When a bathroom towel restored an Indian bureaucrat’s pride

image copyrightGetty Imagesimage captionFolders and string still hold the finance ministry together, literally

Specially marked towels, height-adjustable chairs to rise above the rest, a tsunami of permissions and an unrelenting battle to improve punctuality.

These are some of the features about India's bureaucracy that a leading academic and former chief economic adviser to the government found during a three-year-long tenure.

Kaushik Basu, who later became World Bank chief economist, took leave from his position as a professor at Cornell University in the US to join the federal government in 2009, at the invitation of then-prime minister Manmohan Singh.

His newly published memoir, Policymaker's Journal, brims with light-hearted and revealing anecdotes about how India's gargantuan bureaucracy operates.

Yes sir!

The use of the word, sir, is very common in Indian officialdom.

During a government meeting, Prof Basu recounts, he decided to keep a tab on how many times the word was said.

A senior official, he counted, was saying sir, "on average 16 times every minute (there was a minister present)".

Assuming it took her half a second to say the word, Prof Basu calculated that 13% of the official's speaking time was spent saying sir.

Do have 'prior permission'

Nobody can hurt me without my permission, Mahatma Gandhi had said.

But Prof Basu found one needed permission for the smallest of things in the government. (India's government accounts for 57% of formal employment in the country.)

"The requests for permissions generally get passed up the pyramidal structure of the government; and a surprising amount of trivia go all the way to the top, namely, to the minister."

So people seek permissions for literally everything – from wanting to take off for a day to visit an ailing relative to changing the brand of coffee served in the ministry, and needing another attendant to keep the restrooms clean.

"All such proposals move in a chain of hard cardboard folders, tied with strings, from one room to another acquiring notings from senior members of the bureaucracy," Prof Basu writes.

Don't knock on the door!

Professor Basu found it is "impolite to knock" in officialdom. "Either you have the right to enter a person's office or you don't."

So if you have the right, the "norm is go right in".

"It has taken me a while to adjust to this custom, it being such a strict norm in the West to knock before entering," he writes.

image copyrightGetty Imagesimage captionProf Basu had no idea what was in store for him when he joined the government in 2009

But he faced a small problem, adjusting to the new norm.

"What made the adjustment harder is that, given the high humidity in India, many doors are swollen and jammed, and so one needs to push against them for them to open," he writes.

"The upshot is that not only do you not knock when entering someone's office, but you often end up entering the room like a cannon ball, as the door suddenly gives way."

'Delay must be avoided'

In the finance ministry, Prof Basu found that each folder to keep papers and documents had two inside pages with 44 common phrases used by heads of departments and senior officers.

What was fascinating is how many of them were about avoiding delays and being punctual:

  • Expedite action
  • Delay cannot be waived
  • Delay must be avoided
  • Delay must be explained
  • Reply today/early/immediately without delay
  • Issue today

"If despite such urging India continues to be unpunctual; we deserve appreciation for tenacity," writes Prof Basu.

Having said that, he concedes India is a much more punctual country than it was 10 or 15 years ago.

Do you have the right chair?

In official meetings, status matters. The height of a chair can give it a little boost, Prof Basu found.

"If you are on a relatively higher chair, peering down on others, it gives you an advantage in meetings."

To achieve this, Prof Basu found an easy technique.

image copyrightGetty Imagesimage captionNon-adjustable wooden seats in this government office in northern Uttar Pradesh state…

"Most Indian office chairs have a little lever under the chair, on the right hand side. Without drawing attention to yourself, reach out for the level and gently pull on it. Be careful not to pull too hard for you will be abruptly thrown up, creating a comical scene," he writes.

"Done gently, you will rise slowly and come to occupy a commanding position. The only risk, is if others at your meeting do the same, you will have no relative advantage. All participants will simply be at a higher altitude, legs adangle."

The hierarchy of towels

An early battle fought by Prof Basu's staff after he joined was access to a "large, well maintained bathroom" on the first floor of the ministry, meant for the secretaries – the highest ranking officers – of the government.

"This bathroom had three towel racks with three nicely laundered towels marked Finance Secretary, Revenue Secretary and Expenditure Secretary," he writes.

Prof Basu's staff insisted that he was entitled to the bathroom used by the senior-most officials.

"It was their pride that was being hurt. I told them flatly that I did not see myself, amidst discussion on inflation control and deficit management, slipping in a request to the finance minister that I be given access to the special first floor bathroom," he writes.

But the staff waged a valiant battle, and eventually Prof Basu had access to the "elite bathroom".

"Indeed I was pleasantly surprised to see a fourth rack with a fresh towel marked CEA [Chief Economic Adviser]".

India ranks 63 among 190 countries in the World Bank's Ease of Doing Business 2020 report, and much of the government work remains mired in a lot of ritualistic and stifling red tape.

I asked Prof Basu whether a colonial hangover accounted for such ritualism in India's bureaucracy, which has evolved from the British Raj.

He agreed: "It is a colonial hangover, sustained by the fact that bureaucrats, who have long been in a job, get to love it – a kind of Stockholm syndrome."

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