What sort of organisations do our bureaucrats run as public servants using public funds?
RECENTLY, while visiting my wife's elegant home in Chennai, a former driver of my wife and her mother came to see them. He was clearly devoted to them and was, I knew, a very careful, level-headed driver, something of a rarity in these turbulent times when driving in any Indian city is like going to war. He had, however, like so many drivers, found a job with the city transport service and was now driving a bus.
While the new job naturally meant not only a higher salary but also all the perquisites of a state-run enterprise - the contributory provident fund, medical benefits and the prized pension at the end of one's service - he saddened everyone by his account of the working conditions that he and other drivers have to endure. The buses were in terrible condition, he said. The clutch pedal was so hard that to press it down he needed all his strength, and when he did press it, the engine shut off, so with his other foot he had to press the accelerator. Besides, the gearshift was extremely hard to move, and he had to, on occasion, hold on to something to get a strong-enough purchase on the gear lever. The steering wheel was just as tough and needed a good deal of strength to turn. And in these conditions, he added ruefully, he was expected to keep a lookout for pedestrians, cyclists, autorickshaws, cars and everything else that moved, or did not move, on the road.
The ordeal did not end there. The buses were rarely attended to; defects reported were never set right. As for spare parts, he added with some resignation, the less said the better. At the end of each day he was not just exhausted but his legs and arms ached intolerably, even after soothing ointments had been massaged into them. And the next day, it started all over again.
What sort of organisations do we run as public servants using public funds? Specifically, what attention do we pay to the dreadful conditions in which bus drivers have to work - not just in Chennai but I imagine in every state-run transport system in the country - when we are so keen to introduce what we tout in large advertisements and through stories given to the media about better buses, high capacity buses and all the rest? To take this a little further and beyond state-run bus services, what thought have we spared for those who drive private buses and, more importantly, the thousands of trucks that carry goods up and down the country?
If, for instance, we were to equip our buses and trucks with power steering, power brakes, automatic transmissions and if the driver's cabin were air-conditioned, would not the driver be able to drive better, concentrate more on the traffic, and, as a consequence, would not there be fewer accidents and fewer fatalities? "Of course", we would chorus, but it is so very expensive. This is where the thinking becomes pear-shaped.
What is the benchmark for "expensive"? This is a key question in every sphere of activity and development we claim to be so concerned about. It is as key a question when it comes to our hospitals and health centres and our schools in towns and villages as it is for the driving conditions we impose on our bus and truck drivers. "Expensive" is a convenient word used as a piece of casuistry, which I know bureaucrats are very clever with; we have disgustingly dirty, ill-equipped hospitals because to maintain a state-run hospital the way, say, the Apollo Hospitals are maintained would be "expensive". We build shoddy school buildings whose roofs leak, and which have hopelessly inadequate and inhumanly small toilets, because school buildings of the kind in, say, the Convent of Jesus and Mary in New Delhi are "expensive".
And the irony is that some government agencies, or agencies funded in part by the government, have redefined "expensive" so that its meaning is closer to "safe" and "hygienic" and other such concepts. Safety, they have realised, comes at a price, as does hygiene and what it fosters, good health. Take the National Highways Authority of India: the expressways it is building, even the national highways that form the Golden Quadrilateral, are wide, well constructed, without potholes and with enough space on either side. Expressways such as the Mumbai-Pune expressway, the Ahmedabad-Vadodara expressway and the stretch between Delhi and Jaipur are even better, wider, with restricted access - meaning the menace of wandering cattle and human beings is eliminated and the roads leading to them have controlled gradual access so that a vehicle cannot suddenly shoot out of a side road - facilities to call for help in the event of a breakdown, and so on. The other expressways planned such as the ones between Delhi and Agra, Delhi and Meerut, Delhi and Chandigarh and Chennai and Bangalore will, no doubt, have the same features, and these will not be removed by somebody who considers them "expensive".
Then, of course, there is the Delhi Metro. That organisation has defined "safe" and "user-friendly" and even "comfortable" as concepts to which "expensive" does not really apply or to which it is subservient. From the beginning, the entire system was planned to be fully air-conditioned underground, and all the trains are air-conditioned. All stations have escalators and large car parks, and the cleanliness of stations is continuously maintained.
In other words, safety, hygiene and comfort are concepts that can find place within the bureaucratic universe. It is, then, possible to do away with those abominations called "tenements", which state-run housing boards feel impelled to build, and think of replacements of the kind that the late Laurie Baker built in Thiruvananthapuram. But one must not devalue the powers of comprehension of our public servants. A look at the official residences and office rooms occupied by Ministers and senior civil servants will assure us all that they are perfectly aware of concepts such as "comfort" and "luxury", though to think of the latter in the context of people in general would be sacrilegious.
It is possible at this point to read me a lecture on the enormous amounts involved, of the vast numbers of schools and hospitals that are needed and whether we can have so many because of the enormous expense. The answer, quite simply, is yes. It is, when one thinks about it, really a question of what is considered necessary and what constitutes a minimum in terms of facilities. The expense will, it will soon be obvious, result in the greater generation of funds and productive activities.
That this issue is not even considered by our health and education mandarins - unlike E. Sreedharan, the chief of Delhi Metro - is because it is really a question of "us" and "them". Lalu Prasad is proud of his garib raths. So why do he and his colleagues not make it compulsory for all Members of Parliament to travel only by those trains and by no other? Why not make it compulsory for all Ministers to stay in the "tenements" they fondly present as the answer to peoples' housing problems and not in the vast Lutyens bungalows they have in New Delhi?
The answer is, as an eminent fictional detective is commonly believed to have said to his colleague, elementary.