(All persons and events mentioned in this piece are real and will be named when needed)
August is the cruellest month. The month that reminds me of the repeated betrayal of the promises made when freedom dawned on our country at midnight in 1947.
I remember the sunny morning in August 1990, when I was winging my way back to Bengaluru after a nine-year break. Seated next to me was the Chief of the Bureau of Industrial Costs and Prices, whose days were passed among the country’s leading industrialists. “You know you are going to the most corrupt city in the country”, he told me gently.
I was aghast. Bangalore officialdom, which I had known till August 1981, had hardly been steeped in corruption or particularly hostile to citizens. Yet, despite his dire warning, I weathered the changed working environment of my home city for more than a dozen years till I moved back again to Delhi in 2002. Thankful that in all that time, I was never offered a bribe, not even in jobs in which I wielded much power and discretion. Word was out on the streets that I was not open to inducements and potential bribe givers stayed away.
Fast forward for another nine years. It is August 2009 and I am retracing my steps from Delhi to Bangalore once again. Since the second homecoming, however, I have crossed a line. My place is now among those from whom bribes are demanded, with people who cannot access public services unless they make sleaze payments to officials directly or through agents.
Today, alongside the personal tasks on my daily agenda are the complaints and travails of hapless citizens pitted against the usual government suspects. People seeking khatas and birth certificates from the BBMP, “below-the-poverty line” (BPL) cards from the Food Department, income certificates from the Revenue Department, licences and permits from Regional Transport Officers, property registration and marriage certificates from sub registrars, First Information Reports (FIRs) from police stations. Every acronym is bound in the shiny red tape that seals government offices off from ordinary people.
My “to do” list is full of telephone numbers of the officials I must call at all levels, those I must message and ping again and again, till an applicant gets his due without delay or expense. The day only holds such sobering and painful experiences. And the gap in my education was soon rectified: I too was offered a bribe.
This happened on another August morning. My volunteer friends and I were persuading vendors and their clients to replace plastic packages with eco-friendly bags. A middle-aged woman with haunted eyes came down the road pushing a rickety hand cart that held a few shrivelled fruits and vegetables. Hardly hearing what we were saying, she fumbled among the coins rattling inside a metal container and held them out. She had taken us for municipal staff and reacted predictably. In her unseeing eyes, I read the universal response of the poor to all public officials. To whom the government appears as a bunch of meddling harassers, who must be bought and placated with their meagre earnings.
2021 has been particularly unhappy. I hear the songs of celebration of seventy five years of the country’s independence.
But the following instances of fighting bribery have kept me busy since August.
- Bribe for reviving a production unit
There is the industrialist friend, who has been trying to revive a defunct production unit, employing many workers in a backward area. I piloted him through months of official blockade before the property legally bought from bankers in an open auction under court supervision was reluctantly handed over. Only to come up against an “agent” of the government power distribution company, who threatened to deny an electric connection to the factory unless his palm was greased. An agent who frantically scaled down the size of the bribe, as realization dawned that it would not be paid.
- For BPL card and income certificate
Throughout the year, there has been a steady stream of poor patients at our charitable clinic, families who will not get free treatment in overcrowded government speciality hospitals without the elusive BPL card. But the card emerges from a labyrinthine network that operates only when oiled with bribes. Exactly like the income certificate which entitles the poor to scholarships, free schooling in private institutions under the RTE (right-to-education) Act and scores of other benefits. Is an income certificate ever issued in Bangalore without a bribe, I wonder.
- For registering new motor vehicles
Certainly, no motor vehicle is registered without one. Sales outlets are cogs in the corruption machine; their job is to add the customary bribe amount to the sale price by inflating registration charges. An easy task when the notified registration fee is hidden from sight and never displayed in sales outlets or easily discovered from departmental websites.
When the government exempted electric cars from motor vehicle tax, however, the cat was out of the bag. Now, buyers like me could ask why our purchase bills contained an inexplicable tax element, leaving car dealers red-faced. The “tax” is surely only the bribe for registration! Are our reputable vehicle manufacturers and their outlets too part of a compliant circle of corruption?
- For issuing khatas
Another fertile field that takes up most of my time is the BBMP. To the dismay of many, a very promising activity for reaping bribes, the issue of khatas, has now been brought under the State government’s Sakala scheme: a parallel monitoring mechanism that attempts to enforce the time limits promised in citizens’ charters. And yet, many of my recent leisure hours have been spent in shuttling among municipal offices to prise khatas out of unwilling official hands.
There was the citizen who was threatened with an illegal demand when she tried to transfer the house which she had recently inherited. There are the hapless applicants who wait for the Sakala website to correctly upload the status of their applications. When all else fails, we call the authorities (whose designations and responsibilities are always well concealed) and eventually, we raid their offices, waiting patiently till the document is approved, the fee payable is communicated and the correct paper uploaded.
This has been part of my normal routine since August this year. As this article was being written, I overheard a bribe being negotiated for the issue of a khata, by rounding off the fee prescribed by BBMP to a rather higher figure.
- For registrations
“Agents” are ubiquitous in sub-registrars’ offices where they seep through the woodwork. Since August, for one reason and another, I have been fated to haunt these premises.
The saga began with an SOS from an unknown caller who refused to pay the expected bribe. He had already met all official tax demands online using the department’s useful portal. Yet, like all apartment buyers in Bangalore, he was asked to carry cash to get his sale deed registered; he would get no receipt for this payment. The demand was camouflaged as “advocates’ fees, incidental charges” and similar legalese. I took the information to the Inspector General of Registration who was dismayed and effective. The applicant secured some respite from harassment. And the builder reacted by delaying the registration and shifting it to a location far away from a supervisor’s scrutiny!
But, systems remain unchanged. Every well-known realtor demands an additional fee for “facilitating” sale deed registration, although this is part of his legal liability as well as the duty of the government. And the Registration Department is still reluctant to warn builders to drop illegal habits, even though it has officially eliminated cash transactions in sub-registrars’ offices.
Most registrable documents are standardized and available online. Yet, the ancient profession of “document writers” persists. During a recent visit to a sub-registrar, I noticed that every client (even those seeking to register marriages) was accompanied by an agent; the office seemed unaware of how to service citizens directly.
Sub-registrars rarely have field inspections, but they drift in late to offices, because (I learn) they are drafted to inspect one another’s offices in lieu of the IGR. Surely, inspections should not be delegated to peers and colluders! Hard copies of official forms disappear from the counters and servers break down under data overload. Document registration is in fact the best example of how a government office must not function.
Procedural changes, tech fixes can’t be the solution
Since the 1990s, my friends in government have created online portals to eliminate cash payments and reduce visits to public offices. They have set up a network of Bangalore One citizen centres and friendly departmental helplines (like BBMP’s Sahaya). They have operationalised the Sakala programme.
But citizens seem to be worse off in their interactions with government departments. They still have no information about offices, fees, procedures and timelines; official phone numbers are always muted, officers are absent from their seats and officialdom are invariably rude and brusque. Defects that seem easy to fix, but never will be.
Governance resting on a political edifice built on vote-buying and intimidation cannot become accountable, responsive or honest only with procedural changes or technology fixes. For effective bureaucrats will be transferred by political masters indebted to lobbies and mafias that had funded election campaigns. Officials stay in “lucrative” and comfortable city jobs by sharing bribe amounts with leaders. So, the administrative structure can be bribe-proofed only when politics is honest too – that is, when elections are fought without buying votes or using black money.
Let us drop our blinkers and look facts in the face. How else will we reach that “heaven of freedom” that Tagore longed for?