The Spreading of Spreadsheets
By T.R. Raghunandan, 05 Jan 2018

This blog is part of a series on the rollout and progress of e-Governance in India. 

I fell in love with spreadsheets, even as the rest of government, in the 1980s, looked upon computers as nothing more than modern typewriters. The idea of bunging in formulae into columns and rows and watching them do addition and subtraction and more, was fascinating. Yet, my extolling the virtues of spreadsheets with colleagues and team members – all novices in computers anyway – only drew blank stares. Why would an IAS officer be fooling around with these machines, when they had stenographers to type on them, they seemed to ask.

The stenographers were no good either, when it came to understanding the potential of desktop computers in the office space. They liked them only because they could make corrections with the text without using white fluid, and because they did not have to wait for the tinkle of the typewriter’s bell to ratchet down to the next line. Even when it came to documentation, they did not have any clue about storage of written records and their retrieval on the computer. I could explain all day about how easy it is to prepare tables using spreadsheets – and government lives on tables; usually full of misleading data, but undersecretaries and others preferred the clunky calculator to attempting to enter formulae in spreadsheets. To them, that was programming, and beyond their sarkari remit. We must hire programmers to do that, they said.

The loneliness of being enlightened has its compensations, though.

I worked those days in the Department of Health and Family Welfare, looking after the murky goings on in the Medical Education Department. I operated out of a dank, dark room, beyond which an equally dank and dark corridor was being constructed; with all its attendant delights of wet gunny sacks hanging over my windows for curing the concrete. Sure as anything, I developed a rich, throaty cough, which drove me to gulp down plenty of antibiotics, which in turn, made my tongue the colour and consistency of the concrete being laid just beyond my window. The files I dealt with were not inspiring, either; they were mostly about the shenadigans of private medical colleges, which were charging astronomical fees for ‘management quota’ seats, and which used their leeway to provide subsidised seats to the children of politicians and bureaucrats, to wangle more concessions for themselves.

Suddenly, things began to change; various courts began to issue orders that private medical colleges should not be allowed to operate in this way, and that they must provide a percentage of seats for those clearing the government managed entrance exam, at subsidised rates. The private colleges howled in protest and complained that they were living a hand to mouth existence and that their earnest efforts to improve the lot of humanity by charging plenty of lakhs of rupees for medical seats, were being thwarted by an interfering government.

And so they came to our office in their posh cars, to negotiate the fee structure that would enable them, in their opinion, to break even after they were done with cross subsidising the seats that needed to be filled by students who passed the government conducted examination.

They came well prepared, with data that showed the cost of medical education and how various permutations and combinations of fee structures for different categories of students would affect their bottom line.

My boss came from a trading background; he often proudly told me that he was the first in his family to join the civil services. Whilst medical evidence does not reveal any genetic predilection to driving a hard bargain in those who belong to trading castes and communities, my boss could drive many researchers scuttling to seek conclusions in that direction. He would stare impassively at the bejewelled boss of a private medical college, resplendent in his white safari suit and crocodile skin shoes, reeling off statistics to show that that the government’s proposal for a fee structure was totally unworkable. Then he would tighten the screws by asking for a lower fee for the government student than what the man opposite had used for his worst case scenario projection.

He was able to do that, because I was Sancho Panza to his Don Quixote.

No sooner that I was handed over the calculation sheet presented by the private medical college management, than I would run down the corridor to the Karnataka Government Computer Centre, and breathlessly enter the data myself in those beloved spreadsheets. Bingo! I ran the calculations and created my own analysis of these and prepared alternative scenarios that I would slip into my boss’ hands.

Yeah, spreadsheets were very useful. One could have moved mountains of red tape with them. Yet, nearly three decades later, I am not surprised when I ask data from a government office, and it is often sent as a picture of a table, sent through social media, rather than data in spreadsheets. The large majority of people in the government did not use spreadsheets then, sadly, they don’t do so now either.

And the same chaps who send me pictures of tables of data, also send Whatsapp forwards of how Blockchain Technology is going to revolutionise governance.

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