Wednesday, August 20, 2008

raaj-less inspection

India must easily hold the world record for the number of laws and rules that the country is governed by, though when it comes to compliance and enforcement, I am sure, we would rank right at the bottom. Many of these laws have been handed down from the Britisher's times. And, even though the Britishers may have re-written, or even rescinded many of those that have no relevance in today's world, we still retain them. And, given half a chance, the babu will use it against you to extract his pound of flesh, using his army of inspectors.

As the law minister in the Vajpayee cabinet, Arun Shourie had set himself to address this issue, the then government generally having a liberalist view in these matters. But, inspite of himself, he could not achieve much, giving an indication of the enormity of the task, and the situation improved only marginally, if at all.

Well, like I have stated elsewhere, it is a true testimony to the spirit of Indian entrepreneurship that it is flourishing inspite of all these.

During the times I was running a manufacturing unit, I had set up a kind of a procedure to handle the inspectors who were there almost every second day. From the very beginning itself, I had made sure that we were complying with all the important aspects of the rules, making fresh, even if sometimes costly, investments as were required for the purpose. As such, we had a near perfect set up, which would even then have perhaps been today's ISO 14001 compliant. But, considering the number of laws, and the rules thereunder, and their complexities, it was almost impossible to comply with all the aspects of each of them totally. And, the inspectors had quite perfected the art of looking for these, irrespective of whether they had any direct bearing on the primary concern they were supposed to address.

I had an elderly man for a manager who, after attending to all the paper work meticulously, had himself perfected the art of countering the inspectors' ways, and limiting the 'mamools' to within reasonable limits. We had built ourselves a reputation for taking matters to the highest levels if the inspectors acted too greedy, though this came about through paying some hefty prices in the early stages. Consequently, the inspectors generally collected their mamools at the minimum levels and went away without creating much of a problem.

In such a scenario, the Department of Industries, GoK, alone had the stipulation that the annual certification for compliance under the Boilers & Pressure Vessels Act, be obtained from a 'chartered engineer'. Over the many years that I had been running the unit, I would have had to interact with quite a few of them. Each, without exception, I must record here, went about his task meticulously, earning every pie of the fee he was charging. And, the fee generally was lower than that charged by the other departments who sent their inspectors essentially to collect the mamools in the pretence of the inspection.

Very clearly the 'chartered engineer' route provided the necessary accountability, as well as relief to the industry from the inspector raaj, and therefore provided the ready model for other departments to follow, assuming of course they are looking for one.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Business of Governance

With concepts like Autonomy, Sustainable growth, Forward Planning, HRD, etc becoming buzz-words in management circles, government babu’s couldn’t quite stomach the idea of being left out. So, they managed sponsorships for themselves to attend various seminars, workshops, and even full-time MBA courses, and worse still started introducing these concepts into their respective domains/ departments, irrespective of whether they fitted in with the overall government policy or not. Now, very clearly, at least in the earlier times, much of the content in an MBA course, for instance, was tailored to Corporates, with very little of it being applicable to government administration (Later, of course, IIMs, particularly Ahmedabad and Bangalore, started specific courses tailored to government administration). But, with the babu’s pursuing with them all the same, the damage slowly started getting done.

Time was when the Electricity Board (the predecessor of the BESCOM), and the BWSSB would give their respective connections only after the Occupancy Certificate was issued by the local Municipal authority, thereby ensuring compliance with the building by-laws to a much greater extent than today. Down the years, with the babu’s turning into management experts, the Boards started looking at themselves as ‘profit centres’, and the checks and balances of the earlier regime just crumbled, bringing in in its wake the chaos of the present day.

The sad part however is that controls continue in many other areas, pushing these organizations to the receiving end on very many fronts. The KPTCL and the ESCOMS (successors to the Electricity Board), for instance, do not have the power to charge remunerative rates to the farming sector, this leading to a subsidy regime whereby they have become totally dependent on the government. Similar is the case with water supplies to EWS colonies/ areas.

And, this is not confined just to power and water supply sectors. The Transport Department, for instance, draws up its annual budget based on the growth plan for its staff, the revenue shortfall being made up by release of fresh licenses for autorickshaws, unmindful of the additional chaos that it wreaks on the already dismal city traffic scenario. The Pollution Control Board charges its so-called ‘consent fees’ in far higher proportion compared to the actual work it is required to do, and blows up the revenue generated in putting up fancy office complexes in prime commercial locations. And, so on.

The imperative need of the day is for the government to redefine its role to being a facilitator, and thereafter as the regulator, for which it necessarily has to give up its role as a player. Simultaneously, it needs to become far leaner in its operations, down-sizing itself drastically wherever required, as also evolving a cost plus approach compared to the present revenue oriented approach.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Bangaloreing voters' list review

text of the letter sent to TOI:

I was quite excited to read the caption 'Voters' list review Bangalored' in your columns this morning (23rd Jan). However, on going through the text, I was disappointed to find that what was proposed hardly amounted to 'Bangaloreing', going by the general understanding of the term. What is proposed is a review by another set of babu's, but from different states, which can have a limited impact, at best.

Indeed, what needs to be done is the proper Bangaloreing of not just the review, but the preparation and maintenance of the voters' list itself. Now, supposing the likes of say an Infosys, Wipro or TCS is entrusted with the job, within a matter of a few months, they will work to ensure an accuracy of even upto 99%, from the less than 50% as existing (as admitted by the State Election Commision itself), contributing greatly to the strengthening of our democratic process.

Organised private sector companies are today being entrusted with far more sensitive jobs, and one fails to see how much more sensitive these kinds of jobs are. Besides, the general public today has far greater faith and confidence in the abilities and integrity of these kinds of companies than they have in most of the government organisations.

In fact, I expect it will not be far off in the future before the equivalents of Election Commissions in the UK and US actually start Bangaloreing these jobs.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

SEC's muddle

In response to a news item in the press that the updated voters’ list was on display at the nearest polling booth (a local private school in our case), a few months back, I went over personally to make a check. I was pleased to note that even my daughter’s name, the process of enrolling of which I had got started only a few months earlier when she turned eighteen, had also been included, though placed a few pages away from where the rest of the family’s was.

Being the President of the housing complex association consisting of 128 dwelling units, where I stay, I looked for other known names from the complex. I found quite a few of them, surprisingly though scattered over some ten pages, interspersed with those of other residents living in independent houses in the locality.

Further, with the inclusion of my daughter’s name, my name now figured four times on the list - in my individual capacity, as h/o my wife, and as f/o my two children. Strangely, however, against each of the entries, as simple a name as ‘Muralidhar’ had been spelt in a different way. And, not just mine! Out of some 200 odd names from the complex, in the list, it would be a surprise if even ten had been spelt correctly.

One reason appears to be the maintenance of the master list in Kannada. People like me generally fill out the form in English. The State Election Commission (SEC) staff convert it into Kannada, and make the entries. Thus, when converted back into English, I land up as ‘Muralidhara’ instead of ‘Muralidhar’. As a South Indian, this may be OK. But, when an ‘Anil Chugh’ is turned into an ‘Anila Chugha’, I suppose, he is not going to be too amused. Whatever, all that still doesn’t quite explain the entry ‘Murulidhar’ as my name in one of the entries.

When I brought all these to the notice of an NGO that has been interacting with the SEC supposedly to help improve it’s functioning, it was suggested to me to have the appropriate correction ‘form’ filed. But, with the inherent problems remaining un-addressed, I wonder if it will help at all.

Incidentally, when I checked out the voters’ list through a web-link provided by this NGO, to my utter shock, I found that my name did not figure in it at all. But, about a month back, when our jurisdictional ARO came by to hand over a list to our complex manager, to my great relief, I found all the names listed there, though, being in Kannada, the names figured as Muralidhara, Anila, Chugha, etc. When this was pointed out to the ARO, he has offered to get the photo ID card issuing team to set up camp in our complex over a week-end, and have the cards made out with the correct spellings then and there. So, I expect, that should solve the problems for us.

Apart from the Kannada translation problem, the bigger one plainly appears to be the lack of competency amongst the SEC personnel, typical of any government organisation. Where else would you find the recording of the age of a person, a varying parameter, on the ID card, when the obvious thing to do would be to record the constant ‘d/o/b’ instead? Also, when it is mainly government school teachers who are kind of forced to take up the enumeration work, outside their duty hours and for a pittance of a compensation, is it any surprise that the product is of such poor quality?

The question that arises then is isn’t it time that as important a task as preparation and maintenance of the electoral roles, on which the success of the entire governance system rests, is out-sourced to professional agencies? No one can argue that the additional costs that may be involved would not be worth the value that would result. As things stand today, anyone can get any number of Bangladeshi's onto the rolls if one wants to. And, that indeed appears to be actually happening also, with the country paying dearly for it.

Further, very recently, it had been reported in the press that the government had decided to outsource a major chunk of the passport operations. Now, when as sensitive an activity as issuing of passports can be outsourced, is there a rationale any more in allowing the SEC to continue to muddle around as they have been, and only can.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

high handed petty officialdom

text of the letter sent to the press:

I refer to the report captioned "BBMP shuts down McDonald's" published in your columns on the 27th Sept.

There are not going to be many takers for the averment of the BBMP CHO (Chief Health Officer), Ms Gayatri, that 'she and her team had gone to the restaurant to inspect it based on a complaint by a customer', even as she can't be bothered any about the many road-side eateries that flourish all over the city amidst total filth and squalor. Very obviously, she and her team had tried to get some free eats by throwing their weight around, and when the staff resisted, they came up with the inspection ploy. It is to the credit of McDonalds that they chose to shut down temporarily, till such time as they could get the higher officials to intervene, rather than submit to the imperious ways of the likes of Ms Gayatri.

If India has to climb down from the present level of 72 in the world 'corruption index', the ways of the petty officialdom needs to be curbed equally as much as those of our politicos.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

value for money

text of the letter sent to the Times of India:

I refer to your editorial captioned 'Lesson in Languor' of the 24th.

While the salary increases recommended by the Fifth Pay Commission cannot quite be faulted with, the answer to the very important question raised by you as to 'whether it will result in improved services', is a definite 'no'. One very important recommendation that all earlier pay commissions have uniformly made, but that has been sadly ignored by the present one, is on the question of 'down-sizing'. It is another matter that this part of the recommendations made by the earlier commissions has never ever even been attempted to be implemented.

Now, as long as the government retains its gargantuan size, playing the role of an employer rather than as a facilitator for generating employment, the term 'government' will continue to be equated with sloth, inefficiency, corruption, in fact, everything negative.

The tax paying public can no longer afford this. It is time they started demanding better value for their money.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Kannada mis-use menace

text of the letter sent sent to the press:

I have repeatedly been writing about the mis-use of the venerated Kannada language. The following instance highlights the menace graphically.

One evening, last week, I was just behind a SANTRO ZING at the Egipura junction on the Intermediate ring road (linking Koramangala and Indiranagar). Noticing that the car's number plates were totally (and only) in Kannada, I took a picture, got a print, and sent it (by regd post) to the Police Commissioner, under the RTI act, requesting to know a) why no action has been taken so far to check such open and flagrant violation of the MV act? b) What action is proposed now?

Last evening, a Traffic Inspector came over personally to hand over a letter stating that, as per the records, the number KA 02 Z 6934 is registered in the name of the owner of a TATA Indica, whereas my picture showed a SANTRO ZING. Very clearly the user of the SANTRO ZING was upto some mischief, to put it just mildly, highlighting the point that I have been making all along, since not even half the police force is able to read the Kannada numerals readily. Given the callous way in which the police is treating this whole issue, all that a terrorist needs to do today is to steal a car, select a number arbitrarily, make out the plates in Kannada, fix a yellow & red flag for added effect, load it with explosives, and drive it straight into the Vidhan Soudha. He may even be accorded a VVIP status.

Plainly the Kannada number plate and the red & yellow flags have become passports to any kind of nefarious activity that you may want to pursue.

Incidentally, my questions to the Commissioner still remain unanswered.