World’s biggest democracy at work

ticket Lok SabhaIt took me three stamps and four signatures at the multiple security checks, five times of scanning the invitation card and four times frisking to get into Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament of India. Seriously, no exaggeration. Doing it once thoughtfully would serve the purpose of security better, I think, but who am I to give advice? Anyway, the frisking was so inattentive that I was able to smuggle my pen and papers inside.

On the visitor’s gallery literally nothing was allowed. Like choosing your own seat. Or sitting cross-legged. Or whispering. Or taking off your shoes. Every time someone tried, one of the many watchdogs (one for every seven visitors) corrected us sharply and threatened to throw us out. Lucky me there didn’t seem to be a rule against writing. So I could quietly take down notes.

Down below the regulations didn’t seem to be so strict. As soon as the group of parliamentarians from Papua New Guinea – visiting India to see democracy at work – had been welcomed by the speaker, the house fell apart. Everybody was shouting, opposition as well as government parties. I didn’t even understand what the controversy was all about.

Lok SabhaAfter about five minutes most of the parliamentarians quieted down and the question hour could start. Later on Prateep, with whom I visited Lok Sabha, explained to me that this was in fact the first time in the monsoon session – already some weeks old – that the question hour was allowed to be held.

Until this day, parliament was characterized by adjournments – on the first ten days, Lok Sabha lost 88 percent of it’s sitting time. They hardly ever got to work, didn’t pass a single bill, because opposition hindered any kind of discussion by disrupting the house over and over again. Reasons for their shouting and screaming was: the decision on a separate Telangana state, alleged land deals by Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law Robert Vadra, Chinese incursions, killing of five Indian soldiers along the Line of Control, mission coal scam files, the hike in fuel prices  and maaaaany other issues.

The speaker already threw 13 people out this session. But what do you do if half the house is agitating?

Egg to Egg

egg to egg

Indian logic, again. I’ll never get it.

Signs you only need in India

signs you only need in India

Things I don’t understand

– A christmas markt was set up around the house I work in. When I arrived at midday, I parked my bike in a spot where  it would not be in anyone’s way. I didn’t lock it for easy removal. I counted on the fact that by now everyone in the house would know that the pink-white-green bike is mine. It would have been easy to ask me, my desk is merely ten meters away from the spot. But by the time I went out of the office at night, a wooden construction covered with canvas was built all around my bicycle. It was close to impossible to get it out.

– There’s a seperate waiting line for tourists at the Taj Mahal, called queue for “high value ticket holders” – that means we pay 750 instead of 20 rupees. Because I went with my Indian friends, I waited in their line to get security-checked. The guards asked me relentlessly to use the other line, even though I explained that we want to wait together. Because what’s the point in waiting alone inside for the others to arrive?

family with donkeys

– I visited workers at a construction site, who’s income rely on their donkeys. The animals carry sand and stones up and down unfinished houses. Because they are overloaded quite often, the harnesses don’t fit well and because the strings are too thin, most of the animals have wounds. Some also lame. A veterinary from the Donkey Sanctuary treats them for free, gives the owners medicine free of charge and helps them with advise. But often the owners neither apply the medicine nor do they follow some basic rules of husbandry. I saw a donkey that was already working at the age of two. After two or three years the animal will have arthrosis and won’t be able work anymore, the vet explained. The normal life span would be around 15 years.

– I arrived at the New Delhi railway station on my bicycle in order to buy a ticket. When chaining the bike onto a traffic sign in front of it, a taxi driver, who had watched me all the time, started shouting: “Taxi, Madam. Taxi!” But why should I come with a bike to a train station to head off in a taxi, when taxis are available all over town?

– The traffic. Everywhere. At any given time.

Street life

Initially I wanted to write something about ambulances today. Or, to be more precise, about their absence. I saw one this evening, a rather small white van with flashing light. And even though I’m out on the streets every day, this was the first one in weeks. Only once I heard a sirene so far. And fire trucks or police cars racing somewhere? No, never.

While I was giving this fact some thoughts, I suddenly was taken by an even more unusual sight: two camels. Gracefully they paced along the arterial street in front of me, carrying two guys and a lot of blankets. Note their jackets and hoods – it’s getting pretty cold already.

Becoming Indian

After living in the neat district of Jor Bagh, where gates are closed at night and your neighbours are embassy staff, officials of the United Nations and judges, I moved to Nizamuddin, where much more live is going on in the streets. Here a gaunt women sits on the sidewalk every morning, a baby in her arms, and begs for money. An east-asian guy sells cabbage-stuffed dumplings on paper plates, eaten on tables and chairs that seem to collapse every time someone moves. Children push around old cars in an auto graveyard, rickshaw-drivers doze on their vehicles.

my room – with bike and window (!!!)

When I first stepped into the room at Mrs. Virmani’s house, I instantly felt comfortable. So I trusted – and didn’t try. Which turned out to be a mistake. Because when I brought my belongings with a taxi over one morning and started to unpack, I realised the drawbacks of my new room. But as I was already feeling quite Indian, I found (of courese only temporary) solutions for everything.

bucket for the shower

Take the shower for example. It doesn’t work  because the shower head is full of limescale. But the heater is doing good work. So I always fill the hot water in a huge bucket and use a pot to pour the admittedly quite milky water over my body. One bucket is just enough for all of my surfaces.

When I found out that the mosquito nets at the windows have holes in them and I got bitten several times at night, I bought an “All Out”, a liquid vaporizer widely used in India to repel mosquitos. But you need electricity for it. I was short of electrical outlets, so I bought a multiple socket-outlet. Just to realise that the clever mosquitos apparently are immune against it. They don’t seem to care.

Actually there already was a socket-outlet in the room. I’m using it in the kitchen-corner. The problem with this one is: It only works when the on/off-switch resides in the middle between on and off – where it wouldn’t stay without external support. But I don’t want to stand in the corner of my room and wait ilde minutes for the water in the cooker to boil. So I tried to put something on it. Nothing worked, until I finanlly succeeded with a very heavy statue, given to Major Virmani for his virtue (or so it seems, because it depicts a man overcoming a lion with his sheer hands).

the noisy fridge

Of couse the toaster wouldn’t toast on it’s own either. But I found out that a fork, pinched into the gap,  is needed to hold the button down. And did I tell you about the fridge that is so noisy? I switch it off at night. The dripping tap? I close the bathroom door and don’t worry about. The shelf, that can’t support anything? I simply don’t put things on it. The missing extra blanket? I rang the bell of my landlady at 10pm to show how dearly I needed it.

And to be honest: Despite all the challenges, I sleep longer and deeper than in Jor Bagh. “Everything will be good in the end. And if it is not good, it not yet the end”, a hero of everyday life says in the wonderful movie “Best Exotic Marrigold Hotel”.

Blank Forms and Full Drivers

The Hindustan Ambassador is the alpha male on Delhi’s streets. This “dinosaur of Indian roads”, since more than fifty years produced in India and nearly unchanged in it’s statesmanlike-design, is nowadays often found in black, with a yellow roof and a green stripe. Then it’s a taxi.

But this morning none of the gently rocking vehicles rolled in front of my house when I called a driver. Instead a mini-van came, driven by a weary looking man with frightening red eyes. I hoped that – despite the ominous signs – everything would just be fine in the end. As it always turns out to be in India. So I entrusted myself to the man.

Ambassador Taxi, India Gate, New Delhi. Picture by prolix6x via

Maybe I should have listened up when he repeated the Hotel’s name three times. He managed to drive me to Gurgaon, Delhi’s satellite township of malls and commercial skyscrapers, but we ended up being in front of the wrong hotel. The guy had no idea where I actually wanted to go. So he drove into the long and winding driveway of the Westin, only to ask the guard how to get to the “Leela Kempinski”. The guard explained – but after one corner my driver was lost again.

So I started googlemaps on my iPhone, which always takes some time to load because of the lack of 3G just about everywhere in town, to direct him. We had to go six kilometers back to reach the hotel – and the breakfast meeting I should attend had just begun.

Then the taxi driver couldn’t find the front door and circled the building. I finally made him stop so I could walk up the driveway. He pointed at the taxi meter that showed more than 1700 rupees. 1700 (25 euros)?!? Our secretary, who had been living in Delhi for decades, told me something about 500 to 600 rupees.

I started to argue – with a driver that spoke no englisch. But he still he managed to tell me about the road charge. Damn, I didn’t watch him paing at the toll station, because I was so busy reading the printouts about the business world in India to prepare for the Asian Pacific Conference I was about to attend. But I had to run. So we settled the price at 800 rupees and I ran off. But as always (I’m such a lucky girl) they were just about to begin when I entered the conference room.

the blanc form

I didn’t get a receipt from the red-eyed guy for my payoff. He most probably couldn’t write. One day earlier I asked another driver for a receipt – and he handed me over a blank form. So I could fill in everything for myself.

The Stamp and the Signature

Getting a visa was hard enough – two interrogating and intimidating talks at the Indian Embassy in Berlin and long waits included. But to get the visa changed was even harder.

The nice, pink and baby-blue journalist visa in my passport is only valid for three month, and only serves for entering the country once. So I needed to show up at the (roll your eyes every time you hear that name) Foreign Regional Registration Office, known as the FRRO.

As India is the country with the world-famous bureaucracy, this one doesn’t come easy. First, and of the uttermost importancy, you need to get your papers right. Which include: a letter from your landlord, stating you actually live here, a letter from your employer, stating you actually work here, and a letter from the foreign ministry, stating they actually want you here.

I’m temporarly living with a friend of mine. This obviously doesn’t produce the papers, the desk-people want to have, so we asked the indian-german chamber, which resides in the same German House as my office does, to print and sign something, that looks official. They did – but there was an unpleasant surprise to come.

Convincing the foreign ministry was more of a challenge. Brigitte, the fairy godmother in our office, went with me to an ugly concrete tower-block, that rose memories of the former GDR, where I was born. After  pushing in the front (one learns that rather quickly here) at the entrance and getting a number quite fast, we got security-checked (never without here in Delhi, wherever you go) and made our way through the kafkaesk building.

In the appointed office linoleum and worn out furniture from the 60s awaited us, together with a man in charge, that seemed to have no idea what to do. We presented him a lot of papers, but he asked for more and more, trying anything possible to not give us what we wanted. He finally suceeded. His problem: I am an addition to the office. “An addition??? Oh, that’s not stated in the letter from the employer.” He told us he needed to check that with the Indian embassy in Germany first.

In the days that followed, Brigitte called over and over again. The problem was that foreigners should show up at the FRRO within two weeks of arrival – a period that drew to an end. She got in touch with someone she knows in the embassy in Berlin to accalerate the process. Two public holidays also got in our way, one in Germany, the other one in India. Finally the letter came.

But: To enter the FRRO, one needs a number. And obviously queues are very long. So, like every middle-class Indian that needs to show up at a government’s office, we sent a man that waited for us. He had also been there two days before to queue up to get access to the computers at the FRRO, so that he could print my application. In four copies!

Being number 2 (good man!), I went to the FRRO at 9.30 am, the time they open. Obviously, being me, I forgot my passport photos in the office, so I had to rush back. By doing so, I really had to push the taxi driver – unbelievable in India! – but he really was the first driver I experienced in Delhi that wasn’t in a hurry.

After being security checked, I had to enter alone. “Just one party”, the guard shouted at Brigitte. I entered the crowded, dim-lit room. First desk: reception. The man checked my pile of papers with a grim look and told me to go to the second desk. This guy checked them again, went away without notice, came back and sent me to desk number three. Here the papers – you might know what follows – got checked again. But this time, the bad-tempered guy, that yelled at the guy behind me to “get off and sit down – SIT DOWN”, found something to complain about. No lease agreement!

We argued. He thought it indecent that my office’s adress and my apartment’s adress are the same. I told him about the big house, that has offices at one side an an apartment at the other (which is true, actually). So he looked deep into my eyes and finally gave in. “Okay, but next time you bring a lease agreement.” I nodded obedient. And then the miracle happened. Once it was clear that I was going to be successful, he became the nicest person on earth, made compliments, chatted about Germany, asked what I thought about India and so on.

Next thing: I needed to write down my name in a huge visitor’s book on yet another desk, sign there, and then give the consecutive number (mine was 4434) to my man. He pressed a huge stamp into the passport, added the number, printed out some more papers, to which I affixed passport photo number five and six and which, if I understood that right, now are my official residing papers.

So now I was only two desks away now from my visa. Across the room was the cash counter, where I had to pay 6500 rupees (nearly 100 euro). “How much did you give me?”, the guy asked me in a hoarse voice after counting. “6500?”, I replied carefully. He counted again. I noticed I had handed over 7500. He extracted two of the 500-rupee-notes and shoved them into his breast pocket. Then he showed me a big grin and handed them back.

With the receipt and my pile of papers I got waved over to the “Incharge” desk, where the people in charge didn’t work. The big man again looked through my papers, or at least pretended to do so. Finally, he signed the stamp. And now I’m officially allowed to work as a journalist in India for the next twelve month – and even re-enter the country.

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