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An error of judgement

Clerical mistakes can have grave consequences and they are perpetuated by computers. So there is possibly some merit in the Samajwadi Party manifesto which seeks to trash automation. Pratik Kanjilal elaborates.

india Updated: Apr 17, 2009 22:20 IST

Our Home Minister invites grudging admiration. He has brushed aside the goof-up over the DNA samples of the Mumbai terrorists with the same insouciance with which he had watched a Reebok homing in on him. In dismissing the DNA duplication as a ‘minor clerical error’ which can be corrected, P. Chidambaram was being tactically prudent. It works for the domestic constituency, for no Indian would take offence if Ajmal Kasab were to be double-taxed with a very thick needle for yet another DNA sample. But internationally, we are still red-faced.

Here we were, a dignified, scrupulously correct and indubitably aggrieved nation calling to account a criminally irresponsible Pakistan which is clearly a nest of spies, gangsters, narco-terrorists, suicide bombers and other shifty characters. And suddenly, the boot is on the other foot. The Pakistani authorities look like paragons of maturity,
patiently dealing with a careless delinquent. This was not about some old curmudgeon’s misplaced pension papers, you know.

This was part of a dossier which clearly identified Pakistan as a source of terrorist activity. It’ll be hard to live down, though we have become inured to such things. Ever wondered why it often takes us so long to extradite wanted criminals from other nations with whom we have extradition treaties? Very often, it’s errors in the legal paperwork, which is thrown out of courts overseas.

As a nation, we have learned to live with clerical error, even treating mistaken identity as a routine matter. In the election ahead, lakhs of people will be unable to vote because they have been turned into other people by the faceless clerks who made out their identity cards. These errors are addressed after every poll but it’s a Canute-like exercise, because in the meantime other clerks are inserting fresh errors in other identity papers.

Peripheral elements of identity, such as your goods and chattels, can be endangered too. In court, you may suddenly find yourself the owner of someone else’s property or vice versa. Keep a close watch on the court clerks’ fingers flying over the keyboard as you depose. Watch them spewing out clerical errors, turning the first floor property you are disputing into a fifth floor property at an address which may not exist at all.

In January last year, clerical diligence discovered that clerical error had caused Lt. Gen. V.K. Singh, who was tipped to take over as Army Chief, to be born on two different days. The Adjutant General’s office believed him to be born in 1951 while the Military Secretary (MS) branch had him down for 1950. It was a serious matter because if the MS branch was right, Lt. Gen. Singh would have to retire before he could complete his full term as the Army Chief.

In the light of this farrago of clerical errors, I’m beginning to see one speck of sense in the election manifesto of the Samajwadi Party, which wants to turn the clock back by trashing automation. Errors are made by people — specifically, clerks. But they are perpetuated by machines. Computers put errors on databases which are copied from system to system. They make backups of errors and restore them when you’re not looking. Maybe we’re misunderstanding Mulayam Singh Yadav, you know. Let’s keep human error human.

(Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine)

First Published: Apr 17, 2009 22:17 IST