© Sanchayan Nath 2018

This article was published by The Wire on 11-Feb-2018. It is available here ~ https://thewire.in/223015/government-bureaucracy-red-tapism/


Representative image of a government office. Credit: Reuters/ The Wire.


Setting the context

Experts argue that, over the last few years, India has gradually been transitioning from a protectionist-form of governance to a market-oriented one. This transition has been characterized by systematic efforts at curtailing “License Raj” and reducing bureaucratic red-tapism, in order to increase the ease of doing business in the country.

Over the last few decades, and in recent years, the ease of doing business must have increased in India. This article does not seek to engage with that debate.

The article seeks to engage with a different aspect of a well-functioning government – let’s call it ‘permit raj’ – the ease of getting signatures from public officials. In a system characterized by permit raj, the shadow of the Sarkari pen looms large over the life of the common Indian man (or woman) – from the moment of birth, starting with an application for a birth certificate … to the moment of death, our troubles probably do not end even after the procurement of the death certificate.


In this article, I demonstrate that the last few decades have not witnessed much success in curtailing bureaucratic red-tapism, and its debilitating effect on the day-to-day life of the common Indian man. I do so, by drawing on my own recent life experiences in interacting with Sarkari babus at all levels of the Indian government – at the central-level, at the state-level and at the local-level.

A few months back, I was rushing around from one Sarkari office to another, trying to get my birth certificate apostilled. Apostilling of certificates is characteristic of today’s globalized world. People aspiring to study or work in a country, other than the one in which they were born, are often required by the destination countries, to legalize their birth, educational or marriage certificates, from the country in which they were originally issued. Apostilling of certificates is a form of legalization which is acceptable in all those countries which are members of the Hague Convention of October 5, 1961.

I am an Indian citizen, by birth. India is a member of the Hague Convention of October 5, 1961. I work out of a foreign country which wanted me to get my birth certificate apostilled – this explains why I am writing this article.

The Case

The website of the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India (see http://mea.gov.in/apostille.htm) explains that apostilling is a two-step process –

“Step 1 – [State] Authentication of documents: All original documents/copies requiring attestation or Apostille should be first authenticated by the designated authorities of the State/Union Territory from where the document has been issued.”

“Step 2 – Legalisation of documents: The Ministry of External Affairs thereafter, legalises the documents on the basis of the signature of the designated signing authorities of the State Government/Union Territory.”

The website also lists 4 outsourced agencies which can assist applicants with Step 2 of this process –

  1. M/s BLS International Services Ltd.
  2. M/s IVS Global Service Pvt. Ltd.
  3. M/s Superb Enterprises.
  4. VFS Global Attestation Centre.

However, the webpage does not clearly outline if these agencies also help applicants with Step 1 – i.e. state authentication.

I therefore called up each of these 4 agencies – all 4 informed me that for certain states, they assist applicants with both steps of the process; however, since I was born in a state which lies in the North-East, they would not be in a position to assist me with Step 1. If I can complete Step 1 on my own, they would assist me with Step 2. All 4 agencies do not service states located in the North-East and a few other regions of the country.

This left me in a quandary. My family had moved out of the North-East, soon after my birth. We have gradually lost contact with most acquaintances in the town in which I was born. I also do not speak the local language of the state in which I was born.

I therefore scoured various groups in Facebook for more information on how other applicants, from my birth-state, have completed the state authentication part. I also got in touch with my civil-servant-friends to figure out the process that I needed to follow for getting my certificate authenticated at the state level.

I gradually figured out that State authentication consists of 6 sub-steps –

  1. Visit the Passport department of the state-secretariat in the state capital
    1. Submit an application
  2. The Passport department (not the Passport office) forwards my application to the Deputy Commissioner of the town I was born
  3. The office of the Deputy Commissioner forwards my application to the Health Department
  4. The Health Department verifies the birth certificate and forwards my application back to the office of the Deputy Commissioner
  5. The office of the Deputy Commissioner forwards my verified birth certificate back to the state Passport Department
  6. The state Passport Department authenticates my birth certificate

I was also informed that left to the vagaries of the bureaucratic rigmarole, this process could take weeks, if not months, and therefore it was in my own interests that I visit each of these offices personally and ensure that work got done.

…. And that’s what I did. What follows next is a detailed flow-chart of the actual process I had to follow to get my birth certificate apostilled.


Vagaries of the Bureaucratic Rigmarole


Flow chart – Sarkari Pen-Sanchayan Nath



As is evident from the flowchart, I had to visit 3 different cities/towns in order to get my birth certificate apostilled. None of these 3cities/towns are located in the state in which I am based, when I am in India. I therefore had to spend a lot of time traveling between these places – sometimes by plane and sometimes by train.

The flowchart demonstrates that it took me 6 days to complete the whole process. What it does not include is the time taken to travel from one place to another as I went through the process. I also spent a considerable amount of time searching for information on the process to be followed to get the work done.

A more accurate estimate of total time-spent is therefore 3 weeks.

The flowchart demonstrates that I had to go through 66 stages in order to get the birth certificate apostilled. The number of stages would have been larger, and the total time taken would have increased considerably, had the deputy commissioner (DC) not intervened. In other words, proactive, well-meaning bureaucrats (such as the DC in my town of birth) have the power and the ability to significantly improve the quality of public service delivery.

But, then why does the ‘permit raj’ continue to trouble the ordinary Indian man? The answer probably lies in the amount of discretionary power that remains in the hands of the street-level, lower-level babus (who operate with significant independence, away from the administrative gaze of their IAS [or state civil service] bosses) – who interpret the laws as they please, exploit loop-holes in unwritten, bureaucratic norms and manipulate the unquestioned faith that the common-man places in them. After all, the common man has no way of knowing whether the babu is actually trying to help him, or… is deliberately trying to deceive him.

It has been 70 years since independence … but, the common Indian man has still not attained freedom from the treacherous clutches of Indian Babudom.