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.


So while we were walking back from dinner tonight my wife and I decided to play Antakshari. And each time she started singing, I would instinctively stop listening and fast-forward the song in my head, trying to double guess where she would stop, and what letter that would imply, and search my mental database for songs starting with that letter.

Back when I was in 8th standard, I had challenged four of my female cousins at Antakshari, and had beaten them fairly soundly. Back then, Antakshari was considered to be a women’s game, so I was quite proud of my achievement (of course, I should admit that these cousins were younger to me) .

When I was in college, I would get into inter-hostel Antakshari teams even though my knowledge of Hindi film songs was quite limited compared to what some of the other guys knew. That was because the first written round of most intra-college and inter-college competitions was effectively a Bollywood quiz, and so I’d get taken for my relative expertise in that.

And then I remember this train journey in rural England (someplace in Kent to London Waterloo). Us three hardcore South Indian boys (Sathya, Gandhi and I; Gandhi despite being Gujju qualifies as South Indian having grown up in Bangalore) had thulped hollow hardcore North Indian girls (for the record – Bansal, Sikka and Shuchi). Playing Hindi film Antakshari! Must say I felt quite proud that day.

Thinking back, I wonder how much of an impact playing antakshari had on my Hindi vocabulary, though I would guess that hte answer is not much considering I never really got any of the lyrics. The problem persists. I still don’t “get” any lyrics, irrespective of language of the song.

The Teacher’s Village

Allen A D Rodrigues: 3 months
Krishna R Sundaresan: 6 months
Sangeet Paul Choudhry: 5 months
Vamshi Krishna R: 6 months
Karthik S: 10 months
Sriwatsan K: 3 years

Ok so this is a list of South Indian boys who got lured by the thought that “Gurgaon is a metro” or “Gurgaon is cosmopolitan” or as one of my grandaunts once put it “Gurgaon is like America”, and made their way North, only to realize that Gurgaon is actually a Gaon and not really fit for living in, and opted out. You will notice an outlier in the above data – Sriwatsan K  – and that is a result of him being married to a Punjoo.

By all absolute standards it is a horrible place – no public transport (save for the metro that’s just come up), hell, no autorickshaws, no proper water supply, no proper shops, unsafe roads and all that. Face it, it’s not a city. The only “advantage” that it has, if you could call it that, is that it is less than an overnight train journey away from most of the cow belt, and is hence attractive for educated boys and girls from the said area who don’t want to venture out too far.

Another major thing for these people is that Gurgaon represents a major “level up” for compared to the quality of life in their home towns (not talking about Delhi here; and Delhi, I think, is a wonderful city). Large houses, tap water, air conditioning, 100% power backup and the works.

And if you were to notice, there is no other city or town within some twenty hours of Gurgaon where there is substantial modern “industry” – the kind of industries where college educated people of nowadays will want to work in (IT/BPO/whatever). So, most people who do come to stay in Gurgaon, do so because it is close to “home”. So that they don’t need to live like “the_amit”s in Bangalore or Chennai. And that they can live in a land that celebrates Holi (need to write sometime about how uncivilised a festival that is, or I might already have) and Rakshabandhan.

So, most people who live in Gurgaon think it is a privilege to be living there, and wouldn’t really think of moving out. Hence, employers tend to consider them to be sticky and hence don’t make an effort to retain them and stuff.

Now, for South Indian boys from urban centres (like the ones named in the beginning of the post), Gurgaon represents a major level down in terms of standard of living. And hence, when they go there, they expect the job to compensate for it. And in most cases, given that employers are tailored to thinking that the employees WANT to live in Gurgaon, this ends up not being the case. And that leads to disappointment and hence the short shelf life of South Indians in Gurgaon.