Janata Bazaars were set up by the government to provide groceries and articles of daily use like clothing, to citizens at slightly lower prices than available in private shops.
During a recent visit to a Janata bazaar outlet in Bengaluru, I picked up a basketful of goods and decided to pay by debit card. The checkout personnel refused to accept card payment, saying that under their rules, cards can only be accepted for payments over Rs400. My bill came to over Rs300 but the shop insisted on my shelling out cash. I paid with a Rs500 note and, of course, as usual, they had 'no change' (this is standard practice at Janata Bazaars).
Any wonder that the public prefers to avoid Janata Bazars and goes to other shops even if it means paying a little more? On the one hand, the government wants to promote 'cashless transactions' and encourage card payments, on the other, their own shops refuse to honour card payments. Does that make sense? Many Janata Bazaars have closed down or shifted to obscure side lanes, because they were not doing enough business and were running at a loss, and couldn’t afford the rent.
This is just one aspect of the indifference that marks most government services, disregarding customers’ convenience, forgetting that customers provide the rationale for business. The shop is supposed to open at at 10am, but at twenty past the hour, they are still slowly sweeping the place, thereafter computers are switched on, while customers wait for activity to start.
• On receiving intimation that my term deposit, due to mature in a week, would be automatically renewed unless instructions were received 'before the maturity date', I went four days before the due date, with instructions for renewal for a shorter period. The girl at the counter (at Canara Bank, a public sector undertaking) brusquely told me I had to bring the deposit receipt on the day of maturity, she cannot accept it earlier. Even if I have clearly written instructions for renewal 'from date of maturity'? And even after I have explained that I live far away and have just come out of hospital after surgery, and would like to leave the receipt to be collected after a few days? What is the rationale in quoting a rule that instructions have to be given 'before the maturity date' (which is what I was doing)?
Hearing my raised voice, another employee came over and took my receipt, to be collected later. Had this been a private bank, they would have lost customers and business, but in a public sector bank (PSB) the staff draw their salaries, notwithstanding losses (in thousands of crores) that the bank may run up due to lackadaisical functioning. Since it is a nationalised bank, losses get covered from public funds – funds that ought to be going towards meaningful development for the nation. As in the case of Janata Bazar, I have seen banks also still getting ready for business, at twenty past the hour at opening time, while the staff settle down at leisure, take out their ledgers, switch on their computers and wait for things to 'warm up'. In the meantime customers wait.
• How much does a one sentence SMS cost? A rupee, two at the most? Canara bank sends me SMS regarding updates to my account, and deducts Rs18 from my a/c for each 'SMS'. But I never asked for SMS updates? I protest. “Unless you give it in writing that you don’t want updates via SMS, we will charge,” says the Bank. Is it that not enough customers challenge such arbitrary rules, that the banks get away with such deductions? Is it that customers are too busy with more important matters and can’t be bothered about a Rs18 deduction? Doesn’t the principle of the thing count?
Most 'service providers' also impose a condition that “non-receipt of bill is not a valid reason for non-payment by customer.” In other words, 'we accept no accountability' for sloth, delays or plain inefficiency. I have challenged this rule several times, with no effect.
• A book of cheque leaves from the State Bank of India is stapled in such a way that when you tear out a leaf along the perforation, the printed line at the left edge gets torn—and the cheque bounces for being 'faulty'. Since banks charge for cheque leaves, a wasted cheque means a loss to the customer, so I have had to carefully prise open the staples so that the remaining cheque leaves can be used without becoming unacceptable. What kind of 'service' is this, that too in the name of the government?
• It is the same story of lack of accountability in other government undertakings including schools and health clinics. I live next door to a government school, and our watchman’s four-year-old daughter used to watch with fascination while the students congregated every morning for assembly. She was itching to go to school. One day, she watched with horror as the headmaster stood outside the school gates and caned boys who arrived late for assembly. Thereafter, she flatly refused to join school, even at a different (private) school, and had to be dragged each morning, kicking and screaming. Corporal punishment has been 'banned' by law, and the headmaster surely knows this? In a private school, parents would have complained. Parents of students in government schools are either unaware, or can’t be bothered.
I offered to spend an hour every day with a teenaged girl from a government school who was in the ninth class, because she was not learning anything (she could not even subtract simple numbers—students merely copied whatever the teacher wrote on the board, and got 'kicked upstairs' (promoted) to the next higher class, thanks to the policy of 'no detention'. She would not open her mouth, and remained stubbornly silent. It turned out that her teacher whacked students with a ruler if they gave wrong answers, so it was better to stay quiet! I had a hard time convincing her that I would not beat her if her answers were wrong. This is what 'government education' does, to the underprivileged.
• As for health services, the less said the better. Medicines supposed to be free at government clinics, are invariably 'out of stock' so indigent patients have to buy them from outside; the 'free' medicines are sold quietly, for profit, by the staff. Doctors on duty never turn up (I was told by a vegetable vendor parked outside a clinic in north Bengaluru, that the doctor “comes around 10.30., signs the register, and pushes off after a few minutes, to practice at his private clinic round the corner.” I have seen the locked 'clinic' myself. The doctor draws his salary, never mind if the poor for whom the clinic is meant, are forced to go to private doctors that they can ill afford. No wonder, people prefer to flock to private establishments for treatment. But VIPs (ministers, political leaders) fly abroad for 'check-ups' and even dental treatment. Karnataka film actor Ambarish (who also became minister) flew to Singapore for treatment, accompanied by wife and a retinue, at state expense that came to over Rs1.2 crore. While our building’s watchman, who was also sick, died of viral fever (caused by mosquitoes—his family sleeps in a corner of the basement car park) because he was not a VIP and couldn’t fly abroad; his life is apparently not as valuable as that of a politician. His widow, three small daughters and aged mother, are now destitute. And we live in a 'democracy' which I learned in my schooldays, was “government for the people, by the people and of the people.” Shall we coin a new phrase for “democracy by VIPs, of VIPs and for VIPs?”