This is a true story
This is a true story and therefore all names, locations, dates and other details will be withheld. It is to be read and enjoyed for the content it provides!
The occasion: The foundation stone laying ceremony of an important structure.
The place: A prominent state of India, which has corruption built into its DNA.
The players: The top leadership of the state (no less than the Chief Minister) and all the way down to the 4th division clerk and peon of the various departments involved. Various suppliers, vendors, workmen, florists, decorators, caterers etc etc.
The task at hand: Getting a marble slab inscribed with the Chief Minister’s name as the person who laid the foundation stone for the structure.
For days there had been excitement and anticipation about the function at hand. The site had been prepared, the ground levelled and a makeshift road hastily paved for the Chief Minister to be able to drive smoothly without his delicate back muscles and bones getting damaged.
Vendors had been identified to procure the best marble and a creative agency had submitted a beautifully designed template which the carvers and inscribers could use for working on the marble slab. When the order was about to go out, we got a call from the CM’s office, expressing security concerns and telling us that he would do the foundation stone laying ceremony from his home office!
It worked like this – a platform was erected on stage and the stone was mounted on it. A beautiful satin curtain covered it. From where the CM was seated, a few feet away, he would press a button on a remote and lo! The curtains would draw back signalling that the foundation stone was laid.
There was also a catch to this. We were instructed to procure the entire contraption from ‘approved’ vendors who knew how it worked (all the way through). Here, more things are better left unsaid, than said, because it clearly meant the exchange of money at various levels, like it did for the flowers, the food, and even the paper towels used for the buffet lunch!
The vendor approached us with a quotation double the expected cost, and looked down when asked for reasons. He then sheepishly explained he would get only a fraction of what he was charging. We knew silence was a better option at this late stage.
The day of the function dawned. The contraption worked flawlessly. The CM delicately touched a button with his sanitized fingers and the curtains a few feet away slid apart with greased ease and the hall broke into thunderous applause.
The CM then walked away with an imperious air, surrounded by his coterie. People then made a beeline for the food. There was mayhem with each person grabbing four to five portions. We sat and watched tired out by all the shenanigans of the political gurus and divas and the tantrums they had thrown, beginning with which sofa they would sit on and how close they would be to the CM so he would catch their eye and wave to them from the dais.
Then came the moment of reckoning. The vendor approached us with a bill, demanding cash. We said we could not pay cash because the amount was higher than permissible limits for cash transactions. He looked at us, he looked away, he looked for the master of ceremonies who held all the decision making powers in that hallowed space. He was nowhere to be seen.
So he walked to the stage, dismantled the contraption and took away the slab, promising to give it to us when we paid. Months later, we were still haggling because he had overcharged us and we could not pay him that amount when we had lower quotations in writing. Transparency in accounting meant something after all!
This story would have been forgotten had it not been for a team member who happened to pass by the vendor’s place months later and found the stone lying there abandoned. Losing hope of getting it from him, because both of us could not budge on the price, we had got a new stone installed. The stone, which had been unveiled with such fan fare was lying unclaimed and unwanted in his yard. I don’t know what happened to the stone but it certainly didn’t get the respect it had got on the day of the ‘remote-controlled foundation laying” ceremony.
I still don’t know who gained and who lost in this deal! But it certainly gave me insights into how government functions ‘functioned’!