Tigertourisminterrupted

Cheers

Cheers

Already time to get on the blog? But, I guess that’s part of starting something new. One suddenly has so many things to contend with – like the interesting couple of new assignments I am presently working on. On that, may be later.

Plus, my mac has a new keypad. A slight change in the configuration, but for conventional typists like me (my old keypad had to be replaced because a few letters had smudge marks from over-typing, covered under Apple Care) that could mean wasted time.

As I contemplate our recent adventures at Ranthambore on the journey back to Delhi, I’ve decided to present my take on our experience…..with the ‘tiger’ operators of Sawai Madhopur and with the tourist services accorded by the Government of Rajasthan.

The trip contingent included five, including Ahaana, our 20 odd month old cub. It was planned online, courtesy the Govt. of Rajasthan website. Accommodation was arranged at RTDC (State Govt.) ‘Classic’ category ‘Castle Jhoomar Baori’, a quaint ‘hunting lodge of yore’ nestled atop a small hill, overlooking the tiger habitat. We chose it for the location and the food and we weren’t disappointed. ‘Government’ has its privileges, in this case a view, which no other resort in or around Sawai Madhopur can boast of.

View from RTDC Castle Jhoomar Baori, Sawai Madhopur.

View from RTDC Castle Jhoomar Baori, Sawai Madhopur.

It also boasts of a Tripadvisor – Certificate of Excellence…the ‘Michelin-par for the course’ of the Indian tourist scene. From the reviews on Tripadvisor, it is evident that people have not rated it highly (even with the certificate to boast of, it comes a lowly 12 out of 17) and for obvious reasons – Quality of Service. If only people understood the actual reason for this. ‘Customer is King’ doesn’t exist in the Government Services Scene…and I don’t mean to extoll the virtues of the private sector, while lambasting the ‘culture’ of government. ‘It’s different’ is all I can think of, and I’m sure you’d agree based on the following idiosyncrasies we had to contend with:

1.         What you pay online is not the ‘total’ sum. You are supposed to pay taxes at checkout. Fair enough, even if one considers that no mention of the ‘taxes’ is tantamount to ‘hidden’ fairs in these days of ‘all inclusive’. It is possible that savvy advisors suggested this ploy to bait those still in two-minds about the place. Tourists, beware….and please read the fine-print, like we almost forgot.

2.         While professing ‘strictness’ for timings and rates, the staff nevertheless likes its ‘Baksheesh’, so much so that we found a couple of people lingering rather uncomfortably, not to mention the sudden improvement in service, if only for a fleeting instant. Upshot – do what your conscience tells you, but if you’re going to pay him, let him earn his keep. There is too much ‘kharcha’ without the ‘khatirdaari’ anyway in State-run establishments, IMHO.

3.         While I’m on timing, it is worth mentioning that our request to stay on in our rooms for a couple of hours after checkout (Noon) met no sympathetic ear. With no one to occupy those rooms, we did feel a little slighted, but then one can only sympathize with the operators, considering their own predicament in entertaining their special guests, due to arrive later. TIME is of the essence…keep track of it and stick to schedule.

4.         Another issue worth mentioning is the ploy for charging extra-lunch fees. Check-in at Noon implies ‘lunch’ on the house. But what if one checks in at dinnertime? In that case don’t expect that the lunch you missed would be adjusted forward. This ‘implied’ suggestion can by way of the manager when I called to confirm my booking prior to arrival. “Sir, its 1300h. We’ve already prepared lunch for you.” While I understand the operator’s lack of concern for wasted food, a single phone-call to confirm our plans prior to preparing the lunch would have sufficed. That there was no lunch in the first place was confirmed when I went about completing my departure formalities at the Reception, on the day of our departure – the bloke gave the same line to another arriving party due to arrive later in the day. Important lessons for the future – Read the fine print, discuss all your issues well in time and then ‘decide’ if you’re up to the task.

Serving with the government, I understand the psyche of the state-tourism operators, and under the circumstances, find their behavior and actions justifiable. But, expecting a different standard of treatment elsewhere, I would argue that the internalization doesn’t arise out of a sense of ‘work-ethos’ camaraderie, but from being able to tune the body’s response clock while straddling the time-zones between the government sector and the private sector. The benchmarks are different and the operator assessment is based on factors beyond the scope of the viewer reviews on Tripadvisor. (The fact that these may be growing apart is not the core issue here, but is reflective of the trends in the evolving service industry in India).

            Not over yet…or, come back later, for there’s more. Now, it’s time for the ‘tiger’ safari saga. Ranthambore is ‘evidently’ well populated with the big cats. With the recent exposé a lá Sariska, who know how many there really are…, I wonder. Anyway, we booked two tours, an evening gypsy ride into zone ‘6’ (Kundali) and a morning canter ride into the main zone (there are five zones – we got zone ‘4’ – the ‘creamy’ zone as our guide put it—-naturally!!).

Entering the Creamy Zone

Entering the Creamy Zone

            We saw no cats at all. Sloth Bear, Blue Bull, Sambhar, Indian Gazelle, Wild boar — the graziers were all there, remarkably calm and composed. Bad news, if you ask me – for the watchers and the cats. Anyway, that was expected. The pure thrill of passing through the tiger’s habitat was enough to satisfy our souls. What irks the senses is the big game that the guides and drivers have on show as they play to a narrative. ‘T-19 was seen on that hill, passing through that way so and so minutes ago’. What gives it away is the frequent reference to ‘the other guide’s later plans’, ‘offers to swap trips between the drivers’…and the mechanical, synchronized proceedings played to an eager audience…. the former soon tire of the game, as they ponder their future plans and the latter resign themselves to a ride sufficiently exciting but not to the level of the hype generated by the ‘tiger’ of Ranthambore. We came away more than satisfied, as our cub rose to the challenge of two back-to-back safaris, braving rain and the early morning elements with ease, waving a friendly greeting to one and all.

            The ‘Safari’ experience needs to be improved, if the quality of tourism is to be enhanced. While one can’t expect a sanctuary-like experience, modern-day technology plus other infrastructure developments can make the experience enriching for all.

1.         First on the list is geo-tagging the big cats. While we thought this to be a normal procedure, that is not to be. As the recent ‘Machli’ incident suggests (the grand empress of Ranthambore vanished for a couple of weeks recently before resurfacing), geo-tagging can help locate tigers, track their movements – providing important seasonal information that could help the conservationists, but also help tourists improve their chances of capturing the beast in action. The only downside I see is that the information can passed on to the highest-bidding poacher, a bright possibility, considering the fact that (as our guide pointed out) ‘The opportunity a guide/driver gets to ply his trade is infrequent (once in 4/5 days), hinting at the competition/lack of alternative opportunities in the local job market.

2.         Also, rampant ‘black money’ access to the park (indicated by the fact that no ‘online’ bookings are available for ‘gypsy’ rides most of the time while our driver offered us an ‘upgrade’ from canter to gypsy for ‘only’ Rs. 1000/-) indicates the flourishing underground economy for ‘all things tiger’ at Ranthambore – from tours, to memorabilia, to ..!!

            For the sake of all, I hope state lethargy and privateering comes to an end….before the reign of the tiger at Ranthambore does !

Every squirrel a tiger !

Every squirrel a tiger !

While we don’t expect much…. indeed, the quaintest things give most pleasure….but one can definitely try to make the experience a little better….everyday….and in everything we attempt.

Looking forward to the next time.

SarkarInterrupted-II

…Continued from earlier. In gist, our dealings with the local Delhi government towards getting our marriage registered.

Armed with a ‘reference’ provided by someone-who-knows-someone-who-knows-someone, we reached the concerned office 10 minutes past the designated time..blame it on our tardiness combined with the awful approach to the offices of the Sarkar (translated as government, can also refer to an ‘individual’, symbolising the powers and influence he wields).

It appears that the area surrounding the government office in question, a site chosen for the convenience of users, has been overwhelmed by the burgeoning industrial area around its periphery. With due respect to the disaster management response vehicle in the office premises, one hopes the authorities in question pay adequate attention to the entry/exit issues plaguing the offices. If the offices can’t be shifted, it is but natural to seek an improvement in traffic management, unless the authorities are okay with arriving at ground-zero after the hens have gone home to roost (true Bollywood style, that).

Having filled up some more forms (the staff was amazingly receptive, now that we were suitable armed with a reference) and having wearied of a game of hide-and-seek with the birds, narrowly escaping their attempts to coat us with their unmentionables as we stood outside the office (a surprising lack of basic amenities), we were ushered into the presence of the approving authority. Having examined our documents, he clarified that since the marriage was solemnised in another city (Baroda, Gujarat), the bride didn’t belong to Delhi anymore rendering the issue irreconcilable. While we came away disappointed, his reasoning seemed to be within the confines of law, as argued by him. We don’t grudge him that, especially as government servants begin to wield the ‘book’ under extensive public scrutiny post the recently held elections.

What we did was ponder over were some issues that merited a little brooding (a decent way to pass the time as we negotiated traffic). This is also an effective ‘indigenous’ response towards reconciling oneself with the doggedness of the powers that be. Make peace alright, but not without the usual bout of cribbing, which is a god-bestowed right, exercised unabashedly by every Indian.

The first thing that struck us was that the so called reference, who held a similar post prior to his present appointment was surely aware of the rules. Why then the Kolaveri Di? For one, while online process may not be in vogue, one can at least expect relevant extracts from the rule books to be pasted online. It wouldn’t take too long for the rules, the description of the process and the various forms required to get populated on the government website. A small step in governance, but a giant leap towards greater transparency, reducing uncertainty in the process (I guess the ‘unknown’ is more unnerving than the outright ‘rejection’). And yes, these rules need to have the 4Cs built into them – Crisp, Clear, Concise, Correct (flyboys, take a bow).

Else, the other ‘ingenious’ but sometimes unwelcome ‘jugaad’ that Indians are so proud of, rears its head from time to time. This time it was my better half, quipping rather impressively that ‘had we printed a wedding card with Delhi as the venue the bloke wouldn’t have made such a fuss’.  With the right ‘degree’ of reference, we could indeed have pulled it off. And by the way the staff handled our paper-work (checking and double-checking our documents), it appears that interruptions like the one described can be brushed aside with ‘discretionary’ judgment on the part of the Sarkar.

If only the government did something about the nagging suspicion that  ‘a level-playing field is still a pipe-dream, and the road to it littered with whimsical discretion’ amidst a culture of favours and references. And while we are on the subject of ‘roads’, will someone tend to road leading to the government office, in the interest of the ‘disaster response’ community of Delhi?

For now, we’re happy that at least our documentation is in order for the next attempt (in Baroda, can’t say when). For those not overtly familiar with Indian culture, it is worth mentioning that while registering a marriage is required by law, greater credibility is rendered through social acceptance, rendered through a ceremony and presided over by scripture reading priests and attended by a well represented gathering of well-wishers from both corners (red and blue). To dispel any doubts, happy married we are, whether Sarkar likes it or not.

Looking forward to the next one.

SarkarInterrupted-I

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A cursory glance at the disconnect between the elements of government (Sarkar) and the public, arising out of a recent personal experience. It started when we decided to get our marriage registered with the government…soon after our wedding (almost 06 years ago). Lack of planning at our end led to a delay, which has extended to this day. Lack of ‘comprehensive’ documentation (combined with difficult demands like producing the priest who presided over the ceremony) was the main culprit as was a ‘lack of available time’ to a lesser degree. Living away from our domicile cities and being afforded short leave intervals added to the delay.

To our surprise, we were recommended a Delhi government website (http://delhi.gov.in/wps/wcm/connect/doit/Delhi+Govt/Delhi+Home) that allowed online registration and provided a list of documents required, which was elaborate but not quite the ‘labour of modern-day Hercules’ we were confronted with earlier. The website is under maintenance as I write this. The acknowledgement letter was received promptly, confirming our appointment between 1000h and 1200h on our chosen day (two days later). We were pleasantly surprised with this online process, but in retrospect, I admit I forcefully suppressed a few doubts that began surfacing from the depths of my mind. Having arrived at the said place on time, we were surprised to find that ‘online’ applications were not welcome. It turned out to be a facility actively subscribed at one end and conveniently forgotten at the other. This was confirmed by the intermediaries, the staff, who actually rule the roost in many government offices. Not only that, we were told that ‘the groom’ had to be from Delhi (against the ‘either’ parties we were led to believe from the website). Sexism to this degree was unexpected, but then so was our encounter with what we hoped would be facilitators, and who in fact were more than happy to leave us stranded with a big question mark (and a couple of exclamation marks)  in our minds.

Being government servants ourselves, and having been acquainted with the inner workings of such offices, we did the obvious. Track connections at the senior level of government who could clarify doubts and facilitate our process. It turns out that sexism is passe, but for the whims and fancies of the support staff. We were also assured of a ‘reference’ provided by someone-who-knows-someone-who-knows-someone and who could reconcile our issue amicably. Having experienced a classical ‘interruption’, I can think of the following pointers towards resolving such hindrances in the future. Although, I warn you, this is just a theoretical exercise, for the horse is stubborn and it will rather die of thirst than taste the sweet elixir of life.

1. Force the ‘online’ process into daily government dealings – Cuts flab (reduces the burden on already taxed staff), streamlines the process (good riddance to opinions/whims/fancies), thus reducing the ‘human’ element and avoiding conflict/misalignment of interests as the above case suggests. I guess an ideal working day for the staff in question would be one without petitioners.

2. Enforcing newly introduced practices – The fact that an online process exists draws attention to failure in implementation, requiring periodic audits and revisits to smoothen the changed pattern of working. Any change introduced in a process that deals with a huge population needs to be given an adequate gestation period. Although I’m not sure about the true costs involved, it is safe to assume that they’re not negligible. Apart from the incurred expenditure, a lack of returns also needs to be factored into the overall costs, in terms of man-hours lost/wasted as a result of failure in implementation. Taken together, the costs would add up substantially.

3. Incentivising the Staff – I don’t blame the staff for their attitude. True, when we find exceptions, we hold them in high esteem, expecting their traits to symbolize the minimum acceptable bar of performance (I think this has to do with our inherent ability to set standards in our minds for each and everything, progressively increasing the bar till our next near-to-perfect experience). One needs to remember that the staff is employed on a ‘particular job’, gets a particular ‘pay’ and has specific ‘career paths’, all incentivised by ‘survivability’ rather than ‘performance based merit’. Piling on workload under such circumstances, while not unwelcome, would definitely be a drain, especially when no additional benefits accrue (and when the ‘unchosen many’ continue to draw similar benefits without the extra burden of work). One way of addressing this issue would be through optimum measurement of ‘effort’, in terms of ‘result-based performance’ rather than the normative ‘work-hours’ put in (getting rid of the ‘over-time, under-worked’ work ethic). However, this would require additional resources and comprehensive monitoring mechanisms, justified only under certain specific instances where the ‘online’ process doesn’t offer better yields and in some where a combination of both is recommended. Passport processing have been well addressed during the last few years, relying on a combination of ‘online’ application process and ‘in person’ verification process.(http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2012-04-03/kolkata/31281195_1_appointments-passport-officer-passport-seva-kendra). I added this link to highlight two issues: that serious attempts to convert plans into ground reality are forthcoming, and the fact that ‘follow-up’ still continues to be a weak area (as evidenced from the comments). Enforcement continues to be a bane, whilst the posterboys walk away from the scene after a glittering ribbon-cutting ceremony.

4. Enhancing the capacity for institutional learning – As the case of ‘passport processing’ above suggests, there are vital lessons here than can be applied on other cases of similar nature, involving registration and verification. Applying these lessons can help reduce costs, provide an effective method to store data, help streamline further processes through data retrieval, and help individuals and government bodies manage their time and effort optimally.

The Aam Aadmi Party’s failed efforts to address petitioners in person speaks volumes about the issues plaguing the masses and the impracticability of addressing these in-person. While it is not practical to expect any drastic improvement in the present system of functioning, buoyed by the public mood, it is possible to ‘crowdsource’ change from the bottom up. In my conversations with a few friends from Brazil, I chanced upon the option of utilising internet/networking/communication towards creating a hybrid of direct and representative democracy. It emerges that in Argentina, this phenomenon is being experimented upon by an interesting group called “La Red” (The Network), a political party totally constituted through the internet. They have gone so far as to develop a software called Democracy.OS (http://democracyos.org/), which will enable direct participation of citizens – to get informed, join the conversation, and vote on political and legislative topics.

Through such initiatives, we may chance upon some unique solutions that could fit well into our local context, helping draw attention to the ‘effectiveness’ of the government’s best laid plans. Just as software giants manage software for the government’s initiatives, off-line interaction may be judiciously outsourced to private players (akin to the ‘aadhar’ effort). Online or offline, anything will do, as long as one can ‘reduce’ effort and time. Top -> Down can and should be turned upside down.

Food for thought: “When common sense starts sounding like a prized commodity, there is obviously much work yet to be done.”

Looking forward to the next one.