Inky fingersRed and green should never be seen
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The Guardian, Tuesday 8 April 2008 Are officers in the Indian government's ministry of steel permitted to use ink colours other than blue or black?
Arun Shourie documents the process whereby this question was considered, tackled, bumped, spun and, to some extent, resolved. Shourie manages to compress the telling to a spare seven pages in his book Governance and the Sclerosis That Has Set In.
The matter arose in 1999, when two ministry of steel officials noticed some handwritten notations on official papers that crossed their desk. The notes were in red and green ink.
The two officials drafted a letter to the department of administrative reforms and public grievances, asking whether this was permissible. Six days later, the letter arrived at the department of administrative reforms and public grievances, having traversed a physical distance of less than a kilometre.
Two weeks later, the department of administrative reforms and public grievancessent an office memorandum to the directorate of printing, which took three weeks to decide that it was not in a position to issue a definitive clarification.
The department of administrative reforms then turned to the department of personnel and training, which deliberated for several weeks, then replied that the matter could best be handled by the department of administrative reforms.
The department of administrative reforms then redirected the question internally, recommending it for discussion at the senior officers meeting.
Over the next year, the matter was sent out and on to the director general of the national archives of India, who tasked it to his deputy director, who issued a letter that noted the relevance of Bureau of Indian Standards specifications IS-221-1962 and IS-220-1998, IS-1581-1975, and IS-5805-1993, which pertain variously to inks, fountain pens, and ball-point pens.
Subsequent consultations with the joint secretary (O&M) in the ministry of defence and other officials led to the eventual modification of the government's Manual of Office Procedure, enlarging paragraph 32, sub-paragraph 9 and also paragraph 68, sub-paragraph 5, which, when considered jointly, now proscribe that "only an officer of the level of joint secretary to the government of India and above may use green or red ink in rare cases" provided, however, that doing so would serve appropriate functions.
That's how things stood in 2004, the year Shourie's book appeared.
Should the question be put again to the test, the government might reach a different determination. Key links in the original chain of consultation and decision-making have changed.
The website of the Bureau of Indian Standards says that standard IS 221-1962 (ink fluid, blue-black, for permanent records) and standard IS 1581-1975 (ferro-gallo tannate fountain pen ink - 0.2% iron content) now have a new status: "Withdarwn" [sic].
"Withdarwn", too, are the related standards IS-3706-1965 (fountain pens), IS-5215-1980 (desk type fountain pens), IS-4498-1978 (nibs for fountain pens), IS-4099-1978 (nibs for penholders for general writing purposes), IS-2456-1963 (brass strip for pen nibs), and, most ominously of all, IS-221-1977 (ink fluid, blue-black, for permanent records).
· Marc Abrahams is editor of the bimonthly Annals of Improbable Research and organiser of the Ig Nobel Prize