We are used to talking about inefficiency, corruption, and the lack of punctuality in government offices in India. Offices invariably open late, and when they do, several staff are missing. They have taken casual leave, are congenital latecomers, or they have effectively never joined. Those that are there at their desks are, more often than not, not the people one needs to get one’s job done.

At times, as in a Kafka story, one comes back again and again to the office to meet the one officer who never turns up. All going well, the officer is on time, in his seat, and in a good mood. This combination is unlikely but does happen.

On looking at the documents that one produces, several possibilities arise. Some documents are missing, some documents are not the originals, the photocopies are not the ones they need, and of course, many passport-size photographs are needed. On the desk one sees the unseeing eyes of people staring out from dusty documents.

If the officer is in a good mood, s/he asks you to come before the office closes with the missing documents. Otherwise, there is just irritation that one has been there in an inefficient manner without corralling the necessary paperwork.

Given the principle that the officer is always right, one takes precautions. One gets to the office two to three hours before it opens to join the queue alongside people who have been there since the break of dawn. Some of them may have taken a few days off from their life and travelled in from neighbouring towns and villages. They have slept overnight (or for a few nights running) in whatever shelter is available outside the office. Or, they may have rented a cheap room nearby, shared with other supplicants and they cluster four or five to a room.

There is a lot of dead time; time spent in waiting. The wait before the queueing; the wait outside the office in a queue; the wait in the office before a window or table; the wait while the job is being done, or one is being ticked off. But there is another series that emerges if one has not got the necessary documents, photographs, affidavits and so on. One waits at the photocopying/scanning place, which also has facilities for phoning relatives and friends to source documents, as also instant Polaroid photographs.

A queue outside an ATM in Patna after demonetisation in 2016. Credit: PTI

Given that one may be in a queue, or series of queues, starting at daybreak and going on till late afternoon, the fact that one has a body asserts itself. Humans need to eat, drink, excrete, and sleep apart from complying with a regime of documents. And it is here that an entire economy springs up, beside the official one, and not subject to the uncertain reach of the tax regime of the state.

When one waits in a queue, one needs a pen, a stapler, clips, clear plastic folders, even perhaps a hard board with a clip to write on. One may need strings with metal ends to braid documents, and elastic bands to roll up papers and hold them together. And yes, one needs tea and snacks. One may want snacks which come in packets: biscuits, Haldiram savouries, or tobacco-laced arecanuts and menthol. One’s children (if one unfortunately has to come with them) may need sweets of many kinds from boiled sweets to eclairs.

And of course, at lunch time and teatime one may need rotis, curries, pakoras, samosas, chaat and so on. All that dead time generates needs: either immediate ones, preparatory ones, or prophylactic ones (photocopying or generating that extra document).

Dead time generates an economy. Every queue is a special economic zone surrounded by individuals and shops and temporary establishments that address and resolve needs and problems. This is the ground zero of the Indian economy, indeed of any economy in the global south. The fundamental question that homo economicus asks when they see a crowd of people, is what do they need?

So, while one may write on the inefficiency of the bureaucracy and the time lost as one measures out one’s life in queues, this dead time and inefficiency is what allows an entire economy to come up around crowded spaces. It takes a queue to raise a person from poverty. Not enough has been written about the marketing skills, entrepreneurship and initiative that undergird the economics of dead time in India.

India lives not in its villages, as Gandhi once said. India lives in its queues.

Dilip Menon is Mellon Chair of Indian Studies, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, and works on histories of the global south. He has recently edited Capitalisms: Towards a Global History (Oxford, 2020).