25 September 2010

It's more like reading Kafka in Delhi

As I sit here at peace with the world, Beethoven's Für Elise is wafting incongruously through the air in C-Block of Chittaranjan Park in south Delhi. This was not how I spent my morning. No, my morning was spent despairingly at the Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO).

Salman Rushdie has observed that “at the frontier, our liberty is stripped away—we hope temporarily—and we enter the universe of control. Even the freest of societies are unfree at the edge…” Of course I have no reservations about the need for the Indian government to record where foreign citizens live. But the arbitrariness of the procedures I had to follow is an indictment of a country that claims to have clawed its way out of such investment-killing inefficiency.

Rushdie is right to highlight control as a universal characteristic of crossing political frontiers. Being controlled is the feeling I remember, for example, when I registered as a foreigner in Germany. That took place at the gloriously named Ausländerbehörde [lit, Foreigners Authority] in Freiburg, where I was living. I was controlled insofar as I had to follow procedures (rather than telling the German government “no, thank you, this form is a little too long, I’d really prefer not to fill it out”). But I was never anxious because each step was logical and well-explained—except for a misleading sign that led to me to report accidentally to the motor vehicles registration office where it was quickly established that I did not need a parking permit for my non-existent car.

In India there was that same control but also near total anarchy. Before even arriving at the FRRO, I read through five different sets of guidelines explaining which documents were required. Each was different and one even asked me to produce documents I didn't have, such as a recent HIV test. I came with an enormous sheaf of papers in order to protect myself against every eventuality.

I'm sure the bureaucrat who imagined the FRRO saw it as a simple process: (1) sign in to get a number, (2) present documents to get another number (3) go to counter and (4) get final approval and leave. But it was never explained to the person going through it how any of these steps fit into the larger procedure, and for reasons that I'll explain later, each step encouraged one to doubt the process. Some of the officials were friendly—others assuredly not—but I never received a helpful answer to the question "what do I do now?"

A journalist friend here observed that the fact that bureaucracy in India is slow can be a benefit for accountability since every choice made by every babu [bureaucrat] up and down the line is recorded and filed away for posterity. When this is paired with a request for information—Indian's Right to Information Act (2005) set up one of the most far-reaching freedom of information regimes in the world—it can be very powerful. The problem is in the customer service. The bureaucracy has little incentive to help anyone who cowers before it and people are expected to know when the rules are to be followed and when they are to be bent—sometimes a bribe is the only way to get something done. There's a lot of interesting study of this in the social sciences but experiencing it firsthand was eye-opening. (On two previous visits to India, I had never dealt with low-level officialdom.) If India wants to be a world power then perhaps the FRRO—which is one of the first experiences of India for many foreigners—would be a logical place to make a good first impression.

I want to make it clear, before I describe my experiences, that I am not merely complaining because my US passport says that travel should be easy for me. (In English, French and Spanish: "The Secretary of State of the United States of America hereby requests all whom it may concern to permit the citizen/national of the United States named herein to pass without delay or hindrance..." ) No one, whether in the West or in India, expects to be treated as a human by a bureaucrat but in America and Europe procedures are clear and streamlined. That saves money, time and goodwill.


All foreigners who intend to stay in India for more than six months are required to register with the government within fourteen days of arrival. In small towns this is handled at local police stations but in the cities, it takes place at a Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO). I had a relatively easy experience at the FRRO but even so it was a waste of a morning, both for me and for the Indian Government.

The FRRO in Delhi sits in a bevy of treacle-coloured office blocs in R.K. Puram, one of the citadels of Indian officialdom. The first reception area is outside. A green plastic roof shelters about a dozen rows of creaky chairs joined together in fours. I felt like I was about to watch an outdoor concert at a dodgy summercamp. As I waited, I noticed the same scene half a dozen times: A new arrival would sit, change the equilibrium in a row and cause a person already sitting in one of the chairs to pitch forward or backward, an unwelcome shock early in the morning.

That was at 8:30. The office wouldn't open until 9:30, and nothing happened until 9:20 or so, when a functionary called out our names nearly incomprehensibly and we queued in sequence. I was number seven even though my helper from the Fulbright had arrived, so he claimed, at six a.m. in order to put my name on the list. So I stood on the queue, which led, I observed hopefully, to an office door.

The quickly queue became a scrum. The “All Other Nationalities” queue that I stood in was orderly but we were lined up next to the “Afghan Nationals Only” queue. We were arranged in sequence but the Afghans just stood together. Some of them walked up and down asking what to do (I overheard a number of conversations in Dari which were all basically “let’s just stand here and see”). After a few minutes, an enormous, cranky Sikh javaan [soldier] launched a counterinsurgency operation, clearing the gap between Afghans and Other Nationalities and forcing them to stand single-file.

Nine-thirty came. Now a female official was looking at our passports and writing the number down in an enormous ledger. I was given a disc with the number 11. A security guard checked me for weapons but more importantly cameras and mobile phones. I had luckily forgotten my camera at home and my phone was safely in my trouser pocket, where he didn’t look. (That fact in itself reduced this to "security theatre" in which security checks are carried out only for appearance's sake.) My iPod caused some consternation: “Is it camera?” “No.” “Is not mobile?” “to kyaa hai?” [Then what is it?] “To play music.”

I’m in. Following a sign that says “Foreigners Registration” I find myself in a hallway. As I try to figure out what is going on, a British volunteer teacher getting her visa extended snaps at me to “stand behind him!” She is defending a diffident Sri Lankan man in his early twenties, whose turn she thought I was about to usurp with my wicked colonial ways. I fingered the little red disc in my hand. If we were queuing again then why did I have the disc?

The main room of the FRRO was a non-descript office, some 15 m on each side. On the left side was a door leading to the “server room” and the glass-walled “Afghan section”. A counter stretched across the whole far wall. On the right wall were the “In Charge” officers who had to sign off on whatever the people at the counter did. (I had been advised that the “In Charge” man approved anything but the female officer liked to make trouble.) A bored security guard adjusted a television showing a news programme. Behind him was a digital number board that at the moment was switched off or broken.

The shy Sri Lankan presented his papers to the official at the “Reception/Enquiries” desk, ledgers were written in. Then my turn came. The official took my disc, didn’t look at the number, and apparently signed me up for the wrong category of registration. I handed over documents and he handed me the physical result of today’s exercise, a little booklet that I will be required to show to government officials within twenty-four hours of being asked for it. As he shuffled through my documents, I opened my booklet to figure out the next step.

Glowering at me was the picture of a Chinese labourer. The identity photograph had an ivory patina like a World War I-era studio portrait. Horrified by what indignity was potentially to follow, I read through the filled-out booklet and saw that the man had been a carpenter at the Chinese Embassy and that his registration had expired earlier this year. The official wrote the number “46” and scribbled a code on the top of my documents and returned them.

“Excuse me, sir. This isn’t me. This man is Chinese. Don’t I need a new book?” I was too sleepy to press my case eloquently. The official answered by mumbling. I tried to explain it in Hindi. Same mumbling. Then English again. I sat down to wait to make my appearance at the next counter.

I found myself in Kabul. I waited near the Afghan section and observed Afghans of all ages and heights, from tiny children to hulking, traditionally-dressed Pashtun men, milling about. Many of them were green-eyed and fair-skinned; some could pass as Indians. One man had an enormous bushy black beard shaped like a half-moon while other men were clean-shaven. Of course there were caps in all shapes and sizes. All styles of Afghan dress were represented but the flowing kameezes, with or without a waistcoat, dominated.

I filled out my booklet by crossing out the Chinese labourer’s details and tearing out his photograph. It fell on the floor and someone helpfully returned it to me. I waited some more. My fear-disgust-consternation was rising. I heard the number twenty-one called in Hindi. The English followed later. I concluded this number referred only to whatever was happening in the Afghan section.

The FRRO felt like a place of silence even though there is lots of background noise. People stared stone-faced rather than talking to one another. Mothers half-heartedly dandled their children, knowing that in a place like this they would eventually start screaming. Only the Afghans seemed to be having any fun.

I observed a white man make it to the counter. I guessed, based on his pastiness, that he was English. I asked him whether his number had been called or whether he was queuing. His reply was telling (and confirmed my guess), “Oh, I have no idea. That’s why I’m here with a lawyer.” He gestured to an Indian lady exchanging futile words with the officer at the counter. When I turned, I noticed that the number board had been switched on. It said “1, 21, 11, 0, 9” and that’s what it kept saying for twenty minutes. The combination of the unchanging board and my suspicion at being given the number ‘46’ when there were only a few people in front of me, strengthened my resolve.

I went back to the counter and spoke as sweetly as I could manage in Hindi to a female officer who was busy with something else. “The number board over there, does it work? I’m number 46 and, well, it’s not changing.” She very politely assured me that it did work and gestured expansively over a stack of about two dozen applications. “We have to clear these first.”

I sat again. Now my Fulbright-assigned helper appeared. He had talked his way through the security check by flashing his Commonwealth Games badge. They apparently thought he was an athlete competing in the Games. The numbers had begun changing by this time but not fast enough for his taste. He took me up to the counter and said, “he’s ‘46’” Suddenly numbers 41 to 45 flashed and number 46 appeared on the board.

Another female officer looked over my documents and things went well until she came to my booklet. Her brow furrowed. I explained that her colleague had given it to me and said three times it was no problem. She just laughed and pointed out that her colleague had written "re-registration" at the top of my documents, which made no sense (unless I was meant to pretend to be the Chinese labourer). I filled out a fresh booklet as she entered my details into the computer. My Fulbright helper and she made conversation. I laughed at a Hindi joke she made. She looked at me and asked if I understood Hindi. More was entered into the computer. Stamp, stamp, stamp. Copying a few numbers. Stamp, stamp, stamp. Another step complete.

I took my booklet and the papers to the “In Charge” but no one was there. An assistant said that both In Charges had taken a quick break. A few more minutes of waiting and a large, unsmiling man in his late forties appeared. He grunted as I handed over my papers. Without even looking at them, he initialed my booklet twice and gave it to me. We left and it was now a few minutes after noon.

The score: I was assigned three different numbers just to wait. I dealt with a total of five officials in four steps, three of which were perfunctory (i.e. two involved just writing my details into a ledger and one, the "In Charge" officer's final approval, was given without even reviewing my case). So of the entire exercise, the only step that furthered my needs and those of the Indian Government was the five minutes I spent at the counter. India's economy may be surging but I predict that this kind of nonsense will cause problems for years to come.

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