It used to be a macabre French Revolution joke that the guillotine was the best cure for a headache. That spirit of destroy-rather-than-improve is rampant in today’s India with the railway board chairman, A K Mittal, telling passengers, who complained of the catering, to bring their own food. Similarly, instead of providing clean blankets, trains have decided not to supply blankets at all.
I am not sure whether the blanket decision followed Mittal’s outrageous food announcement or if it was the other way round. Either way, it would appear that far from setting a standard of quality service, the chairman matches the callous indifference of his staff to legitimate customer expectations. As a proud railwayman’s son, and having spent so much of my childhood and youth on the permanent way, in trains and saloons, and in station waiting and retiring rooms, I cannot but watch this deterioration of a once excellent service with deep dismay. I took three long train journeys two years ago, going by rail from Kolkata to Hyderabad, Hyderabad to Chennai, and Chennai to Kolkata, and was shocked at the first class air-conditioned service. Everything was filthy. The staff in grubby uniforms was interested only in tips. The coaches were bustees trundling on wheels.
But why blame the railways alone? The postal service is even more lamentable. In the 1950s when I lived in Manchester, a letter from my parents in Kolkata — then Calcutta — didn’t take more than five days at the most to reach me. Now, a letter from Kolkata to Delhi (and the other way) dawdles for more than five weeks on the much shorter journey. As a result, cheques sent in payment of bills never reach in time, and penalties mount up. If anyone complains, the postmaster general will no doubt take his cue from the railways and retort, “Don’t post letters! Send them by courier.” In fact, one might be forgiven for wondering if officials in high positions are hand in glove with private sector agencies that run parallel services, naturally far more efficiently although at a price. Gone, alas, are the days when the economist, John Kenneth Galbraith, regarded post office socialism as an essential element even of the most ultra-capitalist society.
Water is another facility that seems to be beyond authority’s competence. According to the urban development ministry, water supply ranges from a low half an hour per day (Hyderabad) to a high nine hours per day (Kolkata). Consumption is still pretty modest by global standards, the average being between 78 and 116 litres per head per day. Even so, at least 22 of India’s 32 bigger cities face an acute water shortage. Jamshedpur, with a 70 per cent gap between demand and supply, is the worst hit. It seems unbelievable that Haryana can hold Delhi to ransom over supplies from the Yamuna, or that residents of many pockets of Gurgaon are forced to buy water tankers from unauthorised suppliers, who not only charge extortionate rates but also cannot guarantee quality.
Sometimes, the shortfall is due to a ramshackle infrastructure and wasteful leaks. Sometimes, the boosting station staff isn’t technically qualified to manage the valves so that the pressure remains low. Sometimes, departmental bungling and interdepartmental rivalry result in unpaid electricity bills.
One hears a great deal from Bharatiya Janata Party propagandists — which sounds like tautology since everyone in the saffron brigade is good at boasting — about the National Democratic Alliance government’s achievements. Yet, I look in vain at the reality on the ground for corroboration. The deafening publicity surrounding Swachh Bharat hasn’t meant cleaner roads and pavements. The armies of sweepers and cleaners on the official payroll seem to be on permanent leave so that self-publicising politicians can brandish ineffective brooms before TV cameras like film stars or models. The theatrical drama of demonetisation only inflicted hardship on ordinary folk without making much dent in the terrorism we were promised it would vanquish or reducing the flow of black money. We don’t even know for certain how much was collected in those abolished notes and how much of the money raked in was illegal and unaccounted for. The whole exercise seems to have been little more than a massive publicity stunt.
The collapse of essential services like water, communication, transport and cleanliness matters far more than capturing state governments. Political control is meaningful only as the means of serving the people’s basic needs. Gimmicks are no substitute for governance. The writing on the wall isn’t erased by demolishing the wall.