FRO Woes

Continuing with the retrospective, here’s a sorry tale of Indian bureaucracy from my early days in Pune.

Originally emailed to friends and family on July 18, 2008

Not at the FRO (but gives you an idea of Indian crowds)

Ted and I recently felt the full wrath, or rather the indifference, of Indian bureaucracy. All foreigners staying in India for more than 180 days have to register with the local government within fourteen days of their arrival. I was warned that the process could be complicated, but I blithely believed that, having navigated the drawn-out visa process, I could handle this small task.

A sign at the Pune FRO (Foreigner Registration Office) said, “Office open from 10 am to noon.” We had arrived just before 10 in hopes of avoiding long lines, but our hopes were dashed as the office remained closed and a large crowd grew. Ted quipped, “They must mean, ‘Office opens sometime between 10 and noon.'” Around 11, the doors opened, and a sea of anxious foreigners pressed forward. There were several desks, in front of which lines quickly formed. None of the desks were labeled, so I rushed to an empty desk, manned by an official who brusquely pointed me to the long line that had already formed on the other side of the room. I dutifully went to the back of the line, which – despite the best efforts of the exasperated bureaucrats – refused to stay orderly and single-file. A group of irate Iranians repeatedly barged to the front of the line to plead with the man in charge. Despite their entreaties (“but sir, I have been here before; I have all the relevant documents”) they were brushed aside again and again.

The line moved at an agonizingly slow pace, and I quickly realized that foreigners are not as good at Indians are at waiting. (More Ted sociology: “People come to the East thinking that people are patient and calm here because of their religion. It’s not their religion, it’s because of what they have to deal with every day!”) Finally, my turn came. With expert efficiency, the bureaucrat flipped through the pages, rearranged, organized and stapled. Then he muttered, “No, no, no. This isn’t right. It says on your visa ‘Research Project in Delhi.’ You’re in Pune.”

Uh-oh. I was being grilled for a mistake made by the Indian Consulate in New York. I had noticed the error before I left the States, but, foolishly, thought nothing of it.

I stammered, “Yes, I’m not sure why they put that. You see, the Fulbright program is based in Delhi.”

“Go see that man.” He gestured to an empty chair.

“But there’s no one there!”

“There will be.”

Ted got the same treatment, and soon we were waiting for the mysterious man to fill the chair, which he did after a mere half hour of waiting. He showed the same concerned look. “No, this is all wrong. It shouldn’t say Delhi.”

“But look, I’ve got a letter from the University of Pune saying I am officially affiliated with them. And I have a letter from the Government of India approving my research project in Pune.”

“No, no. You need to get the US embassy to send a fax to this office, saying you can be in Pune.”

“The embassy?” This made no sense. Why would the US embassy have anything to say about it? If anything, the fax should come from the Indian consulate in New York.

From a later FRO visit

“Yes, the embassy.”

We left miffed. After emailing the Fulbright office, I tried to put the whole affair out of my mind. I was immersed in the world of the internet when my phone rang.

“Yes, this is Varrtika from the Fulbright office. I just got your email. This is a very big problem. Very big. Did you not see this on your visa before you left?”

I sheepishly tried to excuse myself.

Varrtika cut me off. “I talked to my supervisor. We’ll try to work something out for you. I’ll call again as soon as something happens.”

A week went by; various emails circulated to various Fulbright officials. Eventually, we were informed that a fax was sent by some American official.

Back to the FRO.

This time, the chair of the mysterious man was occupied when we arrived, possibly by the same bureaucrat, possibly not. I explained the situation. “There should be a fax waiting for me.”

“Okay, see that man.” He pointed me to the desk where all my troubles had begun. The line was short this time, and the man behind the desk pointed me to another man.

“There should be a fax waiting for me,” I told the third man. It was becoming my mantra.

“No,” he replied.

I couldn’t tell if he just didn’t want to deal with me, if he didn’t understand me, or if there actually wasn’t a fax.

“Um, a fax? Is there any fax with my name on it? From this official?” I pointed to the name.

“No,” he said, just as quickly, hardly glancing at me or the name.

Back to the mysterious man.

“Okay,” he relented. “Submit your papers here. But we need a fax from the Indian Consulate in New York.”

“The Indian Consulate? Not the US Embassy?”

“Yes, the Consulate. What does the Embassy have to do with this?”

Sigh.

And that’s where things stand now. My fourteen days have passed, but so far there have been no efforts to deport me. The Fulbright people assure me a solution will be had “very soon.” I’m content to wait.

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