Monday, 8 August 2011

Fingerprints, photos and forms

Running a country of 1.2 billion people is not an easy task. Running it as a democracy is even more complex. Managing the needs of so many citizens - citizens who have the vote so who can't easily be ignored or rolled over - would be a Herculean task even for a civil service made up entirely of Sir Humphrey Applebys (for non-Brits, apologies for the cultural reference). Little wonder then that Indian bureaucracy can be, shall we say, a wee bit challenging.

Today I had my appointment to go and register the lease on my flat with the authorities. This required me, my landlord Mr Mehandru, a witness (Mr Mehandru's driver) and the agent who secured the flat for me to trundle down to the Delhi Registration Office in the south west of the city, armed with multiple copies of the lease (printed, as required, on special government paper), my passport (remembered it this time!), my landlord's passport, and sundry other bits and bobs. I was pre-warned that it would take some time so I had let my colleagues know not to expect me.

What I wasn't warned about, however, was that when it comes to the Registration Office, the term "office" is a bit grand. It is actually a squat, one story concrete building rather smaller than the average retirement bungalow, with a sort of blue plastic verandah roof stuck on the outside. This is the only protection against the weather for the hundreds of people crammed into the space around the two tiny windows separating them from the stamp-and-sign wallahs inside. There are no seats. The only refreshment is provided by an enterprising couple of young men who wander round with an ice bucket full of bottled drinks. The whole place is seething with people battling to get to the front of the queue and have their papers seen to. Most are caught beneath the glare of the sun for the majority of their waiting time.

I have to admit I didn't expect it to be like this. Slow, yes. Bureaucratic, yes. Frustrating, yes. But I at least thought I'd be inside, in something resembling a waiting room, especially since this is an office that is regularly used by all kinds of people, including the elderly and others who might have difficulty standing around for hours. Having spent yesterday evening in a beautiful auditorium equal to anything in the UK, the difference was stark.

Mr Mehandru was in an irascible mood. He grew up partly in the UK, which has given him that same critical eye of his own country that my time overseas has given me. The experience of living elsewhere tends to put the daily frustrations and irritations of one's home into sharper relief. Or, as he puts it, "I spent my formative years in your country. That was a mistake." Anyway, having been through this procedure several times before, he was clearly losing patience with the procedure and the conditions under which it is carried out. "Does the minister ever come down here?" he asked, rhetorically.

I wish I could tell you what the procedure is, but I have no idea. I was like a child who has been taken in to work by its parents for the day and is watching all these things happening without the first idea what they are all about. I just did what I was told. I handed over my passport, signed my name no fewer than 17 times, had my photo taken against the wall of the compound, and had my fingerprints taken. Yup, all five of my left hand finger prints are now on record with the Indian government (as are my landlord's), and one of my half-decent shirts has an ink smudge on it. This is just something you have to do to be able to rent a flat in India.

I didn't have to do this to get a mortgage with the RBS.

After the form signing, photos and printing were done, we had about a two hour wait, so Mr Mehandru and I took ourselves (and our matching inky fingers) off to a local cafe, where he put the world to rights and I nodded along and discreetly checked my work emails. When we finally got the call to come back, we fought our way to the front of the queue, when I was told by the agent in highly serious tones that when asked for my age, I should tell them my age.

They asked for my age.

I told them my age.

Whereupon I was escorted into a back office where all four of us had to stand against a red curtain to have some more photos taken, no doubt looking like some awkwardly posed studio shot from the 19th century (actually, there was a bit in between when they told us that the photo of the witness was "blurry" and that we'd have to wait another two hours, but the agent magically managed to get us past that. Somehow). Then there was one final signature, for luck. And that was finally it.

Job done, in just over a half a day. Now, I know there are reasons why the procedures are so difficult. India has a big problem with people overstaying their leases and effectively squatting in rented apartments, and the legal system is so slow landlords can end up with people staying in their homes for free for years. I know these things are just necessary sometimes, trying though they are.

But I have to admit I shared Mr Mehandru's view about the office itself. India is not a rich country, but if it can build modern urban rail systems and world class stadiums then it surely should be able to provide basic facilities at a public office used every day by hundreds of ordinary citizens. If they have to cover themselves in ink and give themselves form-induced RSI to be able to live somewhere, at least they should be able to do it indoors.

1 comment:

Anj said...

Totally agree with the observation /about people who live some time outside their country...