An Unhappy Convergence Of Mindsets

Updated: Jan 28 2003, 05:30am hrs
A friend accused me of saying only nasty things about the government. Thats not true. The last column and this are attempts to rectify the imbalance. Private and public sectors are equally capable of bad quality and service. Evils of lack of competition are universal. The difference is that the probability of a monopoly position is higher for the public sector and the probability of exit lower. Reforms are partly based on the idea of pulling up the public sector by exposing it to competition from the private. The two will converge. But in this process, it is also possible for the public sectors mindset to brush off on the private sector and pull it down. I think thats partly happened.

In conversations, people often compare airlines. Comparisons of banks are fewer, unless done by magazines. Perhaps because there are many more banks. Anchal (not Ansal Plaza) in Vasant Kunj in Delhi is a good place to compare banks. Or at least automated teller machines (ATMs). I havent seen any other place where there are so many ATMs in close proximity to one another. Foreign, private Indian, public. In a labour abundant country, labour-intensive techniques must be encouraged. Besides, Indians cant be trusted with machines alone. So each ATM is manned by one or more guards. And the behaviour of the guards possibly tells you something about the banks they work for. For example, in some ATMs, the guard will stand up and open the door of the ATM for you. Even wish you. And in others, the guard will simply sit on a chair and read a newspaper.

One of these ATMs belongs to HDFC and I gather from conversations that HDFC is rated as a good bank. I do have an account there. But I am not terribly fond of using the HDFC ATM. As one ages, one encounters the phenomenon of reading glasses. When you deposit a cheque in HDFC or Standard Chartered, everything is menu driven. You plug in the amount, out comes a deposit slip and a deposit envelope. You put everything into the envelope and thats that. In HDFC, you have to write various things down on the deposit envelope and that requires reading glasses. Hence, I avoid HDFC. But on this particular occasion, I needed to use HDFC. And ran into the perfectly normal phenomenon of no envelopes being available. The guard, whose name was Chitram, was busy reading the paper. I asked him whether he had informed the bank that no deposit envelopes were available. Without getting up from his chair, he said that wasnt his job. He was only a guard.

The attitude, rather than anything else, upset me. I asked for the complaint book. With a great deal of reluctance, he produced it, which was kept hidden inside in a closet. And with the complaint book, out came some deposit envelopes, which were also hidden inside the closet. As every HDFC customer knows, deposit envelopes are always in short supply.

The guard was only doing what every planner in a shortage economy does, rationing out envelopes so that they arent misused and exercising his discretion about possible use and misuse. Thereupon, I wrote a nasty complaint to HDFC in the complaint book, giving my name, my telephone number and my complaint about Chitram. Threatening to close my account with HDFC unless action was taken.

If you are customer friendly, a natural expectation of the private sector, there should have been a call back from the bank. It has been three months and I have heard nothing. I wonder if anyone ever reads the complaint book. Perhaps it is just a showpiece. I havent yet cancelled my account. I have simply stopped using HDFC.

If you weed out telephone calls from friends and acquaintances, telephone calls ought to be divided into two categories. First, telephone calls from companies enticing you as a potential customer of a good or service. Second, telephone calls rectifying grievances of existing customers. Have you noticed how the former is ubiquitous and the latter completely absent Banks, credit card companies and hotel memberships dominate in the first category. They waste a great deal of your precious time. Unlike junk mail through snail mail, you cant simply tear up the rubbish. Unlike junk mail through e-mail, you cant simply take a look at the subject and promptly delete the mail. I hope some day technology advances so that in addition to caller IDs, the subject matter of the telephone call is also displayed and you can slam the receiver down.

To come back to the point, HDFC is not an exception and you will never receive calls about your complaints. Aptech is one of Indias foremost computer institutes and is also Microsofts partner in various capacities. My son happened to do a visual basic course from Aptech in Vasant Vihar. At the end of a course, you get a certificate. Have you ever tried to get a certificate from the government Birth, death, land, property Or even a passport or a ration card How long does it take Thanks to e-governance, everything has been speeded up now. It took us five months to get that certificate from Aptech, five months from the day the course was over. That must surpass all government records. And five months after several threatening calls to the original branch in Vasant Vihar, to the regional office in Delhi and the main office in Mumbai.

The favourite excuse is the standard public sector one, I am not the person you spoke to last time. I wasnt there. I will have to look at the records again. There is a coordination problem between Delhi and Mumbai. Yes, we did eventually get that certificate. And no, we didnt get that telephone call from Aptech saying they were sorry. Sorry is not a word the public sector uses. And sorry is not a word the private sector uses. Not yet.

Which brings me to last weeks BSES column. Dr Indiresan asked me whether BSES called me in response to that column. I reassured him that no such call came. But the day after that column appeared, we had no power for 22 hours at a stretch. And my experience with BSES was a repeat of what I reported earlier.