April 22, 2002


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T V R Shenoy

Unmindful minders

Look Who's Talking is the name of an English film my cable provider will be showing later this evening. I have no idea what the film is all about, but the title seems applicable this week given the subject of this column. Which I am dedicating to two friends, both bureaucrats, as they inspired it with their questions -- and some home truths.

"Do you know what Ravinder Paul Singh Sidhu was doing before he became famous?" was the first question. "Do you know how many of the original Muslim allottees still hold their title in Patrakar Nagar?" was the second. Two questions, one by an Indian Administrative Service officer and the other courtesy an officer from the Indian Police Service. But both had the same intention -- to point out that the Indian media had -- has! -- its fair share of black sheep.

Ravinder Paul Singh Sidhu was chairman of the Punjab Public Service Commission. He was arrested on March 26, allegedly accepting a bribe. This led investigators to check up on all the 'deals' that might have been struck in Sidhu's tenure. The result has been a virtual avalanche of skeletons tumbling out of the cupboard. Actually, I believe it has been hard to find the skeletons given the cold hard cash that was covering them...

To date -- remember it is less than a month since the investigation began -- Sidhu appears to have cornered approximately Rs 25 crore (about US$5,000,000) over the last five years. This includes houses in Kasauli, Chandigarh, Delhi, and Hyderabad, and at least Rs 10 crore in currency.

So why was my bureaucrat friend sniggering over the Sidhu scam? Alas, the truth is that Ravinder Paul Singh Sidhu is not, and never was, a bureaucrat. In his last incarnation he was a journalist. And not for some paper that one has never heard of, but a special correspondent for that bastion of the fourth estate, The Hindu. Why has this fact been ignored by the media? (Perish the thought, but would reporters have suffered an equal degree of amnesia had Sidhu been a special correspondent for, say, Panchajanya instead of the stridently secular The Hindu?)

Indian journalists have never been shy of claiming a relationship in other cases; it is drummed home on every possible occasion, for instance, that President K R Narayanan was a working reporter before he joined the Foreign Service. Well, this is the other side of the coin. We shouldn't be hesitant to face the fact squarely - namely, that journalists, if given the opportunity, can put politicians and bureaucrats to shame with their sheer lust for money.

Do you have any idea how assiduously Sidhu worked to rake in the loot? Even given that he had five years to garner Rs 25 crore, it works out to Rs 136,986.30 every day! Or, to put it another way, Rs 5,707 every hour. Or, if even that is too mind-boggling, think about it this way -- Sidhu was getting a little over Rs 95 for every minute he spent as chairman.

Actually, he must have been getting even more. The basic arithmetic above doesn't account for the fact that Sidhu must have taken some time off for eating, sleeping, and other normal bodily functions. And, of course, for holidays and maybe a weekend or two off...

"I have known several civil servants and politicians who were not exactly Raja Harishchandra," my friend mused aloud sarcastically, "but believe me, I have never known anyone who did so much in such little time -- and this was just Sidhu's first job as a public servant. You journalists are truly an amazing lot!"

Which brings up one final frightening thought before we leave the hardworking Sidhu (at least for this column): somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 appointments were made in Sidhu's day. We can safely assume that many of the people who paid money to get a job did not do so because their hearts yearned to serve the people of Punjab. So mull over this: how much money do you think will be looted from the taxpayers of Punjab before the bribers think they have got their money's worth?

Leaving the implications of that last question hanging, let us turn from one prosperous western state, Punjab, to another, Gujarat. We have read more than enough, have we not, about how the "ghetto mentality" has taken over the state, thanks to Narendra Modi. Well, I have news for you: this is something that predates Godhra or even Narendra Modi.

The Patrakar Nagar referred to in the question quoted at the beginning of this column is a housing development intended for journalists in Ahmedabad. The process of handing out the flats was completely 'secular' -- meaning that Muslim journalists got their fair share of allotments. But how many of them actually use those today?

Many Muslim journalists sold out as soon as they could, going off to live elsewhere in Ahmedabad. Of course, everyone has a right to dispose of his property as he sees fit. But studying the history of the allotments does point to a disturbing fact: the communal divide in Gujarat was not born yesterday.

The secular -- meaning the anti-Narendra Modi -- media have been shouting from the rooftops that they do not trust the chief minister, his government, or his policemen. Now, it seems that they have no particular faith even in their brethren of the media, preferring not to live among Hindu, Sikh, Jain or Parsi journalists. So, how much of their 'reporting' is based on facts, and how much of it is prejudiced opinion?

The fourth estate often presumes to sit in judgement on the other estates. But can we truly play the moral policeman if our own behaviour fails the highest ethical standards?

T V R Shenoy

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