The time has come

Life imitates art.

And governments imitate private corporations.

Now light years ago, I started working life as a Management Trainee at a global, UK-headquartered bank in Mumbai, a bright eyed and bushy tailed graduate from the Well Know Institute of Management in Western India, or WIMWI, as referred to in case studies. Upon getting the first role with responsibility, after an initial training period, a Management Trainee became an Assistant Manager. In due course, and with some good performance evaluations, one could become a Manager, and thereafter, a Senior Manager. The world beyond a Senior Manager was too far and too dim to worry about at that stage.

Management trainees joining the big American banks of those days, went from Assistant Manager to Manager, then to an Assistant Vice President followed by Vice President. Perhaps there too, the world beyond Vice President was too far and too dim to think about.

As realisation of this unfairness dawned, the bunch of Management Trainees in our bank were up in arms, to the extent well-paid and well-fed youngsters can be up in arms against a desirable to work for corporation. This ‘upping in arms’ was usually a whisper in the ear of the boss after a monthly report had shown signs of an improvement in performance, or as a joke with the HR Manager when he was sufficiently drunk.

I cannot be sure about the other participants in this ‘upping in arms,’ but I don’t think we were very serious about it, nor did we ever believe that it would happen.

If ever a war was won without a shot being fired, this was it. A few months later the bank had adopted the structure of AVP and VP after a Manager. It was a heady feeling. Not a paisa increased in our salary. Not a single benefit changed. Even the dark abyss beyond Senior Manager, which everyone secretly hoped to reach fast as that is where the serious money apparently started, got pushed back further away by a step. It was a victory that we savoured for many months.

Many years later I came to know that my WIMWI classmates who had joined American banks were fighting for a Senior Manager designation that they did not have. But it was after a few drinks. I cannot be certain.

It was our secret. It was our victory. Though I departed for other pastures after some years, friendships formed in the first job endured. At a recent meeting with some people from the bank, I learned that management trainees can now go all the way to Senior Assistant Certified Business Corporate Vice President, though it might take 86 years. I was glad to know that youngsters have so much to look forward to even before they reached the point of serious money.

I was reminded of this history when I read the headline in today’s newspaper that screamed “Indian Railways redesignates post of ‘Guard’ as ‘Train Manager’ with immediate effect.”

I looked up from the newspaper, refocused my gaze, and read it again. To my amazement, the headline had not changed. Indian Railways, India’s largest employer, and that counts for something, clarified that the move, being demanded for some time, would result in a “dignified designation for them without any financial implication, so that, they can also lead a respectful life in the society.”

Further, it seems that “The demand was raised as the designation ‘Train guard’ had become outdated and in society people commonly draw reference that he/she may be a guard in some private firm etc..”

Clearly, all those who answer to the designation of a ‘guard’ in some ‘private firm etc,’ belong to a species that deserves our contempt and scorn. Thank you, Government of India, and thank you, Indian Railways, for making that clear.

I was overcome with emotion, thinking about the thousands of people designated as ‘guards’ toiling away at their jobs who would now be able to lead a life of dignity toiling away at the same job for the same pay under the same working conditions.

And that is not all. “An assistant guard will now be called assistant passenger train manager, and the goods guard will be called goods train manager. Senior goods guard has been re-designated as senior goods train manager, senior passenger guard is now senior passenger train manager.” Trust the government to go the whole hog.

“Manager, huh,” I said to myself, looked away from the newspaper and wondered how much time would be allowed to pass by the government before making the move to the vice president structure.

There were questions on my mind as I have a train journey coming up soon. During past train journeys I have met various people working for the Indian Railways, such as the people who keep the cabin clean, those who serve refreshments and the obvious ticket checker, but never the erstwhile ‘guard.’ I was left wondering if the person serving the refreshment would take umbrage if I called him ‘bhaiya’ (brother in Hindi) which has historically been acceptable in all situations, or would I be better off addressing him as “Assistant Manager In-cabin Passenger Nourishment?”

It is another matter that the opportunity of meeting the ‘Train guard’ has been taken out of my hands, for no fault of mine.

Word gets around. One man’s meat is another’s poison.

The lady who works in our house is on leave today. Her phone is switched off. My wife is wringing her hands. We can anticipate the issue. For once she believes I am better placed to solve the problem, with my long years in large corporations. Our neighbours seem to be faced with a similar situation. Another chapter is about to be written in the struggle for the development and recognition of the disadvantaged, that has gone from servant to maid to house-help over decades, with no change in duties or benefits. Clearly it will no longer be enough. The time has come for a new name to be called by.

The residents’ society has called an emergency meeting to decide upon the new designations for the help. I did not know this, but the email also said that the society guards are not at their stations and are engaged in a heated discussion in a corner of the society and words like ‘Director,’ ‘Manager,’ ‘Founder’, ‘Evangelist’ have been heard issuing from that direction.

Uncertain times seem to lie ahead.

Your suggestions on possible designations will go a long way in enabling more people to live a life of dignity.

Did someone say, “What’s in a name?”

If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It

“How many dead?”

“None.”

“Burned beyond recognition? At least seriously injured or maimed?”

“Hmmm…I don’t think any.”

“Any coverage in the media?”

“To the best of my knowledge, nil.”

Answering the Minister’s questions was a bright graduate of the elite Administrative Services College of the country, whose smile had been growing wider and wider as he responded to each question thinking about how effectively he had been managing his area of responsibility, and now went from one ear to the other.

“Is this an issue which the western world has expressed concerns about and which might lead to cancellation of overseas jaunts of senior ministers?”

“Not at all. We keep giving them other issues to express concerns about.”

The bright graduate was positively beaming, imagining his future prospects.

The Minister, so far looking down at a piece of paper on his desk, with a pen in his hand as if poised to sign, looked up. He took off his glasses, wiped them on his kurta sleeve, and put them down next to the offending piece of paper, which seemed to be triggering his questions.

The bright graduate quailed. The muffled sound of the glasses being placed on the desk sounded like a thunderclap.

Looking him squarely in the eye, the Minister asked, “Did you hear about the Elphinstone Road foot over-bridge stampede?”

Of course he did. It was the latest man-made disaster in a distinguished series of man-made disasters over many years and through tenures of multiple governments. On the 29th of September, till the time of writing of this article, twenty three people had died in a stampede on a foot over-bridge at the Elphinstone Road station of the inhumanly crowded Mumbai suburban rail network.

“Yes…yessir,” he stammered.

“Since when has the suburban rail network of Mumbai been inhumanly overcrowded?”, the Minister continued, even before his stammered phrase could be completed.

“I don’t know sir. I have known it to be overcrowded ever since I gained consciousness.” He was a Mumbai lad and was well versed with the history of his city.

The Minister was on a roll. He was not asking those questions to get answers. He was driving home some messages. He was fed-up of bright graduates coming out of elite colleges spouting theory at him and asking for approval for frivolous proposals. It was time they learnt some practical lessons. “How many times have safety concerns been expressed arising out of overcrowding of platforms, overcrowding of bridges, overcrowding of coaches?”, he shot back.

“Many times sir.” He was a bright student and was warming up to the format. He had excelled in quizzes in school and college and followed news and current events closely.

The Minister leaned back in his chair. A smile was playing at the corner of his lips.

“Now tell me, did you read about the forty people who did not die because the Corporation fixed the platform tiles so that people did not accidentally slip and fall in the path of an oncoming train?”

The graduate was flummoxed. He had not come across such a news item. His face expressed his lack of awareness.

“Or the seventy who did not get electrocuted when the Corporation fixed the live wires that had come loose and were hanging dangerously close to passers by?” the Minister continued without pausing.

“When did that happen sir?” he could not help asking, and displaying his ignorance.

The minister looked at him squarely in the eyes once again. He shifted uncomfortably. The Minister asked, “Tell me, what is the primary duty of a democratically elected government?”

“Why, to look after the people of course”, he brightened up, on getting a question he knew the answer to.

“Exactly. And such incidents, where nobody dies, and which nobody ever hears about, who would they give any comfort to? Would these incidents give a feeling to the common man that the government has his back?”

“Obviously no-one sir.” He was getting the drift he thought. He loosened up a little.

“What is a responsible government to do? With great power comes great responsibility. Spending the tax collections is an exercise of great responsibility and a hard-earned one. Why will a government, not just ours, any government, waste it on measures that do not give comfort to the common man?”

He was flummoxed again. ‘Twas the day for him to be flummoxed. “Then what does the government do, sir?” He could see the issue, but did not have the mental capacity to imagine the solution.

“The government does the only thing that a responsible government can do; wait for an accident to happen, as we did in the case of the Elphinstone Road foot overbridge stampede that killed several people. And now that it has happened, once again, like any responsible government, we have cancelled the leave of all officials and flown them in from various parts of the country for urgent consultations. After all, the taxpayer money has to be spent productively, isn’t it?”

“These officials, as we know, are from an elite corps, and have already hit the ground running. After analysing the situation they will reach a conclusion that everyone has known for many years. But these officials will reach the conclusion while lodged in expensive hotels and eating expensive food, hence their conclusion can be considered to be the final word on the event. Moreover, they will even absolve everyone concerned of any responsibility and attribute the accident to a freak confluence of events that everyone could have predicted.”

“But there will always be Doubting Thomases questioning the intent and effort of the government. Therefore, further analysis will be done by the high-powered group who will decide to spend more money on a review of all random things that can be thought of in such a high-pressure situation, like testing the strength of airport runways in the country, checking the depth of water in lakes and canals and installing traffic lights where not required. For the safety and security of the common man of course.”

He was beginning to see the real picture. He may have received his college degree many years back, but he was getting educated today. He could picture himself sitting in the minister’s chair in the not too distant future, serving the nation and the common man. Dreamily he asked, “Then what sir?”

“Then what? Then we will wait for the next stampede at an overcrowded Kumbh Mela in Allahabad. Or the next unplanned town to be washed away in a cloubburst in Uttarakhand. Or the next 8-year old to be murdered in a school in Gurgaon. Or the next unsafe building to catch fire in Delhi with tenders unable to access the site. And roll out the time-tested plan for ensuring the safety and security of the common man.”

“Tell me. Have you not heard of Nirbhaya?”

The bright graduate suddenly came to. After all, who had not heard of the gruesome rape in Delhi several years back that led to a slew of initiatives to prevent rapes, from pink coloured taxis to women-only banks.

“And have rapes stopped? Or slowed down?”

His eyes lit up. It was all clear to him now. With a touch of reverence in his voice, he asked, “But how do you handle all this, sir? After all, manmade disasters are such an innate part of the fabric of our great society.”

The Minister took a deep breath, and slowly released it as if trying to release the burden of his great responsibility to the common man. “It is a tightrope walk. Between running advertisements announcing great achievements of the government, security detail for ministers and self-appointed godmen (and women), money paid to consultants for coining new and imaginative names for government schemes, and providing safety and security to the common man. But, like I said earlier, with great power comes great responsibility. We have to take judicious decisions keeping all interests in mind.”

The Minister was floating on a cloud of his great responsibility towards the common man and did not notice the bright graduate quietly picking up the printed proposal he had taken to the Minister for his approval for the Corporation to fix platform tiles so that people did not accidentally slip and fall in the path of an oncoming train, the piece of paper that had started the interrogation, and walk out of the  office while crumpling the proposal into a ball and expertly tossing it into a basket placed strategically near the exit.

 

Train of thought

I have been invited by a friend from college days to his hometown for his 50th birthday bash next week. He lives in a small town in the state of Madhya Pradesh.

I hooked up with another college friend living in Gurgaon, who was also invited, hoping that we could travel together.

“We have the option of going on the 14th night by train which reaches at 4 AM in the morning on the 15th. Or else we could take a flight on the 15th,” I confidently updated him as I had done some research on the tickets.

“Flight? To where?,” came his response, aware as he was that this small town did not boast of an airport.

“Bhopal”, I informed him. “It is then a 3 hour drive from Bhopal to his town.”

He said, absent-mindedly, “Not sure if we should take the train. The night will get messed up. We won’t be able to sleep properly if we have to get off at 4 AM. And, if that happens, we will not be able to enjoy the celebrations later that day.”

He seemed to have a point. I added, nodding, “And we could also end up messing up the night for the person who will pick us up from the station at that unearthly hour.”

There was silence at the other end of the phone line. Suddenly, the phone crackled again, “Most likely it is a poor taxi driver. And, it might disturb the sleep of his wife as well who may be getting up to ensure that her husband at least gets a cup of tea before he leaves home.” He sounded concerned. He had clearly been thinking about what I had said.

I could see where he was going, and added my concern, “What about their children? Their sleep could also be disturbed on account of the commotion in the house. Most likely they live in a small house. They may need to miss school that day.”

He was quick to understand. He said, “And if they have exams going on, as many schools do in December, they might have to miss an important exam.”

I was horrified. I said, “Noooo… That means they may have to fail the grade. They might be forced to repeat the year. Not only that, they will become the laughing stock of their peer group, and outcasts in the junior class they are forced to join.”

He said, slowly, weighing each word, “And       that     could      be     their     first     step      towards      juvenile      delinquency. They could get into acts of petty crime in order to show their defiance to the world.”

I said, “And small acts of crime, if unchecked, eventually lead to bigger acts of crime. Encouraged by their small deeds of crime, they may even run away from home to a big city hoping to make it big in the world of crime.”

“Can you even imagine what their parents would go through if that happens? They may have been able to handle petty acts of crime and bring them back in line, but surely their running away would devastate the parents”, he rightly pointed out.

“It could lead their mother into a state of permanent depression. Perhaps even an early death. The father would probably neglect his work and run around looking for his children. And that road eventually only leads to the bottle,” I said.

“The children, meanwhile, having somehow reached the big city, might have to face the harsh realities of life. They may have to beg for food on the streets,” he suggested, as if from experience. I knew where it was coming from. I shared that experience with my friend.

“And who knows, they could become eager recruits for one of the many crime syndicates who keep looking for recruits for their cause all the time,” I said, trying to objectively look ahead, based on extensive knowledge on the subject from years of watching Bollywood movies, especially about twins separated at birth or in the local fair.

“And one day, having achieved a modicum of success in the underworld, they might return to their town to look for their parents. Finding their mother dead and father gone to waste could only incite hatred against the world, for causing such untold misery and pain to them and their parents, and motivate them to take revenge,” he said confidently.

“And, as we know, anger can cause a dropping of your guard and lead to mistakes. In such a state one can become blind to dangers. They could invite the wrath of law-enforcement agencies, leading to either arrest or elimination in an encounter,” I added.

Even the thought of such a possibility was too much to bear.

He asked, “Do you want to be responsible for the untimely death of two school-going children and their mother, and the father going to waste over drink?”

I responded, “No, do you?”

“Not at all,” he responded without a moment’s hesitation. My chest swelled with pride. There was a reason he was my friend.

We decided to make informed, responsible choices. We decided we will not go by the train that reaches at 4 AM the next morning. We decided to take the flight, narrowly averting the calamitous chain of events we could have triggered had we taken the train.