Saturday, December 03, 2005

We, the problem?

This is something I've been wanting to say for a long time.
To quote Sad Old Bong, I too "take issue with the general trashing of everything associated with the government."

I'll admit that government-bashing is often well-deserved, but I resent the attitude that accuses everything the government owns/runs of being sub-standard, or the assumption that it would automatically be thrice as good, if it were in private hands.

I beg to differ.

A very ordinary example:

Whenever I travel (and have a reserved ticket for an AC dabba) on our country's railways, I find that they serve me well. The sheets are clean - sometimes even starched! - and the blankets dust-free. The food is edible. The attendants are polite, in general. The rajdhani and shatabdi trains - though not my favourites on account of personal boredom - almost go overboard, trying to fill the journey with food and service (I usually tip the attendants willingly, though I don't need to; they do a fair job).

The railways are government owned.

On the other hand:

I often stay at hotels in small towns. Considering the small town's rates for accomodation, these are not very cheap hotels. But even the better ones leave a whole lot to be desired.
The sheets are invariably dirty. I have to supervise the making of the beds myself (if I ask for fresh sheets, they bring fresh sheets, but don't bother to change the pillow-slips, until I call them back and request fresh pillow slips... and often, the fresh sheets are only marginally cleaner). The blankets are ragged and dusty. The telephones don't work. The food kills all appetite and the waiters often forget to knock, or wait for an answer.

Even though internet facilities are available in the town, most of these hotels have not bothered to set up a communication centre for guests (some don't even offer STD facilities, for god's sake!).

These hotels are all privately owned.

If private ownership and competition could take care of all ills, then there is no reason why these hotels should be sub-standard. They should be falling over their shoe-laces trying to provide the best possible, at competitive prices, right?

They seem to be competing, to maintain more or less the same level of sub-standardization.
[And ooh, speaking of hotels and competitions, surely, you've all heard about the lovely little cartel in Paris?]

The problem is not the government or government-run institutions.

The problem is that WE take crappy services from any given institution, because WE don't have the guts to stop, fight and demand better services. WE claim that we don't have the time, or the energy to fight with employees who aren't going to get fired anyway.

It is almost as if, we just want to see somebody punished because we're unhappy with them.
If we really wanted - as customers, as consumers, as clients - to see things change, we'd kick up a row, and keep at it, until they did change.

Let me give you another example.

At home, we have a private internet service provider. The service fails us - time and time again. In fact, the service doesn't exist. We've already paid up for the year and the cable dude (a private entreprenuer) refuses to reimburse our money.
Do we rave and rant against private cable services?
Do we sue the guy?

We bite our lips, swallow our anger and make fist-shaking-type statements about switching to another cable dude.
This dude shrugs and says "fine, switch."
Have we switched yet?
No, because we've already paid up for the year, and there's no guarantee the next dude will be any better.

On the other hand:

MNTL broadband services are not spectacularly fast. But they're there. They exist!
Our old MTNL dial-up was not very fast either, but it worked, in its own fashion. Did we rave and rant against the government and MTNL?
Did we hop mad, and switch to another service?
Is MTNL improving, offering better services, more competetive rates, faster connections?
Will we go back to MTNL?
The decision is not mine to take. But if it was, I would.


Let me tell you about last year, when my aunt was flying out of the country with her family. (No, it was NOT Air India, but a private airline from the Middle-east).

My aunt had a two-and-a-half year old kid in her arms, two daughters and an old mother-in-law. The baby started squalling, and refused to be strapped down in his seat. My aunt tried to shush him; he would not stop crying. The air hostess (a snooty Brit blonde, my aunt later told us) came up to say that the captain refused to take off until the baby stopped howling and was strapped into his seat.

So, my aunt took the baby in her lap and put the seat-belt in place.

But no, the airline staff wasn't happy. They insisted the baby be strapped into HIS own seat.

My aunt tried to force the baby down into the other seat, but he was kicking and crying. The pilot still refused to take off.

Finally, my aunt threw up her hands and handed the baby over to the airline staff. She said, "Okay, YOU handle this. I can't help."

The air hostess SLAPPED the baby.
She yelled at the baby, scolded, held him down.... and all to no avail. So, finally, she stomped off.
After which, the baby fell asleep. And AFTER THAT, the captain ordered my aunt AND her whole family to get off the plane.

My aunt pleaded, explained that the baby was now asleep; she even offered to let them punish the kid if they liked. But the captain was now adamant. He refused to fly until the whole family was off-loaded.

Eventually, the whole family was off-loaded.

Did my aunt go back to the airline office and complain? Yes.
Did they apologize? No.
Did the captain lose his job? No.
Was the air-hostess punished for slapping the child? No.
Was the family compensated? No.
Did we go to the media with the story? No.

Despite my being a journalist, despite my uncle being a government servant and in close contact with several airport officials... we kept shut.

Because my aunt was just relieved to have made it home, a day later. Despite the fact that her mother-in-law's visa required her to fly out that day, and a day late was too late; so she did not see her son, that year. Despite the fact that my aunt still cannot forgive the captain (she remembers his face and name) or that blonde air hostess. Despite all the anger and resentment.

I have a feeling - irrational and inexplicable - that something like this would not happen in a government airline. But we did not complain. We did not sue. We did not say "If this was a government airline, this would never happen."


What about the time when you and I find certain edible products with fungus on them much BEFORE the expiry date?
It happens! Somebody I know was even offered money by the company for keeping quiet about it, and not complaining... not just rotten, but filthy as well, eh? (Don't have permission to talk about this incident, so I'm not naming any names). Do we talk about this sort of corruption?

What about when the whole Cadbury keeda controversy happened?
Did we say "Let's throw out all private chocolate-making firms?"

When a private firm goes into the red - many of them do - do we say "Let's just not have any more private enterprise."?


In front of my office building, there is a nice, wide pavement.
Guess what's on it?
No, not hawkers and beggars.
Cars. Ours (well, not mine, but in general, many of these cars belong to those who work in the building).

Do we blame private 'enterprise' for taking over a public space?


We blame the government and/or state institutions like the MCD (Municipal Corporation of Delhi).

"Why don't they keep an eye on these things?"
"Why don't they stop these illegal car parkings?"
"Why don't they raid and catch and fine and tow away and bulldoze and arrest?"
"Where are the traffic cops? Where are the MCD officials?"
And best of all -
"Why can't the government have more free car parking spots?"

But then, we have our cars and we need parking and so we avail of a little illegal private enterprise. And without so much as a choo.n, we pay up.

I seriously suspect, the problem is us.


Nikhil Pahwa said...

I couldn't agree more.

This is something which I have been harping on for a while now: I detest the 'chalta hain' attitude, and the fact that so many companies take customers for granted.

I do have a solution for the Internet connection problem; one that has worked, and is likely to work if you apply it to any other situation or company.

WillOTheWisp said...

I could not disagree with you on this post...

Is it a "chalta hai" attitude that is to account for the state of the affairs? I would suspect that it is more of an issue with the scale of the affairs than anything else, apart from the philosophy underlying such ventures. To illustrate, Government enterprises and services do manage to take into account, fairly reasonably, the size of the operations and the volumes that they have to handle. And then they do not necessarily scrimp on staff. And it works for services such as public transport, the railways, telecommunications, internet and the like. If you happen to check into a Government run transit facility, you find that they do take care of you, albeit without the surface gloss. ( Could it be that sheer generation of revenue is not a prime mover in such cases, as much as making the services available to as large a section of population as possible?). On the other hand, private enterprises seem to be looking out for opportunities to make as much money as possible, while they are at it, with not much of an appreciation of the complexity of the task. ( I recall that the winter of 2002-03 was terrible in the NCR - there was no power from 0800h to 2200h daily. Private companies had just taken over operations. Substations would not accept complaints or they would not act on them. People were debarred from access, locked out by private security staff. And then there was no one to answer for the problems/inconvenience caused ). It is also that Government services do retain some sense of accountability and stability and then there is the promise ( often fulfilled ) that they would not just up and go one fine day. The peculiarity of the situation also lies in the fact that the volumes also tend to immure the private enterprises from bothering much about individual cases - if you are not happy with it, there would always be the next fellow who would put up with them. And then they are always at liberty to cut and run whenever they feel like.

I would feel that there needs to be a sort of undertaking to be obtained from companies that venture out into the market of public services, prior to isse of the necessary licenses, that they have carried out a proper estimation of the scale of the operations and that they have the necessary infrastructure and trained manpower ( another big bugbear ), in place, to cater to the requirements.

R. said...

Annie, The point is not of public ownership or private ownership of companies or services at all. the point is of the common man being ripped off by all and sundry.

The very logic that private companies' products & service also are substandard shouldn't in ANY way justify what taxpayers put up with in the name of official machinery in this country. As long as accountability is poor and legal recourse is still viewed with suspicion, the common man, would be ripped off.

Anonymous said...

I agree and think there's a need for educating people on their rights and their responsibilities. It's easy to blame the government, the corruption, politicians, but it's hard to take a look at the man/woman in the mirror and think about changing. We seem to live in a state of denial.

PS: Can you put up an RSS feed for your blog? It'll be much easier to track updates that way.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree. I was writing a longer reply but you've already said all that I wanted to say so delete delete delete:)

Ashish Gorde said...

The airline company shouldn't get away with it. I have a sneaking suspicion which airline you're talking about but, all said and done, they must be held accountable. Hostesses are not supposed to slap children and airline captains can't behave like that.

I agree with what you've said because even here in Bahrain we tend to see officials get into 'let's privatise' frenzy and the results are quite mixed. Garbage clearing was handed over to a private company and the roads have become messier and they dump the garbage into the sea causing environmental damage. (thankfully, their contract is not renewed).

Even our huge telecommunications company Batelco gets a earful from everyone but if one tries to be objective... one realises that their service is improving by the day. The new mobile competitor's presence may have helped but there hasnt been an exodus.

I am neither a public sector supporter nor a private sector supporter but ... I believe 'good service' is all that matters and if it comes from a government owned company, good and if not, fine. But if a private company offers shoddy service, then, they must be asked to quit. If they cannot offer value for money, then, they have no right to continue doing what they are doing.

1conoclast said...

The problem I know is with MOST of us, not all.
The local cable operator (a Hathway franchise) was given bigtime weekly grief by yours truly. We had actually signed up for 6 months & paid up only for 3 months. (They needed the business back then.) He realized that his service was below par & didn't ask for the remaining amount until the 6 months were close to over. He was told that we will not pay the balance he was asking for. Eventually we haggled until he was forced to accept a reduced amount.
(I have done the same thing with Orange earlier when their service irked me.)
Recently I got a call from Hathway saying that they're aware that we've not renewed our subscription due to poor service in the past, but now the management has changed and that they want us to renew our subscription. I'm currently contemplating whether to go back to them or switch to MTNL Broadband.
It's not that all of us accept poor service.
It's not that customers today do not exercise their choice.
It's also not that in this day companies do not strive to achieve better levels of service.
The ones that do not simply die out eventually. Like my previous Hathway franchisee.

Aparna Ray said...

Yes the problem most often lies with us.
And regarding airlines, it is now generally establised that many of these airlines offer a different level of service depending on the sector to which they are flying. You see, to some extent, racism does exist in the clouds.

Loved reading your post.

Anonymous said...

A major personal example. I was one of the people stuck at Mumbai Airport the day of the floods. I had an IA ticket. The staff there, harried, several having been stuck there themselves way beyond their shift, tried to do something. get food, water. The private airlines locked up and went home. Jet had the supreme cynicism to put a notice saying queries could be addressed at a website. When there was no power and water in the damn place. Finally, the IA/Airport Authy ppl gave food to everybody.

Anonymous said...

If you are not satisfied with a private airlines, a chocolate company or whatever, you can choose not to buy from them in the future, and take your business elsewhere. Your aunt, I presume, will not fly this unnamed airline with a snooty blonde (that important? isn't being snooty bad enough?) air hostess in the future.

Of course, the ability to take one's business elsewhere assumes that there are alternatives. With a monopoly - private or public - there is no choice, and therein lies the problem.

No one in his/her senses would dare to claim that all private undertakings are "efficient." However, in comparison to a government undertaking, notice that public money is not at stake. I should have the freedom to put my own money to start a business where I consistently insult my customers and give shoddy service. I wouldn't think that such a business will go very far. However, I'll be damned if I get shoddy service from a company which is funded by taxes to which I have contributed my share. Note that there is no legal way to punish this stupid public company by withholding taxes. Of course, I can go elsewhere if there are alternatives but I still have to pay my taxes, part of which goes to this company. I find this unacceptable and I would rather the government not provide services like airlines, hotels, etc. Is this too difficult to grasp?

You are welcome to have a soft spot for the public sector. But don't make stupid arguments. Learn to distinguish between the private sector (where no *public* money is at stake) and the public sector.

1conoclast said...


Your points are valid. It's your rudeness that one resents. Is that why you choose to remain anonymous? If a mere difference in opinion can get your goat, you should see some of the stuff I write. Come over, it'll be fun; with me being able to say some of the stuff to you that I can't here! ;-)

Anonymous said...

No doubt, I lost my temper and the anonymity of the internet made it easy to do so...but you are more than welcome to be rude to me in return.
And I do apologize for the tone of the post but choose to remain


Annie Zaidi said...

anonymous, you are most welcome to stay anonymous - or be rude (i couldn't care less) - but you missed the entire point of my post. i'm not against private enterprise, and i don't have a soft spot for the public sector. but i'm against the extreme position taken by some people that all public sector services/products are inferior. the constant bashing is unfair, just as the assumption that all would be well in private hands, is stupid. which, since you're not stupid, you can see.
opinionated, thanks for rushing to my defense, but it's alright. :)

1conoclast said...


Anonymous said...

As someone with a younger sister myself, "opinionated"'s defence is perfectly understandable :-) I don't know who is elder/younger in this case, though of course, it is irrelevant. At any rate, the tone of my post was out of line.

Annie, I don't know of anyone who has indulged in bashing the public sector without reason. Are people "bashing" the new Delhi metro, for instance? Who *are* these people who bash the public sector without rhyme or reason?

In any case, suppose I concede your case that *some* public sector firms are better than *some* private firms. What conclusions should one draw from this? In my opinion, nothing much. By choosing a different sample of public/private firms, I can reverse your observations: given the mass of inefficient loss-making firms in the public sector, this should not be very difficult. (How about a comparision of say, Infosys, with the Heavy Engineering Corporation, Ranchi?)

The only thing that your observations can refute is the claim that *any* private firm is more efficient than *any* public sector firm. I am not aware of an actual person making such an absurd claim but I have come across a number of articles -- yours included -- which makes references to "unfair bashing of the public sector" which implies that there must be quite a few persons making such a claim. Can you point me to just one -- I am being serious here.

The point, however, is this: if you want to draw general conclusions about private/public firms, then you cannot rely on selective comparisions. A proper comparision is in the realm of econometrics -- the statistical part of economics. This is not exciting stuff by any means, but it is what you have to do if you want to make proper comparisions.

The tone of your post is that the public sector isn't "as bad as some people make it out to be." Perhaps. But it's bad enough, in my opinion. The point others besides myself make is that the money spent year after year keeping many of these public entities alive could be more fruitfully spent in other social programs.


Tweets by @anniezaidi