Along the Away

a traveler's tales

Posts Tagged ‘ Working in India ’

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…

One of the most enjoyable projects I worked on when volunteering at Janaagraha was creating illustrations for a student activity book for the Bala Janaagraha campaign. The book is a support resource for Janaagraha’a civic education program which is responsible for a specially created curriculum being delivered by volunteers to over 15,000 primary school students in Bangalore every year.
Here is a little peek at some of the illustrations I created!

These little kid characters were created for a recurring exercise where students have to write down their opinions and ideas on nominated topics.

This activity requires students to match up correct pieces of information.

I created this infographic to illustrate the levels of governance in India, right from the citizen to national government.

This graphic was a fun way to deliver a story piece in an illustrative format.


I also created a series of graphics for recurring headings throughout the book; it was pure fun creating these.

 This was definitely one of my favourite projects I’ve worked on and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to be involved thanks to my volunteer position. I only wish I had been there longer to work on more of the book, but alas! You can only fit so much into ten weeks (I’m learning to accept the limitations of time!)

It was an extremely busy ten weeks spent volunteering in the Communication Department but I had an absolute blast working on a diverse range of projects with a great group of people. I really enjoyed the work I did and am proud of what I was able to contribute. Here is a snapshot of some of the finished artwork. I designed this logo for the 2011 India Urban Conference of which the Janaagraha Applied Research Programme is co-organising. It was an interesting experience as the brief and approval was done by committee with a number of involved parties including external organisations, but it challenged me to consider multiple priorities and package a large message into a single graphic: the geographical focus, the academic angle and the urban theme. I presented three concepts tying these three aspects together, with an emphasis on connectivity. The final logo was eventually agreed on by all (a concept with urban icons connected together in the shape of India) but the two runner-up logos also received a few votes:



Another logo I completed was for the Bribe Bandh campaign organised by Janaagraha’s I Paid a Bribe program. The online petition campaign aimed to collect one million names to put pressure on the Indian government to ratify the UN Convention Against Corruption.

The name Bribe Bandh combines two powerful words: Bribe identifies the form of corruption most rife in India and Bandh is a Hindi word that originally means ‘closed’ but is also the name for a form of protest in the way of a general strike by a community.

The logo needed to be bold and inspire action, and convey the severity of the issue as well as incite a sense of responsibility in the viewer. The final logo took the form of a strike slashed across the A, winning out over the other options which included a mouse cursor arrow and a mouse click hand icon that pointed to the word bribery:



I also designed a layout for the campaign’s webpage on the IPAB site; ensuring a strong visual call to action and a simple sign up procedure to engage viewers and get the required results:


Another favourite project (well… maybe they were all favourites!) was my very first project at Janaagraha which had a very tight deadline, resulting in the concept being pitched and approved and the artwork completed within my first week. It was an ideal way to plunge straight into the brand of Janaagraha as well as learn a lot about one of it’s most aggressive and successful campaigns – the anti-corruption website-based I Paid a Bribe. The process was also a wonderful introduction to collaborating with some of Janaagraha’s passionate high-achievers, it was a dynamic and satisfying project to be involved with.

The printed piece was a sign of the campaign’s success. Having gathered statistics that awarded the Bangalore Transport Department the number one corrupt department in India, the I Paid a Bribe campaign lobbied them to address the issue. The Minister for Transport got on board and requested a public education campaign through the Transport Department offices. A brochure explaining citizen rights and expectations of motor authority functions was commissioned, to be printed by the department itself and distributed through the offices, along with prominent posters proclaiming anti-bribe support. This was a huge step forward in the campaign and I was thrilled to be involved in designing the public information brochure.

It was an interesting experience as it was the first time I had designed a printed piece that would incorporate two languages – I designed a folding format with an English side and a Kannada side. I conceptualised the theme of bribery entwined with the process of accessing motor rights in India, creating a graphic which was a custom tyre mark made with the Indian Rupee symbol. I also focused on creating clean, streamlined flow charts as there was a lot of procedural information to communicate without scaring the reader away. I was really happy with the end product as was the internal team and the representatives from the motor authority who were presented with the brochure by the IPAB team.

Another project that I spent a significant amount of time working on was for the Me and My City school student activity book. I have some illustrations to showcase from this project but they’ll follow in another post.

Back to Work

February 25, 2011 Four Months in India, Travel Comments

Janaagraha logo

The point of my extended stay in Bangalore is a ten week internship at Janaagraha, Centre for Democracy and Citizenship. I arranged this through the Youth Challenge Australia program in Sydney, though volunteers are welcome to approach them directly and are always needed.

Janaagraha was founded in 2001 as a movement to enable citizen participation in public governance. Its mission is to change the quality of life in urban India by improving governance and encouraging citizens to participate in civic issues.

Be the change

You're asked to make a choice everytime you get out of the elevator at the Janaagraha office and see this sign reminding you of Janaagraha's philosophy.

I’m interning in the Communication Department with a lovely group of people; Disha is the Communication Manager, Rashmi is the Communications Assistant, Pradyumma is the in-house Graphic Designer and Raisin provides Audio Visual support. I’ve had a very warm welcome to the team and they have PLENTY of work to share with me. I have a lot of opportunities to get involved with different projects and they are already stacking up, both print and web work.

The department works in a support capacity for all the various campaigns projects at Janaagraha. Some of these and the work I’m doing, are:

‘I Paid a Bribe’

The mission of this campaign is to ‘uncover the market price of corruption’ by giving citizens a voice against bribery in government departments, a significant problem in India and one that every Indian has had to deal with at some point. There is a website set up where citizens can anonymously report a bribe they have paid, or a bribe request they resisted, with details of where, how much and why. No names are given as the focus is not on identification or reprimanding. The campaign collects statistics to present to the government departments involved, with the aim of working with them to identify and change the processes that enable this system to continue.

The campaign is only about 9 months old but already they have had a breakthrough with the Transport Department willing to tackle the rather dismal reflection of bribes paid at the motor registries. I have just finished the artwork for a brochure that will be distributed at motor registries to inform citizens of their rights, how to respond to bribe requests, and the options they have to deal with it. It was a really interesting project both design and content wise, and one that will hopefully have quite an impact in disrupting the bribery cycle.

Bala Janaagraha

This campaign is a citizenship education programme that is aimed at empowering young Indians with the knowledge of their rights and responsibilities as citizens in a democracy. The programme educates children in the classroom on how government and societies work, and encourages them to use their voice to improve their community. The curriculum is taught by Janaagraha volunteers and involves identifying local issues and working with the local authorities to get it fixed.

The curriculum is currently being overhauled and I will be responsible for the redesign of the new student resource book. It’s a big project, a 70 page book of activities and information. The creativity potential is unlimited, so I’m really excited to get started.

Janaagraha Applied Research Program (J-ARP)

The Research Programme at Janaagraha is focused on 3 areas – Political and Social Research, Economic Research, and Legal Research. In each of these areas, partnerships are formed with globally recognised institutions, so that the research output can contribute to a greater collective understanding of the particular theme being studied.

J-ARP are one of the organisers of the India Urban Conference: Evidence and Experience, a conference in November 2011 beginning with a 4-day gathering of academics, public and private sector practitioners, students, and citizens in Mysore and will culminate in a session focus on national policy in Delhi.

I will be creating the collateral for the event including invitations, programmes, brochures etc. Event design work is always good fun, so I’m full of ideas already! 


Part of the photo mural in the Janaagraha meeting room.

The experience working in Janaagraha for the past two weeks has been brilliant. The team environment is really dynamic, fuelled by the passion and enthusiasm of the people who work here. The projects are based on a meaningful philosophy and it is a privilege to be here working towards the common goal of improving the quality of life for so many people.

So that’s an introduction to my internship experience so far. No doubt there will be more posts to come about my time here at Janaagraha and the people I work alongside.

 So far, so good!

MG Rd, Bangalore

Chaotic MG Rd, Bangalore

My first Indian post comes at the close of my first full week in this crazy beautiful country, which is pretty appropriate as a week is probably required to absorb and adjust and find my Indian groove. Not to mention sort out the intensely complicated tasks of getting a SIM card for phone and net access and crack those 500 rupee notes down to denominations actually accepted by the everyday Indian trader.

So, one week in and I can happily report how much I love Bangalore; living here, working here, eating here, making friends here, negotiating traffic here. It’s weird how at home I have felt pretty much from day one. Bangalore is a pretty cosmopolitan city as far as India goes, and Bangaloreans are certainly very blasé about Westerners and our ways. We’ve barely warranted a second glance in fact. English is widely spoken; jeans worn by much of the population, and the Indian Gloria Jeans/Starbucks equivalent, “Coffee Days” cafes, are aplenty.

I arrived midnight last Friday night and had the two day weekend to orientate myself before starting my internship on Monday. I’m staying in a self contained apartment, above the garage at the house of Mrs Singh. I’m sharing the room and the internship experience with Alicia, who is an urban planner from Melbourne.

Home Sweet Home in Bangalore

Home Sweet Home in Bangalore; Fifi watches the gate, but she'll let you right in without a glance. We live in the self contained room above the garage.

Our first weekend was spent settling in and checking out the town. Our first stop was to have tea with Mrs. Singh and her Grandson Varun at the main house where we are staying. Mrs Singh is a lovely lady who gave us a warm welcome. She has lived in Bangalore her whole life, having built the house she lives in with her husband before the area had even been developed. She was a professor of Botany at the university and worked there her entire career before she retired. She knows all there is to know about Bangalore and is an excellent host, pointing us in all directions to enjoy our stay here.

We checked out two of the main roads in Bangalore. Cunningham Rd is the area near the organisation we’re working at. It’s busy with a constant flow of weaving vehicles and requires a certain rhythmic dash across the road in stages to make it to the other side. MG Road is a pretty crazy place, lined with shops and clogged with traffic, usually not moving as much making it easier to cross the road here. There are some great places to eat around both and I can admit our first two days revolved mostly around food, and sussing where we could get it, what was on the menu, how much for, and was it safe to eat. Happy to report that one week in, India has been kind to my health!

We checked out Cubbon Park on Sunday, after finally finding our way in. The streets were crazy congested, and after we were asked again and again ‘Australian? Australian?’ by the Indians on the sidewalks, cheeks gleaming with painted Indian flags, we realised the masses were heading to the cricket stadium for a friendly match between India and Australia (they won). We enjoyed the peace in Cubbon Park, expansive parkland in the heart of Bangalore (India’s ‘City of Gardens’) along with lots of families, couples and groups of friends.

That evening we took a drive with Varun and Kartini, the grandchildren of Mrs. Singh. We went for a walk around Lake Ulsoor, one of the remaining lakes in Bangalore (many have been filled in and developed on).

Lake Ulsoor, Bangalore

Lake Ulsoor, Bangalore

It’s pretty amazing how only a few days were enough for my inner Indian to come forth and feel right at home. I’m negotiating with auto drivers and sauntering across peak hour traffic chaos like any self respecting Indian, and I am already feeling the instinct to head wobble with the best of them. Hoping that’s one habit I’ll lose before returning to Australia! All in all, loving Bangalore, loving India!


February 10, 2011 Four Months in India, Travel Comments

Tomorrow afternoon I will be boarding a flight in Sydney bound for Bangalore, where I will kick off the first of 119 days, or 17 weeks, in the land of India. The excitement and anticipation is mounting as I make the last few preparations in a frantic rush to the finish line of an absolutely crazy, chaotic twelve months!

Landing an internship on Youth Challenge Australia’s India project around the same time as launching my design business and taking on a significantly time intensive web project at my full time job in January 2010 set me on course for the craziest year of my live – I did survive, I learnt heaps and I admit I’m glad to be leaving it all behind me for four months as I take some time out for a completely different experience.

My trip is broken into two parts – a ten week volunteer internship at the Janaagraha organisation in Bangalore followed by seven weeks travel around India.

I’ve decided to keep a blog while away for myself and for the interest of my friends and family who want to keep track of me. I dedicate the effort of blog keeping to everyone who supported me this past year and didn’t tell me to shut up about it after the first month! My fundraising efforts for the volunteer part of my trip and the extra work I took on to fund four months off work consumed me for much of the year and I appreciate my amazing friends and family who tolerated this temporary version of myself as I worked my way towards my goal.

My blog may also help out other India bound travellers who are sifting the net trying to find out a bit more about life in India.

Please feel free to comment where you like, it’d be good to know I’m writing to someone other than my future self :)

My other blog – Project Junkie – documents some of the fundraising events and other projects that kept me busy in 2010.