Sunday, August 28, 2011

A Few Good People

Corruption is the flavor of the day and no other issue has captured public attention in the manner that Corruption has. Not surprisingly, in the recent past there has been a spurt in the public expiation of personal wrongdoing by the famous and not-so-famous; and givers as well as takers. I am sharing a personal experience of a slightly different kind.

An important life lesson was learnt on a train one summer evening in 1981.

I was traveling from Ahmedabad- where my parents lived then-to Bangalore (Bengaluru) where I was doing my post-graduation in the Indian Institute of Science. Train connectivity was poor in those days and one had to change trains at Bombay (Mumbai) and Guntakal. Making reservations for all the stages of the journey was a difficult and complicated process. On that trip I did not have a reservation for the Guntakal-Bangalore leg and boarded a reserved coach confident that I could manage the TTE (Train Ticket Examiner) for a berth.

The TTE on this coach was an elderly man and probably close to retirement. As the train pulled out of Guntakal, he got down to the task of checking the reservations. His manner was brusque and businesslike. As he paused in his work, I caught his attention and requested a berth. He told me that the coach was full and that I would have to leave the coach at the station.

I did not give up as I was used to the rapaciousness of the TTEs on the Ahmedabad-Bombay route and assumed that it was only a matter of time before the TTE and I would discuss “business”.  I was the only person in the coach who did not have a reservation; so I rated my chances of success as rather high.

The TTE looked up from his work and was annoyed to see that I was shadowing him.

“What do you want?” he asked, “I have already told you that there is no vacancy.”

I gave him that syrupy, ingratiating smile hoping that he would get the message. He got the message and, in full view of the passengers, gave me a tongue lashing that I have not quite got over even today.

“What kind of a person do you think I am? Do I seem the type who can be bought? Do expect me to make a berth for you with your money? What do you young people think of yourselves? Is this what my country is coming to?”

He went on in this vein and after sometime ordered me to stand near the door and get off at the next station. The alternative was being handed over to the police for traveling without a valid ticket.  Humiliated and defeated, I headed to the door and mentally prepared myself for a sleepless night in a dirty, crowded and smoky coach.

A few minutes later, the TTE called me over and told me to occupy a berth left vacant by a passenger who did not show up. Head bowed, I mumbled my thanks and paid the reservations charges. He made out the receipt and returned the exact change.  He then asked me to join him for a chat at his seat near the door.

By then his demeanor had changed.  His work over, he became a kind and concerned uncle. He apologized for his outburst and went on to criticize his generation for setting a wrong example to young people. He spoke about his own struggle to resist temptation and his isolation among his colleagues. To Mr Sampath- that was name of the TTE- honor and integrity mattered more than anything  else.

Surprisingly, Mr Sampath did not once admonish me for my impudence; nor did he advise me on morals. He spoke simply , matter-of-factly and without rancour. Then we talked about my studies for a few minutes. Soon, it was time for bed. I was tired and wanted to sleep in order to be reasonably alert in class the following morning

“Goodnight, young man,” he said, “do well and bring credit to your family. My shift will end in a few hours and I will be getting off the train when you will still be asleep”.

I went to my berth but, in spite of my exhaustion, could not sleep.

During the course of my career  I realized that things happen not due the “corrupt-but- efficient” many but the dedicated few who place service before self and discharge their duties honestly, diligently and with no expectation of a reward. Whenever I am tempted to take the short-cut, Mr Sampath returns to my mind. I do not claim to be perfect but I have also learned that patience and respect for the rules go a long way in avoiding battles with our conscience. It is people like Mr Sampath who give spine to the struggle against corruption. Without them the Lokpal-or any other- Bill- will remain just one among the countless laws that we have.  Thank you, Mr Sampath, wherever you are.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The war on Corruption

Some posts back I took an irreverent view of  corruption in public life and one man's crusade against it. I feel less sanguine now, and more so as battle lines between Government and "Civil Society" have clearly drawn. A dangerous game of brinkmanship is being played out by both sides with no clear outcome in sight. As always, it is the people who will suffer. Here are my views for what they are worth.

Anna Hazare’s movement against corruption is developing farcical dimensions and I am uneasy about the outcome. The anxiety is compounded by the realization that, being a member “civil society”, I am supposed to be different from the class of people I have elected.

First, the authorities found that releasing their prisoner was easy. The hard part was in getting Anna to leave jail!

Then Anna negotiated (browbeat would be a more appropriate term here) with the police about the location and duration of his fast. The last I heard, he was given permission to go without food for fifteen days. By then, I assume,  the Government would blink first or Anna would give up

This was followed by a gesture that has no precedent. I am referring to the Delhi Police’s action in arranging the infrastructure –as it were- for the event! Going by media reports, they have spared no efforts- tents, platforms, electricity.

The media, too,  has gone on overdrive. As matters stand today, Anna Hazare, the person, has become much, much bigger than the cause he is fighting for. He is well on his way to being anointed a Mahatma. So we have hundreds of millions of Indians hanging on to his every word, and reading meanings in every gesture.

Celebrities and public figures, many of whom have benefited by winking at the law, have sprouted halos after joining Anna.

Colleges -many of them guilty of taking illegal donations- have allowed staff time off to participate in protests.

Young people waving flags show policemen the middle finger as they speed past traffic lights.

Is this what the movement against corruption is all about? Could we not have gone about it differently? I think the time has come for everyone to stand back and take a deep breadth.

We have several oversight and regulatory bodies already. Let them do their work without fear or favor. How is the Lokpal expected to be different?

Unfortunately, our institutions and political processes have been so badly subverted by corruption that people’s faith in them has eroded almost completely. Still, the big bang approach favoured by the proponents of Lokpal is not likely to work because it will, sooner or later, subsumed into the system.

I believe that victory in the war against corruption will be the sum of wins in local battles. Such an approach demands that we stop making a spectacle of ourselves in front of television cameras and put our money where our mouths lie. For a start, volunteer groups can picket government offices and report on corruption as it occurs. The campaign must be sustained and there must be no let up in intensity till the guilty either mend their ways or are punished.

As for our politicians, they owe their existence to “civil society”.  Let the message be clear that our votes matter and they will be personally answerable to their constituency for their party’s failures.

Next week, I will be accompanying my daughter when she goes to the Regional Transport Office to get her learner’s driving license. I understand that many of the staff has gone on leave to join Anna Hazare.  But my work will be done if….

Let’s see. I might even start a fast to get my work done.