FRO. These three letters are hated by every foreigner living in India. Everyone has to pay a visit to the Foreigners’ Registration Office at least twice a year and submit themselves to the bureaucracy of applying for and extending residence permits.
My attitude is if that you can’t beat them, you may as well join them, so I admit that I kind of enjoy the experience of going to the FRO because it’s an opportunity to witness the infamous Indian bureaucracy in action (or rather, slow motion).
The scene is Kafkaesque. There are no queues. There are no signs. There is no one to receive you. The high-ceilinged room hasn’t been repainted since the last century. Half the room is divided into a workspace where men in shirts and big moustaches sit behind desks lined up in rows. They are busy writing in big ledgers. There are files piled up everywhere and not a computer in sight.
Separated by a low counter with a window, is the other side of the room which is arranged into a waiting room. Facing the rows of men with moustaches writing in ledgers there are rows of chairs and lots of grumpy-looking foreigners sitting on them.
You never go to the FRO once. No, you must go to and fro because there is always a document missing. Or one more photocopy needed (there is no photocopier here either – you must leave the office, cross the road and make photocopies at a little stall which probably makes a killing photocopying foreigners’ passport pages). The photographs must be glued and not stapled (glue sticks are also available at the little stall across the street!). Even if you have all the documents with you, there is something else you need that no one told you about. And you must wait. This is part of the process. It takes time to copy out all your details into the big ledger and file all the duplicates you’ve given them. I don’t know what they do with the six photographs.
Just to make things more complicated you must first apply for a three-month extension and then a nine-month extension. Every year. This ensures that you pay the FRO a visit at least twice a year. And even though they already have your documents and duplicates stored away somewhere in those great big piles of files, you have to re-submit all of them again. And don’t forget the fee. In US dollars, please! The rupee has no currency here.
Even though visits to the FRO are tests in patience and photocopying skills, foreigners cannot complain about India’s immigration system (if I can call it that?) which is quite simple and straightforward compared to other countries. There are no interviews, medical tests or fingerprinting required. The next time you are dreading a visit to the FRO, have a look at all the forms and documents an Indian citizen needs to provide just for a Tourist Visa to Europe. Be glad India hasn’t (yet?) imposed all kinds of restrictive measures that our own countries have to keep foreigners away. I’d rather be part of the Kafka novel.
(Photo courtesy of Sean Ellis)