Many of my friends and colleagues warned me about the bureaucracy in India. I never imagined it could be as dense and frustrating as it was this week. All the same, it’s part of the cultural-exchange experience!
I just completed the process of registering at the Foreigner Registration Office (FRO), which is required within 14 days of arrival (for anyone staying more than 180 days). The point, it seems, is to inform the government about where you are living. The process was far more complex than what I expected, given the instructions from Fulbright India. (They tell me that Bangalore is notoriously picky and I expect that recent terrorist activity has made the FRO become even more careful.)
In my case, it took four visits to the FRO, three visits to a notary, two visits to a helpful IISc Professor, one visit to a bank, six visits to a photocopier, and over 70 pages of documents. Many of these visits took 1-4 hours, not to mention 30-45 minutes travel from place to place. I estimate that the process consumed about 25 hours of my time over four days.
In Bangalore, there is no FRO, so one must register at the Commissioner of Police; I got to know the CoP/FRO office very well last week. I’ll give you the abbreviated instructions about how to with the FRO game, along with some local color I discovered during the process.
You must achieve success in four lines (some of them more than once) before you win the game. I number the lines here, although no such numbers exist at the FRO and you pretty much have to figure out the process as you go along. A lot of handwaving and gesticulating by various FRO officials is required. In my visits, I interacted directly with at least 8 officials, and there is a roomful of paper-pushers that no doubt were involved somehow as well.
- When you arrive, wait in line to sign your name in the reception book. It’s a lot like a hotel reception book, and the smiling woman who holds out the book for you asks, each day, whether you’ve brought your cute children with you again.
- Go through the metal detector and into the door marked ‘Janapara’. I don’t know what that means, but the subtitle is “Single Window.” Inside are four windows, a waiting room, and various desks and various lines. Hmm. Which line is for you? Ah, there’s a line behind the sign “Enquiry and assistance”, but you’ll later learn that really means “You can’t make it to the next line until we like all your documents and sign your paper.” We’ll call this line 2. Be patient but be a little pushy or others will cut in line in front of you. Tell your children, through gritted teeth, to be quiet and stop arguing about their card game in front of all these people starting at you. When you get to the front of the line, keep pushing your papers in front of the two men there, because others will cut in from the side and do the same. Revisit this line many times until you succeed in him stapling and signing your papers. If you don’t have your wife and children with you, go back to the end of the line, as their presence is required.
- Go outside and around the building and into the other entrance. Wait in line to meet the assistant commissioner of police. Tell the kids to quit squirming and that this nice man will throw them in jail if you don’t first. When you sit in front of him, smile and hope he signs your papers.
- Go back around to the first entrance, push through line #2, and look for the teller-like window at the far right (Counter #1). Wait in line. Wait for the attendant to stop fiddling with his mobile phone. Tell the kids to stop pushing each other and not to knock over the lady in line behind them. Give him your papers.
- Wait in the chair for him to call your name. Get your signed receipt.
- Come back the next afternoon. Wait in this same line again. Get your residency permit!
- Wait, did I say there was a fifth line? No, I didn’t, but neither did they! In step 4.2, you can get your permit, and your spouse’s permit, but not the childrens’ permits. They send you around to the other office, near line number 3, where a man hands you the passports and asks you to make two copies of each. More work!
- Go across the street, wait in line to make copies.
- Come back, wait in line to give the man your copies. The copies and passports disappear. Ask where to go next.
- Oh, I see! Back outside, around to the other office, wait in line 4 at counter #1. Wait some more, until the passports arrive from the other office. Sign the papers, and receive the passports.
If you make it to this point, you win the game!
Of course, at any step you may be told that your documents are not correct, in which you must leave, fix the problem, and come back tomorrow and start again. If you need photocopies, there is a tiny stand across the street that does a booming business making paper for people to bring to the paper-pushers at the CoP. Don’t copy anything back-to-back: single-sided only! This cost me one trip to FRO and another trip to the photocopier.
I sure wish the above process was all there was. Doesn’t it look simple? Not so fast.
On my first visit to the FRO I learned that I needed to have 1 reporting form (provided by them), with photo attached, one registration certificate (another form provided by them), in quadruplicate with your photo attached, two copies of my passport, two copies of my visa, two copies of the passport stamp I received on arrival, two copies of proof of local residence, two copies of my letter of affiliation to IISc, and two copies of a financial guarantee affidavit. And that was just for me; Pam needs all that too, and the kids need all that and a bona fide certificate from their school.
Financial guarantee affidavit? What is that? The FGA is a notarized document, on official government “stamp paper”, in which an Indian citizen guarantees that they will assume financial liability for you if you become destitute. This document was a huge challenge. Put the FRO game on pause, and play the FGA game!
To get the FGA:
- Get stamp paper (Rs.20 denomination). What is stamp paper? It is special blank paper, issued by the government, with a colorful heading. This can be obtained only at State Bank of Mysore, which is not far but not close to the FRO. Wait in line, outside the bank. Expect to spend 1-2 hours waiting in this line (hope that it does not rain). As you get close to the head of the line, holding your “challan” (a slip of paper on which you have written your request for stamp paper), everyone in line is clearly excited that their wait may be over. People push more tightly. Push your challan and money through the first bank window, and then hang out with the other men (they are all men) waiting for their stamp paper. Wait some more. Hope that the man behind the second window will say your name loudly and clearly. Watch 25 men all crowded around the window, so that nobody can reach their paper when it comes out… but everyone is nice and hands the paper back through the crowd to the person named on the paper.
- Find an Indian citizen to be your guarantor. [I was very lucky on my first visit to the FRO, because another IISc researcher was trying to register and his host was with him. They explained the FGA process to me and this professor was extremely generous with his time. He took me through the whole process, driving me to the bank and the notary, putting himself legally on the line for me, and exposing personal details such as his salary.] Using the form from the FRO, have him type up the formal language in which he assumes financial responsibility for you, and print it onto the stamp paper. Don’t mess up, or you go back to the bank.
- Find a notary. Guarantor signs and stamps, and notary signs and stamps, the FGA. Pay Rs.100. In my case, I was again very lucky. The IISc professor’s father has been using a local notary for years, and they are old family friends. So, on Saturday morning, after filling out the FGA, he drove me over to the notary’s house. (We drove past two camels being ridden down the main street. Nobody but me seemed to notice.) She asked about his father’s health, and there ensued a 20-minute conversation about his father’s recent surgery, etc. This personal communication is clearly an important part of the business process. The actual notarization took 2 minutes and we were on our way.
- It’s now Saturday afternoon. You’re still waiting for the kids’ school to to produce bona fide certificates, which the kids will pick up on Monday at school. Rest a little for the weekend, though with some stress because the deadline is Tuesday. If you miss the deadline, your penalty is another trip to the bank (to pay the fee) and the chance to stand in several “bonus” lines at the police station.
- On Monday pick up the kids from the school bus and head to the FRO. Forget to make copies of the bona fide certificates, so leave the FRO, cross the street, and make your copies. Each time you cross the street, of course, you spin the wheel of chance and may find yourself out of this game and instead starting the hospital game.
- So, back in line number 2 at the FRO. Although the FGA form never indicates, and the FRO staff never tells you, the FGA must mention you and all of your dependents by full legal name. My FGA mentions me by name, and we added “and his wife and three children” for good measure. Sorry! not good enough. I was about to cry. The kids have waited in line for a second day, and despite all the logic which indicates who are my wife and children, the FGA must be changed. We will need to come back tomorrow – and keep the kids out of school so they can visit for a third time. They told me to change the notarized document (did I hear that right?), have the guarantor sign and stamp it again, have the notary sign and stamp it again.
- I meet our Fulbright-appointed facilitator, who was able to come to the FRO this time. He suggests that we take an auto-rickshaw directly to the notary, even though she is not answering her phone. Perhaps by the time we arrive she will be there. This auto ride was fascinating, because we took numerous twists and turns through tiny alleys, attempting to find the right address. People’s wet laundry wiped the side mirrors of our auto – which is itself a very narrow vehicle, so that tells you how narrow were the alleys. Many times we asked passers-by or other drivers for directions. The great thing about these open-air autos is that it is a very social experience.
- We wait. Wait some more. Wait 2 hours, no notary. Meanwhile, I watch the construction site next door. A small crew of workers is building a new house. Women carry baskets of sand and concrete on their heads over to the portable cement mixer. A boy, perhaps 12, helps out and pushes the mixer to the truck at the end of the day, My assistant tells me that they are paid little: Rs200 for men, Rs100 for women, and Rs25 for children, despite the ban on child labor, and work 8-10 hard hours. Most are barefoot or wearing flip-flops. This is typical of construction workers I’ve seen.
- We give up and I go back to campus. It’s now evening, and pouring rain. I walk over to the professor’s office and we tamper with, er, modify the notarized document as instructed. A tricky business involving white-out and some tricks of Microsoft Word to put the new words in the right place.
- The next morning, I call the notary and ask if I can come again. She asks me to be there in 30 minutes, nigh impossible given the traffic. I race out and try to find an auto driver willing to take me. Often, they refuse because they don’t know the neighborhood around the destination, and they are paid by km not per hour.
- Phew, it takes a few hours, but I get the document notarized and I’m off to the FRO to rejoin line #2. Remember the FRO?
Although I found it extremely frustrating, and downright tiring, I tried to keep reminding myself that this process was just another part of the cultural exchange, and that I was experiencing – full force – one part of the culture of India. The process is tedious, sweaty (lots of people crammed into old offices waiting in lines for hours), and difficult (imagine three fidgety children waiting in line with you, for hours, three days in a row). On the way, however, I experienced the generosity of Indians – like the professor, who volunteered half a day of his time to help me, or the people on the street who helped my auto driver find the house where the notary lives; I enjoyed the conversation between the professor and the notary, in which they discussed the health of his father and other family matters for 20 minutes before conducting business for 2 minutes; I was awash in the sights and sounds and smells of the back alleys of Bangalore as I took the auto from place to place; I saw two people riding camels down the street; and I enjoyed a lot of people-watching at the police station, people who were each trying to get their own paperwork for one purpose or another.
So, that’s done. Now I’m resting up for the next challenge: our visas were accidentally one month too short for our stay, so we need to extend the visas. I hate to think what that will require!