Zealous clerks and stubborn babus

Recently, there was a message circulating on WhatsApp, complete with scanned copies, of a letter that a bureaucrat had written to a subordinate, asking him to return, of all things, a matchbox which the latter had borrowed. It seems in the absence of the matchbox, the mosquito coils could not be lit and everyone was suffering. Later the writer of this letter explained he was only practicing the art of official letter writing. It is not known whether the borrower of the matchbox returned it.

This episode reminded me of another narrated by the late B K Nehru, ICS, Jawaharlal Nehru’s cousin, Indian ambassador to the US, Governor of Assam etc. B K Nehru, when he was a very junior officer, sent an official telegram in which he tagged a line enquiring after his father’s health.

A zealous clerk wrote back to him to pay for the last line as it was personal in nature. The sum involved was miniscule. Nehru declined, the clerk replied, Nehru responded and over the years the file became more than six inches thick. God knows how many hours and how much of taxpayer money was wasted on this ridiculous correspondence.

I once received a notice from the DDA asking me to show ‘cause’ virtually to demolish a hole in the wall!

Then there is an apocryphal story about the bureaucrat who was asked to make sure that people removed their shoes before entering the temple. One day a man came without shoes but was prevented from entering the temple by the bureaucrat who said the rules required the shoes to be ‘removed’, never mind that the person was not wearing any shoes.

I, too, had a strange experience once. Forty years ago when I was starting out as a journalist on a laughably low salary, my father bought a DDA flat for me to live in. We found that one of the bedrooms did not have a door connecting it to the bathroom which was right next door. So I knocked down a bit of the dividing wall and installed a door.

Then, when my wife and I moved in and tried to push the furniture against the walls we found them to be askew. So I first measured the furniture to see if they had all got damaged somehow in the move. But they were ok. So I checked the walls and found that none of them was at 90 degrees to the other. They were all slightly off.

So I wrote a letter to the DDA complaining about this. A few weeks later four DDA men came in a jeep and measured the walls and said there was nothing wrong. In any case nothing could be done about it. But that was not the end of the story. A couple of months later I received a notice from the DDA asking me to show ‘cause’ why the new door between the bedroom and the bathroom should not be ‘demolished’.

Once in the mid-1980s, a clerk in the Ministry of External Affairs whose job was to stamp ‘top secret’ on documents, also stamped press releases thus, and for a week no press release came from that ministry.

I wrote back asking them to demonstrate how a hole in the wall could be demolished. This time I did not hear from them again. But several years later I met someone else who said the DDA had sent a notice to him once threatening to demolish the garden he had developed outside his house!

My favourite story, however, is about the time in the mid-1980s, when a clerk in the Ministry of External Affairs entrusted with the job of stamping ‘top secret’ on documents, also stamped press releases as ‘top secret’, with the result that for a week no press release came from the ministry. Everything was being duly filed.

A government-run cremation ground in Faridabad apparently put up a notice that no cremations would be permitted without the Aadhar number. Later, the mayor said there was no such rule. But a few months earlier the central government had put out a circular that the Aadhar number was a must for getting a death certificate. But if the relative can’t find the card, he or she has to give his or her Aadhar number along with a declaration that he/she can’t remember the deceased’s Aadhar number! Later the government clarified that it was not mandatory. Right now no one knows what the correct position is.

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