Tuesday, May 25, 2010

My Own Obituary!

Sudhansu Mohanty, (un)civil servant and occasional writer and (fifth!) columnist, passed away in his sleep yesterday after a brief illness. He was 54. He is survived by his estranged wife Shukla; his son Prayag who cleverly stayed away from him and today works in Mumbai; daughter Priyanka who (still in college) quietly suffered him (and because of being in college!), and his loving adorable dog Sheru (whose loyalty because it is canine is unmatched, guided by past memories of being a once-upon-a-time stray before adopting the Mohantys as his family). All of them suffered him – and in total silence.

Born in Cuttack, Mohanty was home-bred and home-spun – he graduated from Ravenshaw College. He obtained his Master’s from the Utkal University at Bhubaneswar. A bottom-of-the-pyramid student, he was accidentally (unconfirmed report says through nepotism) offered jobs successively at the Post-Graduate Department of Utkal University and then at Ravenshaw College, and thereby came to teach History at both his alma mater (Heavens!).

Later the same nepotism (allegedly) helped him clear the Civil Services Exams. Nepotism kept its tryst with him during his every elevation. The fact that he never missed a promotion is a testimony that Indian bureaucracy’s inefficiency is intact. At the time of his death he was the Principal Controller of Defence Accounts, Bangalore. Critics who rile against bureaucracy often fail to appreciate the boons of its inefficiency – and that an efficient bureaucracy is the greatest threat to human life, liberty, security, property, and prosperity.

Mohanty preached what he never practised. In a way, he was incapable of any practice. He was unwaveringly consistent – in keeping with his outlook and taste buds; never a namak haram he was true to the salt he ate, often with assorted evening namkeen and bhelpuri every day.

Nor was he capable of any work. He knew nothing of the department or Ministries he served. But blessed like a cat with nine lives he managed to survive though only till yesterday. Frankly, he was unconscionably late in dying, suffering as he was from a rare malignancy – carcinoid cancer – for more than two years; but the scourge, like him, was a slow coach and took its own sweet time, till one day the sovereign disease realized it was getting inordinately delayed for no earthly reason and the slow burn need be stoked, for it was time he died, and was bounded out. That’s how eventually – though reluctantly – he died in his sleep yesterday. Not to miss the point that Mohanty was keen to extend his life on earth through subtle contrivances like periodic medical check ups, intake of copious medicines/injections, consultation with eminent doctors, both at Narayana Hrudayalaya, Bangalore and at AIIMS, New Delhi. All bad things have to come to an end one day and so it was yesterday with Mohanty!

On official front, Mohanty will be remembered – apart from his classical inefficiency – for corruption, dishonesty and nepotism. Not a day went without a whiff of scam. But, to give the devil his due, he weathered every such storm manfully. The offices suffered, not he. He went about his life nonchalantly, his head up, nose in mid-air sniffing no scandals and putrescence. The fact that his olfactory didn’t work due to chronic deviated nasal septum, helped.

Mohanty will be also remembered for his pretentious and hubristic piffles that came out in his media writings. It is a tribute to his ingenuity he beguiled the Editors – The Statesman, The Times of India, The Indian Express, The Hindustan Times, The Pioneer, New Indian Express, The Telegraph, Financial Express, Asian Age, New Quest, The Illustrated Weekly of India, Mainstream – to publish his pieces that were impeccably unreadable, bereft of substance and couched in Origlish (Paradoxically Oriya, his mother tongue, the fraud knew little!).

Not only that. He wrote a series of babu-tales contained in three forgettable books: Babudom: Catacombs of Indian Bureaucracy (Rupa; 2004); Babulog: Vignettes of Indian Bureaucrats (Rupa; 2005); and Babuspeak and Other Stories (Rupa; 2007). The books though reprinted did not set the North-South-East-West Blocks (now the Ulan Bator Road!) on fire; even government departments – apt to assiduously patronizing books written by their own tribesmen and buying thousands of copies to help themselves expend the unrealistic budgetary outlays and also make the author/publisher happier and richer – gave such acclaimed win-wins a go by and refused to touch them with a barge pole.

Upon discovery of cancer, Mohanty was busy working on a book he called Anatomy Of A Tumour: A Patient’s Potted Dialogue With The Scourge. He tried to capture his experience of this rare scourge, as also his life after beaching himself in the profane world of ‘cancer’. The myriad experiences – of shock, of bafflement, of worry, of suffering and recovery from surgeries, of inconveniences and uncertainties, of positivism and philosophic worldview – are said to be captured in Mohanty’s account of the rogue tumour. The dialogue with the scourge is not continuous, but fitful, desultory – hence potted – and limited only to the ones he experienced, and the ones he understood amid the avalanche of medical terms and practices. Though he wished it was published during his lifetime, alas that wasn’t to be.

He had no friends. His childhood friends had deserted him like rats – not because they saw water in the ship but because they realized that the ship was not a ship in the first place! He never made friends in his later life. His relatives too despised him – particularly his in-laws. He was their son-out-law! Nitpicky, unspeakably adamant and petty, his worldview was governed by the halo of his own infallibility. Yet to be fair to him, unlike others in times of liberality, he sowed no such wild oats. But this was not due to lack of knack and/or effort. He had a roving eye but sadly drew a blank because ladies stayed off him – his woebegone and withering looks, and his sinful nature not helping his cause.

Perhaps he had a presentiment of his death: Just two days before his demise he had entered the blogosphere – maybe thinking it was his way to memorialize himself and leave his precious footprints on the virtual sands of cyberspace. A man so despicable you rarely ever find in reel life – let alone the real – and the spatial. But that was Sudhansu Mohanty – one of a kind, sui generis, if only for all the wrong reasons. Let his soul rest in peace. RIP, Old Boy!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

We Live By Designations, Honorifics

Have you ever noticed how designations, honorifics, ranks and awards are bandied about and hurled at us, lesser mortals, literally at the drop of a hat by the blessed souls who are the abled (or even otherwise) recipient of any of these largesse? It is a marvel that we have come to accept this as something given, and to flaunt these as the inalienable right of these august denizens. We have never tried to peel off this façade of pretence and see the real him/her.

I am not sure if I am making my point. Let me get more tangible to simplify things. A couple of years ago I was representing my department in a workshop held under the aegis of the Administrative Reforms Commission. I had two rather out-of-the-box ideas battling in my mind for long. One was getting rid of the tag of permanent civil service and making it contractual, renewable every five or seven or ten years depending on good performance. Only the exceptionally brilliant and dedicated could be tenured after proven track record. The other was – and this is what would raise the hackles of many of my confreres – making the public servants sit, not metaphorically but in actuality in glass-panelled rooms. This would be transparency – real and virtual.

I thought I could try out the second idea in an empirical sense before I went to the workshop. I called a friend holding a senior post in the government of India long-distance from home and announced my name to his Private Secretary (PS) and asked him to put me through to my friend. The PS asked me, “Where’re you speaking from?”
I said without any hesitation that I was speaking from my home in Bangalore.
He hemmed and hawed and then after a minute told me that “Saab is in a meeting” and called off.

Ten minutes later, I asked my PS to call the senior officer, and put me through to him. He came on the line pronto, whereupon I asked him if his meeting had got over. “What meeting?” he expressed surprise. “I’ve had no meeting. I’m alone – going through the newspaper and shooting the breeze!” I told him my experiment and the import of it: how designations and office (not home) are the open sesame to reach out to senior officers in government! We laughed heartily.

Don’t you smile mischievously – swearing pox-on-your-face mandarins in your throat. If you thought this happens only in the government sector, please wait awhile. It happens across the board in the private sectors as well unless of course your name rings a bell or the corporate honcho or his underlings is out to sell his ware, in which case he will promptly take your call. This is indeed a human malaise.

We, at least in India, live by designations, ranks, honorifics, awards all our lives – this life at least – well past our sell-by dates. All of us are at least aware of some famed (or otherwise) citizen bestowed an honoris causa doctorate from some assiduous university to flaunt the degree unabashedly before his/her name. In my childhood we grew up amused to learn one of the editors of a regional daily – who was not even a matriculate – who took periodic umbrage to his being referred and introduced to people without the mandatory Dr. prefixed to his name. Ahem, it was as though the august university who had conferred the degree was gratuitously offended! Box such impulses with the real doctorates recognized by the society for their inherent qualities of head and heart who never deign it necessary to prefix the honorific to their names and you know what I mean.

The problem then has to do with recognition or the lack of it. Even security or lack of it. Jobs – government or corporate – provide the prop of identity and security all our working lives; without it what is left is just the name, and what’s in a name that can’t command attention, unless you are one of the famed ones who needs no introduction? And remember: the more the culture of command and servility, the more the need for such psychological props. This is why you will see service officers hanging on precariously to the rank they last held before being transferred to the pension establishment.

I’ve often wondered why a retired gentleman should flaunt his last designation, retired tucked in small font within brackets, to the world when he has a name and a face to show up. I wouldn’t like to say it shows a complex – superior or inferior – but it is a complex all the same. I’m inclined to cross Oedipal and Electra here and call this – for lack of a better combo – Oeditra complex. It is a man’s or a woman’s passionate obsession with progeny – read life after the D-Day – that merits notice. My cousin, otherwise a sensible man who has much to rave about in terms of achievement in life beyond the olive green, can’t live down his rank even 33 years later though he was a Captain in the Indian army just for a few months before gracing civilian life after his short service commission stint.

Mercifully this malaise hasn’t invaded the civilian establishment as yet. Otherwise, we will have ubiquitous Secretary/Addl Secretary/Joint Secretary (Retd) of central and state governments and all kinds of designations different departments/establishments can conjure up, being flaunted to make their presence felt to stay visible. And amid this pell-mell of designations, ranks, all retired, the common man would be one hell of a confused soul – lost and seeking out his moorings. For Chrissake, can we rid this malaise – a malaise as dangerous as the red beacon atop every car tearing down the road with meretricious visibility to massage the uncertain ego of the precious cargo lurking inside it?

Before I end this piece, I must narrate the mother of hilarity as far as this genre of designations and awards go. This was when I worked in an office in Pune that looked after the personal entitlements of all army officers. One irate officer, riled with some perceived wrong in his account committed by my office, demanded to speak to me. He told me his name (of course his designation preceding it) and the awards conferred on him: VSM, Bar. He told me in the same breath that he was speaking from Gangtok and was trying frantically to speak to me the last few days. The line was faint and disturbed and I could barely hear him; I was praying the line held till he conveyed his problem. Notwithstanding my apprehensions and indeed his own as well, he hadn’t forgotten to mention his awards! Befuddled, I asked him innocently if he hadn’t had any AVSM or PVSM to go with his name. He replied blithely “No” and raced ahead, unmoved – his mind lost to my pun and barbed innuendo. So much for our sabre-rattling egos! Amen!

Retirement Blues and Glues

James Boren once wrote tongue-firmly-in-his-cheek, thus: “When in doubt, mumble; when in charge, delegate; when in difficulty, ponder. A job of a good bureaucrat is to cut the red-tape – length-wise!” And more: “Every bureaucrat has a constitutional right to fuzzify, profundify… it's a part of our freedom of speech...”

We know this is a funny take on bureaucrats saddled with responsibility of running the nation and who are supposed to be unfunny in their activities. But that is not the issue. What is intriguing is their resolute aversion and reluctance to stop serving the nation which they proclaim is the raison d’etre of their existence – well past their shelf lives. In simple uncomplicated words, their implacable opposition to retire; and since they can’t help it, their resurrection in one form or the other through post-retirement sinecures or some employs.

Today a government pension is handsome reward for past services performed – even not-performed. Our democratic system makes no such distinction – unlike performing and non-performing assets in the marketplace – and is equitable to the core. In a way, it paraphrases Laurence J. Peter’s oft-quoted aphorism to ensure that bureaucracy defends (read pays for) the status quo long past the time when the quo (attenuated now) has long lost its status.

But that sadly doesn’t satisfy the retiree. There is the urge to serve the nation alluded to earlier. The urge to keep doing the remainder of one’s life what one had been doing all life. Sundowns are unacceptable given the permanence of human lives, so they think. And with health in shipshape duly bolstered with power and pelf, there is no earthly reason that the road yonder cannot be traversed the same way like the road traversed just yet. This is the time for another sunup to do what one has been best at: writing memoranda both because it example one as busy when they were being written and because the memos, once written, immediately example that one was busy!

I refer to sunup advisedly. This sunup is unlike the first – the original sunup. While the first sunup is a period of learning and acclimatizing to the new milieu and hence fraught with some uncertainties, this one mercifully is free from any such vicissitudes. There is no learning curve here; it is just the continuation and perpetuation of past lessons and issue of diktats. Plus, and this is the most important part: the subinfeudation of perquisites and fringe benefits one has so got used to in a lifetime of modus vivendi that one thinks one is being denied by some quirky government order that stops short of granting such largesse way ahead of his actual departure from mother earth.

This is the crux of the matter – the reason why no bureaucrat wants to ever retire. The reason why there is so much jostling and lobbying in every bureaucrat’s pre-retirement days so that he can afford to retyre himself. Remember, these are not easy days. Have no such delusions. These are hard, uncertain days, when one part of the mind is aflutter like a veritable bee buzzing about flowers and finding its taste so that, if possible, he can choose from, when and if, anything is on offer; while the other half pretends to do justice to the assigned job he is holding.

Some top honchos crave for the ultimate: Governorship of some States and Ambassadorship and envoy extraordinary to the growing number of countries. But then these are only a few on offer; realistically it is better to espy such posts as membership of various permanent Commissions of the Union or State governments. Membership of Administrative Tribunals, both the Central and State, are decent in the sense that they can prolong your expiry till age 65, unlike the earlier 62, which frankly was too little for anyone’s comfort. With Right to Information being bandied about with such fervour, the Information Commissionerships have inevitably been created, both in the Centre and the State governments. And don’t you forget the time-worn chairmanship/membership of Union and State Public Service Commissions.

For all the generosity of the Indian nation-state, there is willy-nilly a limit to post-retirement sinecures: it simply can’t re-employ all retirees; that’s the bottom-line. This is why a vast Centre-Scale Industry has mushroomed lately. This industry is largely Delhi-based and like the small-scale industry, government-aided and driven by individual enterprise. The more enterprising a retiree, the better and smarter his/her Centre is likely to be. Every retiring senior public servant is an expert (or pretends) in the (almost always) last post he held. So after retirement he can jolly well set up a Centre of some relevance to the Ministry he last served so that grants-in-aid from the government can flow out seamlessly, and without anyone raising an eyebrow.

This is what explains the myriad of expert Centres that dot Delhi’s lanescape today; each an expert body to proffer their periodic advices to the government for the grants given them, and also, as and when an invite is forthcoming, have their fifteen minutes of glory under the strobe light in television studios. If you wonder why some names are so common and prefixed and suffixed to the area of expertise, here is the answer. Planning, Management, Public Policy, Social Science, Conflict (in today’s India and World) are safely generic and like putty clay can take any form granted them. Let’s take a ubiquitous term like “Conflict”. This base name can safely give rise to so many of Centres without affronting any: Centre for Conflict Management; Centre for Conflict Resolution; Centre for Conflict De-escalation; Centre for Conflict Amelioration. Like-wise Power has a tremendous potential to wield power: Centre for Power Studies; Centre for Air Power Studies; Centre for Ground Power Studies; Centre for Water (Ocean, Bay, Gulf) Power Studies; Centre for Strategic Power Studies.

Not to be outdone, there are always the corporate sinecures and the NGO bandwagon one can jump into. The corporates value a retiree public servant who is irrepressibly social and a good wheeler-dealer and a highly networked individual in the corridors of power and can swing a deal or two for them. The other bandwagon – NGOs – as we all know, are a law unto themselves. Simply register under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) 1976 to receive gorgeous funds from abroad. If you wish visibility, zero in on the tribals – their human rights cause. The power of emerged world will help you to the hilt. And you don’t have to file reports and submit balance sheets for scrutiny, while you trumpet the cause of the poor, the marginalized, and the vulnerable tribals and the Maoists as an intellectual.

Remember, for such self-proclaimed intellectuals no harm can ever come their way for as Eugene McCarthy once said wryly: “The only thing that saves us from the bureaucracy is inefficiency. An efficient bureaucracy is the greatest threat to liberty.” How ironic and predictable, and another cause, however small, for gratitude. Look, I’m not being malicious!

Anatomy of Corruption: Get the Corporates Under RTI Act

The recent Delhi High Court judgment bringing the office of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court under the purview of Right to Information Act has been widely welcomed as a move in the right direction to ensure transparency in one of the vital pillars of democracy: judiciary. Earlier all public servants were brought under the sweep of the RTI Act. Many ugly shenanigans of public functionaries have been brought to light through this singularly important legislation in the last few years.

It is, of course, a matter of concern that most of the applications under RTI Act are from disgruntled officials aimed at settling personal score with their colleagues. The all-encompassing term public interest has facilitated the surge of such applications. A close examination would suggest that there is absolutely nothing public about them. The issues are so remote and so non-public in character that one blanches how such issues are granted public coloration. But that’s a different issue.

What is of relevance here is the public – the obverse face of corruption. Few seem to ask though of the other face, private or corporate, that makes up the reverse side and makes the coin clink. With the “endism of ‘ism’” taking centrestage (mind not the puny pockets) and the world globalizing under a techni-parasol cover, the conundrum of corruption has become as universal as that of climate change that affects everyone, regardless of where one stays.

The Transparency International’s Report of 2009 showing the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) – a measure of domestic, public sector corruption world over – is revealing. The vast majority of the 180 countries included in the 2009 index score below five on a scale from 0 (perceived as highly corrupt) to 10 (perceived as low levels of corruption). India with a score of 3.4 figures in the 84th place, China with a score of 3.6 at 79th, Pakistan with 2.4 at 139th, Russia at 146th with a score of 2.2. Fragile, unstable states scarred by war and ongoing conflict bring up the rear with Somalia at 180th with a score of 1.1, Afghanistan at 179th with 1.3, Myanmar (178th) at 1.4 and Sudan and Iraq (176th) tied at 1.5. These results demonstrate that countries that are perceived as the most corrupt are also those plagued by long-standing conflicts, which have torn apart their governance infrastructure.

“Stemming corruption,” says Huguette Labelle, Chairman of Transparency International (TI), “requires strong oversight by parliaments, a well performing judiciary, independent and properly resourced audit and anti-corruption agencies, vigorous law enforcement, transparency in public budgets, revenue and aid flows, as well as space for independent media and a vibrant civil society. The international community must find efficient ways to help war-torn countries to develop and sustain their own institutions.”

Little wonder the highest scorers in the 2009 CPI are New Zealand at 9.4, Denmark at 9.3, Singapore and Sweden tied at 9.2 and Switzerland at 9.0. These scores unmistakably points towards political stability, institutionalized mechanism for long-established conflict of interest regulations, and efficient functioning public institutions that ensures openness and transparency.

Back to private or corporate face of corruption alluded to earlier. With growing privatization and increasing participation of human and public capital, and scams like Enron and Satyam fresh in everyone’s mind, the necessity of bringing these public listed companies under the RTI’s gaze cannot be overstated. The overall results in the 2009 index are pointers to the fact that opacity and corruption go hand-in-hand – when opacity decreases corruption diminishes; and under full public glare, corruption can hopefully be minimized, if not altogether extirpated. Let the RTI sun act the best disinfectant.

Interestingly, TI conducts an array of global research in its quest to unveil the types and modes of corruption. One is the Global Corruption Barometer – a world wide public opinion survey; and the other, Bribe Payers Index – that measures the likelihood of firms from leading exporting countries to bribe abroad. These throw up interesting facets of corruption that dog us in our everyday official transaction.

Take cartels that are endemic in any procurement process. Cartels are an anachronism in a freewheeling market-driven economy. But they are a reality. Between 1990 and 2005, more than 283 private international cartels were exposed that cost consumers around the world an estimated US $300 billion in overcharges, as documented in a recent TI report.

And not only are they formed, they perpetuate themselves even in oligopolic situations. Worse: such cartel-forming and price increase even happens in a situation of monopsony (when there is only one buyer and many sellers), which, any economist will tell, should be a buyers’ market. Worse still: even when all the cartellers’ entire market-share is courtesy the buyer! But not-so-mysteriously it happens. It’s sure not a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma; and I don’t have to explain how and with whose ample catholicity!

This is why there is a need to bring all corporates under the RTI’s umbrella. Let’s face it. Every bribe-taker has a bribe-giver. Every man, regardless of his place of work, is a product of the society he lives in. Look, notwithstanding the pious declamations of the army, the collusion of its senior officers in the Sukhna land scam is undoubted. Let’s face it: majority of men (say 90%) are congenital kleptocrats lacking internal moral compasses, while a small minority (say 5%) is congenitally honest. The remainder 5% merrily sway to the atmosphere given them: they stay honest under honest dispensation and turn their coats when the situation so offers.

The bribe-giver, hence, needs to be tracked down. These are the ones who remain untouched and untrammelled by any legislative Acts. It is not enough for their books of accounts to be audited by chartered accountants and supervised by a Board of Directors pampered with perks and goodies. Don’t you forget that retired bureaucrats make every fervent effort to become Directors of companies after retirement! Satyam had one such august number. Only a few days ago, a certain Anil Kumar, former Director of McKinsey, and also one of the founding members of Hyderabad’s prestigious Indian School of Business, admitted to indulging in insider trading and making a fortune!

The answer, though simple, is polemical: bring these public-listed companies under the RTI Act; make their transactions open to public scrutiny. Of course, there’s a need to define “public interest” carefully, because more than in public sector, in the private world there will be more temptation to poach competitors’ “efficiencies” through subterfuge and upset business plans.

Yet the need is indubitable. Much as the public believes that the private sector is pristine and squeaky clean, that’s far from true. It’s as bad as the public sector – full of Caesar’s wife’s paramours; and that Satyams and Enrons are not isolated aberrations, but only symptomatic of a general malaise that will show up its murky entrails once placed under the RTI scanner. Also don’t you forget the other tool: whistle blowing. It’s time to act to make that into an Act too.

Loneliness Of The Honest Mandarin

In the wake of myriad scams, probes, malfeasances, and involvement of exalted worthies in the sleazy world where Mammon is the veritable God, much light has been thrown on the bumbledom that babudom is. What though is often missed is the existence of a clutch of honest mandarins who – a microscopic minority – are as inured to the allurements blandished about much as the scandalous ilk are in love with.

Theirs is a lonely world, a world made lonelier by the quotidian struggle they have to carry out to prove their points of view, the inevitable clash with the majority syndrome they love to loathe, and their endeavour to stay sane that’s indeed surreal. In moments of introspective unwinding they tend to question their raison d’etre: “Why am I different from most others?” The question gnaws and assails them, intrudes their sub-conscious and sneaks up in the most private recesses of mind and time: sleep and consciousness.

A few generations past, the sight of the dishonest and corrupt, branded and leading a shadowy life, was not infrequent. Society’s accusing finger pointed inexorably at the corrupt, and the obloquy was enough chastisement, not to forget that he was considered a pariah by his colleagues in his workplace. Not that they were times of sparkling honesty. But it was when the honest lived with head held high and was respected in the society, and the corrupt literally scampered for cover.

Alas, the world has changed – drastically. From days when most were honest we have hurtled to a time when honest bureaucrats are a rare species leading inconsequential lives – alienated, morose, and at peace with none. They are sore that their uprightness invites derision from all except their own vanishing tribe, who in any case are so few in number. The society takes no note of them for they are utter failures in the mobile life’s upward ascent; the people have no concern, for their backs need no scratching, and consequently, no mutuality; and friends and relatives – a little more tolerant and patient, if for no other reason than of blood and sentiment – consider them no-gooders. They are looked upon as no-one’s men who lead lonesome lives at life’s edge.

The honest consciously stays off the cutthroat, acquisitive, possessive world. His salary he deems as just reward; his internal moral compass abhors harboring thoughts of filthy lucre. This abhorrence is so firmly embedded in his psyche that his entire outlook is hooked to this abstraction. Consequently, anything he performs in life is coloured by this trickle-down catechism.

This spells his disaster, so to speak. He has few, if any, friends and supporters in office. This is not surprising; few fancy a man who refuses to play to the gallery, calls a spade a spade, and has no axe to grind and serves the same sauce to the goose and the gander.

To say this is not mere speaking in Mammon’s argot. It is far more sweeping and embraces the society’s way. While sleaze enriches and brings honour and respectability to the wiseass, it goes far beyond: it sets the pattern of life, acts as a catalyst for social change and, over time, promotes normative thinking. This is what has come about. Yesterday’s villains are hailed today’s successes – if not heroes; and yesterday’s heroes dubbed life’s failures and society’s anachronisms.

The failed god’s world is one of frustration, isolation and alienation. For him the climb up the bureaucratic escalator is not as routine as for the fortunate majority. The ACR (or APAR today), that annual totem of one’s merit, written after placing his achievements under the microscope, could at best be lack-lustre, if not outrageous, and this can take no one nowhere: not a good posting, not a deputation, not a foreign assignment, not a foreign training. He is stuck in his routine, pen-pushing, as he watches his colleagues – the highly-networked ones – move about places. Promotions, if he achieves without hiccups, he only can thank his stars. For it is a marvel if he comes out of the bureaucratic juggernaut unscathed and with his scruples intact.

Socially, he is a recluse, who shuns talking shop and sharing the bureaucratic tidbits with colleagues whose passion for the job knows no official bound. He’s little nothing to share, he is at a loss to keep his end up with gossipy, syrupy low-downs that every august denizen relishes, the sort that provide the grist for the prying mill. He has no love for the cavalier way a file was held up by his all-knowing colleague to extract the flesh due, nor can he put newer, brighter ideas into the latter’s febrile mind. In his naive, nascent mandarin years he would have argued his heart out, passionately, but as he grows in years and matures, he prefers taciturnity to gauntlet-picking. The febrile lot finds little solace leveling with him. He can’t provide the answers, often couldn’t care to, for he is averse to such ingenuities and would love to extirpate it in the bud if he could; is lackadaisically slow to warm to their passions, their life’s passions that is; demented to life’s saucy offerings, and clearly lacking the guts that such ingenuities so sedulously demand. Yet, when roused from his self-imposed reticence, he could demolish their worldviews and extant societal norms and goings-on, even storm out in the most tremendous huff. Quick to realize, the majority isolate and ostracize him. Our honest mandarin’s cup of alienation is complete.

The facade of equanimity so deftly cultivated from his training days is no insurance against a feeling of lost he experiences. All around him he sees every value he cherished since childhood crumbling, if not already crumbled. Personal enrichment at the cost of fairness, doubletalk to provide a veneer of logic, net-working to self-aggrandize, gnaws his heart. If he lets the bully out, he’s sunk. His eyes now large pools of suffering, he consciously slithers into his shell.

As a social animal he finds it an anathema. And a torture. How much and for how long can he be bound up in his own world and hermetically seal himself from the society? He knows he is an oddball in the majority’s eye, but his mind refuses to join the mainstream, for they are only a few, just a few, of his ilk left, and they too like him, lead quiet, unobtrusive lives, beyond the mainstream’s pale: an endangered species. He suffers alone and with him, his family. No amount of abstractions he tries to imbue his family with can hold the majority society at bay. The high visibility of his next-door neighbour’s living does not help matters. He tends to question his modus vivendi, at times – in moments of unmitigated blues – even his principles’ rationale.

The heebie-jeebies pass and he pulls over, turbo-charged – unrepentant, determined, unyielding – to battle a new day, refusing to cop out, going hard for the sake of his principles, his raison d’etre in this ghoulish world that he refuses to monkey for himself. Bonjour!

All You See Is Unadulterated Hypocrisy

It may be rather facetious to suggest but I’m quite tempted to say that nothing amuses me more than a ringside view and watch the world go around. It’s fun to observe the Indian circus – an endless game of twists and turns, blows and counter-blows – as the protagonists hold centrestage and amuse and bemuse the bystanders. It is so well-scripted and choreographed that often in one such moment of trance one may be forgiven for living in a surreal world of magic realism that any fiction writer would dare capture and conjure in his novel. This, the hypocrisy of being – the charade of our everyday existence – that passes off as bravura and grandstanding.

Look around you and all you see is pure and unadulterated hypocrisy. It is everywhere – omnipresent, omnipotent, even omniscient. Be it the brouhaha over padma awards or the tragi-comedy called SPS Rathore with his Nehruvian smile or the Sukna land scam and many such others, the underlying impression is the same: all these are false accusations with the fourth estate the favourite punching bag for carrying out a scurrilous media trial that’s no better than a trial in a kangaroo court! Their argument: An accusation doesn’t make anyone a criminal till proven so only after decades of judicial foot-dragging. Till such time the party must go on. And, of course, honour be showered!

That’s the India, Hamara Bharat Mahaan we live in. Where hypocrisy rules like a potentate – untrammeled, unflustered, and unquestioned. A senior IAS couple caught with wads of currency notes running into a few crores at home. Another IAS officer raided and found with wealth far beyond legitimate earning. A Chief Justice of a High Court stopped in his track to elevation to the Supreme Court bench upon intense clamour of legal luminaries. Yet every such public servant in the dock keeps protesting his spiel of honesty. Swap the protestations of honesty with protestation of efficiency and see where it takes people up the totem pole: often to the gubernatorial office as a post-retirement sinecure.

It is as if today’s India is run on this high-octane fuel of hypocrisy, chicanery and claptrap. Nothing else matters except the ability to network. If you are a highly networked individual (HNI) your ascent up the greasy pole is assured. This is not only for the public servants. This holds good also for the corporate honchos, business magnets, technologists and everyone in society who aspires for instant gratification and nirvana: sanskritization and upward social mobility in a closed class- and caste-laden social order. People in position are respected, even feted – this regardless of their feet bogged in clay and their hands in the till.

Make no mistake – this cocktail is headier than any potent combine of the spirits. Take the issue of networking. Close to two decades ago I worked with a senior officer whose only claim to fame was to show the path of how not to work in government; he was indeed the apotheosis of this craft. He did no work, didn’t have the inclination to, but somehow “managed” to sail through. To be fair to him though he was an excellent net-worker who hosted lavish parties and managed to get invited to parties thrown by the powers-that-be. I wasn’t surprised in the least when he went up and up the slithery path to occupy enviable posts in the government of India. Today a septuagenarian, his habitat behoves his advanced age: “A bird in the golden gubernatorial cage!”

To be honest, he is not in a minority, let alone minuscule. Not long ago there was this gentleman – dumb, asinine, and inarticulate – who understood little of what was going on in the ministry he headed. To call him a half-wit would be an offence to the genuine nitwits; he was a no-wit, or, at best a “quarter-wit”. In all fairness he kept long hours in the office slouching over files trying to unravel the mystery wrapped in sundry unwieldy, nettlesome cases that were simply beyond his humble cranium’s comprehension. But that didn’t come in his way – pre- and post-retirement – and he too like other highly-networked blessed angels landed himself in successive gilded sinecures.

This is what networking does for you. It makes leaders out of monkeys. There is a plenitude of such impulses doing the beat in all fields. How else do you explain the rapist Rathore being made the DGP of a state after the molestation case had been filed? Or, how else an intellectually dishonest Pachauri (who artfully flaunts himself as a Nobel laureate and acts as a consultant to financial institutions like Deutsche Bank and Pegasus, an investment firm) be flaunted as India’s answer to solving global climate change?

If you still have any doubts about the goings-on, look at the padma awards that kick up shindig year after year for a few days (mercifully!) shortly after its announcement on Republic Day eve – to be quickly forgotten thereafter. It is largely a game of spoils – with much lobbying and jockeying that is endemic to the system – showered to reward newly “discovered” merits lying hitherto unrecognized till the high and mighty are benefacted and feel obligated to confer the spoil. Of course, the high and mighty too often award to themselves honours, forgetting (did you say?), Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad’s vintage words: “We cannot attach to our achkans the awards that is our job to confer on others”, but whoever today cares about these obsolete moralities.

This issue of immorality, nepotism, and venality is not confined to the government functioning alone. It is very democratic and equitable, it is everywhere. Satyam is certainly not the last case we have heard about from Indian Inc. We have struck such levels of moral depravity that MBA schools are today asking students to take a variant of Hippocrates oath to maintain moral rectitude in professional career, not realizing that it is a vain, vapid ask. Morality has to be appropriated from within, not taught or imposed from without. We modern-day Nostradamus are purblind, and we refuse to see the writing in the wall.

Morality and law are not exactly strangers to each other. Nor are they antithetical. While morality preaches, law imposes. Sadly both are major failures – one for lack of takers, the other for lack of will. The endgame is the same: upward social mobility where get-rich-by-any-means is the mantra and the open sesame to entry into this cloistered world that is a strange amalgam of feudal values, socialist preaching and capitalist Epicureanism, and where sunlight is not the best disinfectant simply because it is shut out.

This is the hypocrisy we live, breathe, and eat that no noonday iridescence will be able to lift. There is no light of any affirmative action on steroids. Because today it’s the being and everything-ness! Stranger still: we manage to survive amid this conundrum of being and times of glib hypocrisy, even without scalding India’s soul. And this is not a radical fringe statement. Pray, did I go wrong somewhere? Touché!

Darshan For A Nano-Second

Since this piece has the potential of offending the devout and the devotees and raising their hackles, I must begin with my personal disclaimers and disclosures. I am not a religious person; in fact, I am an agnostic. I pride in imagining myself a rationalist, though my incisive nephew Pronab has serious misgivings about my pretensions because of my fondness for Dr. Brian Weiss, and belief in the eternal soul and the transmigration of the same from one material body to another. I don’t visit temples on my own but I am not averse to visiting them when with others.

I planned the visit to Vaishnodevi only because my wife Shukla had evinced an interest a good quarter century ago to visit the Mata and we were, in any case, going to Srinagar. Given mine and my children’s agnosticism, for us it was going to be an experience, I thought.

Seven in the evening when darkness spread across the mountains and the lights shone brighter, standing at the base in Katra I looked up at the mountain trails high up my eye-line. I knew the Mata was even far beyond the serpentine paths – the gradient looked steep, the twinkling lights in the far high horizon seemed ineluctable. Our journey up indeed intimidated much before it had begun.

But we were determined – to make our experience count. We knew there was no battery-operated car since they don’t ply after evening six and we didn’t want to take the mule or pony or palki. So we trudged up. The walking stick was of some help but not enough to stop me from panting and resting my by-now aching legs every ten minutes. My sweat had begun a runnel.

The devout waded through the promenade, shops on either side blaring Mata’s numbers, the mules and ponies paced up and down amid the sludge of animal excreta – some adding their own fresh dollops of waste – and shouts of Jai Mata Di adding to the festive cacophony. The atmosphere was electric.

Not so my legs. They cried for rest which I dutifully provided as Jai Mata Di, Jor se bolo, baithke bolo, haas ke bolo, pyaar se bolo rent the air. We were nowhere near the half-way mark to Ardhkuwari, which itself was only half-way to the Mata’s abode.
Reaching Ardhkuwari felt blessed. Now on, the incline wasn’t as steep as the one to it, our guide consoled us. The mules and ponies took a different route, so our path was cleaner and freer to walk. The thought of getting closer to the destination spurred us on. We quickened our steps and reached well past midnight and after a quick wash headed for the darshan.

It was few days before navratri and the place high up the mountain was abuzz with devotees thronging every conceivable space. A line – men, women, old and young, toddlers and bentbacks – snaked across as we wound our way through the milling multitude. Closer to the Mata’s shrine the grilled barricades caged the devotees in single-file to avoid stampede. I looked up the high mountain paths at the pony route lit up with bright lights ferrying devotees. It looked menacing.

“Leave medicines here,” the CRPF policewoman bellowed.

“But they’re my BP medicine.” I protested.

“No medicine can go to the Mata!” she fumed.

Our darshan of the Mata was for a nano-second. My daughter Priyanka couldn’t see the deities as we were commandeered out of the tunnel.

Back in the open I saw the same jostling. Around us, the din and bustle of pilgrims kept the place agog with wild excitement. “How long will it take these devotees to have a darshan?” I asked our guide, pointing at the snaking populace incarcerated in the grilled single-filed barricades as we prepared to head back down.

“Well,” he paused, his eyes sweeping over the endless queue whipping across to the tunnel of nano-second darshan, “they would’ve joined the queue around six and it could be well past nine tomorrow morning before they’ve a darshan.” I gulped. 15 hours for a nano-second darshan!

The walk down didn’t feel difficult. My son Prayag and I discussed the VIP darshan and the commercialization of aarti priced at thousand rupees per head. “So while all devotees are equal, the privileged and the rich are more equal than the others,” he said, as we raced down the winding path to Ardhkuwari.

By now our eternally braking knees were protesting. The guide enticed us to take the steps. By the time we had done the third flight of 500-odd steps my thigh muscles had cramped up. I could barely walk. I collapsed in a chair nursing my cramp and watched a pony struggling his way up with two gas cylinders on its tender back. The memories of palki-bearers and peethis resting en route came back to me in a flash. How hard it is for these people/animals to ferry humans up the mountain for devotees to have darshan?

Did the Mata wish this hardship on her devotees? Certainly not. No Mata worth her nobility would like her devotees take this trouble. No Mata would like animate beings tortured under the weight they’re made to carry to serve her devotees? No Mata would like her devotees with toddlers in tow to self-flagellate and stand in queue nightlong without the benefit of toilet, food and water for darshan. I remembered the young girl, barely six or seven, piteously crying out in protest, “Mama, I don’t want to go. Why you forcing me to? I just can’t walk any further.” Or the shrill cries of another young soul, “Please, please, leave me here. I’ll die.” These scenes came back to me in a collage.

As I hobbled over to Katra, I couldn’t help recalling Bertrand Russell’s observations on ‘sin’. “If ‘sin’ consisted in causing needless suffering, I could understand, but on the contrary, sin often consists in avoiding needless suffering. Some years ago, in the English House of Lords, a bill was introduced to legalize euthanasia in cases of painful and incurable disease. The patient’s consent was to be necessary as well as several medical certificates. To me, in my simplicity, it would seem natural to require the patient’s consent, but the late Archbishop of Canterbury, the English official expert on sin, explained the erroneousness of such a view. The patient’s consent turns euthanasia into suicide and suicide is sin. Their Lordships listened to the voice of authority and rejected the Bill. Consequently, to please the Archbishop and his God, if he reports truly, victims of cancer still have to endure months of wholly useless agony, unless their doctors or nurses are sufficiently humane to risk a charge of murder. I find difficulty in the conception of a God who gets pleasure from contemplating such tortures, and if there were a God capable of such wanton cruelty, I should certainly not think Him worthy of worship. But that only proves how sunk I am in moral depravity.”

It was day-break. My mind still in a whirl, I tried to fathom the senseless human-created psychology of devotion imposed on poor senseless devotees trawling their young wards up the mountain-path much against their wishes. For all the hardship and humongous loss of human-hours, I thought if Mother Teresa wasn’t spot-on when she said, “Hands that serve are holier than the hands that pray.”

On the Passing Away of Civil Service

Today we mourn the passing of a dear old friend, Civil Service, who had been with us for many long years. He will be remembered as having cultivated such valuable lessons as: codes and manuals, standards and procedures, SOPs and protocols, work and service keeping the nation’s interest in mind and contributing endearing terms of disdain as official and officialese, babu and babuese, mandarin and red-tape. Not to forget such unforgettables that everyone in a hierarchy rises to his level of incompetence!

Civil Service started out with the intent of being civil in its service, and lived by simple, Spartan philosophy and being fair and just to the people it served. People well-bred and animated with noble thoughts were drawn to it and they set a standard that was accepted by all ungrudgingly, even when certain decisions went against their own private interests.

But then the world began to change and so did independent India. Corruption, nepotism soon raised their ugly heads. The so-called simplistic idea of a civil service morphed into something strange and bizarre. Civil Service’s health began to deteriorate rapidly when he saw newer abilities – clever, ingenious, and overbearing – taking centrestage.

Civil Service lost ground when people pooh-poohed his sincerity and ratted on his inability to see the changing world of wealth and consumerism.

Civil Service lost the vim to live as offices became playgrounds literally and metaphorically of criminals who strutted about the world as larger-than-life heroes.

Civil Service sulked with the growing Godparents-Godchildren syndrome that made networking aspirational in this Republic of Civil Service, and meritocracy was replaced by sycophancy.
Civil Service took a beating when he couldn't stop a senior cop accused of molesting a teenage girl from occupying the highest office in the State police.

Civil Service finally gave up the will to live, after yesterday’s villains were hailed today’s successes – if not heroes, and yesterday’s heroes dubbed life’s failures and society’s anachronisms.

Civil Service was preceded in death, by his parents, Honesty and Truth; his wife, Fairness; his daughter, Neutrality; his son, Reason.

Civil Service is survived by his following 11 step-brothers (STBs) and one step-sister, born to his father’s several other wives:

Pliability, who jumpstarted the process of metamorphosis of civil service, swaying to every crosswind and tilting at every windmill, testifies being honest when it is the ‘rule of the honest’ (thank god for the temporary aberration!) and makes up for such aberrant time through splurge and orgy when the ‘propitious times’ comes about.

Malleability, who takes any shape others want him to. Being good inherently implies he is formless and can take any form the situation warrants. It’s his speed that impresses everyone around. He thus emerges the ‘tall’ guy much as his opposite number is dubbed the ‘fall’.

Flexibility is the third son of his second step-mother along with Pliability and Malleability. He does as others desire – even does what others don’t want him to but dream him to! This is what distinguishes him from others. He is sui generis and destined to go up the totem pole. His reputation of flexibility reaches the pole before he actually goes that far!

Stretchability stretches till he snaps – hence is very altruistic! He allows himself to be pulled in different (even opposite!) directions by the invisible strings as though he were a marionette. He doesn’t mind such appellations of marionette; he is honest enough to realize that if he scratches the surface he will discover he indeed is one – open to maneuvering by others in position of power and pelf.

Magnanimity, the fifth STB, is truly a candy stick, believes in giving as much to others as others want him to – even more at times if he could. ‘More’ makes him a star. In the process, he loses nothing. Instead he gains everything; it is a veritable win-win for all. This can be in the form of goodwill or money, even both. Either way, he doesn’t get poorer one whit; His Magnanimous GoI is always there to pick up the tab for the magnanimity dished out.

Filthy-lucre believes in making as much hawala transactions as is expected of him by him, and, of him by others. He is the fulcrum that holds all attributes together. In a market-driven globalized economy, as a hardnosed practitioner of realpolitik and real-economism, he knows money is everything. It is the open sesame to name, fame, comfort, recognition – in this life and hopefully, in all future ones, not only for him but for his progenies as well. So he makes no mistake. And he does not tarry when the sun shines. He makes hay, which the original civil servant now lying dead, because of lack of innate spunk, called it filthy. Why, he rebuts, didn’t he earn his spurs in the Dholpur Lottery of Civil Services Exam?

Utilitarian is the narrative who sacrifices himself for use by others and for the utility of others; indeed, he is a philanthrope! His utility is his USP and he subsists in making memories of his past services. The beneficiaries are not ingrates. They fondly remember such utilitarian gestures and when the time comes for recognition their elephantine memory rewards him handsomely, often unasked. His climb up the totem pole is assured.

Drainy is the Siamese-twin of Utility born to the fourth wife who has the ingenious capacity to drain the tax-payers’ resources for the greater good of his own numbers! This skill enables him to perform other attributes with élan; it is, in fact, the lubricant that makes the wheels of governance run. Hence, in a way, this is the numero uno of all the step-brothers.

Partier believes in partying at the drop of a hat and till he tires (even dropping dead). A party is a melting-pot. It melts the intransigents and melds them after him, who – now like putty clay – are ready to take the shape he wants them to. Of course, the parties have to be bacchanalian, otherwise they are no parties. Throw in a dash of the aphrodisiac and you have a heady mix that will smelt everything in view. He earns oodles of glory from these parties.

Garrulity born to the same mother carries similar DNA to Partier and has enormous capacity for endless chatter. It makes him a popular, even a cult, figure. He is a smoking hotspot of boasts, sleaze; he character assassinates civil servants. He thus has his fill, and endears and wows the august gathering.

Close on the heel of the last two, though born out of wedlock to the seventh wife (subsequently married) is Cavalier who displays demonstrative smarts and derring-dos. This is actually an outflow of the throughputs that the last few possess. Which is why, to the lay man, it may border on magic realism and take one back and forth in rapid-fire motion to things that may seem and sound very surreal. But that is what it is meant to be: to put people in a trance.

I am not finished yet as Hallucinogen brings up the rear what with its Teflon-coat waiting to be given a fresh coat of paint. Not to be outdone by shadowy acts, this step-sister shows the fertility to further fellow civil servants’ causes: promotion, scales of pay, cadre expansion – all at taxpayers cost.

The funeral procession was noticeable for the thinning attendance. None of Civil Service’s step-brothers-sister deigned to attend. They were busy in their own worlds. But the media in its curiosity (some say, even perversity) was present to tell the tale.

When Cricket Was Innocent...And So Much Fun!

It was the summer of 1964. I’d just been introduced to the intricacies of rules of cricket. The first Ashes test was being played at Trent Bridge. And the first cricket snap I pasted in my scrapbook was that of a debuting Geoff Boycott caught splendidly by Bobby Simpson, diving to his right at first slip, off Corling, for 48. Every morning at school, as we trudged back to our Standard IV classroom after the Assembly, we took great delight in exchanging notes on Cricket played the previous evening in Old Blighty. I can still recall our animated discussions when Simpson scored 311 in the 4th test at Old Trafford, and the masterly 256 by Ken Barrington and Ted Dexter’s dexterous 172 in England’s reply.

With cricket suffusing our young minds and governing our actions, the evenings had to be cricket only – no more badminton or table tennis. But then we’re diehard Anglophiles and we had to be back by 5.45 to listen to the BBC cricket commentary. And of course, read the Sport and Pastime. Cricket, Lovely Cricket, the weekly column by Alex Bannister was a must-read and in no time I’d gone through fifty-odd past numbers quickly borrowed from a cricket-crazy uncle. Such was the quick metamorphosis that by the time the same Oz team was in India on its way back home after the Ashes, I was ready to receive them warmly in my young mind.

Even today, what seems an aeon, I can still vividly recall the 2nd Test played at the Brabourne Stadium. India was chasing 254 to win the match. Nawab of Pataudi (not Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi yet!) and courting Sharmila Tagore, had got out for 53 reducing India to 224/8. Hope of victory was quickly ebbing. Out trudged Indrajit Sinhji, the new gawky Indian wicket-keeper preferred over Engineer and Kunderan, to give Borde the company. The commentator’s voice choked with nervousness. Slowly as evening descended and we sat glued to radio, our hearts pounding and with prayers on our lips, the target seemed getting closer. Each stroke played, every single stolen that bridged the gap was received with thunderous applause, which made it difficult for us to hang on to the commentator’s words. But the din meant India was getting there, and there was no earthly reason for us to panic in faraway Cuttack. Then with just 2 runs required, Borde drove the left-arm spinner Tom Veivers imperiously to the mid-wicket boundary. India had cantered home by two wickets! The sound and splutter of crackers that welcomed the Indian victory refused to die down. It was Vijaya Dashmi Day – the 15th October 1964 and history was being made. We were in cloud nine.

The winning stroke by Borde splashed in all the English newspapers quickly found its way to my scrapbook. It would still be there somewhere – stashed safely away in the family’s lumber room! But the memory of that Dussehra evening is firmly etched in memory. So much so that decades later I asked Chandu Borde the first thing when we gossiped in the walking tracks of the Poona Club how it felt to be in the middle trying to string a partnership with Indrajit Sinhji and take India to victory. He flashed a most beatific smile and conveyed in his own disarming way it was all very heady.

“And how it felt to face Hall, Griffith and Gilchrist at their fiercest without the protective helmet, thigh guard, chest guard, and elbow guard etc etc?”

Borde’s face clouded over in the cow-dust hours of a winter evening as though he was facing the missiles yet again hurled at him by these mean merchants of speed. “You know,” he began, his voice cracking, “we had no time to think about the stroke to play. They’re so fast that often by the time one looked back at the keeper to see where the ball was, it had been relayed back to the bowler.” The West Indians were unarguably the world champions then in the 1960s and boasted of such cricketing legends as Gary Sobers, Frank Worrell, Conrad Hunte, Wesley Hall, Charlie Griffith, Rohan Kanhai, Basil Butcher, Clive Lloyd, Seymour Nurse, Lance Gibbs in their ranks. And more importantly played cricket the calypso way.

“I still remember the two centuries you scored off them at Bombay and Madras in 1966-67 Test series,” I said, my voiced tinged with admiration. “I shall always marvel your efforts against the Windies as the best by any Indian batsman in an era when cricket was a sport and not a religion.”

We were chatting this time in the cricket pavilion of the Poona Club now fittingly named Chandu Borde Cricket Pavilion after he had inaugurated a cricket match our two offices were playing. “Today things have changed,” Chandubhai said, and without a trace of rancour. “We didn’t have the comforts cricketers have today. We travelled by train and stayed in humble hotels. And we were paid a measly sum!” He wasn’t complaining; he was only helping me to sketch the cricketing architecture in my mindscape – of an era that meant so much to me – as a kind of nostalgia when cricket had devoured me fully.

Now peaking middlescence and with the apparition of advanced years threatening to swoop down on me, I still remain the cricket buff of yore. But alas, with a huge difference. My visions of cricket have been in ferment – ever since the World Series Cricket in the late 1970s when it was “Kerry Packered”. Channel Nine TV changed all that I’d valued dearly and hugged close to my heart. The state-of-the-art television technology left nothing to imagination. The once-gentleman’s pastime of the occident that combined the languid feline silkiness of oriental charm with the romantic English countryside, has now transmogrified into a monster industry of today with Hawk Eyes, Third Umpires, Match Referees, Slow Motions, Ultra Slo-Mos, Hot Spots, Snickometers, Extraaa Innings, Noodle-Straps, T-20 cricket, IPL and cheerleaders adding to the cacophony of cricket played in 40-plus temperature, franchisees and big money bickering and scandal, and plethora of ICC rules to oversee quotidian infractions perpetrated by robotic mercenaries.

In throwback nostalgia how I wish I could play it back to my halcyon days and draw the collage in my mind much as I did when Trevor Bailey commentated in his measured, cadenced voice: “McKenzie comes in from the Hill-Port end and bowls… on the middle-and-off stump… the ball swinging away… takes the edge of Edrich’s bat and travels… to the third slip… who… dives full-length to his right and… and o… o… scoops the ball up in one hand… a splendid catch indeed by… Cowper!” and the measured, calibrated claps of the English crowd reverberating around the packed cricket stadium and streaming into the microphone! And I in my mind’s eye following the ball’s trajectory and journeying right off McKenzie’s arm – pitching, swinging, nicking the bat and landing in the hallowed hand of a diving Bob Cowper as other fielders leap cock-a-hoop in delight!

The Republic of Sound as Distillate of Sensex

It sounds so bizarre to elevate sound to an exalted level but in today’s world of conspicuous consumption and over-the-top exhibitionism it is hardly surprising that this innocent number is indeed a barometer of how the economy is doing. This is not necessarily confined to the national economy alone; it is global in its spread.

Strange as it may sound, the efficacy of sound as a bellwether of global economy dawned on me, alas, not without personal pitfalls. I had moved to Bangalore at the height of a soaring sensex, which like the unremitting tide kept surging day after day. My residence stood betwixt two roads converging at the end of my compound. The traffic thundered along the two roads (both one-ways in reverse directions) round the clock, particularly the one closest to my bedroom that led to the HAL airport. The call centres were peaking with activity and there was no respite even at night. The din and bustle, coupled with constant honking and roar of engines – particularly the auto-rickshaws driven on adulterated fuel and tumbledown silencers – pierced my house. The noise – exaggerated by the quietude of night – was deafening. Always a light sleeper I lay awake in bed, tossing and turning, trying feverishly to string an ersatz sleep. But the roar and hubbub were way too rambunctious for my frail ears. Sleep eluded me.

I tried to do whatever I could to stave off sound. I raised the level of my compound wall on all sides so that they act as a buffer and keep off not only the sound but also the carbon pollutants floating about in the air. Sound-proof glasses on the windows pretended to be another barrier. It worked, but only just. The roar and thunder were now only a tad less. I was as disconsolate as before.

I took refuge in earplugs that I nightly threaded into my ears. But sound kept up its constant tryst with me. Indeed, I was getting used to it! So much so that on visits to other cities I sensed something was missing when I turned in to sleep. The silence, or more fittingly, the absence of the hum and drone of traffic was unnerving. It felt eerily uncanny. I took awhile to get used to the tranquility of these places and, on return, I needed acclimatization to the buzz on my homefront.

But I needn’t have to suffer any further. Within a few months the sensex crashed. The sub-prime crisis blew up in the faces across continents in full fury, and India for all its pretensions of a decoupled economy too was swept off its feet. And within the next few months I seemed to be getting my sleep back. It was not entirely courtesy the earplugs that I never forgot to wear. The sound had abated. The roar, defanged, had become a whisper. The roads on either side of my residence now wore a forlorn look. The traffic trundled along in bursts, few vehicles condescended to stop at the traffic light in front of my house to enable the occupants espy my nameplate jutting out onto the road. I felt bereft. Even neglected and unimportant. Much before midnight the roads had almost emptied out, the earlier clank and sputter of crusading autos now reduced to a mere aesthetic hiss.

The sound seemed to be only getting weak by the day. Apart from the occasional anarchic recrudescence of its fury in sporadic spurts, the roads had ceased to be places of noisy menace. There was a calm that had descended on the nocturnal roads. As days trundled by, the calm seemed to pervade even when the sun kissed the roads. On the road across, I could slide open the windows in my office letting the salubrious weather of Bangalore invade the musty innards of my room up until then propped up by contrived artificial air. The roar was distant and the decibel level civilized.

Quietude had become a defining narrative of the roads I traversed every morning, afternoon, and evening – and lived by the merging road. But I was far from happy, the cultured cacophony of the traffic sounding an anathema. Not only because the global economic tsunami of late-2008 and the subsequent rampaging recession had led to a free fall of economies – the collapse of Lehmann Brothers and the aftermath that connived to lay off bright youngsters – but because the quietude was strangely disquieting to my soul. Was it real or merely a texture of a dream? I asked, pinching myself to wake up to the reality.

Yes, the model of Rational Expectations – that will-o’-the-wisp on which most economists had premised their economic theories – and the Efficient Market Hypothesis – that mirage full of assumptions and phantasmal mathematical models – were found to be so much hot air, rendering the traffic buzz around my ears hors de combat. The End of History was nowhere nigh, the icon of capitalist thinking Fukuyama was being proved wrong right in front of my eyes and eavesdropping Ears.

I should be happy now that it was easy for me to cross the road to and from my office. But I wasn’t. I missed the shrill noise and clatter of the traffic, the monster buses peremptorily kissing the sidewalks as I single-mindedly looked around to find space to jaywalk through the bumper-to-bumper traffic thronging my way to my office. Often the adventurous would bump into me driving nonchalantly up on the hardly-raised sidewalks now melting away and merging with the ever-rising road. Incandescent, I would glare and frown and they would condescend to stop their motorbikes short of knocking me over, billingsgate pouring forth from their mouths.

Slowly the sound took on a different hue, the fury nowhere near the one that had greeted me. The downswing was getting better and the world was recovering from the worst economic crisis after the Great Depression. The roads were now getting busier and livelier. Traffic had begun to hurtle with insouciance, the roar distinct and imperious, smoking a trail in its wake. I didn’t have to read the pink papers to know the healthonomy. I knew it was in its way.

Sitting in my room, the rising decibels in different times of the day sketched for me the intimate map of economy – the distillate of sensex in this Republic of Sound. I knew we were getting past the worst. The economy was looking up. Though I must confess my ears grown complacent with the polite burr of the traffic the past couple of years aren’t particularly sanguine with my sub-bromide good cheer.

A Healthcare Model Worth Emulating

Not long ago, it was a truism that the US had the world’s finest healthcare system. Patients from all parts of the world who could afford it made a beeline for hospitals there. Today, Americans generally agree that their healthcare system is grossly expensive, ineffective — even unjust. In fact, Americans have created a healthcare system that leaves millions of citizens out in the cold.

Among the world’s developed nations, the US stands at or near the bottom in most important rankings of access to and quality of medical care. In 2000, when a Harvard Medical School professor working at the WHO developed a complicated formula to rate the quality and fairness of national health care systems around the world, the richest nation on earth ranked 37th, just behind Dominica and Costa Rica, and just ahead of Slovenia and Cuba.

The one area where the US unquestionably leads the world is in spending. As per OECD Health at a Glance, 2007 health expenditure as a percentage of GDP, 2005, the US spends 15.3; Switzerland 11.6; France 11.1; Germany 10.7; Canada 9.8; Sweden 9.1; UK 8.3; Japan 8.0; Mexico 6.4; Taiwan 6.2. Even countries with considerably older populations than the US, with more need for medical attention, spend much less. Japan has the oldest population in the world. And yet Japan spends about $3,000 per person on healthcare each year compared to $7,000 per person in the US.

Americans shell out big bucks without getting what they pay for. J R Reid in a recently published book The Healing of America makes this observation: “Surveys show that Americans who see a doctor tend to be less satisfied with their treatment than Britons, Italians, Germans, Canadians, or the Japanese — even though we pay the doctor much more than they do.”

India has a healthcare model to offer the world. It is based on public-private-partnership: government the insurance-provider; private hospitals the healthcare-provider. It leverages number and volume, thereby reducing the cost of treatment.

The first part of the model — insurance and healthcare — has been in operation the last few years at Narayana Hrudayalaya (NH) in Bangalore. In collaboration with the Karnataka government the hospital started the Yeshasvini scheme — a comprehensive health insurance scheme, at Rs 10 per month, for the poor farmers of the state. It covered open-heart surgery.

The man behind it is Dr Devi Shetty, chairman of Narayana Hrudayalaya. His idea of health city is founded on a sound business model. A multi-speciality hospital can mean better utilisation of resources; the same equipment can be exploited for different specialities, thereby driving down the cost relentlessly.

Within a few years of setting up NH with world-class facilities in cardiac care, he has set up multiple hospitals with a total strength of 3,000 beds, offering facilities like neurosurgery, orthopaedics, gastroenterology and transplant surgery, ophthalmology and nephrology. Today, there is a cluster of hospitals around NH in Narayana Health City — a 350-bed Narayana Nethralaya for ophthalmology, a 250-bed Sparsh Hospital for orthopaedics, Thrombosis Research Institute for research and study, and the 1,500-bed Narayana Multi-Speciality Hospital and Cancer Research Centre for all other disciplines. Quality healthcare for the poor is no more a mirage, as the universally accepted algorithm would have us believe.

India will become the first country to dissociate healthcare from affluence,” Shetty says. But for this the government will have to become an insurance-provider rather than a healthcare-provider. Governments will realise that it is better to offer health insurance than manage hospitals. But this will only happen through big hospitals catering to big numbers at a very low price.

Healthcare, unlike other services, is a high-octane beast. Drugs and disposables take up 40 per cent of the revenue generated. The other fixed costs are salary and overheads. However, volume equips one with power to source disposables. The Wal-Mart model is the one to follow in order to drive cost down. India’s population — patients and skilled human potential — provides a unique competitive advantage. The vast untapped pool of patients not in the treatment window can be leveraged for economy of scale. This is where the government can step in — as health insurance provider.

All that it needs to do is encourage creation of large private hospitals that can leverage numbers and provide quality healthcare aided by government-sponsored health insurance cover. The mass insurance will drive premiums down. More-less duality is the mantra. More people insured means lower premiums; more patients means more honing of skills; more skills mean less time spent on procedures; less time spent means less labour cost/overhead; more patients means more exploitation of available facilities; more patients mean more use of disposables and volume discount aiding less cost of consumables; less labour/material and more exploitation of fixed assets mean less overall expenses; lower overall expense mean lower insurance payment; which translates into lower premiums, and that implies less government liability.

NH follows another ingenious technique to whittle costs. Given the high patient footfall, the number of tests is high. So NH has ‘in-sourced’ equipment by persuading manufacturers/suppliers to merely ‘park’ their machines for use by the hospital and earn their revenue from selling chemical reagents and disposables for the tests and treatment. NH saves on investment while the manufacturers/suppliers get more than their share of profit by selling disposables/consumables. And the more the merrier: NH for driving the cost down and the supplier for its earnings and profit.

Is the model replicable? Perhaps yes. Because there is a silver lining: the magic of markets. Which is why a successful NH model has the potential to push market forces to drive healthcare costs down by embracing the populace at the bottom of the pyramid — and decoupling quality healthcare from money and bridging the gaps among societal strata.