"April is the cruellest month," is an oft-repeated TS Eliot quote. The poet must have been right as per the conditions prevailing in his native land. However, here in our part of the country the cruellest month, particularly for the working middle class, is March.
This month, being the closure of the financial year, does bring tears of blood into many an eye of the salaried class. For, it is in this month that one has to dump painful amounts into long-term savings and still pay a huge sum as income tax.
Add to this the new academic session of schoolchildren that ends up making a deeper hole in the fast shrinking pockets of parents.
However, for some well-placed bureaucrats ensconsed in government offices who deal with purchases and those who sell goods to government departments, this month comes as a cheerful spring. Unauthorised, heavy commissions are paid even for substantially low standard products at this time.
The frantic pace at which almost all our otherwise slow-moving government offices work day-and-night, literally speaking, (as even government treasuries remain open beyond midnight on March 31), is to be seen to be believed.
Most of the purchases and repair works are done, on papers, before the auspicious date of March 31. It is of no consequence whether such repairs or material purchased are needed or not.
All government offices/institutions are reloaded, as an annual ritual, with furniture items even if they lack space to store them. Of late, the computerisation, which requires costly hardware and software, has come as a boon for compulsive spending of unused public funds 'profitably'.
All this happens because the surplus government grants that the administration fails to utilise during the year is suddenly released near the closing hour.
This omission is perhaps deliberately made to pocket hefty commissions through hasty spending. For fast purchases, a government-approved methodology called DGS rate contracts is used, as it requires no tender calling and is devised to check unauthorised commissions. My experience says that companies pay commissions even on these purchases.
When such a commission racket at the lower level of governance has been on for years, how can we hope of a commission-free multi-crore defence and other deals at the highest level?
But where there is a will, there is a way. "A big newspaper group had a legendary general manager. Once he had gone to Germany to buy a new printing press. As the negotiations were about to conclude, he asked the company chief what percentage he would pay as commission. Though he did not expect such a straightforward question he said, "10%". The general manager said, "Please reduce the price by 10%" The group got the benefit of the commission.
Had our defence minister asked the Italian company how much it would pay as commission and got the price reduced, middlemen would not have pocketed Rs 360 crore, which is roughly 10% of the total order for a dozen helicopters.