strider23 (strider23) wrote,

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Spoilt By Habit

Its common knowledge that our urban areas today are infested with corruption at every level. But most often that not, this knowledge is taken for granted to such an extent, that it becomes a strong deterrent to any kind of reformation attempt. Speaking for myself, since I got my driving license I had made up my mind that I will never bribe a traffic police official in case I get caught for any offence. Till date, in over 10 years that I have been driving around, I can recall at least 9 incidences of engagement with a Traffic Police Official over an offence (not counting the numerous others when i was ‘randomly’ halted for document checks). Out of these, I can proudly say, I managed to avoid the bribe on 6 occasions; on 5 of which I chose to pay the fine rather than paying the (much cheaper) bribe. And just once I argued and was acquitted. The remaining 3 times, the Traffic Police Official chose to take the (much cheaper) bribe rather than the actual fine I was willing to pay!

With such a conscious history of honest driving, I one day found myself in the company of three others in a Nissan Sedan on a busy junction at Koti, Hyderabad. With me on the back seat was a reputed Civil Engineer who ran his own private practice, and next to the driver was a Government Official from the State Health Department. As it so often happens on crowded inner city junctions in India, the driver missed the signal turning red and crossed the junction just as the traffic from the other side lurched forth catching him in the middle of the sea. A Traffic official arrived at the scene and signalled in true Hyderabadi fashion to park the car at the corner of the street. Though it was december the afternoon sun was still harsh. The traffic police official was in his usual white and brown uniform with a white helmet and a breathing mask (indigenous solution for pollution control). Scolding the driver in the local lingo, he demanded his driving license and the car registration papers; the usual protocol. This usually means that on producing the documents, the offender would either be fined or let off with a warning. But to my surprise the driver resisted showing the documents putting up a defense that he did not jump the signal. The traffic official seemed already irritated with the heat and the pollution and barked back at the driver asking him to show the documents. The driver again resisted, submissively though, saying he has the documents but it wasn’t his fault. After a few more such exchanges, my company of other two gentlemen started shifting in their seats as we were on our way to a meeting and sort of in a hurry. The government official intervened showing some clout by relating to the traffic official the he was ‘government’ too, but that didn’t influence matters either. The driver in the meantime kept acting as if he is taking out some papers from the glove compartment but wasn’t really doing so. The Engineer now joined in protest with the government official, to no specific avail. And after a moment’s pause during which time all three men in protest passed quick glances at each, sort of acknowledging the fact that the wallet had to come out. Taking out a couple or more 10 rupee notes the Engineer handed it over to the driver from the back seat. The driver  then secretively tried to pass it over to the traffic official so that matters can be settled. The usual formula is for the traffic official to deny at first offering, perhaps deny a second or third time as well and then simply take it looking the other way simultaneously signalling the ‘go’. But this particular traffic personnel seemed dumbfounded at being offered money through the car window hidden in the palm of a hand. He retorted back visibly offended, ‘tereko samajh mein nai aara main kya poochron?” (do you not understand what I am asking?). He barked out a few more scoldings to the driver who kept relenting to hand over the money as swiftly as possible. The other two again joined the driver in trying to persuade the traffic official to take the money and let go. But there was no convincing the traffic official, and he kept deflecting the hand of the driver from putting the money into his own. When no amount of protest and shoving seemed to work, the driver finally withdrew his hand and reluctantly handed over the documents to the traffic official. He looked at the documents, handed them back and signalled the ‘go’ stepping away from the vehicle. Everyone was as surprised as they were relieved, except me who was just amused.

The episode has stayed with me ever since. Was it that the traffic official merely wanted to see the documents and let go with a warning? Was it that driver was afraid that his documents would be seized? Or was it that the Engineer who was the owner of the car was trying to save money by opting to pay the cheaper bribe rather than the heavy fine (which in this case would not have been more than 100 rupees or so). Whatever the case be, as far as I was concerned the episode simply showcased the usual mentality of the middle class in India. Bribing one’s way out of any difficulty has become so inherent in our culture that people tend to resort to it at every instance. When in reality, it need not be so. I remember one instance where i was ready to pay a fine of 1100 rupees in cash, and the Traffic Official maybe thinking me some kind of a retard wrote down a receipt of just a nominal 100 rupees! One has to seriously pause and ponder over such little things in life which are sure to be picked up by our coming generations. What do we teach our kids in school and what example will we set in front of them in real life situations? Its not who we are underneath, but our actions that define us. And in most cases we are just spoilt by habit, not by nature. One has to consciously break that habit in order to put a check against the growing plague of corruption at the lowest levels of urban functioning.

Abdul Bari,
Father, also Architect & Urban Designer

Tags: corruption, culture
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