India’s private sector is pretty cruddy too

When it comes to ease of doing business

It’s received wisdom to blame much of the difficulties of doing business in India on outmoded laws and bureaucratic red tape. That is sadly true, but what is all too often overlooked is that the private sector is no slouch when it comes to pointless and brainless processes and procedures that make doing anything in India such a downright nuisance. (I’m striving for politeness here, but it’ll probably be a losing battle.) Let’s take just 3 examples based on a recent transaction I undertook. There are plenty more but 3 is good to start with.

“Self-attestation”? What the fuck is that?

(I warned you I would lose the battle for politeness.) Start with the completely pointless exercise of “self-attesting” a photocopy. Submit a photocopy of anything and the babus require you to sign the photocopy. What does that prove? That I can sign? Well, that’s about it.

It’s a true copy? Well, it IS a photocopy isn’t it? Ah, but you say, photocopies can be forged. And signatures can’t? Seriously? If I’m willing and able to forge a photocopy what makes you think my signature is any great sign of honesty? Ah, but now you can prove that it was me that gave you the photocopy and it’s a genuine copy because my signature is on it. Nope, that was forged by you.

See? Adding a stupid signature on to what is self-evidently a copy of something doesn’t add any additional validation or proof of anything.

As far as I know, India is the only country to have invented this beast called ‘self-attestation’. Elsewhere, if you want a copy attested you get it done by a third party like a notary not by me, the guy who gave you the bloody thing in the first place. If you say you’re making it easier by not requiring me to run to a notary, point taken. But making me add my signature adds absolutely nothing, nada, zero to the authenticity or validity of what is very evidently a copy.

You may say a signature on a single page is not that big a deal. But whoever restricts it to a single page? I recently had to submit two years’ financial accounts, corporate papers and other documents totalling to about 40 pages at least. Yep, self-attested every single fucking page. And it wasn’t the government asking for this, it was HDFC Bank, which is about as private-sector as you can get.

Digital. Heard of that?

Which brings me to: why do we (i.e., the private sector) still require physical (i.e., paper) copies of every bloody document? Why don’t we trust documents that are emailed?

For the last 4 or 5 years I’ve been filing my taxes electronically. Each year the government improves the process and reduces the paper. Yes, you read that right.

Last filing year they came up with the novel idea of having me certify the authenticity of my digitally submitted return by logging into my online bank account (that same HDFC Bank) and confirming it via that login. Stupendous! Now I don’t even have to snail mail that single sheet acknowledgment paper that I used to the previous year. Not one printed page. Nothing.

And, mind you, this is the government that is perfectly happy to accept EVERYTHING digitally and electronically. That merits a truckload of kudos.

Back to the aforementioned HDFC Bank. For my loan application, in addition to everything else short of my horoscope and underwear size, they wanted a printout of my company’s details from the Ministry of Corporate Affairs site. So, they want me to take something that is already digital, courtesy the government, no less, and blow that up back into paper form! And then self-attest it, naturally. Who the fuck dreams this up?

Oh, and while we’re on the subject of paper, there were two documents that the poor clueless clerk who visited me wouldn’t accept because each was printed back-to-back on a single sheet, making two sheets in all. Instead, I had to reprint them leaving the reverse side of each page blank, doubling the sheet count. I can’t even begin to imagine why this should be necessary. Are they planning to mount these on a wall somewhere?

Logic? What’s that?

Well, obviously something completely alien to whoever designs these processes. Back to the good old HDFC Bank loan. They wanted my tax papers for two years. There are good reasons for that: providing those proves that I file my taxes, how I compute them, what my taxable income is and so on. Granted.

Here’s how tax works: I earn, I spend, I pay taxes. Then I file a return. Part of the return is also a computation of how I arrived at the amount of taxes I need to pay. Next, the government acknowledges that I filed the return. Then they agree or disagree with my return and accept it or raise a demand on me for the difference. That last bit is called an assessment. The assessment includes a detailed of working of what I claimed and what the government accepted and what it didn’t — it’s nine pages long. So, my computation and return is listed in detail and validated by none other than the government.

So, to recap, filing leads to acknowledgment leads to assessment.

If I didn’t file, I couldn’t get an acknowledgment or an assessment. With me so far? Naturally.

So, logically, if I provide you a detailed assessment order, it means that the entire tax process has been followed: I’ve filed, it’s been acknowledged and the computation has been checked and the tax has been assessed.

So, if you have these nine pages (self-attested, of course), why, why, why the fuck do you also want the acknowledgment of filing, the return of income and the computation? What value do they add? What information do they provide that a) you don’t already have via the assessment, and b) helps you make a decision on whether you can lend me money or not?

But, we don’t operate on logic, do we. That would make it too easy to do business in India.