12 July 2015
Time to renew the water tax card. Uma went yesterday but the line was long and time was short, so she put it off until today. Go at 9 am, she tells me, that’s what they told her. But when will they open? Oh, probably at 10 or so. Wait in line in the hot sun in the hottest July in Chennai/Madras in living memory? Hmm. I decide to get there at 9:30 am.
So here I am, at the gate leading to a long-familiar landmark — the Water Tank in Besant Nagar. The gate is open and, what do you know, that water-tank has an office at the bottom. Wow, that is almost like there was an office of the Archaeological Survey at the bottom floor of Qutb Minar. Also, is this really the place I am supposed to be? Where is the long queue in the hot sun? Inside the office there is a huddle of people around the table that occupies a large chunk of the office room. I edge in and peer at, between and around the two clumps of people — 7-8 people around one official looking person seated at the standard enormous wooden table and a similar clump of people buzzing around a second official seated at a computer and taking, I am told, tax payments.
Ok, that settles it — I am already in proud possession of a receipt for the most recent tax payment, so I edge closer to the first clump. It slowly becomes clear that within this clump are two sorts — the ones with documents in hand (like me) and the ones (mostly) without. The latter group look different (less anxious, less impatient), some of them are signing a register, some have started moving away, documents in hand. Aha. That last is the group the others want to join. In the meantime the new comers including me, novices all, form a sort of 3-4 person queue; of course there is the inevitable queue breaker, to whom I express my objection, he says he represents someone (AE? DC? AC?) who works in that office (and so he is entitled to go up to the head of the queue), but he moves away and sits on a plastic chair off on the side.
By this time, ‘our’ official seems to have finished with the register, for he closes it and looks up at us novices (by now the only ones waiting). Among these, one elderly man sits down on the bench by the table and extends the card he holds toward the official, the rest of us press closer, similarly extending our hands with their precious documents towards the official. Some hands bear six or more sets of documents and my heart drops, oh no, how long will this take, I wonder.
And now starts our initiation. Do you have the old card, sir? Yes, very smugly, the elderly man gives him the card. And the receipt of the latest tax payment? No, I have not yet paid it. Well, we must have that. Next? Yes, I have the card, but could not find the receipt though I have paid it. Illa saar, we need the receipt and, after a few more rounds of batting these statements back and forth, ‘our’ official says, well, you can ask this person (pointing to the other official at the computer) to check for your record. Next he summarily deals with the person with no card (no way can he be entertained even for a moment), the person with five cards, three of which are from Karpagambal Nagar (not this office, madam, you need a #142 here in the card, see, to be able to get your new card here), and two of which have printed records of payment online (she too gets batted to Mr Computer) and then, joy! it’s my turn and I flawlessly turn in my one old card and latest receipt (he notes down the number) and wait for a bit near the table; but then, seeing the numbers of applicants swelling, I get to the plastic chair (Mr. Queue Breaker has graduated and gone into the office where he is conferring with the officer — AE?) and sit down.
From my vantage point I note with relief that the number of people with old cards has stopped growing and our official stands up, but then glances at the entrance and calls for out more people who want new cards, two turn up just as he says this, he deals with them and calls out again, there is another new one, and then… YES! no more fresh applicants!! He takes the scrap of paper on which is a list of some ten numbers and goes into the adjacent room where we can glimpse him referring to his list every so often, while riffling through documents in between. He eventually comes back to our room and a collective sigh emerges, and I wonder whether he is likely to play fair or whether the latecomers might get back their cards first?
No worries! First he deals with the stack of new cards — takes them out one by one, carefully folds each one over, then takes the old cards, arranges them according to the list of numbers (noted in chronological order, i.e., the order in which we queued up), carefully consults the numbers in the list, finds the new card carrying the first number, places inside it the corresponding old card plus receipt and places this card assembly on the table. He repeats this procedure with the next number and having assembled the next set — here I hold my breath — he places it BELOW the previous card, hurray! following the queue and there is justice in this world after all. He goes on to deal with all the numbers in this fashion, then he carefully stacks up the sets of cards neatly (and, note, still in order) and opens the register. He carefully inscribes a couple of lines of words and numbers and calls out for — get this — R. Geeta!! Surprise! I was the first successful one of this batch! I get up, trying not to look smug, sign my name in the place he indicates, and leave. Wow, just 45 minutes, not bad for a morning’s work, I think, and go on to deal with the rest of the items in my list, leaving the new huddles of people behind me. The queue, by now, has spilt out of the office and into the sun.
An then Mohan asks me, did they enter the receipt number in the new card? I look. No, of course not.