Thoughts & Ideas

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Election - Post Script

I was carrying Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American” with me. Mid November was nice weather and I was reading this book sitting on a chair in the shade. Suddenly I heard felt that someone was peering over my shoulder. I turned around to see this unkempt guy who looked like a total anguta chhap, also reading the book and giggling.  I was at that time reading the incident about Americans getting blood tests before getting married. It turned out that though he had only studied till class 5, he had worked somewhere (Delhi or Mumbai) for 20 years in some capacity and was quite fluent in English – spoken as well as written!

Tiger Singh the sub-inspector accompanying me was around 38-40 then, wiry and tough (no paunch at all) but otherwise nondescript. When we reached the village where we spent the night (on the way to the polling booth) Tiger requested the sarpanch to make arrangements for our dinner. It was about 8 pm and the sarpanch sort of demurred and said it was quite late and in turn suggested that he would make atta, baigan etc available and we should make litties for ourselves. Tiger immediately retorted, “Mere Huzur litti khayenge? Roti sabzi ka intazam keejeeye.” I had to sort of coax him into agreeing that litti was ok for me. Then he put the constables to make the litti chokha.

On the way back, we reached the police station where we had to deposit the sealed polling boxes. People and boxes were flowing in from all the nearby booths. By the time we could free ourselves it was about 7 pm and quite dark. We were left to fend for ourselves in making our way back to Patna. We were about 14 kms down a side road from the Patna – Mokama highway. I was getting worried on how or by when we would reach Patna. But within 15 minutes Tiger located a jeep which was travelling down till the highway in which we all piled in. As soon as we reached the highway, he flagged down a passing truck going to Patna. Tiger and myself sat in the driver’s cabin. The constables got onto the top. We reached Dak Bungalow chauraha by 9 pm the same night. Tiger dropped me there, got me to sign some scrap of paper to the effect that all is well, saluted smartly and went away. I did not get a chance to meet him again, though I was in Patna for about 4 more years. I also did not make any effort to meet him. In those days, I had some very screwed up ideas about guys in khakhi.

It is strange how all these memories come back when you think about it!

I regret I was not carrying a camera but hope that technology would develop in the near future so that people’s memories can be projected as pictures! As and when that happens I plan to capture all those memories again in colour!

The Election - Some Interesting Feedback

I had posted the blog on my experiences in how polling is conducted in India. I have very interesting feedback from two of my close friends of their experiences. I give their first hand account below:

CK’s Experience:

It has been a long time since the election you have mentioned about. Things have changed quite a bit. I relate my experience below for a better appreciation of the scene today.

I am luckier or less lucky (depending on the way you look at it) than  you because I have had the oppurtunity to participate in conduct of nearly all parliamentary / assembly elections since long in varying capacities as Presiding officer, Static Magistrate or Patrolling cum Collecting Magistrate.

The earliest election that I recall was that of Sahebganj assembly constituency in 1993 in Muzaffarpur District, where I was presiding officer of a booth.My experience was worse than what your had undergone in 1991. The election was total farce. Laloo's stars were ascendant those days and one of his close confidant's and a candidate acutally walked inside the booth with his security guards wearing side arms. That is not permitted at all as you know. It would be evident to anyone that goons had terrorised the voting public and what followed was a very systematic stuffing of ballot boxes. Like a well oiled operation four goons formed a queue, the first one tearing the ballot paper from the book and forcing me to sign and then putting thumb impression on the counterfoil using fingers of his  hands in turn, the next one folding ballot paper properly in the manner required, the third one putting "cross" mark and finally the fourth one inserting teh ballot paper inside the ballot box. For the first time I had a first hand experience of what  was called BOOTH MANAGEMENT.The other polling officers and the security (Bihar Government BMP) stood a mute spectator. I realized that I was powerless to do anything in this remote area. In fact, I didn't even know in which direction to run, if things turned ugly. There were no cell phones at that time and there was no way to summon any help. Nevertheless, I took courage in my hands and slowed down the pace of signing the ballot paper. By 4.00 pm , as soon as voting stopped, I moved quickly to ensure that all ballot boxes were sealed and secured inside bags. When we got down to calculating the ballot account, it became apparent that voting percentage had been restricted to 65% only. My God, were they furious. They roughed me up and the presiding officer of the other booth. They wanted to reopen the boxes and wanted to see the percentage nearer to 95%. Fortunately for us, our collecting magistrate arrived and we started our journey back to the Ballot Box Collection Centre. Depositing Ballot boxes with Voting account was an ordeal from which could be free only by 2.00 am the next morning.

When I compare that experience with the most recent one of the parliamentary elections, in which UPA II came to power, the difference is that of between heaven and hell.I was Patrolling cum Collecting Magistrate at Bihta constituency, Patna District. This election was really something to be proud of as a citizen as also someone who actually helped in conduct of this election. First with electronic voting machines, all the ills of paper ballot have disappeared in one stroke. All that you have to ensure is that they are in proper working condition. Being in suitcase form, these are light and easy to carry. With Central paramilitary forces in charge of security, there is no fear for the polling party and they are also very capable of controlling the crowd with tact and firmness. As a patrolling and collecting magistrate, I got the all the help that was necessary in a very smooth and organised way, be it the  force squad, transport or the voting machines or organising the polling parties of the five booths which I was supposed to supervise and finally locating places where the booths were located. In fact, even our overnight stay was organised at a local centre with mattresses, generator for electricity, mosquito coils, the works. I was impressed. Election commission has really got its act together and hats off to them. They even had an SMS based reporting system, though it didn't work very well due signal absence at many places. However, the District Control Room kept telephoning you up at intervals to find out if everything was OK. That was reassuring. The voter turnout was impressive with ladies outnumbering the gents. For the first time, I also saw that lady voters had a mind of their own, which they were not willing to disclose to anyone including their husbands. Indian ladies are emerging from the shadows of their men-folk, it seems.

At one of the polling booth, where I had reached during course of patrolling, I found that village Mukhia and his henchmen were trying to gain entry inside the polling booth on the pretext of cleaning up school where the polling booth was situated, arguing that the school was in there charge and they needed to clean it for the following school day. He was told in no uncertain terms by the presiding officer that for the time till election was on, he was in charge of this area and Mukhia's presence was neither desirable nor required. If he insisted, force could be used against him. The Mukhia beat a hasty retreat and I thanked my stars that matter was solved without requiring my intervention. Voting stopped at its scheduled time and all the ballot machines had been sealed and collected by 5.00 pm and we were on our way to A N College, Patna. We had deposited the Ballot Boxes and Ballot account for all five booths by 8.00 pm and I was home having bath and dinner after hard but satisfying day's work. For once people were allowed to speak their mind without fear or favour in the ballot box. This was representative of the experience my other fellow officers had. If this experience is an all India experience, one can say that, people are allowed to speak their mind in India.

SK’s Experience

To see the dynamics of Indian democracy up-close is really a great experience - you were lucky. I also had the chance to be a Polling Agent (all for parties which were against the ruling dispensation of the time) in 2 Lok Sabha elections, and in the next one, after I joined SBI, to act as a Magistrate - like you. It was an unforgettable experience like yours - the best part was when I discussed the strategy for maintaining law & order with the Police Inspector assigned to me. His reply was cool . Sir, he explained " we will be stationed at the central booth (A), and if there is any news of a disturbance from, say, booth B, we will immediately move on to booth C ". Seeing incomprehension and surprise on may face, he explained further - "you see, I have 12 bullets in my stock, and six (Home Guard) constables who have not really fired a shot in years, wear sandles instead of shoes, and have ropes around their waists in place of belts , and the nearest Police Station is 22 KMs away (it was a 4 hours journey for 22 KMs, by an old Bedford Truck) !!" I bowed my head with respect at his wisdom - the dictum that discretion is the better part of valour was incarnate in his person!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Election

This happened a long time ago, in November 1991 to be precise. However, the events were so novel, interesting, and forceful that the memories are still vivid and fresh in my mind and it does not feel that more than two decades have elapsed.

India is touted as the world’s largest democracy and one of favourite hobbies of us Indians is to criticize our politicians and our political system. As a true Indian, I have also willingly participated in this national pass-time. However enjoyable this activity was, deep down I always felt like a hypocrite, since the right to criticize coexists with the duty to participate in the political process. And till that time I had never been remotely actively involved in political processes of any kind.  Say it be school or college union elections, municipal elections, building society elections, leave alone state assembly or parliament elections. This was partly due to apathy and partly because having lived a very peripatetic existence I have always been an outsider in every social milieu that I have inhabited.

This dilemma had been gnawing my innards till the time I reached adulthood and all my efforts to rectify this deficiency in essential experiences of civic life went in vain. By the time I got myself enrolled as a voter at any town, I had to move to another city by the time elections were called. In this profound dilemma I was suddenly offered an opportunity to be directly involved in the election process.

It so happened that a by-election was to be held for the Barh Lok Sabha constituency (near Patna) and State Government employees who are normally co-opted for conducting this exercise were unwilling to take up the challenge. Therefore, the Govt. of Bihar called on volunteers from amongst bank staff and I seized this opportunity and gave my name as a volunteer. All my friends chided me for taking this foolhardy step, explaining all the dangers and pitfalls of such a (mis)adventure. Tales of booth capturing, shooting of polling officials, and other difficulties were described to me in gory detail. But I had made up my mind and the secret Walter Mitty kind of feeling kept my spirits up and I could not be dissuaded. Finally, the parting advice of my friends and well wishers was that I should not try and be a hero, and if the opposition in the form of booth capturers or other village musclemen wanted their way I should let them do what ever they wanted. He who runs away one day lives to fight another day!

My election duty involved my being given the rank of “Static Magistrate” and being allotted an ultra sensitive booth at a village about 40 km from Patna. The underlying logic being that the police need written orders from a magistrate before they are permitted to shoot and so each police party has to have an accompanying magistrate. Two days before the big event, we were briefed on our duties by the local City SP which basically was an extortion not to be afraid in performance of our duties and the need to take care in evaluating the ground situation before giving written orders for firing. Easy things to say from the air-conditioned environs of the briefing room (a local theatre).

One day before the Election Day, I reported at the place where the elections were being coordinated from – a large field which looked and felt like a village fair. After some effort I succeeded in locating the person I was to report to. Thereafter I was allotted a police party consisting of a sub-inspector and four armed constables and asked to proceed to a particular village. I did not have the foggiest idea as to where this village was located and how to reach that place. But the police sub-inspector allotted to me took immediate charge. I forget his name, but faintly recollect that he referred to himself as “Something Singh Tiger”. Tiger proceeded to locate a police jeep which was going in the general direction of where we had to go. This jeep then dropped us (me and the accompanying 5 policemen) at a village about 4 km from our final destination by late evening. This place was the nearest point having an all weather metaled road from the village where we had to reach. Tiger promptly sought out the village sarpanch and directed him to make arrangements for our night stay and evening meal. The sarpanch, arranged for us to sleep on straw mattresses in the village school and also for our dinner (delicious litties and chokha).

Next morning Tiger woke me at about 4 am, since we had to walk the remaining distance and reach the polling station before the polling was to start. It was a stiff 1 hour walk through village unpaved paths and through fields, partly barren and partly planted with wheat and vegetables. We reached the village well in time and he was satisfied with the location of the polling station. It was the village school or to be more precise the remains of the village school. The building had only 2 walls standing and no roof! Though I understand things have much improved in Nitish’s Bihar.

Tiger was happy with the location since it was on a slightly higher ground, a little away from the village and one had clear line of sight in all directions for at least 200 meters. This was important he explained since one would have enough time to prepare in case we were attacked. It seems that in the previous elections, the booth at this village had been located inside the village and had been attacked by armed men and there had been a few casualties.

It was a glorious day in mid November with lovely blue skies, perfect temperature, and little humidity. I really looked forward to spending the day in the village and experience at first hand the process of real grass roots democracy in action.

By about 8 am, the polling started. First the tribal and so called dalit inhabitants of the village came to cast their votes. Men and women came in a much disciplined manner, quietly formed a queue and cast their ballots. It was explained to me that this group’s vote enblock for the Indian’s People’s League (if I remember correctly) and was coordinated by volunteers of the communist parties. I was impressed with their discipline and demeanor. There were about 100-150 odd voters in this group and they had completed their voting by about 10 am. Over the next couple of hours people kept on coming in groups to cast their votes.

Some time by mid day, Tiger had made arrangements for my lunch at the house of the village chowkidar. An old dark wizened man in dark blue kurta with a shirt collar and white dhoti. It was very simple but tasty fare and, while sitting at the old man’s house (a hovel by any standards) by way of making small conversation, I asked him as to whom had he voted for? He unhesitatingly and with pride replied that he and his family always voted for the Congress Party. I asked him why? The logic of his answer was simple and direct and in form of a counter question. He asked me “If Gandhi Mahatma had not come would you have had eaten food in the house of a harijan?” (Agar Gandhi Mahatma nahin aaye hote kya aap mere ghar ka khana / pani khatein?) The answer stunned me and I had nothing more to contribute to the conversation.

By this time it was about 1 pm and I went back to see how the polling was progressing. I noticed that the same set of people seemed to be hovering around the polling station. The regular line of people coming to vote and leaving was missing. As a static magistrate my work was not to ensure that fair polling was taking place for which there were polling officials. My work was only to sign the order permitting firing if any untoward incidents took place. However I was intrigued and tried to find out as to what was going on. It was very patiently explained to me that it is not individuals who support and vote for a particular candidate, but families. As such, if there were 15 people in a family it was difficult for all 15 to come and cast their votes. In fact it was unnecessary for all 15 to come. So 1 or 2 people came and took ballot papers for 15 people and voted on their behalf. This practice seemed strange to me, but appeared to be accepted wisdom by all the regular participants.

Polling was to continue till 5 pm as per rules, but sometime by about 2 pm, Tiger came and informed me that he planned to get the polling wound up latest by 3 pm. He explained that after the polling was over, it was our responsibility to escort the sealed polling boxes to the nearest police station. The polling boxes were to be manually carried over a distance of about 4 kms on the heads of labourers specially retained for the purpose. Since the way was through fields, with no roads, and it would become dark by 5 pm it would be highly unsafe if we failed to reach our destination by that time. I was more than a little skeptical about being a party to so blatant a deviation to rules. But even this problem was solved by the intrepid Tiger.

He called together all the polling agents (of the different political parties), and assorted hangers on and subjected them to a series of questions. First, he asked them what was the total number of registered voters for that particular polling booth? The answer came to about 800, a number to which all agreed. Then he asked them as to what number of votes had been cast till that time. The answer came to say about 400. Then he asked if it was true that if the voting percentage was over 80% there would necessarily be a re-poll, and were the people there agreeable to such a re-poll. The unanimous response was no one was interested in a re-poll. Then he came to the crux of the position. Eighty percent of 800 (total number of registered voters) came to 640. Since 400 people had already caste their votes, a maximum of 240 votes could still be cast without there being any risk of re-polling. Then he proceeded to ask the assembled poll agents how many votes each could command, and then went on to calmly distribute 240 blank ballot papers to them based on their agreed strength. There was very little disagreement among the poll agents or the village big-wigs in agreeing on this distribution. Finally, the polling agents stamped these ballot papers in favour of their individual candidates, which were then handed over to the poll officials to be stuffed into the ballot boxes!

This I realized is how true Indian democracy works at the grass root level. I wonder how the same process is carried out in present day conditions of electronic voting machines!

Thursday, May 09, 2013

On Learning Banking

Twenty seven years ago when I joined the banking profession, learning banking skills consisted essentially of on-the-job training at branches which was interspersed with class room training by in-house instructors. Apart from some very few specialists (who virtually did not have a career in banking), recruitment in banks for managerial positions was solely by way of selection of promising youngsters who could be groomed for leadership roles in banking.  Prior knowledge of banking, economics, management, law or any other banking related was considered desirable but not necessary.

As and if one moved up the organizational hierarchy, the training and grooming followed the same pattern of learning by doing, along with sporadic training at in-house training centres. If you were very lucky or rather good at “managing” you could be sent to attend courses at specialist institutes or with other organisations. Though, in the organization where I spent my formative years there was a strong culture of “mentoring” which was done quite informally. One picked up skills through hearing stories and by having your work supervised by an experienced senior. 

According to perceived wisdom of the times banking was done at branches, which were in turn controlled from so called administrative offices. So to learn “banking” one needed to know the how and to some extent the why of processing transactions at branches. It was considered the end all and be all of banking. Once that was learnt one could administer branches sitting at administrative offices where the key skill was to have general management skills along with good communication skills – which meant ability to speak and write clear, concise, intelligible English. Over and above this to have a successful banking career, one needed good manipulative skills which was euphemistically known as handling things “tactfully”.  

As such, learning banking boiled down to understanding how to manually process records and transactions while the class room training was meant to impart knowledge of why a certain procedure was done in a certain way. One grew up as a banker with the feeling that the qualities of a “good” banker consisted of the ability to add up a long series of figures with accuracy, finding out mistakes in maintenance of books through a process known as balancing, calculating interest amount through two different procedures – the daily product method and the monthly product method - putting through trade finance transactions, knowing how to handle sundry legal issues such as making payment in case of monies lying in the accounts of deceased account holders etc. Since most of the core banking skills were imparted by the clerical staff at branches, who unfortunately lacked deeper conceptual knowledge of banking, financial markets, or marketing, overall skill levels remained at a very low level. 

The ultimate in banking skill was being able to reconcile something called “Clean Cash”. This was basically a manual process of checks and balances to ensure that all entries for the day at the branch had been put through in the correct accounts with accuracy. A good friend has very graphically described the situation in these words; “Clean cash was a nightmare ! I remember that in most cases, very grim faced personnel ran that corner of the office. Imagine the chagrin then that must have accompanied the masterly bearing of these men when certain entries, unreconciled after sheer toil and damage to a lot of head and hair, should find a magical resolution as if by divine intervention alone, upon the production of some missing vouchers by the corner chaiwalla !!   A senior colleague, with an inimitable sense of humour, once recounted that after a hard days labour extending well into the night reconciling the Day Book, as he approached his doorway in a by-lane off Calcutta’s famed university locality of Jadavpur, the dogs rebuked him with a bark that uncannily sounded  ... daybook daybook daybook !!!!!

Though the biggest bug bear used to be something called balancing and small armies of experts used to be engaged in a continuing war to balance the bank’s books. With increasing pressure of transactions on manual systems this was inevitable. Overall, the entire “learning banking syndrome” was geared towards managing the manual systems of accounting which had evolved into an extremely complex, unwieldy, leaky, and ugly monster and needed constant and close attention along with a lot of coaxing.   Some other interesting much admired skills used to be managing the inter branch reconciliation, managing the drafts account, calculating interest using something called monthly product and daily product etc. and, of course, maintaining ledgers. 

I came across some very sterling men, both clerks and officers, who used to take much pride in the quality of ledgers they maintained with all entries made in beautiful handwriting and all particulars carried correctly from folio to folio. But such men (and women) were few and far between and stating that the condition of most ledgers were pitiable was quite an understatement. 

After learning the skills of general housekeeping, the more smart ones got into the law and practice of banking. This involved being able handle some very typical situations which came up virtually on a daily basis. Things like how to enable operations in the account of an illiterate pardanasheen woman account holder. Banks had a policy of identifying its illiterate account holders who could not sign on the basis of their photographs. But what was to be done where the account holder refused to show her face for religious or personal reasons? There were well laid down procedures for handling such situations. And of course how to handle every conceivable eventuality was listed in some circular instruction or the other. There were specialists, whose only work consisted in recalling the circular in which a certain instruction was given. These holy men, did little productive work, but deigned to give their advise only after the mistake had been done! 

Most of these skills were learnt in course of story telling sessions which used to be virtually endless. During work, in the canteen, at the nearby tea shop, at training centres,  during after office get togethers, at the office picnic, or during prolonged periods of late sitting while trying to balance some obstinate ledger. Initially these story telling sessions used to get on my nerves, but slowly I learnt to tolerate it. It was much later, that I realized that this kind of story telling is essential for building up the culture of the organization, but also in informally integrating people together. In other cultures and contexts it also goes by the name of brain washing. 

One also met in banks, a very few, blue eyed, blond haired, twice born people who got into esoteric areas of banking such as Credit, Treasury, or Forex or the ultimate – a foreign posting. But those were not banking skills – but rather toady skills. These folks rarely, if ever, deigned to speak or interact with lesser mortals who peopled the branches. In fact, for them, banking used to be credit skills and only credit skills. And credit skills was reduced to calculating the current ratio (That is another hilarious story). The notion that credit risk existed due to something called asymmetrical information and that the study or analysis of financial statements was only one of the myriad ways, with numerous shortcomings, of reducing the level of asymmetry in information, was as close to blasphemy as you could get.

Overall, since, most of the work was quite routine and did not take too much time or skill to acquire and since bank jobs were well paying and prestigious, most of the staff had good educational qualifications and were otherwise intelligent people. Now these people had to have some outlet for their intellectual energies and this was found to be in endless discussions of the politics of transfers and postings.

With the passage of time and the widespread use of computers, specially with the coming of the core banking systems most of the banking skills which were so highly prized and so painfully learnt have become obsolete. Most of my generation of bankers, both who are doing actual banking, or teaching and mentoring the incoming lot, therefore have a skill set which has become obsolete in the present day context. It is unfortunate that the same situation exists in the management schools and specialist banking teaching institutions.