Vantage point

Monday, November 21, 2005

Bye, Machan

It was a cold morning in our hostel in IIM Lucknow. Sometime in Januray 2004 I guess. I remember the time because it was our last term, so things were a bit relaxed. Placements were around a month away or so. Life on campus was suddenly a lot different. With no pressures of an avalanche of projects, assignments and mind-term exams, we were soaking in our last few weeks at L. Regular visits to the city for a lunch or dinner, usually someone's treat for a pre-placement offer or something, and watching cricket in the common rooms. India was touring Australia then, and having just drawn a thrilling test series, were finding themselves a bit lacking in the one-dayers.

So it was one such morning that I woke up and headed to the TV room to watch India play Australia. That's when I met him, sitting in the TV room, wearing his customary happy smile. He greeted me enthusiastically, as he always did. Very few people were as upbeat about life as he was. He was Manju, a senior of mine who had passed out the earlier year. He had come down to campus to meet a few profs, and a few friends. Manju had been placed in Indian Oil Corporation Limited.

Manju was one of the well known faces on campus. To be a well known face at IIML you had to be good at something or notorious, since at any given time, there were 500 students studying there. Manju belonged to the earlier category. He was the booming voice of "3.4", our campus band. He sang with gay abandon, from the bottom of his heart, and with an infectious enthusiasm. One of those singers who made the listeners feel like singing along, or at least clap in tune. I can't claim to have been very close to him, but I got to know him quite well as we were in the same INDEX team. INDEX is a market-research event where a team of 20 students has to work night and day for around a month. Having Manju in our team was obviously great, as we would prod him to break out into a song, and he would readily agree.

That cold morning, we got talking, reminisced a bit about our INDEX days, exchanged notes about the latest happenings. A few minutes later Sunil joined us. Conversation invariably turned to Manju's work life. We asked him how it felt to work in a PSU like IOCL. Was he the "bada babu". He shrugged. He said work was OK and all, but he felt that the business would improve a lot more if there was transparency. Apparently, part of his job was to inspect samples from petrol pumps, and report back to the company. The petrol pumps were ideally supposed to adhere to very high standards of purity. But he said the adulteration in the petrol pumps in UP, where he was posted, was usually so rampant, it's a wonder even a single petrol pump was functioning. Sunil and I, ever the free-market-nuts, talked about how allotment of petrol pumps, rather than being an "allotment" should be a transparent auction or bidding process. A petrol pump license should not be a political capital to be bartered. Manju agreed. He said the reason why this adulteration happened so brazenly was that the dealers knew that no matter what happens, their licenses couldn't be cancelled. If everyone does it, how many pumps will the company shut down? He said he usually tried to cajole, convince and scold the dealers to not indulge in such dishonesty. He said some fell in line, but most of them usually got back to the same old adulteration business. In fact Manju said, some of the petrol pump owners are downright scary. Whatever he spoke of his job shocked me and Sunil. It was clearly a job that tested one's integrity and courage a lot.

I didn't meet Manju after that. Never really thought about him much. Didn't even hear about him from anyone. I just read about his murder today on our IIML group. Didn't know the details initially, but I immediately remembered what he was telling us about his work. I wondered if it was related to that. Yes it was, as is confirmed by this Indian Express report -

IOC official seals petrol pump, is killed

Manju was murdered for doing his job honestly. Considering the circumstances, this case is no different from that of Satyendra Dubey. But not a single TV channel has carried this news today. And except for the Express Lucknow edition, no newspapers have deemed it fit to report on the front page either. People always crib about how IIM grads never do anything for the country or don't join PSUs. Here was one IIM grad who joined a PSU. Did his work honestly and in the right way. The work he did was to make our lives better. To ensure that petrol sold is not adulterated. And he was murdered in cold blood. If a CAT exam report deserves 4 separate articles, surely this deserves at least one? On the front page?

It leaves me numb. I wonder what the police, IOCL, and Mani Shanker Aiyer are planning to do about this.

Rest in peace, Machan. Whatever place you are at right now, I am sure you are rocking it. You staked your life on your integrity. I really doubt if I would have done the same, had I been in your shoes. Hats off, and bye, Manju.

Other blog posts on Manju's murder
Rashmi Bansal