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.)

Technology and Karwa Chauth!

I’m sure the title of this post has some readers asking, “What is Karwa Chauth?” and the rest asking, “What does technology have to do with Karwa Chauth?”

If you do not know what it is, and you want to know, please read this excellent Wikipedia page on Karwa Chauth. Now, you’ll still ask, “What does technology have to do with Karwa Chauth?”

What follows is NOT fiction. It actually happened on October 22, 2013 in the presence of a close friend.

A few women, who lived in the same apartment complex, had got together for a joint celebration of the evening ceremonies of Karwa Chauth. They were concerned that the moon was not visible even 45 minutes after the scheduled moon rise. They had all been fasting from dawn that day and, as per laid down procedure, each woman was supposed to break her fast after viewing (through a sieve) the moon’s reflection in a vessel filled with water, offering water to the moon to secure its blessings, and then viewing her husband’s face (through a sieve). Since it was very cloudy, they were afraid that they would not be able to view the moon that night. Now what???

One of the women decided to seek the advice of a slightly older friend who lived in another part of the same city because this friend was much more knowledgeable about rituals and would be able to suggest a suitable course of action.

The senior friend said that she had faced the same problem that day. She had resolved it by asking her sister who lives in another city to photograph the moon that evening and send her the photograph on WhatsApp. She had viewed (through a sieve) the moon’s photograph’s reflection in a vessel filled with water, etc., etc..

The women and their families were relieved! Then, one of the women came up with a better idea. She asked her brother who lives in another city to send her a live video recording of the moon on Skype, which she received on her iPad. They all went up to the terrace. Her son held the iPad in the same direction and angle as the moon would have been that day. She viewed (through a sieve) the reflection of the moon’s live video recording in a vessel filled with water, etc., etc.. All the other women followed the same procedure.

Technology had saved the day!

If this had been a piece of fiction, it would have been humorous. But since it’s not fiction, I would say it’s pathetic, maybe scary, even more so because the women involved are all well-qualified (some are graduates, some are post-graduates, some are MBAs). Most of them are stay-at-home (by choice) mothers, some of whom had worked before becoming mothers. The husbands are engineers or engineer-MBAs working in senior positions in the corporate world. All these people have the popularly perceived external signs of being ‘modern’. They speak English fluently, they drive big cars, use the latest gadgets, they wear western clothes, their children study in ‘posh’ schools.

I do not care for festivals like Karwa Chauth, but that is my personal opinion. Just as I am entitled to my own opinion, I respect the right of others to their own opinions. If people want to celebrate such festivals, that’s their own choice. But why do they have to make asses of themselves? For example, in the case of Karwa Chauth, the person is supposed to fast from dawn to dusk. The part about viewing the moon’s reflection through a sieve, etc. is probably just symbolic. Even if there is a scientific basis to viewing the moon’s reflection through a sieve, is viewing the photograph’s reflection or the video’s reflection the same as viewing the reflection of the moon itself?

I must clarify that I am not attempting to point a finger at the women involved. Irrespective of who came up with the bright idea, all the men and women were active and enthusiastic participants in this charade and are equally responsible for what happened.

If this is how qualified (I hope I don’t need to explain why I’m not using the word ‘educated’) and ‘modern’ people conduct themselves, what can we expect from people who are neither qualified nor ‘modern’?

Do you agree with me, or do you think I’m overreacting?