The quality of our lives is squarely dependent on the way the authorities go about doing their job, and that can be the difference between a comfortable life and one replete with avoidable discomfort. For authorities to act in a responsible manner, they need to have some concern for the citizens that they have been appointed to serve, but if people in authority are consumed in self interest, then we the citizens suffer. Sadly in most third world countries, a trend has been set a long time ago for civil servants to look out for themselves rather than serve the people. We obviously belong to this category where the authorities and the rules they formulate are not there to help us. The legislators are too busy working out their own pension schemes and benefits that they might enjoy after retirement and of course benefits while in office, to bother making our lives more comfortable.
A classic example is the way the postal authorities used to make their customers go through outrageous rituals. Those of us who had post boxes at the General Post Office (GPO) had to renew our registration each year and here is how we did it: We went all the way to the Rastra Bank in Thapathali and got a renewal form. It was a long form with many details to fill (two pages, if my memory serves me well). It was so cumbersome that a few professional lekhandases would be lurking outside to help those who found it difficult. Then we got in line to pay the renewal fees, pocketed the receipt and headed for the GPO to get in line once again to get the card renewed. Fast forward to the twenty-first century; these days we just go to the post office, look for the counter where they renew the card, pay the fees and get it updated by the clerk there. No form to fill; there’s rarely a queue as it barely takes five minutes to get the job done. But it took more than thirty years for this change to come. So couldn’t they have made it as simple back in the ‘80s? Another sad fact: although we pay for the box, if the lock is broken, we are expected to apply and pay for a new lock. Talk about good service!
Remember a time when cashing a cheque at the Banijya Bank would take half a day as half the staff wouldn’t be working and the peon who moved the cheque from table to table would be out on an errand. To make matters worse, the Bank Manager would call you to his office because your signature was not an exact match with the sample signature. So you sat there with him instructing you on how your signature should look.
But for me, the most interesting is the way they put you through hell just to get your passport renewed or to get a new one. Here’s how it went: they told you that the passport form is available online. So you download the form, take the trouble to fill it up and attach a passport photo before heading to the passport department. The man at the counter takes a good look at the form and tells you rudely, “Milena!” Something is wrong with the form and you are told to go to the professional form fillers just outside their office within their compound. So you get in line, pay a fee and get another form filled by the expert. This is what goes on every day at Baber Mahal where citizenships obtained in Kathmandu are entertained. Finally with the appropriate form you approach the counter once again. The officer tells those with hand-written citizenships to go to the nearby building where a queue quickly forms. After waiting a while the official there comes around and declares, “Not here! Go to that counter.” So it’s back to the previous building. But the other official insists it’s the other building and gets agitated. He eventually comes out and leads the entire pack back to the other building and commands the official there to deal with it. Once the official is through with the papers, it’s back to the previous building. Then the group is directed to yet another building and this time it’s upstairs. Yet another signature and back again where you started. Some clever folks have their spouse or friend come along, who queues up downstairs while the main man goes upstairs to get the signature. That saves quite a bit of time; the rest of the group gets back in line for the final ritual of signatures.
All the fuss is over, but if you are applying for an urgent process, you have a problem. You are instructed to go to Narayan Hiti to make your payment. Now that doesn’t sound like a lot of work does it? But it turns out to be a nightmare. It means you are in contention with all those prospective migrant workers seeking a fresh passport, which means you are required to stand in line early in the morning. Some arrive as early as 3 am, so it’s up to you to decide what time you want to join the party. The serpentine queues are long but the counter won’t be opening any time soon. Eventually after hours of waiting, you are let in, only to find that the guy who can run the fastest will be first in the new queue that is to be formed inside to get to the next counter. So with all your forms held tight, you sprint like Usain Bolt hoping to beat the other guys. Finally somewhere in the afternoon, you get to the counter and are told to pay your fees at the bank there. The long ordeal is over; the day’s job is done. You are then told to report after three days for the urgent passport. On the final day it’s another long line that moves from seat to seat until at last your turn comes and you receive your passport. After seeing what a nuisance the crowds around Narayan Hiti were becoming, the authorities finally added counters and made the process simpler but for many it is too late; they’ve already been through the harrowing process and the passport is valid for ten years. In many countries including India, they will mail you your passport.
The one time I went to the NTC head office (last year), it was an eye opener. I was told to go to Room 303. Finding most of the rooms from 300 to 304 was easy but there was no sign of 303. Coming upon two employees in one of the rooms, I asked for directions. They pointed to a door with no number on it. Sure enough, it was the busiest, most crowded department where you lodged complaints. Why no number at the door? I’m still trying to figure it out.
Systems are finally being changed, but many of us have already been through hell, wasted countless hours and energy waiting in the cold or in the sun, and endured endless frustration. It’s like all those Saudi women who didn’t live long enough to get a chance to drive a car. Yes, there’s no more load-shedding but many of us spent the better part of our lives in darkness or under candle light. It could have happened decades ago! Melamchi water will be here one day but many have lived their entire lives with an inadequate supply of murky, tapped, hard water which for some meant there were times when the water didn’t flow for weeks. Crossing roads is difficult and dangerous with speeding cars and haphazard driving but Zebra crossings can make the pedestrian’s life easier and safer; if only they would re-paint the faded lines. Do they care? You know the answer to that one! Even the Prime Minister saw only the potholes; he didn’t see what’s missing.