SarkarInterrupted-II

…Continued from earlier. In gist, our dealings with the local Delhi government towards getting our marriage registered.

Armed with a ‘reference’ provided by someone-who-knows-someone-who-knows-someone, we reached the concerned office 10 minutes past the designated time..blame it on our tardiness combined with the awful approach to the offices of the Sarkar (translated as government, can also refer to an ‘individual’, symbolising the powers and influence he wields).

It appears that the area surrounding the government office in question, a site chosen for the convenience of users, has been overwhelmed by the burgeoning industrial area around its periphery. With due respect to the disaster management response vehicle in the office premises, one hopes the authorities in question pay adequate attention to the entry/exit issues plaguing the offices. If the offices can’t be shifted, it is but natural to seek an improvement in traffic management, unless the authorities are okay with arriving at ground-zero after the hens have gone home to roost (true Bollywood style, that).

Having filled up some more forms (the staff was amazingly receptive, now that we were suitable armed with a reference) and having wearied of a game of hide-and-seek with the birds, narrowly escaping their attempts to coat us with their unmentionables as we stood outside the office (a surprising lack of basic amenities), we were ushered into the presence of the approving authority. Having examined our documents, he clarified that since the marriage was solemnised in another city (Baroda, Gujarat), the bride didn’t belong to Delhi anymore rendering the issue irreconcilable. While we came away disappointed, his reasoning seemed to be within the confines of law, as argued by him. We don’t grudge him that, especially as government servants begin to wield the ‘book’ under extensive public scrutiny post the recently held elections.

What we did was ponder over were some issues that merited a little brooding (a decent way to pass the time as we negotiated traffic). This is also an effective ‘indigenous’ response towards reconciling oneself with the doggedness of the powers that be. Make peace alright, but not without the usual bout of cribbing, which is a god-bestowed right, exercised unabashedly by every Indian.

The first thing that struck us was that the so called reference, who held a similar post prior to his present appointment was surely aware of the rules. Why then the Kolaveri Di? For one, while online process may not be in vogue, one can at least expect relevant extracts from the rule books to be pasted online. It wouldn’t take too long for the rules, the description of the process and the various forms required to get populated on the government website. A small step in governance, but a giant leap towards greater transparency, reducing uncertainty in the process (I guess the ‘unknown’ is more unnerving than the outright ‘rejection’). And yes, these rules need to have the 4Cs built into them – Crisp, Clear, Concise, Correct (flyboys, take a bow).

Else, the other ‘ingenious’ but sometimes unwelcome ‘jugaad’ that Indians are so proud of, rears its head from time to time. This time it was my better half, quipping rather impressively that ‘had we printed a wedding card with Delhi as the venue the bloke wouldn’t have made such a fuss’.  With the right ‘degree’ of reference, we could indeed have pulled it off. And by the way the staff handled our paper-work (checking and double-checking our documents), it appears that interruptions like the one described can be brushed aside with ‘discretionary’ judgment on the part of the Sarkar.

If only the government did something about the nagging suspicion that  ‘a level-playing field is still a pipe-dream, and the road to it littered with whimsical discretion’ amidst a culture of favours and references. And while we are on the subject of ‘roads’, will someone tend to road leading to the government office, in the interest of the ‘disaster response’ community of Delhi?

For now, we’re happy that at least our documentation is in order for the next attempt (in Baroda, can’t say when). For those not overtly familiar with Indian culture, it is worth mentioning that while registering a marriage is required by law, greater credibility is rendered through social acceptance, rendered through a ceremony and presided over by scripture reading priests and attended by a well represented gathering of well-wishers from both corners (red and blue). To dispel any doubts, happy married we are, whether Sarkar likes it or not.

Looking forward to the next one.

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SarkarInterrupted-I

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A cursory glance at the disconnect between the elements of government (Sarkar) and the public, arising out of a recent personal experience. It started when we decided to get our marriage registered with the government…soon after our wedding (almost 06 years ago). Lack of planning at our end led to a delay, which has extended to this day. Lack of ‘comprehensive’ documentation (combined with difficult demands like producing the priest who presided over the ceremony) was the main culprit as was a ‘lack of available time’ to a lesser degree. Living away from our domicile cities and being afforded short leave intervals added to the delay.

To our surprise, we were recommended a Delhi government website (http://delhi.gov.in/wps/wcm/connect/doit/Delhi+Govt/Delhi+Home) that allowed online registration and provided a list of documents required, which was elaborate but not quite the ‘labour of modern-day Hercules’ we were confronted with earlier. The website is under maintenance as I write this. The acknowledgement letter was received promptly, confirming our appointment between 1000h and 1200h on our chosen day (two days later). We were pleasantly surprised with this online process, but in retrospect, I admit I forcefully suppressed a few doubts that began surfacing from the depths of my mind. Having arrived at the said place on time, we were surprised to find that ‘online’ applications were not welcome. It turned out to be a facility actively subscribed at one end and conveniently forgotten at the other. This was confirmed by the intermediaries, the staff, who actually rule the roost in many government offices. Not only that, we were told that ‘the groom’ had to be from Delhi (against the ‘either’ parties we were led to believe from the website). Sexism to this degree was unexpected, but then so was our encounter with what we hoped would be facilitators, and who in fact were more than happy to leave us stranded with a big question mark (and a couple of exclamation marks)  in our minds.

Being government servants ourselves, and having been acquainted with the inner workings of such offices, we did the obvious. Track connections at the senior level of government who could clarify doubts and facilitate our process. It turns out that sexism is passe, but for the whims and fancies of the support staff. We were also assured of a ‘reference’ provided by someone-who-knows-someone-who-knows-someone and who could reconcile our issue amicably. Having experienced a classical ‘interruption’, I can think of the following pointers towards resolving such hindrances in the future. Although, I warn you, this is just a theoretical exercise, for the horse is stubborn and it will rather die of thirst than taste the sweet elixir of life.

1. Force the ‘online’ process into daily government dealings – Cuts flab (reduces the burden on already taxed staff), streamlines the process (good riddance to opinions/whims/fancies), thus reducing the ‘human’ element and avoiding conflict/misalignment of interests as the above case suggests. I guess an ideal working day for the staff in question would be one without petitioners.

2. Enforcing newly introduced practices – The fact that an online process exists draws attention to failure in implementation, requiring periodic audits and revisits to smoothen the changed pattern of working. Any change introduced in a process that deals with a huge population needs to be given an adequate gestation period. Although I’m not sure about the true costs involved, it is safe to assume that they’re not negligible. Apart from the incurred expenditure, a lack of returns also needs to be factored into the overall costs, in terms of man-hours lost/wasted as a result of failure in implementation. Taken together, the costs would add up substantially.

3. Incentivising the Staff – I don’t blame the staff for their attitude. True, when we find exceptions, we hold them in high esteem, expecting their traits to symbolize the minimum acceptable bar of performance (I think this has to do with our inherent ability to set standards in our minds for each and everything, progressively increasing the bar till our next near-to-perfect experience). One needs to remember that the staff is employed on a ‘particular job’, gets a particular ‘pay’ and has specific ‘career paths’, all incentivised by ‘survivability’ rather than ‘performance based merit’. Piling on workload under such circumstances, while not unwelcome, would definitely be a drain, especially when no additional benefits accrue (and when the ‘unchosen many’ continue to draw similar benefits without the extra burden of work). One way of addressing this issue would be through optimum measurement of ‘effort’, in terms of ‘result-based performance’ rather than the normative ‘work-hours’ put in (getting rid of the ‘over-time, under-worked’ work ethic). However, this would require additional resources and comprehensive monitoring mechanisms, justified only under certain specific instances where the ‘online’ process doesn’t offer better yields and in some where a combination of both is recommended. Passport processing have been well addressed during the last few years, relying on a combination of ‘online’ application process and ‘in person’ verification process.(http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2012-04-03/kolkata/31281195_1_appointments-passport-officer-passport-seva-kendra). I added this link to highlight two issues: that serious attempts to convert plans into ground reality are forthcoming, and the fact that ‘follow-up’ still continues to be a weak area (as evidenced from the comments). Enforcement continues to be a bane, whilst the posterboys walk away from the scene after a glittering ribbon-cutting ceremony.

4. Enhancing the capacity for institutional learning – As the case of ‘passport processing’ above suggests, there are vital lessons here than can be applied on other cases of similar nature, involving registration and verification. Applying these lessons can help reduce costs, provide an effective method to store data, help streamline further processes through data retrieval, and help individuals and government bodies manage their time and effort optimally.

The Aam Aadmi Party’s failed efforts to address petitioners in person speaks volumes about the issues plaguing the masses and the impracticability of addressing these in-person. While it is not practical to expect any drastic improvement in the present system of functioning, buoyed by the public mood, it is possible to ‘crowdsource’ change from the bottom up. In my conversations with a few friends from Brazil, I chanced upon the option of utilising internet/networking/communication towards creating a hybrid of direct and representative democracy. It emerges that in Argentina, this phenomenon is being experimented upon by an interesting group called “La Red” (The Network), a political party totally constituted through the internet. They have gone so far as to develop a software called Democracy.OS (http://democracyos.org/), which will enable direct participation of citizens – to get informed, join the conversation, and vote on political and legislative topics.

Through such initiatives, we may chance upon some unique solutions that could fit well into our local context, helping draw attention to the ‘effectiveness’ of the government’s best laid plans. Just as software giants manage software for the government’s initiatives, off-line interaction may be judiciously outsourced to private players (akin to the ‘aadhar’ effort). Online or offline, anything will do, as long as one can ‘reduce’ effort and time. Top -> Down can and should be turned upside down.

Food for thought: “When common sense starts sounding like a prized commodity, there is obviously much work yet to be done.”

Looking forward to the next one.