Greater Vehicle, Lesser Vehicle, no matter.
All vehicles will be towed at owners’ expense.
It all began innocently enough. Three friends meeting in Pune’s Koregoan Park quarters to have lunch and chat. We finished lunch at a roadside dhaba and walked back to Shrikant’s car parked in a quiet little street only to find that the car was missing. Scrawled on the spot next to where the car should have been was a message in chalk: “Bund Garden Road.”
We surmised that the car had been towed to the Bund Garden road transportation police office. Less than an hour ago we had parked the car in front of a bank branch at a spot that was marked “Parking for Bank Customers Only”. It was Sunday and the branch was closed. It was not a busy street and it was a convenient place to park under a bit of shade on a scorching summer afternoon. But now the car was gone. My heart sank because my laptop was on the backseat and I conjured up images of someone breaking into Shrikant’s car just to take the laptop.
We took an autorickshaw to the police station about three kilometers away. I was relieved to see that my laptop was still on the backseat of the impounded car. The constable who towed the car showed up eventually after a half hour wait. The car, he claimed, was illegally parked. Shrikant explained very patiently that there were no signs which prohibited parking the car. The constable insisted that it was parked in a no-parking zone and that there was a sign attesting as much a little ways up the road. Shrikant countered that there was no way anyone could figure out that parking in that spot was prohibited because no signs were posted along the stretch of road we passed before we parked.
What followed was a mini-drama: Shrikant was patient and conciliatory; I was indignant and angry that we were being needlessly hassled for no fault of our own; Girish was silently observing the proceeding from a distance maintaining an amused reserve that I found admirable. We had already wasted an hour and a half trying to retrieve the car. The private operator towing truck was parked close at hand and the constable was leisurely having lunch with the operators of the truck. A camaderie born out of extended mutually beneficial association was evident between the cop and the towing truck operators. They depended on each other.
The cop (whose name I eventually noted down) insisted that we had to pay a fine of Rs 250 for illegal parking. But, he said, that he would consider the case settled if Shrikant paid him Rs 100. Shrikant said that he would not pay Rs 100 but would be happy to pay the Rs 250 penalty provided the cop would come with him to the spot where the car was parked and show where the infraction was. The ultimatum from the cop: pay a Rs 100 bribe or pay Rs 250 to reclaim the car. Shrikant said he would pay not just the penalty but twice the penalty if the cop would just show him how any person could reasonably figure out that it was illegal to park at the spot we had parked at.
The cop figured that we were tough customers and would not be intimidated into paying the bribe. So he escalated the case to his superior, an officer who was in the little two-room dilapidated police post. We entered the office to find the officer in his undershirt asleep on a cot in the backroom. He heard the dispute and concluded that we either pay Rs 250 or we don’t get the car back. I told him in no uncertain terms that this was extortion.
To cut a long three hour story short, Shrikant paid the fine of Rs 250 and then insisted that the cops return with us to the spot where the car was towed from and show us where the sign was. He would pay double the fine if the cops proved that we were at fault. There was a sign about 20 meters ahead of the parking spot which said “No Parking 100 meters ßà”. It was small, nailed to a tree, aligned parallel to the road, and could not be seen unless viewed directly across from the road.
The sign had to be there for the whole scheme to work. It was part of the trap. They merely show up and tow any car parked there by mistake and extract a bribe. I asked the owner of a cigarette kiosk across the road how often the cops show up to tow cars from this spot. He said about half a dozen times most days.
One of the cops finally admitted that it was not our fault but neither was it their fault. The fault, he concluded, was the Pune municipal corporation’s for improper signage. Shrikant cornered the guy. Do you have any children? Do you teach them to be good or do you teach them to be dishonest? How do you sleep at night? The guy squirmed uneasily. He was not entirely devoid of a moral sense, although he was clearly not willing or unable to reason. He said that since we had paid the fine, we had admitted to our crime.
Later in the evening we were recounting this to a friend, Sunil. He said, “You guys should never have argued with the cops. You had no idea what you were up against. The cops are ruthless and could have cooked up some story and thrown you in a lockup. In the end it would be their word against yours. They would have claimed that you were attacking them.”
That was almost exactly what our confrontation was headed towards, I said. At one point, the inspector, who had bothered to get out of his cot and put on a shirt to come out, claimed that I had used abusive words towards the constable and threatened to throw me into jail. There was nothing any of us could have done. The cops knew that they had the authority and the means to really give us a bad day. In fact, they depended on this power to extract bribes from their hapless victims, the very people they are supposedly hired to protect. It was protection money they demanded and they got regularly.
Cops have figured in local news recently. Stories of rape and violence by cops is common enough for the cartoonist RK Laxman to pen a strip in which a mother cautions her young daughter to be careful out in the streets because there are cops around.
Sunil claimed that Asians are the most corrupt in the world. As a businessman, he recounted half a dozen stories of harassment by various officials of government agencies that he has to deal with, from excise departments to income tax to customs. Nitin, another businessman friend, added his own stories to the litany of woes that business people appear to take for granted and as cost of doing business in India.
Anecdotal evidence at best but it lends credibility to the findings of agencies that rate Indiaas one of the most corrupt economies of the world. (See India, the World’s Largest Kleptocracy on this blog.) It is disheartening to hear how pervasive corruption is in India. An industrialist recently recounted his encounter with an official from the state-owned power company. The official offered to fix the industrialist’s power bill because “he was paying too much for electricity.” The industrialist finally had to bribe the official to not tamper with the bill. The bribe was needed because of the fear the official could have disrupted the power supply to the manufacturing unit out of spite. It reminded me of the caution that joggers in NY’s Central Park were given: carry some cash just in case you are mugged because if you don’t want to get caught with no money—it could enrage the mugger.
Corruption is a corrosive force that attacks the moral, commercial, and ethical fabric of the society. Its perceived pervasiveness perpetuates it and sanctions it in a perverse positive feedback loop. Everybody knows that corruption exists. It is common knowledge: not only do you know, you also know that everyone else knows, and everyone knows that everyone knows, and so on. You know that the guy at the top takes in millions in bribes. You justify your little bit of dishonesty by noting that the really rich get away with it and so why should you not take a bit just to make ends meet.
Take the lowly cop whom we encountered. He probably is paid around $100. He is merely trying to make ends meet and provide for his family. His illegal towing is an adaptation to a system which is materially poor. His victims also adapt and pay the extortion because they cannot afford to fight the cop. Neither the crook (the cop in this instance) nor the victim can afford the luxury of a moral stance. Locked within a dysfunctional system, we are playing a repeated Prisoner’s Dilemma game of full information. We are not born inherently flawed; we merely adapt to the system we are born into and which we appear to be powerless to alter. Our apparent moral turpitude is not so much nature induced as a rational response to a structural feature of the environment we live in. We are players in a Thomas Hardyesque fatal drama where the script is seemingly unalterable.
Shrikant asked me on the way back from the police encounter if ever the low quality of our public service will ever improve. It is an important question that we need to answer for ourselves. Like always, whenever I am confronted with a problem, my instinct is to seek the underlying causes that give rise to the symptom which we perceive as the problem. What are the structural features of our society that make corruption so integral to it? Why and when did it arise? If we fully understand its genesis—both in human nature and in the social system that humans create—perhaps then we may have a handle on a possible solution.
I believe that corruption is a rational response to a materially poor system. Material poverty is necessary but not sufficient for corruption to take root. Corruption, in turn, makes the possibility of escape from material poverty more difficult. In its most general formulation, material poverty arises from an imbalance between the resources available to a population and the size of the population.
I will investigate this a bit more in coming days.