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Indian Absurdities

Omkar Goswami


In his Camelot days of 1985-87, Rajiv Gandhi had Satyen (Sam) Pitroda as a key advisor. As a poorly paid university professor, I had to often supplement my pathetic teaching salary with fees from anchoring TV programmes, and still remember an interview with the silver maned Sam. We had got on to discussing absurdities in babudom, and Sam came out with a brilliant example. Do you remember the long postal money order forms of the time? It was about half the width of an A4 sized paper and more or less the same length. This is what Sam had to say: “All you need in a money order form is four areas — from whom, to whom, how much and a little space for a two or three line message. Why can’t it be as small as a postcard. Think of the number of trees we would save?”


It wasn’t the size of a postcard because nobody had thought of it. And even if someone did, there was the “chalta hai to chalne do” inertia that so characterises us. Fifteen years of reform hasn’t done much to change this attitude. Micro-level procedural absurdities abound throughout India. Here are three for your consumption.


A friend of mine who has recently taken up a career as an independent consultant was given a serious run-around in getting a service tax registration. The authorities wanted proof of residence. He submitted the most recent bank statements as well as copies of his telephone bills — both of which carried his address. These were summarily rejected. Guess  why? Because the bank statements were from a private, non-nationalised bank, and because his was an Airtel phone connection. According to the service tax babu, statements from private sector banks and telecom providers do not constitute valid proof of address. Those from state-owned banks, MTNL and BSNL do.


Eventually, my friend had to get a certified copy of his home rental agreement in stamped paper before the service tax office accepted it as proof of residence. Had he been living in his father’s house, he would have been in serious trouble, for couldn’t have given a rental agreement.


Example number two. Another friend can’t renew his Kolkata driving license to a Delhi-based one. He lives in a house in Delhi that is owned by his dad; hence, no proof of residence. He banks with ICICI Bank and Standard Chartered; so his bank statements won’t do. His telephone is an Airtel connection; so that’s out. He no longer has a ration card; there goes his second last life line. And the poor guy’s permanent address in the passport is that of his ancestral home in Kolkata. As far as the Motor Vehicles chaps are concerned, he does not exist. In the meanwhile, he  drives with an expired license and the fond hope that he will somehow be able to finesse things at the Motor Vehicles office before some Delhi’s finest catch him for jumping a traffic light.


Example number three. Also of the Motor Vehicles department. A non-resident Indian friend from England has relocated to Delhi. He bought a Zen from another friend, and tried to get it registered in his name. All hell broke loose. His passport is Canadian with an address in Montreal. The only property that he owns is a flat in London.  He has neither a ration card nor a voter identity card. He banks with Standard Chartered; his phone is an Airtel; and he is a paying guest bereft of a home lease agreement. He doesn’t exist; hence, no registration. He still drives the Zen; but, God forbid, if an accident were to happen, the friend who sold him the car will be up to her neck in trouble.


The older I get, the  more I focus on the micro: laws, rules, regulations, approval processes, and the nitty-gritty of doing business. India’s macroeconomics is par for the course. It’s the myriad dysfunctional micros that drag us back. Like the absurdities that you’ve just read. And the many others that you, dear reader, could offer as examples. We are like that only…   


Published: Business World, December 2006


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