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 Photo: Eylon Steiner
 Photo: VJ Sathish

India: 'Babu' Bureaucracy In Bangalore
By Elisabeth Rhyne

“India Shining,” is the tagline for the new India, and it’s true.  India is coming into its own.  The world is applauding the offbeat glamour of Bollywood and the high-tech achievements of Bangalore. 

But closer to real life, Indians still complain about “babu” culture, the bureaucracy that has stifled the country for five decades.  Government and its bureaucrats no longer constrain the economy, but they still govern much of daily life.

I experienced "babu" culture firsthand in Bangalore when I discovered that I was about to overstay my visa by two days.  Although two days was a trivial adjustment to a year-long visa, I wanted to be on the safe side; and so I asked Rama, our office manager to find out how I could get a quick 48 hour extension. 

A few minutes later Rama burst into the room with wide eyes. “You must go immediately to the Foreigners Registration Office,” she blurted out, emphatic and breathless.  “Melvin can take you.”

I was glad to have help from Melvin, a gentle young man who did office errands.  He flagged down an autorickshaw, a three-wheeled vehicle with a lawnmower engine that swarms the streets of Indian cities like buzzing insects.  It was a nice day, not too hot, and the breeze came through the open sides of the autorickshaw filling our lungs with deadly exhaust fumes.  I paid for this later with a hacking cough.

The Foreigners Registration Office, the FRO, is a gracious turn-of-the-previous century building with columns, arches, and octagonal windows below extraordinarily high ceilings.  It must have been splendid in colonial days, with young British clerks moving efficiently in starched white shirts and suspenders.

The sides of the main hall were lined with French doors left open to the air.  Ceiling fans spun quietly, and the hall felt bright and cool.  Bright and cool and decrepit.  At shoulder height the walls were dark with the grime of thousands of hands.  Moldering stacks of documents sat in arched recesses.  Independent India has not had funds for maintenance or modernization.  About thirty functionaries were at work, each seated at his metal desk processing his pile of documents.  A sign on the wall, “Thank you for not using cell phone,” was the only clue that we were in the 21st century.

I had entered one of the strongholds of babu culture. 

Melvin and I signed the entrance logbook and explained the problem to the attendant.  She pointed to a window where the queue was short, and I took heart.  A clerk with an intelligent face and a kind smile took my passport.  His forehead was deeply lined with a small red smear pressed into the furrows between his eyebrows.  His graying moustache was neatly clipped.  He began methodically to fill up a form in blue ink. 

“Sit, sit,” he said, pointing to a plastic chair. 

After all, I am a woman and an American.  While he wrote, other petitioners approached his desk.  They grew impatient, but he wrote unperturbed.  I assumed that he was writing my exit permit, but at length he handed me a set of forms with a sheet containing the following instructions:

Documents to be produced for registration of businessmen:

  1. Presence of the foreigner before the FRO for registration
  2. Reporting form – In the proforma.  Single copy
  3. Registration Certificate in the Proforma.  In quadruplicate
  4. Copy of passport with visa page.  3 copies
  5. Passport size photographs.  5 numbers
  6. Letter of business addressed to FRO by the Business Firm about the duration of Business.  3 copies
  7. Extension application form 29.03.2006 to 30.03.2006 in duplicate
  8. Visa extension fee SBM (State Bank of Mysore) Cubban Park Branch Rps 1800 for 2 days in duplicate
  9. Local police report.  In duplicate
  10. Confirmed air ticket.  2 copies
  11. Request letter for Exit.  2 copies

I was to submit 29 pieces of paper and 5 photographs: more than a piece of paper per two hours of overstay.  I tried to digest this information.  Melvin grasped the situation instantly and hustled me out to the street to launch a treasure hunt for the required documents.

“Time waste, money waste,” commented Melvin.  He had other things he’d rather be doing, like getting ready for his approaching wedding.

Our first stop was the State Bank of Mysore.  That morning banks had been the target of the morning newspaper’s babu-bashing headline.  In utter indifference to customer friendliness, complained the article, state banks kept the doorways to their branches covered by the nighttime security grills, opening a slit just large enough for a slim Indian man to pass through sideways. 

“Sarees may unshackle PSU banks.  Constricted Entrance Hampers Women,” said the headline.  And so it was at the State Bank of Mysore.  An unwelcoming steel grid covered the entrance to the branch.  Reed-thin Melvin slipped through.  Although I was not wearing a sari, my loose clothes caught on the grillwork.  Inside Melvin had to ask at three places to find the right counter.  He handed over my 1,800 rupees fee, and eventually the bank produced a purple-stamped receipt.  I filed it carefully in a folder as the autorickshaw carried us to the Cubban Park Police Station.

Entering the police station, I felt uneasy as we passed the guard with his old fashioned heavy rifle. Inside, six or seven brown-uniformed officers, sat around relaxing.  One of them showed us into a room with three desks.  In this office the stacks of papers were so thickly dusted that they made the FRO files look fresh.  It had been years since anyone looked at them.  A pendulum wall clock said that it was Friday.  The clock was not ticking. 

Another kindly, intelligent-looking official motioned me to sit while he reviewed my documents.  He wore a sergeant’s three stripes in oversized braid and decorations.  Once again, I was disarmed by his kindness.  This will be easy, I thought.  I was mistaken.  Indian hospitality in no way implied a willingness to shorten any step the bureaucracy might dictate. 


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