People in Nepal never tire of pointing out that you can get anything done here, unlike in most other places, especially developed countries! That, with a bit of “source-force,” that, with some chiya khane paisa (a euphemism for bribe in Nepali, literally meaning “money for tea”) and/or with a bit of string pulling, you can get anything done. And that’s why things are better here!
And for good reason!
Those who chant this mantra, invariably, are wealthy and/or connected. What they fail to see, or are deliberately blind to, is the plight of those who DON’T have money or reach. To the latter — a large majority of the population — getting anything official done is akin to an attempt on Mount Everest, whether it be getting a simple routine document, such as a driving license, or a minor grievance being heard, or seeking justice for a major transgression, such as the murder of a loved one!
“Source-force” are the two cogs of the corruption machinery, which keeps the country going…backwards!
Incidentally, “source” is a measure of your wealth and so how much money you are willing to dish out to a concerned official to get him (hardly ever her) to sign over the dotted line. “Force” is political connections — to people in high places who you know personally and will use their position, on your behalf, to make things happen as and when required.
So, when it comes to governance, the following, I have no doubt in my mind, are the two biggest problems facing our country:
This post is about bureaucracy.
This particularly painful long story of an incident going back to February 1999 details the difficulties average Joes, like myself, who either don’t have source-force, or won’t use them, face. It lays bare the farce that is the Nepalese system.
Early in the fall of 1998, I had been admitted to the University of New South Wales, in Sydney, Australia to pursue my teaching qualification.
It was the afternoon of February 8 when, after about three months, I had finally received my pre-visa approval from the Australian Embassy in New Delhi, India.
In other words, I had just gotten the approval to apply for the real (student) visa! (This is a long story and as such would have to remain the subject of another post.)
I was expected at the university by February 20, in less than two weeks! But I had the following things to do and in that order:
- Obtain “No objection” letter from the Ministry of Education,
- Obtain foreign exchange permit from the Central Bank using the “No objection” letter,
- Take the Central Bank permit to another bank to get a bank draft made out to the university,
- Send the bank draft to the University and wait for Confirmation of Enrollment (COE) notification to arrive from the University,
- Make travel arrangements to Sydney, and
- Once the COE arrives, go down to New Delhi, India to apply for the visa.
The first task, as you can see, was to get the letter from the Ministry of Education saying that they had no objection to my going abroad to study and that the Central Bank can go ahead and issue the necessary permit. Yes, every Nepalese going abroad for studies must have approval from the government!
What follows is a day-by-day account of what happened when I ran around trying to get the first two official documents.
Tuesday, February 9
The day is unexpectedly declared a National Holiday to mourn the death of King Hussein of Jordan.
Wednesday, February 10
My first course of action was to pay a visit to the Ministry of Education to find out details of the support documents I needed to put together. (In those days, you couldn’t just go online or call someone in the office for this kind of information. I would be impressed if you can do that even now!)
Following the directions posted outside the office, I duly prepare all the documents and return to the office to submit the application to the paper pusher, the peon, the secretary.
However, it turns out, the instructions posted outside were incomplete…and so is my application!!
It takes a further two more trips out of the office before my application is accepted. I am told to come back at noon the following day.
By that time, it is about 4:00 p.m. It had taken three hours and as many trips to the ministry just to prepare the application. I go home thinking, “That is not bad at all!”
Thursday, February 11
I arrive at the gates at noon, as instructed, only to discover visitors aren’t allowed in until after 1 p.m.! I return at one, head straight for the office where I had filed the application.
The peon sends me to the neighboring room telling me that that’s where my application sits and that’s where the approval must come from. I walk over to the other office to find that the official, whose job it is to review and approve such applications, is not even in. He is apparently at some meeting.
His secretary tells me that the officer won’t be back until “Later.” I decide to wait instead of coming back “later.”
In the mean time, I tell the secretary my reason for the visit. He goes through the stack of files on his desk but fails to find mine!
So I head right back to the first room, to the first peon, to tell him my application hadn’t been received in the other room. But he assures me that it’s been sent.
I go back to the second room and relay this to the guy there. The guy tries the officer’s room but comes out empty-handed. I walk right back to the first room to tell the first guy that my application isn’t anywhere in the other room and insist that he himself look for it.
He does and finds it! (And it is not approved, of course!)
And what’s more, NOW he tells me there’s a slight problem with it!
Before the ministry can issue their approval, National Planning Commission (NPC) has to sign off on it first, since my field of studies is in the Arts and Social Science department.
So basically what that means is that to issue a foreign exchange permit, the central bank needs a “No objection” letter from Ministry of Education, which has to be approved by the NPC!
If I rush the application to the NPC, get it approved and bring it back to the ministry before four, I am assured, they can issue their approval letter that very day.
The time is about half-past two.
I rush to NPC naïvely optimistic that I just might get the release letter from the Education Ministry by the end of the day. Reaching NPC, those hopes are dashed, of course!
The office where I am supposed to get the approval from is empty. I have no choice but to wait. So I wait. And wait. And wait. Until…way past four….
Someone finally comes in and looks at my documents. He scribbles something on the letter from the Ministry of Education and tells me to come back Friday.
I find out he isn’t even the official on whose hands the fate of my application at NPC lies!
Friday, February 12
NPC is within Singha Durbar, a huge compound with but one entrance. Within this compound are many other government offices, the radio station, and the TV station. And here as well, visitors aren’t allowed into the compound until after 2 p.m.!
So I return to NPC at around 3 p.m. to find that my application has gone through two official’s hands and has been passed on to the office of the Special Head of Division already. Hoping that he would be THE person, I expectantly head over to his office which is…empty — not a single soul is around!
I wait around for a while but no one shows up. It’s after five when I decide to leave, reasoning that if they don’t stick around in their offices during office hours, the chance of them coming around after office hours is…well…of course!
Monday, Feb 15
(Sunday, February 14 was a public holiday — Shivaratri.)
Seeing as I wasn’t getting anywhere, over the weekend, I had talked to a few friends to find that a friend’s dad works in the same building but in a different department. The dad arranges for a special permit for me to enter the compound before 2 p.m.
So, I am able to enter NPC at around 11:30 am, long before 2 pm. That, however, turns out to be a privilege with no benefits!
It’s the same old game-play the whole day — the waiting game. However, this time, I learn a good deal about what is going on in the office: a lot of dirty politics.
Apparently, the Head of Section who is responsible for approving applications such as mine, was out of station, maybe even out of the country. (I could not quite determine which; true to form, they weren’t very forthcoming with the information.) His deputy was also out of the valley.
As unbelievable as this sounds, no one in the office had been delegated the duties of neither the Head of Section nor his deputy! By default, they had fallen on the shoulders of the Special Head.
The Special Head, however, refuses to look at such applications apparently because he had not officially been charged with covering the absentees! (They must either belong to different political parties or owe their allegiance to different party leaders.)
So, late in the afternoon, when nothing comes of all the waiting, along with another applicant, I go to the Vice-Chairman of the Department itself, where we are made to…wait. The secretary informs us that he is holding a meeting!
By the time he is done, it is well past six at which time he walks out of his room and straight out of the office. The secretary tells us to return next morning at 10:30.
Tuesday, February 16
I return to Singha Durbar at 10:30 am but cannot enter the compound, of course! I wait around outside and the guy from the previous day, who is also running around on his daughter’s behalf, shows up.
After a brief wait outside the gates, he, however, is allowed to go in. And incredibly, around noon, he brings out BOTH our approval letters! He had someone he knew contact the chairman directly and ask him to approve the applications!
I rush to the Ministry of Education optimistically thinking if I just get the letter within the next hour or so, I could head over to the central bank and get the permit before 3 p.m., before the banks stop processing bank-draft requests.
But of course, no such luck!
The Head of Section at the Ministry of Education is in a meeting! It is 3:00 p.m. by the time the Head appears and puts his signature of approval on my “No objection” letter!
Rushing to the Central Bank, I am flatly told to return the next day — also at 3:00 p.m. — that they can’t do anything today. That, in spite of the fact that they still have two more office hours.
I protest that after three, the other banks stop processing bank draft requests which would mean the loss of yet another day.
The appointment is changed to 10:30 am.
Wednesday, Feb 17
I duly arrive at the Bank at the appointed time…to discover that the document from the Ministry of Education contains an error — my dad’s name is misspelled! In my haste, I hadn’t read through it when it had been finally approved!
I rush right back to the Ministry of Education, get it corrected, re-submit the letter at the Bank by which time it’s noon. I am told to come back at 1:00.
I return at the appointed time to find that the permit is…not ready! So the waiting game begins…once again.
When it is not ready even by 2:00, I am a little impatient. On inquiring I am told that the official has left the office — just like that! But I wasn’t going to sit idle because of that!
So, I go in search of the person. After some inquiries and running around a bit, I track down a woman who, by all accounts, is responsible for the delay! But, NOT according to her! She, instead, sends me chasing another person in another room.
I locate the room but, surprise surprise, find no one home! I walk in anyway and do a little bit of snooping around and sure enough, among a pile of documents similar to mine is my own!
I ask around if there was any other way I could get the permit approved today. I am told that there’s nothing that can be done since the official had gone off to a meeting. I am told there’s nothing I can do except return tomorrow. But unfazed I wait around…outside the room…with my application in my hands.
As luck would have it, some guy walks into the office. I explain my situation to him. He picks up my application and, saying that the permit can be approved, takes it over to another deputy controller who signs it without hesitation after going through my documents.
But, by the time the permit is registered in the ledger and handed over to me, it’s already past three! I have no choice but to wait until tomorrow to make out the draft and send it to Australia.
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So, there you have it, the farce that is our bureaucracy!
To begin with, you may have realized, whenever undertaking official work in Nepal, what you invariably find out at different stages of the process is that the information and/or directions you have been provided — whether by an individual or by a notice board — is either severely lacking or, worse, wrong.
Information such as the following
- the documents required and support materials required (one of which is often a postage stamp!)
- the form those documents should take (original or just copies or certified copies etc.)
- the concerned person to see
- the location of the concerned person’s office
- the real working hours of both the official and the office
are guarded as if they were secrets!
As a result, firstly, something as simple as filing out the application, some times, takes an inordinately long time.
Secondly, the office workers in-the-know get to dispense such information only as and when it benefits them directly, i.e. when it brings them chiya khane paisa.
Bureaucrats and the offices keeping arbitrary and limited work hours create all kinds of difficulties, obviously. Add to that, the sloppiness with which bureaucrats fulfill their duties.
For that and other reasons, what should have taken at most three working days took six!
When stalled, had I offered the peon, or the paper pusher, some chiya khane paisa he would have pushed my paperwork through. After all, all I needed, at any stage of the charade, was just the signature of an individual!
Or, had I some political connection, a phone call from him — often him — would have sufficed.
Though this happened about 15 years ago, I am sure, a large majority of Nepalese, who don’t have “source-force,” can still relate to it even now, and, what’s more, will be able to do so for a long time to come into the future…unless…unless we as a nation are serious about tackling corruption and replacing the archaic bureaucracy with, for instance, a computerized system that’s considerably more transparent, modern and, therefore, accountable!
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References [added after the publication of the blog]
Edusanjal (June 2015). How to get No Objection Letter from Ministry of Education Nepal. Information that wasn’t available publicly when I was applying for the letter.