Saturday, October 06, 2018

Apostille of Fake Degrees

Last week I signed up for a UN assignment in Afghanistan. It was the culmination of a long drawn out selection process - online applications, verification of credentials and interviews. I need to be in Kabul for two months for the independent evaluation of an FAO project.

Having visited, worked and stayed in a few countries over the past 23 years, I thought I was familiar with the formalities involved in international travel. In this case, instructions from FAO were quite clear: "Approach Embassy with all relevant documents - Passport, photographs, degree certificate photocopy and original , signed contract document, MOFA reference number. Ticket is not necessary for visa".  

At the Afghan Embassy visa counter however, the officer flipped through my documents and asked me a question that left me quite stunned. "How do we know", she asked with genuine concern, "That your degree certificates are not fake?"

I tried telling her that, in the first place, I would not be selected by the UN for an assignment if I had fake degrees. I had two Master's degrees - the first from IRMA and the other from Tsukuba University, Japan. Both could easily be verified online on the official alumni pages. Also, I had got the second degree on a full scholarship from the World Bank - a fact that could be easily verified on a Google search since my entire Master's thesis was available online. 

The visa officer was unmoved. "Rules are rules", she insisted, "If your highest degree is from Japan, it has to be endorsed by the Japanese Embassy in India. All Indian degrees have to be verified by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA)". She also added helpfully that applicants got it done at Patiala Courts where extra fees was charged for 'fast service'.

One of the lessons I had learnt is that there is no point arguing with with a Visa Officer. I walked out of the Afghan Embassy, crossed the road, and checked at the Embassy of Japan. They did not have any facility for "endorsing" certificates from Japanese universities. All they could do was to check with their registry and give me a letter saying that the university seal was genuine. This process would take at least three working days, and cost Rs. 2300. 

What next? I had no idea that MEA had anything to do with certification of education documents. Outside the Japanese Embassy, I set my files on a concrete blast-barrier and googled "India MEA education certificate endorsement". I got this page and learnt a new word: apostille.

It was a two-step procedure. First, the degree certificate had to be endorsed by a state government authority, and under Step-2 "MEA legalises the documents on the basis of the signature of the designated...authorities. Hence it does not take responsibility of the contents of the documents". MEA charged Rs.50 per document for this service. As expected, there was no mention of the time-frame involved.

Strapped for time, I now headed towards Patiala House Courts Complex, into the den of brokers, middlemen and lawyers dressed in 50 shades of black. In one of the many hole-in-the-wall offices, I presented by predicament to one of the broker-lawyers.  He feigned deep concern, quickly gauged my desperation level, and quoted his fees: Rs. 3000. 

So, for a government service worth Rs.50, I had to shell out Rs. 3000. Within this margin lies the thriving new economy of the apostilles. An education certificate from IRMA, an automomous education institution in Gujarat, is endorsed by a Sub-Divisional Magistrate in another state, Delhi, who proclaims it as genuine. Based on this, MEA legalises it 'without taking any responsibility of the contents of the documents'.

Come to think of it, this is a racket no different from that of the Public Notaries who blindly attest any document with a Government of India seal. The only difference is that you get a fancy sticker with a flurry of seals and signatures behind an education certificate.

Why would any Embassy encourage this kind of daylight robbery? Is this merely the game of passing-the-buck between bureaucrats of different countries?  A friend who has worked in Afghanistan for over a decade said this rule was introduced in 2013 to avoid fake people with fake degrees from getting posh jobs in Afghanistan. It seems there are many such guys already in the country.  Also, it seems Afghan nationals too have been using fake certificates to enter the job market. He also added that brokers charged anything from Rs. 5,000 to Rs. 10,000 for a one-day service.

The latter was confirmed by a lawyer at Patiala Courts. There are thousands of Afghans studying in India, and it seems their government does not accept any education certificate from India unless it is attested by by MEA and the Ministry of Human Resources Development (MHRD)! 

No wonder the brokers at Patiala Courts are laughing all the way to the bank.


* Afghan Embassy - Visa Rules -

* MEA, India - Procedure for Attestation of Education Degrees -

Apostille Convention -

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