Years ago when I had just come back to India from England — and was therefore a sitting duck for conmen – I would be taken by the longest possible route by taxi drivers. (In fact, I distinctly remember one cabbie getting ‘lost’ in Malabar Hill in south Mumbai and taking me around in circles).
I remembered this when reading about the recent flash strike by autorickshaw drivers in the city. What were they protesting about? Their right to cheat.
The Regional Transport Office (RTO) decided it would conduct a check for tampered autorickshaw meters. On the first day of their drive, RTO officials checked 200 of them and found more than half to have been tampered with. Then they seized a hundred more.
That’s not all: a raid on a ‘workshop’ yielded 160 meters that had been brought in to be temporarily ‘un-tampered’ while the RTO drive was on!
Will the Lokpal be able to look into this?
Will the Lokpal also look into the scene at our octroi checkpoints? Not too long ago, octroi workers went on a morcha protesting against a government move to abolish octroi nakas. Everyone knows that you can’t move an inch there without paying up according to their ‘Rate card’. It’s like an additional tax which all goods transporters have to shell out, the only difference being that it goes into the pockets of government servants, rather than into the pockets of the government.
The paying of official and unofficial taxes, the negotiations of rates, etc, takes so long that you see long queues of trucks at every naka, each one stuck there for hours and hours. Obviously this affects the turnaround time of transport, thus jacking up rates, which in turn increases the cost of what a customer pays for the goods.
After years of debate and discussion, the government decided that a more efficient way of collecting taxes should be devised. Obviously, this would make octroi workers redundant. But the workers weren’t worried about losing their jobs; after all, they were to be absorbed in other departments. What they were worried about, and shouting themselves hoarse about, is that they would no longer get their illegal loot. As blatant as that.
What about the chai-paani routinely demanded by traffic cops? The cost of tea goes up according to your vehicle, not the rule you have broken: a taxi-driver gets away paying Rs 10 while a Merc owner will pay Rs 100. Go to the RTO office – the same people out to reform errant auto rickshaws – and the place swarms with touts. I am told that a determined effort has been made to clean up the place, but I wouldn’t know. I try not to go there.
Isn’t that what we all do? Try and avoid dealing with corruption directly? We get someone else to do the dirty work for us. An industrialist friend of mine, who is as upright as can be, admits as much to me. “Do what you have to do,” he tells his executives, “Just don’t tell me about it.”
Does he have a choice? He tells me of an incident which took place a few years ago. His company was making an export shipment to a new client. It was the very first lot to go, completed against a stiff deadline, so there was a mood of subdued celebration around. Just as the parcels were to be loaded into containers, ‘inspectors’ arrived (they are able to smell money from miles away).
The inspectors inspected. They inspected again. Everything was in order. “We can’t let this go,” they said. Why, if everything is in order? “Your label is only in English.” But the parcels are going to the United States!! “A rule is a rule,” the inspectors said. “Your labels should be printed in English and Marathi.”
The more you ask around, the more anecdotes you hear, all pointing to a central fact: it’s impossible to do anything without corruption. Corruption is our birthright, and we shall have it, Anna Hazare or not.