When my partner and I had first set out to start a small café in Santiniketan, we had to apply to a gram panchayat for a trade licence. Our years in Mumbai had not taught us how to deal with gram panchayats, but we managed to get the licence without any hassle.
Since we were in the food business, we also needed a “health” licence, certifying we were adhering to cleanliness norms. The chief medical officer of health (CMOH) of the sub-divisional hospital at Bolpur (the adjoining town of Santiniketan) was the issuing authority for the health licence and we got ours rather easily. Over the years, we also managed to get our licences renewed annually without any trouble — nobody ever came to inspect (in all our six years) if we were adhering to any health norms.
This year, when we went for our annual licence-renewal ritual, we were informed that the medical officer in Bolpur had retired and we would now need to go to the district headquarter in Suri. So, our café manager took the morning bus to Suri with all the relevant papers — the trade licence, the heath licence, the rent agreement for the premises in which the café is and the owner’s identity proof.
Once he reached the office of the CMOH and stood in the queue, he came to know that there were now a whole new set of rules to which we would have to comply since the the Food Safety and Standards Act had come into force in 2011. So, he returned to Santiniketan. When we heard about this, we felt quite elated thinking that all the dirty eateries in West Bengal (where flies come for free) would be better monitored. Armed with a central law, we thought, the government was finally waking up to the need to inspect food joints. Little did we know that the “inspection” had nothing to do with food safety.
The first “objection” the CMOH had to the papers that we had submitted was that the rent agreement only had the postal address of the premises, and not the plot details according to the land revenue records. So, we got in touch with our landlady and redid the agreement. The next time we went, the CMOH wanted a copy of the rent receipt (bank statements showing electronic deductions would not do). Satisfied that we were indeed operating out of a legitimate place, we were finally given a form to fill.
We took it back home and filled it with great enthusiasm. The form asked for the annual turnover, and just to be extra diligent, we attached a monthly break-up too. Since we were convinced that we had all that it would take to get our licence renewed, we decided to make an outing of a boring task, and packed a picnic lunch for our day-out in Suri.
There we were, standing in the queue again, along with several other small sweetmeat shop owners and grocery shop operators, who had shut their establishments for the day and undertaken long bus journeys to come to Suri. When we finally reached the head of the queue, the babu looked at our papers and said all is fine, except that he needed the café’s balance sheet too. Just turnover figures would not do, the CMOH needed a full-fledged profit and loss statement!
As we got into the car for the journey home, knowing we would make another trip to Suri, we wondered whether the CMOH was also a qualified chartered accountant.