I sat looking for a long time at my thumb and the purple line on it indicating that I had exercised my right of adult franchise in the Capital’s first Local Bodies Election. I and my better half are both senior citizens and like others of my ilk tend to get irritated, when we see rules violated, punctuality ignored and responsibility shirked. It was in that frame of mind that we entered our polling station to cast our vote. I was pleasantly surprised at the courtesy and help that was extended to me by the staff on duty, but then I saw my wife, who has knee problems, walking out of the women’s side with ire written on her face. It turned out that the female presiding officer had refused to help her in locating her serial number and instead had insisted that she get a chit made from the party camps established near the polling station. The presiding officer was repeatedly requested that it would be painfully difficult to walk all the way for the ‘parchi’ and that her name in the lists may be checked through her National Identity Card, but the ‘grumpy and rude’ female paid no heed.

The incident set me thinking as to why did public servants (even those who assumed duties on a temporary basis) behave in a manner as if they were carrying an unpleasant burden on their shoulders and the way to deal with ordinary citizens was to be obnoxious and rude (to the point of being insulting). I came to the conclusion that poor public dealing was the result of multiple factors, the foremost of which was the working environment. Take, for example, banks. The moment one entered any branch of the only government bank in the country, one was confronted with a bunch of irate bankers, who appeared to be performing their duties as if under duress. I have experienced this first hand being a senior pensioner.

A look around the main room of the bank offered a possible answer – salinity stained walls with peeling paint, wet and smelly bath rooms (in one branch a steady stream of water flowed unchecked into the banking area), broken or patched up furniture. In short, the overall impression was that of neglect and morbidity. In contrast, whenever I visited the private bank which looked after my meagre assets, I found myself surrounded by happy, courteous young men and women, who offered assistance with a winning smile. These individuals resonated with brightly painted walls, glass cubicles, attractive roof lights and good comfortable furniture.

In one government office which I visited along with my wife, I found to my dismay that my route lay through a bathroom. Having safely negotiated our way through standing water on the floor, praying in our hearts that this was not sewage, we reached our destination. We found the concerned desk unoccupied, in spite of the fact that we had obtained an appointment. We perched on chairs rather gingerly as their cane seats were in a rotten condition and we had no desire to make a comic spectacle of ourselves. I looked around and found myself sitting amongst ceiling high stacks of bulging files, which appeared to be of ‘Raj’ vintage. Consistent enquiries revealed that the occupant of this station had gone to the canteen to entertain his guests. It was a full thirty minutes, before our ‘official’ returned. To our horror, he emitted a loud burp and lifting the front end of his shirt (an act that made us avert our eyes), wiped his mouth.

It took us well over an hour to fill a ton of forms, while the ‘babu’ sitting opposite subjected us with a glare that alternated between hostility and balefulness. We thankfully left the room, negotiated the wet bathroom (where a running tap forced me to walk over and turn it off) and drove home.

Honestly speaking, I have no hopes of the government ever undertaking an improvement in the working environment of its employees. But if it ever does, it will immediately manifest results in the shape of attitudes and increased output. I am ending this week’s piece by dedicating it to the handful of public officials, who display professional excellence, acknowledging in letter and spirit that they are ‘public servants’. It is these few who bring credit to their respective services.

 The writer is a freelance columnist.