For all the often-hyped claims made for the promise of the digital revolution, its most obvious dividends must surely be in reducing friction in dealing with the meddlesome Indian bureaucracy. And for the most part, from paying income tax to receiving vaccine certification, India is not the country it used to be. But the capacity for mind-numbing complexity continues. And, the world’s renowned back office still boasts of clunky, erratic online application forms for government services.
Then there are government departments that are perhaps seeking a return to the socialist 1970s. Moving back to India in 2019 with half a container of clothes, utensils and furniture, I was ensnared in the customs department’s phenomenal form-filling. On my way out of Hong Kong, only the moving company needed my passport. At this end, I had to physically courier every form of identification I possess to Chennai to comply with customs regulations. The process dragged on for six days. As Arvind Singhal of Technopak Advisors told me, for decades every government has promised a variation of ease of doing business, and yet “the unease of doing business keeps growing.” He attributed this to powerful central oversight agencies that frighten bureaucrats who might want to show initiative and the disposition of many other civil servants who tend to join the administrative system in search of sinecures.
Psychologists working with post-traumatic stress disorder warn of triggers, a sight or sound that brings back trauma. Last week, I came apart trying to cope with the Know Your Customer requirements that Indian customs insists on before you can receive a package from abroad. Mine was a pre-publication book for review sent by Penguin in London. I have received hundreds of these elsewhere in the world. But I first got an email from DHL saying if I did not upload KYC documents, including proof of identity and address, it would charge me for warehousing services. So far, so simple, if pointless.
Proof of identity was easy, but my electricity bill to validate my address was rejected. I uploaded my Airtel bill, which too was rejected. I called customer service for DHL, to be told that my broadband bill was password protected and DHL could neither access it nor take my password. If I understood correctly, the representative said she could not take it because of the company’s privacy-protection rules. The other proof of address happened to be, of all things, a bank statement, so this seemed illogical. I am ashamed to report that this trigger quickly metastasized into a tantrum. I demanded to speak to a manager, who resolved the issue.
A friend who used Amazon to order an egg cutter, a scissors-like apparatus to behead a soft-boiled egg, went through the same rigmarole of submitting multiple documents because the seller said customs had held up the delivery.
Of course, these issues magnified many times over are what exporters and importers have to deal with everyday. Take the rebate scheme of state and central taxes for exporters introduced by the ministry of textiles in 2019. Under the old scheme, customs would simply deposit the rebate in the exporter’s bank account. But, the government introduced a scrip that could be traded, inevitably complicating the system. A garment-industry veteran reports that brokers are now needed to sell these scrips at a hefty commission. The new system has effectively handicapped many exporters. As it is, decisions by multinational companies to move production closer to home markets and pick suppliers within free-trade zones, which India has stayed out of for the past seven years, have raised the odds against exporters.
Meanwhile, the Reserve Bank of India-mandated validation processes of one-time passwords and more is unlike anything I’ve faced while living in New York, London and Hong Kong, all —not coincidentally—much more successful financial capitals than Mumbai. RBI rule changes on recurring payments via credit cards effectively killed my online exercise-programme subscription just when I was brimming with zeal to do pilates and yoga. Waiting for one-time passwords is another bugbear. (OTPs are needed to begin an online process to do almost anything, be it downloading my Airtel bill or meeting DHL’s KYC norms.) Why not let consumers set a cap for transactions—say ₹1,000—that do not need OTPs? Another credit card payment for an annual newspaper subscription overseas has fallen through, necessitating a telegraphic transfer. Four signatures later on a four-page form asserting, among other things, that the amount I am paying does not exceed 10% of my monthly income, the paper chase continues.
Meanwhile, none of these exhausting oversight processes appears to have been much help in preventing the recently-uncovered mismanagement by the former chief executive of the National Stock Exchange some years ago, who was found to have followed the advice of a yogi to make senior appointments and hand out huge raises.
I have given up trying to make sense of it. As Jan Morris wrote of New Delhi 50 years ago, “Here hopes are meant to wither. Just one application for an import license will alter your standards of efficiency… You will find yourself questioning the Meaning of it All.” My book arrived on Monday. The only snag was that DHL’s delivery person came without a vaccination certificate and wasn’t allowed into the apartment complex, which made physically verifying who I was difficult. Somehow, we worked around it, and a book valued at ₹305 finally made its way to its rightful recipient.
Rahul Jacob is a Mint columnist and a former Financial Times foreign correspondent.
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