The Manipur government’s new initiative to ensure better office attendance by its employees is welcome. Equally welcome is the pledge to root out official corruption from Manipur. These objectives are also set as targets for the first 100 days of the second term of the BJP to demonstrate the government’s seriousness about cleaning up two of Manipur’s entrenched Augean Stables. Given this background, the push to get things started and functioning is strong, and we must add, often a little over the board. This is not altogether surprising for we have seen this in the battle against COVID too, when the government sought to treat the matter, to use a sport analogy, as a 100 meters dash when what actually was unfolding was a marathon. The government must take care this mistake is not repeated so that midway in the fight, it is left with no energy or drive to complete what again will undoubtedly be a marathon, and no easy one too.
Corruption Augean Stable
How the government will go about weeding out corruption is difficult to imagine, for it starts from the very top of the government pyramid and goes right town to its base. Corruption has definitely to do siphoning off money from the public exchequer in collaborative loot of most or all hierarchies of the officialdom, but this is certainly not everything. It also has to do with wrongful use of power by those in positions of power in the state’s power hierarchy to orient the administrative mechanism in favour of either themselves or else those close to them. Depending on the favour each of them also command huge bribe price tags. These can be anything from job appointments, promotions or postings. There is also the normalised practice of percentage deductions from funds earmarked for all government projects, beginning at the very top and continuing to the last mile of project implementation stage, sometimes ending up investing little, and sometimes nothing, in the projects themselves.
Likewise, it is common knowledge that file clearance of any routine and legitimate service sought by the public has a hierarchical cost as it moves from desk to desk as those at each desk demand tips as if these were necessary fees. The chief minister, N. Biren Singh has publicly stated that those liable for penalty will be both bribe givers and takers. This is very well for bribery cases, but question is who will bell the cat? It is a practice in which both the bribe taker and giver benefit, so it is unlike either will ever reveal the transaction. It is also common knowledge that this practice is widespread across the administrative spectrum, so each section will end up shielding the other, for only united in the crime they will stand and divided they will fall together. In the other category of corruption at the lower levels of the bureaucracy, when no file, even the most trifle, move without tip at every desk, what are the service seekers expected to do. Without these tips, their case files simply do not get resolved. Are the public expected to file RTI or court cases for every file thus lost or stalled, expending precious time and money, and be burdened with needless additional works and headaches? Beyond the rhetoric of a government which is quite evidently publicity hungry, the task ahead is indeed going to be Herculean.
As for the matter of office attendance, the initial steps of the government are marked by certain proclaimed strategies. First of these is a new 9am to 5.30pm office hour norm, obviously with a lunch break midway, for five working days, Saturdays now being declared off together with Sundays. On the face of it, this is encouraging. For long, Manipur has been doing with employees taking office attendance most casually, present at their desk as per their inclination, and leaving them empty at will, on familiar flimsy pretexts such as attending family function. Nobody is saying family functions are not important, but these absences should be upon application and grant of leave as per number entitled, by the head of concerned institution only. Anything in excess should be leave without pay. The normalized practice has been for employees to turn up at office late, stay for a while to mark themselves present, and then disappear for most of the day “for tea”, or for the rest of the day. Now biometric attendance recorders are being introduced, at least making sure that arrival and departure times of employees are machine recorded. The question is, what if by collaborative cheating, employees arrive in time to register attendance on the biometric machine, then as has become a custom in many government offices, leaves office for the rest of the day only to come back in time for 5.30pm end of office hour to register their attendance again?
There is however a machine answer to this as well. The biometric machines could be programmed to open the main and only gateway to the office complex, therefore recording every entry and exit by all employees. This of course is used in corporate offices where there are needs to monitor attendance of employees closely. The Telegraph office in Kolkata for instance uses this effectively, and it is imaginable how convenient this would be for as in any media house there are employees who do desk job, therefore are required to remain fixed in office during their office hours, and those who do field work who too must attend office after their field works but not necessarily in a regimented fashion as those on desk duty. There will also be a gatekeeper who can either by biometric identification or else by a special card, open the door for visitors, therefore also electronically keep track of the number and identity of visitors too. The Manipur government could also mull introducing a similar system suitable to its need, to ensure nobody can stay away from their work desk without permission anytime during work hours.
I had taken the example of a media house to alert the government on certain redundancies in its approach to disciplining office attendance. Media houses broadly have two sets of employees. Just to take the news section, and not the production and advertisement staff etc., there are the desk staff largely consisting of sub-editors and editors, and there are the reporters and correspondents who divide their time between field and office. For the desk staff, it is perfectly sane to have them attend office during fixed office hours. However, for the reporting staff, there are no fixed timings for their assignments, for news worthy events can develop any time. They are required to come to office regularly, but the timing is a little flexible and depends on the time and places of their assignments during each day. For them, enforcing a rigid attendance norm can prove counterproductive.
The government needs to keep this in mind for it too has employees with varying degrees of field and desk responsibilities. What in the end matters will be the work productivity of the employees, and the punctuality that the government now insists is the means towards this productivity and cannot be the end in itself. This being so, an uncalibrated regimentation of attendance norms can prove tiresome and ineffective ultimately, for it can also unnecessarily exhaust enthusiasm as well as energy of sections of its employees for whom desk work is not primary or else only partially needed.
In this regard, a notification by the government some days ago that all employees are required to not leave the district of their postings comes across as an overkill. Take the case of somebody in Imphal West posted in Imphal East, or somebody in Thoubal or Saikul, posted in Imphal West. Expecting them to take up residence in the districts of their posting would obviously be superfluous and redundant. It would also cause an unnecessary drain on the state exchequer, for the cost of reasonably comfortable rented accommodation in these districts would probably be higher than the nominal house rent allowances included in the employees’ salaries. Alternately, if the government were to build quarters for all employees posted out of their home districts, the expenditures would be far beyond the government’s capacity to meet.
We suggest the government calibrate this policy too, keeping in mind the dictum that productivity of employees is the primary objective. First, to the extent possible, post employees in their home districts. Second, if they are posted out of their home districts, if attendance regularity can be taken for granted on account of proximity and road condition, allow them to stay in their homes and commute to office. Third, for those who are posted too far away from their home districts to be able to commute to office punctually, the government should either build quarters or else refund accommodation costs in actuals. Fourth, if the home district of an employee and his place of posting are within commuting distance, the government should introduce more Manipur State Transport buses running these routes and at timings suitable to the office goers. This will not only save more public fund, but also be an addition public service, for these buses will also be more readily available to commuters other than government employees. An efficient public transport system would also help in reducing the number of private vehicles on the roads, thus mitigate the ever-increasing congestions on the state’s roads.
Last but not the least, let the government not forget that after office hour, all employees should be made entitled to their own private life. As Alexis Zorba in Nikos Kazantzakis’ “Zorba the Greek” tells his boss, “When I am at work, I am yours, but after work, when I am dancing or singing, I am my own.”
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author