Sunday, December 11, 2011

When White Ants Ate Away Roadrollers!

When I read the news of a senior army officer in the rank of Lieutenant General court-marshaled in the Sukhna Land scam, my mind harked back to early-1980s when I had written a piece in The Statesman exposing corruption in the defence forces.
Fresh from training, I worked in Siliguri as Assistant Controller of Defence Accounts, when I came across improbable and grotesque cases of government loss getting readied for write-offs. One, I remember, concerned white ants (poor dears!) eating away road-rollers!
“How many geological eras it took the white ants to eat away the road-rollers?” I had asked an august officer, who came pleading to me – to settle the objection.
“Maybe, a few, just a few,” he had replied, coughing, the waving gall of his hands, conveying how asisine my question was. He didn’t bat an eyelid; his tone was glib and macho – missing the innuendo of my question.
Another related to cyclone menace – along the Himalayas. These were systematic losses, perpetrated quarter after quarter, with unremitting variance. I knew they were white lies, most disingenuously contrived. I didn’t wish to get into an argument. Instead, I referred the issue to the meteorological department of the Government of India for confirmation of the cyclone dates. Most naturally, the department confirmed what everyone knew: No cyclones. No cyclone ever strikes the trans-Himalayan belt! There.
I wrote all of this and more, in the piece. Woe betides me for committing the blasphemy, this singular unpardonable crime of a fifth columnist – for raising my voice against dishonesty and corruption! Understandably, there was a farrago of protest. How could a government servant, privy to official goings-on, write a piece in the national media ranting against pious official functioning? How could any one, and least a youngster, speak ill of the vaunted holy cows that the defence forces were? Did he seek permission for doing so? If he did, who granted him the permission? If not, why mustn’t he be proceeded against for violating the Conduct Rules government servants are bound to? As also the sacrament – the sacred Official Secrets Act of 1923?
The issue remained on the boil for two years in musty official files and the power-packed official corridors. My reply, spirited and unapologetic, was finally given an unlikely burial after a few of my seniors had vented their spleen, on paper or otherwise, and spent themselves expansively on my misadventure, and climaxed. But the monkey has stayed with me ever since.
But I needn’t bother now. The world has changed, is changing – fast – and the Right to Information (RTI) as a buzzword has, still is, gaining momentum. Civil society, then non-existent under the onslaught of relentless governance issues, has become eagle-eyed and scam after scams have come to light with indecent monotony. Things can no more be swept under the carpet.
Yet to suppose that the move towards transparency will play out without hiccups and roadblocks is asking for the moon. There will be intense pressure to water down punitive legislations to punish the corrupt. The signs are already out there in the open – with the parliamentary standing committee first including then excluding the Group C employees from the Lokpal’s oversight.
The nation has perhaps reached the tipping point. The general public today is incensed and livid. It is now or never for India to awake, phoenix-like. This isn’t a clarion call; this is a fervent appeal from one proud Indian to other proud citizens to live an honest and dignified life amid this encircling and unending vista of scams — and swindle of public money.
Am I a cosmic optimist to will the civil society to galvanize the nation in its quest for honesty? Or, am I malicious in my thinking to say that it will willy-nilly lead them the one way they know till now — to resigned exasperation, as in the past? Nothing, nothing perhaps, exemplifies our times better than a cartoon where a son tells his father: “Dad, I’m considering a career in organized crime.” Unfazed, the father asks, “Government or private sector?”
Isn’t it time to give the cartoon’s pun a decent burial! Like Greek tragedy, time is deliciously ripe for nemesis to catch up with these scamsters’ hubris. Yikes.

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