Chapter 22 - Wrestling with Red Tape

The Prime Minister of Tawa — 22

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Inertia. If there was one word that would describe the Tawan Civil Service, it was inertia. Established by the British in the early nineteenth century, the Civil Service had strict rules and procedures for practically everything under the sun. It was so hidebound by those rules that it had changed very little over the years. Mash learnt a few home truths about the Civil Service very soon after he assumed office. Mash found that there were some bureaucrats who were lazy and would not do any work if they could help it. They were a few who were diligent and did more than their share of the labour irrespective of their reward. Quite a few were keen to butter up to him and had no qualms about snitching on their colleagues.  As long as the work was routine work, the civil servants managed to do it without much complaint. However, any deviation from routine, the smallest change from the norm, was fiercely resisted.

Every day when Mash went to work, he had the feeling of having stepped back in time.  Before he started his job, Mash had believed that good leadership was all that was lacking in Tawa. All he had to do was to teach the civil servants a better way of doing things and they would follow suit. After a month at his new job, he realised that he was mistaken and ought to have known better.

The Central Secretariat Building housed the Prime Minister’s office and all the ministries. There was not a single computer in the entire secretariat building. Every ministry had a pool of stenographers who typed up memos handwritten by the bureaucrats. There were paper files everywhere and every civil servant and stenographer relied on the numerous office boys swarming all over the place to retrieve any file. Like most other Asians, Tawans hated to say No to any question asked of them. ‘Can you please get me a list of the top fifty taxpayers in this country?’ Mash asked his personal assistant, a civil servant who went by the name Kamel. ‘Yes Raan. Definitely Raan.’ Come evening, Mash asked Kamel, ‘have you been able to get hold of that list of top taxpayers?’ ‘I’ve requested the economic affairs ministry for the information Raan.’ ‘And when are we likely to get that information?’ ‘I don’t know Raan.’ ‘Can I have it by tomorrow afternoon?’ ‘Oh yes Raan. Definitely Raan.’ The next day Kamel did his best to avoid meeting Mash’s eyes. But when Mash walked up to his corner, even before Mash could open his mouth, he said, ‘Raan, I just telephoned them, and they said we can have it by today evening.’

The next day morning Mash got tired of the whole game and telephoned Dimanan directly to ask him for the list. ‘Maheshdas-raan, your PA did ask me for this list. I shall bring you the list in a couple of hours. I shall bring it over personally.’ Dimanan would not call back the whole day. The next day when Mash called his office, he was not available. Mash left a message. Could Dimanan please call him back? Also, he would like to get hold of that list of top fifty taxpayers. Another day later Dimanan called back to say that he needed more time. ‘Can you find out from your chaps if such a list actually exists? Dimanan whispered something to the man standing next to him and assured Mash, ‘Maheshdas-raan, we do have all the statistics you need. We only need to extract the numbers.’ After two more days, finally it was admitted that such a list had never been compiled but could be prepared if required. Since none of the records were computerised, it would take time to prepare the list. Letters had been sent to individual Inland Revenue officers to provide a list of the top fifty taxpayers in their jurisdictions and once those lists arrived, they would be compared and a list of the top fifty tax payers in the country would be prepared.

Whilst the list of the top taxpayers in the country was being prepared, Mash decided that the Prime Minister’s office and the economic affairs ministry should switch to computers. He raised his proposal at a cabinet meeting.

‘Maheshdas-raan, it is a brilliant idea, but I don’t think you should implement it right now’ Vikan said.

‘You’ve just come to power. It’s too soon to make such revolutionary changes’ Nedeem agreed with Vikan.

Dimanan was not keen either. ‘Maheshdas-raan, from what I know of the people in my ministry, there will be protests. People will not be happy.’

Peelee too went with the flow. ‘All those stenographers will lose their jobs, won’t they? The CPT will use this to start an agitation. It’s just the sort of thing that’s right up their communist alley.’ He then turned to Mash and asked, ‘and what do we stand to gain by introducing computers?’

‘It will be much more organised. Data can be retrieved much faster. And it’s the way the whole world is going.’

‘I’m not sure I will be comfortable with that. I would like to have all letters and other documents in a file which I can read.’

‘We will all get used to using computers. And we are not going to fire anyone. We will train all our stenos to use those computers. Don’t your children know how to use computers?’ he asked Peelee.

‘My son does.’ Peelee’s son was at a college in India, while his two daughters had been married off.

‘So, why can’t you use a computer as well?”

‘Why should I? Maheshdas-raan, we should make changes that help us.’

‘Computers will help us.’

‘In what way? In winning elections? Or will it mean more money for us?’

‘It will definitely mean more revenue for the government. Greater efficiency means we’ll do things cheaper and faster. And that means we save money.’

‘I don’t agree Maheshdas-raan. Let’s not get into too many things. One thing at a time. Let’s have the peace treaty with Hanoleeyan signed and settled. After that we can start new projects.’

If only he had the support of his cabinet colleagues, he could make a difference! Even Vikan did not seem to be too keen to embrace this change. Mash added the computerisation project to his list of future projects. He got his list of top fifty taxpayers in Tawa after two months. All of them were ethnic Chinese businessmen.

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More by :  Vinod Joseph

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