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Case Study: Malba, Mud Cakes And Other Mess-ups

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Jaikishore Valia entered the office dragging in a trail of muck. First the teaboy shouted: "Arre saab!" Then others turned to see and they saw plump droppings of mud on the floor and presently they saw that the hem of his trousers were soiled too. It was 10 am. A disinterested JK told the teaboy, "Tum chai lao, bas!"

Abhay Mathur had also heard the teaboy's yelp. He came out of his room and saw the lumps and the people standing and staring at JK. Abhay put an arm around his shoulder as he sat on the chair next to him. JK looked at him sweaty and tired. "Those mud lumps?" Abhay nodded.

"Okay, I will tell you," began JK. People put their computers on ‘sleep' mode... when JK told his stories, life stood still, usually. "An agency came and did some water work outside my garage, a few days ago," began JK, "and they filled it with loose mud. Next day it rained; so the filling caved in, developing a deep concavity. That day I could not get my car out of the garage. The municipal fellows came last evening and pumped it with malba. It grew into a huge convex bump. This morning when I drove out from the garage, my car hit the muddy bump, and got trapped over it. I stepped out and stepped right into the gooey bump. So both feet... all mud. The car was stuck, I was a mess, daughter was getting late for school, and my wife had left by the front door locking up and... oh never mind! What a day! I hired a rickshaw and dropped Aarti at school... yes, like this! What to do! Her teacher's expression on seeing me ... never mind..."

Shabad Kher, a young intern from Arsha College was sitting nearby. He saw how demeanours changed when life changed. Everyone around him was angry. They all recalled the taxes they paid and the flags they hoisted and what joy the country evoked while singing the national anthem. Qureshi, however, had held on to the quaint word ‘malba' that JK used. He said, "So, malba is versatile. I thought it was waste. The whole city has random piles of malba here there and everywhere. Back home, Bangalore is also dotted with malba piles. We must set up an MPO, malba processing outsourcing."

Dorji: My neighbour built a bungalow. Their rubble lay between his home and mine. It blocked my parking spot. I requested the garbage cleaner to remove it. He said, "Yeh mera kaam nahi hai." Thus I discovered there is a rule on malba: whoever creates it, has to lift it. Now this is a fabulous law because the person unloading his malba does not leave behind his business card. So all malba is anonymous. Nobody knew where malba was disposed. So we asked 10 other neighbours and they said some van comes. But nobody knew which van and where it comes from. Then I learnt that there are designated malba areas. People of a locality drop their malba there and something happens to it there. Nobody really waits to find out!

A deep mystery laden-air descended on the consultants at Ably-T as they pondered on where the malba really went. The teaboy brought multiple cups of tea and nodded in friendship at JK and said, "Peelo saab..." as if he was offering him a contraband solution.

Malba had set the minds rolling. Presently, the eight consultants and senior consultants went into contemplation, when Balbir walked in: late, wet and apologetic."Yaar...!" he groaned and left the sentence incomplete until someone yelled at him to complete it. He said, "Problem with Presto India. The systems we designed are not working well. Implementation mein ghapla hai (colloquial for ‘mess up')."

JK: That's the problem. We inherit the genes from our country. Everyone designs rules, regulations, systems, but no one implements them.

Balbir: Correct! The controls we created have not even been circulated! So the flowchart says one thing, the execution is something else! The VPs are fire fighting and imagining that the systems will get up and implement themselves! Why did they order this systems review when even the last study recommendations have not been implemented?

This is like the litter fine in Delhi. In the 1950s, a little known rule was created that if the sidewalk outside your house is littered and dirty, you are liable to a Rs 50-penalty. But it was never applied. In the past 10 years, the fine has been increased to Rs 1,000, but we still see litter.

Jaimini (as others laugh): Possibly, somebody decided to review the law along with other laws, but not the implementation. How come we are all like that? How can we review a system and not its implementation?

Balbir: Arre forget litter, do we have laws against urinating on street walls? For spitting?

Jaimini: Do you need a law for these? A taxi driver in Mumbai once made the most marvellous comment. We were waiting for the signal near Churchgate station and the crowd had just emerged from the station; a huge mass of humans. Just as the light turned red for the pedestrians, two cops on either side of the pavement held them back with a fat rope. Seeing a stray dog standing by quietly, the cabbie said, "Even an animal knows how to behave, lekin insaan ko to rassi se rokna  padta hai!"  I think it is Singapore where if you are caught littering more than thrice, the penalty is to clean the streets on Sundays wearing a bib that says, ‘I am a litterer'. This will then be broadcast on the local news.

Abhay: One reason why implementation is not even attempted is that when people get caught, the mechanism for penalising them is long drawn out and sometimes even pointless in its direction. Implementation includes penalty. Whether it is traffic violation, jay walking or spitting, the penalty should be instant, on-the-spot. Same for litigation in India. If anyone breaks the law in India, the aggrieved as well as the errant, both know they will get stuck for years in the naag paash of the law. By and large people understand that there have to be rules, and that they have to be penalised if they are caught, but what worries them is the loss of time in that transaction. 

Balbir: People hire lawyers who help to change the hearing dates repeatedly. This is wrong!

Jaimini: Understand the physiology. First, there is a person who does an act that needs to come under the eye of the law. Second is the person who enforces it at a transactional level. Third is the judiciary or punishing body. See, a) I have to catch you when you do wrong; b) I have to report you; and c) the law must take action against you. In our case, if you look at the man who has to enforce the law — the difficulty he faces is that he himself does not understand what  procedures he has to follow and what he must do with you. Or he takes steps that are not going to enable enforcement of the law in a manner that will create a foundation for ongoing lawful behaviour/conduct.

Abhay: Worse, he chooses not to record a complaint fearing the numerous visits to the court he will have to make when the case comes up! Then there is no pressure to find a time-bound solution! Nowhere does it compel you to resolve the situation within a given period of time! Have you seen some commercial buildings in Gurgaon that have been under litigation for 14-15 years? Have you seen the building that was semi-demolished by the local authority and it continues to stand like an eyesore?

JK: Yet, for all the cynicism there is, once, when I carried an abandoned bleeding scooter victim to the Safdarjung Hospital, the cops thanked me and let me go. But our knowledge of the law is: if you help a victim, you will get entangled in a mess... seemingly not!

Shabad: The critical issue is: there is no expectation from the law that if you are found guilty of an unlawful act, it will punish you and you must take the punishment and correct yourself.

JK: Cor-rect! So, if you want to make it work, you will. If you don't want to make it work, you will say all sorts of  things — shareholders have to approve, chairman is unwell, or we will table it when Parliament is in session, or these things are all a threat to parliamentary process, or the buffalo is ill... anything!

During the Commonwealth Games (CWG), you could drive from anywhere to anywhere in Delhi in 20 minutes, despite the fact that one lane of all major roads was blocked for Games participants. Instant fines of Rs 1,000 were levied and nobody complained! Why? First,  people knew there was a rule. Second, it was enforced. Third, it was enforcement on the spot! No scope for defense or offense. The crime was easily identified!

Yet, the moment the CWG was over, it is back to normal! It is the will to enforce!

Balbir: And the pressure of performance. It proves that you need a lot of pressure on you to deliver (not perform) or that enough pressure does not exist in order to ensure the execution of the task. Recall... just three weeks before the CWG, what chaos there was. The world wondered if India had the ability to host such an event. Come the big day, everything was ready! So it is not the ability, but the willingness.

Jaimini: Okay, examine this. We did a sales analysis for TWC Inc. and found a very unique pattern. Every 12th, 24th, 36th and 48th week of their year, sales were very high. Every 1st, 17th and 33rd week, sales petered off... On discussing this with the sales staff, we gleaned that ‘targets have to be met', ‘appraisals get messed', ‘bonus gets held back' lay behind these spikes. Those high-performance weeks were when the pressure was highest because of the penalty.

That is what the country also manifests at a macro level: if a dignitary is coming, we put up banners, trees look better, leaves grow thicker, roads look cleaner; when quarter closing is close, sales pick up... to present a good picture!

Abhay: I read a book on how societies work, and the author suggested that some societies are process-driven, some are budget-driven and some societies are on mission mode. Only Indira Gandhi understood that Indians work in mission mode — Operation Green Revolution, Operation Flood... So there was Telecom Mission, Metro Mission, and so forth. Mission mode means it is event-driven. Guests are coming, so I tidy up all the clutter. But as a habit? It requires discipline not process or a mission!

Jaimini: I have an explanation... why we are the way we are is owing to our own understanding of our culture. It lies in the way we pray. Culturally, we have learnt to pray for ourselves, at best for our family. But we don't pray for the society, for the country. We do not pray collectively. Because collective good is not a thought that occurs to us. In a priority of things, ‘I' comes before collective good. Our system does not teach us to think as a collective. America's very constitution is founded on the right of the individual, but they have greater rules and respect for the collective.

JK: You are right, Jaimini. Secular education — which is greater than spiritual education for the Indian — does not say you are a part of the collective. And spiritual is not cool, so you have no attitude to know or feel that you are a participant and not an acquirer; that you are here to contribute, not take away; that it is by the collective for the collective. But then we don't even get to this point.

Shabad heard them all intently. The world out there was intensely complex, he mused. This is the world he was going to enter after his post-graduation... Oh mayn!

Balbir: Isn't this because despite economic growth we are having to struggle and fight to survive? To be secure? 
Jaimini: So that leads to the fact that we have not come around to respecting each other as people. I don't respect you because I do not see why you need to exist, or why you may have a different view of the world.

JK: Why do we consult for clients? Create systems and flowcharts? So that the collective is enabled. Respect has its shades. What we don't have is respect for the other person's time.

Shabad: Time? How time?

Qureshi: When you dirty the streets, when you park in the wrong spot, when you cut lanes, when you block the path by throwing malba, you are saying, ‘I want to survive first' and then ‘even if you cannot as a result'. So everyone is looking out for himself.

JK: Aah... very nice. Abhay, you said ‘discipline, not process'. I think we need both and both must be interlinked. Without one, the other cannot be had. What do you discipline if there is no process? It's like saying I have great devotion, but I have nothing to offer it to. So is it willingness? Ability? Discipline? Respect? Process? I will add one more to that. Mental sluggishness. When you have not trained your mind to persevere to make things work, then you have a mind that does not consult the intellect. You don't use intelligence. You live like an animal, from the level of instinct.

He continued, "Let me share a great story that combines all this: from lack of willingness to lack of ability, integrity, intelligence, respect, process and discipline. Abhay and I were in business some 15 years ago. We made some unique computing equipment. We both had great intent to serve a country that had subsidised our engineering education in IIT. After four years, we went broke. We closed our company. That day we owed the bank Rs 5 lakh. The bank had first lien on our assets. So I put all the assets in a tempo, went to the bank manager and said, here are our assets worth Rs 8 lakh. The rule says I have to hand over the assets of the company to the bank. I cannot pay you the money, here are the assets....

"The guy did not take it. He said I don't have a mechanism for receiving it. Now see, while bank lends money and has lien on the assets they don't know what to do with it, should you actually go there and hand in your stuff!

"Yet they went against us to the Debt Recovery Tribunal, a fast track court for settling bank dues for non-payment. They filed a case against us. This is mental sluggishness, a mind that does not think. Simultaneously, we filed for closure of the company but our case just would not come up for hearing. The clerk turned out to be someone from my village in Punjab. He said, ‘Bhaiji, if you file for liquidation, the board assumes you are a thief; that you have done some gadbad. So even if you are clean, the case will go on for years. They have to examine you for malpractice!'

"The official liquidator said to me, ‘Abhay Mathur is your friend. You owe him, according to your balance sheet, Rs 12,585. Why don't you ask him to sue you to recover the amount? That will be faster.' So the advice was, if you want a closure, let your friend sue you! Where are the rules and what is being implemented? This is also the mind that cannot think.

"So we had to hire another lawyer, and Abhay sued me. It was a crazy situation. My best friend and I are working at his wedding preparations. He is buying me clothes and I am running after the tent-wala... and he has sued me. We have two lawyers, we are paying those lawyers to help Abhay sue me. So everybody knew what the game was, including the judge. Before long, Abhay got married, his brother got married, Abhay had a child, his brother had twins, but the case did not come up for hearing.

"Nine years later, the hearing was announced. My wife (I too went and got married, what the hell!) said to me, go break a coconut in Hanumanji's temple and then put your foot in the court! I did even that. I enter the court and there it says, ‘Jaikishore Valia versus Official Liquidator — postponed, New Date.' Why? These are the mysteries of life, not esoteric stuff like how does a pupa turn into a butterfly.

"One day when I could take it no more, I went to the judge and said, ‘I want to move on, please can I get a hearing? Nobody is objecting to the closure — not me, not my partner, not anybody else. Since 1993, we are asking to close. But all I get is three new dates every year! What is the issue? The assets have been handed to the liquidator, I have hired a room to store all that, the goods are rotting, I am paying rent for that room...'

"The judge heard me for the three minutes that it took to rave and rant and said, ‘Rs 12,585 — you are closing the company. Okay, I order closure!' And I thought it was done.

"Closure is a process where the liquidator has to realise the maximum from the assets he has taken possession of. In 1992, I had taken assets valued at Rs 8 lakh to the bank and they would not take it. Then, 13 years later, some wise man said, if the goods have a book value of Rs 8 lakh, the realised value should be at least Rs 1 lakh. They got into a fresh bout of tizzy, 13 years later! The liquidator called three raddiwalas, who offered Rs 7,000! And to accomplish all this, Abhay and I spent 80k from our pockets!  Now you thus see lack of process, discipline, respect for my time, willingness, everything! 

"And 13 years of mental space lost by going to court month after month to check the hearing dates. And those assets? In 1992, they were terrific. If we had not decided to close down, we would have been using them! They could have been sold to recover Rs 8 lakh."

Silence fell as the rain hummed outside.

Balbir said, "It is participation, contribution, the spirit of the collective for the collective! The spirit of national pride... that is what is missing!"

Abhay snorted in disdain. "All that is romantic and stupid. Nuts and bolts, it is about mental honesty. Adhering to rules, to a system is about respect. Respect comes from inner honesty... We are pathologically a dishonest people... take it or lump it!"

To be continued

Classroom Discussion
Is it that our leadership is not driving excellence? Or is it that it is not passionate about collective glory?


(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 01-08-2011)