Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Close encounters with the state bureaucracy

Nearly one year back, the Government of India in its wisdom thought I measured up to the job and offered me to found an institution of national repute, representing one of the most prestigious brands of higher education in the country, in a new state in Northern India. The abbreviated name of the institution is - the perpendicular pronoun twice followed by a consonant.  The locale was rather bucolic and simplest of things took long to be done, because the people were tuned to slower pace, and marched to a slower drummer.  For example, nothing could be procured on a Wednesday. People took their Wednesdays more seriously than the most orthodox Sephardim Jews took their Sabbath. No work, no business meant exactly that, and more! I took it in my stride, more a compulsion than a choice actually. As the first year was drawing near, time came to request a bigwig to grace the first convocation.
I was getting a bit tired of sending innumerable letters, faxes and emails to the entire state bureaucracy seeking support. These letters never, it seemed, reached the addressee. Once a letter written to the highest elected official of the state was discovered by my subordinate lying with a Lower Division Clerk. In an act of desperation, I sought an appointment with the first citizen of India to invite him as the chief guest for the first convocation. Whether it was Lady Luck or the initials of the institute or both- an audience was granted with the first citizen of India.
Being a Mango person, brought up in dingy by-lane in the capital of a backward state, I had not met anyone famous in my fifty nine years, either by chance or through any notable achievement. Entrance to the giant brown stone edifice on Raisina Hill, walking through its awe inspiring corridors and magnificent rooms was a crowning achievement. My hands were trembling when accepting the proffered cup of tea by the impeccably dressed steward. I deliberately refused the steaming spring roll, not sure I’d be able to tackle it with the cutlery with adequate deftness or decorum. Then came the moment of truth- meeting the First Citizen of India, the Commander-in-Chief of Indian Armed Forces!
My knees were beating a staccato beat against each other, like a flamenco dancer’s heels accompanied by castanets. Butterflies in the stomach are a gross understatement, pterodactyls is probably more apt! I folded my hands in a namaskar to which the First Citizen responded and not only that, he stood up and extended his hand to shake hands with a mango person! For the next  twenty eight minutes exactly, the First Citizen read through our institute’s brochure, discussed what problems I faced in running the institute, asked incisive questions about recruiting  of faculty, getting companies to the remote location to recruit our students and many others, including where I had worked before taking over this job. Presto, we had a common bond! His elder son and I had worked for the same large public sector company and I was three years senior to his son. As I had left the industry to take up teaching in another institute, again with two perpendicular pronouns, followed by a different consonant, his son too had left the industry and joined politics.
Two days later, I get a phone call from the largest building in Lutyen’s Delhi informing me that the first citizen had agreed to grace the convocation on a date exactly one month from that day! The dream had come true!
And the nightmare began! Protocol demanded the request again be routed through gubernatorial office and the office of the highest elected of the state, while keeping the district administration in the loop. When this was complied with, the youngish civil servant actually demanded that the process be restarted, with a document prepared afresh according to his guidelines and that was to be sent to the titular head of the state and then on to the First Citizen’s office. The request having gone twice, starting from opposite ends of the chain, I kept on wondering whether these twins ever crossed their path. What came back had no resemblance to either!
Thus, having established that the Honourable Citizen No.1, no longer “His Excellency” by official decree, was indeed visiting this institute in this small town in the boondocks, the next step was to fix the venue. The bureaucracy was bent upon foisting a rundown, decrepit auditorium owned by one state government department, situated a kilometre away from the institute. The expectation was very simple in its essence. “We loan you this auditorium for one day, you pay for the entire renovation which is to be done by a sister organization, at rates fixed by us and you return the auditorium day after the convocation”. Adding insult to injury was the fact that this auditorium had been given to us on paper but never actually handed over. To top it all, the letter regarding use of this grand auditorium came from the concerned Commissioner, one day before the event! He must have commiserated with our problem and then got down to this act of supreme charity. This decrepit building, with a fine albeit crumbling facade, mildewed seats, rotten wooden paneling, a wooden stage that had collapsed and a broken down air-conditioning plant,  was inspected by a host of officials of the state administration, their immediate retinue and innumerable camp followers and pronounced suitable. Immediately, their counterpart in the police cordoned off an area up to forty feet away from the stage, spanning the first eight or so musty rows of seats.
Mystified, I enquired about this cordon. “This is the D!” “What dee?” I asked, totally clueless. He said, “But surely, the security D, as given in THE BLUE BOOK”. And he proceeded to display a brownish, tattered, dog-eared collection of papers, that was not only not blue but also did not resemble any book, at all. They were old pages kept together by the sheer weight of history and must have been formulated around the times of the Anglo-Gurkha War and designed to keep Lord Moira at a safe distance from any belligerent  local with a kukri, visiting his durbar or camp during his disastrous campaigns in this state in circa 1800. This government functionary was a rapt student of apt history. Has it not been said, “Those who do not read history are condemned to repeat it”? And there I was, trying to explain the not so subtle difference between a public meeting and a convocation, to a person who after all, had cleared the highest examination for entry to the bureaucracy and was responsible for a tract of land 3000 square km and roughly the size of the country of Guinea-Bissau, with nearly 1.7 million people in his domain, which was virtually his fiefdom!
The ludicrous proposal of paying rupees fifteen lakhs for one day for a decrepit auditorium, where half the seats were unusable and a quarter was to be cordoned off, was far from appealing. A perky subordinate of mine chirped, “But why are we calling the Citizen No.1 at all- to see this town or our institute? We should just say that space is inadequate and entirely too small for the Citizen No.1 and stick to our guns”. Armed with this brilliant one-liner, I approached the mini-suzerain and blurted out the same. And presto, he agreed!
So it was agreed that the convocation would be held in a field adjoining the institute’s temporary campus.
What took the cake was the issue of rendition of the National Anthem. A choir of children from a local school was requested to sing the National Anthem. During practice, the plenipotentiary from the police again took out his version of the ‘blue book’ and pointed out a relevant passage which talked of the anthem being either sung or played by a band and blah blah. The plenipotentiary pointed out that since the anthem was being ‘sung’, no instruments could be allowed! Flabbergasted and totally at a loss for word by the turn of semantics, I agreed with due deference! However, on the day of the event I managed to smuggle in a harmonium and a pair of tablas.
There were many such close encounters with the state bureaucracy during the one month of preparations for our convocation, and documenting all of them would result in a tome, which was beyond my literary capacity. These encounters left me decidedly older but none the wiser. I often sit down, reflect and ponder on how this great country of ours is moving at all! There must be a Supreme Being, clearly aware of all these machinations, and steering this country forward despite the bureaucracy!

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