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 naïve 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.


Unknown said...

Very graphic description of the beaurocratic tangles in everday Trivandrum life.When I got married, I had to pay 7 visits to the Trivandrum corporation to get my Marriage Certificate ! When I built my house I had to make a make more than a dozen visits to the Corporation office for planning permission & approval; eventhough it is suppossed to be a "Single Window" affair.
I have been conned in the RT Office by a vendor in the process of getting an International Driving Licence!!!
These government institutions act like torture chambers rather than delivering the goods!!!
We are having some sigh of relief as we are NRIs now; but are dreading at the thought of going back & visiting these "democratic" institutions in future!

scorpiogenius said...


The picture aptly portrayed. This has been going on for ages and will go on.. You will get similar stories if you ask any citizen of Kerala who had been to these offices.

The million dollar question is: Anyone got any solutions to end this menace???

Vinod/Kakka said...

These are our "relatives" too..

I have aunts and uncles who have been "civil" servants in the Kerala government. Most of my classmates parents were NGOs or GOs. Nowadays, these might be our peers: I certainly have a cousin who works for the emergency preparedness department of GoK, and sleeps the whole time at home, maybe preparing for an emergency at night.

As much as we might want to think otherwise, when it comes to government servants, we or our "class" are definitely part of the problem. I had to wait 15 months to get a problem in my birth certificate corrected. The registered date with the Trivandrum Corporation was 1 day off the correct one, and records from the hospital, Trivandrum Medical College, wasn't document enough. In the end, it required my family history, all our land records, my fathers death certificate (why can't he give an affidavit?). But we got it, and paid no bribes.

An "easy way out" fantasy? Make the civil servants call every one they meet "Sir". The agricultural laborer. The civil servants need to be taught that they are employed by the people who come to them for service. It is the common man that pays them salary, and not a King. That they are not in offices as a symbol of power, but to serve.

The hard way out: Money talks. Till the salary of a government servant is less than the median earnings, they will not change.

The chances of that happening: slim. The first time that I started to feel disillusioned about "our" way of thinking was with the Doctors strike. Here are a group of people, better educated than I am, with non-zero job opportunities, striking for more money. They are among the highest paid civil servants, and among the most corrupt. So, do we fight the other, or begin to change ourselves?

Corruption, Dowry, and Casteism to me are things that need to go first from our society. We are blind to atleast two of the evils, and it is people like us who indulge in all three. Not some vague "other" person who needs to be reformed our fought.

Corruption in civil service will go only when the poor are enpowered.

mathew said...

This problem is technically possible to be resolved by installing survelliance camera's and cashless transaction in offices.(thats what happen out here and proabably at your place too..coz there are corrupt europeans too ;-P)

But it should be corrected attitude wise among the normal public who have now dangerously come to accept that bribing is part of the parcel.

Given current conditions it would be rather practical to go for enforcement..but the sad part is there are no enforcers of laws in our state..we have all enforcers of goondaism and political upmanship..

Anonymous said...

I don't want to sound stupid - but is this article: Kerala Police

mean that the Kerala police is good or bad? Why are there overqualified cops in Kerala?

MC said...

@ madhavan - wow..just 7 for the marriage certificate? you are lucky..i recently met a russian couple who decided to have their baby delivered in Kerala. they were happy with everything, until they had to run around for the birth certificate. they regretted their choice only because of that.
Corporation is the worst among the government offices, and all you have there are leeches and uncouth nags waiting to spread their negativity onto you.

@ scorpiogenius - the best way to end this is to say no to bribing and to demand better service. but as a minority, if you and i do that, and the rest of the world continues to do all that, we will be isolated, targetted, and hounded. the politicians will ensure that, if not the bureaucrats. so until that class act can happen, we can only create awareness. or we can wait until the day we become powerful enough to make changes - which would never happen probably unless we got into politics. but see my next response too. vinod has brought up a very very valid point.

@ vinod - original concluding paragraph was exactly this - that the people sitting in these offices are our own parents and relatives. so we have a great role to play in creating awareness in our own homes. but i deleted that thinking that it may get personal. but that is a very essential point that we need to realize.

but then again, the question of double standards come in, and i feel malayalis are such big hypocrites that we are always saying something and doing the opposite.

the concept of the common man, just like the "society", is a farce, and just a tool. who is the common man? its you and me too. its become a fancy to say "saadharanakaranuvendi" or for the common man.

very true about casteism, dowry, and corruption. i know my own relatives who engage in all three. i myself have given out petty bribes to cops. but like i said in my earlier comment, we need a group movement against corruption. i agree, casteism and dowry are personal issues and can be fought on an individual basis.

@ mathew - cameras and cashless transactions are great ideas and good checks against corruption. but over a period of time, there will be a bribe for the camera controller and the IT guy too. and thats why correction in attitude is so important. and for that awareness and a sense of ownership among the citizens is vital, right from school.

@ arun - this has more to do with the fact that there are as many mba, mca, ma colleges as there used to be STD booths in kerala. the education industry in kerala is totally messed up, and the quality of education is so poor. we just create labelled degree holders who are good for nothing or at least have no additional value because of the degrees.

the primary reason for this is that the idiotic governments that we have, have always focused on eating a share of the pie from these colleges in terms of licenses and bribes. instead the sole thing the government should have done is to ensure that all these colleges have a minimum standard in terms of infrastructure and teaching. but our uneducated politicians could never think beyond today, and were more interested in creating political issues out of the whole thing.

private sector in education, just like any other domain, is so vital in a vast country like india. the government should only be a regulator and ensure standards, just as it does for defense. but in kerala, the politicians ensure that everything is muddled up in confusion so that they can eat money.

Anonymous said...

Hey - another question - are there going to be elections any time soon? Is there any point of time in future towards which one can start a campaign to ensure that the same incompetent elements do not get reelected once again? It seems that this Kerala "government" seems to be making all the difference yes?

Anonymous said...

Kerala is not very unique in the aspect. All states in India have this problem (most of them are worse).

Nobody has suggested a solution. In fact the problem with the system starts with our government. None of our leaders want to change the system because that is what 'feeds' them. So let us not blame the officers .They are just servants of 'the system'

Let us pay the bribe and get the stuff done.

silverine said...

In Karanataka, the Lok Ayukta has bought about sweeping changes in the govt offices. Now it is difficult to get things done with bribe least in some offices like RTO. I am sure they will soon clear up the rest too going by their record. However in Karnataka you don't have unions opposing the Lok Ayukta or any other instruments like it that are cleaning up the govt servants act!

And I think you are doing a good job by focusing on Kerala and its problems and not giving up saying that other States too have the same problems. Such mentality will get us nowhere!

scorpiogenius said...

@ Silverine...thats an encouraging news. What magic did the Lokayuktha do there?

silverine said...

@Scorpiogenius: Google and you will find many articles. Here is one to begin with!

Buggy said...

I appreciate this post- only because I was arguing with a friend about this very thing. They argued how easy it was to get all these things done- i had other views on the matter.

Navin Raj said...

I think, we cannot simply focus on existing situation and seek a solution. As someone commented before, it all comes from our culture, tradition etc., that we have been following probably thousands of years, be it our caste system or religion, it all affects the way people think. And those thoughts get propagated to the next generation. So if you leave Kerala, see other people/culture, we seem to think, oh, world is a much better place.
So, my solution to the problem would be(Although, people in Kerala do not seem to seek one),
try to send more people/student outside Kerala, or outside India. Make it part of their academic carriculum, make them work hard to earn money and force them learn the real value of life and hardwork, Make them realize, social work should never be made their bread and butter.

Jiby said...

how will this situation ever change? will computerization of govt services help? or will the unions even allow it? everyone has bad experiences with civil servants. they are organized but we are not. well kerala is the land of union's and one more wont hurt...maybe the citizens of kerala should form an organization and use it in our dealings with the bureaucracy. we will definitely be more in number and power than these GO's and NGO's.

Emmanuel said...

Who wants to change thge current setup? The person who goes there or the person works? Nobody thinks that the change has to start from one own' line of thought. I had the experience of sending an application again after three years for something in a Goovt. Educational department because of the reason that my earlier applications were unattended. When I wanted to attest my certificate here in a Karnataka Govt. office, a lady told me that they don't usually do it. So what's their mentality? To serve or to keep people at their mercy. What's the meaning of Govt. or Public servants?

Then again, when I went to RTO here in Indira Nagar in Bangalore for the same, many persons came to me who can do anything at the expense of some Rs. 100 notes. I was just there to get a certificate attested, so they deserted me in no time. And when I took my DL in Kochi, there were no issues from RTO as the Driving School people has seen "the right people" in "the right way". My friend changed the ownership of a vehicle from his relative's name here in Bangalore through an unofficial agent at an expense of Rs. 1500, as in the proper way, he woul have been "tortured". So again we are following the old ways. When I went to collect a certificate at Pareekshabhavan at TVM, we reached so early at sharp 10 am, and we had to wait for the employees to be there by 11.30 and some even after their Lunch. And I saw two ladies going to marketwith big-shoppers in their hands; got to know from their loud talk.

Sometimes I feel like laughing at all these. Sometimes I feel sad. In an era where the whistleblowers are threatened or killed so comfortably, noone will bring out any wrongs. Noone wants to chnage anything. We go on.

I feel that the time has come to stop simple blaming Governmenet for all the rot. "People get the Government they deserve". And teh government includes the beaureaucracy as well as the govt. employees; not to miss the essential politicians.

Everyone has to chnage. At least try to chnage. But who cares?

worldcitizen said...

A sad but very common scenario in many public offices in Kerala and the rest of India.

As @emmanuel says nobody believes they can do anything to change it. So although we rant and rave about how bad the system is we don't believe that we can do anything to change it. And since we can't change it - we join in!! Instead of stemming the rot, we spread it!!

I have mentioned this before and would do it again- we deserve the system we have! And as @emmanuel says that includes the government and bureaucracy. We might think that as long as we do our work sincerely and honestly we have carried out our civic responsibility and we trust our elected representatives/ officials to be sincere in their's. But "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty--power is ever stealing from the many to the few." Unless we are pro-active and keep the govt. and its various organs at check - the government of the people, by the people, for the people' would remain a dream never fulfilled.

So friends instead of just complaining about it- DO something!!

So the question is what can we as citizens do to stem the rot. As someone suggested- ORGANIZE!! I'm sure there are others who have gone through the same harrowing moments at one/many government offices. Why not they all come together and approach the offices with their grievances. There's strength in numbers. Why do you think the trade unions- who, many who contribute their comments/articles at this blog site seem to loathe - are able to get their way in spite of a majority of the public being against them? The difference is - they are organized while the general public is not. So I suggest that if you are really pissed and want to get a better deal- begin in your neighborhood. Start a neighborhood meeting, invite your neighbors, colleagues and friends - start talking about the issues, ask for suggestions, come up with solutions, volunteer to work towards it and invite others to do the same. You would soon realize how committed people( including you) are to change the status quo. If it fails inspite of your best efforts -well- now you know people don't deserve a better system. But if you are successful go on to the next challenge. If not go back and see if you can address the issue in a different way to get the desired effect. I'm sure people can be resourceful if they put their minds to it. And some of these neighborhood groups would have govt. officials who seem to be the "root" of the problem. You would have an opportunity to have their perspective too. I live in the US and I see this happening here all the time- people take time off their work to petition a govt. department based on a decision arrived at a neighborhood meeting.There are local town hall meetings where they invite local officials to hear their grievances- and they better come because they are accountable to the local elected officials who are accountable to the people.And since its all a local affair it not as difficult to organize as petitioning the state /central govt.

I think we still live by colonial and pre-colonial mindset when common man had no powers. We also carry an enormous baggage of caste, class and community based prejudices and biases that prevent us from coming and working together towards a better future. So first we have to break those shackles in our minds before we can break the shackles that the present system puts us in. Instead of feeling entitled to all the privileges lets try to work hard to deserve and preserve them.

I know nobody likes to be told that they are the reason why the system is rotten, that they, by no doing anything, are part of the problem. I'm sure many would vehemently disagree too! But I would like more people to take responsibility for their plight instead of blaming the system- be a part of the solution. Remember, if it were not for the sacrifices of millions who thought they could change the system, we would still be under the "British Raj"(I'm sure there are many who would have preferred that!!)

So if you agree with me and have a grievance against the system, I suggest you work to correct it. And if you disagree let me know what you would like to do in terms of a solution.

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