I wonder how many people in India would even be aware that there is a country on planet Earth called Estonia. Tucked away in the Baltic corner of Europe, Estonia was one of the republics constituting the former USSR. The dissolution of the Soviet Republic in 1991 saw Estonia, along with a clutch of other erstwhile republics, achieve her separate identity. But what is truly remarkable about this small country of barely 1. 3 million people with a geographical area straddling not even 50,000 square kilometres is the rapid strides she has made in the digital revolution sweeping the globe.
Estonia has an e-police, e-schools and an e-cabinet: you can now even apply for e-residency in that country. Estonia is virtually the digital hub for Eastern Europe and hosts the NATO Centre for Cyber Excellence. Not that digital progress does not come without a price; Estonia was literally brought to her knees by a major cyber-attack by Russian hackers some eight years ago and, has since, tightened cyber security measures. Her logic for offering e-residence facilities to non-citizens is, among other reasons, aimed at facilitating access to the European market to foreign investors at minimal cost and with a minimum of tiresome legal formalities.
No, I am not planning a shift to Estonia. The weather there is too cold, one has to keep worrying about a possible Russian re-takeover of the country and I am too tied to the earth of Bharat Mata. But I do think wistfully of Estonia’s e-topia whenever I run into India’s bureaucratic conundrums.
The latest one is something called the FATCA declaration. For the uninitiated, this acronym stands for “Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act”. India and United States of America have an agreement under which the governments of the two countries will exchange information on taxable transactions by residents in the respective countries. So far, so good… but what gets my goat is the declaration to be signed by every Bharatiya whenever she opens a demat account or commences mutual fund trading, specifying her country of citizenship and place of residence.
I am all for unearthing stashing of black money in safe tax havens, but getting over 99% of Bharatiyas, many of whom have not even crossed the Palk Straits or the Wagah check post, to sign one more silly document is surely the height of bureaucratic stupidity. More so, because these Bharatiyas generally transact through banking channels, where details about their citizenship, place of residence, etc. are already available with the banks.
But even the meaninglessness of FATCA pales before that other abomination, inflicted on us by the mandarins of the Finance Ministry, infamously known as KYC. Used by banks, gas agencies, mobile companies and sundry others to harry the unsuspecting customer, KYC officially stands for Know Your Customer. To my mind, it stands for Keep You Confused.
I suspect that each time there is a change of Finance Minister or Finance Secretary in the Government of India, 600 million bank customers are once again asked to confirm their place of residence. Why else has one had to go through this exercise three times in the past six years? It is not as though seeking address details leads to lesser tax evasion or concealment of ill-gotten gains. We read daily about the number of fake accounts being uncovered in reputed private and government-owned banks: the mind boggles at what may be going on in cooperative banks.
As a matter of fact, asking for residential details of a customer wanting to open a bank account is itself a source of harassment to a citizen who moves for employment to different parts of the country every couple of years. I have read horror stories of young professionals who had to run from pillar to post to open a bank account when they moved in to stay with their parents and had no independent proof of residence. If the customer retains her bank account at the branch near her earlier residence and largely transacts through internet banking, she still needs to update her address to receive new debit and credit cards or for other transactions like securing loans.
The agency that provides a service will invariably insist on a document like the Aadhaar card, passport and driving license or ration card for proof of residence, although a recently relocated customer is unlikely to have the new address on any of these documents. Nor do banks follow a uniform procedure for accepting address changes. One private bank allows for change of address through phone banking, while others ask for scanned copies of address proof.
What defies comprehension is why the individual who can transfer/withdraw lakhs of rupees through net banking transactions cannot be trusted to change her address through the same net banking channel, without further verification. This underlines government’s basic lack of trust of the citizen and its permanent suspicion about her motives.
I have also not understood why the Aadhaar card needs to have the address on it at all. As a pan-India identity symbol, it is enough if it testifies to the fact of Indian residency. Updating the address every few years is an avoidable irritant for the geographically and socially mobile Indian: the fate of her economically worse-off migrant sisters and brothers is much more difficult to envision.
Equally meaningless is the police verification at the time of issue or renewal of a passport, when any police station would have the list of persons whose record does not entitle them to issue of a passport. The police constable visits the house of a passport-seeker just to verify if she does stay there, never mind if the person moves house a few days after that. All this exercise does is to give a few more rent-seeking opportunities to the official machinery. It has not prevented gangsters and underworld henchmen from acquiring multiple passports at the drop of a hat.
Actually, the concept of a permanent residential address is so antiquated and irrelevant for members of the post-independence Indian domestic diaspora, who (and whose parents) have travelled wherever their employment took them. Most of us today have virtual email addresses that have survived longer than our present residential addresses. So when will our beloved Bharat be rid of this medieval fetish for permanent addresses? Probably when we move in the course of the next few months and years to a cashless economy. Once every transaction of ours leaves an electronic trail, there will be no need for any officious Finance Ministry bureaucrat to insist on an address. Till then, may I request the powers that be to content themselves with a correspondence address and trust the individual citizen when she furnishes that address?
The author, Venkatesan Ramani, is a retired Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer. His work focuses on public policy reform and improving public service delivery systems.
This post was first published on his personal site, The Gadfly Column.
Tweet at Venkatesan: @vramani10