Archive for February, 2016

The perks…and quirks…of public office

I do not offhand remember the name of the 1960s Hindi movie starring two great actors, Padmini and Pran, which I saw on Doordarshan in my student days. The girl, Padmini, is obviously not overjoyed at the prospect of being married to the villain rather than to her hero. Pran attempts to convince her by pointing out to her that her hero has no wealth while he (Pran) can provide her with “नौकर, चाकर, बंगला और गाड़ी” (servants, a palatial house and vehicles). Padmini may not have been convinced, but this argument holds a strong appeal for many who aspire to public office, whether in the political or administrative spheres. I am not for a moment suggesting that the perks of office are the sole, or even major, reason for aspiring to public office. But they are a definite added attraction, apart from the aspect of job security (not guaranteed, of course, for politicians) and the social prestige that comes attached, though often with a tinge of neighbours’ envy (sometimes masquerading as self-righteous attempts to knock these worthies off their high pedestals).

Let me (from my lengthy association with the bureaucracy) take the quintessential budding Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer and his entry into the hallowed portals of the civil service. I deliberately use the gender-incorrect “his”, since the male of the species exhibits, in my opinion, many more quirks; also, there is a far greater sample size to draw on for examples. It begins with his rapid elevation in the marriage market sweepstakes. Even apart from the sordid issue of dowry payment levels, there is a lengthy line of parents of marriageable daughters for tying up alliances with the eligible bachelor. Feted in his social circles at home, the young man proceeds to the district for his initial training and subsequent posting. The perks start here, with a comfortable house (generally far from the madding crowd), domestic help at the residence, a Group D employee (literally preceding the young officer on his travels) and a jeep with a driver. The perks multiply very soon with his elevation to the district officer level, as the officer graduates to a much larger bungalow, a chauffeur-driven car and a whole retinue of domestic staff at his beck and call. While the perks are alluring, it is the quirks that command one’s attention more as an interesting object of socio-economic analysis: let us turn to them.

Among the visible prestige symbols that are the accoutrements of office, the flashing beacon on the vehicle (jeep or car) is one that catches the public’s attention. Though popularly known as the “लाल बत्ती” (red light), the district/sub-district officer’s vehicle actually sports an orange beacon. Acquisition of this symbol gains one access to areas not easily accessible to the public, a wave-through without payment at toll booths and an occasional salute from the roadside policeman. In more recent years, there is also the armed security person in the front seat of the car and the pennant fluttering on the car bonnet to testify to the status of the occupant. Equally fascinating to observe is the seating plan in the vehicle. When the officer has just a jeep, he occupies the left side front seat, next to the driver. The problem of two officers of equal rank travelling by the same vehicle is resolved by one of them taking the steering wheel. In the case of a car, the senior officer must occupy the rear left hand seat, so that his door opens directly in front of the porch of his office, residence or the guest house. After observing these phenomena, I have termed them “jeepocracy” and “carocracy”, signifying bureaucratic vehicular hierarchy in a people’s democracy. The hierarchy extends to the arrival and departure of vehicles at offices, guest houses and public functions; the last in (who is the top honcho in the hierarchy) is the first out (LIFO), quite unlike the normal (FIFO) inventory procedure.

Once in office, the impressive chair behind the large table testifies to the importance of its occupier. The first law of babudom states: the size of the table is directly proportional to the position of the officer in the bureaucratic hierarchy. There was great discomfort among the Petroleum Ministry babus when I opted for a table measuring three feet by two feet, discarded from the Secretary’s office after the transfer of the previous incumbent. I would not even have ruled out my subordinates feeling that their boss had reduced their standing in the eyes of their subordinates. The second law of babudom is: the occupier of the chair shall surrender it to his superior in the bureaucratic hierarchy, when the latter visits his office. This can have unpredictable fallouts, like the time we in the General Administration Department were called upon to adjudicate in a dispute between the District Collector and a Divisional Forest Officer. Matters had come to a head when the Forest Officer refused to vacate his chair when the Collector (who considered himself primus inter pares) came visiting his office. The contrast was provided by one of my bosses who, when visiting my office, would take a chair on the side of the desk, refusing the proffered (and preferred) chair with the remark “That chair is yours; I have not been appointed to your post.” The conflict can arise even when two district officers occupy rooms in the guest house — matters can be precipitated especially when they are from the IAS and the Indian Police Service (IPS), two services that share a strange love-hate relationship.

Official residential accommodation is another undisputed perk of a public job, especially in the higher echelons of the political and administrative hierarchy and top-level district officers. The old British habit of isolating the rulers from the natives is alive and kicking seven decades after independence. Allied with the provision of official vehicles, this effectively insulates the public official from his ostensible masters, the aam aurat/aadmi. Not surprisingly, two of independent India’s biggest problems — public housing and public transport — remain unresolved, since those entrusted with the task of solving them do not themselves use or need them. The realisation probably dawns on the politician/bureaucrat only when they are out of office, at which time their successors in office have no time or sympathy to listen to their problems.

Little wonder then that politicians and bureaucrats stick to public posts like limpets, well past their “sell by” dates. India’s gargantuan public sector and plethora of public institutions enable the accommodation of defeated (and unelectable) politicians, keeping intraparty dissent muted and enabling the politician in power to get on with her job. The bureaucrat relies on a whole host of post-retirement sinecures, ranging from administrative tribunals to governorships of states and diplomatic postings; the really enterprising few become politicians themselves, extending their perks well into the sunset years.

But the day of reckoning must come sooner or later. That day will dawn for the majority of politicians/bureaucrats when the trappings of office recede and they must rub shoulders with the common man. I still remember my office boy recounting how the Chairman of a large public sector company was a few places ahead of him in the morning queue at the milk booth, days after his retirement. Without being cynical, their position reminds me of Timon of Athens (refer to one William Shakespeare for more information on this Grecian tragic hero). It is probably appropriate to conclude with a stanza from the Bhaja Govindam, attributed to a disciple of Adi Sankaracharya:

अंगं गलितं पलितं मुण्डं दशनविहीनं जातं तुण्डम्

वृद्धो याति गृहीत्वा दण्डं तदपि न मुंच्यत्याशापिण्डम्

(Strength has left the old man’s body, his head has become bald, his gums toothless and he is leaning on crutches. Even then the attachment is strong and he clings firmly to fruitless desires)






JAM for the Indian

The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday – but never jam today

(Lewis Carroll: Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There)


Alice was faced with a peculiar dilemma when offered jam by the White Queen; she could never have it today, but only tomorrow or yesterday. You guessed her problem: when tomorrow came, it would be today, so, as per the White Queen’s edict, she could never have her jam “today” or any other day, for that matter. The aam aurat/aadmi in India are in danger of being caught in a similar trap involving JAM, unless a lot of thought is given to how to operationalise JAM, popularise it, enable it to gain wide acceptance and surmount the innumerable obstacles posed by those who are better off (and don’t need JAM) but nevertheless are haunted by imaginary fears. I refer, of course, to the path breaking initiative of the Government of India to marry technology and finance to improve the living standards of millions of Indians. JAM has three components — the Jan Dhan Yojana (J), aimed at financial inclusion for the population as a whole, Aadhar (A), the issue of biometric identification cards to all Indians and the Mobile (M), the instrument that can be found in the hands of about 700 million Indians today. J, the first corner of this trinity, will reach banking and other financial services to millions who are currently unserved or underserved by existing banking systems. This will obviate the need for often understaffed/unstaffed “brick and mortar” bank branches. The recently licensed payment banks, with their focus on technology, are better placed to service remote populations with the skilful use of mobile technology, M, the second part of the trinity. The triangle is completed by Aadhar, A, the individual unique identification number that ensures that financial services and benefits flow to the person for whom they are earmarked.

The three essential conditions to be fulfilled if JAM is to operate smoothly are: (a) access of every Indian to banking channels where her money can be parked; (b) ease and efficiency of transactions; and (c) secure, accurate identification of the account holder to check diversion of benefits. An inadequate understanding of these requirements in transferring government benefits to intended beneficiaries has bedeviled implementation of schemes involving newly created bank accounts and has provided fodder to those Luddites who see red at the very mention of the word “cash transfers”. For example, the Government of Puducherry rushed through a scheme to overcome supply side constraints in the form of a dysfunctional public distribution system by transferring money directly to individual bank accounts. This ill-conceived measure ran into three issues which hastened its early demise: (a) inconvenient access to banks meant that people had to incur the double cost of visiting banks to draw cash and then going to the ration shop to purchase rice; (b) arbitrary deductions by the bank of apparently outstanding dues denied the beneficiaries access to the full amount of the cash transfer; (c) the money could be used to purchase anything, which meant women, children and the old might not get rice were the amount to be spent by the men of the family on items like alcohol. Hasty moves to pay MNREGA wages through existing inefficient banking channels have also come a cropper.

“Cash transfers” is a term that has been widely misunderstood and, I suspect, often deliberately misinterpreted to serve partisan ideological ends. For a start, we need to be clear about unconditional versus conditional cash transfers. In the former, no specific behaviour is sought from the recipient in exchange for availing of the cash transfer benefit, such as, for example, availing of the services of a public health facility or educational institution or fulfilling specific conditions like registering for antenatal care. This is in contrast to conditional cash transfers where availing of a specific, generally public, service provision entitles the beneficiary to the cash transfer. One problem with conditional cash transfers is the failure to provide satisfactory public services: for instance, if there is no doctor or nurse at a primary health facility, the failure to register for antenatal care would deprive the beneficiary of the cash transfer conditional on antenatal care registration. Going in blindly for unconditional cash transfers in such cases is fraught with its own dangers, like the apprehension in Puducherry that the male household head would spend the cash on liquor, thereby denying his vulnerable family members access to sorely needed nutrition, health or education benefits.

It is here that the government needs to use its imagination in devising a workable, effective solution covering schemes in different sectors. Unconditional and conditional cash transfers should be linked to a mobile wallet created for each beneficiary/consumer. This mobile wallet will be linked to the bank account and Aadhar number of the individual consumer. Cash transfers (whether unconditional or conditional) under different heads — health, food, education — will flow into the individual’s mobile wallet. Choice should be given to the consumer to access the service from a public or private provider, to reduce the inefficiencies of state/private monopolies/oligopolies. Goods/service providers will be paid through the mobile wallet for goods/services delivered, using point of sale machines that identify the customer through Aadhar identification procedures.

There is also the important issue of identifying the eligibility of the beneficiary for specific types of assistance. The government has scrapped the Below Poverty Line (BPL) lists. These suffered from two infirmities: first, the lists often left out the poorest and most marginalised sections of society and secondly, they were not dynamic, in that there was no provision for updation as families exited or newly entered the ranks of the poor. The 2011 Socio Economic and Caste Census (SECC) has attempted to use household data (based on an intensive nationwide survey conducted in rural and urban areas) to identify households which could be defined as suffering from deprivations of different degrees, using income and assets as criteria. While this is better than the old BPL classification, the SECC also has some grey areas which could affect the identification of those households genuinely in need of various social protection programmes. The authenticity of the data gathered during the survey can be open to question. There is also the issue of, over time, including households that, because of various factors, move afresh into the deprived category. Most importantly, there is no basis to ascertain income earnings, especially in case of households that are not covered by the Income Tax Department records and which, as in the case of agricultural households, are not liable to pay income tax. The possibility of families subdividing themselves to avail of benefits cannot be ruled out: one is reminded of the efforts made by sections of the agricultural elite, in the two decades after land reforms were introduced in the 1950s, to show land ownership in the name of servants and even animals to avoid parting with agricultural land.

One possible method of checking misuse of benefits would be to insist on bank accounts being linked to the Permanent Account Number (PAN) cards issued by the Income Tax Department and to the Aadhar identity. Over time, as this writer has often advocated, this should be accompanied by a move to a cashless economy. Currency notes of over Rs. 50 denomination should be withdrawn from circulation and mobile wallets should become the norm for cashless transactions. Moreover, transactions of a monetary value of over, say, Rs. 500, should be mandatorily through a cashless system. This would provide, through the income tax network, full details of the receipts and expenditures of every household, automatically thereby excluding from the ambit of government benefits those who are not entitled to them. If there is doubt about the feasibility of a country moving to a largely cashless economy, we need see no further than the example of Sweden. Cash represents just 2% of Sweden’s economy and only 20% of consumer payments are made in cash in Sweden as compared to 75% in the rest of the world (this figure would be well over 90% in India). Nor does the oft-parroted argument about the illiteracy of India’s citizens hold water: one just has to see how Indian men and women have taken to mobile phones to realise that lack of education is no hindrance to the enthusiastic adoption of “liberating technology”.

However, this would be possible only when there is a broad consensus on the applicability of Aadhar for all types of transactions. Sections of the intelligentsia have voiced apprehensions about the misuse of private data of individuals, despite the fact that the Aadhar card has the same information as the identity card issued by the Election Commission of India, except for the additional incorporation of biometric information. These groups have been actively agitating in the country’s highest judicial forum against the widespread adoption of this technology. Forgotten is the harsh fact that for a person deprived of so many economic and social rights, a hypothetical loss of so-called “privacy” is hardly the most important consideration. Forgive the atrocious pun, but without JAM, India’s poor and disadvantaged run the risk of being denied their bread and butter.