Dr Kiran Kumar Karlapu
The red beacon
This article originally appeared in CRI content has now been subsumed in The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of

The Supreme Court has observed that the “Red Beacons” should be revisited and that only the politicians and bureaucrats are “entitled” to such a facility. The highest court of the land has erred in this observation.

It should have summarily disallowed the use of all red beacons, blue beacons and flashing sirens in the country. No one deserves them. No one has the authority in India to claim the right of passage or the right of priority. No one should. Democracies are a product of their populace and the people are the primary building blocks of all representative systems. They should be given priority in traffic and queue lines, if any such system should be encouraged.

Everyone would agree that the reason that these red beacons are used is to clear traffic for the vehicle bearing them to pass through quickly and hassle-free. Ambulances, Fire engines, Police and vehicles of the armed forces are the only ones which deserve such a distinction. Public interest is the only interest that needs to be served in India. Rest of us can wait. Prime Minister or the peon in his office. Rest of us should wait.

The colonial hangover is not more vividly seen than in the way the bureaucracy functions even now. The “Mai-Baap culture” that pervades the steel frame is perhaps a major reason that India hasn’t nurtured a value system of meritocracy and accountability.

When I joined the services, the first question my friends and neighbours would ask me was whether I would get a “laal-batthigaadi” and an official sepoy. That is the Indian psyche. That is how a “sarkaaribabu” is supposed to function. It’s a recognized and often begrudgingly accepted hubris. A job in the government is equal to a lifetime of perks, pleasure trips, out of turn favours and rampant discretion. Government is synonymous with power. Power is only known when it is flaunted, often very shamelessly. Vulgar display of power is never better personified when you can fearlessly claim that you are better than your fellow citizens, when you make a point that your time is more valuable than theirs, when your protocol is more important than their safety, and when your ego has to be massaged at every checkpoint and security cordon.

Enter the magical RED BEACONS.

A simple, subtle yet effective way to ensure that you are given the primacy. These red beacons are the authorized musclemen of the netas and the official protocol officers of our babus. The red beacons shouldn’t be decoded in isolation. Along with the sparkling white Ambassador, the lettering “On Government of India Duty”, the quarters sequestered in the best locales of the city ( Malabar Hill or South Ex), the bureaucracy and political class has succeeded in alienating themselves from the very people they have sworn to serve. They have effectively drawn a curtain between their fair visages and the poor starving natives.

The British have successfully driven this idea of superiority of the ruling classes into our minds. Our grandfathers prostrated in respect and cowered in terror at the approach of the English masters and we are expected to do so to their descendants in brown. The British have left but their style of functioning has been retained, and is followed religiously even today. Having seen three major ministries and their style of operation throughout my life (Railways, Labour Welfare and Finance), I can safely state that departments still run as jagirs and offices as fiefdoms. Babus have their way. Or else they make a way. And they think that having their way is a right.

This is what I have christened as the “Right to Entitlement”. Just like the poor and the marginalized might believe that they are entitled to free food or free electricity, the occupants of the highest echelons of power in India also have a false sense of entitlement. They believe that they are the crème de la crème because they have cleared what is touted as (correctlyof course), the toughest exam in the world and so they should, henceforth hover a few feet above the ground instead of treading on Bhudevi like us mortals. They think that the job has vested them with a scepter of immense power and thus are to be venerated, feared and most importantly, adored.The attitude of the officers speedily gets acclimatized to the culture of rigid hierarchy, conformity and inertia. Training itself stresses on the idea of an elite pompous steel frame which has descended from the heavens to emancipate the public.

“Jaantahainki main kaun hoon?” is a dialogue that is allowed only while discharging functions that are directly related to that “Kaun”, but it is one of the most prostituted phrases of the Hindi language. Right from Airport check-in line, cinema halls, traffic police and temple darshan queues and even grave yards and memorials, this sense of entitlement is what drives the babu-neta species of India forward.

If you bring it down to a psychological level, the red beacon is very symbolic. The love and demand for it, among a majority of our bureaucracy and politicians, betrays a deep seated inferiority complex. Most of these people would be good-for-nothing oafs if not for those few alphabets that succeed their names (MLA, IAS, IRS, STFU!!) and this red beacon is an attempt to compensate for hidden lacunae. This and the entire “saranjaama” that accompanies it is an effort to draw attention to them.

It’s unfortunate that the massive edifice of the Government hasn’t responded to the winds of change that are blowing through India. A younger and more dynamic population demands services, accountability and most importantly humility. Red Beacons and Special Entries are days of the past and should relegated to the memories of the retired. My father, having served 32 years in the Central Services, always told me “We are not government servants. We are public servants”. I believe that is the truth.

A Chief Commissioner of Customs in Chennai, now in the Central Board of Excise and Customs has an interesting anecdote surrounding her. When she was working in the former post, she apparently stepped out of her official vehicle on the way to work and stood in line outside a HP Gas outlet to book her gas cylinder. News of this travesty broke across the department in seconds, and within the minutes the DGM of HPCL was outside the outlet along with her Commissioners and staff, apparently shocked and hurt at this rare misconduct of a bureaucrat. She turned a deaf ear to the entreaties of her entire Custom House and proceeded to book the cylinder like anyone else, went to office and cracked the whip as was her daily routine.

How many of the neta-babu log would do this? Very few.

As Krishna extols to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra,

KarmanyeVadhikaraste Ma PhaleshuKadachana,
Ma Karma PhalaHeturBhurmateySangostvaAkarmani”

All opinions expressed are personal. The author is an officer in the Indian Revenue Service, having completed just under a year of his job. Can be found as @scarysouthpaw on Twitter