October 17, 2006

A Clash of Cultures

Expect to be surprised, is that an oxymoron or a paradox?

When applying for a passport in India — for that matter, when availing of any government service in India — expecting to be surprised seems to be more of a rule. Recently, I was at the Regional Passport Office (RPO, in short) in Chennai, India, for my mother's passport renewal. It has been...hm...nearly twenty years since I have been to a government office in India. Things have changed considerably in the 21st Century, I am told. Gone are the days when you could not get a passport without the intervention of a high level bureaucrat, say, a Joint Secretary in the Central Government or the Chief Secretary of a State Government, or paying a hefty bribe to the local politician. Today, you can not only register your application online, but also enquire about the status of your application electronically. They have an express passport service (called Tatkaal, a Hindi word that means "immediate"), too, for a reasonable additional fee, and a verification certificate from — yes, you guessed it right — a high level bureaucrat. Not too bad, considering that you'll get your passport in a week, and that you don't need any additional police verification of your background and address.

Expect a smooth ride for my mother for her passport renewal, right? Wrong! As her personal appearance is required for Tatkaal, she had to go to the RPO, a good twenty miles away from where she lived, to submit her application. My mother is 80, mildly Parkinsonian, and has difficulty walking, so I decided to accompany her. When we reached the place, I found to my dismay that the window for the Tatkaal applications had closed for the day. A security guard in the lobby told us in no uncertain terms that he couldn't let us into the office. Apparently, they admitted applicants only from 9:30 to 10:00 AM, although there is no mention of this in the RPO's website. We were late by a few minutes. I did not have the heart to subject my mother to further strain on another day. I searched my mind deep and wide for those long forgotten ruses for handling the situation. I didn't find anything that would work, so I used the trump card — the age and disability of my mother. I didn't have much hope, but surprisingly, the guard relented, but only to admit us into the building. The rest was up to us and the passport officer.

There were more hurdles for my mother along the way. She had to get past a second guard outside the passport officer's room. It used to be that peons guarded the gates to the bureaucrats, but now there are smartly attired security guards. They seem to be better educated, too. I guess that counts for progress. The second guard wouldn't let us talk to the passport officer without the prior permission of his personal assistant. That shouldn't have been surprising to those who have continued to be in touch with the workings of the Indian officialdom, but fortunately, I had not. I tried hard not to show my frustration and anger, lest everything should fall apart. After more pleas for consideration with the legendary "P.A.", we succeeded in talking to the passport officer, who instructed his assistant to accept my mother's application.

The application and the supporting documents were found to be in order, and we were asked to pay the fees. The website had given the option to pay the fees in cash or cashier's check (demand draft in this part of the world), and I had brought cash. What followed was to be expected, but surprising to me, nonetheless — an exasperating run around from pillar to post and back.

"We don't accept cash at this counter. You should go to counter number twelve."
"I don't care who told you to come to this counter,sir, but we don't accept Tatkaal fees here."
"I don't know, sir. Ask the assistant to the passport officer."
"Yes, it's counter number ten."
"Yes, sir, but you need a signature from the passport officer, sir."

Whatever. Finally, I was told by the passport officer that the Tatkaal process did not permit payment in cash, not withstanding what was stated on the website. Actually, I don't think anybody knew for sure, but there was a bank in the premises, where I could obtain a demand draft for a fee. With that ended of my close encounter with the Indian officialdom. I found it to be chaotic, but accommodating, nevertheless. After this experience, however, I did not expect my mother to receive her new passport by the promised date, but to my pleasant surprise, she did.

My experience with the American bureaucracy could not have been more different. Instructions are complete, and leave little room for any ambiguity or misunderstanding. Outcomes are predictable, and expectations are rarely belied. Dealings are impersonal, though, and pleas for exception will almost always be politely turned down. Seniors and handicapped may be accommodated in separate counters with shorter wait, but the doors once closed at the stipulated hours, will not be reopened, even for venerable octogenarians. "Sorry sir, we are closed now. Please come back tomorrow." Errors and lapses, therefore, could prove to be quite costly.

Which is better, chaotic flexibility or predictable rigidity?

1 comment :
  1. Very interesting. Reminds you of some portions of the famous movie "Lage raho munnabhai". It is very difficult to change the government mindset but what happens when the private sector banks also display the nationalised bank mentality- Cust-se-mar- Customer


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