Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Sarkari style

I wonder if there is a word for fear of government offices. Google doesn’t seem to know, which probably means there isn’t. However, since this is a common condition that surely afflicts a vast number of people in India, I would like to suggest a term. In departure from the tradition of Greek and Latin roots, we could call it Sarkarophobia.
I suffer from Sarkarophobia. This is strange considering my father worked all his life for the government, and I grew up making occasional visits to his office. This was in the days before computers made their appearance on desks, so files and paperweights and cups of tea were the only objects on desks. It all seemed very innocuous.
The scary nature of the files and paperweights became clear to me much later.
I began to discover the true power and weight of these things when I came to Delhi and bought a third-hand car. I needed a driving license, so I went to the regional transport office (RTO) to apply for one. I was immediately confronted by an army of touts. Walking past these persistent individuals, I tried to find the right forms, but had to ask several people before I was even able to find the right counter to collect this from. There was a rugby scrimmage going on around it. This is not a sport I fancy, but a man must do what a man must do. I entered the fray, and eventually emerged with the form.
It demanded certain things of me that I did not possess, such as proof of residence. I did not have a ration card. I use a mobile phone and had no landline, so the phone bill was not valid proof. The electricity bills were in the landlord’s name, not mine. My rent agreement, while apparently a legal document on stamp paper, was not recognised as proof of residence.
So I did a Kafkaesque run, up and down the building from counter to pillar to post. I took two days off from work to do this and even enlisted the help of a journalist who covered the ministry of surface transport. All to no avail.
Eventually, I had to throw in the towel. I simply could not prove to the honest folks at the RTO that I actually lived in Delhi. Why this should be so important escaped me, since any driving license is valid for all of India. They would be testing me to see if I could drive, so why did it matter what address my electricity bill came to, as long as I was an Indian citizen? I had a passport to prove that!
I eventually got a driving license from my home state, Meghalaya. I have been using it to drive it in Delhi for the last 10 years. The authorities have no problem with that.
I had similar difficulty in proving I live here when I tried to change the address on my passport. I went to the passport office once, saw the scrimmage, and ran away. I went back a second time, with greater resolve, but had to go back because the queue was too long and I had work to do. I went back a third time, bright and early and very determined. The officials were on strike.
Finally, I decided the straight and narrow was not the best path to be on in these complicated times. So I got an agent. The chap took an advance and my documents, but even he couldn’t do the trick. I didn’t have a ration card or voter ID from Delhi.
The whole business has left me bitter and a little befuddled. I don’t understand: if I already have a valid passport, doesn’t it mean I am a citizen of this country? If I am, then why do I need some dodgy document to be able to merely submit my passport form? There is police verification of the current address anyway! So what’s the point of that nonsense about electricity bills and so on?
Truly, the Sarkar has a mind of its own. Or perhaps it has none at all.

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