"Bureaucracy is a giant mechanism operated by pygmies," declared Honorť de Balzac. Going by the evidence, our civil servants would feel perfectly at home in 19th-century France. The Nepali public has no choice but to put up with its archaic bureaucracy, even as we move forward with such 21st-century staples as machine-readable passports.
Optimistically, I imagined the tourism sector would be better in this regard. After all, it is still Nepal Tourism Year 2011, and what tourist in possession of all his faculties would risk scrambling them on the altar of an impenetrable bureaucracy? This optimism remained intact as I received some trekking buddies at the airport last month; I waved away their complaints that they would have to wait an hour for their visas Ė that Nepal grants visas on arrival was clear evidence of a desire to facilitate hassle-free tourism, was it not?
I was quickly disillusioned once I began the paperwork for Manaslu circuit permits, even with the base camp support provided by a friend's travel agency in the form of a voluminous folder containing insurance guarantees for a porter, itinerary printouts, fake inventories of camping equipment (though we were tea-housing), and many other documents I didn't even bother looking at. With porter Mohan off to the Nepal Tourism Board to pay the two conservation area fees, I volunteered to manage the permits myself as the unofficial 'guide'.
My heart sank when the process was explained to me. One office was bad enough, but three? Fortunately they were all located off the linear stretch from Putalisadak to Thapathali. First on the list was the insurance firm, challengingly tucked away in an alcove on the top floor of a mall yet to commence operations. Second was the Rastra Bank, to pay out dollars for permits. This, too, was more amusing than anything else, from the slapdash conversion via plywood partitions and Podrej filing cabinets of what looked like the banquet hall of an old Rana palace to the insistence on copying out (twice) the serial numbers of the dollars dispensed.
But the Department of Immigration gave no quarter. As I shuttled along seemingly random trajectories over the next few hours, I noted down my movements, hoping to detect evidence of the blind watchmaker behind the Great Nepali Bureaucracy:
"I trek to the third floor and stand in a scrum in Room 301. Man 1 takes my file, leafs through it, and sends me to Accounts Section, Room 103, first floor. I get a receipt from Woman 1 and head back to the third floor to find Man 1 has disappeared. We wait. When Man 1 returns after 15 minutes he checks my file again and sends me to Room 302 on the other side of a glass partition through which staff shout at each other. Man 2 takes file, signs, and sends me to Room 105, first floor. I enter Room 105 and wait. A guide comes in and jumps the queue. Man 3 looks through my folder, talks politics on the phone for 5 minutes, then starts on my folder again before pausing to ask, 'Have I looked at this already?' He signs, and sends me to the third floor where Man 1 gives me a permit form. I fill it out and am sent to Man 2, who has now disappeared. We wait. And wait. Until Man 1 suggests we accost Room 105, first floor, where all the directors (Man 2 included) have retreated. We wait, as Man 4 and Woman 2 half-heartedly pass on the message (that we are waiting). Finally Man 2 exits Room 105 and we all troop back to the third floor, then wait while he resolves some other issue. Man 2 then signs our papers and sends us back to Man 1, who stamps the permits."
If reading such an account is tedious, imagine how much worse it is to act it out? All our administrative processes are bonafide Rube Goldberg machines, the circular loops of which are oftentimes bypassed via connections or well-placed bribes. In the tourism sector, foreigners are mostly shielded from this madness by travel agencies, whose services they pay for through the nose. It is Nepalis who bear the brunt of the state's inefficiency. This deliberate inefficiency, in creating uncertainty (and the impression of work being done), shifts the balance of power towards civil servants. Thus is born the civil potentate, to whom we must present ourselves as supplicants.
The civil servants who summitted Everest this spring at the taxpayer's cost said the junket meant to prove they are not 'adventure-adverse idlers'. Adventurous they may well be, but they have a mountain to climb to prove to us that they are anything but idle.
Dealing with Civil servants is one of the most painful and frustrating experience. Once I went to Rastra Bank to get permit for FX. They told me to come tomorrow without looking at my application. They pretended to be busy in the computer so I went sideways and peered down to see what they were actually doing. To my astonishment, they were playing SOLITARE in their PC.
05 DEC 2011 | 8:23 AM NST
2. Michael Fox
The¬†immigartion officer at Tribhuvan Airport who stamped my visa on arrival did not give me my change back. When I asked him for the change he said something like may be I can forget that as a Tip. This is the corruption Nepal. I read that Prachanda is going to make Nepal into Switzerland, this man Prachanda - he must be an idiot, a joker to make such a statement.¬† I am sorry to say this but if¬†Nepalis had a second name it would spell CORRUPTION...¬†and then they have¬†the gall to brag about Visit Nepal.... I wish all tourist would NOT VISIT NEPAL...a food for thought¬†¬†¬†
05 DEC 2011 | 8:12 PM NST
Poet Bhanu Bhakta ventilated his anger like this-- "Bholi, bholi bhandaima saba gahara bitigo, bakshiyosh aaja jholi!" (Depiction of Rana bureaucracy). Poet Lekh Nath Poudyal ventilated his frustration "Gale, banda bhaye sabai!" (Congress bureaucracy). Poet Bhupi Sherchan noted, "Ghumne mech mathi andho maanche!" (Panchayat bureaucracy). Offices in the new Republic seem populated by the thugs and the gundas in the garb of "kam reds"! Don't we carry a lot of historical baggage, e.g. 'feudal mindset' even today? When can we as citizens experience the rule of law, organizational discipline, and work ethics in our government offices? Today, our elected parliament looks like a "Bhardari sava", our politicians look like "Nautanki", and our civil servants look like "devils sent directly by the Yamadoot!!"¬† Each time you see your documents bundled and wrapped up in dusty dirty clothes ("kapadko poko") and taken out from nowhere in the cold darkness of these "karyalaya" and "adda", you feel that you are in a dark dungeon that sucks every bit of sap out of you! In an age of Steve Job's sleek i-pad and i-phones, one feels as if one is forced to swallow a bitter pill of historical¬† anachronism. When will our politicians, policy-makers and 'karmachari' see light at the end of the tunnel! Abata, ghaitoma ghaam lagnu parne hoina ra!!!
05 DEC 2011 | 1:00 AM NST
Michael TIA is a cash cow for govt employees. You only lost you change for ordinary Nepali's lose more than that at the airport. One women was asked to pay Rs. 100k√ā¬ just to get a departure stamp on her PP so that she can visit her husband in the US. The government system has corrupted from Top to Down. The ordinary Nepalis are the ones who has to suffer the most because of this.
06 DEC 2011 | 8:39 AM NST
5. Helen Kennedy
I have been reading NT for about¬†one year now. I had worked in Nepal during the late 70s as a volunteer. I love Nepal. I also love the people of Nepal. BUT- I hate the govt. of Nepal, I also hate the govt. employees that cheat the foreign tourist these days. I hate the politicians of Nepal who are always stealing large amounts of money from the Nepali people.¬† Inspite of so many frustrated experiences and comment on blogs,¬† nothing gives. Nepal slid by 8 point on T I report for corrution. How can Nepali people in leadership position face the domestic and international arena with such corrupt baggage. I cannot believe that all Nepalis are corrupt - I know many Nepalis that are honest and hard working.¬†So for God's sake - why cannot the majority get rid of the corrupt minority, enough impunity.. if Nepalis want to improve their law and order, they can take a page from Singapore.¬† Lets build a beautiful Nepal, a law abiding Nepal, a glorious Nepal, a peaceful Nepal like it used to be when I was there. Jay Nepal!¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†
06 DEC 2011 | 1:24 AM NST
Its interesting that many of the comments are about corruption, but the article only mentions archaic bureaucracy and says nothing about corruption.
It seems obvious that the functional purpose of the archaic, time-wasting procedures are to provide scope for corruption. If you pay, a shortcut will be found to speed things up for you. If you don't pay then your time will be wasted.
This is pretty simple. So why doesn't Rabi Thapa understand it?
Again, there is a functional purpose to not understanding it. The archaic bureaucracy and corruption serves to limit government services to the elite and shut out the large majority who cannot afford bribes, don't have contacts and don't know how things get done.
For a publication like Nepali Times that serves the elite, but would prefer some of the benefits of modernity, it is important NOT to understand the connection between archaic bureaucracy, corruption and the existence of an elite.
If articles explained the connection clearly, they would be offensive to many of the journal's readers and sponsors.
07 DEC 2011 | 6:40 PM NST
once i went to pick up my son's student visa. we had left it the previous day and were told to come back the following day. when we arrived, we waited for 30 minutes at a window only to be told they couldn't find his passport! I looked in the window and saw several desks with employees sitting, reading papers and drinking tea. my son finally said, let's just walk in there. so we went inside and entered the office. not one person even looked up. we saw a back room with passports piled high on the desks. we wandered in and began leafing through the passports until finally my son's appeared. we could easily have grabbed any passport and ran! probably had we paid a bribe, the passport would have appeared by magic (meaning they would have wandered into the back office themselves and taken the time to actually look for it). an experience i will never forget. ah, the joys of nepal!
07 DEC 2011 | 10:24 PM NST
8. Rabi Thapa
Oh Arthur, King of the Roundheads:
"the article only mentions archaic bureaucracy and says√ā¬ nothing√ā¬ about corruption.It seems obvious that the functional purpose of the archaic, time-wasting procedures are to provide scope for corruption. If you pay, a shortcut will be found to speed things up for you. If you don't pay then your time will be wasted.√ā¬ This is pretty simple. So why doesn't Rabi Thapa understand it?
Even though I have said:
"All our administrative processes are bonafide Rube Goldberg machines, the circular loops of which are oftentimes bypassed via connections or well-placed bribes."
"This deliberate inefficiency, in creating uncertainty (and the impression of work being done), shifts the balance of power towards civil servants. Thus is born the civil potentate, to whom we must present ourselves as supplicants."
I've written about corruption elsewhere, too, as you know only too well:
It seems that, cher Arthur, that "there is a functional purpose to not understanding it". What's yours?
08 DEC 2011 | 10:13 AM NST
Even if the bureaucracy were modern, I have a lurching feel that we Nepalese would find a way to corrupt it :)
Jokes aside, corruption is a much bigger problem to solve¬† than streamlining the existing bureaucracy to the extent that it is possible to do so . Unfortunately, the political will for that is almost non-existent. The last person to try, albeit in a botched fashion, was Girija Prasad Koirala and he never fully recovered, at least not until Jana Andolan II, from the political fallout of that move.
08 DEC 2011 | 2:22 PM NST
If only there was a like button here!!
"It seems that, cher Arthur, that "there is a functional purpose to not understanding it". What's yours?"¬† ..¬† that's just what I was wondering too, as I was reading Arthur's comment above, only to grin as I reached Rabi Thapa's comment.¬† hehe.. well said!
However, I also believe that on an organizational level, NT does serve the elite.
08 DEC 2011 | 2:35 PM NST
If only there was a like button here!!
"It seems that, cher Arthur, that "there is a functional purpose to not understanding it". What's yours?"¬† ....just what I was wondering too, as I read Arthur's comment, only to grin later at Rabi Thapa's reply.¬† well said!
However, I do believe that on an organizational level, NT does serve the elite.
08 DEC 2011 | 2:55 PM NST
12. Arthur Rabi Thapa #8, I must admit that you have adequately refuted my claim that you said "nothing" about corruption.
As to the functional purpose of my overlooking what you did say, I honestly didn't notice it until you drew attention to it.
Obviously I should have read your article more carefully before commenting.
Your link to an earlier article of yours on corruption does confirm that you do fully understand and have clearly stated the "functional purpose" I mentioned:
"But it may be useful to understand that many of Nepal's systems are designed to be difficult precisely so you will seek the easy (and corrupt) way out."
If you had stated it as clearly this time, I don't think I would have made the mistake I did.
That of course does not change the fact that it was my mistake, for which I apologize, and not any fault of yours.
BTW I did notice your reference to the "blind watchmaker". That naturally made me think about the "functional purpose" expressed by the evolutionary forces driving the bureaucratic maze you described. So I was actually looking for the answer in your article and when I failed to notice it I went on (wrongly) to draw conclusions about your "purpose" in omitting it.
08 DEC 2011 | 5:15 PM NST
Arthur seriously needs to see a shrink.