AMBASSADOR Nigam Prakash (vintage 1966 IFS) tells this story about a souvenir received from a Governor in Tunisia when bidding adieu. He was gifted a donkey saddle with the Governor wishing that his honoured guest would always possess the capacity to rule (the privilege of burdening, beating and kicking people into subjugation). The donkey symbolized the people and the saddle the power to control them. Nigam once used the anecdote to illustrate the attitude of the Indian bureaucracy, which, he felt, embraced the Governor’s philosophy.
Let’s pick an example – attestation of documents. While I was a serving government officer, I had the authority to attest documents certifying that they were true copies of the original. How many people approached me during the 38 years that I possessed this power? I cannot recall more than 20 occasions when I attested documents. As a rule, I did it for someone I knew directly or a colleague’s friend or a friend’s friend.
I do not recall a single instance when a stranger sought attestation of documents. There was a very simple reason: how could a stranger ever approach me?
And how many times did I need to get attested copies of documents for myself – proof of residence, ration card, children’s mark sheets…maybe 500 times.
And how many times did I need to get attested copies of documents for myself – proof of residence, ration card, children’s mark sheets, driving licence, house tax receipts? Maybe 500 times. If you ask me to recall who attested all those documents for me, I do not know. “Madam’s” work just got done.
True, there might be several thousand gazetted officers in the country who would be more accessible to the proletariat than I was but, in the nature of work, gazetted officers function from designated offices. The question of attesting copies for strangers just does not arise. I wonder how the hoi polloi (the donkey) actually persuaded a gazetted officer to attest documents. What, then, is the logic behind insisting on a gazetted officer’s attestation? When the colonial rulers bestowed this legacy, it was founded on the principle of depending only on the dependable. The government’s own servants (gazetted because their appointment appeared in the official gazette) were selected by the British because they could be trusted like head boys. But, after Independence, and three decades beyond, the practice continues. Even after photocopiers replaced carbon copies, the need for attestation by a gazetted officer remained unchanged. What if some bounder made 40 per cent look like 90 per cent while photocopying? So the gazetted officer continued to attest photocopies even after they replaced carbon copies.
And then, in the 1990s, came the age of computers. Scanned copies of documents and signatures began to be freely accepted not just for humdrum daily work, but by banks doing global business, by international organizations and even foreign universities. But here in India the gazetted officer continued to attest documents and affix the rubber stamp under his signature. So what if 99 per cent of people did not fudge documents? That was unimportant. The safety of the donkey’s saddle was more important to the ruler. The low penetration of computers continues to be spouted as the reason to disallow change even now.
A friend who frequently tours rural areas found that young people, frantic to meet deadlines for admission and job applications, and finding it impossible to get hundreds of attestations done by gazetted officers, had simply dumped this donkey business for monkey business. They merrily stocked the rubber stamps of gazetted officers and signed and stamped the documents themselves, sure that no one would ever find out. Impersonating signatures was the least of their problems.
I once described this absurd situation to a group of officers – some serving, some retired – and argued that this antiquated system of attestation by gazetted officers should be scrapped. Astoundingly, the consensus was that attestation by marzi should be replaced by making attestation obligatory. Specific gazetted officers should be earmarked to perform the functions. “Authenticity should not be compromised,” thundered my companions.
IN Europe, the question of attestation of documents just does not arise. Fresh copies are issued by the office that originally issued the document and additional originals are dispatched via the Internet or by post at the price of a coffee. The responsibility for maintaining the data is that of the issuing authority and not of the applicant. How long will it take us to become like that?
Then I recalled a promise made when I was Chief Secretary of Delhi and set about checking what came of it. Imagine my surprise when I found that the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) has actually begun issuing birth and death certificates in original and the document can be collected from a convenient delivery point or demanded by courier in seven days flat. That all births and deaths are now registered online by practically all nursing homes and hospitals in Delhi by operating user names and passwords linked to the MCD website. As a result, Delhi claims to have achieved nearly 100 per cent registration of births and deaths, whereas the national registration average is around 60 per cent.
Kudos to the much-maligned MCD! But, to be realistic, the need for verification of documents cannot be wished away altogether and certainly not in rural areas. The US practice of notaries attesting documents – much like is done here for legal documents – would suit us. A professional notary council should be established, to accredit individual notaries on the lines of chartered accountants and architects. Any hankypanky committed by a licensed notary would result in his licence being withdrawn and criminal charges of forgery being filed. Every notary throughout the country could be notified on a district website and in tehsil offices along with the fee to be paid for attesting different kinds of documents. The notaries could be allowed to operate from post offices, banks, schools, and community clubs –wherever an organization sees an advantage in having a licensed notary around.
One major caveat, though. This should not mean setting up yet another government office to administer or regulate the attestation of documents with more factotums to sit on the already burdened donkey. In any case, donkeys are fast becoming monkeys and, whatever gazetted officers say, monkey business is what is actually going on. The way out is to begin dispensing originals, at least in the metros, as the MCD has begun doing in a few cases. The originals of ration cards could be taken up next. In the meantime, a professional service provided by licensed notaries should be prescribed for attesting documents at the district and sub-district level.