December 22, 2011

Curious case of the Rat Menace Prevention & Elimination Committee

A very experimental writing... don't know where this prose is leading:

Satwik Biswal joined in as the Assistant Commissioner of Income Tax, Old Bhubaneswar circle, in mid-June, 2010. This was his first posting after training at national direct tax academy in Nagpur. The Old Bhubaneswar circle is the most important circle in tax administration in Orissa. Almost all major business houses, political figures, and educational trusts file their return in Old Bhubaneswar circle. This circle has traditionally been held by officers promoted from lower ranks. This was the first time in years that a young direct recruit officer was posted in this critical circle.
Biswal courted controversy just within couple of months of joining in. He had constituted a Rat Menace Prevention and Eradication Committee (RaMPEC) which was hugely unpopular among lower rank officials. The details as are mentioned in this section are primarily based on interview of an inspector by the name of RC Giri. Mr. Giri is a short man with a dark complexion and a belly that protrudes out of his structure like a swimming tube. He walks at an abnormally slow gait, perhaps owing to the heaviness centered in his belly.
Many officials I talked to in the department vouched that Giri was a close confidante of Biswal. Hence it was natural for me to extract some information from him. As per Giri Biswal was a ‘kid’ full of ideas. While most remember him as a sharp investigator, Giri recalls him as a good administrator too.
Within days of joining office he had taken a stock of housekeeping work in the office. As in all government offices it was in a mess. It was difficult to locate even two year old files. Many files were destroyed just by negligent storage. Files are generally heaped onto tall racks. Racks are arbitrarily placed anywhere without any ergonomic concern. This made it very difficult to trace files.
While income tax cases (called assessment) are built up by Assistant Commissioner (AC) level officers, the aggrieved taxpayer can appeal against the orders passed by ACs in appellate forums. The first appellate forum is departmental appeal with a commissioner. Then the taxpayer can appeal to a tribunal managed by law ministry. If still not satisfied, the taxpayer can file an appeal in High court. Supreme Court is the last and final door a taxpayer can knock against an investigation conducted by an AC.
The litigation reaches tribunal at an average of four years after the order is passed by AC; it takes not less than seven years for high court to arbitrate over the issue, if referred to. This is the reason why most institutions shudder from entering into income tax litigation. While the evasion case is discussed in tribunal and high court, the original evidence still lies in the files maintained in AC’s office. Most officers do not realize the might of these dust coated files that litter tax offices. Every file is a telling history of legal issues, facts, evidences and litigations. Biswal understood this very well.
After taking charge the first thing Biswal went about was updating registers. He started indexing files as per years and taxpayer names. This may sound simple, Giri warned, but is a herculean task. The whole work consumed a whole month. All peons, clerks, inspectors and superintendants working under him worked full time towards making this housekeeping task possible.
After all records had been updated Biswal found that many files from previous years’ cases were missing. Amazingly these were also the cases in which the department had lost in tribunal and high court. On a test basis Biswal collected tribunal orders and read them. He found that the department had lost because of its inability to produce evidence or scrutiny file. This could not be a mere coincidence. Biswal highlighted the issue to his Commissioner.
The Commissioner directed a senior officer to direct an internal enquiry on the issue. Superintendants blamed inspectors for this negligence; inspectors blamed clerks and clerks blamed peons. Peons said that the files were damaged due to rats, and rat menace was outside their control.
Not deterred by this, the Commissioner instituted a Rat Menace Prevention and Eradication Committee (RaMPEC) to look into the issue of rat menace. The committee unanimously nominated the Commissioner to preside over the proceedings of the committee. Biswal was made the member secretary of this committee.
It is to be noted that many other committees had been constituted before RaMPEC to look into this issue. The Rodent Resistance Committee (RRC), the Office Property Preservation Committee (OPPC) and the Counterintelligence Group against Rat Attack (Cigara) had all been constituted with similar purposes. However, they had not managed to develop any lasting solutions. These committees still held quarterly meetings, but members could not come to a consensus on what actions to propose to the Chief Commissioner of Income Tax.
RaMPEC was different. It was formed with a focused objective of eradicating rat menace. Unlike other committees RaMPEC had set a deadline for itself. As member secretary, Biswal visited certain corporate houses and analysed their record keeping system. He also consulted some librarians on the right approach to maintain documents. Finally he came up with two proposals: (a) use of compactors to store files and (b) digitization of registers. Compactors are steel chambers that slide over iron rails. As storage device they save lots of space, have clean and aesthetic look, and above all are immune to rodent attack. The committee was impressed by the research Biswal had done. It was decided that compactors will be introduced for all offices in Bhubaneswar.
However the proposal to introduce compactors faced stiff resistance from the staff union. The union’s official stand was that they were not consulted before taking decisions for office modernization. Immediately Biswal countered that Giri, a member of staff union, was a member of RaMPEC. Union members countered that the staff canteen should be modernized before any other modernization step is taken as Canteen Beautification Committee (CMC), Staff Canteen Hygiene Committee (SCHC), and Canteen Infrastructural Development Committee (CIDC) had been constituted before RaMPEC.
The real reason for staff union’s resistance was that the union saw introduction of compactors as a decrease in its powers. If a file mysteriously vanished a peon could no longer lodge blame on rats. Compactors come with a lock and key system, and peons would be squarely answerable for misplacing any file. The current system of record keeping was so botched up that an officer was under the mercy of his clerks to get him a relevant file. This afforded a balance of power between officers and clerks. The Commissioner understood this and was enthusiastic to introduce compactors. He promptly processed the recommendations of RaMPEC. Funds were allocated to SCHC and CIDC so as to appease the union. The union then raised a demand that all staff quarters should be renovated before implementing any grandiose modernization scheme. This was not possible as funds were not available for renovation work. Additional funds can be drawn only after fresh budgetary allocations in March every year. The union became militant and threatened to go on an indefinite strike. The Commissioner yielded and proposals of RaMPEC were put at abeyance.
There is nothing more to report on this episode. Giri claimed that by being forceful about implementation of RaMPEC recommendations Biswal had become unpopular among his staff.

1 comment:

Nikhil Sheth said...

Extremely interesting, typical and fuuny. Smarak, how much of this is your experience?