Sunday, June 27, 2010

"Leave" Your Office: A Throwback To State Maternalism

It may be rather glib to say, but 2010 Anno Domini is indeed the year of mourning – for all those who live off holidays. At the beginning of the year I overheard few young smart-alecs of the post-liberalized era commiserating with one another about most holidays falling on Saturdays and Sundays – what they called the wasted weekends! “Do you know,” chirruped one, trying to outsmart others in his electric wit, “so bad this year has gotten that even the damned Good Friday falls on a weekend!” It took others some talking to explain the wise owl the impossibility of his wisecrack!

See the goodies a government job offers. Look at the freebies its employees enjoy apropos of holidays and leave. Apart from 104 days of holidays (Saturdays/Sundays), there are 17 public holidays plus 2 restricted holidays plus 30 days earned leave and 8 days casual leave granted annually. These are all fully-paid leaves. There are also 20 days of half-pay leave granted every year open to accumulation. I’m still trying but am yet to know of any more altruistic nation than ours. Never mind if governance goes to seed!

Women are twice blessed. In the wake of the acceptance of Sixth Central Pay Commission recommendations, the Department of Personnel & Training (DOPT), Government of India vide its OM dated 11th September 2008 communicated two important decisions. One was enhancement of the quantum of Maternity Leave from 135 days to 180 days with the added proviso that leave of the kind due and admissible can be granted in continuation with Maternity Leave up to 2 years.

The other was the introduction of Child Care Leave (CCL): “Women employees having minor children may be granted Child Care Leave for a maximum period of two years (i.e. 730 days) during their entire service for taking care of upto two children whether for rearing or to look after any of their needs like examination, sickness etc. During the period of such leave, the women employees shall be paid leave salary equal to the pay drawn immediately before proceeding on leave. It may be availed of in more than one spell. Child Care Leave may also be allowed for the third year as leave not due. It may be combined with leave of the kind due and admissible.”

Soon applications poured in from women employees to avail CCL threatening paralysis of government offices. DOPT realized its folly and tried to make the most of a bad situation through another OM dated 29th September 2008 clarifying that CCL shall be admissible for two eldest surviving children only. That could hardly retrieve the impossible situation it was plunging the offices into. Thus came the DOPT’s third OM dated 18th November, 2008 that clarified that the intention of Child Care Leave for women employees was to facilitate women employees to take care of their children at the time of need. However, this does not mean that CCL should disrupt the functioning of Central Government offices. The nature of this leave was envisaged to be the same as that of earned leave. Accordingly, CCL cannot be demanded as a matter of right, and it can be availed only if the employee concerned has no Earned Leave at her credit.

The three orders read together make CCL sui generis vis-à-vis other leaves. Unlike Study Leave, it is an open-ended leave with no strings attached; there is no obligation to return to work. In effect, it means women employees are free to resign after two years of fully-paid CCL availed with all perks. Look at another largesse: EL earned during CCL!

No other order issued in post-independent India has perhaps been so insanely bountiful and so infuriatingly generous to its employees, and so unabashedly blasé about the organization it serves. With women constituting 30-40% of the total strength in most offices, how on earth are offices to function? How do schools already reeling under shortage of trained teachers teach when teachers – mostly women – decide to avail CCL since their minor children – more than their students – need looking after? How are hospitals to run when doctors/nurses avail CCL? I’m tempted to draw upon a folksy analogy to convey the brutality of the order on the incubator of public service: women parliamentarians availing CCL for their children’s sake!

Any dispassionate observer would say that this is an order that could only happen in an organization that has no concern for its and/or its customers’ good but views the organization as maternalistic with altruistic mammaries that can be milked interminably. Corporates world over grant maternity and childcare leaves but without emoluments – there is no cost-to-company (CTC) that the shareholders can gripe. And the experience lost during years of absence on pregnancy and childcare doesn’t redound back upon for future promotions. Not here though. Because experience and merit matter little in a state that marvels at its own generosity, and who cares about this CTC (Cost-to-Country)the welfare state dishes out anyway so ungrudgingly and the silent, ignorant honest tax-payers uncomplainingly made to bear.

Let’s see the aspect of equity and commonsense. If childcare is the fulcrum, doesn’t the single-parent man – divorced or widower – deserve better not only for sake of equity but genuine need? That no such thought has attended this order I feel a tendril of joy begin to wind its way through me that I can’t be accused of male chauvinism.

We can’t play ducks and drakes with public money. The tax-payer (poor dear – ignorant of such wanton orders stashed in the minutiae of government files!) would be right to call this daylight heist. For you can’t eat the cake and have it too! I’ve no problems with women availing CCL (they need it and they must be facilitated) but such largesse can’t be bestowed with public money. Nor must it become a way to avoid office work – a tool to switch on and switch off as convenience warrants.

If there is still any sense left, the DOPT should revisit the order (as it has in the past)and make CCL without pay – availed after exhausting all leaves: Earned and Half-Pay. A happier phrasing of the order would shine through rather than sweeping up this hollow circle of excess – that would bring about a punctilio of a higher code, which today sadly looks long gone.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Babugiri: The Headless Chicken Syndrome

Remember Ronen of the headless chicken fame? Let me jog your memory: it happened not-too-long ago in 2007 when Ronen Sen, our Ambassador in the USA, compared the acts of Indian politicians who opposed the nuclear deal negotiation to that of a headless chicken. Politicians quickly cudgeled and threatened to knock the head off Ronen’s. Mercifully Ronen escaped the onslaught by the “neck of his head”.

Few know the story of “Mike the Headless Chicken”, so let me relate. On September 10, 1945, Lloyd Olsen of Fruita, Colorado, had his mother-in-law around for supper. Lloyd knew she was fond of chicken and would savour the neck. He positioned his axe precisely, estimating just the right tolerances, to leave a generous neck bone. Even then it was as important for sons-out-laws’ to suck-up to mothers-in-law the world over! With trepidation Olsen failed to completely decapitate the pullet named Mike. The axe missed the jugular vein, leaving one ear and most of the brain stem intact.

The determined bird quickly shook off the traumatic event and telegraphed his intentions to live. Mike got back being a chicken, started pecking for food and preening his feathers. Since a chicken’s reflexes are controlled by the brain stem Mike was able to remain quite healthy.

His crowing, though, was less impressive – just a gurgling sound made in his throat, unable to crow to announce dawn. Being headless did not keep Mike from putting on weight. Olsen said Mike was a robust chicken – a fine specimen of a chicken except for not having a head! His fame and fortune earned him recognition in Life and Time magazines. In March 1947, Miracle Mike valued (even insured) at $10,000 choked to death.

Readers may glean parallels from our everyday life. I’m sorry I’m unable to expatiate more here thanks to the Conduct Rules I’m bound to. So please be imaginative: Do we need a head? More pertinently, do we have one? Well, the honest answer is – either we don’t have one or have too much of it. In effect, it means there are two types of acts: head-less or head-ful.

Lest you readers think I say this tongue-in-cheek let me elaborate this with some Babugiri thrown in for full measure that relates to both types. A few months ago the Ministry of Finance issued an order on Expenditure Management – Economy Measures and Rationalization of Expenditure that set the cat among the doves and pigeons.

You see doves and pigeons are essentially different, though smaller forms are usually called doves, larger forms pigeons. An exception is the white pigeons, who stay at home, are harmless, and are known as the “dove of peace”. Here we’re focusing on the putative pigeons. They are of varied kinds: homing, itinerant, and irreverent.

The order made everyone unhappy. Given the current fiscal situation and the consequent pressure on Government’s resources, the order said, economy and rationalization of expenditure was a necessity; the government mandated 10% cut in expenditure under Domestic/Foreign Travel.

To rub salt into the wound, holding of exhibitions/seminars/ conferences abroad was strongly discouraged and complete ban on holding conferences at 5-star hotels enjoined. To cap it all, the order proscribed air travel by first class. You’ve to rob Peter to pay Paul!

No sooner the cat was out of the bag, the media (pray how mean they can get!) pounced on the pigeons inviting them (ever so politely!) over for tête-à-têtes. I must honestly admit I’m asinine and, because of it, naïve to an elaborate fault. I watch all discussions on television and read six newspapers to get to the heart of the matter. Yet the matter almost always eludes my small mind. Every time I listen to these august pigeons parrot worldly wisdom of austerity like travelling cattle-class or in cargo-holds I blanch and wonder if they would be charged per head or per kilogram for their air tickets. And which will be economical – given their girth, circumference, and shape, thanks to past 7-Star free repasts, the gyms in 5-star hotels and clubs notwithstanding.

Make no mistake. Their girth is not the outcome of my febrile imagination. One of the newspapers carried reportage that travelling economy is a strict no-no for pigeons because they need space for clearing files while airborne, since that involves movement of the hand holding the venerable pen to put their priceless honorable squiggles. Plus they need quietude not provided in the economy section peopled by illiterate chatterati and twitterati. Obviously, they can’t be boxed in the same class as the population they serve.

Further, how could a Mephistophelian order stop pigeons, particularly the itinerant kind, to visit cooler climes in summer months on study tours, workshops/conferences/seminars abroad at Government cost when their heart and groin tell them so? Let’s face it. They’ve come out of the raging bushfire triumphant fighting hard battles – scarred in body and mind and soul – and each one of them needs replenishment and nourishment.

Worse: the complete ban on holding of meetings/conferences at 5-star hotels was the proverbial last straw. You can’t starve a pigeon and pigeonhole it! Which is why, I guess, pigeons of all shades – the homing statists, the itinerant wastrels, the irreverent withering-kind of stateless states – united and spoke as one: the fact that they’re beyond the pale of finmin’s hideous diktats. Of course, pigeons have their own rules of the game – above the lesser avian’s flights of passage. Of higher pedigree, they make their own rules, and would like to self-serve and self-preserve. Abstinence and asceticism are not exactly terms of endearment for them; far from it, they make mincemeat of these terms if someone had the temerity to throw such execrable objects at them.

Ahoy, the bell’s ringing loud in my mind – that famous infernal incident concerning Madame Roland. After all the bloodletting of the French Revolution of 1789 as she was whisked to the guillotine, she exclaimed those unforgettable words: “Liberty, what crimes are committed in Thy name!”

Heavens, did I paraphrase Madame Roland and caw implacably – “Austerity, what shams in Thy name!” – when I heard the orders reneged? We live in a nanny state in a profane world – tokenism notwithstanding – right? I simply join the children in chorus: Mike, Mike, where’s your head? Even without it, you’re not dead! while remembering the moral: Always care for your mother-in-law, you twit son-out-law! What the heck?