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Indians give nod to surveillance of govt officials

NEW DELHI — Beware, lollygagging Indian bureaucrats. If it was not already apparent that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would display a schoolmaster’s intolerance for laxity, the recent introduction of an electronic monitoring system — capable of registering the daily entry and exit times of 100,000 government officials — has made the situation abundantly clear.

The monitoring system can display the daily entry and exit times of 100,000 government officials. Photo: Reuters

The monitoring system can display the daily entry and exit times of 100,000 government officials. Photo: Reuters

NEW DELHI — Beware, lollygagging Indian bureaucrats. If it was not already apparent that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would display a schoolmaster’s intolerance for laxity, the recent introduction of an electronic monitoring system — capable of registering the daily entry and exit times of 100,000 government officials — has made the situation abundantly clear.

The system, accessible to the public on the website http://attendance.gov.in, began working early this month, providing a digital dashboard that displays the comings and goings of more than 50,600 employees across 150 departments.

The roll-out of the Biometric Attendance System coincided with an article in The Times Of India that said the Bharatiya Janata Party’s president had fitted the vehicles of party members campaigning for state legislative elections with GPS units, gathering real-time evidence that they are, in fact, on the trail and not lingering in hotel lounges. Party officials would not confirm the report.

Many ordinary Indians have little love for bureaucrats, who are widely viewed as corrupt, indolent and obfuscating, and Mr Modi’s pledge of toughness was a central message in his campaign.

The arrival of the new government was accompanied by rumours — widely circulated but never confirmed — that his office maintained a list of officials with regular tee-times on golf courses and kept tabs on who was meeting whom at hotel clubs.

Indian voters have expressed full-throated approval of the surveillance. “My uncle is a government servant and we see him go into the office at 11 and so on,” said graduate student Shubham Tiwari, 20.

“What kind of work will they do when there is not one iota of self-discipline? As it is, all the babus do is pass on files,” he added, using a colloquial term for bureaucrats. “At least, they should do that with punctuality.”

Ms Vridhi Kapani, 21, an interior designer, complained that every time she visits a bank or government office, “we mostly find babus out for tea breaks or some other”. She called the notion of GPS surveillance fabulous and complained only that it was too limited, recommending that political figures should also be tracked on hidden cameras “to see how they are bribing people for votes”.

The new system requires government employees to register their presence at the entrance to their offices using a biometric scan of a fingerprint or iris. As the system went live, some long-time civil servants acknowledged to Indian news organisations the practice of “proxy attendance”, in which employees would fail to show up for long stretches but, with colleagues’ assistance, register as present in the department’s attendance diary.

There were also some voices of caution. Mr Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a respected political analyst, wrote that biometric tracking of government employees might turn out to be counterproductive, establishing a system that “would probably produce more gaming of the system than genuine performance”.

“At most, it displaces trust. But the harm it produces is in creating a culture of suspicion, where distrust becomes the norm,” he wrote.

But Mr Mehta’s warning was clearly not fully convincing to readers of the daily Indian Express newspaper, a number of whom posted incredulous comments online in response.

“Sir, have you been to a government office before?” one of them asked. “If you have dealt with the same, I’m sure you’ll have a diametrically opposite view of this matter.” THE NEW YORK TIMES

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