Bureaucracy of death

Wednesday, 5 November 2014 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

It is no surprise that Sri Lanka’s standing in the Ease of Doing Business index is falling. In reality, all the talk about the delivery of service by the public sector is limited to the newspapers. At the ground level it has no meaning. Our education system with its infamous emphasis on rote learning seems to be producing generations of public servants with no capacity for initiation, discretion or direction. A zombie would do better. Although the matter I complain about has nothing to do with doing business with the Government, it nevertheless illustrates the limitations and attitudes of the products of our education system who manage to ease themselves into some employment with the government. My mother passed away on 15 October. She since her marriage in the early 1950s had lived in Kirula Road, Colombo 5, in a house she owned. A few hours after her passing, I went to the Registrar of Births and Deaths near Kirulapone. As distraught as I was, it was very depressing to observe the indifferent manner in which a minor employee there dealt with the simple matter of issuing the Certificate of Notice of Death which I had to produce at the Funeral Parlour. We were the only people there at the time. I presented the report of the doctor and all other documents such as my mother’s identity card to the girl behind the counter. For some reason she was acting in an irritated manner, snapping at us as if we were in her way. When I protested at being treated like an annoyance, her supervisor, also a female (I presume the Registrar) intervened and told her that she must now have her lunch! But to the credit of the young girl she put off her lunch by another two minutes and issued me the certificate. If the supervisor had her way, we would have been kept waiting for another hour or so. Since the funeral I have called the Registrar several times inquiring about the final Death Certificate, only to be told that it is not ready yet. (It is now more than two weeks.) Needless to say, for persons who go to the Registrar to record, births, marriages or deaths, it is an emotional matter. But invariably they are treated like some supplicant who has to bow very low before the Registrar to get a certificate. The Government must not make these appointments as a favour to a political hanger on but must appoint good and mature citizens as Registrars. But the more startling experience was at the Colombo Municipality Office at the General Cemetery where I had to book the crematorium. I walked in to this office at about 3 p.m. on 15 October. Although I was not aware of it then, for a cremation, if the deceased is a resident of Colombo, the charge is Rs. 1,500, whereas if he/she is resident outside of Colombo, the charge is Rs. 5,000. I can quite understand this as the service is being provided by the Colombo Municipality. The youngish clerk behind the desk was scrutinising my mother’s National Identity Card for a few minutes. When I inquired whether there was a problem, he told me that in the address column of the Identity Card, ‘Colombo’ was faded whereas you could clearly make out the house number and Kirula Road on it and the 5 after Colombo was also clear. I accepted that Colombo was rather faded (although with effort one could still read it), her medical reports, death certificate, my identity card and driver’s license, etc. had the same address. The clerk quite typically stated that his auditor would query this and therefore he cannot accept her as a resident of Colombo. He said that Kirula Road could be somewhere else. I told him that I have never heard of another Kirula Road and besides there is no other city with the suffix 5 in Sri Lanka. I also told him that I also live at the same address and would be more than happy to clear any doubts the Auditor would have on this matter. But the young man simply did not have the character to do the right thing. So after living in the same address in Kirula Road for 60 odd years, a young clerk at the cemetery treated my mother as a non-resident of Colombo. Every person I have told this story to has reacted incredulously, finding it hard to imagine that the clerks and auditors in the Colombo Municipality work with the presumption that the immediate relatives of a deceased person plot and plan (including obtaining identity cards with all the particulars saved for a wrong address) in order to get a concession of Rs. 3,500! All my documents had the same address. As to the Ease of Doing Business index, I think it is simple madness for a foreign enterprise to get involved in a system such as this. I write this letter in the memory of my mother hoping that the Mayor and other respected officers of the Colombo Municipality would be sufficiently interested to take steps to prevent more grief being added to the grieving relatives of departed persons in Colombo in this manner. Ravindranth Perera