The checklist of inanity

In reality, it is a futile exercise that works for those who have connections


Muhammad Hamid Zaman June 01, 2021
The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of Biomedical Engineering, International Health and Medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

Anyone who has had to submit documents for a job, an exam, transfer of property, or pretty much anything is familiar with the need for “attested” documents. No one has been able to explain to me where this practice came from, and who started it, except that it has always been there. Like nearly everyone I know, I had to engage in this inanity thirty years ago as I applied for admission to college after my matric exams. Those who came after me did the same for other processes. Last month, a family friend had to engage in it again. In principle, the idea is that since people may make fraudulent copies of their documents, a government officer would look at the original, then look at the copy, make sure that the person bringing these documents is trustworthy, and then put his or her official signature on the document along with a stamp of authority. In the absence of a central database that could verify the documents, this was to serve as a system built on trust, where a federal officer would attest to the authenticity of the document.

In reality, it is a futile exercise that works for those who have connections. Those who are well-to-do or are connected get their documents attested from their friends, uncles, aunts or friends’ friends. I have seen — as I am sure many others who will read these words — documents attested by federal officers without asking any questions about what are they attesting, where the originals are, and whether the originals are even available. I have seen officers attesting while not even looking at the documents (over a cup of tea), and then scribbling the document with an illegible signature that can never be checked. I have seen documents attested by officers where the driver of Mr So and So came to get them attested. I am sure others have many more stories to add to the list of this scam. I have seen those who ask for attested documents look for nothing but a green scribble on the copy. While this inane and mind-numbing exercise works well for those on the upper end of the socio-economic spectrum, the documents coming from servants, impoverished shopkeepers and laborers, get excessive scrutiny, as of course in our minds the cheats are only among the poor.

The inanity of attestation is just one example of us being incapable of moving away from a system that is both rigid and unknown in its origin, and bizarre and useless in reality. If anyone has gotten an official letter from the government office, they would have invariably seen strange words that have always been a part of our vocabulary but no one knows why they are there, why do we keep using them, and what do they even signify. A letter from HEC last week informed me that “relevant applications have now been assigned to your goodself via online HEC Research Management System”. Goodself (and I checked that particular email, and previous emails to make sure that it was indeed the word used) is not listed as a word in either Oxford dictionary or Merriam-Webster. I asked around to find out why the government documents continue to use it? Most had no clue. One person elaborated and said that it has always been used by competent authorities!

There has been some discussion on trying to generate a sense of critique and critical thinking in our CSS exams. Some have even posted previous exams that are on the far end of crazy. But maybe, to generate some critical thinking in future competent authorities, we may beg to request if the goodselves of future officers would be pleased to inform us why we continue the practices that have no basis in reason, efficiency or good governance.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 1st, 2021.

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