“Nobody travels along a road without knowing where it leads to. No captain of a ship sets out on a voyage without his charts and, while sailing without taking his position every day. But nations travel through time without orienting themselves in it. Even if they perceive weakness and ailments in their condition they attribute it to passing disorders amenable to treatment, and without recognising that these may belong to the end of a life cycle. The really dangerous aspect of decadence in human communities is the insensibility to it which it always creates” – Autobiography of an Unknown Indian (Part 11), Nirad Chaudhuri
However much we may dislike interactions with the bureaucracy of the State, it is something we cannot avoid completely. There is no escape when it comes to things like licensing, issuing of permits, obtaining travel documents and numerous other authorisations which function is completely with the State, directly or indirectly. We also turn to it for services which form a core area of our so-called welfare State; attempting to provide us with basic needs like health, education and transport. The effectiveness or the efficiency of the services provided by the State is another matter altogether. In all these fields, relative to other developing countries in the region, we have gradually lost ground, becoming a country known for its poor standards. While accepting free gifts, it seems we have become a people indifferent about service quality and voiceless about the manner in which they are provided.
Dealing with the private and government sectors
When dealing with the private sector, we often feel empowered or at least possess some degree of leverage. If the attitude of a bank manager for example, is unhelpful, we can threaten to take our business to another bank. He will take note because it hurts to lose customers through whom profits are made. Factors like the number of customers, public perception, and bad publicity are things that no serious private sector banker can just ignore.
I have often wondered what it would be like to tell a government doctor, a teacher or even a public health inspector that we are not satisfied with the service he provides. He will be incredulous, wondering whether he had misheard you. That is not the kind of thing you tell the all-powerful and self- satisfied government sector. We will not dare to tell, one tenth of what may be said to an ordinary contractor who bungles the slope in the outflow drain of the house, to a government engineer (say in a road construction) whose blunders result in the loss of public funds in the millions.
To a person, from the department head to the peon, they are extremely touchy about not being ‘respected’. The government servant has to be addressed ‘correctly’, and is not to be challenged or rebuffed. Appearance or manner notwithstanding, he is a benevolent benefactor, working hard to provide services, which you, a pathetic creature, could not have otherwise enjoyed.
Dealing with the government sector, however, is not all pain and reverence. Sometimes the interaction may even provide a welcome distraction, something that can challenge and absorb your mind, keep you on your toes .Essentially, the whole scheme or system (all owing their origin to foreign models) is designed in the public interests, to work for the greater good of the largest number. But as they say, the way to hell is paved with good intentions. In a different clime, in the hands of a different people, schemes thought up by another culture, can work very differently, arbitrary, enervating but yet with its moments … even hilarious.
From counter to counter
Recently I had to go to the office of the Registrar of Motor Vehicles (RMV) in Narahenpita in order to hand in a letter of deletion (from a bank). I had bought a car on hire purchase and while the lease was effective, the registration book (actually only a one-sheet document) had the name of the lending bank as the absolute owner of the car. My name was given as the present owner. Having paid off the lease, the bank released me from further obligations and provided a letter of deletion (to take out the bank name from the registration book) to be handed over to the Registrar of Motor Vehicles.
As the ownership continued with me I imagined it to be a simple process. But it wasn’t.
To enter the premises of the RMV you have to write your particulars at the security hut, a requirement supervised only perfunctorily. I was then directed by the harried receptionist at the front to a large crowded hall in which there were many counters. They were all busy. There was nothing to guide me, no instructions displayed anywhere. I was directed by someone in the crowd to one of the counters. But on reaching the top of the queue I learnt that it was the wrong counter but was advised nevertheless to obtain a photocopy of my identity card before proceeding further. After obtaining a photocopy of the identity card, for which I had to go outside the building, I joined another queue. All that this counter did was to handout tokens with a number on it. Some in the crowd seemed better acquainted with the system and suggested that I talk to yet another counter clerk. Here my documents were examined and sent back to the first counter with a note. After studying my documents once again the clerk there mentioned hurriedly about a one-day service and gave me another note directing me to pay the amount written on it at the bank. The amount was Rs. 1400.
There is a bank operating at the premises of the RMV but, here again, the line was very long and was out in the sun. It took about half-an-hour for me to make the payment. While we waited, two persons, a policeman and then a priest broke the queue to make their payments. I do not know whether they owned vehicles or were acting on behalf of another, but there certainly wasn’t any sense of guilt in their manner. It was just the prevailing order, accepted conduct. While we were standing in line, a large four wheel drive vehicle with tinted glasses drove out. On it was a sticker which read “Member of Parliament”. Whatever his business at the RMV, it is most unlikely that the Member of Parliament spent his morning at the various queues. That is not the prevailing order today.
The receipt from the bank had to be taken back to the first counter. He then gave me another receipt and advised me to come after 2 p.m. for the new car registration book (all that needed to be done was to print out the registration, deleting the bank as the absolute owner of the vehicle) and that I should be present in person to receive it, a daunting situation for a person, let’s say, coming from Maharagama. Despite myself, the tiredness and frustration with a seemingly endless series of queues, I felt a sense of relief and also achievement that finally a confusing process, unexplained and unpredictable, had ended in my favour. The business was done; a citizen had been served by his State.
An overworked and overwhelmed system
During the two-and-half hours I spent there, it was obvious that the State considers its citizens, especially those that come to the office of the RMV suspiciously, unworthy of any credit or trust. In an advanced economy a car is hardly a notable asset. Going by the verification processes in place at the RMV, one could safely assume that most of those present there were thieves, conmen or bounders in one form or the other. The fact that I had not heard of that many instances of frauds relating to car registrations could be attributed to my lack of interest in the area. According to what we read in the newspapers these days financial crime appears to be the past time of those in (or perhaps were) high positions in the country. If the FCID was not preoccupied with the high and mighty of the last regime, they would have had a lifetime of work investigating the thousands of vehicle owners who crowd the RMV office. That is the message implicit in the operational methods of the department.
It also was evident to me that the State, at every opportunity, charges its citizens heavily. To print out my registration book took a whole day and cost me Rs. 1400. If I went to a private sector institution for a change of name, say on an application form, or a deposit, at the most, it would have taken half-an-hour and it would have been unlikely that there would be such charges.
I would not say that the staff at the RMV was unfriendly or unhelpful, although most times unreasonably impatient with the confused public and unable to cope with anything out of the ordinary. These are qualities often noticed in the incompetent or those not empowered. In general, I thought the staff unremarkable, limited, but coping with the situation facing them as best they could, with whatever talents they had. And perhaps, that office was better organised than any other office they had observed in their lives. With such limitations of vision and outlook, having had no experience of anything better, a huge qualitative jump may be out of their reach. Meaningful value adding requires very different human resources. The office of the Registrar of Motor Vehicles could well be a synonym for the chaos on the roads outside. A system simply overworked and overwhelmed.
Curious about the one-day service, which required me to make a second trip (after 2 p.m.), I inquired how long it would take to get the registration book under normal service.
He was impassive.