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I do not know if you have had the good fortune of not meeting Mr Red Tape. Most people have come across him in one form or another and who can escape the filling of forms ? When a child is born, when it goes to school, when as a grown up he applies for a job, when he wants to build a house, when he wants to claim his pension, and when he dies and indeed even after his death, forms formsforms have to be filled up. And where there is a form there is Mr.Red Tape.

Creature of Strange Habits

Mr. Red Tape is a creature of somewhat strange habits. He moves in grooves, he sits on flies, he sleeps over reminders and occasionally, he has been known to eat his own words. He would be a fascinating addition to any zoo, but that is not where he lives. His favourite haunt is a Governments office and although many Government Offices bear some resemblance to a zoo, people who go to Government Offices are not as easily amused as visitors to a zoo. However laughable his ways may be Mr. Red Tape provokes not laughter but tears.

There are many stories told about the antics of Mr. Red Tape. It is said that in a certain Government office, there was a large accumulation of old documents and files, dating back to decades documents to which no one but white ants and rates paid any attention. The space which these documents occupied began to squeeze out the people working in that office and the Head of that office had a bright revolutionary idea. If the old documents were burnt, so much space would become free. So he wrote to the Head of his Department in the far off State capital, seeking his permission to do so. After three years and nineteen reminders during which the people working in hat office were all but suffocated, the sanction came Yes, the documents could be destroyed, but three copies of each of them should first be made for future reference.

Queer outlook

What annoys and worries people abourMr. Red Tape is not oddities of this kind, but his whole outlook and approach to the problems which are brought to him. To every proposal , he has an objection. For every solution, he can find a difficulty.

However annoying a character he may seem in office, if you meet Mr. Red Tape in private life, you will find that he is a quite a likeable normal human being. In fairness to him ,therefore, one should ask what it is that a causes his transformation and makes him behave the way that he does.

One day, I had the good fortune of catching him in a relaxed mood at home. His daughter, aged ten, wanted him to help her write an essay on the life of Tilak So, he was glad to be interrupted in the course of our conversation, I asked him as tactfully as I could, how it was that the who was obviously so human at home became so inhuman in office, To my surprise his usually placid face showed signs of animation. There was a gleam in his eye instead of the glassy state with which he froze visitors to his office.

"What choice have I got?”, he asked “I am not judged by the result I achieve, but my adherence to rules I won’t be blamed if I do nothing , but I will be taken to task if I make a single mistake. What does it matter if a battle is lost, or trains collide, or buildings collapse so long as I have acted according to the rules? It is far better that no new houses are built than a single house should go up which infringes any regulation. It is far better than refuges should wait indefinitely for the relief which is due to them than to run the risk of paying more than his due to anyone, Sins of commission are easier to detect than sins of omission".

"This must be very trying”, I said “ How do you manage to function at all?".

"That is very simple”, he replied. “If someone asks me a question, the first thing I ask myself is whether it is within my competence to give him a reply. This is never easy for any one to know. So, I start consulting everybody else who might possible be concerned or interested Before they five me any answer, the ask me a number of questions. I filling them aback at the poor chap who approached me first. If he still perseveres and comes back with answers. I pass them back to my colleagues. If they can find no flaw in the answers, they take a decision. And usually, the decision is to put the matter up to the officers above them. And so the game goes on. Do you think I like it? When I retire, the very rules and procedures which I apply will result in my pension was under consideration! Yet what am I to do? People think I exercise authority. Where the authority lies, no one knows . All I know is that if I do nothing , no one will blame me, But if I do something, then many people will ask me whether what I did was correct. Correct, mind you, not right. If I help someone, my motives may be questioned. If I help someone, my motives may be questioned. If I say no, I am safe. So, I take the line of least assistance."

Where is the way out..

As he paused for breath I managed to ask him another question. “Is there no way out?” I asked

There was a sudden change in his manner He looked up at me with a suspicious eye, wondering whether he had talked more freely than he should have and whether he had infringed Government servants’ Conduct Rules in any manner. After a brief pause in which the gleam went out of his eye, he said. That is a question which you must address to someone in the Department of Administrative Reforms. It will be for them to consult others, examine the matter at the appropriate level and give an answer in suitable terms in due course to your query. So far as I am concerned. I have to help my daughter with her essay, though I must confess that she knows much more about Tilak than I do."

At this brad hint, I got up to take leave. He seemed relieved and once again spoke in a somewhat personal way. He said: “ Now don’t you go and broadcast all that I said and if you every repeat this conversation, don’t give out my real name. Call me Mr.Red Tape."

L K Jha

Ex-Secretary to the Prime Minister

Courtesy Neelappa