A relative of mine recently wanted to bring her 11 year old pet dog on her annual visit to her family in India. She came up against the latest instance of bureaucratic obduracy that is the hallmark of Bharat Sarkar. The regulations of April 2013 allow the entry into India of only those pets whose owners are shifting residence to India after a continuous stay of at least two years abroad. But the killer clauses came thereafter: no one on a tourist or business visa could bring their pets into India, regardless of the period of absence from India. What was dogging our policy makers became clear to me after searching the net and talking to the representative of an agency that handles import and export of pets into India. Apparently, breeders were using the tourist visa facility to merrily bring dogs into India, adding to an already huge canine population. The solution was the typical sarkari one of using a sledgehammer to kill a fly (sorry, dog!): you may enter the country with up to two pets, but only if you are relocating to India. When I brought to the agent’s notice the fact that the dog in question had been a regular visitor to India from 2003 to 2009 and had a valid certificate of export from India, she relented to the extent of saying that the dog could be imported via Bengaluru or Mumbai airports, but not Chennai, since the animal quarantine authorities in the latter had doggedly refused admission to even one pet ever since the 2013 government circular came into force. It was game, set and match to the animal quarantine authorities once it was established that my female relative could not bring the dog as accompanied baggage, since the name on the last export certificate was of her husband.
I thought thirty years in the Indian bureaucracy would have inured me to all its foibles and idiosyncrasies, but the latest example of masterly bureaucratese left me dumbfounded. Four years after leaving the hallowed portals of government, my own brushes with the bureaucracy have convinced me that it is a zero-sum game, zero for the citizen and all for the government. Take the KYC norms, termed “Know Your Customer” but which I interpret as “Keep You Confused”. Early in 2011, I was told that I had to fulfil KYC norms to be able to operate my bank account, demat account, etc. Then followed the tiresome routine of gathering documents to prove my existence and place of residence. Just when I thought I had finally laid this ghost to rest, my bank manager told me in 2013 once again that the KYC formality had to be gone through. Apparently, there is some lurking suspicion in Bharat Sarkar’s mind that I am operating ghost accounts under a fictitious name and address.
Let us take a third example: suppose you run a business with an income-tax permanent account number (PAN) and a service tax registration. These two taxes (one direct and the other indirect) are administered by two departments coming under the same Ministry of Finance. And yet the entire process from registration to payment and filing of returns is handled by two agencies, with two websites, separate processes and separate returns filing systems. Add to this the payment of state-level sales tax and local taxes on shops and establishments and you have a veritable nightmare of departments and offices, not to mention personnel, with which the businessman has to deal. With (hopefully!) the introduction of the goods and service tax (GST), the multiplicity of taxes will be reduced. But don’t bet on life becoming simpler: some taxes at state and local levels will continue and reporting requirements to multiple agencies may still be required.
The final icing on the bureaucratic banana peel is the eternal Aadhaar scheme. When there was already an identity card in the shape of the PAN card in place, was there really need to introduce another identity card? Votaries of Aadhaar will immediately point to the likely misuse of PAN cards and how the biometric identification of Aadhaar cards will eliminate duplication and false registration. But is this really so? We have instances where animals and inanimate objects have been vested with Aadhaar cards. What is to prevent an individual from registering for Aadhaar cards at four different locations? Is there a mechanism which will identify that the biometric identification has been duplicated on more than one Aadhaar card? In any case, could the biometric identification (presuming it is technologically fool proof) not have been built into the PAN card registration process itself to reduce the number of identity proofs that an individual has to carry? What will be the relevance of the Aadhaar card for those sections of the population that do not need to or wish to avail of any benefits from the government? I would be most happy if I received some enlightenment on these issues from a more-Aadhaar educated person.
The problem, I think, lies with our innately suspicious nature as Indians, particularly if we are required to deliver a public service benefit. We are convinced that the other party is, through some jugaad or the other, going to acquire some benefit. In the process of making the process foolproof, the bureaucracy builds in provisions that make it willy nilly impossible for the ordinary citizen to comply with. Two consequences result: either the scope for discretion (and, hence, corruption) increases, creating new markets for the ubiquitous Indian dalaal, or the citizen decides to simply ignore the irritating provision, probably one reason why service tax is evaded by large sections of professionals. Simplifying tax regimes and reporting requirements as well as making access to public services easier would encourage compliance and strengthen the case for more punitive actions against wilful evaders. There has been a lot of storm in recent days on the kissathon in different cities; what government agencies need is also a KISSathon, KISS standing here for the well-known “Keep It Simple, Stupid”.