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.)


No more hypocrisy!

Many years back, my uncle’s colleague was in tears when he described the unreasonable demands made by his daughter’s parents-in-law before, during and immediately after the wedding. My uncle felt really bad that all he could do was to offer his colleague a shoulder to cry on. I remember my uncle giving us a detailed description of the unreasonable demands and telling us how the bride was shocked and disgusted by the behaviour of her parents-in-law.

A few months later, my uncle attended the wedding of the same colleague’s son. My uncle was dismayed to observe his colleague torturing his daughter-in-law’s parents, making almost exactly the same unreasonable demands that his daughter’s parents-in-law had made. What pained my uncle, and all of us, was the fact that his colleague’s daughter, who had been shocked and disgusted by the behaviour of her parents-in-law, seemed to enjoy the spectacle of her parents doing the same things that her parents-in-law had done. Her shock and disgust seemed to have vanished into thin air!

This kind of thing happens all the time.

We are shocked and disgusted when we, or our loved ones, are victims of any form of discrimination.

But how do we react when we, or our loved ones, are perpetrators of the same form of discrimination?

Does our attitude towards any sort of discrimination depend on whether we gain or lose by such discrimination?

At the workplace, all of us like our seniors to treat us as equals, but don’t many of us love to boss over our juniors?

How many parents can claim that they genuinely try to treat their daughters-in-law just like they treat their daughters?

Women belonging to ‘upper caste’ families may complain about gender discrimination, but do they speak out against caste discrimination?

How many of us try to ensure that the economically weaker persons in our lives are treated with dignity?

Do we discriminate against certain persons or groups, particularly when we think nobody else will know about it and/or when we think we can get away with it?

Are we shocked and disgusted when we, or our loved ones, are perpetrators of discrimination?

Or are we shocked and disgusted only when we, or our loved ones, are victims of discrimination?

Let us all try to remove all kinds of discrimination, irrespective of whether we, or our loved ones, are victims or perpetrators.

Let us stop being hypocrites.

(This post was originally published on Nov 23, 2013.)

Email to Aamir Khan about fairness product advertisement on Satyamev Jayate

I sent the following email from to on October 06, 2014. As stated in the email, I will publish the response from Aamir Khan or from any member of his Satyamev Jayate team if and when I receive it.

Subject: Discrimination on the basis of skin colour

Kind attention: Mr. Aamir Khan

Dear Aamir,

I have watched almost all episodes of Satyamev Jayate, starting from the Season 1’s 1st episode.

I am an admirer of Aamir Khan the actor, but I am a much greater admirer of Aamir Khan of Satyamev Jayate! While I am aware that the show is not perfect, I have immense respect and admiration for the fact that you are one of the few celebrities who is making a genuine effort to drive change in our society.

While watching the 1st episode of Season 3, I was shocked to see an advertisement by a fairness product!! Much has been written and spoken about how fairness products promote discrimination on the basis of skin colour. While the advertisement may conform to ASCI’s recent guidelines for advertising for skin lightening or fairness improvement products, the fact remains that these products and their advertisements do reinforce negative social stereotyping on the basis of skin colour.

Satyamev Jayate’s past episodes have been about, among other subjects, Gender Discrimination, Caste Discrimination, and Discrimination against People with Disabilities. When I saw the fairness product advertisement, I wondered whether Aamir Khan and his Satyamev Jayate team are, inadvertently or otherwise, promoting Discrimination on the basis of skin colour.

Please do not let the millions of Satyamev Jayate fans, most of whom are probably not fair-skinned, get the impression that you and your team support Discrimination on the basis of skin colour. Please withdraw this advertisement immediately, even if this means losing some money.

I hope you take my feedback in the same positive spirit in which I gave it. I look forward to a reply from you or from any member of your team. I will be publishing the text of this email on my blog later today, and will also publish your response whenever I receive it.

Warm regards,

Proactive Indian

P.S.: I have chosen to remain an anonymous blogger since I do not want my name, age, gender, religion, caste, economic status, educational background, profession, place of residence, etc. to colour people’s reaction to my views. If you wish, I will certainly let you know my name, age, gender, and place of residence.

Penny Wise (for others), Pound Foolish (for ourselves)

One evening, when I was with my customer in his office, a peon entered the room and asked for permission to get the office bicycle tyre tube replaced since it got punctured very often, leading to waste of time. He said it would cost Rs. 120. My customer replied, “We’ll see after a few days.” After the peon left the room, my customer spoke about the need to make people realise that money doesn’t grow on trees.
My customer had just received a huge order that morning, so he invited me to join him in a small celebration at an exclusive hotel nearby. After we ordered our drinks, the waiter recommended the Grilled Jumbo Prawns, which my customer accepted. There were 4 prawns, which we polished off in about 2 minutes. When the bill was presented, we realised that the Grilled Jumbo Prawns cost Rs. 750! This time, my customer did not speak about money not growing on trees!

Another day some years earlier, my friend invited me to accompany him and his mother to my neighbour’s jewellery store to buy silver items to be gifted to some of their relatives on their 60th Birthdays, which were coming up in the next few weeks. Within a few minutes, my friend’s mother purchased 4 items for a total of over Rs. 16,000. As we waited for the items to be gift-wrapped, I remarked to my friend that his mother was a very generous person as she had exceeded her stated budget of Rs. 12,000 without any hesitation. My friend winked at me and whispered, “Ha! This morning, Amma was screaming at the maid. I thought the maid had tried to murder Amma, but it turned out she had only asked for a raise of Rs. 50!”

During most visits to restaurants where tipping is expected (but not mandatory), I notice that many persons order food and beverages without thinking too much about the prices, but are quite tight-fisted when it comes to leaving a tip. (In all fairness, I must state that I have also come across generous tippers, though these are much fewer in number.)

Why are we generous or even lavish to ourselves and to our near and dear ones, but overly cost-conscious when we spend on others?

(This post was originally published on July 18, 2013.)

Hangover of the British Raj?

In a talk show conducted last year in English on an Indian TV channel, the anchor asked a martyred policeman’s widow, “Kya aapko Afzal Guru ke hanging, matlab phaansi se ek sense of closure milaa hai?” (The words may have been slightly different.)

Couldn’t the question have been asked in proper Hindi? Knowing before the show that questions would have to be asked to persons not knowing English, the anchor could have prepared translations in simple Hindi, or an interpreter could have been kept available. Did the anchor actually expect the non-English-speaking lady to know the meaning of ‘sense of closure’?

Would the anchor have done the same thing with a non-English-speaking foreign guest?

Why do we, consciously or unconsciously, take our non-English-speaking compatriots for granted? English-speaking Indians may think this is no big deal, but non-English-speaking Indians are discriminated against, in fact looked down upon, particularly if their attire is not fashionable enough for us Brown Sahibs.

One of my clients is a self-made man who now runs a business with an annual turnover of over Rs. 50 million. He always complained to me that he is given second-class treatment by his customers, bankers, etc. only because he lacks educational qualifications and does not know English. Initially, I thought he was being unduly touchy, but after I had accompanied him to a few meetings with his customers, I realised he was absolutely correct. I have seen how differently the same customers treat their other suppliers (also my clients) who are qualified persons familiar with English. Unfortunately, my client’s is not an isolated case.

Knowledge of English is definitely an advantage, but it is no indication of a person’s qualities or capabilities. Some of India’s greatest achievers (and many great achievers in non-English-speaking countries) have either not known English or have been obviously uncomfortable with the language. This is true, not only in high-visibility fields like sports, films, performing arts, fine arts, social work, politics, etc., but also among engineers, industrialists, businessmen, etc.. If lack of fluency in English did not prevent them from becoming achievers, why should it prevent us from giving them their due respect?

(This post was originally published on June 29, 2013.)