Of Indian bureaucracy from far and wide

Written by Subhash Agrawal | Updated: Oct 3 2006, 05:30am hrs
Some weeks ago, an American friend of mine, an editor and writer, who is also a sensitised global personality, sent me an article penned by him. It was titled, Not so fast to India, and recounted his frustrations while applying for a visitors visa at the Indian consulate in San Francisco. The process involved a series of time-wasting steps, including the submission of all kinds of paperwork. But the real coup de grace came at the end, when he went in the evening to pick up his visa at the end of a busy workday.

He gave the clerk his name, but she asked him for the cash receipt that he had ostensibly received when he paid earlier in the morning. Since nobody had mentioned that the receipt would be vital, he pleaded ignorance. He offered his drivers licence as proof of identity to match that of the passport she now held in her hand. Im sorry, she said, but I cannot give you your passport back without that receipt. He tried to reason with her. Listen, you would never have accepted and processed my visa without payment, so why would you need a receipt now And you can match the photo and personal data in the passport with the documents I now have in my possession. So the receipt from this morning is irrelevant to delivering me my passport now. She looked at him unimpressed and repeated the mantra, No receipt, no passport; it is demanded by our protocol.

My friend eventually got his visa and even visited India, but the episode inspired him to caution other fellow westerners from rushing to prejudge Indias march to greatness. This is yet another incident that shows how Indias fabled bureaucracy remains a stumbling block to progressive change. It is still one of the most colossal networks of publicly funded employees anywhere, despite 15 years of reforms, and estimates suggest government jobs (directly or indirectly) accounts for almost 40% of all employment in India, one of the highest in the world. More public money is spent on salaries and pensions of government employees than on healthcare. It would be hard to find another democracy where an unelected, unrepresentative and essentially unanswerable collection of people has amassed so much power and privileges.

This bureaucracy is now a serious drag on not just the economy but also our external image, which is why tourism in India, despite all the self-celebration in government circles in recent weeks, remains so underdeveloped. India gets less foreign tourists per year than Singapore, Bali, the Maldives or Vietnam. In fact, right till the devastating tsunami of 2004, even Sri Lanka was ahead of India, and this was despite a vicious ethnic conflict plaguing the island nation.

Our bureaucracy is now a serious drag on not just the economy, but
also on our external image,
which is why tourism in
India remains so under-developed
Almost all foreign travellers to India probably have had at least one unforgettable run-in with Indian bureaucracy, whether at the railway station, post office, airport or state-run tourist sites. That is, except those who prefer a sanitised tour package that usually compresses 10 cities in two weeks and leaves you gasping for breath. Most inbound foreign tourists to India leave with their share of disdain at the tedious rules and apathetic attitude they have witnessed, but there are also some fairly resilient and upbeat souls who have turned their odd or frustrating experiences into interesting travelogues, some of which are written with great hilarity.

For instance, there is a blog maintained by a rather hardened world traveller who found India the toughest of all countries he had ever been to. He now compiles a photo gallerysubmissions are welcomeof the most bizarre examples of Indian bureaucratic rules, language and general inanity. It is a sort of online museum of wacky but true sociological exotica from civilisations interiors.

The opening page on his website is a photograph of a delightful little sign outside a government building in India that says: Urinating, spitting and littering in public places will attract administrative charges.

So that is what it has come to. India is viewed as a parody of mindless, senseless and tasteless rules. This is akin to Bollywood masala movies being shown at frat parties on US campuses in a perverse celebration of kitch culture. Is this how we want to be seen and known

The writer is the editor of India Focus