Thursday, December 31, 2015

the government as polluter

In a couple of days, the Delhi government will begin the experiment of having cars ply on the roads on specified days depending upon the registration number. The objective is to bring down the number of vehicles on Delhi roads so as to combat pollution ----- a laudable objective, we would all agree, but being pursued in a rather short sighted and ad hoc manner.

We are all familiar with the oft repeated ( but nevertheless valid) observations that neither Delhi nor the neighbouring cities such as Gurgaon, Faridabad and NOIDA have the public transport infrastructure or the levels of security to enable a significant percentage of those who live and/or work in Delhi to make the shift from cars to public transport , that the NCR is increasingly becoming oriented towards car owners with roads getting widened and flyovers getting built, that the concerns of pedestrians and cyclists are routinely dismissed in town design, and that the dominant culture today is one of consumerism which urges one to splurge on bigger and less fuel efficient cars if one can and encourages one to own multiple cars.

What I would love to ask the Delhi government is whether it has attempted to form an estimate of the number of cars that are owned/hired/run by the Union and State governments, the municipal authorities, the local civic administration, and the courts, public sector undertakings etc . Are these CNG vehicles? Can they be retro fitted to run on CNG? Can new purchases not be mandatorily of CNG cars? Have the governments, municipal authorities and civic administration considered devising systems which enable working from home? Are office buildings being rented/purchased in clusters so that the movement of files and persons ( which obviously involves the use of cars) can be minimised? Is the use of office cars for personal/ family errands being monitored and penalised? One can safely assert without any possibility of being proved wrong that the answer to all these questions is No. One can also safely hazard that the reason for the answer being No is the mind set that places the bureaucracy in a charmed circle, near - immune from the considerations of economy that influence the decision making of prudent home makers and profit driven businesses.

On a related note, do government organisations review their own work so as to determine whether an organisation has outlived its utility and needs to be wound up, or at least trimmed so as to become leaner ? Announcements regarding the setting up of new government bodies are common, those to do with the winding up of government organisations are rare, notwithstanding the fact that socio-economic changes ( which are currently taking place at a rapid rate) invariably result in some functions and organisations becoming redundant. Governments keep expanding, and so does the environmental cost of ensuring the mobility of government personnel.

The Delhi Chief Minister says that he and other Ministers will car pool to reach office. Will the bureaucracy? Or the judiciary? I for one look forward to the day when the district commissioner or metropolitan magistrate relinquish the sarkaari car and the "gunman" who accompanies them in the vehicle. I don't see it happening in the near future.

One near-criminal use of government owned/hired cars is to transport files ---- it could be a single file which is "urgently" needed and is therefore dispatched by car by a subordinate organisation to the office of a superior authority. Quite apart from the reckless disregard of economy, the environmental cost is not even a consideration when files are thus dispatched. If tomorrow a fiat were to be issued that files will under no circumstances be dispatched from one office to another via car, there would be an overnight jump in efficiency and systems solutions so as to ensure that the information contained in files is easily accessible and retrievable even without the file being physically available.

There is no empirical data available which could help one ascertain the environmental impact of government cars but even if it were a not very significant percentage, what is of great significance is that the issue of the environmental cost of cars would itself get more careful consideration and perhaps a change in the problem solving approach if it were ensured that the such ad hoc solutions as having cars with specified registration numbers ply on the roads on specified days and the resultant inconvenience are equally the lot of levels of government officials.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

and back to babugiri

After 2 years of "ifs" and "buts"  and deep agonising and long hours of fruitless discussion of whether to resume work or quit, the decision got made for me by some simple facts -----my sons neither need me 24x7 nor have much time for me (my husband never had ) and office work gives one enough idle time,  and more importantly, monetary and other resources such as "designation" to permit one to engage in one's non official "causes" . 

So, after a 5 year long sabbatical ( yes, it has been 5 years since I last sat behind a desk and attended an intercom call with a "Yes, Sir?" ) , I will be back in office next week, in an organisation which has always appeared to me rather like the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. It deals in strange subjects like APIS, ACES, GSTN, CDF, ICES etc etc, officers who once enter its portals rarely make an exit, their language cannot be comprehended by  Muggles, and if you ask them their job description they look down the length of their noses long enough for you to wish you had never asked such an inane question. There is no Lord Voldemort in this world, so one can have a jolly good time, and not even need a Harry Potter. There is always a Hermione , however. I believe there is one right now!

Because Muggles mostly do not understand what is happening in this magical world , they dare not ask for any accountability regarding progress or lack thereof vis a vis any of the enchanted (or is it enchantment) programs the school  undertakes to develop. You see, this is not a school where one is taught, this is a school which  researches and develops programs to so enchant tax payers as to make them voluntarily, out of the goodness of their hearts, comply with tax laws and procedures. 

Oh, before I forget -----the organisation is called the Directorate General of Systems and Data Management and it was one of my dreams to work in this charmed and charming world and learn a few spells. The dream has come true in that I have been given an opportunity to work in the Directorate -----whether I manage to learn to cast spells or even to invent a few new spells remains to be seen.

If I have the courage to, and without risking being thrown out, I will soon let you know the rest of the cast of characters : is there a Prof Snape? a Prof Dumbledore? a Prof Minerva Gonagall? a Lupin? a Hagrid? Do they play Quidditch? Is there a Triwizard Tournament ?? ( After all, sister tax departments have similar organisations). 

I look forward to a lot of fun and a lot of hard work having fun. 

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Will they haunt you

what if they returned
angry, sad, raging or quiet
the three lakh men
who gave up their lives

what if they returned
to haunt our luxury homes
and the air conditioned malls
what if they returned
as we planned investments
and to our vacation spots
what if they returned
as we snoozed over smartphones
in Parliament's august halls

would we care or
our hearts still remain
ensconced in stone?

(priya )

Friday, March 13, 2015

Passport travails and redundant work

Last March, my passport was about to lapse and I applied for its renewal, excited about the prospect of travelling to Vienna with my husband. I was told at the Passport office that my application would not even be accepted since it was not accompanied by a No Objection Certificate from the government. I therefore applied for a No Objection Certificate. The official responsible for processing my application informed rather grandly that no such certificate could be issued since I am on leave. Do I cease to be a government officer during my period of leave, he was asked. No, he answered indifferently. It is the job, however, of the office which you will join after completion of your leave period whose job it is to issue a No Objection Certificate ONCE you join that office. What happens in the meantime? How do I get my passport renewed? You can't, was the laconic reply. The situation remains unchanged a year later, and my plans to travel with my husband on his frequent travels abroad continue to gather dust. 

What a No Objection Certificate involves is this:

1. I write a letter requesting that a No Objection Certificate be issued.

2. The clerk (Dealing Assistant) opens a file, scribbles down a Note, stating that a particular government servant has requested that an NOC be issued for passport issue/renewal, and therefore, the Directorate of Vigilance may be requested to grant Vigilance Clearance. 

3. The file is submitted to the Section Officer and then to the Under Secretary. Once the Under Secretary has "approved", the file travels back to the Section Officer who also signs and the file finally returns to the Dealing Assistant. 

4. He sends a letter to the Directorate of Vigilance. The process is repeated here ---the Dealing Assistant scrutinizes the records, then submits a note stating that "Vigilance Clearance" may or may not be granted depending upon whether or not there are "vigilance" proceedings againt the government servant. The file travels via Section Officer to the Under Secretary, perhaps the Director , and then follows the same route to return to the Dealing Assistant. 

5. A letter is now issued to the office which had sought Vigilance Clearance. Here, the writing of a note, submission of file to the Under Secretary via Section Officer and the return of the file to the Dealing Assistant takes place yet again.

6. Finally, the government servant is sent a No Objection Certificate via mail.

Now, my very basic question is this ----- why does the government servant need a No Objection Certificate at all  to get his passport issued or renewed?

Is it the the government's case that no government servant can hold a passport or travel abroad if there are disciplinary proceedings pending against him? How does such restriction strengthen the government's case against the government servant facing disciplinary proceedings ? 

Is the denial of passport meant to serve as a punishment ? That would be illegal, since the penalties that can be imposed by the government are laid down in the relevant law. 

Does the government fear that the government servant will leave the country with his ill begotten wealth and never return ? For such a contingency , it can issue a Look Out Circular and ensure that the government servant does not leave the country. 

Does the government fear that the government servant against whom disciplinary proceedings have been initiated because he is involved in a criminal case could go abroad and vanish, to never return and face punishment vis a vis the criminal proceedings? For this contingency too, the government can take recourse to the simple expedient of a Look Out Circular.

Perhaps the government is anxious that the government servant will escape punishment for such conduct as unauthorised absence, refusal to comply with directions, supervisory failure etc . Well, if such a government servant travels abroad and never returns, he can be dismissed. He would have to forgo all pensionary benefits too. Isn't that punishment enough?

Why then does the government insist on spending time, money and manpower on something as redundant as an NOC for government servants who wish to get a passport issued or renewed ? Has it no better endeavours? 

There is also the interesting fact that MPs and MLAs, many of whom have pending criminal cases, seem to have no difficulty in travelling abroad ---- and at taxpayer's expense !!

Sunday, March 8, 2015

does she have a toilet ?

It is International Women's Day today ------ and my way of celebrating it is to give a loan to a woman to help her build a toilet.

Did you know that millions of Indian women are vulnerable to sexual assault when they step out because they do not have toilets at home? Beyond the protests and processions and prayer meetings for Nirbhaya that so many of us have participated in, are you ready to help a woman build a toilet, and help her protect herself from sexual assault?

Here's an easy way to do it ----- make a loan via MILAAP ( I made my first Milaap loan in September 2011, and in the succeeding months, I have made 44 loans (lives impacted: 730). There hasn't been a single default since I made the first loan, and the mails from Milaap revive every month the immense satisfaction I experience in having made a contribution, however minimal, in the lives of women living thousands of kilometres away. 

This is how MILAAP works. 

Milaap is an online platform that enables you to lend to India's working poor. It partners with established organizations that have a strong presence at the grass roots and a deep understanding of the 150 million Indian households with no access to water, sanitation, healthcare, education and energy. Milaap and its field partners design customized loan programs and Milaap then shares the requirements, backgrounds and photos of all borrowers. The online listing of borrower profiles enables the lender to select the cause and the borrower of his choice and give a loan of minimum USD 50 or Rs 1000. 

Every month, Milaap sends the total loan collected to its various field partners who disburse the loans and regularly monitor the progress of the borrowers and collect repayments from them. Monthly deposits of the repaid loan instalments are made into the lender's Milaap account. At the end of the loan cycle, the lender can choose to withdraw the repaid loan amount or relend it to another borrower on Milaap. 

Right now, there are at least 14 women/women's groups looking for a Milaap loan to build toilets ( ----- make a loan today, and make a difference!

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

the cruelty of the rain gods and ordinary mortals

Facebook has been awash with pictures and status updates that speak of the joy and exuberance triggered by the March rains. The rains were unexpected ---- a drizzle around Holi is not uncommon, but it doesn't rain, and rain heavily, for several days when we enter March. The weather changed, light woolens were pulled out again, we shared barkha songs on social media, we reveled in the cold breeze, an online publication listed all the Delhi restaurants/cafes where one could enjoy food and wine seated outdoors, and so on and so forth. 

Today, I read in The Hindu that the unseasonal rains has played havoc with the rabi crops of wheat, mustard and chana and "may trim the output of the commodities.". The news item included several statistics to do with the area under cultivation of these crops, the expected output loss etc. There was no mention, however, of the dramatic impact that the crop failure will have on the lives of farmers. Why? We don't care, that's why. 

Did you know that in Uttar Pradesh, 3 farmers have died in the past three days? They could not bear to see the flattened fields, They could no longer brave the huge losses that they were faced with. One hanged himself from a babool tree in his wheat fields, two died of cardiac arrests when they saw the damage that the rains had wreaked overnight on the crops that were getting ready to harvest. 

Others may not lose their lives, but the coming days will be sorrowful for them ---- wheat fields have been flattened, sarson seeds will yield almost 50% less oil, half the potatoes harvested may rot because they have absorbed moisture during these two or three days of heavy rains. Some of those who grow wheat may now have to buy wheat. 

Of course, the State Governments will announce cash compensations to the affected farmers but these cash compensations are neither timely nor adequate, or no farmer would experience such distress as to take his own life when face to face with natural calamities. In Bundelkhand, the cash compensations announced in 2014 as a result of drought are yet to be disbursed, and the farmers are now confronted with damage due to rains !!

As consumers, there is not much we can do by way of direct intervention in the lives of farmers. What we CAN do is to make the effort to become better acquainted with the challenges that farmers face, and question the government when we read of policies/laws that are not farmer-friendly, and demand that the solutions that farmers , farmer organisations and and farm policy experts propose be heard more sympathetically and factored in when plans for urban and industrial growth are drawn up. The farmers do put food on our tables, don't they ?

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Mingling with the hoi polloi

I heard on the news today that the Prime Minister had lunch  in the Parliament Canteen. He sat with some BJP Members of Parliament , ordered vegetarian fare, and talked with the MPs while he ate. This made for "Breaking News" on television and for good reason, I think. What we need is a cultural revolution which breaks down the barriers which exist between the lower and higher grades of the government ( in the broadest sense, covering the bureaucracy, the political class, the legislature, the executive, the judiciary). 

Perhaps it will then get transformed into a more equal relationship between those who govern and those who are governed. 

For several years, I worked in the Ministry of Finance in different capacities and interacted with other Ministries of the Union Government as well. Not once did I see the Ministers or senior bureaucrats eat in the Ministry canteens -----  dingy spaces, over crowded, serving  food which is neither wholesome nor hygienically prepared. The mantris and officers eat in their "chambers", where food is served by peons whose duties include rinsing the tiffins and serving ware in the case of mid level bureaucrats who bring home made food. If the Ministers and afsars were to have their meals in the canteen, the places would get spruced up, better food would be served, and most importantly, the aura of infallibility and superiority which surrounds them mostly because they are inaccessible would considerably diminish. 

Nowhere is this more in evidence than the Supreme Court of India. The Supreme Court Justices inhabit a world two centuries older than ours. Their magnificent offices and the near - regal paraphernalia has to be seen to be believed. Will a learned Supreme Court Justice be accorded less respect if he had his meals with all the other Supreme Court staff and officials in a canteen? Or is he afraid that his biases and prejudices and, perhaps, ignorance will get exposed if he mingles with the hoi polloi ?

Some years ago, I suggested to a senior colleague that he have tea every month with all the junior staff and officials working in that organisation whose birthday falls in that month. It will make it possible for them to know you better, Sir, and you can get to know the people who work so hard and who you never get to see, I suggested rather naively. He did not even bother to acknowledge my suggestion with a comment. He simply raised his eye brows and dismissed it !!

Even the washrooms are segregated ----almost every sarkari building has a washroom for the aam janata and another for the officers. The Mantris , of course, are a cut above and enjoy the privilege of washrooms adjunct to their "chamber". I wonder how they cope when they visit shopping malls and cinema complexes, or go sight seeing in India or abroad. They have to drop their pretensions, don't they?

Till these barriers break down, I don't see greater empathy for citizens burgeoning in the hearts of those who govern ----- when most of THEM are treated like second class citizens, and some of them get away with treating themselves as royalty, how does one expect any of them to treat those they govern as their equals ??

Monday, February 23, 2015

ye tera mera sarkaari ghar

Will the AAP government in Delhi do away with the categorisation of government employees into A, B , C and D ? 

Will it do away with the norms that define the office infrastructure and facilities that each grade of government employees is entitled to ? 

Will it abolish the norms that define the size of residential accommodation that the government will allot to its employees? 

Will the less "posh" colonies where primarily the Groups B and C reside be brought at par with their upscale counterparts?

Will peons get sarkari cars ? 

Will Commissioners ride to office on bicycles?

Will the daily wage workers employed on contract basis in housekeeping jobs in government offices work free of charge at the Upper Division Clerk's residence on weekends rather than the Joint Secretary's ?

Of course not.

So why does the Aam Aadmi Party not have the honesty to admit that their Chief Minister and Ministers will live in large sized government bungalows in Lutyen's Delhi, like all the other public servants ( politicians, judges, bureaucrats etc) who do, simply because they can ? 

Why must it advance the bogey of "public interest " ?

The Chief Minister and/or Deputy Chief Minister meet 400 to 500 people every day, that is why a large bungalow is required, we are told. 


A Chief Minister who spends the better part of the day in office monitoring the work of his Cabinet colleagues or liaising with other State Governments /Union Government or attending meetings where Chief Ministers are invitees or attending to other such official duties and who visits public buildings and public spaces and public gatherings to remain sensitive to what the aam aadmi wants will have no time left to meet hundreds of people every day at his residence.

If the administration is responsive and efficient and honest, why would people need to meet the Chief Minister anyway? This is a democratic set up, not a monarchy where the benign despot hands out just reward and punishment. 

Lets stop being hypocritical.

We live in a stratified society where the size of the house we live in depends upon our class/status. It is not a function of need/requirement. That is why the Chief Minister needs a bungalow in Lutyen's Delhi. Full Stop. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

A compassionate heart

I didn't know whether I was ready to be a mother when I had my first child. The rush of pure emotions that filled me in the days that followed, as I held the tiny life close to my heart, has never quite abated. For reasons that I have not been able to decipher, it made me acutely sensitive to the pain and suffering of others, animate or inanimate, near or far, present or long dead. My family and friends would laugh at me, telling me that rushing to offer succor was a fool's errand, that the world is full of people who are only looking out for themselves, that compassion gets rewarded with scorn and indifference. I didn't care because I knew different, but I worried that my sons , growing up in this dog-eats-dog environment, would never be compassionate. 

I was wrong. 

I see compassion at work every day.

I see it when my son accompanies a beggar to the nearest dhaba, sits down with him as he eats a full meal, and arranges a job for him.

I see it in the alacrity with which pullovers come tumbling out when I say I am collecting woolens for a winter clothes collection drive and my son says, Away with you, friends, now you"ll have another story to tell !

I see it when the monthly allowance gets depleted much before the end of the month because some street children needed shoes and slippers. 

I see it when when the nurse gets yelled at and her tears rapidly turn into a smile as my sons pulls his grandmother's leg for being a difficult patient.

I see it when I fulminate at my father in law's attempts to intervene with my son's education, and he says, Mom, he is an old man, he is anxious about his legacy. 

I smile, and I know that they'll be all right. Life can never be empty or meaningless when one has a compassionate heart, and all that children need is to see you exercising compassion and so will they. 

That's how the world survives, despite the moments of horror and ugliness. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

We don't need no education

For five years now, perhaps, a little more, I have been trying to convince my son that it isn't a good idea to argue with teachers, flout the rules that are meant to enforce school discipline, condemn the text books, question the rationale of the examination system, scorn peers who do none of the above etc etc ---- in vain. For five years, I have relentlessly urged him to pay some attention to what's happening in class, to complete assignments, to read the prescribed text books, and to answer questions as per the expectations of the examiner ---- in vain. For five years, I have tried to sell him the idea that worldly success may not be all that its trotted out to be but is not to be sneezed at either ----- in vain. 

Even now, when he's preparing for the Entrance Exams that will decide which college he gets to join for his undergraduate studies, he spends innumerable hours convincing me of the weaknesses of the system, how it favours those who slog and cram and aspire to get an engineering degree only as a means to a well paid job in the corporate or worse still, the government sector, and places at a disadvantage those who'd rather NOT memorise formulae and short cuts but focus on comprehending abstract concepts for the simple joy that such comprehension brings. 

All these years, he has pursued his interests with a complete indifference towards the "system". He's learnt to play music, taught himself to compose music, written poetry, spent countless hours engrossed in abstract art, read philosophy, devoured biographies of scientists, read Quantum Physics and Game theory , downloaded thousands of hours of music of every conceivable genre, caused three laptops to crash in 5 years, replaced his wardrobe with clothes that he is comfortable in with no concern for fashion, learnt to cook, driven me crazy with his compulsive emphasis on order and cleanliness etc etc. We engage in discussions on every topic under the sun, whether it be politics or patriotism or poverty or the purpose of life. We have serious differences on charity, population explosion, Islam and how society ought to treat the elderly. 

He's a delightful young man who is educating himself and me every day ----but as far as the education system is concerned, he's a failure because he scored but 80 per cent or so in grade XII and is unlikely to get into an IIT. His plans for the future include teaching, research and writing an opera. It is getting increasingly obvious that he will find it difficult to live his dreams in India, so I'm getting reconciled to sending him abroad, in search of an academic environment conducive to his multifarious interests and passions. 

I wonder often whether I have done him an injustice by not opting for home schooling ----- and urge every parent who's beginning to doubt whether the school system is doing more harm than good to immediately begin looking for home schooling options. Everything my son has learnt is DESPITE his formal education, not because of it ---- or as Mark Twain would have said it, his schooling has interfered with is education. 

The irony is that if he succeeds in his dream of becoming a teacher, he will become a part of the very system he abhors -----unless he sets up a school of his own!!!