Unshackling the vice-like grip of hierarchy in our country

First published here: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/bengaluru/unshackling-the-vice-like-grip-of-hierarchy-in-our-country/articleshow/65638094.cms

S. Giridhar Times of India September 2, 2018

Years ago, I had an early introduction to the all-pervading grip of ‘hierarchy’. A laudable initiative to reform examinations by introducing conceptual questions in place of questions that merely test rote learning was proposed by a progressive state. A two day workshop inviting knowledgeable educationists to share their expertise was designed. A week before the event, the department director came to know that the top bureaucrats and the minister will attend the inaugural session. Suddenly all attention was diverted from the academic content of the workshop to the protocol and rituals. What should the invitation card say, who will speak, what should be the seating arrangement on the dais and who will garland whom. Flowery couplets in Urdu and vacuous speeches ate up the forenoon of the first day. After that inaugural session of stressful formalities, there was little energy left in the academic group for what could have been a most educative event. The thin line that divides respect and servility, decorum and meaningless rituals has long been crossed in every aspect of our governance, in every aspect of public life. It percolates downwards, from the political executive to bureaucracy and down to simple hardworking people on the ground.

The trigger for me to recall this episode is my recent experience with the teachers in some of India’s good government schools. Despite being in the trenches of a system where meaningless obeisance to hierarchy is the norm, many of these outstanding teachers were shining exceptions to the prevalent culture of servility. Over the past year, in the course of my study of good schools and their teachers in four districts across the country, I visited many schools, observing them and interacting with teachers, children and the community. I have written about the fine attributes of these teachers, the excellent leadership, innovative pedagogy, the upward trajectory of their self-development and so on. But I must also draw attention to another admirable attribute present among quite a few of the teachers. This I would describe as the ‘self-confidence to square up to authority’. I have a surrogate indicator – call it my own dipstick – for this attribute. When one visits government schools, most head teachers would instantly get up, vacate their chair and offer this to the supervisor/ visiting functionary because this kind of ‘courtesy’ is embedded in the culture of the system. If in such a stifling milieu, I find school heads who do not subscribe to such actions and do not humble themselves, I call that out as an indicator of self-confident, upright persons with a mind of their own.

I might use examples from the education system but this is representative of all domains, be they education, rural development, public health or whatever. The culture of hierarchical servility pervades all aspects of our governance and domains, across all organizational layers from top to bottom. Even if the chief is only a week new in that department – say the bureaucrat was transferred from animal husbandry to health – he/she would speak with all the authority while the rest of the members held their counsel. Over the years, the signalling of power derived from position has also got sophisticated. The political executive too – and one has attended meetings presided by ministers either in a state or at the centre – are a lot more urbane and polished. They turn on the charm, they remember and call out members by their first name and beguile us into thinking that there is space for discussion and contrarian views. In reality, things have been pre-decided, the meetings conveniently serve the purpose of optics.

Over the past sixteen years, as one witnessed meetings chaired by bureaucrats across the country, one often observed the manner in which there would be two circles of chairs. An inner ring of chairs around the conference table and an outer ring where the chairs apologetically melt into the wall. Seating is by seniority. Even if much of the information for the meeting is to be provided by a junior person, he or she would convey this from the outer ring. Other members, even if they have nothing to say, will be seated in the inner ring because they are senior. I can never forget a 30 minute ride in a car a few years ago with a retired bureaucrat, one with a fantastic reputation as an upright officer. As we were driving, he received a call on his mobile and lowering his voice, said, ‘sir’ and ‘ji haan’ about 12 times in a 4 minute conversation. I learnt he was talking to a former chief Minister. Here was a retired top bureaucrat talking to a former chief minister but the culture of deference is so deeply ingrained, it is like a serpent that coils all the way upward.

In fact no aspect of our public or private life is exempt. Even in an elite highly paid professional sport like cricket, one has heard that senior star Test cricketers in the 1990s expected ‘sirji’, ‘paaji’ and such forms of respect from young cricketers who were entering the Test dressing room. But one can take heart from the same Indian dressing room, because since the time of Ganguly to Dhoni to now Kohli, that kind of overbearing atmosphere is history. It is talent, performance and teamwork that matters.

I usually write with optimism when I see even a little change on the ground. So here again, one writes with hope as one observes among the exceptional teachers, the rare quality of not being obsequious to authority. The malaise of meaningless servility eats into the vitals of governance but the implications of such a culture are lethal in the domain of education. How can teachers and educational institutions develop in their students, the ability to think and question, develop into rational, socially conscious citizens with independence and honesty, if the culture around them is not one of questioning? That is why these signs of independence and uprightness among the good teachers are vital. One can also add to this, heartening evidence of some good officers and progressive ministers demonstrating similar change as they encourage expertise and competence to express themselves. These winds of change, however small are important. Change is always slow and difficult but as more people walk this path, we will see increased unshackling of the coils of hierarchy in various domains of public life. Change will happen in pockets, but for sure it will happen.

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