Travel in India (part one) "Bureaucracy"

by Fred GlickTaj Mahal

The bureaucracy here is amazing.  They took the arcane system the British left, mixed it generously with socialist, protectionist economics, threw in several tens of thousands of civil servants (in a country of over 900 million, job creation is always popular), and then neglected it for a few decades.

It helps being tied to a corporate or diplomatic office.  They help handle so many of the day to day exercises that in India could drive a reasonable person to homicide.

For a start, there's the Post Office.  My personal contact has been (thankfully) limited.  Any letters or packages are simply handed over to,the office administrative assistant who deals with it and makes sure that the mail is actually mailed.

Sounds simple, doesn't it?  It's not.  This requires, or so we are told, a carefully cultivated relationship with the personnel at the local post office.  One of the prime problems is the theft of stamps before they are canceled...a whole postal system falling apart for lack of decent quality glue.

Mail delivery is somehow equally complicated.  I'm not sure of the details, but sometimes it just doesn't pay to ask too many questions. One personal advantage, however, is that it greatly helps to consolidate the Diwali/Happy New Year/Christmas/(insert your favorite holiday here) money that our local public servants (mailman, telephone repairmen, electricity repairmen, street sweepers, garbage collectors, etc.) demand at our doorstep on what seems to be a regular basis.

This exercise is put into the guise of holiday goodwill, but what it comes down to is that our phone line is a copper wire that goes over our back wall and is twisted to another copper wire that drapes down from a pole in a tangled mess with all our neighbors' wires and an actual bird's nest as well.  Doesn't take much for something to go wrong with our phone-with or without the help of our friendly neighborhood repairman.

At least we don't have to worry about paying off the mailman.

Now, when you combine the Post Office with Customs, you have the Foreign Post Office.  If the package is small and labeled something simple like "gift", or, better yet, illegibly, it generally gets delivered shortly after it's arrival at the FPO.

However, if it's labeled with anything that catches the eye of one of those quick-witted customs agents (so far "electronic", "spare parts", and "liver oil" have sparked their interest) they send out a form letter demanding that an original bank attested invoice, GATT declaration, import license, currently valid industrial registration certificate, importer's code number, and "any other relevant documents/information required for the release of the parcel" be produced within fifteen days.

The letter also informs you that "non-furnishing" of the above "will be sufficient cause to show that the goods have been imported" illegally, that they will be confiscated and you "liable to penalty."  Doesn't say just what the penalty is, but my guess is that it involves LOTS of forms.

So upon receiving the first of these letters, I trundled off the Foreign Post Office to try to sort things
packageout:  to get the damn package, and not be sentenced to 10 years of hard form filling.

A promising building on the outside. A fence, but not too grim.  A gate, but open and the guards are unarmed.  Even the inquiries desk seems relatively welcoming as I enter the lobby.

The friendly postal employee at the desk tears himself away from his card game and informs me that they don't process any parcels after 3:30pm.  It is now 3:40.  I do my helpless foreigner act and he shrugs and tells me I can check anyway on the third floor.

Up a grimy stair (the lift being out of order-permanently and for some time, judging from the way it has been boarded up) and into the bowels of the machinery that ensures the safe and timely delivery of all our packages from home.  The steps themselves are shiny and polished from heavy traffic, but let your eye stray and the (de)illusion of efficiency, not to mention cleanliness, is quickly dispelled by the piles of grime and dirt that collect beneath the broken windows.  At least the ventilation is good.

On the third floor, I am presented with two choices:  left or right.  The left hand passage has a sign above it "Entry Prohibited", so I head that direction into a bleak and empty corridor.  Around the bend I enter the first door I come to.  There are packages inside, and some sort of cage. Inside the cage is what I take to be a postal employee, and though it is unclear if I am being kept out or he in, it seems a likely place to start. But when I wake him and wave my letter he merely points me further down the corridor and goes back to sleep.

Around another bend and I come to a fork.  Two open doors, but like a sign from on high, one has a large arrow pointing inside.  I enter a room that only a brilliant designer and engineer, or years of very, very careful neglect could achieve.

It is a file room.  And stacked from the floor to the ceiling there are files, or, more accurately, bundles of paper, tied with string, some on shelves, some spilling from cabinets, some just piled in corners.  The room so well conveys a sense of bureaucracy gone astray that it would be more at home (as well as more effective) on the stage or screen as fiction, as a statement, than it is in the reality of a post office.

An old woman in a sari presides over this paper purgatory, and tells me that yes, they have stopped processing packages, but that if I see the supervisor, I might get from him an "urgent order".  The supervisor is conveniently located on the first floor, so I trundle off to find him. With a bit of persistent waving of my letter, I manage to get some flunky to take me to a supervisor, though not the one that the woman on the third floor had sent me to.  I never did learn what happened to him, but as best I could understand he'd either gone for tea or to the toilet...forever.

Anyway, the supervisor I do find is happy to issue an urgent order, which involves his interrupting the card game down on the ground floor again with a telephone call.  I then return to the ground floor to collect the appropriate form, which has to be filled out by the card player, then taken up to the first floor for signature, then back down to the ground floor for reasons that remain unclear, after which I return to the third floor firetrap where I'd been before (no hesitation in my step now...I know these halls like I was born to them...), but this time I leave with a file in my hand.

A whole file on my package, and my package alone.

Next is the fifth floor, where they tell me I have to return to the first floor to find a customs inspector, but my luck is holding because I meet him half-way down on the stairs.  We return to the fifth floor where my package is waiting, right there on the table in front of me, to be inspected.

But wait!  Where's the man who opens the boxes?  He's nowhere to be found and the process comes to a screeching halt. I can see it, I can touch it.  It's right there.  But I can't have it; not yet anyway.

The customs man starts a friendly conversation to fill the time and I begin to suspect a trap, but perhaps I'm just being suspicious, because the box man arrives with his knife in hand and we open the box and the customs man assesses a seemingly random, nominal duty of Rs300.

"What's next?" I foolishly ask as the box-resealing man comes along with his ball of string and pot of hot sealing wax.

It's back to the ground floor, where my friend the postal employee is still playing cards.

It's this man who is supposed to release my package to me, but when he asks me for my passport, I have to 'fess up:  it's not actually my package.  You see, it's addressed to my wife.  And when I hand over her passport, he asks for my letter of authorization, the one authorizing me to collect her mail for her.

Whilst I contemplate this seemingly insurmountable barrier it occurs to me that this is after all a post office, and my first truly inspired thought of the day finds it's way to the surface: post offices *deliver* mail.

My friend behind the counter confirms this suspicion and agrees to arrange for the delivery of the package across town in a mere two days' time.  Not as satisfying as leaving package in hand, but at least I won't have to come back.

When I walk out the door there is an elephant.  Not even on the street, right in front of the door.
As if I needed a reminder that this is India.

(c) by FD Glick

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