Someone once said: “Bureaucracy is the art of making the possible impossible”
Dealing with the bureaucracy in most countries is frustrating but the bureaucracy in India is ubiquitous and time consuming with no assurance of a positive outcome.
Since purchasing our flat in Cochin, we have had to deal with varying levels of bureaucracy on a host of issues. Transferring the electricity at the flat into our name should be a fairly routine task but in Kerala, it requires the use of what is euphemistically called a “wire-man” to intercede with the Electricity Board to effect the transfer. The charge for the services of the wire-man ranges from R2,000 to R5,000. We finally did not transfer the account to our names on the advice of an official at the Electricity Board who recommended leaving it in the name of the former owner and thereby avoiding the red-tape involved in a transfer! Apparently, this sort of non-transference of responsibility is not unusual.
When it came to registering the flat at the Cochin Corporation Office for the payment of property taxes, I again had to use the services of an intermediary. Trying to do it myself, I was told would result in delays and being subject to the run-around. So the lawyer who handled our flat purchase had a somewhat shady guy contact me to get this done. I went with him to the Office together with the original of the title to the flat. My role was a passive one as he took me to some man who sat in an open office surrounded by a host of ledgers which brought memories of Charles Dickens’ “Pickwick Papers”!
The guy looked up some salient points in the title document and then I was told to wait outside – ten minutes later the guy who accompanied me came and handed me a document that showed the property was now registered in my name. I paid him R1,500 for the privilege of being liable for future tax bills!
When we first bought the flat, the title had to be transferred to our names. There were the obvious documented fees and taxes associated with the purchase but there was also a sum of money that I paid for the expeditious transfer of the title to our names. I have no idea who it was paid to and how much precisely was paid. I was told that while legally such a payment is not required, if one did not do so it would result in multitude delays as various documents in connection with the transfer were scrutinized and nit-picked to death!
Which brings me to my latest and most consequential exposure to the bureaucracy in India – obtaining a copy of my birth certificate dating back over six decades ago! I lost the original some years ago during one of our moves within the US when a box containing various documents went missing. What I did know for sure was that I had a birth certificate, it was issued by the Corporation Office in Madurai, Tamil Nadu and the date of my birth and parents names were on the document. There was other information on it such as the date my birth was registered as well as the precise location where I was born – but I could not recall that information!
The quest for a copy of my birth certificate was an adventure in itself and brought into effect all of the dynamics that one finds when trying to get something done in India. First, I had started the ball rolling almost two months ago after arriving in Cochin when I talked to a couple of people about it. But one of the things one realizes about India is that if one really wants action, it is necessary to be there in person. Little will happen if one sits in Cochin and expects people to initiate action in Madurai. This is not a criticism of the people who were kind enough to help me – it is just the way things work in India. Perhaps one’s personal presence provides a sense of urgency to the task or perhaps if one is there in person, people switch their priorities.
My sister, Fifi who lives in Australia, was a huge help in getting a couple of people she knew from her days in Madurai several decades ago, to help me. Then my brother-in-law, Biju, arranged for help from someone else through a contact.
So, after weeks of relative inaction, the evening we arrived in Madurai, one of Fifi’s friends turned up at our hotel quite unexpectedly with a person who she said would help procure the certificate at the Corporation Office in Madurai. While they were there, I had a call from Biju that he had arranged for his contact to meet me at the hotel the next morning and spend the entire day with me at the Corporation Office in my quest! Minutes later, I had a call from another friend of Fifi who told me that she had arranged for someone who had connections at the Corporation Office to help me! So suddenly, after weeks of inaction, I had three people simultaneously willing to assist me – and all available the very next morning! I also had a meeting arranged for the next evening with another of Fifi’s contacts who had arranged for a lawyer to assist me, if needed!
I knew that having three people simultaneously working on this at the Corporation Office was likely to lead to confusion so I asked two of the people to hold off doing anything. I decided to use Biju’s contact and hold the others in abeyance.
This contact who worked for a major bank in India, came to the hotel on time and we proceeded to the Corporation Office. He was very helpful and cooperative – the only problem was that he spoke only rudimentary English and Malayalam. He spoke Tamil fluently which I did not! However, our taxi driver, Basil, spoke some basic Tamil and was able to translate some of the stuff for me.
At the Corporation Office began an adventure which had its highs and lows. Some parts of the process moved very quickly and other parts were painfully slow. My contact, Mr B, took charge and started chatting with various people in Tamil while I stood there like an appendage of his trying to appear involved but not understanding anything of what they were talking. A short, slim guy who worked for the Office, seemed to be very active in the whole process walking with Mr B to one office and then another and suddenly disappearing for a while leaving Mr B and myself waiting in anticipation of what was to happen next.
I thought that this little guy must be someone with some authority given his decisive manner and Mr. B’s reliance on him. It was only later that I realized he was just a peon! His role was to get the appropriate people to take an interest in the exercise – the ultimate objective was to enable me to walk away with a copy of my birth certificate that same evening!
We were finally told by the peon to go and have lunch and come back at 2pm. We returned and were given access to the registered births during January and February of 1946 all recorded in a hard-back ledger. I was impressed that they were able to access the records dating back 64 years so quickly. Unfortunately, the registration of my birth did not appear in those months – nor was there any indication of my parents names just in case a name had not yet been given to me when the birth was registered.
We were told by someone else in authority to go to the hospital where we thought that I was born; there was only one hospital in Madurai where the more affluent people gave birth in those years – the Christian Mission Hospital. Again, I was amazed at how quickly the gentleman was able to access the book in which all births in January of 1946 at that hospital were recorded. He seemed to have almost immediate access to it. The bad news was on the day in question in January 1946 there was no male child born at that hospital! So perhaps I was born at home?
Back to the Corporation Office and this time we were taken to see the gentleman who was the head honcho of the entire office. I only got access to him because he was told that I had come from the US which apparently held some sway. It was not a productive meeting because he told me that there was nothing he could do if there was no record of the birth. But he did offer one useful tip. He said that it was unlikely that a birth – that took place in January – would have been registered so soon thereafter. He said it was necessary to examine the records for at least a year for late registrations.
Back to the peon with the information we were given by the head honcho and we were told to come back the next morning when the records for the next six months would be made available to us. We did just that and found a new obstacle. Some other person had entered the process and we were told that we were not allowed to look at records ourselves but they would have to do it for us and get back with us in a few days. It was apparently against the rules to allow such access since it had the records of other people as well so there was ostensibly a privacy issue.
Mr B. told me to give the peon a small amount of money for his troubles and for him to maintain an interest and the new guy who was supposed to look at the records slightly more money so that he would follow up. Through Mr B. the new guy was told that we would make it worth his while if he could put in the effort and get me a copy of the birth certificate.
A week later, I have heard no more about the elusive birth certificate. Time will tell if anything comes of it. I could not help but wonder why in India which outsources its computer/information systems expertise to the rest of the world, something as basic as birth records cannot be computerized! Reliance on Dickensian record keeping in this day and age seems incongruous.
There was a dual purpose for our visit to Madurai – Mini had never seen seen the magnificent Meenakshi temple in Madurai. She had the opportunity to do so leisurely and thoroughly enjoyed it. I had seen the temple first in 1968 during one of my visits to Madurai but found it to be just as impressive despite having seen it before and unlike many other important temples in India, it was well maintained and clean.
I was also able to see the statue of my grandfather, Barrister George Joseph who was actively involved in the fight for India’s independence together with Gandhi, Nehru and others. K. Kamaraj, who in the sixties was viewed as a king-maker within the Congress party and was also the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu for several years, was a protege of Barrister George Joseph, and was instrumental in having the statue erected in Madurai. I last saw the statue in 1968 – it had since been moved to a prominent location near the entrance to a major bridge and within the same location, there is a statue of Gandhi as well.
Sadly, the house where Barrister George Joseph lived in Madurai, in which Gandhi stayed and was entertained was recently demolished. It should have been preserved as a historical monument given its association with Gandhi.
So, it was not a wasted trip ……….. and perhaps I will be surprised and receive good news about my birth certificate before we leave India in mid-April!