Along the Away

a traveler's tales

I’ll start this post by making it clear how much I have loved living, working and travelling in India so far. The people, the food, the work, the traditions, rituals and quirks have all made my stay awesome up to this point.

There’s a flip side to this incredible awesomeness though, and that is Indian Bureaucracy. The official kind.

As stated, it sucks you in and spits you out. No matter if you’re trying to do the right thing, no matter that you were obviously let into the country at some point by some other official authority, no matter if you’re just trying to contribute some good to the country by WORKING FOR FREE for THREE MONTHS OF YOUR LIFE. Sorry, still a bit bitter.

Maybe writing about my frustrating experience at the Foreigner’s Regional Registration Office (FRRO) will serve to offer some info to anyone considering an extended trip to India. I’m sharing a frustrating aspect of my Indian experience but it won’t interest everyone so skip this one if I’m already boring you with my ranting (it will continue til the end of the article).

I came to India on an Employment visa (EV) as per Indian visa policy – even volunteers with NGOs in India require an EV to stay and work in the country. The issue at hand was basically that all foreigners coming to India on a visa valid for more than 180 days must register with the FRRO within 14 days of arrival. Generally the visa in the passport is stamped ‘must register within 14 days’. Mine was not, though registration was mentioned in the generic fineprint at the bottom (but who reads that!??) in my defence I had been told by the YCA programme that I didn’t have to register because I wasn’t in India for more than 180 days, so I didn’t think any more of it. Towards the end of my internship I made enquiries about the possibility of extending my visa as I finally got an invitation to a Hindu wedding, (but sadly not meant to be – bummer). This was when I found out I was supposed to register. Woops! Registration of an EV is required based on the validity of the visa period not the length of stay. My visa, issued for six months, equals 182 days regardless that I’m only staying in India 120. My lateness was not such a big deal, I apologised (verbally and then in writing… by their request. Yep. I had to write the Indian government an ‘I’m sorry’ letter.) I had to pay a fine (about $30) but it seemed to be fairly commonplace and they didn’t make a fuss about it. The problems that came about, and which saw me make nine visits to the FRRO (four in one single day) for a piece of paper I need to leave the country, were caused purely by inconsistent advice dispensed by officials and the soul crushing Indian addiction to superflous paperwork. My visa was correct, I had the paperwork required on the printed checklist, it should have been easy.

No. Not easy. On my first visit to the FRRO office I got the application form with the document checklist attached. I returned the next day with my two passport photos, passport and visa photocopies, letters from my employer clarifying my dates of employment and confirming the accommodation arranged through them and a letter requesting registration (strange considering it’s COMPULSORY).

The second visit saw me join the queue at the Token window, I was about number 30 in line to get my number to join the waiting masses in the processing rooms upstairs. After about half an hour some bright spark Official decided the line that had grown to about 50 was too long, so after the 8th person he drew an imaginary line in the air and herded the rest of us toward a bay of waiting chairs announcing that the line will continue from the chairs. Huh? So at least 42 people stampede for the chairs. The person formerly 10th in line becomes the 40th, and the 50th becomes 15th and so on, in a big mess. My place at 30 becomes something like 23rd. But new people coming in the door join the standing queue, slotting themselves unknowingly after the eighth position. Finally the oblivious official is inundated with peeved foreigners shaking their heads and fists at him. He starts telling the newcomers to sit down, but where? No one knows how the queue is supposed to move. The official is plucking foreigners out at random whilst assuring everyone the queue is in effect. But he’s not looking so sure. In fact, he’s starting to look a bit frazzled. And maybe beginning to doubt his strategy. Finally, we organise ourselves and the queue begins to operate in a zig zag direction. We all stand and shift one seat along whenever someone graduates to the standing queue. It’s the most ridiculous system I’ve ever seen, and my 30th then 23rd position becomes about 40th due to the zig zag but I don’t care because finally it is possible to anticipate progress. The official attempts to direct the crowd again but he is ignored and the zig zag stays in motion. Once he realises that an order has been brought to the chaos he looks relieved and then busies himself enforcing it.

Finally getting a token allowed me to proceed upstairs to wait my turn. Finally my number was up and I approached a counter and joined the throng at the desk (the number doesn’t seem to entitle anyone to any ordered service). Once my paperwork was handed to an official it entered the system and had the process sheet attached to the front of it. Doesn’t sound like much but I came to learn that it meant on any visit after this I could butt in on any queue without necessarily waiting. I say neccessarily because everyone else could do the same to me with their paperwork… So I guess it evened out.

The rest of the process was generally a nightmare, inefficiency with the occasional unexpected stroke of good will. The officials were generally frustrating as hell but then out of nowhere one would go out of their way and help me beyond expectation. Upstairs was confusing, every official was talking to multiple people at once, flipping through the application of one person while asking questions of another, turning mid conversation to start one with someone else. Twice I was handed back the paperwork and passport of someone else. At first my experience made me resent everyone who worked there with a burning passion of indefinable proportions, but then I began to feel some compassion for the officials. Don’t get me wrong, much of it was infuriating pompous-ness and superiority complexes. But on the other hand, how can they concentrate? There is no system, everyone is confused, and the multiple language barriers must be hard. One official actually thanked me for my good English! As frustrated as I was with some of the attitudes and service I recieved, I could at least see that their day there must be as stressful as mine… But stuck on repeat, like EVERY day. Ganesh help them.

I can’t adequately explain the nightmare there, it wont seem that bad, after all it’s just paperwork. The infuriating part was not knowing when it would end. I needed the registration certificate to hand over at the airport when departing otherwise I might not be allowed to leave. But try as I might I couldn’t get the piece of paper. There was always something more. Basically it went like this:

Official flicks through my paperwork. ‘Letter from company of employment not on coloured letterhead madam, get it on coloured letterhead’
‘Really? Is that necessary? It was emailed to me like that.’
‘Madam, must be on coloured letterhead’ *head wobble, hand flick* ‘Next’.

Go to work, ask HR for a new letter, come back with letter on coloured letterhead.

‘Madam, must have company stamp on it’ *head wobble, hand flick* ‘Next’
‘Stamp? You didn’t mention stamp before!’
*head wobble, hand flick*

And so on. Repeat similar exchange for:
– Signature on employer’s letter not in ‘real ink’ ie hand signed.
– Date on employer’s letter suddenly (after four visits) not adequate. The letter is dated 2010 when I was offered the position at Janaagraha. It needs to be today’s date.
– Letter from employer validating accommodation arranged by employer not good enough. Must ask our sweet 80-something year old landlady for a letter AND a copy of her Voters identity card AND a copy of her last electricity bill.
And so on. Little things like that. Over and over.

The worst was when suddenly the date of my volunteer period on the employee letter is questioned. Even though my visa application had stipulated a volunteer period followed by a period of travel they now claim I’m not allowed, I must leave after my internship ends. The whole process had taken so long I am now told ‘Madam, you must leave the country tomorrow’ *head wobble, hand flick* ‘Next’.

That’s when I cried. Completely and utterly broken. The official ignored me for awhile. But with a *head wobble, hand flick* he tells me I must get a new letter from my employer claiming responsibility for me for the entire period of my stay. I leave disheartened, and pretty stressed out. It’s my second last day at Janaagraha and I’ve spent most of the past week at the FRRO. I go back across town in morning traffic to the office, get another document drawn up and return to the FRRO, I scrutinise the document in the 30 minute auto ride on the way checking and rechecking to make sure it covers my whole stay. As I rejoin the queue I look down at the letter and the date at the top catches my eye. The 2010 date is back. Shiiiit!! I’m absolutely done. I call Rashmi at the office and beg her to bring me a new letter. I can’t go back there again, I can’t, I can’t, you can’t make me!!! She comes to my rescue, and it signals the beginning of the final run. With her presence things start getting ticked off and processed. She has energetic conversations with the official that I can’t understand but I keep my fingers crossed. Finally, finally, finally I get a slip of paper telling me to return at 2.30pm. It’s too much to believe, but when I come back the much sought after piece of paper is delivered into my hands. On the stipulation I return after the Easter long weekend to register my change of address. Fine, that’s fine, Rashmi helps me out there again.

I’m finally sorted but Alicia’s experience has been worse than mine. The Indian visa office in Melbourne didn’t issue her an EV even though she applied with the same paperwork as me. Again and again she quizzed them but they were adament, they issued her an Entry X visa. Wrong! Major confusion and trouble in India. She was passed around the officials at the FRRO for as many days as I was there, and was told she didn’t need to register; she did need to register; she was in the country illegall; she had to get the Melbourne embassy to vouch for her (after unsuccessfully trying to contact them on the Easter/ANZAC long weekend and then finding out they were closed for a week for relocation, they still refused to help); she had to leave immediately; and then finally, they would allow her to apply for an Exit visa.

We both have to return after the weekend but with fingers crossed I decide to think optimistically and book a Bangalore to Colombo flight for Tuesday, early morning. The Andaman Islands had been taken from me but I refuse to let the whole week, my supposed to be week-of-rejuvenation, disappear completely. I had planned on going to Sri Lanka during my time away anyway, and since it appears Alicia’s unresolved visa issues would be best solved by fleeing the country, it seems like the right time.

Alicia, expecting to finalise her visa requirements by Wednesday, with fingers crossed books a flight to join me in Colombo on Thursday. Monday arrives and it’s touch and go but at 1pm I’m done; free to go. Relief like I have never known. Thank God! Thank Ganesha! Thank you Universe!

Alicia attempts to begin applying for an Exit visa but against all other advice, she’s now told it’s not necessary, she can walk out of the country. Really? We’re not so sure but the official won’t let her go any further in making enquiries, even though days before, officials upstairs gave different advice. As far as he’s concerned she doesn’t need to do anything. It’s too good to be true. So we’re not convinced it is. We decide to both try leaving on Tuesday together. We’re stressed. We’re wondering whether, after all the different advice we’ve recieved, Alicia can leave the country on her visa, and whether mine will let me leave and come back. An early Tuesday morning dawns for us… Where will the evening see us? All will be revealed in the next installment…

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Sydney based, coastal dwelling. When I'm not at work I'm somewhere outdoors, or in the yoga studio, or at my local cafe, or pottering at home.

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