Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Listen up, Curlilocks!

Tarred with the same brush ...

Righth, ferry gooth, as Father Huart would say through his smile before he suspended somebody.

This is what India’s Instapundit has to say: “The government … couldn't care less about the bottomline. After all, we pay the bills.” Yeah right! (And there should have been a hyphen in ‘bottom-line’. Truly. Ask Lynne.)

Generalisations hurt. Granted that a generalisation refers to the majority of the subject-group, the minority who don’t fit the description are bound to take offence. There is a rueful acceptance that the criticism of the majority may be warranted; there is also pique at being tarred with the same brush. It can be a disincentive, too. There are days when the minority will think it doesn’t really make a difference anyway, since they will still be clubbed with the supposedly non-performing majority. Why bother to produce results when you’re regarded as no better than the lowest common denominator?

The “couldn’t-care-less” assumption may be misplaced even with regard to the Railways. By all accounts, He of the Silver Semi-Tonsure has actually taken some hard decisions that make good business sense. It’s been more than a year since his khullar idea and he seems to have moved on (just as he has moved on from “Hema Malini’s cheeks”, a quote that sticks with him though he said it ten years ago and more). India Today ran a story some months ago on the re-organisation of the Indian Railways and the emphasis on profitability. Their archives are only available to subscribers, so I can’t post the link here, but I’m sure some people will remember it. Worth a second look.

I do not hold a brief for either the Indian Railways or the Minister. I do, however, take issue with the general trashing of everything associated with government. Take this assumption that government organisations are not concerned with profits. For over four years, I worked in a Government-owned company that should be an example for turnaround wannabes. This is a company that lost money for almost 30 years. In five years from the mid-90s, a new combination at the top took it (with apologies to Neil Young) “out of the red and into the black”.

In the last three fiscals, this company’s turnover under a new MD and Chairman has further grown from 70 crore to 160 crore; PBT over the same period has been 42 crore. The bottom-line hasn’t done too badly, even after the customary cover under Sec 80[1(A)]. Business this year should grow even further. No pink slips, no pumping up revenues through sale of capital assets, just hard-nosed focus on building profit centres and cutting debt. And NPAs have been cut from 57% to 32%. Still a long way from ICICI’s claim of 2%, but a pretty steep improvement when one takes into account the legacy of 30 years.

As luck would have it, I now work with another Government body that has – surprise! – not made profits for (wait for it!) 30 years. Yes, déjà vu and all that, but I’d like to think that I can apply some learning from the last assignment. We’ve gone out on a limb and said we’ll increase the top-line five-fold (which I think is a braver target than bottom-line growth alone). There will be criticism when it’s not achieved, but it’s a target set only to expand the vision. Niall Fitzgerald, Chairman of Reuters, said in a recent interview that he’s happier with a man who sets his sights on 500 and achieves 400, than with a man who sets a target of 120 and “over-achieves” to 140. Insh’allah, we should achieve 300% top-line. And survive the barracking from well-meaning critics.

The point I’m trying to make (apart from blowing our own trumpet for a bit) is that these examples are now the rule rather than the exception. Even in my State, which is only just emerging from the common perception that it is ideologically mired in the ’50s, there are government bodies that have a two-word vision statement and the carte blanche to work on it. Profit + Quality. Makes sense? Only if you believe it, of course. And believe IN it.

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Believing in it …

So all government bodies are not run on lines acceptable to libertarians. Not all private concerns meet those criteria either. Think of the number of partnership firms and even listed companies that fudge the bottom line, transfer assets to sister concerns for pittances, lack transparency in their accounts and are run by and for coteries. Hell, think of the number of bodies in the public view that fit the same description. Do I need to spell out B – C – C – I, O Thou of the Uncut Locks?

The key difference, of course, is that every tax-payer is a share-holder in the public sector and therefore entitled to criticise and to demand change. Our forefathers fought for independence on the grounds of self-rule. Would that the salt tax had been a key issue and not a symbol. Would that we had had a Patrick Henry to instill a sense of proprietary pride in the state. “No taxation without representation” has made the majority of the population in the USA co-owners of the state; “I’m a tax-paying citizen” is a statement of proud ownership. Two hundred years of foreign rule, on the other hand, may have made the Indian tax-evader first a nationalist and then a loveable rapscallion rather than a traitor to the common cause.

The saddest part is when the existence of evaders is used to justify further evasion – “He’s doing it, so why shouldn’t I?” Playground logic. Applicable across the board whether we’re talking about littering or power theft or tax evasion. Think about it. Every time you throw that cigarette packet or gum wrapper or tissue on the street, every time you jump that red light, every time you look the other way when your neighbour runs a line from the street lamp to power his Diwali lights, you’re actually running counter to a set of rules that goes all the way down to a foundation called the Constitution of India.

Extreme reasoning? Perhaps, but how else does one get it across that we’re all in this together? That we work according to laws made by people WE elect. That we can’t expect the government alone to enforce simple rules that we should all live by. Like cleanliness. And orderliness. And paying one’s dues. That we all own the government, so if it doesn’t work, then we’re all responsible to some extent. Another extreme example – if you think the vast majority of politicians are crooks, would you take the trouble to run for public office yourself? Fish or cut bait, my moralising friends.

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Why won't you lurrvve me ...

There are countries where corruption is practically unknown. These would also be countries where the crime rate is low, where there is a high level of public ownership of the state and its facilities, where orderliness is high. This does not necessarily mean a low level of individual expression, it just means that such expression occurs within the framework envisaged by law. The Scandinavian countries largely fit this bill.

There are also countries where public order is preserved by force. Think China. Think Singapore. It’s a trade-off. Would you rather sacrifice some of your freedoms for a more ordered life? I wouldn’t. Come to think of it, they’re not doing too good on the corruption count either. And some of them don’t even publish accounts, so how do we know whether they’re really profitable? Who’s going to ask, anyway, when it could mean the midnight knock?

Yes, we need to point out the errors made by government. Yes, we need to make known, as widely as possible, where public money is going and whom it benefits. Yes, we need to call a spade a bloody shovel. That’s where Amit Uncut and his ilk are performing a public service, more power to their keyboards. Let us also be thankful that in our country, for the most part, they do not need to worry about their futures if they criticise the powers-that-be (did anyone say “Tarun Tejpal”?)

On the other hand, when Nochiketa sings in Bangla about the shorkaari kormochari and my friends snigger about it, it doesn’t seem to make sense to get into office on time. When every other film depicts the police as corrupt, does it make the average policeman more determined to prove his honesty or does he happily relax into the mould we’ve created for him? Think it over.

The best piece of legislation I’ve heard about in recent times is one regarding prostitution – the client will finally be held culpable for prostitution and soliciting. Think it over – who are the clients responsible for government inefficiency? The man who cribs about it in the evening over a single malt will be found next morning in the corridors of power, entering some room with an ingratiating grin. And an oblong gift-wrapped package in a paper bag. Think it over.

(There is a certain type of civil servant who wears his honesty on his sleeve. I detest this creature. Honesty is not an optional extra. It’s a given. At the same time, I do not like it when some rotten apples make the whole barrel stink. Or when I am willy-nilly dumped into the same stinking barrel when it comes to sorting and labelling.)

So, to take it from the top, not all of government sucks. A lot of it does suck, and needs to be told it sucks. It’s not very smart, however, to say that all of it sucks. You make the parts that do NOT suck that much sadder and less proud. Finally, before telling them that they all suck (or even WHILE telling them) it might make sense to check whether we / you do the same things. Is honesty a matter of degree? You decide.

Good my lords (and lords you are, for I am paid by you to be your servant), do not assume that all your servants are malingerers or thieves. “He who steals my purse steals trash” etc., so my lords and ladies, if you clothe me in the same knave’s livery, what do you leave me with? Not my pride, not my reputation, nor yet with much of my good intentions.

Think it over.

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30in2005 said...

People are so quick to judge! Governments can only do what is within its power and resources. And the Indian government is doing very well considering the vast quantity of subjects its caters to. If the same people who complained about dirt on the street held on to their own rubbish instead of chucking it all over the pavements they would not be as much to complain about! You can't clap with one hand and give praise where it's due come to mind...

Plumpernickel said...

I'm going to enjoy this very much, the flame direction to this blog which normally begins whenever one disagrees with our dear Indian libertarians.

In my line of work, we have to deal with few departments of the GOI and to my utter surprise, I've found it much more congenial and transparent than the dotcom that was populated with alumni from my college and ended up cheating atleast 200 employees by disappearing with their salaries etc.

Just another thing, suicide rates are the highest in scandinavia, whatever the reason. Now, for China... Hmmm... They have a system that works in a strange unknown manner, surely which should be called something, so they like to call it communism.

Sure, the GOI is not perfect and you have terribly rotten apples everywhere, but most GOI servants, bureaucrats, administrators and surprise! surprise! ministers I have known, met and seen functioning have been more intelligent, dynamic and active than the average libertarian I have known.

hdpal said...

Thomas Jefferson said “The government you elect is government you deserve” and H.L. Mencken said "Democracy is the theory that holds that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard”.

In principle i totally agree with you, but I feel the primary reason government sucks(not all of it, but most of it), is not because it loses money or it’s corrupt etc. etc., but because people who are elected to government, people who choose careers in government, have forgotten (very conveniently) that they are there to serve the people.

And a final note Prostitution should be legalized.



While I agree with your basic point(which is about labeling a section of humankind based on the activities of a few or many) I would like to distinguish between a John (a client of a prostitute) and a man who is bribing a govt official.

The person who is soliciting a prostitute is gaining gratification. The person who is giving a bribe is not getting any fun paying a government official. While some corruption is definitely to get some privilege (special consideration for a tender etc), most corruption is pure and simple extortion---the cop who stops your car for a bribe, the govt official who will lose your file unless you go in for "premium processing" are really very very different from a girl selling her body.

And joining politics as an honest man without backing is impossible---given half an opportunity I would definitely join politics for example.

Of course I understand your main point and it surely is disheartening for people in the system who are making the effort. And no the private industry isnt any better.

Would love to talk to you more on this topic.

Tom Pinkerton said...

Alright, I've swallowed my scepticism about the GOI (or at least *part* of it) being defendable.

It IS unpleasant to be clubbed with the lowest common denominator.

Good post Mr. Prufrock.

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

30in2005: People are entitled to judge. We all own the government. But yes, if we are owners, we should not have a "we and they" attitude towards government.

P'Nickel: Please do explain the "flame direction" line. Thank you for the support for the GoI. Mayhap you will spare some kind words for the GoWB?

Haridas: Perhaps it would make sense to instill professionalism at least in government personnel. We could start with accountability.

Arnab: Come online any time, then. There is one similarity between the John and the briber - they both know that they are paying for something they would not like to be made public. A certain level of hypocrisy in both.

Tom Pink: Now that you've started believing in government, assert your ownership.


Anonymous said...

Great line of defence. The only line perhaps? And you claim to detest 'generalisations'..

Meanwhile,lets talk if/when that piece of legislation actually gets enforced- and if it doesn't, do we even need to ask why?
Check out the prosecution history/statistics with regard to every enlightened piece of legislation on prostitution in India in the last decade-they speak for themselves, as does the government which submits copious shoddily written reports to the UN on their grand plans which never see light of day.

Hypocrisy-thats what creates the 'we' and 'they',although that doesn't excuse the privileged millions in denial "joining in the turning away".

Priya said...

Your HK/Singapore trip seems to have really shaken you up!! Not surprised, as N & I went thru' some similar emotions on our return from there early last yr. We too discussed some of these issues, especially since we had moved back to Calcutta those days(hated Calcutta all the more). Indeed amazing how these countries like China (communism or no) and HK are considered "emerging markets" now!
However, I must confess, I'm pretty impressed with the progress (at least, infrastructurally and from a traffic management perspective) made in West Bengal, especially when I compare it with that of Bangalore. I visited the city twice in a month's time, once being during the pujos and both the times couldn't help but admire the spruced up look the city's been donning off late.
I'm also told that the no. of bandhs aka french leaves have drastically come down as well.
Glad to know the taxpayers money is being put to use, finally.
Keep up the good work Dada.

Bonatellis said...

why can't your current org take a cue from Nilekani and try to under-promise and over-deliver? rather than becoming yet another instance of a PSU failing to deliver ...

however, if you look at some of the state-owned companies and their acceptance in the Indian capital markets, it's a different story altogether ... NTPC was a must-have for any foreign investor .. not to forget the response to a recent public offering by a Calcutta bank ...

and the way some banks like PNB and others have improved their profitability is also a remarkable story ...
or the manner in which ONGC is buying assets overseas is something the best private enterprises have been aspiring to do ...

Plumpernickel said...

I'd rather explain by email.

The CM of WB and I shared a neighbourhood along with the biggest garbage dump known in the history of mankind, for over 3 years. I moved out of the neighbourhood, but the garbage dump remains and so does the CM. So, with the GoWB one needs to wait and watch. Mostly, they've been disappointing, but when I see other Indian cities, I feel Cal is much better. So, in the land of the blind, the one-eyed will be the king.

A fool on the hill said...

By jove... the purple prose is back. Made great reading.

I have been thinking on the same lines over the last few years. And it pleases me immeasurably to see the government aggressively selling premium brands of motor fuel.

Talking of railways, a couple of years ago, the leviathan was in a really bad shape. Freight volumes plunging as cargo moved to road, what with the GQ making road transport increasingly viable. But now railways is back on “track”, hauling more cargo than ever.

And you invoked Fitzgerald’s comment. True. But to reclaim its prime position from Bloomberg, Reuters shed thousands of jobs mercilessly in Europe and America.

The Indian government will never do that. For sure.

progga said...

Plump, scandinavian suicide rates are thought to have something to do with climatic conditions too (as per one school of thought, at any rate).
Good post, JAP. Unfortunately the free-rider problem is a chicken-and-egg situation. x does it because he sees y, and vice versa, and it's uncommon few people who try to reverse the tide.
Personally, I think what the GoWB is doing is pretty phenomenal. I must add though that government aside, ex-CMs being provided with an x mile radius within which no buses will venture and no mobile telephony signal be available is - well, not to put too fine a point on it, somewhat monarchical, no?

Dilip D'Souza said...

JAP, having watched government at close quarters for years (being the son of an IAS man), I couldn't agree more. Not all government sucks, then and now. And in fact, these days there are cases I can think of where competition has got the govt organizations to pull up their socks so much that they are actually better, in some ways, than the private ones that drove them into the sock-pulling in the first place. (MTNL comes to mind).

The lazy thing to do is to fling insults at the government. The harder thing to do is to find where it works and see how those lessons can apply more widely.

I also wanted to react to this, again something I couldn't agree with more: the Indian tax-evader first a nationalist and then a loveable rapscallion rather than a traitor to the common cause.

I'm always struck by how many eligible taxpayers both evade taxes and beat their breasts about patriotism. How do they square the two?

Would you send me a note when you get a chance, at ddd AT rediff DOT co DOT in? I'd like to recommend a book.

Abi said...


I just wanted to say thank you for writing this great piece. Every sentence of this post made me go, 'yes!'.

I am just glad to see someone defending the government, and its honest 'servants'. And, so vigorously, too!

Ph said...

We hear your plea. Though my concern really lies in where do we go from here. The, now what. How do we move from inaction to action. From non participation to participation. How do we create representation that is accountable and responsible. How do we recreate faith and trust in the face of so much distrust and cynicism. Having stepped in to do the 'clean-up' work when government initiatives have failed I find that rebuilding positive attitudes are almost impossible.

Vaga Bond said...

Twenty Something years ago, just outside Shanghai Cleaners on Gurusaday Road, a young man with me said to a couple of younger men: Walk on the pavement you m***** f******, your Pop's paid for it. The young man has since shut up (mostly) and is quietly doing his own thing.

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Anon – ‘line of defence’? Which? Against what? About the prostitution issue, that was only an illustration, ferpetesake! (Get your own blog if you want to rant, then I can come and flame YOUR comment box.)

Priya – Hong Kong yes, Singapore no. I’m glad you agree that travel can broaden even a bureaucrat’s mind (in fact, I never thought YOU’D concede that bureaucrats HAVE minds!) And yes, ‘the nation is on the move’ (Keep safe distance!)

Bonatellis – it’s easy to under-promise. I’m sick of people who “exceed Ministry targets”. The Fitzgerald model is, try for the impossible, you’ll achieve far more. The results may be lower than the target but they’ll be higher than you could have imagined otherwise.

P’Nickel – I know the dump you mean. Must mention it to the Municipal Commissioner, since the other Bhotchaaj is ob-bhiaasly too saai. Calcutta has twice been rated the metro with the ‘best quality of life’, so join the gang.

Fool – I don’t know about the GoI, but the GoWB is running a major exercise in re-settling employees of sick PSUs (including training of employees or their nominees); some bodies are seriously looking at right-sizing.
And ‘purple prose’, eh? Just you wait.

Progga – thank you. As I said, times change. Pity the Forbidden Fortress doesn’t.

Dilip – Mail coming up. As for the tax-payer issue, we could take up something with Arnab (GreatBong): Amitabh, a declared tax-evader at one time, gets a Padma Bhushan while Mithun, the country’s highest individual tax-payer for several years and three-time National Award winner, doesn’t.

Abi – thank you. Maybe we should meet up when I next visit IIS?

Ph – honoured by the patient hearing, ma’m. One point you missed was that the ‘movement from inaction to action’ is already widespread. Awareness and general participation required. “Rebuilding positive attitudes” is NOT impossible, cf: the retrenchment / resettlement initiative I mentioned in my response to the Fool.

Ms. V. Bond – post! Comments alone don’t cut it. And I would like en explanation of your cryptic reference to me on your blog.


Abi said...

Abi ... Maybe we should meet up when I next visit IIS?

Hmmm, I would love to meet up with you, and am certainly honoured to be asked. But in the US?

I live in the bad and happening city of Bangalore, thank you.

I forgot to add [in my previous comment], my father -- a forty year veteran as a government servant -- would love to read this post; in fact, I am taking a print out of this stuff to take to him [he lives in Chennai].

Saketh said...

It is not that India's government "sucks" per se, but that the government is bombarded with an inescapable load of problems, and is incapable of dealing with them all at once. India's infectious corruption is so rampant that it can be called an asset - Adam Smith's "invisible hand" is now encroaching upon the responsibilities of the state.

Diversity is one of the nation's problems. Coalitions can only go so far to meld different ideologies together. Corruption is so integral to the Indian method of government that without it, many people would lose faith in the government! Though this may seem paradoxical, it is evident that the ubiquitous nature of the ailment has, indeed, fused itself into the modern Indian way of life. A man who endures blindness from birth is still inclined not to use his eyes even if the handicap is cured.

Abi said...

I come back to comment again with a red face and a foolish grin.

Dilip alerted me this morning about my having mistaken 'IIS' to be 'US'.

Yes, it would indeed be great to be able to meet you when you come to IISc (as we prefer to call our beloved Institute).

[BTW, the 'IIS-US' confusion appears to be due to the monitor that I used at that time; I am able to see it far better on a different monitor now].

zigzackly said...

Hurrah, sir. Wish there were more of you.

Doctor Bruno said...

Well Said,


When it is raining and flooding, if I happen to pass by and give you a match stick, that becomes a great help

On the other hand, you expect your government to give you raincoats, a accomodation, food and what not !!!

And once the accomodation is given, you comment on that ---obviously schools and colleges (which are often used as temporary shelters) are not made for persons to stay and there will be difficulties

Once the food is given, there are again complaints............

When the city floods, every one immediately fault the government......... Yes the government and municipality and corporation are there to blame... but the greater part of the blame comes to the common man (including me and you)

If everyone followed the rules (often termed as unwanted) laid down by the government without bribing the officials, this would not have happened.....

There were Ponds "once upon a time"..... now we have bus terminals and flats and shopping complexes....... where will the water go...... it will go to the streets

Indiscriminate construction is obstructing the natural flow of water to the sea, say environmentalists. ''The flowing out of the Mithi river has been impeded,'' offers environmental activist and author Darryl D'Monte, as one example of excessive land reclamation. The river, winding through various suburbs before emptying at Bandra, is the city's biggest storm water drain. (This para Taken from Indian Express)

The same problem !!!!

Who is to blame........ Both people and govt........ Who should be blamed more ....... People

After all, the stampede following tsunami rumour is entirely due to people and not govt !!!! isn't it

anthony said...

Somebody mentioned extortion. Even in the extreme case of extortion, extortion occurs where there are willing payers. not that extortion will stop if people wouldn't pay up,(or it might) but the amount that the victims are willing to pay largely drive up the Ransom. Assam tea estates.

But for Bribes, how many files can the Official lose. It is not that the official wants to play vanishing act with the files, it is more to do with some people willing to pay extra so that their files are found faster. The over-taking mentality. if there was a way i want to reach faster.

If everybody stopped paying I don't know if the oficials would go on a non-official strike.

Poor "We", and poor "They". We spoil them and then we blame them.

anthony said...

But then its been much debated, the chick or the egg? net net we are corrupt, just as there are people who agree with it and who disagree with it, even if half the people were to stop paying bribes, there will be the other half who will pay. and people will will take..