Friday, March 28, 2008

Government? ufff! The People – Democrazy in DOC, Part 1

This is a citizen’s take on our much acclaimed democracy. In Kerala, if you said democracy, some people would get offended, but most others would get ruffled. “Demo-ya? Kooduthal demo venda ketta” (don’t show off too much) you would get warned. Of course, the crazy bit is quite obvious everywhere in DOC.

Over the last few years, I have had the privilege of experiencing the joy and pleasure of many typical government offices in Kerala’s capital city, Trivandrum, in pursuit of various clearances and permissions. Initially it was the KSEB and the city Corporation, visits which have scarred my soul permanently!. So let me wait a bit more and let them heal a bit more before I write about the "gods" there.

More recently, I had to go to the Tahashildar’s office (TO) in Trivandrum. This is because I made the mistake of applying for a particular permission some time last year at the District Collector’s office. The Collector’s office had processed my request within a month and in august last year they had sent out an order to the Tahashildar’s office, aptly copied to me, asking them to verify my records personally and report back WITHIN A MONTH so that they can grant the permission at the earliest. Now that there has not been any response for over 6 months, as a citizen in dire straits, I decided to do the needful and visit the gods at the TO.

The look and feel of the TO at Trivandrum is similar to that of any other Government owned office. There will be people thronging the entrance, with a very knowledgeable and influential cart-wala selling ethakka-appam (banana fritters, or fry for the uninitiated) and tea. The experienced person will know that this cart-wala is the man. I mean, The Man. The man who was the sole authority before the Right to Information act was passed recently, and the only person you could get any valuable information from. He will know how to get what you need, who to meet, how much to bribe, when to come, what time the particular office “section” person goes to the loo, after how many weeks he will come back from the loo-visit, and most such very essential details for you to get your work done. He will also sell you the required application and request forms, although they are "supposed to be" obtained only from inside free of cost. But you wouldn’t want to displease the gods.

If you observe the people, you will notice that there is a pattern. Every group will consist of one officer and his clients, and in most cases, an external consultant also. Consultants are required for cases which are chronic (acute – upto 5 years, limited to one office; chronic – 5 or more years, involving many offices, probably in different cities or towns, or many cart-walas). Most of them will be in their mundu, folded up high, smoking (remember smoking is banned in public places in Kerala) and randomly spitting to announce the satisfaction of the tea they just downed.

Once you enter, you will find more hapless people. These “ignorant fools”, the na├»ve applicants and aspirants from out of town or the relatively uncorrupted lot, who stand in queues in the sun, in front of the enquiry counter and other "windows", waiting for a darshan of the concerned officer to direct them to the higher gods.

After a few hours, if you finally manage to make it to the counter the enquiry guy directed you to, and by some stroke of luck you reach there some time before or after the tea break-lunch break-tea break sessions of the employees, you will again most likely see an empty seat. The other people in the next seat or “section” wont even look at you. And if they do, they will eye you with an evil look and throw up their question in a fast move to ask “what the hell do you want?”. Some others may enquire and make you spill out your entire history before dismissing you to come when the concerned person is there and not on leave.

While I was there, a hapless old lady who had come from another town, and was enquiring about some payment she had to get as refund. She was desperately trying to get the attention of the officer who was luckily in his seat, but was talking to his colleague three tables away, not bothered about the lady muttering “sir…sir”. Finally, irritated, he asked “what?”. And she began her story. He asked her straight to go to some other section, without even looking at her paper. She then explained she had gone there and showed the remarks made by that section. To that he asked if she had gone to another office at another place in Trivandrum. Tired and irritated herself, she explained that all the other offices had directed her to him.

As I witnessed the sad plight of the lady, I also observed how the noticeboards and even the doors and windows were pasted with notices from various unions calling for strike or raising demands. There were computers on a lot of tables, all looking like age-old junk, uncleaned and kept shabbily. I saw the “peon”, who peered at you as though he is above the Collector (must be, in a literal sense, in collecting bribes), throw files signed by the Tahashildar, onto the respective tables from far away, as though he were delivering newspapers. The officers didn’t mind; after all it’s the "chief collector" himself delivering the goods. 3 out of 10 officers in that room were wearing khaddar, possibly implying they were one of the union leaders. I also saw how papers kept flying from some of the tables. Some were picked up by the person at the desk, some others were left lying only to be picked by some passerby and kept back on the table. Some others were still on the ground as I moved away, wondering what if its some piece of paper that’s so vital to one of us.

I could move away since my number had come. This was my 6th visit to the office to meet the person in charge of my file. I was lucky enough to meet the person this time, and even luckier to make him move it to the next "section", which was at the next table, in just an hour - something that didnt happen for the last 6 months.

But if you have “met the right people” and “seen them in the right way”, you will see that these hardly working people become so hard-working, showing personal interest, full of energy, cheering up their colleagues to process your request. Files, which usually take weeks to move between adjacent tables, begin to move rapidly between rooms and even buildings. People even recognize you during your second visit.

There is so much more to write about our government servants. The same people come back to private offices, hotels, and hospitals, and demand quick service and better facilities, preferably for free. And one would think its only the older lot who were the problem. But I couldn’t find a lot of difference in attitude among the younger officers either. I suppose its only a matter of time before the rot spoils the good apples too.
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Sunday, March 23, 2008

Doggoning, Doggone, Doggoned

If you notice the small poll on the right side-bar of this blog, you will notice that 10% of the voters feel that Kerala has made good progress in comparison to TN, AP, and Karnataka. I am trying to understand where the difference is. If its just a positive hope that Kerala will catch up, the mindset will change, etc, then yes, I am an optimist too. But if there are any hard facts, then lets examine whats available.

First there is this big discussion (hullabaloo, if you prefer) about how violence, robbery, and goondaism has suddenly become common-place in God's Own Country. In fact, this blog had carried a post called Goon's Own Country on the same issue last year. Now it appears that the title is more acceptable, at least compared to DOC, and even the "chinthakans" aka the thought-leaders of the state are calling the state by that name. Now thats a definite change in the mind-set, and a sign of acceptability and willingness to accept our "few" faults and inadequacies. Ok, theres some progress.

Talking about Goondaism, I am not sure how many of us remember that when the current Government came into power, one of the first things the Home Minister did was to release 100s of criminals and thieves (who were apparently party workers - uh oh - who could not make it to the legislative assembly) from the jails across Kerala. I guess they have all effectively taken up "jobs", unlike their lesser malayali counterparts, who still prefer to remain unemployed, smoking beedis and leching at their women. So theres some more progress identified.

The farmers of Kuttanad meanwhile realized that neither the LDF nor the UDF can save them. Goondaism struck in the form of unionism, and prevented harvest using machines. But early summer showers, as they call it, ensured that the political pains were washed away, leaving only the poor farmers to suffer. Of course, we can celebrate Easter with grain and vegetables "imported" from AP and TN, and chicken flown in from TN and Karnataka. And after easing the hunger, we can complain that there is a food-mafia and chicken-mafia, besides the infamous (and invisible) land-mafia, sex-mafia, film-mafia, retail-mafia (yawn..), beggar-mafia, beautyparlor-mafia.. The Italian mafia appear to be far behind compared to the progress we have made. Kudos to ourselves.

So what happened to all the "progress" and "development" made in Munnar and other "specified locations" across the state? Rubbles worth crores of money were "created" some time last year, but what is the end result? Except for the fact that the ministers and a few other top ministry officials were implicated in land-scams (alleged) subsequently, we have no idea what has happened after the much hyped and celebrated demolitions of the JCB era. Did the ministers divide all the newly-acquired land among themselves? Are they waiting for another buyer like ISRO to come in so that they can make their deals? Oh ofcourse, we now have a set of politicians with business knack despite the lack of education. Progress, of course.

Millions of malayalees across Kerala now scuttle and hamper scamper to get in front of the TV by around 8pm, irrespective of what they were preoccupied with. Star Singer, Ta Ka Di Mi, Super Star Global... groan..the list is endless. But this is one progress I wholeheartedly accept as positive. These programs are much superior to the pathetic mental torture fed to the malayalees earlier in the form of "serials". Atleast our children will feel encouraged to become precocious, and possibly inducted earlier into various party youth wings, while our pitiful neighbours settle for IIM, IIT, AIIMS etc.

So what if the multi-crore, celebrated, Smart City project, the mother-of-all-projects Vizhinjam port, the Keralas-liftoff-to-space ISRO project etc are all stuck behind political inadequacies and inefficiencies? Progress can be so subtle.. We will have the last laugh always I guess. At least we will pretend to do so, with true malayali false-prestige.
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