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An example of how a government office's functioning can transform

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The following is about the last of the mails, posted a few weeks back by an entrepreneur (I'll refer to him as HK), in a chain of mail exchanges over the "OneBengaluru google-group", detailing the transformation in the attitude (for the better) of the Commercial Tax department officials in Bengaluru towards him and his colleagues. This came about following the intervention of two senior IAS officials when the entrepreneur's earlier post detailing his unhappy experiences was forwarded by me to one of the IAS officials, with whom I had occasioned to interact earlier.

Dear all,

I’m very thankful to all who made this change happen in commercial Tax Office.

Here I like to share my yesterday’s experience in VAT office and the employee’s behavior over there. We have experienced today as similar to the experience when we visit any private bank for current account opening. We were amazed to see total change in behaviour of staff towards us and good hospitality to us at the office.

As I mentioned in my earlier mail, we missed to apply for CST while applying VAT on on-line application and we were worrying about the CST registration timelines.

Yesterday we got 4 to 5 calls from VAT office asking us to come to VAT office with respect to our VAT application and they suggested to apply CST immediately, so that both VAT and CST will get processed immediately. At 4 pm we reached VAT office, as soon as I reached there, a person came to me to assist (same person who took negotiating responsibility earlier), he provided CST application form and asked us to fill, and he also provided some reference CST application forms which was applied by others and other KVAT manuals to assist us in filling CST form, when we were in little confusion in filling the CST application. Interestingly, he also explained us about how and when to use C- form, benefits of C-form, where to use TIN number etc. We were very much surprised with the behavior and service they provided. We were just seated at the place and the documents were moved around the table and getting updated by government officials, we had no clue for the change in behavior, and all official verification, approval, were done on priority.

1. VAT certificate was generated.
2. User ID and password was generated and issued immediately.
3. E-sugam was activated.
4. All documents were uploaded immediately.
For all documents issued by them, acknowledgment was taken. We suspected they may again demand for bribe.

As per SAKALA act, timeline for CST application is 25 working days, but they have done in less than half an hour time.

I was very curious to know the change in their behavior, and at the same time I was very angry on them, as they made us to run around their office for a week, waiting in their office for hours by leaving our other works on hold/ delayed for the work (VAT/CST registration) which is supposed to completed within few hours. While leaving the office I noticed that he was not looking for money (initially I thought that as per SAKALA today is the last date for them to process over TIN application). I asked the reason for the change in their behavior, and today is the last day as per sakala so you people are trying to close this file. He informed us as per sakala they have still another five days. I stressed asking them about their changed behavior, then he informed that someone has complained about delay and harassment on this file, so all staff returned their money and sayibru (in Kannada, he referred his boss Asst.Commissioner) also did not accepted the money, saying that he returned the amount (rs.4000) to us, which we had given two days ago. And to justify their attitude/ actions he told long story - explained about system and the practice is common across all departments like police/ RTO, etc…, low government pay-scales as they had only PRC4 (4th pay revision commission) as against Andhra Pradesh had 6thPRC. Etc….. He requested us to close this issue here (even though I don’t have any control or rights to do so).

Initially we were very much worried to raise this issue as we invested all our 7 to 8 years hard money on this project, due to raising this issue if we are screwed-up in some way and delayed/ denied in any process of the firm, it will be very difficult / impossible to recover our-self.     

I sincerely thank all of you to make this happen. It would be great to see that if everybody who visits the government office experiences the same change, and we hope for that. Otherwise, reason to bring this issue on to this forum will not be met.

We request transparence in every government office/ system by making the information on various procedures (like apply for any application, fee, documents, no of days, fee on what basis, what are the documents required and why, what are the alternately documents required for local resident/ non local resident) available/ accessible to even to a layman.
I again sincerely appreciate the effort put our senior officials and One Bengaluru members to solve this particular issue. I want to thank them all. This incident energized and increase motivation to work for the change in the system and also increased trust on the belief that we can bring the change in the system. So that everybody will get benefited.

There were a few more posts following this, excerpts from most relevant of which I am reproducing below:

KS: Forgive me for being cynical, but a case-by-case response like this does not scale.

RP: While I agree with KS, still I would hopefully say large success comes in small steps of success repeated. But I would say that it is Mr XX's leadership that would have triggered the change in behavior of the staff in his department for the case in particular.

I have experienced similar courtesy by BESCOM staff whenever I complained to Mr Manivannan, Bescom Chief. Again it is Mr Manivannan who changed the way BESCOM works to a larger extent with central complaints system being implemented apart from other technology and behaviour measures.

Will it change for everyone is doubtful in the near future as corruption starts with political class (who are the so-called bosses in the country) and political will is hard to come by in such issues as we have seen in the past few years starting with Lokpal bill, etc.

Till such time let us keep at it and continue to raise issues in a forum like this and many more. One day political class has to listen to citizen activism.

Earlier, when the HK chose not to reveal more about his company, the same was endorsed by RP as follows: I do NOT subscribe to HK disclosing more about his company as, in a country where honest IAS officers like Ashok Khemka and Durga Nagpal can get victimised so easily and blatantly in full public gaze, what is the fate of a common man on the street? Easy victimisation by the powers in authority is the fundamental basis of corruption rooted in our country and surviving even after 66+ yrs of Independence, and perhaps will survive for many more years to come unless we do some radical changes to the governance.

RP went on to add as follows: By trying to address one odd raised issue by getting into details of the case is NOT going to help the system - you will address this and forget making corrections to the larger system. It is a well known fact that corruption is rampant in Commercial Tax offices (and true with other relevant State and Central Govt departments who deal with public directly or indirectly). Take this as granted and try making systemic changes in the way the department works. Change the processes in such a way that bribery has no scope -  bring in transparency (notice boards, website), define timelines, define criteria, publish officials responsible, have complaint redressal mechanism, outsource few processes (like what Passport offices have done), etc. Get a reputed consultant like McKinsey, Boston Consulting, Accenture, etc to suggest re-engineering of the processes and methods. Be BOLD in having all the staff display badges on their shirts/ sarees that "I do NOT take bribe" or "Do NOT give bribe for the duty I do" - once this is done no righteous person will even dare to ask for a bribe. In summary, what is needed is the surgery of the system, processes and methods with some radical changes and innovative means to curb this menace from our society rather than taking up one odd issue and self-patting that we have corrected the system or addressed the issue.  

And, in response to a comment that "offering bribe is as much a crime as taking it", RP responded as follows: It is easier said than done by saying giving bribe also is a crime; understand who is the vulnerable party in the whole transaction; bribe giver and bribe taker are NOT equal in the equation. 

I closed the debate with: My Praja-RAAG colleague, Pranav Jha (he manages the Praja website), is heading an "Open Governance" exercise in K-SHIP (Karnataka State Highways Improvement Project) at the instance of Mr Manivannan, who has recently moved there as the Chief. They have gathered an impressive team, which includes me, who though has not figured out what is going on, as yet. The project is still in its infancy. But, the name itself suggests that it may provide some answers, if not most.

The senior IAS officers expressed interest in the programme, and Mr Manivannan has now proposed a half-day workshop, in mid-January, for the benefit of all concerned, to understand the scope of the project, as also its applicability across all areas of governance.

Let's hope for the best, and work towards achieving it.

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