The shadow of the sarkari pen looms over the lives of common Indians.
Experts argue that over the last few years, India has gradually been transitioning from a protectionist form of governance to a market-oriented one. This transition has been characterised by systematic efforts at curtailing ‘License Raj’ and reducing bureaucratic red-tapism, in order to increase the ease of doing business in the country.
Over the last few decades, and in recent years, the ease of doing business must have increased in India. But that’s not the debate this article will engage with.
The focus here is a different aspect of a well-functioning government – let’s call it ‘permit raj’ – the ease of getting signatures from public officials. In a system characterised by permit raj, the shadow of the sarkari (government) pen looms large over the life of the common Indian man (or woman) – from birth, starting with an application for a birth certificate, to the moment of death.
The last few decades have not witnessed much success in curtailing bureaucratic red-tapism, and its debilitating effect on the day-to-day life of the common person. My own recent experience in interacting with sarkari babus at all levels of the Indian government – at the central, state and local – only goes to show how this happens.
A few months ago, I was rushing from one sarkari office to another, trying to get my birth certificate apostilled. Apostilling of certificates is characteristic of today’s globalised world. People aspiring to study or work in a country other than the one in which they were born are often required by the destination country to legalise their birth, education or marriage certificates from the country in which they were originally issued. Apostilling of certificates is a form of legalisation acceptable in all countries that are members of the Hague Convention of October 5, 1961.
I am an Indian citizen by birth. India is a member of the Hague Convention of October 5, 1961. I work out of a foreign country which wanted me to get my birth certificate apostilled.
The website of the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India explains that apostilling is a two-step process:
“Step 1 – [State] Authentication of documents: All original documents/copies requiring attestation or Apostille should be first authenticated by the designated authorities of the State/Union Territory from where the document has been issued.
Step 2 – Legalisation of documents: The Ministry of External Affairs thereafter, legalises the documents on the basis of the signature of the designated signing authorities of the State Government/Union Territory.”
The website also lists four outsourced agencies which can assist applicants with Step 2 of this process:
- M/s BLS International Services Ltd.
- M/s IVS Global Service Pvt. Ltd.
- M/s Superb Enterprises.
- VFS Global Attestation Centre.
However, the webpage does not clearly outline if these agencies also help applicants with Step 1. So I called up each of these agencies, and all four informed me that for certain states, they assist applicants with both steps of the process. However, since I was born in a state which lies in the Northeast, they would not be in a position to assist me with Step 1. If I can complete Step 1 on my own, they would assist me with Step 2. All four agencies do not service states located in the Northeast and a few other regions of the country.
This left me in a quandary. My family had moved out of the Northeast soon after my birth. We have gradually lost contact with most acquaintances in the town in which I was born. I also do not speak the local language.
I therefore scoured various groups on Facebook for more information on how other applicants from my birth state have completed the state authentication part. I also got in touch with my civil servant friends to figure out the process that I needed to follow for getting my certificate authenticated at the state level.
I gradually figured out that state authentication consists of six sub-steps:
- Visit the passport department of the state-secretariat in the state capital
- Submit an application
- The passport department (not thepPassport office) forwards my application to the deputy commissioner of the town I was born in
- The office of the deputy commissioner forwards my application to the health department
- The health department verifies the birth certificate and forwards my application back to the office of the deputy commissioner
- The office of the deputy commissioner forwards my verified birth certificate back to the state passport department
- The state passport department authenticates my birth certificate.
I was also informed that left to the vagaries of the bureaucratic rigmarole, this process could take weeks, if not months, and therefore it was in my own interests that I visit each of these offices personally and ensure that work got done.
And that’s what I did. What follows next is a detailed flow-chart of the actual process I had to follow to get my birth certificate apostilled.
As is evident from the flowchart, I had to visit three different cities/towns in order to get my birth certificate apostilled. None of these three cities/towns are located in the state in which I am based when I am in India. I therefore had to spend a lot of time travelling between these places – sometimes by plane and sometimes by train.
The flowchart demonstrates that it took me six days to complete the whole process. What it does not include is the time taken to travel from one place to another as I went through the process. I also spent a considerable amount of time searching for information on the process to be followed to get the work done.
A more accurate estimate of total time spent is therefore three weeks.
The flowchart demonstrates that I had to go through 66 stages in order to get the birth certificate apostilled. The number of stages would have been larger, and the total time taken would have increased considerably, had the deputy commissioner (DC) not intervened. In other words, proactive, well-meaning bureaucrats (such as the DC in my town of birth) have the power and ability to significantly improve the quality of public service delivery.
But then why does the ‘permit raj’ continue to trouble the ordinary Indian man? The answer probably lies in the amount of discretionary power that remains in the hands of the street-level, lower-level babus (who operate with significant independence, away from the administrative gaze of their IAS or state civil service bosses). These babus interpret the laws as they please, exploit loopholes in unwritten bureaucratic norms and manipulate the unquestioned faith that the common person places in them. After all, people have no way of knowing whether the babu is actually trying to help her or is deliberately trying to deceive.
It has been 70 years since independence. But the common Indian person has still not attained freedom from the treacherous clutches of Indian Babudom.
Sanchayan Nath is a researcher with the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development in the Netherlands.