Thursday, February 04, 2010

A contrarian view of Indian public services




Begin forwarded message:



The Hindu, Jan. 24, 2010

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Public services: a positive experience

THOMAS THARU


Those working in the public sector deserve to know that their work is valuable and appreciated

We need to promote public services to counter any unfair criticism of their work


A friend travelling with me recently by the Coromandel Express from Calcutta developed chest pain and vomiting, which suggested a heart problem. The TTE sent a message to Vishakapatnam, the next junction where a Railway doctor examined him and advised us to go to the government hospital. There they took an ECG immediately and sent us to the casualty ward, where he was given immediate medication but cleared for resuming the journey. Lacking onward reservation, my friend was able to get a flight to Bangalore, his home town. Later tests showed that he did indeed have a mild heart attack, though not perceptible in the ECG.

Let me elaborate a bit on this episode. The railway officials were courteous and helpful. The well-equipped free public ambulance service "108" took us to King George Hospital, where the staff and doctors were also prompt in their services. There was no paperwork — the chit from the railway doctor being sufficient for all medical services. We were sleeper class passengers, in a strange town, with no local contacts or influence, and able to communicate only in English. Our train had reached at 03:30, we were in the hospital by five and back by eight, before going to the airport. Except for an altercation with a station porter regarding a wheelchair, the whole experience was essentially positive. Moreover, all this (ECG, injection, tablets) was absolutely free. Nobody even asked for a tip. The kind of service we received was easily worth a couple of thousand rupees or more!

The doctors at KGH rightly concluded that the symptoms and ECG results did not warrant our further detention in Vizag. More knowledgeable acquaintances say that had we preferred to seek private medical care, we would probably have been detained a few days, at enormous expense.

This incident has reinforced my faith in public services. Contrary to popular perception, I noted that officials and staff in the railways, the ambulance service, and hospital performed their duty with competence and application of mind.

I know this is not a 'representative' example. It isn't meant to be one. We routinely hear only the other side of the story. With the same experience, someone else may merely highlight the faults, perhaps complain about conditions in the hospital such as torn sheets and dirty toilets. For a free public hospital, considering the kind of crowds they deal with, I am amazed we got such quick and effective service. These facilities therefore need to be supported and their shortcomings addressed (and not merely condemned).

It is also my impression that the same people who are vocal in denigrating public services will readily pay bribes to 'get things done'! But the same class of people do not complain when paying through their nose for shoddy services from private organisations. The larger private corporations do not care for customers other than those they perceive as important to their business. The small guy invariably has access only to a faceless call centre for making complaints. They make enough profits to run a slick PR system which can handle the few difficult customers without denting their public image maintained by huge advertising outlays.

Though public services routinely attract adverse comments, those working in the public sector deserve to know that their work is valuable and appreciated, though seldom expressed. Despite well-known short-comings like political or bureaucratic interference and organisational inefficiency, there are many who do a sincere job, sometimes with dedication under adverse conditions. It is they who have held this nation together for over 60 years, and their services are available to everyone equally, at least in principle. You will not find private phone or courier services reaching small villages, whereas the government is expected to make facilities like food, shelter, transport, health and education available to everyone, and it can only be done through adequate public funds by taxing "us" who can afford it.

If the well-off do not actively support public services, we will surely descend steadily into chaos. I would urge readers who agree with the viewpoint expressed here to patronise and promote public services as far as possible, and counter any unfair criticism of the work they do in a hostile  

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