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What's in a number?

india Updated: May 24, 2012 21:37 IST

Hindustan Times
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‘A small printing error’ — This is how the Gurgaon Police described the mistake in the FIR that was lodged against two senior officials of sports apparel giant Reebok India on Monday night. According to reports, a computer operator at the Sector 40 police station added an extra zero to the Reebok scam amount, pushing up the total cost of the scam 10 times over — from Rs 870 crore to Rs 8,700 crore.

The extra zero also ensured that the Reebok scam was — at least, for some time — touted as big as the Rs 14,000-crore Satyam scam, till someone uncovered the mystery of the additional zero. Once the error was identified, the Gurgaon Police sacked the operator, even though they maintained that it was a minor mistake.

We, however, don’t blame the computer operator. Poor thing, he must have looked at the figure (Rs 870 crore) and then remembered the other scams that have hit the headlines in the recent past. The amount obviously looked too little to him and so, to add some respectability to the case, the man added another zero to it.

“Ah, now it looks like a scam worthy of one of the world’s fastest growing economies,” he must have thought after doing the deed. However, he is not the only one who had fun playing with zero in the land of astronomer-mathematician Aryabhata. Recently, the accountants at the mighty Comptroller and Auditor General’s (CAG) office made an accounting mistake and then managed to place the wrong report in Parliament. Believe us, it is no mean achievement.

According to the CAG’s report, the HRD ministry failed to account for over Rs 1.16 lakh crore in the higher education sector in 2009-10. However, the budgetary allocation for the department in 2009-10 was less than Rs 16,000 crore. A probe later revealed that a typographical error had resulted in ‘lakh’ appearing as ‘crore’ in the report. And like the Gurgaon Police, the ministry, too, described it as an “oversight”.

So never mind if a couple of zeros go haywire once in a while. The great Aryabhata never used a symbol for zero — the knowledge of the digit/number was only implicit in his place-value system. We too should follow the great one.