Friday, August 7, 2009

Stuff Indian People Like #3: Paperwork

Indian business is all about processes. There is a protocol for everything. Usually the protocols are needlessly long and complicated. Part of this is an obsession with paperwork.

My friend Rikin recently subscribed to a broadband service in Delhi. The salesguy comes over to his place with a backpack full of paperwork for him to fill out. As Rikin fills his name, address, and nationality on page after page, the salesguy smiles with a look of accomplishment. Then there are all the documents that Rikin needs to provide: proof of residence, passport, copy of lease, copy of bank statement, and the faithful sidekick of Indian paperwork, the passport-sized photo (multiple copies). The other thing about the paperwork is that people who make you fill it out use it as a tool to deny you whatever you are signing up for. When something is missing or incorrect, no matter how trivial, they are delighted. So imagine the smile on the salesguy’s face when one of Rikin’s documents was missing the ‘circle stamp’… Rikin’s stamp was rectangular. Gotcha! Sure salesguy showed up 3 hours late for the appointment, but when it comes to the paperwork, he is detail-oriented.

Recently I signed up for gym membership at Studio de Physique, the premier posh gym in Ahmedabad (it’s walking distance from my place). Part of the “opening formalities” was answering a litany of personal questions about my lifestyle, diet, exercise habits, etc. How many meals do I eat a day? What do I eat for breakfast? Lunch? Dinner? How often do I eat cheese? How many times a month do I eat ice cream? Do I drink? Smoke? Non-veg? How many hours do I sleep a night? When do I go to sleep? What do I wear to sleep? OK, I made the last one up. But seriously, at some point you have to question what on earth this all has to do with signing up for a 5-month gym membership. Also what on earth do they do with all that data?

But it’s also the insistence on doing things by the book. No matter how redundant and ridiculous it is to submit ten forms and proofs of identity for a sim card, the salesman will not question the process. He will make you do it because that’s what his boss told him to do, because he will also get called out from above if a stamp is out of place. There is little questioning of what makes sense, of thinking outside the box. A culture of paper-pushing rooted in colonial legacy.


  1. You are blaming Indians' obsession with paperwork on the fact that India was a British colony? That's a stretch.

  2. Interesting thoughts. I can resonate with your thoughts because it took me 5 to 6 trips and some bribery to BSNL to get a DSL Line and a Telephone line.

  3. Whats the gym like after giving all of your personal information? Was it self satisfying or worth the investment? Do most people treat gyms there the same they treat here? AMD must have phat places though...

  4. That cracked me up!

    And your conclusion is a poignant observation. It is also perhaps the reason why a country of a billion folks is outsourcing, instead of leveraging its creativity and leading.

    Sometimes "effectiveness" has subtler nuances too. When Tata was recently asked why they use manual labor to crush the gravel for Indian roads, he said it was to keep people employed.