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Changing the government culture of shabbiness

By Mahesh Vijapurkar
June 12, 2014 15:32 IST
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Narendra ModiPrime Minister Narendra Modi has ordered a clean-up of all central government offices. Mahesh Vijapurkar laments the pervading culture of shabbiness in government offices around the country.  

There is some awe because Narendra Modi, with a huge plateful of issues he needed to tackle -- to undo what the predecessors left behind and new initiatives to undertake -- is a man who pays attention to detail. One is that he went to the extent of telling his party MPs that they shouldn’t waste their time gossiping in the Parliament’s Central Hall but go read in the library.

During the United Progressive Alliance, it was the practice for the government to deploy partymen routinely, instead of ministry spokespersons, to itself which led to lot of pointless noise. His caution that they speak only if they were sure of the facts makes eminent sense. With an eye already on the 2019 elections -- remember the President’s address spoke of a 10-year roadmap -- Modi is asking them to focus on their constituencies.

All this is very well, including the caution that they avoid careless talk, meeting people who pile themselves on the ministers and MPs, beware of stings etc. But did it need a prime minister to tell government functionaries that they kick out the mess they create in their offices? There is a needless applause for his ordering that they clean it up.

Apparently he had a quiet word with Cabinet Secretary Ajit Seth for him to have sent out a note that things be spruced up. I am stupefied that the orders had to go out from the top to the secretaries that they get things in order. Those who make policy and run government needed to be told that they look at their poor housekeeping!

What were the new requirements? One, passages and stairs be cleaned, and any obstructions removed; two, no office almirahs be found in the common spaces; three, file and papers be neatly stacked. Wonder of wonders, an Action Taken Report, government officialese for compliance, was sought within 24 hours, which makes me suspect that otherwise, the babus wouldn’t have bothered.

In a culture where the boss is always right, and where imitation is the best flattery, two ministers got into the act. Smriti Irani went on a walking tour of her “congested ministry”, a description by the Business Standard to peek around and see if things were prim and proper. Maneka Gandhi got busy eliminating “dead stock of furniture and unwanted files” and told the world about it via a press communique.

Strewing things around seems a habit. How else does one explain that in one office, that is presided over by Maneka Gandhi that on one weekend, 1,800 files and documents were weeded out, and 1,350 kg of files and papers were discarded. Why do government offices who periodically complain of missing files store so many that were not needed at all?

Housekeeping is a routine matter.  It is hard to believe a cabinet secretary who hadn’t bothered all his term, now extended, hadn’t bothered till Modi sprang on the scene.  You would marvel at the neatness of a minister’s and secretaries offices -- ‘chambers’ is the grand word for them. It is lower down the hierarchy where sloth is seen making anything ‘government’ unkempt, everywhere in India.

Except for the occasional wood-panelled walls of the high ups, most offices across the country do not even have proper furniture. Recently, the Maharashtra government told the high court that there were courts in the state where the judges did not have toilets and lawyers had no place to sit, leave alone the litigants who have to make do with the shade of a tree. Shabbiness comes of not anticipating the needs.

This culture of shabbiness is not restricted to only the corridors of power in Delhi. It is so across government offices, from the gram panchayat to the biggies’ where you should be surprised if paan-tinted spittle has not pockmarked corners of staircases. Except for the toilets restricted to the top guys, they are a matter of shame. The once in civic bodies are something like what one finds on the dhabha-type restaurants along the highways.

My experience has been that to find a toilet in a government office, there isn’t a need to ask directions; just follow the nose. The worst offenders are the civic body offices though civic bodies are to ensure sanitation because it has public health implications. But none gives a damn. Let me narrate my experience this Sunday when I went to a Mumbai theatre to take in a Marathi play.

As the audience was patiently moving in files to enter the auditorium, the overpowering stink of unclean toilets wafted over. That was because they were opened for being cleaned up. When the ticket-paying theatre aficionados went there in the intermission, the stink was no less. The men with pails and mops and possible something pretending to phenyl were nowhere in sight. They had vanished after a nominal attempt to ritually clean the urinals.

That tells you everything.

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