The other side of the fence

Published : Feb 11, 2005 00:00 IST

In Hyderabad, traffic held up to facilitate the free movement of a VVIP convoy. Politicians forget that the people are aware of the fact that those who made impassioned speeches about being with them and working for their welfare have withdrawn into an insulated world of easy, comfortable living. - H. SATISH

In Hyderabad, traffic held up to facilitate the free movement of a VVIP convoy. Politicians forget that the people are aware of the fact that those who made impassioned speeches about being with them and working for their welfare have withdrawn into an insulated world of easy, comfortable living. - H. SATISH

Bureaucrats and Ministers should overcome the pleasures of their insulated lives and understand clearly the reality to bring about social change.

WOULD you believe me if I say that I am writing this with a great sense of humility, even guilt? I hope you do, because it is crucial to my presenting an issue that concerns everyone, and is predicated on the acceptance of my initial position. The issue is a fairly straightforward one. Let me illustrate this with an example. As long as I was a civil servant, a member of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), I was ministered to by subordinates and personal staff. They took care of all the minutiae of day-to-day life - payment of bills, updating of bank accounts, fixing an electrical or plumbing problem in the house, even finding a suitable government apartment or house, getting it cleaned, repaired and fitted up before I moved in.

Life then had a different quality; it was easy, and that easiness soon began to define life for me; if one needed a doctor, someone spoke to someone and the best in whatever specialisation one needed was available. Transport was, of course, never a problem; there was always a car. Tickets for travel anywhere were brought in to me by a deferential private secretary. My day was ordered and insulated from anything remotely inconvenient.

Mind you, I was not the only one who lived this kind of life. All bureaucrats did, and still do. All Ministers and those in power live even easier lives. Insulated lives; lives into which reality never intruded, where problems, be they civic or administrative, existed only in files, or were discussed in very theoretical terms in meetings.

Then I retired. And all of a sudden, this wonderland vanished and reality swept in. Bills had to be paid by standing in line; electrical faults in my flat could be set right only after I had pleaded with a surly electrician to do me the kindness of coming and doing what was needed. Postage stamps had to be bought from a post office by me, personally; I had to seal and post my own letters. For a while the old ways persisted, and one rang one's former private secretary to help with sundry problems that one faced. But soon one sensed an impatience, the deference became cursory and at times there was a distinct note of annoyance that could not be missed. So, with time, that door was closed. And one's new life began - a life that is lived by hundreds of thousands across the country. The life of a common citizen, one who has no contacts with privileged persons, who has to do what is prescribed for the general public for every encounter with authority; fill in forms, wait in line to submit them to a clerk who accepts it with grudging condescension, and then visit the offices of authority again and again to get what is, finally, one's due - not a privilege, but something one is entitled to, such as the reimbursement of medical expenses.

It is in this context that one now sees the privileged, insulated lives of those in power; not as something to be desired, but as a danger. One sees it all the more clearly because one was a part of it, and is well aware of what the insulation brings with it. The danger is obvious enough; just how, to take an example, will one of these privileged ones, solve transport problems in a city while watching buses so crowded that there are people hanging on to the outside rod and barely able to get a foothold in the vehicle, watching these buses and people from within an air-conditioned car? Or realise what misery means to someone living in a slum, with the stench of sewage all around, in two small, dark rooms, which are fiercely, relentlessly hot and airless in summer and piercingly cold in winter?

True, problems do get solved; cities get flyovers, and new buses, and tenements are built for slum-dwellers. Drinking water is made available in villages and electricity provided to some of them, even if it is for a few hours a day. Nor is one arguing that it is necessary actually to live in these conditions to be able to work with some energy and dedication to remove or mitigate these problems. The awareness of problems does not need to depend on one's actually experiencing them.

But what is most certainly true is that the urgency that is an integral part of the problem is not felt in quite the same way. Without actually living in these conditions, long and repeated visits are essential if one is to give these problems, and others, the overriding urgency that must go with the effort to solve them. Gandhiji did not live in slums, or among the poor, without a purpose; he wanted to feel what it was to live with the poorest, and face the problems they face. That was what led him to propound his formula to raise India from the abyss of poverty and misery; a formula soon found impractical by very clever civil servants and pragmatic Ministers, living in carefully tended bungalows and attended by a fleet of personal secretaries and aides.

The problem lies in the distancing, which can, very easily, slip into an inability to relate to these problems at all - to a propensity to see them as impediments to a higher rate of growth, or of the gross domestic product (GDP). As politicians begin to spend more time on manoeuvrings and jockeying for positions of power, and have little time to consider and reflect on the condition of the people in general, on the thousand forms of harassment and the miseries they have to face every day in whatever they essentially need just to live their lives, they forget that the common people become equally aware of the distancing, aware of the withdrawing of those who had made impassioned speeches about being with them and working for their welfare into an insulated world of easy, comfortable living, a world in which the priorities of these power brokers changed to something else.

I was once told that Gandhiji had, just a few months before he was assassinated, said to one of those very close to him, Nirmal Bose, that he would have to prepare for another mass movement, because the government of free India was no different from the government of the British. I have no means of knowing if this was true, but the larger implication is true enough. A second pan-Indian struggle against authority may well come about if the people and those who govern them drift away even further from each other.

The primacy given to procedures and bureaucratic rituals must be swiftly and effectively done away with, along with those who, in the garb of being very practical, try to negate any change being brought about in their areas of power and influence.

Will this be done? Can it be done? The answers must be with those in power, and in their awareness of the urgency of action to alter the quality of life. The pleasures of their insulated lives must be overcome, and the reality beyond seen with clarity and steadfastness. If that happens, even partially, one can reasonably hope that the need for the second freedom movement will not become acute and manifest itself in a kind of country-wide unrest that will engulf not just those who lead the insulated lives of the privileged but the systems and institutions themselves, much in the manner in which the great waves struck not so long ago.

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