There was a time when the Government of India sanctioned the purchase of computers but the specific order did not clarify whether software could be bought along with the hardware, from the lowest bidder of course. Hence, nobody who had the financial authority to sanction the purchase of computers would affirm his or her signature to the invoice if it included licensed software.
There was a problem though. Since no computer works without software, a solution had to be found. And so it came about that computers in government offices operated on pirated software that was provided free by the vendor – authorities looked the other way and auditors were happy rules had not been violated. Nit-picking was restricted to why computers had been purchased at, say, Rs50,000 a piece, by a department and not at Rs49,999.99, the price paid by another department.
The lowly over-worked, under-paid Under Secretary who had initiated the file for the purchase would spend long hours drafting a note defending his decision to pay a paisa more and stay up at night agonising over whether it would blot his Annual Confidential Report. That a much graver crime was being committed by operating computers on pirated software did not bother anybody since the rulebook was silent on it.
Sometime in 1999, if memory serves me right, a circular was issued by the ‘relevant authority’, pointing out that using pirated software was a punishable offence. It instructed Government offices to ensure that computers being used by them did not operate on pirated software. In those days I was working in the Prime Minister’s Office and I recall receiving a copy of the order which concluded with the stern line that any officer found using pirated software would be penalised.
Great, I told myself, at last I will get to use licensed software and not have to suffer the system crashing every now and then. In pre-Intel days, rebooting a machine took ages and recovering lost text was virtually impossible. On one occasion I lost a 10-page note I was drafting for Brajesh Mishra, who was the National Security Adviser, when my computer crashed less than half-an-hour before the deadline that had been set for me to submit it to him. I tried explaining to him that the computer had gobbled up the note, that the fault lay with the machine and not me, but it was like talking to a brick wall. I just about escaped being made to sit in a corner, or, if you wish, stand on one of the wooden benches that lined the flagstoned corridors of South Block.
But let’s get back to the circular prohibiting the use of pirated software. Within minutes of receiving it I dashed off a note, asking for licensed software. There was no response from the administration chaps. I presumed they had forwarded the note to NIC, which provided and maintained the computers in the PMO. A week passed, then a fortnight and a month, but nothing happened. I marched into Ashok Saikia’s office to lodge a complaint. He heard me out and then said the circular prohibited the use of pirated software but did not authorise the purchase of licensed software.
Till such time explicit permission was given, nothing could be done. But why, I asked, my despair obvious. One day you shall deal with Government auditors and you will know why, Ashok Saikia replied, and then ordered coffee. The circular gathered dust in a file on a shelf. I have no idea whether another circular has since been issued authorising the purchase of licensed software.
A couple of years later I found myself heading the Indian Cultural Centre in Cairo, handling a princely budget of Rs1 crore a year which included staff salary, rent for residential and official premises, administrative expenses, travel, medical benefits, school fees of children, and money to organise events. Essam Abdul Mongy, who kept track of expenses and doubled up as my secretary-cum-interpreter, was cautious to a fault. He would check and double check the rulebook before spending even one rupee.
For every purchase we made multiple quotations were invited and he would bargain for hours with vendors, haggling over the price of paper and pens. Apparently during one of the audits conducted before my arrival in Cairo, the centre’s then Director had been hauled over the coals as to why BIC disposable pens had been purchased at a certain price when Luxor pens were available at a lesser price. He vainly tried to explain that Luxor pens were not available in Cairo – the more he explained, the more adamant the auditors became. Finally, he had to plead with them to let him go. Essam wasn’t taking any chances after that experience.
On my first day at work, I went for an inspection of the premises and found the place in a shambles. It was dark and dank, the hall littered with broken furniture, floors covered with moth-eaten carpets. The toilets were filthy and in urgent need of renovation. Let’s clean up the place, I told the staff. But that was easier said than done. If buying new stuff for Government offices is difficult without violating rules, getting rid of rubbish is virtually impossible. It took nearly six months to clean up the place and make it look better. Members were delighted. Visitors impressed. There was much praise for the clean washrooms which now had toilet paper rolls and automated de-odourisers. This was achieved, needless to say, without bending rules. But much as we, and everybody else, believed we had done a fine job, the auditors thought otherwise.
Six months before I left Cairo, a team of auditors arrived from Delhi for their biennial inspection. They plodded through the account books and voluminous files of vouchers. Each purchase was scrutinised with the rigour reminiscent of a forensic scientist sifting through DNA samples. After a week, they didn’t look too happy. Nothing had been found that could be pinned on us.