How Legacies Live On


There is an interesting story of how legacies that bureaucracies leave behind often live on forever. Quite obviously, immortality can be a boon as well as a curse in practically every situation, not the least government policies. This is all the more reason for every generation of a bureaucracy to be at least wary of the consequences of their actions. By bureaucracy we do not of course mean only that part of a democratic government constituting of civil servants, providing the backbone of any government, but the entire government structure, the legislative, judiciary and executive combined. The story, we refer to is about how even the fashioning of NASA`™s most advanced rocket propelled spacecrafts contain in them the DNA of imperial Rome of 2000 years ago. Just to briefly recap the story, it is basically an explanation of how the railway track in the United States of America came to be exactly of 4 feet, 8.5 inches in width. The figure is odd and the natural question is, how could anybody have thought of this strange width and not anything else, especially when there is no scientific reason why the two parallel steel rail lines had to be exactly 4 feet 8.5 inches apart?

The answer is that this is because the British railways used the same width, and the US railway was built by British expatriates. This probably is the answer in the case of the Indian railways`™ broad gauge lines too, as it was also built by the British while India was still Britain`™s colony. But why would the British use this same strange measurement it may be asked. The answer is the British railway is a successor of the trams which ran on similarly spread tracks. But why would these tram line be spaced thus? Because they were built by the people who built wagons for transport vehicles that plied England`™s old trunk roads which had that spacing. Why so? Because the old trunk roads were furrowed at that spacing and any attempt to build wagons with wheels differently spaced than the rut on the roads, would run the risk of breaking prematurely. What made the ruts on these roads so precisely spaced thus? Because these roads were built by imperial Rome to move their legions, and the ruts on the road were originally made by the wheels of Roman chariots which were spaced similarly. Why were the Roman chariot wheels spaced in the manner? Because they used two horses to pull these chariots, and the wheels were spaced to accommodate the hinds of two horses. The story goes on to say that even the rocket design of the NASA has this ancient Rome signature, as they had to be transported by trains which ran on tracks of this width. Hence, a technology borne out of the need of the time of imperial Rome 2000 years ago, continues to have influences on modern infrastructure, and indeed minds.

The lesson is, precedents set by any government have the nasty habit of living on, sometimes ad nauseam. A closer examination of many of Manipur`™s problems would bear the same hallmark. Take the case of the part-time lecturers`™ issue. They were employed on part time contract and their services should have ended without much ado when their employment contract expired. But for reasons not explained, though it is anybody`™s guess, many were regularized arbitrarily by a particular government. Now, since a precedent has been set, all other contract employees, not just part time lecturers, have come to believe, and with a degree of legitimacy given by default of the government`™s own acts, that it is their right to be absorbed as regular employees unconditionally regardless of what their original letters of employment said. In other cases, department heads and ministerial authorities have been known to deliberately bend recruitment rules not for any credible reasons, but to accommodate relatives and cronies. Layers after layers of these willful suspensions of rules have today come to virtually nullify all norms. Seemingly, even the courts are in a bind as to how this labyrinth of bad precedents set by governments, and also by bad rulings of the past of the same judiciary they belong to, through the decades can be negotiated. For indeed the practice of law itself, to a great extent, is about charting out the way ahead on the guidelines provided by official precedents. The challenge as one sees it is in two parts. The first of these is to undo the stranglehold bad precedents have had on policy making. Let those who enter by the back door exit by the same door. The second is to usher in a new dawn of good precedents which can be genuine torch bearers for future policy making.

Leader Writer: Pradip Phanjoubam


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