Sunday, 1 August 2010

A Cancer Without Cure

I am a member of Delhi Traffic Police's Facebook page, along with 17000 others. In the initial month or so, whenever someone used to sneer about traffic policemen taking bribes, I used to admonish them - no one can force you to give a bribe; follow traffic rules and then you won't have to deal with bribes; when you are stopped and challaned, just pay the fine, don't plead to be let off as that opens the doors for bribes.

I have always had this holier-than-thou attitude towards bribes and `baksheesh'. When the postman who brought my passport asked for `chai-paani' I told him to take the passport back. I was convinced I could use RTI to get my passport. And I have once used RTI to get the DDA to redress a problem caused by bribe-giving neighbours.

But that attitude has taken a serious blow.

If one is stopped for a traffic violation, there are two alternatives. One can either pay the fine on the spot and get a receipt. If one doesn't have the money or wants to challenge the challan, one has to surrender the driving licence/registration certificate and go to court.

Simple and straightforward isn't it?

But no.

Several people have written in on the DTP page complaining about arbitrariness by traffic policemen. Violators are stopped and either higher penalties than what the offence warranted are slapped on them or they are told to pay the fine in court even if they are prepared to pay right then.

The purpose behind this? Psyche violators into pleading to be let off and succumbing to bribe demands. In some cases, they didn’t even wait for the offender to plead. The choice was given right away – pay us a bribe or pay the challan in court. Some succumbed, others didn't and had to do the rounds of courts or had more charges slapped against them.

Some incidents made my blood run cold.

One young man was stopped on the grounds of having jumped a red light. He pointed out that the traffic signal wasn't working properly. When another motorist stopped and supported him, the policemen tried to note his number so that they could slap a few challans on him!!

Another person was stopped and told to pay Rs 1000 fine for jumping the red light (though the fine is only Rs 100) or pay a bribe of Rs 200. When he protested, the lone constable added false charges of drunken driving and lack of documents. When the young man refused to sign the challan with these false charges, another offence of misbehaviour with a public servant was added. His driving licence was impounded and he had to make two trips to the court to get it back.

I had said on the page once that this is nothing but extortion and thuggery by the traffic policemen.

What is even more worrying is that I had raised a few broad questions for senior traffic police officials to answer – is there a policy to slap a Rs 1000 penalty for jumping the red light; if a person is willing to pay the challan on the spot can the policeman insist that it be paid in court; if one challenges a challan, what are the procedures? There has been total silence on this, though I have repeated these questions (though the special commissioner (traffic) has intervened in a couple of instances). Clearly the traffic police brass are either unwilling or unable to check their men on the street.

The only uplifting aspect of all this is a few people refusing to pay bribes and even those who have are coming out into the open and explaining the circumstances in which they paid the bribe and identifying the policemen. In each case, it shows up police bullying at its worst. It’s easy to say stand up to bullying but it’s far more difficult to practice.

The young man in the first incident decided to pay in court rather than pay a bribe. But one of the other page members said that in court, these cases are treated summarily, so the judge has no time to listen to one’s explanations. And as the second incident shows, the ordeal isn’t over in one day.

Paying the fine on a wrong charge and then contesting it also doesn’t help. The special commissioner traffic, intervening in one complaint of a wrong challan, told the complainant he could go meet a particular officer but there is no provision to refund a challan. The police holds all the aces; the people hold all the duds.

In 2004, I was part of a team that brought out a Liberal Budget. One criticism made was that there was nothing in the document to reduce or eliminate corruption. I had responded that we believe scope for corruption would fall dramatically if the state gets out of micro-managing the economy and red tape reduced. Indeed, examples are often cited of how there is no need for bribes to get a telephone connection merely because supply has increased.

But all this logic falls flat when one comes across the kind of extortion that Delhi’s traffic police are indulging in.

But why only the police?

Take income tax. A very well-respected economist, who had been with the Planning Commission long back, had some income coming in as consultant. Being honest to the core, he didn’t show false expenditures and his accounts were all in order. Nothing hanky panky at all But the assessing officer asked his chartered accountant for a bribe – he gave a list of things worth Rs 10,000. The accountant said he could not ask his client. He told the officer who the gentleman was, only to be told that the officer was sitting on a senior cabinet minister’s file! He told the accountant that if he could not ask his client, he should pay the bribe out of his own fees.

Jurist Leila Seth, in her memoirs, talks about how an inspector refused to give the completion certificate for her house, because she refused to bribe. After much pressure he came and said some essential construction was 4 inches less than the required measurement. Leila Seth spent double the amount he was asking as bribe to break down that particular element and reconstruct it. And the guy still took a year to give the certificate. When told who she was, he said I have made ministers and cabinet secretaries succumb.

My friend Sunil Varma’s angst-ridden Facebook status message -- "I'm convinced, we Indians are the most corrupt people in the world! p.s. - Any argument with me on this assertion is quite pointless..." – set off this post.

Sunil gives the example of his friend’s husband who tried to get a power connection for his factory through legitimate means. Apparently the electricity would be cut off every day on grounds of load shedding. The poor man finally had to succumb.

Increasing supply of goods and service providers could eliminate corruption in some areas. This gentleman may not have had to succumb to bribe demands if power distribution was not a monopoly. Technology can also help – it has reduced the role of touts in regional transport offices.

But what is the solution to the kind of extortion that we are seeing on Delhi's roads and in income tax offices? You can't have competition in law and order enforcement or in tax assessment and collection (though many of my libertarian friends may say yes, you can).

I just want to repeat something I said on Sunil's page - corruption is no longer something about which to feel sad about. It's bloody scary.