Some years ago, I had the great privilege of serving as a judge for two consecutive editions of the Manthan Awards. Established and administered by a non-governmental organization (NGO), the Digital Empowerment Foundation, the awards are described by its organizers as “an initiative to discover, recognise and honour the best use of ICT and digital tools for developmental purposes”.
For two or three intense days, a large, eclectic team of judges—serving bureaucrats, retired policemen, senior judges, NGO activists, diplomats, social workers, technology entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, starry-eyed journalists—would sift through dozens upon dozens of entries from all over India and the subcontinent.
These entries were utterly fascinating. They came, mostly, not from the metro cities and major technology hubs but from smaller towns and cities all over India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. People improvised simple technology tools to solve local problems that mattered to them. Most interesting of all were the entries submitted by people and institutions working at the lower levels of government: villages, panchayats, districts and so on. For instance, I recall an entry by a young Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer from one of the central states. Exasperated by leaks in the public distribution chain, the officer set up an SMS-based tracking system for trucks that carried the food across his jurisdiction. Each time trucks passed certain checkpoints, observers were asked to SMS an update on the truck to a number. At the other end, a small piece of software rigged up by a local IT company tabulated these texts. If a truck took too long between checkpoints—perhaps stopping to offload grain illegally—the officer would receive an alert.
This is brilliant; I told one of the bureaucrats on the panel that they should do this in every state that has a leakage problem.
Which is when I got a schooling in public policy from the rest of the members on the judging panel. “Young, naïve Vadukut”, they said, “young, naïve , handsome Vadukut, first of all, each state in India will insist on inventing its own solutions. So if you tell Tamil Nadu, look there is a good idea in Jharkhand, they will say no thanks, we have smart people. Five years from now, Tamil Nadu will make an awards submission with the exact same idea. And we will give it a prize because then hopefully other states will plagiarize also.”
But, more importantly, they said, there was a 100% chance someone else somewhere in the government had not only thought of this idea but also tried to implement it. The Indian government, they said, is actually good at ideas. The problem is getting them off the ground. But because both institutional memory and the public memory of government experiments are mercifully short, the government can always bring up old ideas with new names over and over again till something works.
In recent weeks, I have had opportunity to remember that schooling.
Around 9pm on 6 April 1987, V. Vikramjit had an unexpected visitor at his house near Gurugram. The visitor was deputy general manager (personnel) at the corporate office of Indian Drugs & Pharmaceuticals Ltd (IDPL), where Vikramjit worked as director of marketing. IDPL was a public sector company that Vikramjit had transferred to two years previously.
In front of his family, an astonished Vikramjit was informed that his services had been terminated with immediate effect. He was then given a letter from the company’s chairman and managing director formalizing the termination, along with a cheque for three months’ salary in lieu of notice.
When Vikramjit dithered, he received a phone call from the chairman and managing director telling him he was no longer needed, and that the CMD would now handle marketing himself. It was clear that Vikramjit was being hounded out of the company. The marketer filed a court case, and, in 1992, the Delhi high court ruled in his favour. The petitioner, justice C. Nayar said, ought to have been given reasonable opportunity to defend himself.
What explains Vikramjit’s mistreatment?
Court records put at least some blame on Vikramjit’s peculiar employment status in the Indian government. He was one of 131 candidates hired in 1959 as part of the “Industrial Management Pool (IMP)” initiative. Set up in 1957, the idea was to create a pool of highly qualified managers hired from both public and private sectors. In particular, the government sought to hire specialists in general management, finance, accounts, sales, procurement and personnel. The idea was to give the bureaucracy a boost of quality at the senior levels, with a particular eye on private sector talent. Some 15,000 people applied for the first planned intake of 200. Eventually, 131 of them joined.
The scheme, however, was a failure from the very start. Not only had recruits been picked without an eye on actual requirements, but even when public sector companies needed senior talent, they preferred to stick with the traditional bureaucrats. Few IMP recruits seem to have enjoyed their experience. Even when they made it to senior levels—Vikramjit had held joint secretary grade for seven years when he was booted out—they were restrained by the “steel frame”.
Now, 60 years later, the government of India has announced plans to laterally hire 10 joint secretaries. It is not exactly the first time the government of India has had this brand new idea. Let us hope it works better this time.
Déjà View is a fortnightly conversation on history. Read Sidin Vadukut’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/dejaview
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