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Over and Above Syndrome
by H.N. Bali Bookmark and Share

One of the continuing vestiges of our feudal past is what, for lack of another appropriate name, may be called the 'Over and Above' Syndrome (O & A Syndrome). (It has a more descriptive name in Hindi - about which later.) The British inherited it from the Muslim rulers and bequeathed in a better organized shape. After Independence we not only gave it a fresh lease of life but made every effort to perpetuate it. After all, there is nothing very exciting when you get what’s your due (like your monthly salary). However, if you receive something over and above your deserts, it is a pleasant thrill.

How do you define it? The devil, as they say, is in detail. The best description I know is in one of Munshi Prem Chand's short stories. A middle-aged man of meager means had a marriageable daughter. He was, like most Indian parents (then as much as now), looking for (what Vikram Seth would call) a "suitable boy". He approached several "parties" (as prospective matrimonial alliances are called before the deal is cut and sealed). Ultimately, the choice zeroed on a young lad employed as a minion in a Government office. The incumbents of permanent Government jobs always carry — again, then as much as now — an aura of eminent eligibility, assured by a pensionable permanent job. (Not then, but now the salary is indexed to the ever-rising prices. Are you surprised at trained aeronautical engineers opting for the Indian Administrative Service?)

Anyhow, to make sure that his darling daughter will be assured of a comfortable life, the man asked the father of the prospective groom: "How much, Sir, does the boy earn?"

"Oh, that might not be much", the proud father of the young lad replied with a majestic flourish of his hand, "but he certainly makes enough over and above that" (The actual words in the story, as I recall, are: uper ke char paise bana leta hai: literally, four paise in the then (as much as current) common parlance figuratively meant "sufficient amount.")

What a job fetches over and above the declared salary was then (and much more now) very important indeed. Any policeman will corroborate this. First and foremost, it carries no tax liability. (It's like moonlighting whereby the unemployed in present-day welfare States supplement their social security cheque). In those good old times even meager regular earning was enough to ensure a decent life style. And living on the "over-and-above" income, the "real" salary could be treated as saving for the future.

As a matter of fact, most Government jobs had ample scope for making something over and above whatever was officially paid as salary. It suited the employer i.e., the then Government of India because it could keep the lid on low wage structure. Those in authority knew pretty well that people down below were making enough money otherwise to live comfortably and pray for the continuation of the Raj. Often, if not always, such income was an extraction from the poor who came in contact with Government functionaries like the patwari in the village or the tehsildar in the tehsil offices or the collectorate staff in the district headquarters. But that didn’t matter as it hardly matters even now.

That rare brandy

Sir Akbar Hydari the celebrated administrator of his day as the diwan of many a princely state during British rule, once told the story of a bottle of brandy costing over ten thousand rupees, and that too in the 1930s. Very, very rare distillation from the choicest of cognacs, you may wonder. No, it was an ordinary IMFL (India Made Foreign Liquor). Why then this exorbitant price label? You may ask. Simple. When Sir Akbar was the Diwan of the State of Mysore, he had under him in the diwan's office a head clerk, a great believer in over and above income. When a caller showed up in the office, he asked him before being ushered in: "what nazarana (i.e., present) have you brought for His Highness?" Dumb-founded, the rustic fumbled his apology. "Alright, alright there is no time to waste now. Pay ten rupees for this bottle which I will present on your behalf". And he would grab the note to deposit it in his pocket and tell the poor devil to touch the bottle which he tremblingly did.

Day after day — and several time in the day — the bottle would be touched by many a supplicant's hand. And that led to the phenomenal incremental increase in its price touching thereby the Rs 10,000 mark by when Sir Akbar came to know about its existence. Needless to add, that great administrator had it collected to retain it as one of his prized possessions. (Who ultimately drank that rare vintage, I don't know). There must indeed have been thousands of such bottles not only in the capitals of the princely states but also what was then called VT (Viceroy's Territory). And behind each bottle are the unrecorded stories of poor men from remote villages who had to walk back home with un-redressed grievances and deprived of whatever little cash they had.

Is it that the powers-that-be were unaware of what was going on literally under their noses? Most certainly not. They knew it all very well but condoned it because they wanted to create a class of people in India who had an unshakable stake in the Raj which magnanimously provided them jobs with lucrative incomes over and above what they were supposedly paid. They were, along with Rai Bahadurs and Sardar Bahdurs the real pucca supporters of the Raj.

Among the assured regular recipients of incomes O&A their salaries were — and continue to be — the members of the Indian police force. Once you joined their privileged ranks, you didn't have to look back, or around. Each passing day deepened their stake in the continuation of such a marvelous system of governance which assured income not just O&A, but far in excess of their official salaries. How sorry they were, for a while, when the reins of the Government changed hands. What a great relief it must have been to discover that after Independence, it was business as usual. Their experience has taught them that rulers come and go, political parties take their turns, but the system and its wonderful arrangements continue undisturbed. The French have a wonderful phrase for it: plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose: the more things change, the more they stay the same

The over and above syndrome played an important role in determining the curves and contours of the commanding heights of the public sector in our economic plans. Once in place, it gathered its own momentum. Most importantly, it developed, in due course of time, a finesse in both the collection and distribution of the money generated through the tricks of the trade. It had well-established precedents to fall back upon. It's, for instance, a matter of common knowledge that the money collected from the city hawkers on the streets — called hafta — is, in turn, distributed from top to bottom. The Police Commissioner has his share as does the (supposedly) ill-paid constable. So, each one within the charmed circle swears by the system enshrining the O&A Syndrome and says a prayer every day before setting out to work for its continuation for ever and ever.

As a young man I once appeared before the Chief Presidency Magistrate in Calcutta to swear and sign a declaration on behalf of my employers. Papers were duly presented and approved. As I walked triumphantly out, the clerk, under the gaze of the great upholder of law, stretched his palm threateningly. Quivering with trepidation, I put the first currency note I could recover from my wallet, and dashed off lest I should be hauled up for giving a bribe. Later, I learnt that demanding baksheesh was a time-honored tradition of the courts of law.

As we became independent, there was, for once, a chance to dismantle the administrative structure bequeathed by the British. Hard pressed by demands to maintain peace and amity in the world, Jawaharlal didn't have the time for such mundane matters apart from making an occasional statement for record. Those who spoke out against such goings-on were effortlessly sucked in the system, becoming what they call part and parcel of it. Soon the bureaucratic culture acquired a priceless new attribute, namely, to attend only to that work which fetches something over and above the salary which at any rate accrues automatically once you are on the Government rolls. You don’t have to work for it.

Bewildering varieties

Breath-taking indeed are the shapes and forms in which O&A Syndrome manifests itself in our national life. It is by no means confined to the corridors of power though it thrives there better than in other soils. Take, for instance, the work place in the organized sector of the economy. Whether it is the shop floor of a factory or the hall of an office, everyone working there takes his job for granted. He or she is there for the rest of his working life which by some weird calculation had earlier been fixed at 58. One of the unnoted achievements of the BJP-led coalition Government is to stretch this limit to 60. Till retirement, no power on earth — so it is assumed — can remove an incumbent unless he does something downright criminal — like eloping with his boss's wife. (Even then he is — at least to begin with — suspended and continues to get about half of his wages or salary till he's adjudged guilty which, given our legal system, can easily take a couple of decades.)

There is no incentive for him to do the day's work expected of him for the simple reason that he can't be removed from the job for non-performance. And whether he performs or not, he's entitled to annual increment in his scale and, also — perhaps more importantly — increased DA installments to counter inflationary pressures in the economy. And should be choose to perform, he knows there is no recognition thereof nor any means of rewarding the same. Hence, why bother to exert? Do, therefore, the very minimum to avoid remotely possible trouble!

During the late 1960's when in the wake of the eclipse of the Congress Party the United Front came to power in West Bengal, workers in factories and offices started flexing their muscle. A catchy slogan was coined that hasn't lost its resonant ring till today: Asar jawar jane baten hoi-lo: Kajer jane over time chai. (Wages are ours for coming and going: if you want us to put in some work, pay overtime.) And since then paying OT is the only motivational technique for increasing work output. And as the festive seasons draw near — in our multi-religious society they come fairly regularly — more OT has to be paid to look after demands over and above the usual ones.

Let me quote an instance from the ordnance factories of the country. We have 40 of them. (I hope I'm not giving away some well-guarded defense secret). Over 40 percent — some time as much as half — of the year's targeted production is done in the January-March quarter of the financial year. Not that climatically, the quarter is most conducive to work output or there is a pressing sense of obligation to meet the target. It is just because all the factories work to what is called "systematic overtime", say, 50 hours per week which is five and a quarter hours more than the scheduled 44 and three-fourth hours per week, and for which extra work everyone — workers on the shop floor and their comrades-in-arm (cooks in the inspection bungalows, drivers of staff cars, chowkidars at gates) get paid at double the hourly rate. There is no absenteeism during the quarter. Everyone reports for work even if he has both his legs in plaster so that he could — as the phrase goes — "enjoy" overtime.

And, come to think of it 'enjoy' is the word that sums up the work ethic i.e. extract from the management the maximum possible you can over and above what is yours by the inalienable right of your employment. In the April-June quarter production plummets. Having worked so hard everyone plans to enjoy the leave — and there are several types of leave — that he's entitled to. The British were farsighted indeed. As inducement to work they offered Indians myriad types of leave that have no parallel anywhere in the world: yearly leave, sick leave, casual leave, short leave, leave with full pay, leave with three-fourth pay, leave with half pay, leave with quarter pay, and leave without pay. You name any conceivable variety, the leave book has it. The only leave not mentioned is the undeclared one which is endearingly called French leave.

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Comments on this Article

Comment As a babu I am intimately acquainted with this syndrome, but I could hardly improve upon this magnificent narration. Best account of this syndrome during the British rule is that by Bankimchandra - his Muchiram is an unforgettable character.

01/03/2013 08:35 AM

Comment I was wondering for a long time how the corruption was during British Raj.The foundations laid then has risen the structure so high now, only dynamiting it will make it crumble.So many Indians have benefited in so many ways due to this hafta culture,it has become the character of the nation.

12/30/2012 03:16 AM

Comment Well written

BS Murthy
12/29/2012 03:31 AM

Comment Here are some anecdotal examples of how O and A syndrome has been refined In some countries that now form part of the Commonwealth:

Customs officer to an overseas visitor, “Sir, what present have do you brought for me?”

Administrative Officer to his subordinate: "This (your) share of cocoa (or sugar cane) production cannot be sold due to spoilage. they are rotten.”

Court official to a lawyer: “As we are so short staffed, It will take us a while to locate the case file. However, as you know, s/he who sprinkles water ahead will not walk on a dusty steet.."

Exchange involving a policeman, lorry driver, and a bicycle repairer:

Policeman: “I am detaining your lorry load of fridges and air conditioners as your particulars are not in order.”
Lorry driver: “Sir, I cannot afford another delay. My papers are in order.”
Policeman: “Go and have a word with the bicycle repairer over there…if he pleads on your behalf I may let you go”

Minutes later, the bicycle repairer returns with the lorry driver:: “This man has ten children For the sake of his family, please let him go.”
Policeman to the lorry driver: Ten children for a big man like you, is that all? OK go!

The lorry driver thanks the policeman and drives off.
Bicycle repairer to policeman : “Boulder number 3 Sir”

Felix Labinjo
12/28/2012 03:22 AM

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