Do we encourage corruption and crime?

A boy, looking around 15 years old and dressed in baggy Bermuda shorts and a T shirt was about to leave the supermarket after having purchased a kilogram of rice when the billing clerk called out to him and asked him what he had in his pockets. When the boy answered, “Nothing,” the billing clerk walked up to the boy and demanded that he empty his pockets. The boy refused to do so, whereupon the billing clerk stated that he would call the police. Hearing this, the boy took out a chocolate bar from one of the pockets of his baggy Bermuda shorts and gave it to the billing clerk, who immediately put his hand into the boy’s pockets and brought out some more chocolate bars and a few small packets of almonds and cashewnuts! By this time, the Manager, a middle-aged man, had reached the spot. The billing clerk reported to him that the boy, who had purchased a kilogram of rice worth Rs. 60, had shoplifted items worth around Rs. 400!

The boy immediately protested that he was being wrongly accused by the billing clerk, saying he had bought these items at another shop. The billing clerk angrily landed a tight slap on the boy’s cheek and was about to do more, but the Manager firmly restrained him and ordered him to go back to the billing counter.

The Manager showed the boy the supermarket’s price labels on the shoplifted items, and gently told him that there was no doubt that these items had been shoplifted. The boy, who was weeping and trembling, kept saying, “I’m sorry.” The Manager put his arm around the boy’s shoulder and said, “Your parents are our regular customers. They are very nice people. Do you think they would be happy that you’ve done something like this? Normally, we take very strict action against shoplifters. Bu, since you are a young boy, and because we think this is the first time, we will not take any action against you this time. I hope you realise that you’ve done something wrong. Please don’t do this again. Go home now.” The boy thanked him repeatedly and left.

I witnessed this entire incident two days back. My immediate reaction was to appreciate the manner in which the Manager handled the situation, though I could not help wondering whether he would have handled the situation in the same way if the boy had belonged to a poor family. Would he would have encouraged, perhaps instructed his staff to beat up the boy?

Later, I wondered: what is likely to happen now?

a. The boy’s parents are likely to be ignorant about the incident. In this case,
i. The boy may be tempted to try shoplifting at other supermarkets, taking care to ensure he doesn’t lift too much each time since he would have ‘learnt the lesson’ that it was his bulging pockets that gave him away this time.
ii. The boy may not attempt shoplifting or any other dishonest acts ever again.

b. If the boy’s parents learn about the incident from the boy, it is most likely that the boy will claim that he was wrongly accused, that it was all a misunderstanding, etc.. Most probably, his parents will believe him, tell him to be careful of ‘bad people’ in future and decide that they all should not patronise the particular supermarket.

In both cases, it’s difficult to say whether the boy has learnt that honesty is the best policy, or whether he has learnt that getting caught was his mistake. He may have learnt one wrong lesson: if he’s caught and he’s guilty, he can get away by issuing a ‘sincere apology’! Perhaps, if it’s a serious crime, he could get away by ‘offering to recuse himself for 6 months’ as an act of atonement!!

I think the Manager could have handled the situation in a much better manner, particularly since he knows the boy’s parents. He should have asked the boy’s parents to come to the supermarket, given them proof that their son had shoplifted, and requested them to take corrective action to prevent recurrence of this incident, in his supermarket or in any other shop.

What do you think? Shouldn’t we take steps to prevent corruption and crime? Does our attitude of ‘forgive and forget’ allow people to get away too easily? Are we actually encouraging corruption and crime by this excessively soft approach?

(This post was originally published on Nov 30, 2013.)

Are all customers equal? Or are some customers more equal than others?

A couple of days back, I visited the local branch of a bank to get a Demand Draft. When I reached the counter, the officer greeted me with a smile and put out his hand to collect my DD Application, coolly ignoring three customers who were already waiting there. I returned the smile and the greeting, but did not hand over my DD Application. Instead, I gestured to him to first attend to the other customers. After he had collected their DD Applications, I handed over mine to him and sat on a chair in the waiting area. Instead of processing the DD Applications in the sequence in which he had received them, he processed my DD Application first and handed it to the clerk sitting next to him with an audible instruction to print my DD immediately. I received my DD within 3 minutes of handing over the application! (The norm is 10 minutes.)

This was my first encounter with this particular officer since he had only recently been transferred to this branch. Then, why had he given me preferential treatment even though I had clearly shown that I didn’t want it? The answer is simple. On the basis of appearance and attire, he had decided that I am a ‘privileged’ customer, while the other three were ‘non-privileged’ customers!

In most banks and offices, I have seen that all customers are NOT treated equally. ‘Privileged’ customers are generally treated well, while ‘non-privileged’ customers generally have to put up with curt behaviour.

Customers are classified as ‘privileged’ or ‘non-privileged’ on the basis of economic status, political ‘connections’, skin colour, religion, caste, educational background, profession, etc..

Even when there are machine-operated systems, the bank/office personnel manage to give ‘privileged’ customers preferential treatment. For example, many banks have a token system for cash transactions or for updating Pass Books. Tokens are issued by a machine, and customers are attended to strictly as per their token numbers. However, the treatment given to each customer generally (not always) varies. Most of the time, care is taken to ensure that ‘privileged’ customers are issued only new notes or notes that are in good condition, while ‘non-privileged’ customers generally get the older notes. Pass Books of ‘privileged’ customers are updated immediately, while ‘non-privileged’ customers are often asked to wait or to collect their updated Pass Books the next day.

What is the solution? In his book ‘A Better India: A Better World’, N. R. Narayana Murthy states:
“Technology is a great leveller. It does not distinguish between the rich and the poor. For, example, one of my younger colleagues who is a janitor at Infosys is happy to use an ATM because it does not discriminate against him – unlike the clerk at the manned bank counter.”

I have myself seen how ATMs do not discriminate against customers on any basis. The last time I visited the ATM near my house, one person came out after using the ATM and another who had been waiting went in to use the ATM. I waited for my turn. The first person was the young man who delivers milk to all the residents of our apartment complex. The second was a woman who works as a billing clerk at the local supermarket. The three of us received service in the sequence that we had reached the ATM. The ATM treated all three of us equally.

Introduction of technology will definitely help in reducing the inequalities in our society. Till some years back, a telephone at home was a luxury that could be enjoyed by very few people. Today, almost everybody has a mobile phone. There are many such examples.

However, will all this really change our ‘mindset’? Will it lead to a truly egalitarian society?

What do you think?

(This post was originally published on Nov 09, 2013.)

Respectful or disrespectful? Smart or foolish?

One afternoon, I was with a customer in his office, when he received a call on his mobile from somebody whom he addressed as Chachaji (Uncle). My customer immediately stubbed out the cigarette he was smoking, shouted for the peon, switched off the air conditioner, opened the windows, put on the fan, asked the peon to take the ashtray away and spray room freshener, and ran to the washroom while the peon did as instructed. A few minutes later, the peon put off the fan, closed the windows, and switched on the air conditioner. By then, my customer had returned from the washroom after having washed his face and gargled with mouthwash. The smoke and smell of tobacco had almost totally vanished! It was an efficient military operation!

A minute later, an elderly gentleman entered the room. My customer stood up and, saying, “Namaste, Chachaji!” touched his feet, and introduced me to his uncle. Chachaji was collecting funds for the construction of a new wing in the school run by the Trust of which he was Secretary. My customer dutifully handed over his cheque and touched Chachaji’s feet again. His work done, Chachaji left.

“Thank God!” my customer exclaimed as he sat down in his chair. “I have a lot of respect for Chachaji. To me, he is like God! He considers smoking a sin. If he had seen me smoking, he would have been terribly upset,” my 40 years old customer said.

I knew this customer quite well, so I responded, “If you really respect your uncle so much, and if he considers smoking a sin, you should stop smoking.”

“Boss, I’m under too much stress. Right now, I can’t even think of giving up smoking!” he declared.

“I think that, by continuing to smoke and concealing from your uncle the fact that you smoke, you are not respecting your uncle. On the contrary, this is utter disrespect,” I replied.

My customer is not an exception. He is the rule. Many men smoke, drink, etc. without the knowledge of their families. I know of some men, paragons of virtue at home, who ‘freak out’ on alcohol and tobacco when they go out of town, only to become ‘goody-goody boys’ when they return home!

I also know of women from conservative families leaving home dressed in traditional clothes, ostensibly to attend a ‘ladies get-together’ (or a ‘family get-together’ if they’re accompanied by their husbands), but actually headed for a discotheque. Under the traditional clothes are worn ‘daring’, ‘modern’ outfits. The traditional clothes are shed before they reach their destination. After enjoying themselves at the discotheque, they again don the traditional clothes before reaching home!

If a person believes that there is nothing morally or ethically wrong with whatever he/she is doing, why can’t that person do it openly? (While I’ve confined my comments to smoking, drinking and dressing, this applies to many other matters. Please read this Firstpost report about an engineer committing suicide because his wife posted photographs of their ‘secret’ wedding on Facebook.) If he/she faces disapproval from his/her elders, he/she should discuss the matter with the elders and come to a mutually acceptable conclusion. If he/she feels very strongly about the matter and if the elders are just not willing to accept his/her opinion, then he/she should do whatever he/she thinks is right and be prepared to face the consequences. Doing anything on the sly is not the solution.

At the same time, elders should understand that they cannot expect their children and children-in-law to stick to the same lifestyle as theirs. Change is inevitable.

Most importantly, youngsters must resolve that, when they become elders, they will not forget that they were once youngsters themselves

What do you think?

(This post was originally published on Oct 31, 2013.)

Aruna Shanbaug: just another piece of BREAKING NEWS?

My post Why this deafening silence? on October 29, 2013 was about a domestic help in a posh locality in Delhi having been subjected to extreme torture by her employer, a woman working as a senior executive in a multinational company. Since then, I’ve been regularly checking newspapers and the internet for updates on this case. The last report I found was on November 08, 2013. After that, nothing! Is the victim is recovering from her physical injuries and psychological trauma? How has the victim and her family been coping with the situation? What has happened in the criminal case against the employer? Has anything been done, or is anything being done to prevent such incidents in future? We know nothing.

This applies to almost all sensational cases that are featured in the media. They appear with a big bang as BREAKING NEWS, receive a lot of coverage for a few days, and then get disappear when the next BREAKING NEWS appears with a big bang.

Unfortunately, this is exactly what will happen with the latest BREAKING NEWS: the death of Aruna Shanbaug. Sadly, this applies not just to the print and electronic media, but to all of us as well. We will all speak and write strong words about Aruna Shanbaug …. until the next BREAKING NEWS. Then, we will all start speaking and writing strong words about that …. until the next BREAKING NEWS.

Do the media make us jump from one BREAKING NEWS to the next, or do the media jump from one BREAKING NEWS to the next because that’s what we want?

Are we interested only in expressing opinions about the ISSUE OF THE DAY? Do we, individually and collectively, at all try to do something to resolve any issue?

No fine or bribe even after a traffic offence??!!

Metro Rail construction was about to start in our city. I was driving towards a customer’s office, near which an elevated station would come up. Traffic diversions had been announced a few days earlier, but changes had been made. Policemen, assisted by the Metro Rail construction personnel, were guiding motorists at the major junctions. I drove on my usual route towards my customer’s office since there were no ‘NO ENTRY’ signs. As I reached my destination, I was stopped by a traffic constable and asked to meet the police officer standing next to a police van a few feet away.

As soon as I reached him, the officer said, “You were driving in the wrong direction. You have to pay a fine of Rs. 500. Will you pay the fine now, or should I issue a summons?”

“I did not see any ‘NO ENTRY’ signs on the way,” I told him.

Without replying to my statement, the officer said, “Sir, please don’t waste my time.” Pointing towards 3 other persons standing there, he said, “These people are quietly paying the fine. Why do you expect special treatment? Tell me, will you pay the fine now, or should I issue a summons?”

Raising my voice a bit, I said, “Sir, at SBI on Gandhinagar Main Road, I took a right turn into Third Cross Street. At the end of Third Cross Street, I turned left on this road. There was no ‘NO RIGHT TURN’ sign on Gandhinagar Main Road, no ‘NO ENTRY’ sign at the entrance of Third Cross Street, and no ‘NO LEFT TURN’ sign at the end of Third Cross Street. If you can show me even one sign that proves I committed a violation, I’ll pay a Rs. 5,000 fine. If you can’t show me any such sign, you cannot impose a fine. Let’s go right now!”

The officer glared at me for a few seconds and said, “OK. You may go!”

Immediately, the other 3 persons asked the officer if they could also leave. He sighed and waved them away.

As we were walking away, one of the 3 persons asked me, “Sir, how come you spoke so confidently to the officer? Do you have any high-level contacts in the police?”

I replied, “I do have access to a couple of very senior police officers, but that’s not why I spoke to the officer the way I did. I had actually looked for the traffic signs that I mentioned. Since I could not see any of these traffic signs, I assumed I was driving in the correct direction. Even after he told me that I had been driving in the wrong direction, I spoke confidently to the officer because I genuinely believed that not I, the authorities were to blame for my driving in the wrong direction. I suppose you gentlemen had knowingly driven in the wrong direction, that’s why you were ready to pay the fine!”

(This post was originally published on Oct 05, 2013.)