Comment Pieces

Phantom trees and hungry buffaloes by Bijoy Venugopal

Posted on March 18, 2011


Now and then, a news report can leave you wondering whether to laugh or cry. Take the case of the enterprising forest department official who took it upon himself to restore our depleted green cover. What a noble initiative, one imagined, when he declared that he had planted 200 saplings in his constituency. Until the curious truth germinated.


Files that he had submitted revealed that the saplings were allegedly planted at an individual cost of Rs 380. If you think that's exorbitant, digest this: most were planted along a road that exists only in the official's fecund imagination. Which begs the question if any saplings were planted at all. When the odour of rat became too much to bear, an enquiry was ordered. Facing the heat, the official said in his defence that buffaloes had eaten the saplings.


With no log books or registers available to trace the phantom saplings, the official's blatant lie was reminiscent of a fable from the Panchatantra. A merchant who pawns his iron weighing scale before setting off on a journey is told upon his return that rats had eaten it. To exact revenge, the merchant kidnaps the lying pawn-broker's son and hides him in a cave. When the pawn-broker demands to see his son, the merchant says that an eagle swooped down and bore him away. Eventually, the king resolves their quarrel and the missing possessions are returned to their rightful masters.


If real life stories ended so happily, we would have measures at our disposal to manage the buffaloes and rats that gnaw at our faith in the administrative machinery. But we live, for better or for worse, in a democracy where we are supposed to be the kings, although that contention suffers somewhat in a culture where we are given to worshipping our leaders. Contrary to what some public servants may imagine, a holder of public office isn't a privileged citizen. He or she is under obligation to explain and justify his or her conduct.


That said, should accountability really be a consequence of fearing the consequences? Can the system be trained to encourage accountability rather than enforce it?


E-governance and RTI have led to the increased demand for accountability. However, accountability isn't an end; it is a means to ensuring that public services are delivered as guaranteed, and that governance models are rendered practicable.


Imagine if you could call a toll-free number when troubled by civic lapses. For English, press one. Follow the menu options. A dulcet-voiced customer care executive patiently answers your call, notes your name and ward number, hears out your problem, then assures you of remedy before handing you a docket number for future reference.


Sounds like a distant dream? Surprise, surprise... such a system actually exists. Partially, at least. Spandana, the BBMP’s grievance redressal microsite, has been around for more than a year and it allows you to file complaints related to a variety of issues from illegal billboards and tree-cutting to bogus appointment of staff. There is even a phone number you can call if you are not net-savvy.


Unfortunately, there is no provision to complain against the misdeeds of buffaloes, unless you mean thick-skinned public servants who wallow in public funds.


# Bijoy Venugopal is an independent content consultant, cartoonist and freelance writer based in Bangalore.