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A day in a public office, the ringside view



Has liberalisation trickled down to where the public needs to get simple things done in government offices?

Nandan Nilekani, in his book Imagining India, writes on how N.S. Raghavan, a co-founder of Infosys, had to hang around in the lobby of a bureaucrat’s office in Delhi for all of 18 days to get the ‘port of arrival’ in an import permission letter amended from ‘Madras’ to ‘Bangalore’. Mr. Nilekani says that to an outsider the corridors of government buildings would feel like a maze you could not find a way out of.

But the allusion apparently pertained to the days before the economic liberalisation that was initiated in the 1990s. Since 25 years have passed since then, it will be of interest to know to what extent reforms have percolated to the ‘cutting edge’ level of the administration. Has liberalisation really trickled down to the front offices where the public are required to knock their heads to get even simple things done? I had the privilege of spending a whole day in a public office recently to get a document stamped by the appropriate authority. It was a revealing experience.

It all started with a small procedural requirement of my having to get a power of attorney attested by the jurisdictional office by collecting a nominal stamp duty. It is another matter that the PoA had already been authenticated by the Indian High Commission concerned in the presence of two witnesses (not an easy task, on a working day, in London!). The need for a second ‘adjudication’ in the local office was not clear; but governments have their own logic, and who are we, poor mortals, to question it?

I reached the designated office at the relatively late (or early, the way one looks at it) hour of 10 a.m., when the sun and the traffic had together started punishing one and all. I self-assuredly presented myself to the supervisory official present, with a request to have the necessary seal affixed by collecting the needed charge.

He was friendly, giving me the impression that I had already had my work half done, and asked me to write out a small application detailing my request. The office messenger who was keeping himself busy with a hundred and one routine scores such as dusting files, bringing tea for the staff and so on, generously gave me a piece of paper and told me the staff member who had to “process” my request was expected by 10.30 or thereabouts. He showed me a line of chairs where visitors could sit and relax while the wheel of administration kept churning.

So, I had an hour or so to relax and reminisce on my own days in several offices across the country. I looked around and was happy to note that this office was fairly clean and well-maintained. No crowding on the floor with lines of officials sitting back to back or table to table. The place exuded a feeling of space. Visitors had comfortable chairs and a quiet place to sit and contemplate their fate; and there was a water container kept in a corner to quench your thirst. The enterprising office messenger had even kept a few used water bottles nearby to enable thirsty visitors to collect from the tap and drink from them in the absence of tumblers. The toilets were fairly clean.

Yes, public offices have become more people-friendly and less cluttered. That gave me the feeling things had improved in time!

Time has, however, a nasty habit of making you restless. As I saw a few more staff members and a number of visitors trooping in one after the other, my patience started wearing thin. I was okay with waiting for an hour or two: what a nice way for a pensioner to spend one of his otherwise non-productive days! But then, when it became clear that even after noon there was no trace of the official who was to attend to my case, anxiety coupled with annoyance started creeping in. Every time I enquired about him the response was the same: please wait, he is on his way, he may be in just half an hour later, and so on. The saving factor was that I was not alone in my misery. There were several. A couple of senior citizens like me had come in for similar purposes, which gave us all a feeling of camaraderie and an opportunity to exchange views on the quality of public services.

Finally, by 2.30 p.m., our friend and philosopher, the one who had to help us out with the stamping of the documents, made his appearance. After he settled himself comfortably on his cushioned chair, but before he could get up and go for his proverbial cup of tea — after all it was past 3 p.m. by now — some of us presented our papers to him. After verifying the papers with quiet efficiency born out of long experience, he directed us, in turn, to take our documents to his boss in the adjoining room and get his initials recorded on them. We surely did that without complaining; indeed, we were extremely happy he had come at last and started ‘processing’ our requests.

The kindly boss asked a few questions on the relationship between the executants and the assignees, proof that one’s daughter and son-in-law were directly related to the holder of the power of attorney, and so on. Without much ado, he appended his initials on the document.

Honestly, when you are in an office and following up your own case, you never worry about how time passes! At last, and about an hour or so later, the office messenger, the know-all guy, announced to no one in particular that our papers had reached the table of the supervisor and we could receive them soon.

The final task of affixing the office seals remained. And who else would come to our rescue but the multi-tasking specialist, the office messenger? He took out a bunch of seals,scores of them, selected the right ones and magnanimously stamped each document in token of “adjudication”.

I had never experienced such relief in a long time. At last, I have got my work done and am free to leave. I congratulated myself.

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Printable version | Apr 6, 2020 3:35:16 PM |

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