One of the rituals that every foreigner must partake in after coming to India is a trip to the Foreigner Registration Office. There is a small list of countries whose citizens don’t need visas to enter India. There seems to be no rhyme or reason, though if I had to hazard a guess, with the exception of Sweden (is Sweedon a misspelling of Sweden?), most are former Soviet satellite states; so it might be related to the cold war era “non aligned” movement. North Koreans don’t need visas to enter India, while westerners who might actually come here on vacation or business travel need a visa. I appreciate the irony in this. Do Indian bureaucrats? For most foreigners, you mush register within 14 days. If you are from Pakistan, you must register within 24 hours. Another reminder of the India/Pakistan lovefest.

In Bangalore, the FRO is at the Police Commissioner’s complex on Infantry Road. The building gives a vibe of being a pompous old administrative building that has been allowed to go to seed for decades. Looking at the architecture and the fact that the electrical wiring is in external conduits (indicating that the electrical wiring came later as an upgrade), I’d hazard a guess that the building was built during the British Raj and it would not surprise me if it served as the police commissioner’s office then.

The office itself is so unlike any German or American bureaucratic administration office that I have ever seen. There is a main hall at the FRO with humming ceiling fans and a dozen or so clerks working through stacks of papers. The Bangalore FRO is not a paperless office. And individual foreigner registration has five separate sheets to sign, as well as visa and passport photocopies, creating quite the bundle of paper. The clerks seem to read through the applications. They then collect papers into six inch high stacks, bundle the stacks up with string and stack them on shelves. I’m not quite sure how they keep track of these stacks of bundles of paper, but I’m sure there is some system. Also noteworthy is the lack of computers.

Fortunately, we had consultants guiding us through the process and actually doing most of the interacting for us. Otherwise, the process would be incredibly painful. I overheard a blonde woman with an American southern accent saying that the last time she was there, she was there all day. We were not even done on that trip, another was required. Interestingly, the consultants could take care of that for us; they just needed to have our passports to have power of attorney to act in our stead.

In Germany:
You do your foreigner paperwork at the landkreis (county) administrative building. There is almost never a wait and you are in and out within half an hour. You must do this in person. Everyone (Germans and foreigners alike) must register with the town hall when they change addresses, so there is the additional trip to the town hall. This is as painless as the landkreis trip.

In America:
Foreigners have to deal with a regional INS office. It is a higher volume and more impersonal affair with a longer wait. You must do this in person. There are more mistakes that you can make that can get you deported and you have to be careful; but everything is well documented and the officials are as competent as their German counterparts. You’ll probably be done within a couple of hours. This trip is more painful than its direct German counterpart, but as there is no equivalent to the German requirement of registering with the town hall, the total energy involved is comparable.
In India:

Indian bureaucracy is special.

You must make at least two trips to the FRO. Both are guaranteed to be painful, but you don’t actually have to be there for both if you send someone with your passport. Honestly, I’m not impressed by this. It lacks both efficiency and thoroughness. It gives an impression of thoroughness without actually having it. A cynical man might be tempted to believe that the combination of convoluted processes and lack of automation is a deliberate design decision so as to increase the number of civil service jobs. A less cynical man would draw the conclusion that the relative cost of computing power and peoples’ time is reversed here; so automation does not pay for itself directly and the negative effect that inefficient red tape has on the economy is indirect and hard to measure for justifying improvements.

Oh and after the foreigner residence permits were delivered, we looked them over. Daniela’s end date was wrong and they spelled our names wrong. Score two – three actually – for lack of thoroughness. From what I read in the paper, passing the civil service exam is not easy and requires hard study. It seems however that actually checking your work for mistakes is not a requirement. I fear getting these mistakes corrected will be painful.


6 responses to “The FRO

  1. I suppose most of the administrative rules have been established during the British time. One would have to compare the process with the current one in England to see if it is still similar there. Another aspecet could be to have a process that would give job opportunities to as many people as possible. A government job is still something very attactive …
    But not all hope is lost and some progress can happen: I remember that a few years ago, you still had to fill out 3 or 4 different paper forms during the flight before arrival in India, just for a 1 week business trip. And it took ages to pass the immigration counters at the airport. Now, they have condensed it to one form (including a detachable form for customs) and the process at the counter is actually quite fast. Perhaps, a similar rush into an efficient future will hit the FRO sometimes soon (but of course too late for you)

  2. “Another aspecet could be to have a process that would give job opportunities to as many people as possible.”

    That is what I mentioned in my “a cynical man might think…” observation, but it does not make sense. A government has X amount of tax revenue. Now governments – especially ones where the political types at the top like to try and get re-elected (i.e. democracies) – will spend all the revenue that they take in (and then some). They can waste it on having three people stamp a form; or they can streamline the process, have one guy stamp the form and two fix potholes in the roads. The government pork is still there, but everyone benefits from more money going to schools, roads and hospitals. You may be right, but if you are, there is some extremely shortsighted thinking at work.

  3. Quirky Indian

    Dave, Holger is right, because in India, the government is also the largest employer. Working in an office is “more prestigious” than actually doing something useful – like fixing the road. Because that actually means work. So the system has evolved into one where 10 do the job of 1, and no one really does anything. Cynical? Maybe. Accurate? You bet!

    The other thing – your FRO consultants are actually brokers – we have brokers for everything in India. These guys take a fee, and because of their volumes, are able to give a cut to the officials, who then “speed up” your application and make the whole thing relatively painless. India has brokers for every government interaction – licenses, passports, registrations of various kinds – you name it. What’s the cultural explanation for this? Well, we hate standing in queues. So we try to fix the system so that we don’t have to. And that’s the end of my pulp psychology/sociology/anthropology lesson!


    Quirky Indian

  4. The situation that you describe with the brokers sounds like institutionalized bribery. If you pay the extra fee, then you get to have an “upgrade” to your bureaucracy experience.

  5. Quirky Indian

    That’s exactly what it is. Institutionalised bribery. Permeates every aspect of our life.

    Quirky Indian

  6. Pingback: Return to the FRO « A Year In India

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