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Someone else’s time

WITH EYES WIDE OPEN

D. N. Bezboruah

We live in a land where time is not equally precious for everyone. We live in a land where the fact that someone is wearing a watch does not mean that he/she is going to look at it often enough during the day to be able to keep promises involving the time of the day. We live in a land where some people don’t know what to do with the time they have while others, with a great deal to do, find that the 24 hours in a day allotted to everyone are simply not enough for the work they have on hand. At the same time, we tend to keep forgetting that time is an endless commodity and has been one for millions of years. We have to worry about the passage of time and the time available to us because the hours of the day are well defined and the quantum of work to be done in a day, in a month, in a year and in a lifetime are fairly well specified. Human beings have to worry about the passage of time because their ultimate measure of time has to be a lifetime, which, ironically no one can estimate very accurately because there are no special prizes or longer lifetimes being awarded to those who have used their time wisely and well. The quantum of present time is the same for everyone living on this planet. There are some who use it very well and others who are reckless of how much time they have wasted. Older people who often have valid reasons for not wanting to continue their existence on this planet any longer may talk about living on borrowed time, but can there honestly be any borrowing when we have no means of returning what we have borrowed? That apart, even those in their eighties and nineties who talk about counting their last few days on this planet may not be quite honest about what they claim. The ultimate test of their real intentions is whether they still strive to save their lives in a hazardous situation where their lives are threatened. It has been observed that in such situations, the tural human instinct for survival always takes over. No one really gives up life without an attempt to save oneself, no matter how feeble or ineffective such attempts might be.

People who have no qualms about how they use their time or waste it are unlikely to be considerate about how they waste other people’s time. Perhaps the greatest wasters of other people’s time are our ministers and lawmakers. During the 15-year spell of the Tarun Gogoi regime, I virtually gave up attending any official function attended by the then Chief Minister or any of his Cabinet colleagues. It was quite normal for Tarun Gogoi to arrive for such functions 30 or 40 minutes late. I figured out that if there were even 500 people attending such a function, he effectively wasted about 200 to 300 man-hours of other people’s time. I am convinced that no one has the right to waste so many man-hours of other people’s time. One appreciates that a chief minister or any of his Cabinet colleagues have unexpected bits of crisis magement to do almost every day. But it is idle for any minister to presume that none of these 500-odd people attending his meeting have no other work to do and are perfectly free just to attend a minister’s function. This is obviously an impression gathered in a State where very little honest productive work goes on in government offices. People here have far less work to do than they would have had to with similar jobs in a State like Tamil du or Kartaka. The ‘no work’ culture is so deeply ingrained in government employees of the State that putting aside important tasks for a few weeks or cutting down one’s working time at the offices to only about three hours a day is considered quite normal for anyone. But there are a whole lot of people in the unorganized sector who do a solid day’s work in order to survive in their jobs. There is no appreciation for the way they work.

One may very well question another person’s right to comment on how someone has wasted his time as well as the government’s time and the time of those who come to government offices to get their work done. While one may not have a right to question how somebody else spends his day, one has every right to protest when a government employee fails to do his duty in attending to the legitimate demands of someone who has work to be got done in his office. We know of a whole lot of government employees who keep postponing public work until the right amount of bribe has been paid. We are also aware of the kind of harassment that an honest citizen has to suffer in government offices if he/she is unwilling to pay the going rate of bribe for the work expected.

Most of the problems that arise in government offices are due to a failure to accept two fundamental facts about time. The first is that no work can be done outside time. The second is that time is money, and therefore in a productive economic set-up any loss or waste of time represents a fincial loss either to the State or to an individual. The second equation is best realized in a place where a lot of economic activity takes place. In such places, people have a fairly good idea of how much time each daily activity takes. As such, their commitments involving time are generally more precise and reliable than those of people who have never bothered to find out how much time each of their different daily activities take up. There are societies where people tend to be a good bit more punctual than they are here. This is not to suggest that everyone in Assam is unpunctual. But I know a lot of people who land up half-an-hour ahead of a function so as not to be late. They can afford  to do this because there might be little else to do during the day apart from attending that function. Punctuality, in the true sense of the term implies the ability to arrive just four or five minutes before the start of an event and not be late. A busy person who wishes to be punctual cannot afford to land up 30 minutes before the event because there would normally be other commitments to fulfil somewhere else during that time. In the West, the normal allowance given to a person to keep an appointment would be about 15 minutes beyond the stipulated time. After that the person who has been waiting for the other one would be free to cancel the engagement and attend to other work.   

What saddens me about most public functions in Assam is that they generally begin about 30 minutes to an hour later than the stated time. This is beginning to be an accepted part of our culture. The delay often arises from the chief guest or the chairperson of the event arriving much later than the stated time. There are times when the organizers of the event are late in picking up the dignitary from his home. But sometimes the organizers put the blame on the dignitary for failing to arrive on time though the organizers themselves are responsible for the delay.  This is rather unfair and irresponsible. What we need to ensure as early as possible is a mindset that regards punctuality as an important virtue for a civilized society and gets increasingly intolerant of both politicians who land up at events in their own sweet time and organizers of events that start their functions 20, 30 or even 60 minutes late without a thought about the audience.

About the author

Ankur Kalita