A rerun of Yes Prime Minister: Manmohan Singh on the missing coal files

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s statement in parliament about the missing coal block allocation files has pleased no one in the Opposition.

The CPM’s Sitaram Yechury complained “The PM offered no explanation as to why the files went missing.”

Actually the PM’s bland statement explains quite a bit namely that someone in the PMO must be a fan of that famous British series Yes Minister and seems to be scripting the Prime Minister’s response from its evergreen lines. As alert twitterati point out the PM’s response seems to be inspired by this little exchange between Jim Hacker’s minister and Bernard’s Woolley’s Principal Private Secretary.

Hacker:What's the difference between "we are looking into the matter" and "we are actively looking into the matter"?
Woolley:"We are looking into the matter" means we've lost the files. "We are actively looking into the matter" means we are searching for them.


Manmohan Singh didn’t use that all-important word “actively”. He said the government “is making all efforts to locate the files requisitioned by the CBI". AFP

Manmohan Singh didn’t use that all-important word “actively”. He said the government “is making all efforts to locate the files requisitioned by the CBI"  and the government “shall do its best to locate and hand over the requisite papers to the CBI within the time frame stipulated by the apex court.” But that’s only after it decides the files are truly lost whereupon “a report will be filed with the CBI for a thorough probe” – basically outlining a long road to nowhere that would have passed even the exacting circumlocutory standards of Yes Minister's Sir Humphrey Appleby.

This is the bureaucratic equivalent of the spinning wheel on a Macbook or an hourglass on a PC – Don’t disturb. Go away. Let’s hope if it spins long enough someone will get tired of waiting and just cancel the operation.

We have built up a system where seven out of 43 piles lost somewhere in the shuffle is an entirely believable scenario and the PMO knows it and is happy to take full advantage of it while protesting it has nothing to hide. The real truth hiding in plain sight is that in a bureaucracy that loves all paperwork in triplicate, redundancy has not ensured that the document one needs is always available. It has just ensured everything dead-ends in a paper maze. In other countries a paper trail is regarded as incriminating. In India, it is merely obfuscating. That visual of a government office, those piles of discoloured folders held together with rotting string, is so firmly embedded in our minds, it can easily become the first refuge of a government that does not want to cough up an embarrassing file.

It’s not that the government cannot get digitally efficient when it wants to. Collecting income tax is a classic example where the government has entered the digital age with gusto, lustily enforcing e-filing, even producing little drama-lets about it to inflict on movie goers in theatres. But when one needs anything from the government, it’s a different matter altogether.

When veteran broadcaster Mark Tully realized, at the age of 78, he needed a birth certificate to apply for the Overseas Citizen of India card he entered the great bureaucratic black hole. Atin Ghosh, a member of the mayor-in-council in Kolkata where Tully was born pleaded helplessness.

“Finding a record from that time itself is a herculean task. This is pre-Independence time and nothing was computerized then. Also, the area he had mentioned as his birth place was not part of municipality at that time; we do not have any records. We cannot issue a birth certificate to him. But he can apply for it only after producing an affidavit from a first class magistrate after convincing him that he was born in Kolkata,” said Ghosh.

What Ghosh does not say is that post-Independence the find-a-file game has not gotten that much easier. When looking for something that might be embarrassing or incriminating, the paper curtain is a wonderfully convenient smokescreen. Which government would want to give up the convenience of that excuse for inaction and denial, even as it makes pious noises about entering the digital age? A Hong Kong based consultancy report, while crowning Indian bureaucracy the worst in Asia for the 10th consecutive year in 2012 notes that Indians "use the words ‘bureaucracy’ and ‘corruption’ almost interchangeably and complain about a ‘marriage of convenience’ between bureaucrats and politicians.” We have the perfect set up for a cover up and all the political parties know it. As do bureaucrats, because as a Harvard research paper notes, the average tenure of an IAS officer is merely 16 months. Given that, who wants to find a file that powers-that-be don’t want found?

As Mohan Murti notes in The Hindu:

Indian bureaucratic elites are far more anxious to cover up the problem or even become a ‘gains partner’ in the depraved arrangement than deal with it head on. They would not even lift a finger without forms signed in triplicate, sent in, returned, queried, lost, found, lost again, and finally dumped in cold storage for some years before they are given away to the junk dealer.

As the coal gate fire heats up, there is no assurance that the missing files will ever be found since the PM has not even admitted they are really missing yet. But some lower level clerk is probably bracing to become the sacrificial bakra if the things get too hot. Meanwhile the government clearly cannot lose some files. It assiduously sends my family a tax bill addressed to my great grandmother, who would have been 127 years old if she was still alive, for a piece of property sold off long ago and which has since been swallowed up by a road the city built.

Published Date: Sep 04, 2013 03:54 pm | Updated Date: Sep 04, 2013 08:41 pm

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