Kathmandu :

When Shalini, my wife, was engaged in business in Fresno, California, one late afternoon after a heavy downpour the phones at her workplace stopped functioning. The representative from the phone company was in her office within minutes. As it was almost closing time Shalini told him, ‘Repair it tomorrow.’

The repairman insisted on contacting his main office, getting additional help on a priority basis and finishing the repair work the same evening.

Shalini still remembers his words after 13 years, “Madam, you cannot afford to wait until tomorrow, your business will suffer too much.”

Fast forward it five years, Shalini was engaged in a similar business, but this time in New Delhi. Just as in America, after a heavy shower, all her office phones went dead.

The government telephone department’s representative arrived but only after a few days of cajoling.

“I can fix the phones”, he said, demanding a ‘tip’ of Rs 2000 IC for each line. Shalini and I discussed why this situation occurs time and again in India but not in the USA.

Are all the people in the US nice, honest, hard working, and God fearing? Are all Indians venal, lazy, corrupt, and the type who couldn’t care less about justice, fairness, and God. We know that this is untrue.

We have met enough people in the US who are crooks. One lady had sold her business to us on the basis of forged documents, which included fake income tax returns and fraudulent accounts.

Equally true is the fact that not all Indians are thieves and charlatans. There are many of exemplary integrity. Mahatma Gandhi was an Indian.

The reasons for corruption are the same, be it India, the US, or Nepal.

The telephone mechanic in India probably wanted the same things in life as the American repairman — a happy life, education for his children in a decent school, nice clothes, the latest TV, a PC, Internet access, and family vacations.

The difference was that in India, land phones were the exclusive monopoly of the State. The Indian telecom representative knew that Shalini had no option. He held all the cards and could say, “pay me or your phone remains dead.”

In America, telephones have always been privately controlled. The managers over there knew the value of satisfied customers.

They knew that if the repairmen did not do their job quickly and efficiently their company would suffer. Dead telephones do not earn money for the phone company.

But in India there was no such pressure on the government managers. If the phones remain dead, so what, their salaries would not be affected.

In fact, I later heard that these jobs were actually being ‘sold’ as people were desperate to be hired so they could make money off their hapless customers.

Moreover, in the US you have a choice. Telephone companies can be easily jettisoned by the customer if the service is lacking in any manner.

If you are not happy with AT&T, there is always Sprint or Verizon willing to become your supplier for calls. Choice is a powerful tool in the hands of the consumer to make their suppliers behave.

Companies, which face competition, tremble at the thought of loosing their customers.

It was only in the US that I realised the extent to which telephone companies go to get your business.

There were frequent cash vouchers sent by competing companies offering us ‘X’ dollars worth of free calls if we switched over to them.

One of the ways of limiting corruption and obtaining excellent service at the same time is for the government to abolish monopolies and industry ‘protection’ wherever it might exist. Introduce competition and sell-off all government businesses.

India is doing it. Obtaining a telephone is no longer the nightmare that it used to be a few years ago.

Thanks to competition from private companies, services keep improving even as the rates drop. Where competition is allowed; in airlines, TV and radio, and cell phones

for example, even government companies have improved services, and corruption is not as rampant as it was earlier. There is no reason why Nepal cannot do one better than India; not only allow unlimited competition in the telecom arena but privatise the existing State monopoly as well. Nepal would get world-class communication facilities and simultaneously strike a blow against corruption.

(The writer can be contacted at: everest@mos.com.np)