Special to WorldTribune.com
MUMBAI — Indians have a great word for the plethora of petty bureaucrats who run all the ministries and agencies that make life difficult if not miserable for millions of people.
The word is “babu,” which can be a term of respect for an elder but now is laden with hints of corruption, inefficiency, arrogance and laziness. The British popularized the word during the colonial era, but the media here regularly uses it, especially in headlines over articles about “babus” enriching themselves at the public trough.
Too bad “babu” has yet to make it from India into the global lexicon of Indian-origin words such as “mogul,” from “mughal,” the word for the rulers of India before the British arrived in force in the 18th century. Nowadays “mogul” is a common term for a business magnate, a movie mogul, a tycoon. (“Tycoon,” incidentally, originated in Chinese but entered the English language via the Japanese, who used it for the top ruler, the shogun.)
The reason I like “babu” with its vaguely negative connotations is that it would be so good to apply it to hundreds of thousands of U.S. government bureaucrats who feed off taxpayers’ money, living in comfort and security while not doing all that much. “Babu” would make an easy, slightly demeaning headline word during the current “shutdown” of the U.S. government. Think of it: “Babus Lament Lost Pay,” “Babus Decry Tea Partiers,” “Babus Bawl.”
While the world looks on in awe over the spectacle of a system that appears to be in danger of breaking down, we might consider the cathartic effects of sending a lot of these people home to consider their real value to the health, safety and welfare of the American public.
Yes, we definitely need park rangers and astronauts, among quite a few categories that hopefully will return to duty soon, but many of the characters who fill the cubby holes and cubicles of the amazing Washington bureaucracy aren’t doing all that much. How about if only half the 800,000 people who’ve got temporary layoffs never return to work? The government would do just fine.
This same rule applies to bureaucracies elsewhere. In Korea, we’re never quite sure what bureaucrats are up to since they don’t open up much to the media, especially the foreign media. Without evidence to the contrary, you get the impression that many are doing their best to appear busy in those rows of desks in vast ministries without doing all that much. Maybe the Korean media should be the first, outside India, to adopt the word “babu” for bureaucrats.
Probably no country is more famed for its legion of babu bureaucrats than Japan. It’s often said that the babus — no, the Japanese have yet to pick up the term — really run Japan. Prime ministers and the ministers they appoint have a way of coming and going with incredible regularity in Japan. The system, though, thunders on with no discernible change from one set of ministers to another. That’s because of the power of the babus, highly skilled at carrying on programs regardless of who’s in nominal control.
Get rid of some of the babus, and Japan might get over the bureaucratic hitches that have undermined the economy in recent years. Then again, bereft of too many babus, the politicos might really take over, endangering the world order, risking war, all for the sake of nationalist policies that might inflame tensions and set off explosions of unimaginable proportions.
In the U.S., though, a bloated bureaucracy, gone wild in an atmosphere of power and comfort and security, definitely needs to come to its senses. That’s about as important as the tea-partiers in Congress waking up and realizing they’re endangering the whole system by their failure to vote on a budget while holding out against Obamacare.
In India, the babus don’t seem too worried about extending health services to everyone. A majority of the 1.2 billion Indians are undernourished with little or no access to doctors capable of routinely caring for them. The average life span is 65, far less than the life spans of Koreans or Japanese, blessed with unusually effective national insurance schemes.
Would Obamacare be possible without so many babus infesting the corridors of power? Yes, it would. Maybe getting rid of excess babus would leave more funds for the program.
That’s something to ponder while the babus moan about their lost wages and perks.
Columnist Donald Kirk, www.donaldkirk.com, now in India, has often encountered babus in his neighborhood in Washington. He’s at firstname.lastname@example.org.