Sunday, August 15, 2010

Cousin who, uncle who? we are a nuclear family

“Remember, the family's been nucleated,” intoned my son Prayag. “I needn't do all that you did or still keep doing!”

He was responding to my idea of being in touch with his aunts, uncles, cousins, now that he is settled in a new job.

For him, as with most children of his generation, the family begins and ends with the nuclear family. Cousins are cousins — not their own siblings; the uncle-aunts are uncle-aunts — not like their parents; the grandparents too are grandparents — distant and remote, and, surely, not the elder father-mother figure they were for us. Their world encircles them, their siblings and their parents. It's a table-top, ending sharply at the family's edge.

How different our worlds were in the 1960s and 1970s! Our world was small, with big families. One's recognition was via the family; one's name was incidental and could and, indeed, was often forgotten. “He's the son of so and so, the grandson of so and so or the nephew of so and so.” That's how one was introduced. The ubiquity of the family couldn't be missed.

Family embraced cousins — close and many times removed — and relatives and friends, also cousins of cousins, relatives of relatives, and friends of friends! They're welcome any time of the day and night. There were no fixed visiting hours, no prior intimation. Prior knowledge of visit had an air of artificiality about it, a feeling of incipient urban dross enveloping the pristine rural-feudal mindsets of unspoilt values — the pleasant and pleasurable elements of thrill diminished, not to say that it negated the familiar ring of vasudhaiva kutumbakam — and sublime equations.

I still recall the string of people who visited us all day. If it was lunch time, they had lunch; if it was dinner time, they had dinner. Often relatives came and stayed with us — not exactly with a purpose or on a sundry assignment. They came and stayed because they liked to come and stay! This never forebode well for my brother and me for, we were the ones to first take the hit, and had to promptly make way for our visiting relatives to grace our beds! But we cheerfully ratcheted up and rehabbed ourselves with our makeshift floor-beds for the nights! And even felt bereft when they left after months of stay, so much had they become a part of the family's collective unconscious! No questions asked on the purpose or length of stay — that was apostasy and solecism that didn't behove of honourable families!

Of the many who came and stayed with us and who I addressed in familiar endearing terms, it came as a big surprise one day years later when I realised that the old couple who lived with us for months every year (and not with their only son and his family who lived in the same city), were in no way related to us but had lived close to my parent's house years ago in the 1940s and had grown mutually fond of one another, and adopted my mother as their daughter!

How the world has changed! The joint-and-nexus-family construct — that existed in the same space — alas, has crumbled inexorably in the face of modernity. The dispersal of family members across the earth's surface with putative clamours of a globalised world doesn't warm the cockles of my heart. Each sculpts out his mode of living in his habitat with its bespoke ecosystem, each with his own outlook and esoteric worldview humming along that admits of few common denominators running through as a strand. To my heart still dipped in nostalgia recalling my indelible childhood world, this is far from warming. I make memories and memorialise them — how families were tirelessly generous and entertaining, even exceptionally welcoming.

I know the world has changed, certainly not always for the good. My children would differ, consider me prickly, and argue vociferously, reminding me that I'm caught in a time-warp and that my go-go world has become passé and no amount of soulful nostalgia will get it back for me. They demand their independence, their private spaces denied to me in my growing-up years because it wasn't thought necessary, but which, as the world changed, I ungrudgingly granted them. I tell them about the value of family, the family values and honour but I sense they place more value not on my construct but on theirs — nucleated — that one day when they set up their own homes not too far-off I'll be pushed beyond the immediate concentric ring to the one next, as I grow old and decrepit with the Methuselah gene bump full up against my inability to accept the change and forlornly look upon them with wistful indulgent eyes.

The Indian family has changed. I continue, cast in past tense that touches on family lives, and continue being swept up in seemingly unending self-pity as my eyes sweep right, then sweep left, yet miss the entire point as thoughts I'd pushed out of my mind for years come rushing back constructing a Venn diagram of family. But I'm none too sure if it's for the good, this moral outrage, this doleful cocktail, that's taken the mickey out of me I think malicious.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

CWG: Place Procurement in Public Space to expose Con-men

How the Commonwealth Games (CWG) preparation sucks even before the games have begun! The past few days have seen a new low in our public functioning. But what is singularly remarkable in this huge con-game – preceding the real sporting one – is the brazen manner the powers-that-be of the CWG have played out the shenanigans in full public view telling the world how much CWG is their baby and that we wretched public had better stay off it. After the crime comes their outsized belligerence! Pray, as though the world around is one big fool-dom!

More seriously, I’m least fazed with all this. It’s disquietingly natural that when you place a huge corpus with a body answering to such ad hoc name as Organizing Committee (OC) of CWG, with no firm rules and regulations, precedents and norms, procedures and processes in place, mis-and-malfeasances are bound to take centrestage. That it took such a long time for the bubble to burst over is indeed surprising.

Procurement everywhere is fraught with difficulty and temptation. This is why elaborate procedures involving checks and balances are put in place. Despite all this, scams have surfaced in the past embarrassing and sweeping governments world over off their perches. This, however, is the symptom – not the cause.

The cause is human nature, which – microscopic exceptions apart – is basically kleptocratic in nature. Let me explain. “Klepto” is thievery and “cracy” is rule; what human nature throws up is a “rule of the thieves” and these “honorable denizens” dish out a kleptocratic order that is built on the bedrock of pillage. To ensure good governance, therefore, there is need to place checks and balances, where all wings – executive, legislature, judiciary, media – pitch in with their bit to checkmate any wrongdoing. In other words, governance is best done not by a cartel of handpicked people under the blessings of one patriarch but with involvement of people from diverse disciplines, and each one of them acting independently of the other. This is the basic tenet.

Look at the OC through this prism. Without going into great detail, from the recent reportage in the media, it is amply clear that the constitution of the OC was a sure recipe for disaster and scam. No organization that has a well-set procedures and processes in place and practices the same to set up a world class facility involving India’s pride can afford to botch things up, regardless of any kleptocratic undertones. That it has come about can only lead to one or the other conclusion – lack of procedures, and lack of overseeing apparatus – or both.

It’s a complete tease to me why in today’s world of information technology, the CWG – that keeps tom-toming international best practices and standards to match Beijing and Sydney games – could not think of e-procurement. Not only would that have been faster (rather fastest) and economical and effective but also the most transparent. Digital signature – required for such tenders – has already been legislated in India. The details of every such procurement could’ve been put up in the CWG’s website for people all over the world to see. With nothing secret about the items procured (like in defence contracts, where too many items can be secreted away from classified “secrecy”) or infrastructures set up, any organization believing in transparency would have gone the whole hog to embrace this.

That the CWG didn’t think of doing this leads to few ineluctable questions. Today they can’t hide behind the fig leaf that it was beyond their knowledge. Or, they didn’t have the wherewithal to do it. I simply can’t think of either. Which, much as I hate to believe, tells me that CWG wanted the procurement to go this way only and no other – certainly not the e-transparent way.

For e-transparence has its own Achilles Heel and is (sadly) its very own enemy. It bursts forth everything onto public gaze, almost frothing over and bridling when wrongs are perpetrated; it hides nothing – more appropriately, it simply can’t, no matter how much it tries. It puts every activity otherwise closeted in red-taped files onto public space. This, to the honest, is rather enviable because he receives instantaneous applause from unknown public quarters.

But, for the dishonest with his hand in till, this is hara-kiri, pure and simple. It leaves no room to manoeuvre. And that is very limiting. Up until now, public officials (unlike their corporate counterparts) have been merciless in their pillage. This is because, and only because, the institution that’s bled could afford such indulgences, because it has not a soul; it is merely an abstraction going by the grandiloquent name of a nation, a State with all the properties that in-animality engenders. It can, with reasonable safeguards, be bled; and die it won’t. That’s the magic of it all.

Yet, even now not all’s lost. Let all procurement made till date be put (including file notings) in the public domain and let all future procurement and contracts be put in CWG’s website. We don’t need any judicial commission to take years to come out with its findings, thereby taking the wind out of present public outrage. Knowing public memory is woefully short we shouldn’t give in to this; rather the established system is enough to use this outrage to take quick, punitive action against the wrongdoers and ensure that procedures and processes are in place when public money is transacted in future. We need an honest head honcho to ensure this.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

APAR: When Transparency Breeds Hypocrisy

“In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence,” said Laurence J Peter, his tongue nowhere near his cheek. He quite meant it. It is as much applicable in the USA as in India, though there is a fundamental difference. Unlike the USA, in India the rise is mostly by default and, in a manner of speaking, emblematic of the unprofessional environment that is cranked up all around the government machinery.

The Department of Personnel and Training (DOPT) for once tried to set it right, though it was thanks to a hand-me-down from the Supreme Court. In an order that memorably broke with the bureaucratic past, the DOPT, vide its OM No. 21011/1/2005-Estt (A) (Pt-II) dated 14th May, 2009 inter alia directed that Annual Performance Appraisal Reports (APAR) be communicated to the officer reported upon for representation, if any, for the sake of fairness and transparency in public administration. This was done in the wake of the Supreme Court’s judgment of 12.5.2008 (Dev Dutt vs Union of India) which opined that the object of writing the confidential report is to give an opportunity to the public servant to improve performance. The Second Administrative Reforms Commission too had recommended that the performance appraisal system for all services be made more consultative and transparent.

The salient points of the order are: (i) The nomenclature of the Annual Confidential Report be modified as Annual Performance Assessment Report (APAR); (ii) The full APAR including the overall grade be communicated to the officer reported upon; (iii) The concerned officer be given the opportunity to make any representation against the entries on the specific factual observations and the final grading given in the Report beginning 2008-09; (iv) The competent authority may consider the matter objectively to accept, modify or reject the representation.

The DOPT’s order was doubtless a move in the right direction to ensure transparency and to reduce, if not eliminate, subjectivism in report-writing. The numerical grading, with numbers assigned to the important aspects a civil servant is supposed to focus on, is well-merited. But the idea is predicated on one basic postulate: professionalism. Is the Indian civil service today professional enough for these laudable impulses to succeed?

The honest answer, sadly, is a resounding no. Put another way, this effort to transplant objectivity through transparency on a system that is unprofessional and nurses an antediluvian outlook is bound to throw up its own internal dynamics and, most likely, come a cropper. Today, sadly, nepotism, favouritism, and networking, overpower professionalism and merit – evident from the quality of personnel who grace important posts.

Take APAR-writing. With everything a civil servant achieves or fails to achieve hooked to APARs, one wonders how many seniors would have the intellectual honesty to assess their subordinates objectively and have the courage of conviction to call a spade a spade. More often than not, the impulse will be to be goody-goody and play to the gallery and not invite trouble from subordinates; consequently reports written will mostly be an exaggeration of what officials deserve.

The problem gets worse compounded because most civil servants suffer from a grand delusion of personal competence and excellence; everyone thinks of himself as nothing short of outstanding – notwithstanding his level of application and smarts. So, with APAR made transparent now, any grading less than outstanding is not going to satisfy public officials.

Worse will be those who are absolute no-gooders in mental acumen or in application to jobs. Remember today there does exist the FR 56J provision whereby officials can be weeded out for non-performance after completing 30 years of service or after attaining the age of 50. Sadly, this provision remains only on paper; everyone sails through unharmed – Indian sentimentality trumping non-professionalism!

This lot largely remained in the penumbral zone where opaqueness spawned a no-man’s land, prompting reporting officers to be bold and honest. They continued – but only just. Now this so-called honesty will be sacrificed on the new-falutin bedrock of transparency. How many officers will make bold to grade subordinates who fall below the benchmark? Maybe, just a few.

And these few will be the odd-men, dubbed gadflies – scorned, best avoided and condemned. No one relishes such categorizations. So whither APAR – when the very purpose of transparency is apt to be defeated because people want not subordinates with long faces, subordinates who plot every moment to embarrass them, slyly baying for their blood – because they have earned grades they quite rightly deserved, but can’t yet relish?

A professional would take it, would endeavour to improve upon his performance, but not the sluggard, the schemer – because non-professionalism admits of no such self-introspection, self-cogitation, self-communing – who would like to go on inexorably to shirk work and responsibility, hoping the Indian umbrella of nephewism would take him up and up the totem-pole in the escalator-paradigm the system follows, where experience is measured not with reference to the quality of service but the length of service rendered and where seniority, not merit, is the emperor. Few realize the professional definition of experience: Experience = Capacity to Learn (CL) x Desire to Learn (DL) x number of years of service; put a zero at CL or at DL and you know what I mean! APAR, one would surmise, in such an environment will, unfortunately, not breed transparency but, paradoxically, hypocrisy.

One solution is to go the whole hog: let APARs be placed in the public domain for everyone to see one another’s; the magic of openness acting the ombudsman and shaming or blessing all actors – officers reported upon and reporting/reviewing authorities – thereby nipping any recrudescence of baseless favouritism and misgivings amongst them that otherwise shall lie tucked between reporting/reviewing officers and the officer reported upon. Not to forget that such openness will bring in real transparency since the other major stakeholder (the public and the customer) will get to see the fairness of the assessment done on the public servant. Touché!