Monday 13 July 2020

Q is for Queuing

To do anything in India, you have to queue. Several times. For example, to get a rail ticket to Kashmir, you queue at the ticket reservation office; who tell you that you need a special permit from the Ministry of Home Affairs, several miles away. So you queue at the door there, in order to get a security pass to be able to queue upstairs for a form, which is then processed once you have queued at another door. At that point, you can return to the reservation office and queue for your ticket.

Everywhere you go, there are Indians patiently queuing. They rarely push, and are almost invariably good-humoured however long their wait. The same goes for the clerks who, slowly but inexorably, deal with the queues. The British might like to think this deep-seated respect for queuing is part of the legacy of the Raj, just like cricket. But unlike sports which seem to transfer readily enough between races, the phenomenon of queuing is too firmly rooted in the Indian character to be explained away so easily.

Queuing in India is intimately bound up with, though not totally caused by, that country's love of endless, intricate bureaucracy. Every stage of every transaction is noted, registered, approved. There are special forms for each stage, many of which require other forms, duly completed. Forms often require queuing.

This is partly a reflection of an almost Victorian state of organisation within Indian society. Although computers are beginning to appear, notably in booking airline seats and banking, the systems elsewhere are manual and the main medium is hand-written paper. It is a universal rule that paper begets paper, both in the form of multiple copies and as records of other records; yet there is a level of redundancy in India which goes beyond any normal wastage. The Indian nation does not just connive at bureaucracy on this scale, it seems positively to welcome it.

An obvious universal benefit of functional redundancy of this kind is the creation of much-valued jobs: it takes five people to do what only really needs one. But beyond this, there is a deeper psychological reason why queuing and bureaucracy are so central to the Indian way of life.

To queue is not only to recognise an order, it is to affirm it. If you queue, you suffer the inconvenience of waiting; but while the queue lasts you know that by waiting long enough, you will be attended to. Without queuing - that is, in an anarchic world - there is no such guarantee. If you are strong, you may push your way to the front; but with 750 million people out here, you will have to be very strong. Better to queue.

The very size of India's fragile society imposes an even greater need for order. Queuing and bureaucracy are a kind of microscopic order which everyone can contribute to. The theory is, if you acquiesce and aid at this level, society will pay you back by exhibiting a similar degree of control on a larger scale. It seems to work. Maintaining the world's largest democracy - especially one created so recently and in a relatively artificial way - is a considerable feat. Having to queue, then sign in triplicate, is a small price to pay for freedom.

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