Culture

The Perils of Yoga by Gazette Notification

The country is going into that surreal mass drill mode again. Apart from public sector workers and school children, expect to be flooded with pictures of everyone from the Prime Minister to civil servants and the cabinet to the lowliest clerk participating in mass exercise. For a few minutes, it may feel like North Korea or Soviet Russia, only more comic than sinister. And the demonstration will be organised in the distributed fashion of the shakha system rather than only by a single event in which thousands move to the command of a Great Leader.

I refer here to the events around the new International Yoga Day. In government offices across the country, resources are being mobilised to hold demonstrations and drills for employees who are understandably resentful for being called in on Sunday for work that is not part of their job. Unlike the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan the last time round, the government has been careful in merely getting bosses to imply that absence will have consequences, rather than actually put orders down on paper. This is an authoritarian (but democratic) mass demonstration in its imposition on only on a small section of the people, but like the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan we can expect aggressive subtle and not-so-subtle propaganda to make the activity cool amongst the non-public sector employee population. And like Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan, the consequential effects are likely to be abysmal if the programme proceeds in the same fashion. For mass action without supporting infrastructure is seldom successful.

Take the cleanliness drive for example. London, where I live, while nowhere close to being the cleanest city in the world, is a lot cleaner than Indian cities. To the very limited extent that the British (or the mosaic of other communities that make this the most multicultural of cities) don’t litter, it’s because there are well-managed dustbins at regular intervals. However, the city is reasonably clean mostly because scores of high streets, thoroughfares and heavy footfall tourist areas are swept no less than six times a day. Changing behaviour on the Indian street and volunteer drives might make our cities marginally cleaner, but they’re no substitute for building, sustaining and investing substantial resources in the street cleaning and waste management infrastructure that the country demands. The same goes for sewerage systems.

Governance by event management

Likewise, if we’re serious about promoting yoga, we need to have a sustained programme over several years – of training and accrediting yoga teachers, making high quality yoga classes available to all for free at community centres, primary health centres, schools, colleges and workplaces. We need also to invest in research on how best to use yoga to enhance the health and wellbeing of our diverse demographic, and to generally integrate yoga into our national healthcare system. These are long term, expensive actions which might not produce immediate headlines but will go a long way in enhancing the spiritual, mental and physical well being of our people.

Not only is Yoga Day a fitting example of the governance by event management that Arun Shourie said the present dispensation specialises in, coercive participation of this kind might actually prove counterproductive.

I do not expect thousands of government servants who will resent being made to come into office early on a Sunday morning to turn into good ambassadors for yoga. Moreover, such programmes of coercive participation threaten to exacerbate a disease that has long ailed our governance. That disease is the resentment and lack of respect for public sector workers (and by extension, public service itself) on the part of the general public, making for much glee every time government employees are discomfited. Which of us did not feel avenged for every flighty MTNL lineman, every dismissive AIIMS attendant, every corrupt traffic cop and every sluggish registrar when we woke up late on a national holiday to images of civil servants wielding the broom? While fanning the flames of such resentment might make for the popularity of the politician, it is likely to be harmful to the quality of governance. For it reinforces the cycle of public glee at the distress of government employees, the consequent lack of morale and intentionally poor service, more glee and so on.

No system can perform, deliver and serve under such a pall of disrespect and resentment. Performance of bizarre duties (that were never part of job descriptions) on a weekly off (or a national holiday) at the whim of the Prime Minister violates the most basic codes of professionalism. And “maximum governance” demands not only employee enthusiasm but also respect for the public service demonstrated through predictable and professional working conditions.

Kapil Subramanian is a historian based in London