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The Sub-Registrar’s Office

Omkar Goswami


I’m writing this on the afternoon of 9 November 2010. Barack and Michelle Obama have left India some hours earlier, having wowed all and sundry with their charm, impromptu dancing, masterly oratory and command over the pronunciation of Hindi words. Yesterday was all about the brilliance of Obama’s speech to Parliament. This morning’s papers headlined: “Obama Backs India For UN Seat” (The Times of India); “Obama Backs UNSC Bid, Slams Pak” (Hindustan Times); “8/11: The World Order Changes” (The Economic Times); “Mission Accomplished” (Business Standard) and “Michelle Goes Broke Buying Xmas Gifts” (The Times of India). India must have been wonderful for Obama after the awful drubbing he has got in the US; and Barack and Michelle were fabulous for India’s ego.

Three days of wonderful entertainment, youth power and pizzazz. Plus an unexpected bonus of young Bhajji scoring a century against New Zealand when it was most needed.

It was time for reality. Mine began at 9.45 am, on reaching the Sub-Registrar’s office at Mehrauli, a stone’s throw from the Qutb Minar. I have taken an apartment on rent in Defence Colony, and someone from the landlady’s side had suggested that the lease agreement be officially registered. I had agreed; and so trotted off to Mehrauli in the morning. The office is in an old, dirty, abysmally maintained single-storied colonial kutcherry — a dilapidated tehsil building long past its sell-by date.

In the dusty, grimy compound sits a sad stone plaque proudly stating “Fully Computerised Office of Sub-Registrar (V), South District, Tehsil Building, Mehrauli. Inaugurated by Smt. Shiela Dixit, Chief Minister, Delhi on 18th April 2003”.

The office was shut at 9.45 am; yet there were at least a 100 people milling around, filling forms, sticking photographs and mucking their fingers with ink to decorate various stamp papers with their fingerprints. By 10.30 am, the crowd had doubled; by 11 am there were at least 300 people, all congregated to register some document or the other — typically property sale and purchase deeds.

Judging by the the fact that most of deeds involved purchase of land, flats and houses, ours was a piffling amount: a stamp duty of Rs.23,500. Yet, that one transaction involved seven people hanging around in the compound: my frail, sweet 94-year old landlady and her widowed daughter-in-law for support; their broker; my two brokers; myself; and a fellow-in-the-know, who bustled about, rushing here and there, in seemingly total control of the babus and their processes. Others, too, had teams of at least five people in tow.

Since the office’s writ covers almost all of south Delhi, my rough reckoning is that some 70-odd applications would have been submitted during the day. My guess is that the value of stamp papers accepted per day in this office would be between Rs.3 crore and Rs.4 crore. Thus, over 225 working days per year, the office will have registered at least Rs.675 crore worth of stamp paper. Probably way more.

Now contrast the abysmal facilities versus the size of business. The only sitting places are concrete benches. These are dusty, betel stained and pigeon-shat. Such aesthetics aside, these are well short of what is needed to seat even a fifth of those who have to wait for at least two hours. So you stand for hours.

The action involves three lines. Punctuated by long waits. After filling up all the forms, signing and finger-printing them, you jostle in one unruly line to submit the application and collect your token number. Then you wait for at least an hour — more if you haven’t been at the top the first queue — enjoying the smell of urine that wafts from a dirty loo in the compound. Then action station two: of joining another equally chaotic line to be verified. You time this by guessing what number is flashing in a broken LED device. Then you hang around yet again before being called in to be photographed: the party of one part, of the other, and the two witnesses. The digital camera shoots nonsense images. The equipment badly needs changing. But who cares?

Think of my feeble 94-year old landlady. She sat through all this. For almost two hours. By the end she was in tears. To be fair, she got some sympathy from the babus. I convinced one chap to come out and verify her presence, instead of subjecting her to line number 2. He did. And others made way so that she could be photographed a tad earlier than her time.

But consider a simple fact. This major establishment is worse than a dump. People who transact here hate every moment of it. It desperately needs a modern office; decent seating spaces; and a clean work flow. Is that too hard to ask for? After Obama agreeing to support India for the UN Security Council?

Published: Business World, November 2010


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