Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose: The more things change, the more they stay the same

Damodar Penwale eased through the glass doors of the New Administrative Building after swiping his identity card and crossed the foyer towards the lifts. He smiled at the receptionist seated towards his right hand side. She was immersed in directing a visitor how he should proceed to meet the Commissioner of Industries. The visitor’s face seemed faintly familiar to Penwale; maybe it was some captain of industry who had come to discuss his new project with the Commissioner. Not that there were too many such visitors nowadays, he mused. The process of automatic online approvals for all industrial projects approved in 2010 had done away with the need for industrialists to visit government offices to get their proposals cleared. He still remembered how, as a young clerk newly recruited in government at that time, he had heard his wizened Under Secretary, Harihar Kamdar, grumble that the move spelt the death knell of the bureaucracy. Prophetic words indeed, he thought, as he eased into the lift and headed for the seventeenth floor. The lift was one of those superfast Otis lifts that seemed to cover the vertical distance to his office in seconds, a far cry from the lifts he remembered when he joined service. Then, it was often a wait for anywhere from ten to twenty minutes while the lift huffed and puffed its way up to the top and then, just as reluctantly, made its way down. Nowadays, one never had to wait for more than a couple of minutes before entering the lift. Probably, one should give twenty percent credit to the technologically advanced lift and eighty percent credit to the reduced stream of visitors, he surmised.
He stepped out on to the carpeted passageway and made his way towards his department, located to the left as one emerged from the lift. Approaching his work station (office was such a dated term to use in this day and age!), he smiled at his co-worker seated in the cubicle to the left and switched on his computer. Ever since the advent of the paperless office in 2015, there was no need to conduct any work using paper or to maintain any paper records. He pressed his right thumb on the fingerprint recognition panel on the computer to access his files. In fact, a message had already gone to his supervisor intimating her that Penwale was at his seat. No more of those days when you could enter the building and make a beeline for the canteen to enjoy a cup of hot tea, he wistfully mused. But then, the installation of the self-serve tea and coffee machines (two on each floor) enabled any employee to get her tea/coffee as and when she wished, at just one rupee for a cup of tea and two rupees for a cup of coffee.
There was an urgent email from one of the districts communicating the daily rainfall figures; Penwale frowned – the data should have been automatically uploaded by the district in the ready-made software. He made a note mentally to inform the district that emails transmitting such routine data would not be favourably viewed by his department. Oh, yes.. sending material by the old postal system was now considered almost a crime!
A buzz on his intercom awoke Penwale from his reverie. It was his superior, alerting him that the note for the cabinet had to be expedited. Cabinet notes, too, were no longer transcribed on paper: an electronic copy, after approval by the departmental Secretary & the Minister, went to the Chief Minister’s office via the Cabinet Secretary. Ministers could only scan the cabinet notes on computer monitors in their office; the software prevented printing of paper copies. Thank God, thought Penwale, at least they were spared the allegations of leakage of cabinet papers to the press before the cabinet meetings! Even at Cabinet meetings, the notes for each item on the agenda flashed on the consoles in front of each Minister, who was not allowed to carry any paper in or out of the Cabinet Room. Penwale had once cajoled his friend in the Cabinet Secretariat to allow him to take a peek at the Cabinet Room: the technology on show there had awed him, what with huge LED screens and dozens of computer monitors. There was even a provision for cabinet meetings to be conducted through videoconferencing, when no face to face discussions were felt necessary or when the Chief Minister needed to convene a meeting at short notice.
Penwale was just putting the finishing touches to the cabinet note when a message flashed on his computer screen, informing him that the Joint Secretary of the department would be videoconferencing in half an hours’ time with all the supervisors and assistants to review the action plan of the department and the items pending for action. There were now only four levels of officials in any department — the Secretary, Joint Secretary, Supervisor and Assistant. The Secretaries and Joint Secretaries were on five-year contractual appointments and the renewal of their contracts crucially depended on their achieving the action plan goals. Not that Supervisors and Assistants were any more secure, Penwale reflected; a perceived indifferent performance could cost them their jobs, as three of his colleagues had experienced recently.
It was almost 11 a.m. and Penwale calculated that he had just enough time to go down the corridor and grab a cup of coffee. As he made his way down the corridor, he exchanged pleasantries with a number of supervisors and assistants, who were moving purposefully in the same direction. Discussions around the tea-coffee machine ranged from the latest movie releases to India’s prospects in the upcoming World Cup cricket tournament. Sipping his coffee with relish and participating in the conversation around him, Penwale never noticed how time slipped by, till, glancing inadvertently at his watch, he realised, to his horror, that it was 11.27 a.m. and he had to be in his seat in two minutes to be in time for the videoconference with his martinet of a Joint Secretary. Crumpling his paper cup and turning sharply around, he lost his balance and collided with a portly supervisor standing just behind him…..
…..Penwale was jerked to wakefulness by a growing murmur of discontent from the employees milling around him, one of whom had accidentally bumped into him, throwing him off his balance. As Penwale’s consciousness returned to the present, he realised that both the lifts had stopped functioning. Many employees had been complaining for weeks about the weird noises and jerks emanating from the aged lifts as they went up and down on their daily business. Trust that crotchety Deputy Secretary in charge of building administration not to have cleared the file for annual maintenance of lifts, he thought resentfully, as he turned to the staircase and commenced the Sisyphean climb to his seventeenth floor office for the third time that week, past paan-stained walls.

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