Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Dhanaulti Sojourn – An expressway in slow motion!

A long weekend is what I was longing, for a long time, and it finally arrived this last weekend. Thanks to the secular credentials of our land, we got the Thursday off for celebrating the birth of Lord Mahavira and thanks Jesus for the Good Friday the following day. Four straight days off from work…..what an opportunity it was to do something other than being at home!

Like always, I had no idea of the long weekend till the very last moment. On Wednesday after an exhaustive internet search, quick conversations with family, friends and acquaintances, we settled down for a less popular hill destination – Dhanaulti or Dhanolti- a small town just an hours’ drive from Mussoorie.

I was excited that we could drive to Dhanaulti, just about 350 Kms from Delhi in a few hours (even at 50 kms per hour we needed only 7 hours to get away from Delhi’s madness) and enjoy a good vacation. Equally important was the fact that we were going together- me, my parents, my wife Anubhuti and my son Neer- in a nice big vehicle courtesy my father-in-law (borrowed his Toyota Innova for the trip).

We started from Delhi a bit late and left the Delhi borders only by afternoon. The 350 km journey was slow…very slow...but we had a good time together. After all enjoying the journey is as important as the destination itself. We stopped intermittently as Neer, who is now grown up 28 month big boy, wanted to stop at the nicely maintained Petrol Pumps for their ultra clean Toilets. (Ha ha ha…but seriously..at least these chaps provided the toilets where none exist all along….this supply side constraint of toilets is tougher for ladies… gender justice for women is a far cry in this nation).

On the brighter side, we zipped past a lot of small towns and saw with our own eyes the lifestyles of the Aam Aadmi…I for once shed my political apathy (neutrality is a more acceptable word) and felt like a Congressman. Going past Dehradun, it was already dark and we somehow managed the hill roads for next few hours to reach Dhanaulti at mid-night. Exactly 12 hours to cover 348 kms…that’s really cool. Thanks to our National Highway Projects which have put our lives on the fast track. Luckily, we also got our rooms and slept well in anticipation for a new dawn among the hills.

The morning was truly amazing….we saw Dhanaulti for the first time in daylight and were mesmerized by its beauty and we were thrilled at our decision to opt for Dhanaulti over Mussoorie. The town is small, extremely quiet, with few tourists and meant for those who like to get away from the crowds. The tall “Devdar” trees envelope the entire space around and views of the valley too are breathtaking. We had a sumptuous breakfast in an open space under the sun and loved the experience. This was Day 1 and we decided to head for Chamba and New Tehri, the towns that are within 2 hours of Dhanaulti. New Tehri is a town that developed after the original Tehri town was submerged under the massive Tehri Dam reservoir. (Tehri Lake). We also visited the Tehri Lake and it is a breathtaking mass of water amongst the hills.

On Day 2, we started again with the Breakfast under the Sun and decided to spend the day in Dhanaulti. We visited the Eco Park maintained by the forest Department and Neer really enjoyed the park and the rides for the kids. Me, Papa and Anubhuti too dared to do a rope slide and that was fun too. At the spur of the moment we decided that the day was long and we could do a quick trip to Mussoorie.

So we reached the doorsteps of the famous Hill Station in an hour but could not enter the town due to a massive rush of cars that had blocked entry. We returned without landing our feet in the city where both me and my father have memories attached as we did our Civil Services Training at the National Academy of Administration situated in the town. Our wish to touch base with the Academy lost out to the traffic jam at the town’s entrance. On our way back to Dhanaulti, we had some really nice Maggi noodles at the small Rana’s Maggi palace. The rain further added to the taste of the hot noodles.

It was Sunday the next day and we had our last Breakfast in Dhanaulti. We started our journey back to Delhi and hoped to do better than the 12 hours earlier. We decided to take a different route back via Haridwar. The journey was long and we had to stop at Haridwar after 5 hours of drive for almost 2 hours due to a massive traffic jam. We thus got the opportunity to walk up to the nearest bank of the Ganges and Neer was thrilled to get playful in the cold water of the river. Also my mother got a chance to grab some holy water in a bottle.

We started again and finally reached Delhi at midnight again. We took 13 hours this time to cover the 350 kms journey. Even better I thought than the 12 hours earlier.

Despite the toil on the expressways ( super expressways) that zipped us from Delhi to Dhanaulti and back, the city of Dhanaulti and the journey together was really memorable for all the right reasons. A chance to be in a beautiful setting, a chance to spend time together as a family and a chance to see a part of the nation called India!

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Eureka- Unraveling the Bureaucratic Maze!

“Eureka”…I screamed within my mind.

Wow…i thought...may be I can get a Nobel Prize for theorising the Decision-Making patterns within a public bureaucracy and for unraveling the mind of the Civil Servants that take some key decisions especially in developing countries.

My construct is a framework explaining “Decision Making by a Bureaucracy” based on my own vague and fictional understanding of civil servants some of whom live with the dictums ‘I am Supreme’- IAS for short and ‘No One Else Can Know Better’. This confidence is rooted in the sound common sense that Civil Servants apply while taking big decisions. Their common sense is often based on their memories of what had worked for them decades ago when they joined as a young Civil Servant and when they created wonders in their field. (Doesn’t matter if the times, technology and public expectations have changed…also I have not figured out yet why with such great achievements of these civil servants years ago… we don’t see much of the fruits of their actions in our world!!)

I just got carried away. So here I return to my model of Decision making in the Civil Services. The classical model of decision making that Herbert Simon propounded claimed that Rational Decision Making was not possible as there were limits to rationality in real like situations. He believed that decision making however can be based on best available knowledge of the subject matter and the surrounding context.

Most civil servants would have studied the Simon’s Model in their training academies (they are anyway so well read that they ought to know) and indeed they have taken the model very seriously. Even when objective facts, data and information is available and a decision based on logic and clear impact assessment is possible, the civil servants do not wish to demean the words of Simon.

Thus the perfect Civil Servant overlooks objective facts, ignores reasoning, dismisses arguments (especially if the non-sense rational argument comes from a “Junior Officer”) and is guided inherently by his or her divine Common Sense. Apart from their past experiences, this “Common Sense” is, in turn, based on a common understanding of what is good for the Civil Servants.

Thus at times, the Civil Servants’ good lies in toeing the line of pressure groups, political masters, their own families, their own desires to continue in their positions or to get better placements (to serve the public better), their vast circle of friends (who are obviously attached to the civil servant out of love and affection and not attached to the position that the civil servant holds) and other such noble influences.

Another great feature of the bureaucratic decision-making is the absolute reliance on the gut based approach to decision-making and a zero tolerance for any specialist knowledge of the subject matter. A specialist with his subject knowledge, logic, objectivity and reason does not stand a chance in the Civil Service that loves to operate like a king who applies his wisdom based purely on gut feeling. After all governance is an Art and one is born as a leader to lead.

Decision-making by civil servants follows what I call a “Reverse Flow”. First, a decision is made as to what we really want as a decision (based on unstated goals). Thereafter, a process is designed and followed to lead to that decision which is justified on basis of the stated goals. Even the problem at hand, is defined in a manner that helps reach the pre-ordained decision. Wow its simple …no complexity at all!!

In such a straight forward and simple decision-making paradigm, no chance is given to reason, knowledge and sound advice to raise its head. After all, even a democracy doesn’t imply a free for all situation and indiscipline. In the end, the pursuit of such a Decision-Making paradigm is to achieve Public Welfare and Public Good. Some people with tainted vision may see elements of Private Good in such a transparent system of decision-making. I believe that such traitors should be strongly dealt with the iron hand of law. (We can try : Suspension, Transfers, Vigilance Cases, Posting to a Training Academy etc)

Needless to say, my views above, are not based on my experience in the Indian Civil Service structure. They are the general notes based on my understanding of bureaucracies operating in the lesser nations in our world. After all in India, we are the best of the lot that make it to the civil service. We, ofcourse, can’t do anything wrong. We are Supreme!!


Well the blog post is over but there is something I would like to mention as a Positive End to the story. Civil Service is among the great careers available where many stupid people do exist and they do not follow the above paradigm. Their actions are indeed marked by dare, fairness and objectivity. How else can one explain the fact the system still delivers under lots of pressures. Given a chance, the youngsters in the developing countries should try to get into the civil services and lend it a professional and mean touch of efficiency, probity and public mindedness. It is a powerful tool for governance that needs more and more adept hands to hold it.

(I am a Civil Servant in the Indian Government and views expressed are my own)

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Sand-witch Weekend to Jaipur

Sometimes I listen to my instincts like most normal human beings and the last weekend was a time space meant for some spontaneous experimentation. Life has to be interesting, after all. Working non stop in office and attempting to achieve excellence in an otherwise mediocre environment takes its toll on the psyche. (As usual, I can resist an opportunity to self-praise). So I decided to agree with Anubhuti's plea of heading to Jaipur for the "Jaipur Literature Festival" for a day. To make things further exciting we chose to travel by the iconic Indian Railways and we managed to secure tickets, somehow!

I call the last weekend, a sand-witch experience. Why? This too, shall be evident as you read through this piece.

We reached the Train Station and found that the parking had been closed for repairs. Our plan of parking for the night at the station thus was defeated by the overzealous Indian bureaucracy that is always busy repairing the infrastructure be it train stations, roads, electricity lines etc. The station being a stone's throw from my place, I had reached only minutes before train departure..so I took a cavalier decision to leave my car parked on the main road.

Still pondering about the safety of my only car (which my son Neer adores), I entered the air-conditioned wagon of my train interestingly named "Garib Rath" (The chariot of the poor). I wondered who are these "Garibs" who can afford to travel in a train with all round air-conditioning and was smiling at the politicisation of naming even our trains.

But soon I realised that it is rightly named "Garib Rath". The seats, the coaches and the train overall was shabby, littered with waste and leftover food of earlier passengers. Of course, it was the "Garib Rath" so it deserved least attention of India's biggest bureaucracy i.e. the Indian Railways. We somehow cleaned the seats to an acceptable level and ensured that our son does not catch a disease borne out of filth. Commendable though was the train matching its stated arrival time in Jaipur.

Once in Jaipur, we reached our Hotel and soon headed for the Jaipur Literature Festival. Frankly, I had my doubts about such festivals which are adored by pseudo intellectuals, but I truly found the enthusiasm and the quality of participants of remarkable quality. The atmosphere was literary, the discussions were deep and the experience was worth the effort. I am not a great book lover so I focused more on the latest fashion trends, the quality food stalls and the other displays. My wife focused (sadly for her) on the writers and their literary discourses. To summarize though, the festival was cheesy and delightful in its taste.

Next day, we readied ourselves for our backward journey by another Indian Railway train. This time our choice (which is mostly the one that is forced upon travelers by Indian Railways) was not the "Garib Rath" so I was expecting a healthier experience and a decent value for the money spent on my ticket. The coaches were cleaner (it was a higher class this time) and that was immediate relief for all of us. Our son could at least roam about the coach (the reason we thought he would enjoy the train ride).

Soon however, we experienced the anticipated quality deficit in some other aspects. There was a regular stream of railway personnel who kept coming with a range of inedible quality foodstuff from the train pantry. We bought the soup which was horrid, tried the tea which seemed like a newly discovered beverage and dared to try some snacks which were too salty as well as stale. While we were reluctant to order the dinner, our co-passengers ordered a meal and we too followed his footsteps. We were not surprised, even the dinner was a disaster.

I was wondering, why am I being forced to pay for such food and such service? The answer quickly dawned on me...How else Mr Nimish, the railway would continue to be a monopoly and support a workforce of a million plus. Further, the Railway epitomized in a nutshell the experience we citizens have with our bureaucracies, with the customer care of our telecom providers, with our banks etc. Thankfully, sectors which have greater competition have managed to provide some quality and choice but others like Railways had no reason to improve. And of course, the Railways is known for taking great care of its own Officers (many of them are my friends for the Civil Services) so the experience of a choice-less traveler really doesn't count.

Creditably though the train arrived in Delhi on time and there was further cheer as our car was safe. We reached home after a great Sand-witch weekend, in which the cheesy festival was placed in between the bread-full (sounds like dreadful) experience on the two trains.