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OP-ED: Welcome to Digital Bangladesh, almost

  • Published at 12:10 am October 23rd, 2020
Bangladesh high commission, London
The view from outside the Bangladesh High Commission in London. Despite appointments, still crowded and inefficient.

We have successfully digitized many operations, then why such pathetic inefficiencies at our high commissions?

This op-ed, like so many op-eds, is to do with a complaint. The complaint, like so many complaints, begins with a non-resident Bangladeshi (NRB) wishing to visit Bangladesh. 

Complaints about visa processes are not new. But our high commission in London sets such a uniquely high threshold of vexation that it’s worth reporting. The shambolic system they’re running makes a total mockery of Digital Bangladesh. 

My ordeal began with the application form that one finds on the Bangladesh High Commission (BHC) website dedicated to the UK. My UK passport needed either a visa or a No Visa Required (NVR) stamp. Covid suspended visa-on-arrivals, and so I had to turn to our revamped, all-digital application form fit for the 21st century.

Stage 1: The application form

For reasons unknown, the online application cannot be filled on a Mac. It may be that we are making a statement. A statement against the age of Apple. A statement against dismal working conditions in dimly lit Chinese factories supplying to Apple HQ in sunny California.

What’s more, all browsers don’t play ball with our mission’s website, or vice versa. Fail to note the correct browser, as I did, your online form is doomed for a crash on reaching the final page. Mea culpa for not paying attention to the essentials -- gone are the days when all browsers would work on all websites. This was like travelling back in time, and more crucially, a premonition of what was to follow.

The online form is called “online” because it is filled online. Logic enough. But when you press submit, the form presumably goes nowhere -- you are asked to take a printout of the completed form instead. You are asked to bring it to the BHC during your appointment, which you secure by finding a timeslot. The payment is not taken online, either, and that could be the reason why the online form doesn’t go anywhere. You bring the printout along with your bank card and do things the old-fashioned way: Face-to-face.

Stage 2: The appointment at 28 Queen’s Gate

Each appointment slot is given out from 10 in the morning, and as evident on the website, they are 15-minute slots. I got mine at 12:15pm, and I needed a printout for that email confirmation too. We love hard copies, despite being Digital Bangladesh.

At the high commission, the queue stretches so far back that the pavement break on Queen’s Gate compels a second queue to be formed at the opposing end. People in the queue know themselves to be at the mercy of the BHC officers: Waiting, hoping, making calls on FaceTime and WhatsApp, assuring their loved ones that they would get the all-important stamp needed to fly home. 

At midday, there were applicants who were due for appointment at 10:30am. They had their confirmation printouts, too. I marvelled at everyone’s patience. No one questioned the purpose of the appointment slot. 

A middle-aged man, presumably of Mediterranean background, wanted to know if this conga line is for the Thai embassy, our neighbours at 29-30. Periodically, a man from inside the BHC would come out, enquiring and examining our printouts. With practiced aplomb he detected one NRB who had turned up without a hard copy of his online form. 

A wordy clash followed, as the applicant kept pointing to his phone: “I have filled the form online.” No sympathy for the rule-breaker. “Printout, printout,” the BHC man exclaimed and I sympathized with his frustration. There are markers on the pavement outside the mission, aiming to keep everyone 1m apart, but it is somehow lost in practice. At least, unlike most Londoners, this crew of mostly Bengalis were diligently donning masks. 

Momentarily, things got a wee heated as a woman, seemingly of an elite variety, jumped the queue. But the democratized crowd was having none of such presumption and, following barked out protests, the lady meekly retracted her steps and offered us an apology. I admit to relishing the moment perhaps a tad too much. 

The queue moved slowly and occasionally someone would seek permission from the rest of us to break out of the line. It’s usually one of two things: Someone elderly needs to sit down by the edge of the pavement or someone announces they drank too much water this morning. You leave dignity at home when you come to 28 Queen’s Gate.

Digital Bangladesh

In all fairness, I noticed the officials at the BHC working tirelessly. They didn’t take any breaks, forprayer or otherwise. It is the system that’s failing them. Compare this experience to our neighbouring India, whose GDP we recently surpassed. I applied for an Indian visa last year, and the entire process took two working days from the time of filing the online application, which took 15 minutes. Furthermore, I didn’t have to leave my desk, or hunt for a non-Mac computer. 

It’s been a decade that we have been working on the wonderful concept of Digital Bangladesh. And we have had remarkable achievements in digitizing many operations in the country. 

So, why such pathetic inefficiencies at our embassies? I can’t imagine the experience is too different for most visa-seekers in our other embassies. But London surely should get some priority, and given the large number of NRBs, it is something for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to consider. 

As a director of the Dhaka Lit Fest, we have heard a litany of complaints from our authors over the years. At times we thought maybe they expect too much! 

After my personal ordeal, I have to admit they were, if anything, rather polite in registering their pains. In many cases, the pain didn’t end at the embassy but pursued them -- and us organizers -- all the way to immigration at Dhaka. I’ll never forget the total indifference to a Nobel Laureate -- Sir VS Naipaul -- in a wheelchair by the on-arrival visa counter at Dhaka airport. 

We pride ourselves on our hospitality. And now as a modern techno-savvy nation. But the experience at the BHC fails to live up to either of those claims, and also with the performance of peer-level nations. 

For both Digital Bangladesh and for Vision 2021 (now right around the corner), we can and must show a much better face to the world.

Ahsan Akbar is co-founder and director of Dhaka Lit Fest.

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