Government offices have some typical sloppy staff who tend to slow down the functioning
Babus come in different shapes and sizes, armed with varying degrees of competence or incompetence depending on what is expected of them. In every office, there is one omnipresent, dexterous, Jack of all trades, go-to troubleshooter who can be relied upon to respond to every crisis with a reassuring, "No problem sir. Ho jaayega" and somehow find a problem for every solution! They are the real warriors of government who go about their daily jobs serving not just the vast government which pays them wages, but in the process, also serve the nation, no less.
In my rather undistinguished career of 32 plus years, I have had the privilege of being assisted by quite a few of such distinguished gentlemen. I say gentlemen because this is a creed that sits more comfortably on male shoulders because the fairer sex mostly avoids the hectic manoeuvrings and subterfuge that troubleshooting often demands. 31 years of marriage has taught me not to publicly opine otherwise!
I began my first Central Government stint in 1997 as a humble Deputy Secretary after having spent a good nine years in the state cadre. My initiation to the Ministry began with the Secretary, a venerable pipe-smoking old-timer who offered his condolences to me for being posted in Social Ministry but commiserated by pointing out that at least I need not come to the office wearing stiff suits and freshly polished shoes every day, a punishment that would have visited me had I been posted to Commerce or Economic Affairs! One Joint Secretary sized me up quickly and said "You should work in my division," indicating that should that not transpire, his interest in me would cease. Another Joint Secretary before whom I bowed low enough to catch the musty smell of the carpet, turned out to be the PA actually! Finally, the last JS jumped from his chair and thumped me on the back as if I were a long lost sheep returning to the fold, and for the rest of my tenure always addressed me as "yaar", confirming that misery indeed loves company.
I soon ran into Mr G, the quintessential Under Secretary in the ministry looking after Administration. One day, he poked his head into my room, smiled and before I could say anything, disappeared just as swiftly. This I learned later was his modus operandi – make fleeting appearances, flash a smile and disappear for long periods till such time that either the problem solved itself, or, to use a favourite phrase in government offices, became time-barred! But when you did manage more than a few minutes with him, he came across as a man with a deep knowledge of government rules and regulations, especially, when it came to denying basic amenities to hapless Deputy Secretaries. Of course he never really denied anything. Take the time I asked for an AC in my room. He smiled widely and said, "Ho jaayega, sir!" Two months later, sitting in a small room on the sixth floor of Shastri Bhawan in the sweltering Delhi summer, I finally resigned myself to the whimsical moods of the water cooler whose AI apparently matched that of Mr G in its determination to assert its right not to work. After my peon was burdened with additional duties of reporting to one more officer, I requested he could be assigned to me exclusively as there were quite a few of his ilk wandering around the corridors without any clear mandate. Mr Ho Jayegaa promptly conveyed his usual assurance but after the passage of a few weeks, I was informed that the room occupied by me as a lowly Deputy Secretary was exceeding the CPWD manual by a few vital square inches. The possibility of sharing the room as well with another unfortunate colleague was vaguely hinted at and I chose the lesser of the two evils, accepting the fact that Mr G's "Ho jaayega" was actually "Kabhi nahi hoga"!
Many years later, I found myself in the hallowed corridors of North Block. This time the new avatar of babudom I ran into was Mr P. Where Mr G had camouflaged his unwillingness to do anything with a misleading "Ho jayega" smile, Mr P was more upfront in his demeanour when it came to dismissing requests with an unequivocal "Nahi ho sakta". A few weeks into my posting, I burnt the midnight oil on a weighty file and marked it to him recording my agreement with the proposal sent by a ministry. That had Mr P charging into my room with the file tucked under his arm in a frenzy of sorts.
"You can't do this, sir!" He gasped in the middle of catching his breath having run from his ground-floor cabin to my first-floor office. He insisted we return the delinquent file to the culpable ministry with a query seeking clarifications. On my observation that the proposal was crystal clear and presented no issue on which a query or clarification was warranted, he gave a look of exasperation as if I had questioned the very existence of civilization, and winced like Jeeves might have after spotting Bertie Wooster sporting a moustache on the upper slopes! Using all the will power at his disposal to control his facial expression from exploding in different directions, he lowered his voice and said, "sir, we have to return this file and ask for further clarifications. We cannot accept the proposal without questioning it. What will people think?" When I pointed out that we are here to clear proposals not create obstacles for fear of what other people will think, he rose up to his full height and, eschewing all hierarchical niceties, thundered like an Apostle delivering a commandment in capital letters," OUR JOB IS NOT TO CLEAR OBSTACLES BUT TO CREATE OBSTACLES SO THAT UNNECESSARY AND WILLFUL EXPENDITURE OF GOVERNMENT FUNDS IS CURBED."
With that he walked away, leaving me wondering what my job was and where does one draw the line between Babugiri and Dadagiri?
Views expressed are personal