Penny wise pound foolish at PSUs

A couple of months back, an uncle who works for a PSU in a reasonably senior engineering role, had to go to Calcutta on work. Thanks to his late arrival from Calcutta, we had to postpone a party that had been planned for a weekend. When I asked about his late arrival, I was told that his train had been delayed. It was then that it struck me – that a lot of PSU officers still do business trips by train!

The logic completely defies me. An airconditioned train ticket (at my uncle’s grade, I don’t think they would send him by cattle class) from Bangalore to Calcutta costs around Rs. 2000, and it takes about thirty six hours. A flight, on the other hand, costs not more than Rs. 7000 (assuming you’re not booking at the last minute), and takes about three hours. What amazes me is that the PSU that employs my uncle values his time at less than (7000-2000)/(36-3)  ~= Rs. 150 per hour! Ok even if you assume that the train journey had two nights when he would have been unproductive (and assuming that he’s a superman and so doesn’t need to rest and recover from a long journey), his employer values his one full day of work at Rs. 5000!

While this valuation might be consistent with my uncle’s salary (I’m only guessing given his experience and position; I haven’t asked), I think it’s still a stupid choice to make on behalf of the PSU. I was reading an op-ed by Mihir S Sharma in this morning’s Business Standard, where he talks about our warped sense of “austerity”, and was wondering if this decision to send my uncle to Calcutta by train was a measure in a similar direction!

Austerity means cutting down or limiting wasteful expenditure. It does NOT mean cutting down tangible expenditure in favour of the intangible (my uncle’s lost working time is an intangible, since he gets paid monthly; so is his reduced efficiency on the day immediately after his journey). Unfortunately some of the PSUs have not recognized this and still stick to some age-old “policies” regarding travel and expenditures.

My wife, who works for Toyota, informs me that a certain number of cars produced every day are “specially made for the government”. When I ask her what is so special about a sarkari car (apart from that rhino-horn like thing on the bonnet) she tells me that they are not supposed to have air conditioning! Given that air conditioning is a default in most cars nowadays, this “no air conditioning” is a special request that the government has to make to the manufacturers, so I don’t think it makes any tangible difference in the cost of the car. From my experience with my Zen, driving with and without air conditioning (I live in Bangalore, so I don’t need it at all times), I know that air conditioning hardly makes much of a difference to the mileage of the car. So overall in terms of cost, there is little the government saves by not having air conditioning in the car.

Now think of the babu in Delhi, where summer temperatures go well into the forties, and which is so dusty at all times of the year. Think of the possible increase in his efficiency if he were to travel in an air conditioned car. That is an intangible and the government will have none of it. It is all about austerity, you know. Penny wise, pound foolish.

PS: The recent focus on corruption has done more harm than good. Afraid of “being pulled up” by the CAG or any similar authority, a number of PSUs have gone into policy paralysis, and are simply not taking decisions, lest they are accused of being corrupt. The economic loss (again intangible) is humongous compared to the amounts these people might have possible swindled had they made the decisions! We never learn.