Monday, February 21, 2011

The tamasha of foreign tours

My introduction to the world of "foreign tours" was sudden, unexpected, and an eye opener. Feeling deeply dis satisfied in a charge where I felt that there wasn't enough meaningful work, chafing against a system that did not allow me to say this because it'd reflect poorly on my predecessors and create problems (of too much work!) for my successors, looking out of the window at the majestic skyline of South Block and reflecting how  so much less majestic were the official duties I was discharging, I was summoned one day by a senior colleague, to be told that I'd been working too hard, I needed a break, and I'd therefore been nominated for a short workshop in Singapore. I was to leave the next day, the details of the accomodation, allowances etc would be provided on arrival, and I was to focus on having a good time. I was then shown out of the office. My official passport got made in a couple of hours, the tickets were delivered at my residence, the visa was to be obtained on arrival, and there I was, twenty four hours later, being received at Changi Airport by the hosts. The accomodation was sumptuous, the delegates were Asian, the resource persons were American, the subject was "bonded labour" and it had nothing whatsoever to do with my official duties. So for five days, I had a hearty breakfast every day, did all the sight seeing that Singapore offers, marvelled at the lush greenery and the cleanliness, and when fatigued, sat through a session or two of the workshop. On return, I was informed by a colleague who had an ear to the grape vine that there had been a bit of a tussle between the officers who felt that they'd best represent the country in this forum, and because neither was prepared to cede ground, I'd been selected at the last minute as a compromise candidate !

So who gets to undertake training abroad? The Government servant who'd benefit most from it, whose being trained would benefit the organisation the most? An emphatic "no" would be the answer.Who gets to represent the country in international fora where Conventions and protocols and standards are discussed, drafted, and finalised? The officer best conversant with the subject, who's been acquainting himself with every development in the field, analysing the implications for domestic policy, preparing the country's stand on crucial issues? Of course not! The deciding factors are many, and far removed from such trivial considerations ----- who's in the good books of the powers-that-be, who needs to visit a child studying abroad, who has been the most compliant, who's rocked the boat and needs to be taught a lesson, who's prepared to deliver pickles and other savouries to the boss's relatives living abroad etc etc.
There have been occasions when a colleague in the delegation has brazenly informed me that he is completely unfamiliar with the substantive issues on the agenda and is there only because his boss agreed that he needed to unwind and he'd therefore be out the whole day sightseeing with his son.

Does anyone assess whether the officer being deputed will be able to articulate well the country's position? No. Is it a standard practise that it  be determined whether he/she even knows what position to articulate? No. Is the officer deputed ever pulled up for poor performance? No.There is such a thing as a back-to-office-report, which in most cases is never read. No one cares to assess whether any learning that the individual may have done, between sightseeing and shopping, can be transferred to others and/or to institutional memory.

The question that is most often asked when one returns from a foreign tour is:how was Paris/Amsterdam/Vienna/Washington/Moscow? Was the training useful? Did the Conference produce the desired results? Were the negotiations favourable to India? These are not the questions that one is expected to answer.

Of course, there are honourable exceptions, but by and large, foreign tours are a terrible, terrible waste of the tax payer's money, for the simple reason that these are looked at as distribution of largesse.The corporate sector must have its share of business travel that is ill advised or ill planned or redundant ---but the tax payer doesn't finance it!