Tuesday, August 1, 2006

On Forms - filling & filing

On Forms - filling & filing
By Narendra Luther

All bureaucracies run on forms. They are necessary for creating data and records. Organizations are sustained by records. They are necessary for every action and to justify every inaction. Our birth is recorded; our death is recorded. In between there are series of occurrences which are recorded. When you are enrolled for studies it is recorded; when you finish them a certificate is issued. If a student secures the highest marks, he or she creates a record. If anyone surpasses that record, a record is broken and a new record is created. If you apply for a job, a record is to be submitted. If you get one, that is recorded. If you are sacked, that is recorded. If you are honoured a record is made. Every promotion and demotion is recorded. If you go to hospital a case sheet is prepared. When you come out dead or alive a discharge note is prepared. For getting rations a record is required. For buying a vehicle it is compulsory to create one. Our arrivals and departures from one country to another are recorded. And unbeknownst to us, so many of our movements are noted and recorded. About some of them we never come to know. But if they cross a certain point of tolerance by the authorities you are required to appear before some one or the other and record your statement. The Election Commission issues you an ID card on the basis of a record it creates. So does the Income Tax department before it issues a PAN Card. That is the beginning of the submission of annual record of your income and expenditure. You cannot breathe – or stop breathing without a record.

Optional Records

Beside these the creation of some records is optional. If you want a credit card, you have to create a record. So also for a cell phone. All your incoming, outgoing and missed calls are recorded. If you want the facility of an email, you have to give your record to the service provider. It is gratifying to know that the invisible and uncared for common man creates and leaves behind so many ‘foot prints’ and ‘visiting cards’ behind him. And then, every ten years the Census people descend on you to ask you to fill up forms asking information about your name, age marital status, sex (luckily, not its frequency), your contribution to the population, your ability to read or /and write, your income and what have you. That helps the government to create data about the growth and decline of key indicators about the national economy.

Form Filling

To create these numerous records, the citizen has to fill up forms – and then file them somewhere or the other on pain of penalty An average person has to fill up forms and file them for himself, his spouse, his children and his parents. Some one should undertake research n how many forms one has to fill in is lifetime in order to live peacefully. To some extent it is necessary for the sake of keeping records which again are necessary for accountability, particularly in public organizations. It is necessary for officials not only to do things but also to show how and why they did that. They sometimes create data to cover their acts of commission and omission – and to cover themselves!

I detest filling up forms. I loathe their look. They scare me; they intimidate me; they horrify me. I look at them. If they are optional, I throw them gleefully in the waste paper basket. If they are mandatory, I swear at them and then push them aside to fill them up in good time. Every time they stare at me and threaten me with dire consequences of crossing the last date. My dislike for form filling is particularly acute because of the habit of not filling them over decades. Some one always filled them up and I only signed at places marked with a cross in pencil. The rest was automatic. I only saw forms and signed them away. And then I found one day that I had to fill them up on my own. I saw for the first time that my days were inundated with forms that had to be filled up by a fixed date and filed in different offices some of whose existence I wasn’t even aware of. Time had come for me to reap the crops created by forms filled up earlier for me by my minions and which I had only deigned to sign. To do that I had to fill up another bundle of forms. Forms for claiming life insurance, for getting my provident fund, gratuity and the like. I had to mention facts of which I was genuinely ignorant, like my wife’s date of birth. To ask her was to invite trouble. To guess it was to run the risk of giving false information and to clear the confusion, to have to fill another form. The only columns that I could confidently filled were few. I consulted a friend in similar plight who showed me his form. He had yet filled up only a few columns but assured me that he was making progress and could help me. I had a look at his form. It read as follows:

Name: Ram Mohan
Father’s name: Krishna Kumar (as told by mother).
Born: yes
Sex: occasionally
Marital status: normal

I knew that he was not the one I could turn to for help.

Saral Form

Of all the forms that send a tremor down my frame is the one to be sent to the Income Tax department. It does not brook any bona fide oversight. It calls it a ‘false return’. It accuses you of ‘concealing income’. It can send you to jail for that. Its 'saral' - easy and assessee –friendly form consists of four pages to be filled in duplicate (or is triplicate?) and to be accompanied with enclosures. There is no question of extension of the last date of filing the return. If the organization deducting your tax at source has not sent you the certificate, you cannot claim that. It is your responsibility to secure it or forego the benefit. I keep my accounts scrupulously. I prepare my tables of income and expenditure with the utmost care. I check them again and again. Then I sent round a word that I am looking for a seasoned form-filler. I even advertise for some one who can do a safe job of filing up the form for me. Timidly, I pay a little more tax than is due. It is better to get a refund than to get a notice for having ‘concealed’ some part of income. A minor oversight is publicized; a conscientious return is ignored. I relax when the refund comes, but then the panic of having to fill up the form for the next year begins to seize me.


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