From Endorsing “No Bribes” To Actually Paying One – All In A Week

Posted on October 21, 2010 in Society

By Siddhartha Roy:

It’s a paradox of sorts. And one that makes me laugh at everything — all the efforts being directed towards making India a corruption-free nation. No matter how much you read or how well your research methods are — to really get the hang of any problem — nothing can substitute real-life experience. Corruption is a complicated problem and it cannot be viewed otherwise. And I firmly hope I do get my passport after I have made this public.

I attended a tech-fest at my alma mater in Ahmedabad where a meet was organized to discuss the ‘National Anti-Corruption Strategy-NACS’ (available here) unveiled by the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) that outlined strategies and methodologies for various stakeholders (from the Government and independent bodies to the media, the private sector and the general public) to thwart corruption in the society’s workings. Students were asked to voice in their opinions.

Researching extensively across mammoth documents, papers and even laws worldwide and trying to assess the NACS, this is the presentation (available here) I came up with. Amidst top bosses from CBI, ATS and CVC and the audience, throwing out statistics and discussing ways to ward off corruption wasn’t much of a task for any one.

Sure I can state that India ranks 84th in Corruption Perception Index 2009. That Black Money outside India is estimated at USD 1.4 trillion, higher than India’s GDP! And that according to a 2007 survey concerning BPL households (where they paid more than 883 crores in bribes), the Police are the Most Corrupt of all basic services with 48% of all interactions with Police resulting in bribe.

And all this is just a sneak peek of the myriad ways in which complex procedures, poor governance, overloaded judiciary, money leakage points and people with no integrity holding positions of power are wreaking havoc on growth possibilities, abetting poverty and denying India a glorious march towards becoming a super power. The meet (it was on a Thursday) was a suggestion galore — many worth implementing and some plain arrows aimed in the dark.

Little did I know that my tryst with bribery and corruption would happen that very week!

But before that, let me develop a little background. I require an Indian passport as a pre-requisite towards joining the MNC I got placed in through my University. Everyone gets tasks concerning the Government done through agents these days. More than a month ago, I completed the formalities on my own (and had to visit the Passport Collection Centre more than once — as the concerned Officer was on duty. The Indian Police System is overstretched on responsibilities and lacking in human resources – this often results in delays and repeated visits on the part of civilians. All this NOT CONSIDERING the corruption rampant inside)

The day I was wrapping up the Anti-Corruption meet, I received a call from the Police Station close to my place asking me to be present the next day with two witnesses I referred in my form ‘For Verification’. Shouldn’t the police be coming to my place and ascertaining the facts concerning my authenticity?

We drove 25 kms into the wilderness where the main Police Station is located in the evening. The staff was extremely helpful and cooperative and it was strange when my father called the typist on the side and handed him two hundred rupee notes which he refused at first but then took.

I asked him why did he need to shell out the money and he rationalized that at least everyone out there helped in getting all the documents right. It was for the diligence that he paid him the money. I don’t know if the money ever made its way up to the bosses but this didn’t exactly feel different from tipping a waiter or paying more for a cab. (Not that I am demeaning any of those acts by comparing but the fact that it didn’t seem like a bribe ‘to get things done’  or ‘that my work wouldn’t have been done if the money wasn’t paid’. Heck! No one on the staff even mentioned money in exchange for work.)

Before you, the reader, jump to any conclusions let me tell you this — I didn’t consider that a bribe. You may question the integrity of the typist who took it as to why he didn’t refuse. But I won’t.

The bribing episode hasn’t happened yet.

When the Sub-Inspector was signing a Certificate validating there haven’t been any criminal punishments or fines against me, he said I would require a similar Certificate from the Police Station under whose purview my University fell as I had been in Ahmedabad for four years. He asked me to do so urgently so that my file could be sent back immediately avoiding delays.

The very next day, after traveling four hours, I reached the Police Chowki next to my University to inquire about the location of the Police Station under whose jurisdiction it came. The place was about 20 kms away and when I did reach that place, there weren’t many policemen around. I learned that local elections were on (I should have been more careful by knowing about this beforehand but, considering my zero experience into how the police works, it wasn’t exactly my fault.) And those who were present asked me to come on Monday (It was a Saturday).

All I needed was two lines on half a page with a stamp stating that during my stint at the University, I wasn’t involved in any wrongdoing. And considering this is Gujarat where episodes concerning college students are significantly rare, I wonder one verification search through the case files would be enough for them to hand me one. I even offered to go to the constituency where the Officer was present that very hour and get it done.

I accept beforehand I might be naïve in some of my views but I am entitled to them based on whatever lies in front of me and one thing I do believe in is —  delays aren’t exactly a plus point no matter where. So, if the authority is absent (yet again like before), there must be some mechanism to ensure genuine work isn’t delayed — no matter how big and small. And sure the world doesn’t operate that way but efforts could be made.

I had no choice but to head home. Next evening I called up the Police Station and asked if the said authority would be available and was directed to come on Tuesday. So, again I set forth on Tuesday and was there even before the official timing of the authorities. I sat there for an hour before I got a chance to find the person in-charge and he heard my case —which is very simple — and said that I needed a certificate from my institute stating I had been a student there for four years.

I was carrying all my documents — including my provisional degree certificate and my photo I-Card — but he wouldn’t budge and also added that my work wouldn’t get done today. But asked me to write an application to him, attaching the bona fide certificate, and also leave my cell phone number so that I would be contacted when my Certificate ‘was ready’.

Now I live four hours away. I was real angry that I would have to make the trip back home and come again a third time to get my seemingly mammoth task done. Yet I reasoned perhaps this was essential for a background check and for their records.

So, I travelled back 20 kms to my University to get the Bona fide certificate which took 5 long hours to get done. I wonder when it comes to administrative work anywhere on Earth a lot of coaxing definitely is the norm if you want to get things done. I wasn’t going to be handed the bona fide certificate until the next day but coaxing and buttering prevailed. So, at 5 in the evening, I set forth, yet again, to the Police Station and when I did reach the place, it was deserted.

It was then that I decided. I am not going home without getting this measly task done.

The Lady Constable at the reception was buying cosmetics and home items from a sales man (which was nice in a way and showed me the human side of the tough force).

A long wait for more than an hour and when the fellow finally walked in, he directed me to his chamber. He came in and said that if I wished to get the Certificate that very instant, it would cost me 200 bucks. Or I could get it for free by coming “AGAIN” tomorrow.

Whoa! What? It was 7 in the evening. I wouldn’t reach back to my place till at least 11:30. And my father will have to drive some of the distance to pick me up. And this guy was ensuring I prolong my stay in case I wanted the document “free”.

What next, you ask? Negotiations! If you thought I was going to come back again (spend more money than the bribe, in fact, not to mention the added effort and travel fatigue) to make sure the transaction was corruption-free, you are wrong. I used the classic ‘student tactic’ we have developed over time. While talking to potential landlords (or flat owners who rent their apartments to students) or negotiable transactions involving money, we often resorted to lowering the price by reiterating the fact that we weren’t working professional but students and so some concession be made (It does work sometimes).

So, the 200 bucks came down to 100. Even while he is committing a full blown corrupt dealing, the man had the guts to suggest that since I was out of home, I should have more money on hands since expenses (like these!) are imminent. I almost burst out laughing.

The Police near to my place were good to enough to have printed the Certificate which was signed and placed a seal upon. This moron tore half of a page and, in his illegible handwriting, issued me the Certificate (which was supposedly impossible to obtain in the same day), happily pocketed the 100 rupee note with Gandhi shimmering in the dim tube light remarking that the Police do all they can to make our tasks easier (Sure, they do!) and I, finally, set forth for home. Four vehicles later (including the back of trolley considering in the dead of the night you don’t exactly find transportation on a highway), I made it home triumphant!

What do I make of this episode? Well, what do you make of it?