For all the oft-vaunted claims of the promise of the digital revolution, its most obvious dividends must surely be the reduction of friction in dealing with India’s prying bureaucracy. And for the most part, from paying income tax to receiving vaccine certification, India is no longer the country it used to be. But the capacity for mind-numbing complexity continues. And, the world famous back office still boasts of clunky and erratic online application forms for government services.
Then there are the ministries that may be seeking a throwback to the socialist 1970s. Returning to India in 2019 with half a container of clothes, utensils and furniture, I was caught out by the phenomenal filling of customs department forms. Leaving Hong Kong, only the moving company needed my passport. To this end, I had to physically send all the IDs I had 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 promised some variation in the ease of doing business, and yet “the uneasiness of doing business keeps growing”. He attributed this to powerful central oversight agencies that scare off bureaucrats who might want to show initiative and the disposition of many other officials 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 parted ways trying to cope with the know your customer requirements that Indian customs insists on before I can receive a parcel from overseas. Mine was a pre-release book for review sent by Penguin to London. I have received hundreds of them elsewhere in the world. But first I got an email from DHL saying that if I don’t upload the KYC documents including proof of ID and address, they will charge me for the storage services. So far, so simple, so useless.
Proof of identity was easy, but my electricity bill to validate my address was rejected. I uploaded my Airtel bill which was also rejected. I called DHL customer service to find out that my broadband bill was password protected and DHL could not access it or take my password. If I understood correctly, the rep said she couldn’t take it due to company privacy policies. The other proof of address happened to be, of all things, a bank statement, so it seemed illogical. I’m ashamed to report that this trigger quickly metastasized into a tantrum. I asked to speak to a manager, who resolved the issue.
A friend who used Amazon to order an egg slicer, a scissor-like device for decapitating a boiled egg, went through the same hassle of submitting multiple paperwork because the seller said customs delayed delivery.
Of course, these problems, multiplied time and time again, are the ones that exporters and importers have to deal with every day. Consider the national and central tax refund system for exporters introduced by the Ministry of Textiles in 2019. Under the old system, customs simply deposited the refund in the exporter’s bank account. But, the government introduced a certificate that could be traded, inevitably complicating the system. A apparel industry veteran reports that brokers are now needed to sell these certificates for a hefty commission. The new system has effectively handicapped many exporters. As things stand, the decisions of multinationals to bring production closer to national markets and to choose suppliers from free trade zones, from which India has stayed away for the past seven years, have increased opportunities for exporters.
Meanwhile, the Reserve Bank of India’s mandated validation processes for one-time passwords and more are unlike anything I’ve encountered while living in New York, London and Hong Kong, all – not by chance – far more prosperous financial capitals than Mumbai. RBI’s rule changes on recurring payments via credit cards effectively killed my subscription to an online exercise program just when I was overflowing with zeal to do pilates and yoga. Waiting for one-time passwords is another bugbear. (OTPs are needed to start an online process to do almost anything from downloading my Airtel bill to meeting DHL’s KYC standards.) Why not let consumers set a cap on transactions, for example ₹1,000—who don’t need OTPs? Another credit card payment for an annual overseas newspaper subscription failed, requiring a wire transfer. Four signatures later on a four-page form stating, among other things, that the amount I pay does not exceed 10% of my monthly income, the hunt for papers continues.
Meanwhile, none of these grueling oversight processes seem to have been of much help in preventing the mismanagement recently uncovered by the former chief executive of the National Stock Exchange a few years ago, which turned out to have followed a yogi’s advice for appointing senior executives. and hand out huge raises.
I gave up trying to make sense of it. As Jan Morris wrote of New Delhi 50 years ago: “Here hopes are supposed to wither. A single application for an import license will change your efficiency standards… You will find yourself questioning the meaning of it all. “My book arrived on Monday. The only problem was that the DHL delivery person came without a vaccination certificate and was not allowed in the apartment complex, which made it difficult to physically verify who I was. ₹305 has finally made its way to its rightful recipient.
Rahul Jacob is a columnist for the Mint and a former foreign correspondent for the Financial Times.
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