Friday, February 1, 2013
THE BRIBE AND THE BABU
Omesh Saigal is a 1st class engineering graduate (1962) from IIT, Kharagpur and an IAS of 1964 batch.
Whether General V K Singh’s sudden public revelation of the bribe offer, a year and a half after it was made, was the deft move of an ex-commando or the innocent protest against civilian apathy of a third generation soldier….well, let future historians decide. For me, though, it is a bold effort of a person who stands for probity and honesty and, maybe, it is a blow against the ‘consultants’ and middlemen ridden world into which the bureaucrat has to tread. I wish I had shown just a part of his courage when confronted with a similar situation.
I had just cleared my files as in walked an Member of Parliament who, though then in the Rajya Sabha from Uttar Pradesh, earlier represented Delhi, a state where I had spent the bulk of my working years. It was soon clear that he was here to request for postponement of an order for embossing a certain statutory warning on cola bottles, which, if implemented, would cost several crores of rupees to his bottling company. “We met the minister”, he declared, “he is clear that he will do as advised by you.” His statement did not surprise me; a minister is supposed to be guided by the departmental secretary. What he said next took my goat. “How much do you think the minister will want?” he asked suddenly. It was all so matter of fact that I didn’t even think there was something amiss. “Why don’t you ask his private secretary?” was my simple retort. For a moment he may have been taken aback but soon he quipped. “Okay, Mr Saigal….tell me how much do you want?”
My response, though instant, was quite different from the General’s ‘Get out’ reaction. I sprung up in my seat: “Slap me as hard as you can, Mr….!” And, before the taken-aback MP could react, I went on: “That will cause me less pain than your query.” With just a moment’s respite, I went on: “With my retirement just a couple of months away, I was happy in the thought that at least I could spend my old age narrating stories about my integrity and probity and the fact this was appreciated and accepted by all. But, sir, you have shattered that dream. I have nothing left to count now but my meagre retirement benefits, that won’t even buy me a two-bedroom flat in Faridabad.”
I salute the solder in General Singh for having the guts to disclose a fact like this while still in service because I have been able to do so only now, a full 10 years into my retirement.
The relationship between the Babu and Bribe has always been intimate, almost like the left hand to the right. My father, who joined the imperial services way back in the Twenties of the last century, often joked: “The corrupt person is a ‘dohathad’ (two-handed)… he takes his salary with the right and uses the left to collect the balai money (bribe).”
In the ‘good’ old days the bribe was really of the nature of bakshish, a voluntary payment by the beneficiary. Even the British had found a way to ‘reward’ officers who spent almost their entire lives honestly serving the king and country. Just a few years before their retirement, they were seconded to the political service and appointed as agents in one of the princely states. It was a tradition to give dalis during Christmas. Naturally, the dali had to measure up to the ruler’s self perception and meant a substantial pre-retirement bonus for the officer.
Both the balai and the dali had one thing in common: they were voluntary. And that was essentially the nature of bribes that babus took. I found this early in my career, during my first posting in Hamirpur, UP. During tea with the SDO of the PWD, he had a visitor. Hardly any words were exchanged and the chap left leaving a few hundred rupee notes on the table. “Did he owe you the money?” I queried. “No, no”, quick came the reply; “this is my consultancy fee”. Seeing the puzzled look on my face, he continued: “You know the doctor, sees your pulse, tells you the medicine…and you pay him. Same with the lawyer….”. “But what advise did you give him?” I asked, still not clear what he meant. “Arre what else… I told him how to get his bill passed and to seamlessly get the cheque.”
It is not that all people who made balai were ‘consultants’. The SDO himself narrated the case of an engineer who cheats on cement and steel. “You know what happened to him?” The SDO confided. “A bridge made by him fell down and he is still serving a jail sentence!” He himself never let such events cloud his ‘consultancy’.
Another version of the ‘consultant’ was the babu in Akbar’s court who refuses to give up his corrupt ways even after umpteen transfers from one job to another. A not very amused emperor orders his transfer to the farther most corners of the empire. His duty: count the waves. It is not funny how he converted this too into a money making venture by not letting ships come in (of course without paying) as it would disturb the waves he was counting.
This guy may have thought of himself as a genius but he had yet to reckon with the 2G guys of our time. At least he could see the waves; the latter, who probably made more money than Akbar himself, was dealing with a much more invisible and insubstantial entity.
Whether the changeover from dali-balai to multi crore scams was seamless or can be pinned on a particular person or persons, there is no doubt the old order has changed and has yielded place to the new. The new order has given a new meaning to the word ‘consultant’, a meaning that will shake the old Hamirpur SDO out of his dhoti.
Whatever the consultant may appear on paper or through is CV, he is nothing but a middleman, an agent. His job is to get the contract awarded and then execute it through third parties….after retaining a substantial cut for himself and, of course, for the babu who facilitated his ‘consultancy’ in the first place.
The consultants have made it big now. In fact so big that they walk into offices of highly placed functionaries as was done in my case by the MP and in the case of the General by a highly ranked retired officer of the services. If Anna Hazare has made a big mark by pointing out to the need of reining in the babu through the aegis of the Lokpal, General Singh has sounded a powerful cautionary note to the babu to beware of the army of touts and agents, whatever they may call themselves.
Apart from whatever he may have done in the Rajput Regiment, this will be the greatest service the General has done to promote probity in the bureaucracy.
Omesh Saigal is former chief secretary, Delhi and secretary to Government of India.