'Naukri' As Property
Causes and Cures for Corruption in Government Madhu Kishwar
When I moved to my present flat in Lajpat Nagar, I was distressed to find that the central square in my block, originally designated as a park, was being used as a garbage dump. Many people from a neighbouring slum would even come and defecate in it. The tap supposedly meant for watering the non-existent garden in the supposed park had a broken faucet. The water gushed out intermittently all day, leaving huge pools of stagnant water. Stray cows came to quench their thirst and rest in the puddles. In the morning several poor labourers from the vicinity used this bountiful flow of water as an open air bathing place. The whole place stank and in certain seasons became a breeding ground for mosquitoes.
Several residents complained to local municipal authorities against this abuse of our public space, but to no avail. Finally, some residents decided to take the matter into their own hands and develop the area into a proper park using their own collective resources and initiative. Within no time thousands of rupees were collected as an initial fund. Each family subsequently paid Rs 30-50 per month. A few residents did not cooperate and refused to pay. But on the whole, the enthusiasm level was high. We hi red a private maali, bought a pump for our own regular supply of water, and a lot of plants. We simply took charge of the upkeep of the park.
Suddenly, a whole army of corporation officials descended on us, including the official maali, supposedly responsible for the upkeep of this particular park. We had never seen him before. We were told that by creating a park we were encroaching on DDA lan d, that we had no right to hire gardners for our park. It was not our property.It was government property and its maintenance was the job of the government! Naive residents like me were outraged. However, wiser heads prevailed. They had understood the mes sage correctly these employees and their superiors wanted to be paid off for allowing us the privilege of doing the job they were hired to do.
They were well aware that nobody in the government ever loses a job for not doing any work, especially if in the files a reasonable amount of paper work has been duly entered, salaries are regularly withdrawn and money spent on various officially sanction ed works. However, if these naukri wallahs (job holders) had to officially acknowledge that the civic jobs they are responsible for are being done by others, were actually arranged for by citizens without any help or support from the Corporation and its w orkers, they would have no rationale for holding on to their jobs. Therefore, they interpreted our creation of the park as a coup of sorts an anti-government activity and so seemed determined to obstruct our functioning in every possible way.
The wise ones in our Residents Association, however, understood what was really at stake and worked out a deal with the maalis and their supervisor. The association would pay them a certain monthly amount plus a bottle of liquor every month just for keepi ng off our backs, and for letting us develop and take care of the public park with our own money. Our Residents Association incharge also assured them that we would never raise the issue of their dereliction of duty or complain against them.
As soon as the space started to respond to our efforts and began to look like a pleasant pocket park, the Corporation officials unilaterally declared it an ornamental park. This special status was bestowed on it for a purpose. According to Corporation rul es, in ordinary local parks, residents are allowed to hold marriages and other similar functions by paying a fee (and a bribe) to the Corporation. However, in an ornamental park local residents are not supposed to be allowed to hold any private functions. Our non-ornamental park space for years had been intermittently cleared of its rubbish for holding marriages and other functions, especially since the government owned local community hall meant for such purposes had been taken over several years ago by encroachers with full help from the government, under the garb of setting up a refugee camp for Kashmiri migrants. (There is hardly a Kashmiri family there now. But those who are in possession of the hall cannot be asked to vacate for obvious political re asons). Therefore, the declaration that our local park could no more be used as a venue for residents family functions, even if they paid for cleaning up and restoration work after each function, upset many residents. They began petitioning and pressuring for the relaxation of this rule. Thanks to the perseverance of an active and influential political worker in our neighbourhood, permission began to be given on a case to case basis.
But we well know that every government dont implies a larger price tag for creating an exception. In effect, as a result of reclassifying the space into an ornamental park, the bribe rate for getting permission for holding marriages or other functions wen t up substantially. But that is not all. We also discovered, to our shock and amazement, that Corporation officials have been withdrawing approximately Rs 70,000 every quarter from the Corporation funds to maintain this ornamental park! They did provide u s four benches and some lights as a token of their involvement. But in the government records they claim to have developed the park all by their own efforts and initiative. We are also informed that the Corporation employees have similarly pocketed a huge sum for a bore well, which the residents themselves actually bought and installed with their own money, as well as for ostensibly providing all kinds of facilities in the park, for working overtime on it, and for similar imaginary activities.
This story would be laughed off as a fantasy, an unbelievable farce in many parts of the world. But in our country, we have come to accept such situations as routine. They cause neither surprise nor indignation. Our local Corporation babus and maalis are merely emulating what is being systematically practised at every level of the supposedly organised sector of our economy.
License to Loot
Actually, if the government employees did nothing, that would be a blessing. It would work out better for the rest of us if they collected their salaries and just stayed at home and let people fend for themselves. However, as things operate now, the owner ship of their jobs entitles them to legally obstruct people who try to get our public facilities to function. They have an unchallenged right to make a nuisance of themselves, and to harass citizens. That is where their real income comes from. Their salar ies are a mere licence fee which the government pays its employees to confer on them the right to make the life of citizens as difficult as possible so that they do not forget the power and might of our mai-baap sarkar.
Here is an example far more sinister than the one quoted above. We are all familiar with the sight of men, women and children from poor families picking through garbage outside private houses and on the streets as well as from municipal garb age dumps. According to reliable estimates two thirds of the citys garbage is collected, sorted and sold to scrap dealers by hard working poor people who are actually doing at their own cost and using their own labour to do the work that Corporation emplo yees and officials receive regular salaries for doing. However, very few of us know that the Corporation employees are not content at letting these people be even though they do much of their work for them for free. They actually collect a fee from these garbage pickers in return for letting them take away the citys refuse at their own cost. The logic is simple: garbage pickers are eking out a living from collecting and recycling garbage; Corporation officials treat whatever is in the garbage as their own property as soon as it yields a return, though they shirk garbage handling as it is a burdensome and sickening task. Therefore, they demand a regular commission from the garbage pickers, much in the same way that a person leasing out property expects rent.
For instance, I found out that in a nearby market, shopkeepers have made a private arrangement with certain cycle cart pullers to get the days garbage collected and taken to municipal dumps because the Corporation does not perform this task nor has it mad e any other arrangements for garbage removal. The municipal employees who are supposed to do this job charge a fixed fee for every cartload from these rickshaw wallahs for permission to dispose of the garbage. A large number of sanitation employees in Del hi appear on the work scene only to make these daily or weekly collections, a good part of which goes to their bosses. They beat up and harass garbage pickers every now and then just to keep them frightened and insecure. The police, for their own mercenar y reasons, join in to tyrannise and beat them and, at times, even put them in the lock-up on trumped up charges and extort additional payoffs. Go to any garbage pickers slum and you will hear tale after tale of how they are beaten, arrested on trumped up charges, put into the police lock up and freed only when they agree to pay up whatever sum the police demands of them.
Even at the level of humble municipal sweepers, many are known to have leased out their jobs to other people who are willing to do their work for a pittance. A sweeper who draws approximately Rs 2,300 per month often hires someone for as little as Rs 500 per month for that work so that the naukri owner can spend his time elsewhere in more remunerative occupations. The supervisors, whose job it is to check, get a percentage cut so that they too shut their eyes to such frauds. If by chance, some sincere ent husiastic official were to try and fire an employee who regularly evades work, the sweepers would be sure to inundate the city with garbage by going on an indefinite strike till the employee is reinstated.
Employees of the electricity, water and telephone departments are likewise known to openly use their duty hours for doing private jobs while they neglect their official duty. Yet, if one were to be fired, the unions would bring the entire department to a complete halt to protect such an employee from victimisation.
Similarly, Doordarshan and All India Radio have many employees who are collecting their salary while at the same time doing work for private channels, or who have set up their own businesses while being on the government payroll. Many show up only once a month to sign the attendance register and to pass on a certain percentage from their salaries to their bosses for letting them retain their naukri lifelong while doing real jobs elsewhere. Not one person has ever been fired for this racket. Many of those who actually work for Doordarshan have also converted those jobs into a business: they get a percentage as their cut for any programme they sanction, and for every bill they pass. Very few private producers who work for Doordarshan escape this extortion.
That this mentality of naukri as property has come to pervade the entire government was eloquently brought home by the recent Air Traffic Controllers (ATC) strike. As per newspaper reports, a senior level ATC was suspended from his job after it was discov ered that carelessness or a lapse on his part nearly led to a major air disaster. Hundreds of people could have been killed if the pilots of the planes had not saved the situation by handling this emergency in a few split seconds. Yet, the mere act of ord ering a temporary suspension pending an investigation provoked a total lightning strike by the ATC union all over the country demanding unconditional reinstatement of the employee under suspension. The entire air traffic in India ground to halt for three- four days, inconveniencing lakhs of passengers. No other government worth its name would have succumbed to such crude blackmail but ours did because the entire bureaucracy and the political class have come to believe that a government job is indeed the mo st inviolate form of private property.
Naukris on Sale
When Indira Gandhi amended the Constitution during the Emergency to eliminate the right to private property from among the list of fundamental rights of citizens, our progressive intelligentsia hailed it as yet another step towards an egalitarian social o rder. Similarly, when land ceiling laws were enacted during the heydays of Nehruvian socialism giving the state unregulated power to take over anyones supposedly surplus land at will, the only complaint these intellectuals made was that the laws were not being applied stringently enough.
The Land Acquisition Act a hangover from our colonial days has given the government the right to snatch away vast tracts of land at throwaway prices (not always paid in reality) and uproot hundreds of millions of farmers from their villages by a mere ad ministrative order with very little redress available to those who are thus being robbed of both their homes and means of livelihood. However, the entire might of the Indian state cannot risk taking away the job of one sweeper, one ATC, one sarkari babu o r one government doctor, teacher or pilot no matter how gross their dereliction of duty! The understanding is that once you have secured a foothold in a sarkari job by hook or crook no one can take away this sacred gift from you, even if in the process the government ends up banckrupt and the entire economy is ruined.
In the early 1990s government, under threat of bankruptcy, announced that it would reduce the size of our overbloated bureaucracy by cutting down on government jobs and closing down loss making public sector undertakings (PSUs). However, several years later, jobs have still not been cut instead, thousands of employees have been added. PSUs, including those that are performing disastrously, have not been freed from government control.
No matter how poorly run the services provided by a government organisation, the employee salaries and perks keep increasing to keep up with the naukri owners expectation of constant improvements in their standard of living along with their increased seniority in their job. For example, our government run airlines may be bankrupted due to the inefficiency, incompetence, fraud and corruption of those who run and work in them, but the salaries of their pilots, engineers, and managers must keep increasing. It indeed requires some cheek for our airline managers and pilots to go on strikes to demand that their remuneration be at par with that provided by international airlines when their performance standards are so far below those of other airlines that the only sensible thing to do with these airlines would be to close them down.
Due to malfeasance and incompetence, a recently built bridge may collapse, causing the deaths of hundreds of people, a dam built to last 40 years may silt up in five years or collapse in two, causing havoc, death and ruination for lakhs of people; yet, such is the power of our babudom that barring a few days of suspension, no action will ever be taken against the guilty.
Even when our government enacts the drama of liberalisation, it effectively keeps its monopoly intact for that is the key to corruption. In the power sector, for example, foreign firms are being invited to generate electricity but the monopoly of distribution stays with the state electricity boards. Thus, as far as the consumer is concerned, we would still have to deal with the same old evil deities. In the telecom sector, only one company is being allowed to operate in one geographical zone after paying an unrealistically exorbitant fee to the telecom ministry. This would ensure that the sarkari telephone system would have no real competition. The two could enter into a deal whereby they join hands to maintain the existing low standards. Also it would be easy to arm twist a lone company whose continuation in the business would depend on the goodwill of the mai-baap sarkar.
When our bureaucrats and ministers in charge of telecom claim the right to charge crores of rupees for granting telecom licences in select circles to those companies willing to oblige them with suitcases full of currency notes, (or better still hefty amounts deposited in foreign accounts) and denying them to all others who do not meet their terms and conditions, what does it all actually amount to? They are auctioning in small doses the right to do the job which our sarkari telecom department failed to do in all these decades while retaining their power to squeeze out the largest possible cuts and bribes despite the facade of liberalisation. Instead of citizens demanding that the telecom ministry be shut down for being such a disaster, there are many in this country who endorse its right to obstruct citizens from getting an efficient, functioning telephone from whoever is willing to provide the service at a competitive and affordable price. Why should this right to select and reject companies vest in our babus and netas anyway? Why should it not be left to an independent regulatory system that would benefit the people rather than the babus? Why should the Department of Telecommunications be allowed to earn and loot thousands of crores as licence fee and b ribes from private telecom companies, thereby making telecom services far more expensive than they need be if the government were good enough to just move out of the way ? Whose interests are they protecting by acting as licensees except that of the naukri wallahs, the army of babus who provide us with the worst telecom system in the world, and the netas who preside over this inefficient system as deities of corruption? To defend the existing system in the name of swadeshi is to make a mockery of the concept.
The naukri owners would not even be content if they were assured of employment at comparable or even higher pay in the private sector in exchange for closing down these sarkari outfits, because their extortion power would have been snatched with the end of monopoly, poor service and artificially created scarcity. So desperate are the babus to keep the culture of scarcity alive that our petroleum ministry prefers to burn hundreds of thousands of tonnes of gas every month at Bombay High rather than let it be used and distributed by private companies as fuel in India. This when our country is facing a grim fuel crisis.
The votaries of naukrishahi do not mind technology imports because apart from earning commission and cuts on every import deal, they know the management genius of our swadeshi naukarshahi can make the best and the worst technology perform at par make it dysfunctional and become part of the rot. But they resist the entry of competitive companies because they know that they will be redundant as soon as things start functioning.
They obviously prefer a system whereby every citizen has to feed the greed and power mania of babus and netas who control the sarkari machine. They parasite on and humiliate the rest of the people in this country, reducing us all to the status of colonial subjects. Think of the way even the supposedly mighty Tatas and Birlas cringe and crawl to placate every petty official in every ministry they have to deal with. Our big bourgeoisie has to organise public relations departments and armies of liason office rs in order to offer salaamis to and grease the palms of every sarkari representative from the peon to the ministers and their secretaries.
In actual fact, a sarkari mode of privatised loot and plunder has already been in operation for many years indeed, leftist rhetoric has helped provide a large fig leaf for this process. For instance, if you want a water or electricity connection, you don t just walk into a government office, fill out a form, deposit a fee and get the connection. You look for a tout who will charge you a fee to identify the right palms to grease inside those government offices for the sanction to come through. This is the most venal form of privatisation because government employees are using a state monopoly for private gain, and you have no other option. Our electricity departments are in the red because the employees are privately selling electricity by providing more i llegal connections than legal ones. Their inspectors will happily tamper with meters and lower your bills in return for a fee. A consumer who has been charged a fraudulently exorbitant bill dare not refuse to pay up because they will have his/her telephon e or electricity connection cut off altogether. It will take months or even years to get it restored and that too only after these sarkari thugs have been propitiated with all kinds of offerings.
In our naukri raj, if there is a power breakdown, it doesnt mean those in charge of running that electricity station will be called to account. Far from it. What actually happens is that enterprises or farmers in that area whose production is affected by that power breakdown will come, plead, grovel and beg before the bijli babus and pay them whatever they demand in order to get them to restore the power supply as soon as possible.
Every time some enthusiastic bureaucrat talks of making the laws more strict and calls for a rigorous implementation of the law to prevent misuse and theft, the attempt usually brings in a bigger bonanza for the naukarshahi. For instance, when Mr Tejinder Khanna took over as Lt Governor of Delhi last year he took up the challenge of removing unauthorised constructions and encroachments over public land. A special task force was set up for the purpose of carrying out demolitions. A few high profile buildin gs were indeed demolished to show our babus meant business and a few of those among the government engineers who had connived in the illegal construction were temporarily transferred to other posts. For a few days the demolition squads went around making a pretense of breaking down illegal constructions: a few theatrical hammers pounding at fancy buildings were duly photographed for the media coverage and for government records. All this provided an opportunity to collect another round of bribes from the building owners. Net result: the overall bribe rate for illegal construction has gone up considerably in Delhi.
In recent years, the Corporation engineers have started moving around with hired goondas in order to facilitate the task of extortion from city builders. The Indian Express of June 11, 1997 reported that with salaries not more than Rs 7,000 a month, junio r engineers in Delhi pay between 15,000 to Rs 20,000 a month plus one percent share for their protection. Deepak Datwal, the MCD junior engineer who was recently arrested for the murder of his boss R.P. Singh confessed to the police that he was paying his bodyguard Rs 80,000 a month. The bodyguard in turn had three more goondas on his payroll solely to protect Datwal. The lucrative protection business has attracted a large number of unemployed youth from Delhis villages. Armed with long knives and country made revolvers, they threaten the builders when they dont pay up. At times sophisticated weapons are arranged for by the Uttar Pradesh mafia dons. There are times when the junior engineers are paid but they fail to get the builders work done. As no legal records are kept of the payments, builders send their goons to teach the junior engineers a lesson. In such situations, hired bodyguards come in handy. Datwal claims to have got his boss murdered because the latter was beginning to make excessive monetar
y demands that is, demands for a higher cut from the booty Datwal collected. The money collected per building ranges from a lakh to several crores. A number of murders have taken place in recent years because of conflicts over sharing of bribes.
Corrupt & Incompetent
On a recent visit to Batala in Punjab, I saw large parts of the town dug up to resemble a vast disorganised chaos. My friends in that town narrated how they had gone in a deputation to the Deputy Commissioner requesting him to first finish constructing th e already dug up roads before the Corporation dug up more. Without a hint of shame the DC explained his operation thus: The government has just released several crores of rupees for road works in this area. Who knows how long my posting will last? I may be transferred in two-three months. I want to make sure that I have spent the entire amount before that. Mindless digging was indeed the quickest and the easiest way of spending and siphoning off a large percentage of the money whereas building a road would take planning across a wide variety of naukri wallahs, and lots of time and effort, as well as reduce the amount naukri wallahs could pocket.
Thus the naukri raj is criminalising our society, sapping the vitality of our economy and destroying whatever base we might begin to construct for developing a sense of responsible citizenship, a public morality. The concentration of crooks, pimps and thugs is highest in and around government offices. From naukri as property we have now come to a stage where those who hold government jobs have come to believe that public money put under their charge is actually there only so that they can find ways of channelling the money into their personal accounts. Rajiv Gandhi as prime minister had openly admitted in the mid 80s that no more than 15 per cent of the government money ever reaches where it is meant to go. Today, the figure would be close five to eight per cent. That too is spent inefficiently. When one reads reports of so many crores of rupees lying unspent under this or that head in a government department, what this in effect means is that the naukarshahi has not yet found ways of siphoning off those funds. Only such projects are undertaken, only such dams or roads begun, which provide for large scale loot and plunder.
The nuisance value of our naukarshahi has grown by leaps and bounds also because it has bloated magnificently in post-Independence India. The British were here to make money so they were careful about how much they spent on administration. Our naukarshahi by making naukri-holding a lucrative business has gone on expanding recklessly. For instance, the number of Central Government employees has increased from 14.4 lakhs in 1948 to 38.7 lakhs in 1997. While the number of secretaries in various ministries has increased from 8 to 92 in the same period. Our jumbo ministries attract criticism, but gargantuan bureaucracy goes unnoticed because the babus remain faceless. Agriculture is a state subject and yet the Agriculture Ministry in Delhi which has no rationale to exist has 11,738 employees. Information and Broadcasting Ministry whose only function is to block information flows and hamper the functioning of Doordarshan and All India Radio has a strength of 59,155.
Private Sector Mess
Many in the small scale sector avoid increasing their workforce, avoid making the transition to the scale of the organised sector, though they have the capital and technology available to them to scale up, just to escape figuring in the government records and coming under the evil gaze of the tax and labour officials. They dont want to grow big and be noticed by the sarkar because they will no longer be competitive if they are required to follow the same rules as the organised sector firms. Thus, even though our workers in the informal sectors are paid so little and produce an enormous but little recognised proportion of the national product, our infrastructural industries that are monopolised by the organised sector hog our national resources but nevertheless remain backward in terms of technology, product quality and organisational skills.
Privatising Desi Style
While no reforms will remove the entire burden of crookedness and corruption from any society, many countries in the world that were once as poor as India have shown that it is possible to reduce the scale of loot and plunder of the naukri wallahs by leav ing them with less discretion and decision making authority, by making easily available the information the public needs to evaluate the performance of its government.
In our society, neither the police nor the law courts provide much protection to those whose rights are violated. Private businesses of any size tend to function only in terms of what they can get away with in the short run, however much it may harm their firm on a longer term basis; the rule of the naukri wallahs over generations has resulted in businessmen not believing there will be a tomorrow when they will be able to make long term decisions about profits and investment in a stable and fair competiti ve environment without being fleeced and trampled upon by the naukri wallahs.
One example will suffice. In Delhi, the state monopoly over the city buses was demolished a few years ago by opening up this sector to private operators. However, the licence-permit raj stayed intact. People were granted these private bus licenses and iss ued remunerative routes largely on the basis of pay offs to ministers and bureaucrats.
Overnight scores of companies and hundreds of individuals turned transporters and tried to make a quick killing by fiercely competing with each other to pick up as many passengers as they could by disregarding route designations and safety regulations.
A new system of bribes and payoffs to the police and politicians who were supposed to control their operations let bus service resort to the type of competitiveness that is supposed to characterise the jungle. Their ill-maintained buses observe no speed o r traffic rules. They hire inexperienced drivers and conductors on a commission basis to drive and operate their buses for long hours without proper shift breaks. They drive like maniacs. They have killed and maimed thousands of people without paying penalties that would discourage them from continuing to maximise their loot in a competitive environment without any effective regulatory mechanisms. These buses are packed far beyond their capacity, making travel in them a nightmarish experience. Within a short period, these vehicles came to be known a s killer buses. Despite this corruption ridden competition, they charge arbitrary fares; they have pushed up the prices of tickets far beyond what they would be in a properly functioning competitive system.
They are getting away with such irresponsible and even murderous behaviour because those in charge of overseeing their operations are so busy milking them for bribes that they need fear no sanctions. Buses are not impounded, nor permits cancelled despite repeated accidents because the police and political bosses are routinely paid off. The traffic policemen posted at different strategic points all over the city never bother to enforce speed limits provided they get their haftas regularly. The licensing authority are willing to sell licences without as much as the formality of a driving test so that many who take up drivers jobs have no such qualification or training. Many of the drivers are colour blind or have impaired eyesight. But the licensing authority could not care less.
Likewise, the inspector of the anti-pollution department stands on the road only to collect his dues and turn a blind eye to the poisonous fumes these ill-maintained buses belch out in lethal quantities. They are one of the gravest threats to the safety and well-being of Delhi citizens. The bus owners dont feel called upon to provide better service because they can get away with it; the government owned transport corporations that are the only other available alternative provide even poorer service and the government agencies encourage mismanagement by keeping various levers of control in their hands and refuse to get out of the way and allow an independent regulatory body that would encourage rational competition to come into being.
Similarly, in the health sector, private practitioners get away with fleecing patients while providing abysmally low quality services bordering on criminal neglect and wilful malpractice because the government sets very low standards in state-run hospitals. Moreover, it does not encourage and support independent regulatory bodies that would help protect the rights of medical consumers.
Setting Things Rights