Pushing Paper

The waning relevance of Andhra Pradesh’s document writers

Document writers generally work from small rooms outside sub-registrar offices, which are official government buildings that register paperwork for property transactions, marriages, trusts and societies. SWATI SANYAL TARAFDAR
01 July, 2016

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.

Corruption is one reason why, across the state, document writers such as Balakrishna—reportedly numbering about 150,000, although official statistics are not available—are seeing the relevance of their profession wane. While historically they were influential players in political affairs, they are being increasingly phased out by digitalisation processes put in place by the state government, in its attempts to increase efficiency and counter corruption. But many of these workers are not resigned to the loss of their livelihood; through means ranging from conducting strikes to expanding their services, document writers are struggling to stay in business.

Long ago, document writers were powerful keepers of history. In present-day Andhra Pradesh, starting in the twelfth century, document writers took the form of village accountants—karnams in Telugu. Rama Sundari Mantena, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who has researched Indian historiography, told me in an email that karnams “kept records of a given village noting boundaries, land holdings as well as histories of temples and prominent families in the village.” They served many other functions too, including surveying lands and helping settle business disputes. In the late-nineteenth century, after the British colonised India, these karnams started being called “document writers,” and were enlisted to do clerical and documentation work for the Raj. Later, after the British left the country, the Indian government affirmed the importance of document writers, creating a licensing system in which they had to pass a written examination and a typing test.

Many document writers I spoke to named Surat Balakrishna as one of the most respected document writers in Andhra Pradesh.

Balakrishna, inspired by the example of olden-day karnams, has delved deep into the profession by amassing knowledge in related disciplines—especially surveying. As president of the Andhra Pradesh Licensed Surveyors’ Association, he believes surveying—which involves the mapping and measuring of land plots—is crucial to ensure accurate documentation, and he laments that its practice has been neglected for decades. “We are paying the price for this negligence now,” he told me, between attending phone calls at his desk. “Our records are not updated and accurate” he said—which leads to many problems in documentation. Many document writers I spoke to said that Balakrishna, with his expertise in surveying, is known for being one of the most meticulous and competent document writers in Andhra Pradesh.

But even respected document writers must contend with the prospect of their profession becoming obsolete. In 2002, as India made strides towards digitalisation, the licensing system for document writers was scrapped. The district registrar Gudisa Bala Krishna, who supervises the functions of the registration and stamps department in the eastern part of Vijayawada, stressed the absence of the licensing system as a reason why “the government has no responsibility towards” document writers. “Those people who claim themselves as document writers,” he said, “are actually agents” who “create more problems than they solve” through their corruption.

Venkata Potluri, a document writer who works near an SRO in Vijayawada—a different one from Balakrishna’s—also said document writers were often compelled to engage in bribery, but his account pinned the blame on a different party: SRO government officials. “So far,” he said, “the rule is that, for property transactions, the bribe money”—paid to the officials—“is 1 percent of the value of the property.” But “recently, the officials are demanding more,” he added.

Though almost all states have document writers, Andhra Pradesh is one of the first states that has made strides towards getting rid of theirs. In 2014, the state government delegated some of the functions of the registration and stamps department to a semi-private IT company that allows people to complete simple tasks, such as printing birth certificates, online. In response, hundreds of the state’s document writers went on strike for two days. The Hindu reported that transactions at 20 SROs in the area around Vijayawada were affected—though the document writers did not achieve any long-term gains.

Protests struck again this February, when the government announced that it is contemplating making it possible for individuals to digitally submit all registration applications. This led to another strike, in which most of the state’s document writers gave up work for two days. Potluri, who participated by sitting on the road in dharna, told me that “the government lost a lot of money.” In a press release, the Andhra Pradesh Document Writers’ Association claimed the strike had caused a Rs 20-crore loss to the state exchequer.

To survive digitalisation, document writers across Andhra Pradesh have diversified their operations. Many have started consultancies in property or insurance management; others have entered the construction business. Some, though, have simply shuttered.

But Potluri remained optimistic. “Despite digitalisation,” he told me, “many of us will continue working, because it is not easy to remove manual work” in the registration and stamps department. Balakrishna seemed similarly unthreatened. “Knowledgeable and skilled people will always be in demand,” he said. He was even optimistic about digitalisation, calling it a “welcome change for society” that would bring greater transparency.

Digitalisation is often touted as a panacea for the corruption practised by many document writers. But, for all his criticism of the profession, Gudisa Bala Krishna was sceptical of such claims. The truly corrupt activities that occur in the registration and stamps department, he said, are perpetrated by the cream of society. “You certainly know who buys the most expensive luxury apartments, and who needs to save on the associated taxes,” he told me. “The common people may take advantage of the situation, but it’s those people who controls majority of the society’s wealth who needs to continue the system of corruption.”