Editorial /Art of the state
Death by red tape
Letters to the Editor

 
 
EDITORIAL /ART OF THE STATE 
 
 
 
 
It might be instructive to find out how many people really believed that the three statehood bills would go through this time. Five perhaps, or seven. The game with state reorganization has been going on for long enough to have turned believers sceptical about the intentions of not one, but all, political parties. There is an appearance of agreement for a time, the bills shuttle back and forth between the respective assemblies and the Centre — the Jharkhand and Uttaranchal bills have made many such trips before this — and then sink under the weight of protests from one party or another. Nothing new has happened this time. Mr Laloo Prasad Yadav’s blow hot blow cold attitude to the Jharkhand bill over the last few years epitomizes the political game all parties play.

The Bharatiya Janata Party is as hesitant as the more vocal objectors to the three bills to actually go through with the formation of new states. The Chhattisgarh bill appeared to be the least problematic, in spite of the bloody and tragic history of the Chhattisgarh movement. But it now shares the fate of the Jharkhand and Uttaranchal bills. The Uttaranchal bill has tripped on the Shiromani Akali Dal’s objection to the inclusion of Sikh dominated Udham Singh Nagar and the Loktantrik Congress Party’s objection to the inclusion of Hardwar in the proposed state. These are allies of the BJP. The Jharkhand bill has been stalled, predictably, on the huge demand for compensation for north Bihar from the Rashtriya Janata Dal, for the losses it will sustain by losing the mineral rich south. On top of that, Orissa has put in its claim for two regions, Seraikala and Kharsaun, should Jharkhand be formed, and the Biju Janata Dal is another BJP partner. Opposition parties, like the RJD or the Samajwadi Party, are hardly the only villains.

Political expediency, which is the only reason for the sporadic excitement over new states, works both ways. Both the BJP and the RJD, for example, have reaped fruits of election promises regarding new states when it suited them. When the promises threaten fruition, the only thing that concerns such parties is the reorganization of electoral seats and the consequent change in power equations in these regions. Insecurity is the most vigilant guard against the formation of new states. People’s movements and the real sense of deprivation, alienation and injustice which lies behind them have long become counters in the ongoing political game. The regional autonomous councils have turned out to be sops to silence popular movements when they got too intense. The trick is to fulfil the form and not the content of promises, by denying the councils any substantial economic or administrative powers. Impotent councils are useful to keep discontents simmering, while the larger political parties reap the benefits of instability.

It is tragic that groups of people desiring development and cultural integrity should have their aspiration for self-determination distorted by dominant political interests. A serious effort to meet their demands could be made not only through functioning autonomous councils and targetted development projects, but through careful planning. Dividing states means economic imbalances which have to be sorted out. Focussing on self-determination for some areas increases discontent in other regions. Gorkhaland, Kamtapur, Bundelkhand, Coorg, Vindhyachal — the list of possible new states can run on. The whole question of new states should be reassessed and the viability of creating enclosed linguistic, ethnic and cultural spaces should be related to the question of economic and administrative advantage. The simplest route would be, of course, to attend immediately to the needs of development. But the simplest way also implies meaningful governance. And more important, it would be greatly to the disadvantage of politicians who can only fish in troubled waters.    


 
 
DEATH BY RED TAPE 
 
 
BY BHASKAR GHOSE
 
 
Not so long ago, tucked away inside one of our leading dailies, was a story of a boiler, which had never been used for the last several years but was meant to sterilize used sheets and linen, in the Infectious Diseases Hospital, Delhi. Linen from the beds of patients was being washed by hand and dried in a local park. This, in the Infectious Diseases Hospital of all places.

There was a photograph as well with the story, of a typical office room; it could have been the room of the local inspector of weights and measures, or the rationing officer, or any other petty bureaucrat. Pride of place was given to a steel cupboard, no doubt full of files on very important subjects, and to a chair and table — essential for a bureaucrat to sign his files. In front of the table were two chairs for visitors. All bureaucrats have visitors, so, thoughtfully, two chairs had been placed there for them. Under the table was a waste paper basket, again, a most sensible touch, for all bureaucrats generate waste paper. To one side of this functional office room, looking most incongruous, was the very impressive boiler. Unused, covered with dust, as indeed, was the whole room, according to the report.

There’s more. If the boiler had been in use, it would have needed a number of drums of diesel oil; the report said that, according to the hospital staff, drums of diesel went into the room regularly. No one knew what happened to them. As one would expect, the medical superintendent, one R.C. Panda, was “not available for comment”. But the case of the disappearing diesel need not detain us just now. What is of real concern is that the boiler is not being used, and has not been used for years. How did the boiler get there in the first place? Someone must have been genuinely concerned, and this concern must have been shared by others.

A case, as it is called in government language, was then made out for the buying of a boiler. It must have gone to the financial authorities, (who are called, in true hypocritical fashion, “advisers” and not controllers, which is what they are) and for months, if not years, the papers would have been returned with one objection or the other, sent back again with the objection duly answered, and finally the sanction would have come through.

Orders would then have been typed and put up for the approval of the appropriate functionary, and then tenders would have been invited for the supply of the boiler. Tenders would have come, been opened, examined, and the most acceptable one selected. That one would then be awarded the work, and, in the fullness of time, the boiler would have arrived, and have been installed.

What happened then? That’s where the mystery begins. Why was it never used? And then, why was it put in a room where some babu was going to sit? Would the linen to be put into it have been passed over his head, and those of the visitors he would always have sitting in front of him?.

Another example will make that answer clear. Several years ago, thanks to the generosity of the Danes, or perhaps the World Health Organization, what is known as a “cold room” was set up in North Bengal Medical College, Siliguri. This is essentially a very large room which is kept sterile, and in which the temperature is kept at a constant, very low level; power cuts are instantly countered by generators which automatically start up in a matter of seconds. The equipment has a special printout which gives continuous temperature readings, so that if there is a significant variation the authorities would know what to do. Since this cold room is meant to store polio and other vaccines which would spoil if there is anything more than a slight temperature variation, it would mean that batches affected by major temperature variations would have to be thrown away.

This cold room was to supply vaccines to all the hospitals and clinics in North Bengal, but, when one visited it some 12 years ago it had never functioned from the day it had been completed and handed over, which was, then, over two years prior to one’s visit. What was the mystery here?

Simple. There was no one to monitor the temperature printouts, to detect if there was a major variation which could result in whole batches of vaccine spoiling. Years of pleading with the financial authorities had had no effect; the wise men in charge of finance said the thing was actually just a refrigerator and whoever heard of having a man to see if the fridge was cold enough. So, no man; so, no cold room; and so, no place to store vaccines. The chief minister, who visited the cold room, was livid, and angrily ordered that a man should be positioned there in 24 hours.

Even a year later, however, there was no man there. The mystery of there not being a man for the cold room and the unused boiler in the Infectious Diseases Hospital, Delhi, is actually the same. Both are the result of the awesome complexity of governmental procedures. Over the years governments — both in the states and at the Centre — have erected incredibly convoluted, complicated procedures to get the simplest things done. They have done this because they have convinced themselves that these procedures will ensure there is no room for any irregularity or wrongdoing. But have they?

The media have been carrying stories of the crores amassed by one Virender Singh, an Indian Administrative Services officer of the 1969 batch whose house the Central Bureau of Investigation has searched; earlier we read of the surrender of the Chandigarh home secretary, another IAS officer, before the CBI to answer numerous corruption charges.

Two years ago there were reports of a joint secretary in the ministry of transport who has numerous flats in his name, in his mistress’s name and even in the name of his mistress’s father. All of them IAS officers, and they are just a few of the bad hats. Think of the lesser ones down the line, down to the rationing inspector and the lineman who fixes your electric line. A number of them are on the make, and meanwhile the government continues to wallow in its mire of complicated procedures which safeguard nothing, least of all that sacred cow, the public interest.

It is time the government got over the sense of perpetual shock it loudly declares when an instance of corruption comes to light. It is time instead the government started getting things done by cutting out the idiotic procedures that make basically simple actions mysteries wrapped up in thick files moving from one office to another.

Thieves abound everywhere; that’s why we need more N. Vittals to take their pants off. But having got Vittal and, if possible, a few more like him in position, it’s time to get down to work in way that yields results quickly; it means having the courage to delegate powers to individual officers, and not have some babu in finance take it away by introducing a seemingly innocuous clause that cases above a certain level will of course be referred to such and such. It’s time governments delivered, and stopped hiding behind excuses and commissions of inquiry.

The author is former secretary, ministry of information and broadcasting    


 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Some brats become angels

Sir — David Beckham’s fan following is soaring with every passing day. Only a few weeks back, Beckham’s life and game was included in the curriculum of a leading British university. Now his fans in the orient have deified him by installing his sculpture inside a Buddhist temple “in a spot normally reserved for angels” (“Thai salute to Beckham”, May 16). Yet Beckham was never the stereotypical “good boy” of soccer. It is true that the doting, diaper changing father of two year old Brooklyn is a far cry from the red card footballer of the 1998 World Cup quarterfinals. The newest feather in Beckham’s cap is surely enough to make fellow striker Roberto Baggio, a practising Buddhist, jealous.

Yours faithfully,
Sreemoyee Mitra, Calcutta

Time and the maiden

Sir — Pakshi Vasudeva says that a girl is 26 or 27 when she completes her studies, by which time “most eligible bachelors have already been snapped up” (“Marriage-mart”, April 12). Her choice of phrase is unfortunate. Are grooms consumer goods, to be “snapped up”? If grooms are snapped up, are brides to be rounded up, snatched, grabbed, or swallowed? Besides, bachelors don’t cease to be “eligible” after a certain age, so why should spinsters? Neither sex can have the best of both worlds — age and career — in his or her spouse.

Parents want daughters to be self-sufficient. They also want suitable grooms for them. They should have their priorities clear before making the decision. Grumbling isn’t the answer.

Yours faithfully,
Arta Mishra, Cuttack

Sir — Ranjita Biswas is right in saying that men tend to label women either in terms of physical characteristics or marital status (“What’s age got to do with it”, May 7). Women have to change their surnames to that of their husbands — it is never the other way around. Thereafter she must state her marital status in every legal and official document. Ask any educated, urban middle-class woman between the ages of 18 and 30 and she will have humiliating tales of matrimonial negotiations: of the pot-bellied, middle-aged eligible bachelors who expect to marry fair, educated and beautiful girls from cultured, well to do families, visit her family, and reject her because she is not fair, beautiful or young enough. Matrimonial columns of newspapers have few eligible bachelors wanting to marry girls below 30; of course the age is relaxed to 35 if the bridegroom is a divorcee.

As if a woman ceases to be one after 35. It is time women told the world that they need love, warmth, respect, as men do.

Yours faithfully,
Arunima Pal Saha, Calcutta

Sir — Pakshi Vasudeva assumes that Meena paid for the education of Sarla, the daughter of her domestic servants, without hopes of any return from either Sarla or her parents (“Home-service”, March 28). If that were so, Meena also had the responsibility of reminding Sarla of her duty to her parents and the need to deal with them without considering her changed status.

Sarla appears to be in her late twenties and single and thus at a stage of life when she needed guiding. She should have lived with her parents, all of them learning to accommodate each other. Sarla should also remember that Meena helped her because her parents were faithful to her. She should thank both Meena and her parents for being so wonderfully supportive.

Yours faithfully,
P.S. Viswanathan, Calcutta

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