MELISSA BLOCK, host:
With all the outsourcing of call centers and IT support to India, you might think most paperwork there is handled electronically. Well, in fact, an impressively large portion of the Indian economy still functions on actual paper. Piles and piles of paper documents.
David Kestenbaum of NPR's Planet Money team was in New Delhi and brought back a really big book.
DAVID KESTENBAUM: This book, and I have it here, it's actually a ledger and it's the most gigantic ledger I have ever seen. On the cover it says PBR for pay bill register. It's intended for some government clerk keeping track of employees. And if you open it up, there are 40 columns for writing down overtime, license fee, motor conveyance advance, and oddly there's a column for computer advance here on paper.
It's kind of beautiful. And you can imagine across the country bureaucrats filling this book out and other books like it in very neat handwriting.
Karan Thapar is a well-known television journalist, and he remembers the first time he saw government paperwork up close.
Mr. KARAN THAPAR (Journalist): I remember going to the old income tax office way back in '76, walked into this room and I was mesmerized because there, sitting in this dank, dingy, dark room was this wee little mole of a creature buried in files, right? And there were these stacks that went up all the way to the roof with mildewed brown files decaying with age, brown with dust.
KESTENBAUM: This is not the most efficient way to run a tax office, a city government or anything. Thapar blames the Indian love of paperwork in part on the British. When India was a British colony, the Brits trained a generation of bureaucrats and they gave them sometimes meaningless jobs filling out forms. The Brits left but the paperwork stayed.
Mr. THAPAR: Our culture is obsessed with writing on files, sending papers, making notes, petitioning people. And then, of course, every file has to be signed upon on the left-hand side by everyone who's read it, and they all write their comments. And so you have two parallel files within each file: the file that contains the actual documents and then the side issue where people are signing to say they've read it, what they read and what it amounts to. It's a nightmare. A complete nightmare.
I mean, the great dream of a paperless office doesn't exist in India. It's only talked about.
KESTENBAUM: That story Thapar told was from the 1970s. So I went to visit a city government building in Delhi and it was exactly as he had described from 30 years ago - stacks of ledgers and documents, mountains of old paper.
Outside on the street, I ran into Prakash Chanisherma((ph), a student who said, oh, yeah, I had to go to court once. You should see the paper there.
Mr. PRAKASH CHANISHERMA (Student): There are some drawers or something. There's so much paper. Paper. Paper. Paper.
KESTENBAUM: How do you think they find anything? How do they find anything that's in those files?
Mr. CHANISHERMA: Do you know, sir, that they're magical people?
KESTENBAUM: They're magical people?
Mr. CHANISHERMA: They are magical. They know everything.
KESTENBAUM: To be fair, a lot of the world is still like this. In the United States, a lot of people still file their tax returns on paper, waiters still scribble things down on a pad. But paperwork and unnecessary paperwork can really slow an economy down.
I talked with people in India about this - people in business, in government, an economist - why does red tape persist? One theory is that some people want it to. Who? Well, anyone who wants a bribe. You need my signature? Sure, but if you want it today...
Another explanation was simply that governments move slowly. India has the world's largest - and some would say most unwieldy - democracy in the world.
I decided at some point to try to find the red tape factory. There has to be a place where all those government ledgers come from. A guide that took me into the maze of streets that is Old Delhi. You take a taxi to the edge but then the streets are so narrow, you have to switch to a rickshaw pulled by a guy pedaling a bike.
And somewhere in the maze, we find them - shop after shop selling paper, blank forms. They're stationery wholesalers. One store sells those giant government ledgers, and across the street there's a store that specializes in something I hadn't seen in years: carbon paper. The owner is Kamaljeet Singh Bajaj.
So where is all the carbon paper made in this country?
Mr. KAMALJEET SINGH BAJAJ (Store Owner): See, there are about four, five in the (unintelligible) hubs in and around Delhi. Ochla(ph) is one, Noida is one, Gurgaon, Monesa(ph), then (unintelligible), Sonipat and Basipul(ph) in the (unintelligible) area.
KESTENBAUM: Is there a big market for it?
Mr. BAJAJ: Actually, it's a dying industry, as you know. You know, people are going for computers and computerized billing.
Mr. BAJAJ: So over the last 30 years, I've seen a downfall by more than 75 percent.
Mr. BAJAJ: There was a time when carbon was such a hot-selling item. But now, you see, not so much.
KESTENBAUM: That's bad news for the carbon paper industry, maybe good news for everyone else.
David Kestenbaum, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.