Yes We Can!

HSK was thrilled! That morning, the HR Head had given him the letter, signed by the Managing Director himself, informing him that, in view of his excellent performance during the probation period, his appointment as Design Engineer had been confirmed!!

He was engrossed in his work when, a few minutes before noon, the MD entered the Design Department, looking very stern, and walked up to his table. “Good morning, HSK. I’m extremely upset with you,” he said. HSK was confused. The MD had signed his confirmation letter only yesterday. What had happened today? Why was the MD upset? Before he could say anything, the MD grinned and said, “This morning you received your confirmation letter signed by me, and you have not bothered to invite me for a celebration! Never mind, young man! I’ll invite you. Come on, let’s go out for lunch!”

HSK was on top of the world! He was sitting in the passenger seat of the MD’s BMW, while the MD was driving. The MD was like a king in this small city. The economy of the city revolved around his company. It was said that at least one member of almost every family in the city was employed by the company or its suppliers.

They were driving towards the exclusive multi-cuisine restaurant on the other side of the city. As they neared a junction, the traffic light changed from green to red. The MD applied brakes and brought the car to a halt.

A middle-aged traffic constable walked towards them. The MD turned down the window. “Good day, sir. Your car has overshot by about 6 inches. I’m afraid I’ll have to collect a fine,” the constable said. HSK was shocked! Was the constable insane? Didn’t he know whom he was talking to?

HSK got a bigger shock when he heard his MD reply, “That’s right, constable.” He opened his wallet, counted the money and gave it to the constable. The constable gave him the receipt.

HSK pinched himself to confirm that it wasn’t a dream!

***

This wasn’t a dream. It is a true incident that happened in Switzerland about 50 years back, narrated to me by HSK.

Can this ever happen in India? I believe it can. If many, many of us believe it can, and if we work hard and work persistently, we can surely make it happen! If it can happen in Switzerland, why can’t it happen in India?

(This post was originally published on Aug 20, 2013.)

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Personal Integrity and Trust

In his Guest Post, The Trust Factor, Sikandar Sardesai had concluded, “If we are to get rid of the “Scam India” image, that’s where we need to start – with personal integrity and trust.”

I am re-posting, with a few changes, Can we eradicate corruption? Yes We Can!, which I had originally posted on Sep 12, 2013. This is a true story of one Indian organisation that successfully introduced a culture of personal integrity and trust.

In many companies, employees who undertake outstation travel for work are reimbursed conveyance and travelling expenses in a manner that enables them to claim more than they actually spend. Thus, the employees get ‘tax-free income’. In fact, this ‘tax-free income’ is taken into account while negotiating salary packages, particularly in case of sales and service personnel.

This system is so widespread that most people do not even consider it unethical. In fact, about 3 years back, there were reports that a prominent anti-corruption crusader had claimed inflated travel expenses from some organisations for attending programmes conducted by them. In some cases, Business Class fare was claimed when actually flying Economy. In some other cases, full fare was claimed even though discounted fare tickets had been booked. This was not denied, but it was explained that the ‘savings’ were used not by the individual, but for the benefit of the crusader’s NGO. I personally believe the explanation given by this person, but can you blame people if they say this is just a ‘story’?

A few years back, I was part of the senior management of a start-up. We had decided that we would conduct all aspects of the business in an ethical manner. Among other things, this meant the company’s employees would not get ‘tax-free income’ from conveyance and travelling expenses. Obviously, we offered compensation packages that were higher than the rest of the industry to make up for the loss of this ‘tax-free income’.

This had a very positive effect on all employees. Since the management was totally transparent in all other matters as well, the transparency was reciprocated by the employees. How transparent, one may ask?

PS, our Service Manager had to undergo 2 weeks’ training at a manufacturer’s factory in Taiwan. We had booked a room for him in the hotel where all visitors to that factory usually stayed. On the first day of his training, PS informed me that the manufacturer’s Sales Manager, a bachelor living alone in a 2-bedroom apartment, had invited PS to stay with him since he had a spare bedroom. PS was keen to accept since this would save our company the hotel expenses for the remaining 12 days, but he wanted to know if I had any objection to such an arrangement. After ascertaining from him that this arrangement had been initiated by his host, and that the spare bedroom was properly furnished, I replied that I had no objection. I also made it very clear to him that, while I fully appreciated his desire to reduce our company’s expenses, I would be extremely upset if he compromised on his food expenses during his visit.

There was no need for PS to do what he had done. He personally did not gain one paisa. Why did he do it? Because of organisation culture!

What is the ‘culture’ of the ‘organisation’ called India? What can be the ‘culture’ of a country where people think that most of their ‘leaders’ are corrupt?

Can we change this ‘culture’? I believe we can. If many, many of us believe we can, and if we work hard and work persistently, we can surely make it happen! What was achieved in one Indian organisation can be achieved in the entire country. Yes We Can!

Fortune favours the ethical!

In his post on October 15, 2013, my guest had described how he found that he could have obtained a PCC (Police Clearance Certificate) from the Passport Seva Kendra (Passport Office) without having to depend on a “Passport Agent”. Today, he describes the events leading to his obtaining his visa without having to engage a tout or pay any bribe at any point in the entire process.

Along with my visa application, I had to submit the PCC and 3 affidavits, all duly notarized, attested by the Secretariat in the city in which the embassy was located. One affidavit was to be signed by me, the second by the Notary Public and the third by my parents (since I am single).

After the bad experience with the “Passport Agent”, I had decided that I would do everything myself. When I telephoned the Secretariat (in the city in which the embassy was located), they told me that the documents should be notarized in my home city, attested by the Home Ministry in my home state and then submitted to them (the Secretariat) for attestation. I asked about the procedure and the time frame, and was told that the documents could be submitted on any working day between 10 am and 11 am, and collected the same afternoon.

I telephoned a Notary Public near my house, who informed me that he would notarize the PCC, sign and notarize the affidavit to be issued by him, and also notarize the other two affidavits (one to be signed by me, the other by my parents). His only condition was that my parents and I should sign our respective affidavits in his presence. He readily told me his charges and said that we could meet him on any working day with an hour’s notice. I checked with another Notary Public and found that he quoted the same charges as the Notary Public near my house. I now knew that the notarization of documents could be done easily.

Then, I telephoned the Home Ministry in my home city (fortunately the state capital), explained my requirement and asked where and when the documents should be submitted for attestation, the fees and mode of payment and the time needed for attestation. I was told, “Come here. We’ll tell you everything after seeing the documents.” When I politely insisted that they give some information over the phone, the person said: “It should take anywhere between 10 and 40 days, could be more. We can tell you about the fees only after seeing the documents.” It was clear they wanted to know how much money they could extract from me. I was faced with a choice: either I could pay a bribe and get my documents attested or the Home Ministry would send me on a wild goose chase, which meant I would have to spend time there (instead of on my work) and they could take much more than 40 days. I didn’t want to pay a bribe, and I couldn’t stay in my home city for more than a couple of days since I had to be at the site of our ongoing project in the other city.

I telephoned the embassy, told them that it was almost impossible to get my documents attested at my home state Home Ministry, which meant the Secretariat (in the city in which the embassy was located) would not attest the documents. I requested them to treat my case as a special case (since I needed a Work Visa even though I would be in their country for only a short project, not for long-term employment) and accept my documents without an attestation from the Secretariat. They told me that it would be very difficult, and suggested that I should try and find out from the Secretariat whether there was any way my home state Home Ministry’s attestation could be waived.

Since my father had earlier lived in the city in which the embassy was located, he was fluent in the local language of that city. He told me that, if he spoke with the Secretariat official in that language, the ‘language bonding’ would most probably make a difference. He telephoned the Secretariat and managed to speak with the officer in charge of the section that did the attestation of documents. He explained the situation to the officer, and requested him to suggest how my documents could be attested without the prior attestation of my home state’s Home Ministry. The officer finally said, “If he gets the documents notarized in this city, we will attest it. This is not a regular procedure, but we’ll do it only this one time.” Obviously, ‘language bonding’ had worked!

Now, I was faced with a new task – that of finding a notary public in that city who would sign the documents which were prepared in my home city (on stamp paper issued in my home state). As I had mentioned earlier, the embassy (and the Secretariat) were located in the same city as our ongoing project. I tried to find a Notary Public who would sign my documents. Every Notary Public whom I called said he could not notarize documents prepared on another state’s stamp paper. Finally, after a week, and about 15 Notary Publics later, I met an elderly Notary Public, who was so impressed that I was going through all this trouble to avoid using a tout that she agreed to notarize all my documents, except the affidavit signed by my parents since she could notarize that affidavit only if my parents had signed it in her presence. She even refused to take any fee, saying she usually dealt with people who had property issues, while I was a youngster who was going abroad for a short project.

I telephoned the embassy, explained that I could get all documents attested except the affidavit signed by my parents. They agreed to accept that affidavit without the attestation.

A couple of days later, I submitted the notarized documents to the Secretariat at 10.30 am and collected the attested documents at 4.00 pm the same day.

A week later, I visited the embassy, submitted my visa application along with the documents, attended a short interview, and got my visa.

I must admit I had many things working in my favour like the embassy (and the Secretariat) being located in the same city as the ongoing project that I was in charge of, my father being fluent in the local language of that city, me finding the helpful Notary Public, and the embassy agreeing to accept my parents’ affidavit without the attestation. Maybe if any one of these things did not work, I would have ended up paying a bribe. But I am happy that I didn’t give up at any of the points when I came across a seemingly insurmountable obstacle.

The moral of the story for me was that it is very easy to get most of your work done by paying bribes and much tougher to hold on to your principles. But, I think each person must try to get work done the correct way. Then, like me, they may find that “Fortune favours the ethical!”

Can we get rid of touts? Yes We Can!

A friend recently had an eye-opening experience, which made him and me realize that things have already started changing for the better in India. He readily agreed to my request to him to share his experience in the form of two Guest Posts on my blog. At his insistence, names and places have not been mentioned. Here’s the first Guest Post. Please do share this Guest Post with as many people as you can.

I was ecstatic when I received the email informing me that, based on my presentation at the international seminar on Sustainable Building at Mumbai two months earlier, I was being offered the opportunity to work for 6 months with one of the world’s leading experts on green construction! Apart from being my first trip abroad, I would get to meet one of the greatest persons in my field and experience the work culture in the construction industry in his country, about which I had read so much. My employer was equally ecstatic that I was getting this opportunity. He was also relieved to know that my 6 months’ assignment would start only 4 months later. That gave us sufficient time to complete the ongoing project that I was in charge of.

I already had a passport. I decided to apply for the visa immediately. From the embassy’s website, I got a list of documents that I had to prepare before getting a visa interview appointment. It seemed pretty simple at first glance. I had to get a Police Clearance Certificate (PCC) from the Passport Seva Kendra (Passport Office) in my home city and 3 affidavits, all duly notarized, attested by the Secretariat in the city in which the embassy was located. Fortunately, the embassy was located in the same city as our ongoing project.

Obviously, I first had to obtain the PCC. Since I had absolutely no idea about the procedure, and was very busy with my work, my employer spoke to his regular Travel Agent, who gave him the contact details of the “Passport Agent” who had been doing such work for their clients for over 7 years and was a reliable person, and requested him to deal directly with the “Passport Agent”.

I telephoned the “Passport Agent”, who told me that the process set up by the Ministry of External Affairs was a tedious one which involves registering online and then getting an appointment for a personal interview at the Passport Seva Kendra. Normally, interview appointments were available 4 to 5 weeks later, but he could get me an appointment within 4 days using his special “Agents’ Quota”. His fee would be Rs. 1500, payable by cash in advance, and included any possible ‘fixing’ if there was any problem during the interview.

That evening, I met the “Passport Agent”, gave him the photocopy of my Passport and paid him Rs. 1,500. He promised to call me the next afternoon to tell me the interview date and time.

The “Passport Agent” called me at 1.30 pm the next day, and told me that, despite extremely heavy demand, he had somehow managed to get me an interview appointment for 10.30 am 3 days later. He requested me to collect the interview appointment form from him that evening.

A few minutes later, my employer’s son, an engineering student, who was in our office that day since he had a week’s break after his mid-semester examinations, suddenly exclaimed to me, “Uncle, why did you pay that guy to get you an appointment? You could have done it yourself in a few minutes without even getting up from your chair! I checked on the Ministry of External Affairs website just now. Appointments are easily available, including for the date and time he’s got for you!”

I felt cheated and was extremely upset by the fact that this man had made a fool of me. I told my employer that I’ll blast the “Passport Agent”, but he calmly told me to do no such thing, at least until I had got my PCC. He explained that, since my appointment had been obtained by the “Passport Agent”, it would be prudent to avoid antagonizing him. While such people may not be capable of constructive work, they can be of tremendous nuisance value. I agreed, but requested him to have the interview appointment form collected from the “Passport Agent” by somebody else that evening because I was sure I would not be able to control myself if I met the “Passport Agent”.

The interview itself was a very pleasant experience. The atmosphere was more like that of the office of any large private sector company. The processing of documents had been outsourced to an IT company. Thus, the mundane work (scrutinizing and scanning the documents, uploading the photograph, entering of data, and printing the PCC) was done efficiently by young IT professionals, while the officials sat at their desks and signed the documents presented to them. There was a token system and the entire area was air conditioned. Within two hours, I had my PCC! I realized that the “Passport Agent” had just bluffed about the “possible ‘fixing’ if there was any problem during the interview.”

I had learnt an important lesson. In the past, since information was very difficult to obtain, most persons had no option but to believe people like the “Passport Agent”, who is nothing but a tout. But, these days, information can be obtained on the internet very easily about most things. Most Government departments, especially those which many citizens need to deal with, have very informative websites, and quite a lot of work can be done through these websites. It’s not even necessary to know the exact name of the website or the office/Department. For example, if you are looking for the website of ‘Consular, Passport & Visa Division, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India’, just search for Passport Office on Google, and you reach the website. Quite a bit of work can be done online e.g. downloading of forms, fixing interview appointments. Things have also changed inside the offices, mainly due to the introduction of technology.

Can we get rid of touts? Yes We Can!

This was only the first part of my Guest’s visa experience. More interesting things will follow in his second Guest Post on October 17, 2013!

Can we overcome? Yes We Can!

One afternoon, I was travelling by a local train from Churchgate to Andheri, seated near the window. The train had stopped at Bombay Central station. I saw a blind man, maybe in his early 20’s, running down the stairs from the foot overbridge towards the train I was seated in. The train started when he was a few steps away from the platform. In the same situation, most persons, including I, would have fretted and fumed, maybe cursed. This guy just started grinning wistfully! This incident occurred over 20 years back, but it has remained etched in my memory.

Some years later, I met a person who is a source of inspiration to all who know him. A few years after he joined a large company as a GET (Graduate Engineer Trainee), he lost vision in both eyes. After discussions with his employers, he decided that his best option would be to start a factory supplying parts to his employers. It was not easy, but he succeeded with full support from his family, ex-employers, bankers and all business associates. He had bought equipment from the company I worked with. When I first met him, he had been running his business for about 7 years. He and I interacted quite a bit, both personally and telephonically over the next 9 years. In those 9 years, he never ever complained or spoke bitterly about his blindness. In fact, he was always quick to see the funny side of any situation and laughed much more than most ‘normal’ people. More importantly, he never asked for any special treatment on account of his blindness.

There are many persons who try to overcome severe handicaps and/or setbacks by sheer hard work. Plastic surgeon Dr Sharad Kumar Dicksheet, oncologist Dr. Suresh Advani, Chartered Accountancy examination national topper Prema Jayakumar and theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking are some wonderful examples of people who inspired themselves to overcome their apparently huge handicaps and/or setbacks and achieve success far greater than that achieved by people who enjoy many advantages. I’m sure each one of us personally knows at least a couple of persons who overcame huge obstacles instead of allowing the obstacles to overcome them.

At this moment, India is gripped by a large number of seemingly insurmountable problems: corruption, crime, discrimination, poverty, illiteracy, etc., etc.. Can we overcome all these problems and make our country a much better place to live in? Let’s not sit back in our armchairs and say it’s impossible. Let us all draw inspiration from Dr Sharad Kumar Dicksheet, Dr. Suresh Advani, Prema Jayakumar, Stephen Hawking and many others like them and say, Yes We Can! Let’s inspire ourselves to individually and jointly put in the effort needed to come to the day when we can declare from the bottom of our hearts that Mera Bharat Mahaan!