Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Am I a corrupt citizen?

I had returned to Mumbai from San Francisco, to find pending bills waiting for my attention.  While the others could be taken care of online, what stumped me was a Property Tax bill with a huge five figure amount.

I remembered Society Property Taxes being included in the Society Bill.  But as explained by the Society Manager, a group in the Society Committee came up with this brainwave to have all members pay it directly to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) Office.  The bill was 6 six months overdue and the Manager advised me to pay the bill immediately or the BMC might cut my water supply, which would take a lot of running around to get reconnected.

"Can they really do that?"  I asked.

"They won't," he said disinterested.  "But they can."

So armed with confusion, the bill, and a blank check book, I headed to the designated BMC office.

On arriving, I was surprised at seeing a huge line of anxious people (around 100 metres long) snaking up towards a window manned by a cashier.  It was 11:30 am, and the sign above the payment counter indicated the payment timings to be from 8:30 am to 12:30 pm - just four hours!  On observing the slow pace of the payment process (around 5-10 minutes per customer) further slackened by willful tea breaks and brief gossip sessions on the part of the cashier, it was beyond me as to how the last person in the line would get to reach the window by even 6 pm!

The best informants in Government Offices are peons.  They have all the information on procedures, the right people to speak to, and above all - shortcuts.  Before I could think of where to find the peon, I felt a tap on my shoulder.  I turned around and was met with his toothless grin.  His uniform and knowing smile confirmed his identity.

"Do you want to pay your bill?" he asked.

"Yes," I replied.  "Do I have to get in line?"


"But the payment counter closes at 12:30 pm," I pointed out.  "How will I get there by then?"

"You won't.  Neither will any of these people.  The ticket counter will close at sharp 12:30 pm.  Those remaining in line will come back tomorrow and stand again.  This is the system."

A slow smile formed on his lips, which made his shaking of the head with disapproval seem unconvincing.

"But there is a solution," he said, his eyes lighting up.  "You can go up to the third floor and ask for Mr. X (name withheld to protect the innocent writer).  Pay him Rs. 100 and he will do your work.  And yes, mention that I sent to you."

A bribe!  And a cut for the peon from the officer!  A more systemized network for bill payment than the official BMC payment system!

Being a Mumbaikar, I was no stranger to the world of greasing palms.  In fact, my acquired expertise in slipping a note here and there had saved me a lot of time at various Government offices - RTO, MTNL, just to name a few.  But the entire Anna Hazare movement changed my entire outlook towards this previously seemingly harmless act.  I had resolved never to bribe anyone ever again.

Now I was in a dilemma.  On one hand, I ran the risk of my water supply being cut off (friends also said that it never happens, but it can) and spending days on end as one of the hopefuls trying to get to the ticket window.  On the other hand, I could solve the problem within minutes by delaying my newly acquired sense of ethics and proceed to the third floor.  I chose the latter.

Once I was face-to-face with Mr. X, I showed him my bill and cited my reference.  He smiled and nodded, asking me to wait, but showed no signs of taking any action on the issue at hand.  I understood that his palm would need to be greased.  From past experience, I knew that if I didn't do it then and there, he would cite some sort of problem with the bill and put me on the path to a different runaround.

So I took out a hundred rupee note, rolled it up in my fist, and offered him a handshake.  He took my handshake, discovered the note, and politely refused.  I understood that he couldn't blatantly accept a bribe (sting operations were on the rise), so added the safest line to accompany my purpose - "Something for the kids, Sir."  He smiled, accepted it as a gift, and solved my problem within minutes.

In a city like Mumbai where time is money, waiting for hours on end for a small task is a huge loss.  But my solution to saving all that time fuels corruption.  So am I a corrupt citizen?

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