What would otherwise have been a brief human-interest story for a newspaper has shaped up to a 700-word article and evolved into the epitome of humane public service at its best. The reference here is to the eminently readable, thanks-giving article, “Public services: a positive experience” (Open Page, The Hindu, January 24, 2010) by Thomas Tharu. The writer eulogises the emergency medical service rendered to his friend, who fell seriously ill while travelling with him on the Kolkata-Chennai Coromandel Express. The heroes were the Railway doctor and the medical team at the state-owned King George Hospital at Visakhapatnam. Tharu brings to life the quick, free, and highly professional intervention of the employees of the two government-run public utilities services – transport and healthcare – which enabled his friend to come out of the crisis in a relatively short time. “The incident has reinforced my faith in public services,” writes Tharu. “Contrary to popular perceptions, I noted that officials and staff in the railways, the ambulance service, and hospital performed their duty with competence and application of mind.”
It is no surprise that the article has attracted the attention of several readers. They have endorsed Tharu’s opinion that “those working in the public sector deserve to know that their work is valuable and appreciated, though seldom expressed.” Kala from Thrissur writes that the article was “truly a tribute to several million government employees who are sincere and dedicated.” S. Nallassivan from Tirunelveli observes: “When we often hear complaints and allegations against government officials for their lack of sincerity and civility, and shirking of responsibility, the experience narrated in the article about timely medical treatment given to a passenger ... is laudable.“
In a more detailed comment, K. Raju of Chennai says: “In these days of hectic privatisation, when we hear only views glorifying the private sector, it was heartening to read an article giving public services their due. The public sector and public services in India do have some negative features in their functioning, but they can be removed to the satisfaction of the general public, if only the government has the will and inclination to tone up their administration.” Citing the postal services, he observes: “The government has weakened their functioning over the years by refusing to fill the vacancies or to expand the services to cater to the increasing needs of the public.”
S.S. Rajagopalan from Chennai also refers to the functioning of the postal service, making the point that post offices are understaffed. He says in his letter that the number of postmen has not been increased in proportion to the expansion of the area covered by the service. Extolling “our postal services … [for being] among the cheapest and more efficient ones in the world,” he points out that “it just costs 50 paise to send a message across the country.” He wants the postal service to be modernised. Stating that public sector undertakings have an important role to play in offering the best at the lowest rates, he also has a word of praise for The Hindu for upholding the public sector undertakings (PSUs).
It is heartening that an article published in the Open Page of a major newspaper can revive public discussion of an issue and can, if the discussion acquires momentum or the issue gains purchase, play an agenda-building role. There has been in recent decades a virtual hate campaign against the public sector; the interests behind this ideological offensive are all too apparent. Ever since independent India took its first steps towards planned development in the 1950s by launching manufacturing enterprises, especially heavy industries, and utility services in the public sector, these vested interests and their ideologues have been opposing these efforts in all available forums — with substantial support from influential sections of the news media. Notwithstanding the good-to-excellent work done by numerous PSUs, well-orchestrated campaigns against them continue unabated, projecting only the negative aspects of the PSUs. The campaign was sustained by picking holes in the less-efficient enterprises. The allegations, very often exaggerated, related to corruption, financial irregularities, bureaucratic rigidity, poor employer-employee relations, and labour unrest.
These campaigns have, over the years, brought many PSUs into disrepute; they have damaged the image of employee and management alike in the public eye. Repeated pleas from managements and workers to set right the few sick units were often ignored, with the result that such units were allowed to slide to a point of no return. The employees involved in transport operations, air, road, and rail, have often been most-ridiculed. This persistent campaign paid dividends to its promoters during the economic liberalisation of the 1990s. The policy of disinvestment came as a big threat to the public sector in the country. Among the big industrial units, barring the navaratnas (the nine successful and financially sound PSUs), all others have suffered or are facing pressures on their existence as PSUs.
The economy has been deregulated but leading industries in sectors such as petroleum, steel, and mining remain in the public sector. A large segment of the banking industry in India, which remains in the hands of the state, has been able to protect the economy from the adverse effects of the global meltdown that destabilised the economies of many countries, developed and developing. Many economists believe that the prudent and responsible policies of public sector banks and the Reserve Bank of India, and the deep strengths of major PSUs, have stood the Indian economy in very good stead. Whether this advantage will be consolidated and will lead to the strengthening of the public sector in all those areas where it can continue to deliver remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, the value of the Open Page needs to be highlighted and cherished. I do hope that The Hindu will expand this section and open up more space, in print and online, for public-spirited citizens like Thomas Tharu to contribute their experiences, insights, and ideas. The Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’ demonstrates how the editorial content of a newspaper can be greatly enriched by a variety of outside contributors, many of whom may not otherwise get a chance to break into major newspaper columns.