<%-- Page Title--%> Weekend Musings <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 128 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

October 31, 2003

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Can't our Ministers be Punctual?

Mahfuz Anam

Ministers being late to any function have become so customary these days that a delay of half an hour is taken by organisers and the guests, to be normal. In fact any appearance of the chief guest (read ministers) earlier than that is taken to be a special gesture or a mark of importance of the host. So a thirty minute delay has become our routine and we quietly live with it. So what we are complaining about today is when the delay is of an hour or even more.

What makes things worse is that some of them don't even bother to extend the courtesy of an apology for having kept the audience waiting for so long. On occasions I have felt like protesting but gave up the idea thinking of the plight of the diplomats who need to attend so many functions as a part of their duty. They usually arrive on time, though some are getting wise these days. Imagine them in their ties and dark suits sitting under a big shamiana (outdoor canopy) waiting endlessly for the function to start and the electricity suddenly playing hookey. Thinking of their sufferings I have decided that I am far better off. At least I can chose which functions to attend and which ones to not and also leave early.

The ministers' late arrival always has an explanation. A sudden call from the PM's office is of course the most sacrosanct of reasons and for which those of us who have wasted our time waiting are not supposed to even think of raising questions. Then there is the meeting that went longer than expected, the sudden visit by a cabinet colleague, the group of MPs who came unannounced, and the unexpected foreign visitor (as if by saying that the visitor was 'foreign' we are all supposed to forget the pain of our wasted time).

Then there is of course the God sent traffic jam. Blame everything on it and you are safe. The fact those of us who came to attend the function did arrive on time, navigating through the same traffic is, of course, of no consequence. I attended a function where the chief guest was an hour and fifteen minutes late. But he was outdone by the special guest who was two hours late. As an explanation he said he went for a boat ride with another minister for another function where, surprise surprise, he was also a special guest. He could not cut short his presence there as he was on a boat and had to wait till it came ashore. Otherwise, he wanted us to believe, he would have been only an hour late as he would have cut short his stay there and rushed here. He expected us to feel sorry for him as he was a prisoner of circumstances. The question why he accepted invitations to functions the time of which overlapped, did not seem to occur to him.

I have often wondered why our ministers agree so easily to attend endless functions overstretching their time and their energy. Obviously the answer is that ministers, who are politicians at the end of the day, have their party constituencies to pander to. Add to that the need to please various social and professional groups, business community, foreign and local investors, diplomatic community, newspapers, journalist bodies and of course relatives and friends. To be fair to them often we force them to come to functions knowing that they have no time. One thing I have never understood, why two, or sometimes three ministers agree to come to the same ceremonial function. Of course, the host will try to impress the guests by demonstrating how many ministers he could bring to his function. But why should ministers agree?

So what is the solution? I suggest that we introduce the practice of starting functions on time without waiting for the chief guest and special guests etc. As and when he or she comes they join the function. This way we can show respect to those who attend events punctually and also save everybody else' time. The other solution is that instead of inviting chief guests to come at the beginning of a function, we invite them to come at the very end. This formula can be adopted for all ribbon cutting, launching, inaugurating and closing ceremonies.

For functions where the purpose is to make a minister listen to issues, debates or complaints of some specific groups, there is no short cut. In such cases we should brief the minister properly, tell him/her exactly how much time is needed and work out the details beforehand. In such cases the minister must come on time and the hosts must also promise to end the event on time.

Here is another idea. We usually give a time for the starting of an event. Suppose we also start giving a time for its ending. In other words we stop sending out open ended (time wise) invitations and specify when a function will begin and end. Each guest will know how much time he/she is committing for a particular event. This may help to make our functions more time efficient and may be, just may be, make our ministers more punctual.





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