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Central to fringe benefits

The road to reimbursement of bills is paved with shadowy ethics. Uddalok Bhattacharya writes.

india Updated: Nov 02, 2011 22:59 IST
Uddalok Bhattacharya

Half in sarcasm, a central minister has said he’s not there to pronounce an ex parte judgement on the Kiran Bedi episode concerning inflated bills. To my mind, however, there is enough scope for an out-of-court settlement. Here it’s not a question of the degree of the offence. Rather, we should look at it in the context of society’s tolerance of such foibles.

In Macmillan India, the publishing house where I worked for two years from 1993 to 1995, my job entailed travelling within Delhi to institutes such as the IIT and Delhi University to find prospective authors. As interesting as the job was, it was the journey by auto, which enabled me to see places I have never been to before or since, that was its biggest draw. My company reimbursed me for my auto fare, which I was supposed to claim only after a sizeable amount of dues had accumulated.

Within my first two months in the organisation, I ran up a bill of more than R500. Feeling prosperous, I confided to a colleague that I might be able to afford two beers instead of one in the evening. Upon learning why, he asked me for a treat with a glint in his eye. I agreed, without understanding though what the mystery was.

My colleagues, too, were giving similar or larger treats. There the penny dropped. I realised why my colleague’s eyes had lit up. Some were claiming money for travel they didn’t undertake. This, by consensus, was ‘unethical’. Not so the ‘fringe benefit’ the company was providing us — go by bus and then ask for auto fare.

At this point grew a desire to derive some malicious pleasure by needling my colleagues. I once journeyed from our office in Daryaganj to Moti Bagh and then home in Munirka Vihar by bus spending R5 in all. Our publishing director was slack-jawed when I gave him the bill.

“Journey from office to Moti Bagh and home… just five rupees?” “Sir, I went by bus.” Half-impressed, he said, “Kamaal karte ho!” A mini-conference followed in our editorial room to judge the correctness of my action. I was mildly rebuked by some who feared the company might stop the ‘fringe benefits’. Others made caustic observations on my phoney probity. A woman younger than me smiled with motherly affection, as though to say, “Poor boy! Not worldly wise at all!”

Not one person said that what I had done was right, except the publishing director.And therein lies the rub. Producing fake bills to get reimbursement is now common practice. Apologists for this course of action argue, “So what? My organisation doesn’t lose anything, because it would have paid me the same amount, regardless of whether the bills were contrived or genuine.”

Interpolate this line of reasoning in Bedi’s case. It’s alleged that she flew economy class and claimed business class fare. But do her sponsors lose anything? They would have paid her the business class fare anyway. How is Bedi wrong? And yet she is. But less culpable than many of us who dress up lies as truths. Bedi did not do that. Anyone there willing to own up?

uddalok.bhattacharya@hindustantimes.com