatures was the least of their problems.

I once described this absurd situation to a group of officers – some serving, some retired – and argued that this antiquated system of attestation by gazetted officers should be scrapped. Astoundingly, the consensus was that attestation by marzi should be replaced by making attestation obligatory. Specific gazetted officers should be earmarked to perform the functions. “Authenticity should not be compromised,” thundered my companions.

IN Europe, the question of attestation of documents just does not arise. Fresh copies are issued by the office that originally issued the document and additional originals are dispatched via the Internet or by post at the price of a coffee. The responsibility for maintaining the data is that of the issuing authority and not of the applicant. How long will it take us to become like that?

Then I recalled a promise made when I was Chief Secretary of Delhi and set about checking what came of it. Imagine my surprise when I found that the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) has actually begun issuing birth and death certificates in original and the document can be collected from a convenient delivery point or demanded by courier in seven days flat. That all births and deaths are now registered online by practically all nursing homes and hospitals in Delhi by operating user names and passwords linked to the MCD website. As a result, Delhi claims to have achieved nearly 100 per cent registration of births and deaths, whereas the national registration average is around 60 per cent.

Kudos to the much-maligned MCD! But, to be realistic, the need for verification of documents cannot be wished away altogether and certainly not in rural areas. The US practice of notaries attesting documents – much like is done here for legal documents – would suit us. A professional notary council should be established, to accredit individual notaries on the lines of chartered accountants and architects. Any hankypanky committed by a licensed notary would result in his licence being withdrawn and criminal charges of forgery being filed. Every notary throughout the country could be notified on a district website and in tehsil offices along with the fee to be paid for attesting different kinds of documents. The notaries could be allowed to operate from post offices, banks, schools, and community clubs –wherever an organization sees an advantage in having a licensed notary around.

One major caveat, though. This should not mean setting up yet another government office to administer or regulate the attestation of documents with more factotums to sit on the already burdened donkey. In any case, donkeys are fast becoming monkeys and, whatever gazetted officers say, monkey business is what is actually going on. The way out is to begin dispensing originals, at least in the metros, as the MCD has begun doing in a few cases. The originals of ration cards could be taken up next. In the meantime, a professional service provided by licensed notaries should be prescribed for attesting documents at the district and sub-district level.