The Indian Public Sector

(The Current Dispensation Can’t Stand it)

Think of simple deals or contracts to get something done. Like hiring a handyman to fix mosquito nets on your windows. Often you are recommended a suitable person by someone who got the job done through him. So you talk to the handyman and he explains how he is going to do the job and the material that needs to be purchased before installation. Then one fine day which you spend doing your own work at the office while in your absence the handyman comes and fixes the mosquito net on the windows. Then you return and are happy to see the new arrangement that will keep away the bugs and happily pay the prearranged amount.

A more regular arrangement is with the housemaid. She is a regular who does the dishes and keeps the floor mostly clean. The best way to continue a reasonably good arrangement is when you let her do her job in peace, without teaching her how exactly to do it. Also it won’t be nice if you thrust under her nose every little speck of dust that she missed. Since you are reasonable and value your peace you don’t do that.

Imagine also the old servant who your father hired to help around the house. He has been there since you were little. For some reason you have never liked him. Perhaps he was careful not to spoil you like everyone else was doing, rather he took care that you didn’t go astray and once reported to your father when you went to town with the friend that your father disapproved of. The old man was too faithful to your father for his own good. Now you are by yourself and he reports to you, and while you do not really like to be rude, you would really like someone smarter to help out at home.

Your friend happens to run an agency that provides help at home, among other things. The friend often sends you gifts of Laddoos on Deepawali. He has often mentioned the smart and capable housekeepers that he can provide and one Deepawali you had nearly promised that you would hire one of those. This is one guy who has treated you to innumerable drinks and dinners and it seems like such a small thing to do. You only need to get rid of the old man.

So you start picking on the old man. “Uncleji,” You address him like that because your father had insisted, “look at the dust on the floor.” Then you point out that he is not polishing the silver well enough or his eyesight is not what it used to be.

Since he doesn’t seem to be leaving for anywhere, you start asking him historical questions. Like, “Where were you Uncleji when there was the theft in the house in the year 2000? If you had gathered the courage to stop the thieves then, we would be richer still. ” I say this even though I remember well that the whole family had locked themselves inside the house, leaving a defenseless Uncle outside. Then he had shouted for the neighbors so that the thieves actually couldn’t take away everything that they wanted.

The constant querying is meant to make Uncle realise that he is quite unwanted; to make him leave. so that I can meet my obligation to the friend who treats me to drinks, dinners and Deewali sweets.

When liberalization opened up the business in India, it came as a shock to most of the PSUs. Some like Air India and BSNL couldn’t face up to the competition. But let us not forget that a number of renowned private sector industries folded up too. Kingfisher and Reliance communications did not survive.

The friends who send Deepawali sweets are not going for sick industries. They want the silver ware of Indian public sector. They were not interested in GSPC’s sick assets, nor do they want to put up money for Air India. Consequently the better PSUs of India are in a position which is not very different from Uncle’s. The government is not in the business of doing business, it says, but asks all sorts of business questions without much understanding of it. Constant jibes and grilling, including on historical occurrences, do not allow these companies time or will to perform their core functions.

Uncleji is hoping that the sooner that his function is taken over by the friend’s housekeeper, the better. But he cannot bring himself to do what his master wants him to do. He won’t resign and go.

All Narrative Adds Up

Sayings are often considered to be conclusions reached after a lifetime of experience. The thumb-rules to guide you through life. Often we study religion and philosophy to seek guidance and find the ideal to model our lives on. We also encourage the young to read widely. The story of the ascent of man is inspirational. The journey from living on trees to living in a house, or how we have moved from squatting to sitting in a chair. Especially the story of flight and the journey to space.

But that is so much in the past. The challenges in the future continue to be daunting. The risk of annihilation from nuclear weapons or the threat from terrorists inspired by religion; or both combined; the various types of threats to the environment all to do with human development and industry. The more immediate threats to life and livelihood continue to exist.

Try googling contradictory sayings. You know you can’t follow both of them at the same time. Like “look before you leap” and “He who hesitates is lost”.

Is it possible that all narrative is fiction. There is nothing to learn as all learning is either contradictory or self-defeating.

The ape sitting on his chair pressing keys on a computer has imagined a lot and created the modern world, but he has learned nothing.

Because all narrative adds up. To zero.

Beware.. the jungle-7

“Stupid, stupid…stupid,” Aron cursed himself; then realized that he had been more cowardly than foolish. Trusting Maya had been Sid’s folly. But Aron blamed himself even for that, after all he was the grown-up. But to run away leaving the poor boy alone in the jungle with the thugs was shameful by any standards. When Aron reached the town and was among people; the few people who had come out in the morning; he slowed to a fast walk till he reached home.

But Aron could not bring himself to enter the house. He knew now that he could not be at rest anywhere till he had done the right thing.

No rest for Aron

He couldn’t trust most people now, not even the police in the town. Some of them were too sympathetic to the “cause” of the rebels. Maya’s treachery had come as a shock, even though he should have seen it coming. He kept walking till he reached the bus stop and entered the morning bus about to leave for the western big city. By the time the sun was shining bright he was already half the way there.


—-x—-x—-x—-

Sid had been accosted by four men as he made his way to town and these men were very rude. He would have gone along with them anyway, but it seemed to Sid that these men were very angry about something. As soon as they met him, the small man who was older than the others gave him a stinging slap on his left cheek. when Sid raised his arms to defend himself, there was a flurry of fists from all directions till he fell down on his knees. He was ordered up and pushed across the rickety bridge east of the wharf. Soon as they had crossed the bridge, one of the men tied a blindfold on Sid’ eyes. Sid’s sense of direction suggested that they had walked for half an hour to the north at a brisk pace and then turned towards east. Thereafter He couldn’t tell for sure because the movement, though mostly on level ground, appeared to change directions frequently. He did feel the sun on his face most of the time, especially because it kept getting stronger as the morning progressed. They walked mostly east for a long time. There was no way of knowing for how long. Sid had grown thirsty so he noticed as they passed a water body.

He knew there was a water body because they let him walk into it and had a good laugh as he splashed in knee deep muddy water. After that the blindfold was removed. Sid saw that they were walking on a narrow path that had been used quite often. In front of them were hills covered in green and they began to climb up and around the hill in a winding path that led to a valley just behind the green hill.

It was noon when they stopped walking. There were several people going about and a few just sat looking at the procession of five that walked into the village.

Sid had been abducted to a village of peasants. there were small cultivated patches, rising nearly halfway up the hills. He saw sheds that housed cows. There may have been many such villages in the region. But the peasants and their families who quietly went about their work were not the only inhabitants of this particular village.

There were the ruffians who sat about playing cards as if they owned the place.

They were reasonably nice to the locals as reward for being good hosts, but of course there was punishment in store for those who would squeal about them to the authorities.

They suspected that it was thanks to Sid that Dara was in prison. Now they had caught up to the squeal and brought him here to face the punishment.

It should be an example to all.

To be continued…

Beware.. the jungle-6

“Why don’t we rush ahead and make some enquiries,” Sid wanted to ask the police what crime Dara had committed, but Aron never allowed him. “Hush,” Aron said and took him aside. Aron always knew that the kid needed to be guided with a firm hand. “Do you know the nature of charges against Dara? if these are as serious as I suspect, you don’t want to be seen sympathizing with him.”

They walked about for some time. It was still not too late and people continued to shop or go about finishing their work before returning home. Sid was still sulking. Aron hadn’t decided where they were going to put up for the night.

“Hey..Sid.” A woman called out from behind. It was Maya. She stood on the sidewalk near where a cycle rickshaw was parked on the edge of the road. There were a couple of bags on the rickshaw which had earlier contained flower stalks and another one on the pavement. Maya didn’t look at all devastated by the recent events.

Maya stood near a rickshaw

“Hey..” Sid came out of the sulk and walked back to her, “You..okay?”

“I’m fine,” Maya said quickly. “My work at the city is done, so.. I’m ready to leave when you two are.”

Sid was quiet, meanwhile Aron caught up to them.

“Remember, you promised you’ll let us ride back in your boat!” insisted Maya.

Aron spoke up,”Yes we said you could join us when we return the day after tomorrow. If your work is done already you might as well take the bus back.”

Maya held on to the rickshaw for support. She looked at Aron and tears trickled out. She couldn’t look angry anymore and turned away but her shoulders shook enough for them to notice that she was crying.

Tears Trickled out of her eyes

They left the same night. Normally a visit to the big city would have meant substantial shopping for essentials as well as novelties, but they made it very short. Before leaving, they got a great offer for lots of gear for their boat. Aron felt they couldn’t leave without fitting the boat and it was essential if they were to keep up their venture. Before starting, They remembered to make sure that the engine was clamped and the fuel was good and enough. Aron started the engine and let it warm up.

It was past midnight when they were underway.

Sid immediately went to sleep on the floor of the boat. Maya sat with her back against the front of the boat. Aron was at the tiller steer outboard motor and the boat went at a reasonable speed. They reached the wharf north of town as dawn broke. When they got off, Sid and Aron just had a single bag each to carry while Maya had three.

“Let us help you with your bags Maya,” Sid offered, “I can take an additional bag to where-ever you want to go. Right Aron?” Aron didn’t look enthusiastic.

“You guys carry on, I have someone coming to pick me up soon.”

They started on their way through the narrow isolated path to the town. While the area to the north of the river was covered by thick jungle, there was a wooded belt all along the southern bank of the river too. Aron hurried ahead thinking of family, while Sid was brooding and he walked slowly. They had walked about five minutes and Aron was calling back to Sid to hurry up when he heard sounds of voices and running feet. Several men had chased down Sid, the straggler.

Sid the straggler

On hearing the shouting, Aron reacted on instinct. He dropped his bag and ran on ahead at great speed. He didn’t slow down till he broke out of the woods and could see the houses at the edge of town.

To be continued…

Beware.. the jungle-5

“It is lavender,” Aron told Sid, “This is what they were smelling of.” Sid had never seen lavender before in his life, but knew the name of the flower from books.

Sid smelled the flower

“They must have been carrying more of this,” Sid thought aloud to account for the smell, “In those huge backpacks.”

“That much lavender must cost a lot,” said Aron, “Hey, they even transported it without paying anything. They duped us with the singing.” He started laughing.

Sid was laughing too, “Don’t worry, they are going back with us, so you better take care not to become enthralled by her this time around.”

Aron was thinking, “Remember how they were in such a hurry to leave. They must be delivering a fresh crop of lavender.”

Soon however they put the couple away from their thoughts and got down to the business of unloading and arranging to transport the load to the buyer who would turn the grain to flour. It was a lot of work for the two friends, but in the end it went well. Their work was finished the same evening, so they had two nights to spend in the western big city. As they walked out of the grain merchant’s warehouse, they faced a street full of eateries of different shapes, sizes and aromas. They ordered pulao, biryani, and cheese paranthas; masala chaas and gulab jamun.

Pulao, Biryani, Cheese Paranthas and Masala Chaas

The flavors were spicy and the biryani seemed especially pungent to Sid, who was more used to eating food cooked by his mother at home in the village, or the simple fare that he himself could prepare at his place in the town. He found the chaas, which was only buttermilk with added flavors, to be a soothing drink.

After they paid for their meal, there was a commotion outside. Though the big city was always bustling, the buzz was unusual enough and the cashier at the eatery left his counter and went out to watch. Coming out Sid saw two stout policemen escorting a lean young man. It was more like they were dragging him along, with one of the cops firmly clasping the left arm of the unfortunate fellow while the other cop held the end of a thick rope which was tightly wound to the wrist of the man.

The policemen were dragging him along

The three passed right outside the eatery. The prisoner looked at them and then away as he went. Sid gasped quietly as Aron put a heavy hand on his shoulder. Between the two policemen walked Dara who had traveled with them to the town. There was no sign of Maya.

To be continued…

Beware.. the jungle-4

The wholesaler had warned about the jungle, but he liked the fruit and paid good price for it. To Sid it felt that they were onto a good thing, but Aron wasn’t sure. Aron had spent eight years moving fruit and grain between the town and cities and was more comfortable with movement on land that he knew best. It cost more time and money but fruit and grain had always been transported in this area on tractors and trucks and before that on bullock carts.

The Subversives?

Most people never went to the northern jungle and avoided going even towards it. The stories of horror were multilayered. There was an active insurgency in the area and the jungles were hotbeds of the disgruntled who had taken up arms. Their targets were sometimes off-duty policemen but more commonly informants. They hated snitches and suspected any stranger near their hideout of being one.

There couldn’t have been many of the subversives but the political patronage for such people was strong. They became useful to carry out dirty jobs for the unscrupulous-ambitious. For a specific category of politicians a banner like this was an opportunity to collect the disgruntled around themselves.

The last person killed by a tiger in the area may have been a decade ago, but bullet riddled bodies had been discovered more recently. Powerful patronage meant that police action was taken only in response to specific incidents and not as a consistent policy to rid the region of the scourge.

They felt lucky that they were not accosted on the last trip. Sid wanted to continue their venture and Aron agreed one more time. First thing they would need was a suitable motor for their boat, to take them upstream and also to give them better control downstream. Aron knew somebody, who knew an old hand to guide them with choosing the right motor. The preparations were complete in a few days. Sid and Aron loaded the boat with grain to carry to the western big city.

As they were loading, a couple approached them. They looked like locals and spoke in the same manner. Each carried a heavy backpack which they put down near the boat. As soon as the couple arrived, there was a wonderful aroma in the air. They helped with the loading and the work was completed rather quickly. Sid and Aron thanked the man and the woman, who requested nicely to be dropped at the pier near the western big city.

A couple

The flow to the western big city was gentler and the boat went slowly as they kept the motor off to save on fuel. They were careful to see where they were going but there was no trouble this time.It was idyllic. A gentle breeze blew from the east and the woman was singing softly. Sid couldn’t make out everything but it was a song about the jungle in different seasons.

It took 5 hours to reach the pier near their destination. Though it was about half an hour more than it would have taken a truck to reach the same place if the road was clear, it was certainly more pleasant; and the truck would have cost more. Soon after they reached the pier, the couple, Dara and Maya wanted to leave. Before leaving Maya asked Sid when they planned to go back and could she and Dara possibly join them on the return trip. A date was fixed and then they had work to do.

A flowering shoot

When Sid came back on board, Aron showed him a flowering shoot he had picked up from the boat. It was about a foot long and bluish in color with a wonderful, uplifting smell or so it seemed to Sid.

To be continued..



Beware.. the jungle-3

As the boat speeded down the stream, Aron felt slightly sick. Aron was thirty two and had a family to care for. To him Sid was just a kid looking for adventure and to make money in the bargain. Aron needed some money himself and had had enough of transporting fruit and things for other traders. “Was this trip a mistake?”, Aron was thinking.

Aron

Definitely he would not like to get onto this boat again any time soon. But he had to get off it first.

Sid, twenty three, still felt good about this job. They hadn’t met with anymore difficulties after the encounter with the crocodile at the sand bar. Another hour perhaps and they should be taking the load off the boat. They were good apples, the best. He hoped to make some money on this and many more trips. Why the other traders don’t do the same, he wondered.

Sid & Aron

It was past midnight when they reached the wharf. Two of their friends had gone to sleep waiting for them. They had brought along carts to carry the fruit to town.

Arriving at the wharf

The next day when they sold the fruit to the wholesaler at the market in town, they could see that they were on to a good thing. After the financial matters were settled, the wholesaler offered them snacks and tea and in the chit-chat that followed found out the route which they had taken. The wholesaler shook his head sagely and then shook the finger of his right hand in Sid’s face. “Beware of the jungle, my boy,” he said, “Beware..”.

To be continued…