Each workday at around 10 am, Surat Balakrishna reaches his office by way of a serpentine lane behind the newest mall in Vijayawada—the “business capital” of Andhra Pradesh. A soft-spoken 43-year-old man with curly hair, he prays and lights a lamp before small clay statues of deities of business and wealth, which sit on a wooden shelf above his desk. This silent ritual marks the calm before Balakrishna’s daily storm. Once work begins, his small office becomes a standing-room-only space, crammed with helpers, assistants and clients.
For the past nine years, Balakrishna has been a document writer: a third-party agent who helps people fill out and file official paperwork to obtain documents such as sales agreements, wills and property registrations. He had worked for 13 years as a journalist before becoming a document writer, he told me, and his “intention to remain truthful and accurate” has helped him gain respect in the profession. Balakrishna works from a small room in a building opposite a sub-registrar office, or SRO—a branch of the central government’s registration and stamps department, which processes paperwork for property transactions, marriages, trusts and societies. All day, like the approximately 100 other document writers who work outside the SRO, Balakrishna fills out and compiles official forms, adds in the required government fees and has either his helpers or his clients submit the completed paperwork. He cannot deliver the documents himself, because document writers are legally barred from SRO premises.
One of the reasons for this restriction is that document writers are often associated with corruption. When I asked if he just enclosed the government fees with the paperwork, Balakrishna tried to hide a smile as he admitted that “a little more has to be packed in” to line the pockets of officials.
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