Last Monday, I stepped into the air conditioned office of NADRA (acronym for National Database & Registration Authority) in Liberty Market and noticed the delightful drop in temperature from the scathing early summer sun outside, to the gentle serenity of air conditioning.
I took in a few breaths of cool air and surveyed my surroundings: chairs, windowed booths, a machine vending tokens, one staff member walking briskly towards a corridor and a guard looking at me with raised eyebrows and mild suspicion.
There were people in the chairs, of course, holding firmly onto their token numbers. People of all ages, shapes and sizes. Death might be the great equaliser but so is Nadra. I remember the previous time I went there to get my CNIC made. I was sitting next to legendary Sufi singer Abida Parveen. One would think she’d be the last person in this country to need ‘identifying.’ But the state must issue everyone an identity. My previous time at Nadra? More on that in a bit.
The wait was long, I could see from the token numbers flashing on the panels and necks cradled on shoulders in partial naps; the wait was long but not arbitrary, token numbers were processed with a consistent frequency and the people occupying the chairs kept changing, as details were confirmed, photos taken and an expected date of arrival conveyed, within 7-10 days with an extra fee for ‘Urgent,’ in a little over two weeks otherwise, with the normal processing fee of the new Smart Cards set at Rs400. Urgent was Rs800, and Executive 1600; the last delivered within 4-6 days.
The new home delivery offer for only a 100 rupees meant there was less rush for card collection.
The Smart Cards have an electronic chip containing all your data and potentially new data entry for licenses and electronic voting. It’s also harder to duplicate. The pictures on these identification cards are noticeably better too, less grainy.
There are times when the server was down, or a system needed to be rebooted, but the interruptions were short and smoothly handled with a polite smile and an apology. Fingerprints were taken on a biometric scanner, and most of the time was consumed in telling people how much, and where, pressure was to be applied when putting their fingers down.
This is all in stark contrast to when I went to get my CNIC renewed about five years ago, to the same facility in Liberty Market. That previous time! The first thing I remember is the lack of air conditioning. The same amount of chairs, the same amount of people but instead of calmly holding onto token numbers, they were agitated, getting up and down, loosening a collar, unfurling a dupatta. The tone of the Nadra personnel was similarly short-tempered, drenched in sweat, snapping at every question. Not even a greeting, let alone a smile.
I waited, five hours in the stifling heat, and Abida Parveen waited next to me. She had a grace of manner to take it all in, sitting and sweating calmly, that I didn’t. I would frequently go up to the counter and ask how long, only to be told to go back to my chair. What chair, every time I got up I lost a place to sit. There were more people than space to fit them in. I could hardly breathe.
The system was down, the camera wasn’t working, someone was always gone for a tea break, the excuses were never ending. The disgruntlement of the people became an ambient noise, so that when my turn finally arrived they got my name wrong, twice. I shouted at the man trying to confirm my details, hoping that would help. The louder I shouted the more the background noise went up. Almost in retaliation.
People who had lost their CNICs or were there for duplicates were told to stand on one side and not hold up the renewal and first-timer queues. They stood there the entire time I was present. Five years later, I honestly expected them to still be standing there.
When my turn was done and I was told to go on my way, I was about ready to cry in relief. There was a similarly cruel sun outside, but there was fresh air too, and oxygen. I went home hoping to never have to go through something like that again.
Three weeks later I picked up a card for someone called Haseeb Akif, who lived in the house a street down from mine, and it was torture all over again.
I’m not sure about the rest of the country, or even the rest of Lahore, but Nadra’s Liberty office has come a long way from the stone ages.