Tag Archives: bureaucracy

Camera Shopping

Daniela and I agreed that the picture quality from our digital camera (a Casio Exilim) was not the greatest quality. Pictures were often very blurry, or heavily pixilated. The camera was nominally an 8 megapixel one, but the pictures were of lower quality than the 2 megapixel Mikon Coolpix 800 that it replaced. I managed to convince her that a digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera was a good thing (I myself needed no convincing) and we decided that we’d rather get it sooner, rather than later as there are only a few months left of our India time and India is a very photogenic country.

I went camera shopping.

Now if you are camera shopping in Bangalore, there are the chain stores such as GK Vale – where you can buy a camera – and then there are the professional stores – which amount to temples dedicated to photography. There are two professional stores in town. Together, they service this part of Karnataka and all of the local pros call the shops by the names of the proprietors; not by the store names. The first is essentially a streetside kiosk with a storeroom. A chaotic group of well dressed men stand in front of it and shout orders. Only instead of ordering samosas (a fried dumpling, often sold by street vendors), they are ordering half lakh ($1000) cameras and parts. The other is a quiet shop on a busy street. It is quiet only in comparison to its competitor a few blocks away. Packed into every bit of available display space is tens of thousands of dollars worth of professional grade camera equipment; bodies, lenses, filters, bags, tripods, you name it. Whenever you go in, there is always someone trying out a gigantic lens to add to his lens collection, or trying out a monopod for supporting the gigantic lens that he recently bought. The proprietor is extremely helpful and brimming with advice.

But there is something else about both places. When you ask for a quote on a piece of equipment, you get two prices. You get one price and another (considerably higher one) if you want a receipt. One of the proprietors explained to me that 80% of all DSLR equipment sold in India is grey market.

The first interesting thing is that 80% of the camera equipment market is grey (or even black, what Americans refer to as “under the table”). This is an unfortunate side effect of many “socially oriented” tax and tariff policies; that the higher they are, the more of the economy is driven under the table. This has the twin effects of bringing in less revenue comes in to pay for those policies and turning increasingly large segments of the public into scofflaws and weakening respect for the law. The second interesting thing was that both shops were so open about the dual pricing policy. These gentlemen are not opening trench coats and saying “pssst… want to buy a camera?” or laying out towels with cameras that they can swoop up and run off with if a policeman comes along. They are stand up businessmen and the go-to people for the professional photography community; yet feel comfortable brazenly selling grey market camera parts.

This says so many things about both the economy and the government.


Apologies to India Post

The other day, Siva mentioned to me that my experiences with India Post are not typical. “Normally it is very reliable”. That same day, I got my absentee ballot for the 2008 US elections in the mail. It only took six weeks for it to arrive. Then I looked it over. The postal code (called a PIN here and a ZIP in the US) was truncated to five digits. India uses six digit postal codes. No wonder it took so long to get here.

So the blame for my ballot difficulties does not lie with India Post, but the Ocean County (NJ) County Clerk’s office for not being able to handle six digit postal codes. This is right up there with not allowing postal codes with letters, insisting that there be a state (only 6 countries in the world require a state/region code in the address) and being under the assumption that all telephone numbers are in country code 1. Afghanistan has the distinction of not having postal codes at all, though the only Americans there not using an APO address would be journalists and the odd aid worker not yet driven out of the country.

Guys, Please! I’m not asking you to add nearby landmarks to the address (another post for another time) or anything weird like that, but at least make sure that if overseas Americans don’t get their mail from you, it is not your fault.

Nobody actually uses the mail

This seems to be my observation and after my adventures with my American presidential election ballot, I understand why. Yesterday, I received two letters; both by courier. One was our internet bill. The other was a book about the Nilgiris, published by the Nilgiris Documentation Center.

It is interesting that they felt a need to send these packets by courier instead of by India Post. .

Elections and Postmen

Today is Election Day in the US. This reminds me that I have a love-hate relationship with India Post. They seem to hate me and I certainly don’t love them.

It started innocently when I was in America in September. Since I knew I was going to be in Bangalore on the Election Day, I knew I needed an absentee ballot sent to our house in Bangalore, instead of the usual address in Germany. I filled out the absentee ballot request form and mailed it to the Ocean County Clerk’s office. The form said that they would mail the ballot 40 days before the election.

About a week and a half ago, my ballot had still not arrived and I started getting nervous. So I called them up and asked if there was a problem. The answer was:

We mailed it on October First.

I had them check the address. It was correct. The ballot never arrived. NEVER ARRIVED??? Luckily, they are experimenting with an email ballot this year. The clerk sent me the appropriate forms that I had to print out, fill in, scan and re-send back as a PDF. I also have to take the original that I had filled out and signed and physically mail that as confirmation. I had emailed my ballot the other day. Today, I went down to the post office to mail the confirmation (only the email version has to be delivered by 8PM EST today). The building has the kind of run down, we-don’t-need-no-stinking-computers flair that the FRO has, but there is a critical difference. Whereas the FRO has a mix of surly employees and foreigners who need favors from them, the post office only had the surly employees.

After I stood at the counter for a few minutes, the woman directly in front of me – who had been sorting mail and studiously ignoring me – finally acknowledged my presence; with a look of death that cursed my ancestors, my family, my descendants and my pocket lint for having the nerve to break her meditative mail-misrouting trance. I nicely handed her the envelope and told her that I needed to pay postage.

Do you want it resisted?

(no, I’d rather my mail not encounter resistance) Resistance? What’s that?

Do you want a confirmation of delivery?

(does registered mail even work internationally?) No, thank you.

38 rupees

(resistance? Do I need to hand scribble some Ganeshes on it for good measure?) Only 38 rupees? It’s going to America.

38 Rupees.

What I can’t capture in text is the gruff hostility to the universe that only government workers seem able to summon. She sullenly took my 38 rupees and gave me the stamps. I affixed them and handed her the envelope, said thank you and left.

I still wonder about that resistance option.

The RTO – Part II

(continued from part I)

After the mafia style meeting in the back seat of the inspector’s car, his assistant took me up to the see big man; the RTO. Again, we walked straight into his office. The RTO was a middle aged policeman with a receding hairline and a large bhindi. He started looking over my copies, cross checking them with the originals. Then I had my written test. The RTO officer pointed at the no passing sign that I had memorized two minutes before.

What’s this?

No Overtaking

What’s this (he pointed to a no parking sign)

No Parking

He seemed satisfied with my obviously vast knowledge of Indian road sign trivia. He was obviously omniscient as a few years ago it took the LandKreis (county) office a three hour exam before deciding I knew enough German road sign trivia.

So far, so good…

He may not have cared about whether or not I actually knew how to drive, but he had his own issues. Again we went through the license endorsement discussion as he examined both of my licenses. Then came the best part. I needed a letter from SAP Labs stating that I am employed by them. WTF? Since when does my employment status have anything to do with my ability to operate a motor vehicle? (Especially since the FRO office was obviously okay with my living in India) I pointed to my visa and explained that I had an X (dependent family member) visa. My affiliation was with SAP in Germany and it was my wife who was at SAP labs. No problem… I would need a photocopy of her contract, company ID card and a letter from her stating that I was her husband.

I do need to demonstrate that my wife is gainfully employed. I do not need to demonstrate that I actually know how to drive. That is something to keep in mind while on the road here.

Oh and since I’m a foreigner, instead of 3000 rupees, it will be 6000. What happened to 1200? I guess somewhere in that I’m paying (A) for being a foreigner, (B) for the obviously preferential treatment that I got and (C) because somebody is paying down a new mototcycle.

The RTO – Part I

I’ve been Sunday driving without a license for a few weeks now. I’ve decided to change my ways, come clean and not be a scofflaw anymore… in contrast to at least some Indian parliamentarians. So yesterday, I went over to a driving school off of Old Madras Road to see what the process for getting a license would be like. I took my passport, FRO permit and all of my passport photos because I was certain that any driving school would want to make sure I was a legal resident here and Indians seem to want copious numbers of “snaps” for everything.

My driver made a phone call to a friend of his who lived near the driving school and had contacts there. This would make things go smoother and knowing somebody that knows somebody that knows somebody’s cousin-uncle always does here. So Wrenzo’s friend, another SAP driver himself, took me upstairs to the lady who ran the driving school. They spoke a lot in Kannada, she looked over my passport, FRO docs and examined my driver’s licenses (American and German). Once she ascertained that I would not need driving lessons, she told me that it would cost 1200 rupees instead of 3000. I had expected problems there and I had not expected that half a million miles of driving experience would make a difference. I was pleasantly proved wrong. Oh and the driving inspector was on duty, so I can go over and take care of handling that “test” paperwork.

So we went over to where they were doing the tests. This was surreal in its own right. There was a hundred people milling about, along with several cars with driving school logos. It turned out that Wrenzo’s friend knew the inspector, as we walked straight through the crowd to the inspector, who stopped to look at my documents, told us exactly what we needed to get photocopied… oh and he would meet us over at the parking lot for the regional transport officer (RTO) in ten minutes.

It pays to know someone who knows someone it seems.

There were six shops ear the RTO office advertising Xerox – always color Xerox. Five naturally had broken machines and there was a crushing crowd at the sixth. We wanted to make three copies of everything as you never really know how many copies you’ll need. The power failed while making the third copy. I’m starting to accept power failures as an unremarkable part of life here; along with unruly traffic, cows in the street and tea that has the maximum possible concentration of sugar dissolved into it.

Then we met the inspector again. I sat in the back of his car as he filled out the portions of the application that the inspector should fill out. Then I filled out the parts that I was supposed to fill out. There was some consternation over my American (New Jersey) license as it does not explicitly say “auto” or “class B” anywhere on the back. It only says “Auto Driver’s License” on the front. Sorry guys, but the US is not party to the 1968 Vienna Road Rules Convention and the licenses there don’t have to follow that format. Eventually my German license satisfied them as it has a “class B” entry. The inspector then handed me a sheet with the Indian road signs (which are pretty much the same as the ones in Europe with a couple of differences; how no overtaking (passing) and one-way are designated) and said “study this”. I quickly memorized the two signs that were new to me.

I must say that sitting in the back of the inspector’s car doing this gave everything the feel of a mafia meeting and I expected suitcases of cash to start changing hands. It was kind of fun.

(to be continued in part II)

Cell Phone

I finally have an Indian mobile phone number. There are a couple of things about phones in India.

Firstly, Indians use the American term “cell phone” and the British term “mobile phone” interchangeably. I’ve started calling it a cell phone again after years of using the German word “handy”. Handy could be regarded the queen of the “Denglish” words, being an English word incorporated into German and then used as a noun in a way that is guaranteed to confuse English speakers; but this blog is about those strange Indians, not those strange Germans. Secondly, everyone expects you to have a cell phone. They don’t expect you to have a land line, or if you do, they simply don’t care about it. So not having a cell phone is akin to having leprosy. You seem to need a cell phone to do anything.

Since I’m tired of paying €5/minute roaming charges to T-Mobile and I’m equally tired of having to work out a hackish solution to “what is your cell phone number Sir?”, I needed a local cell number. Phones can be either prepay or postpay, as in most other places. My initial plan was to get a postpay SIM for my existing cell phone as I was told that foreigners can’t get prepay SIMs. Unfortunately, settling on a house is taking so long (a post for another time) and I wanted to shake my leprosy. So plan B was a prepay card.

The interesting thing about prepay card in India is that foreigners aren’t supposed to have them, presumably because terrorists favor them. My driver hatched a plan. HE would get the SIM card for me. So we went to the shop together. You need a proof of address, two forms of picture ID and a passport photo and he brought these along. It was obvious to the guy in the shop that my driver was getting the SIM card for me (who is obviously a foreigner). He very exactingly made my driver go through the ID confirmation and sent him to go make a photocopy of his voter registration card and driver’s license. Then when all the paperwork was done, the shop owner handed me a stack of SIM packets to let me chose my phone number before putting it in the phone and activating it. The activation signal was supposed to come after a half hour and it never came, so we had to go again today and have them resend it.

The whole time, it was completely obvious that the SIM card was for me and the store owner did not give one hoot, as long as he was able to properly fill in the forms.

What was the point of this rule about foreigners and prepay cards again?