Atanu Dey On India's Development

The Towing of Cars

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.

  • http://www.broadbandblog.in Dr Abhishek Puri

    I seem to have an opinion on everything under the sun!

    Jokes apart Atanu, your post makes eminent sense here. Corruption is an institutionalised phenomenon, something that cannot be ignored. The system cannot be changed- the best way to buy your peace is to stay away from it; if not becoming a part of it.

    More than the “material poverty”. it is the greed and the lust of easy money. It is addictive, easy to fall in the trap and very difficult to extract yourself out of the same. Then, given the virtual gurantee of the job, one is the famous “son in law” of sarkar; this greases the corruption machinery.

    I d be looking forward for your insight in this strange human psyche- everyone wants to get out of it but noone really does so.

  • Navin

    Nice Post Atanu. Very “Common place” indeed.

    I would concur with Sunil when he says “The cops are ruthless and could have cooked up some story and thrown you in a lockup.” When they are bent upon cheating, you can’t talk LOGIC to them.

    I lost my mobile phone once. Its a prepaid and I wanted to have the same number. The mobile operator advised me to file a complaint with the police and bring a copy of it to get back the same number. When I went to the police station, I was in for a rude shock. The police men spoke and reacted like Gundas. I was so afraid of them. The whole place was so eerie. I wonder how people go there and claim justice/help.

    Good that you have blamed the system. Bang on when you said “I believe that corruption is a rational response to a materially poor system”. Poor system is one of the reasons for corruption. Its a difficult topic to talk about. We are playing a part in this as well.

    All I can say is “WELCOME HOME after your trip” :-)

  • Subhas

    You cannot justify corruption because of poverty. I don’t think the present developed economies were corrupt when they were in the stage of development as now India is. Despite having one of the best religions in the world, our people are more/most corrupt. I attribute it to moral turpitude.

    My analysis of the problem gives some solutions. There should be a system where one can file a complaint to any government department online. There should be time frames for replies and redressals based on the type of complaint. This can be called a Citizen’s charter. Everything will be on record online – accessible to the complainant. If offline, there should be a single window in every government office to accept complaints where an acknowledgement/receipt should be given specifying the date of reply/redressal according to the citizen’s charter. If the complainant’s records show that he/she is harrassed without any valid reason, the person should be able to go to an Government Ombudsman which can be composed of reputed citizens. If the fault is found to be of the government department/official(s), they should be penalized and should pay the penalty from their personal salary.

    This can be made possible if the system is made by the Chief Minister(s), as most citizen’s issues are at the state level. The Chief Minister(s) doesn’t lose anything because this system addresses corruption at the lower levels of government, and corruption for giving government contracts can remain in place. As such, the government scores in votes because of relatively corruption-free government. If someone who is a humanist/patriot can convince atleast one state government to implement this system, I’m sure it will work and can be spread to other states as well.

    Jai Hind!

  • http://n/a Brett

    Wow, first post I have seen on this site not reeking of hatred, or destructive criticism. I think you’re bang on about some of the roots – but should take it a little further.
    First I would just like to say a few things to the other posters:

    1)Subhas, to me your suggestion doesn’t seem very different from certain systems in place today, and they don’t have any effect – further, when the “developed” countries were at this stage of there growth (which is a foolish comparison to make because most developed countries don’t have 1 billion people, do not comprise of 40/50 kingdoms, speaking 30+ languages and did not inherit 5000 years of blood-filled history) they DID have this much corruption. You should study American history between 1850-1950 to get a sense of the corruption there.

    2) Dr. Puri, just because there has been corruption for the past 30/40 years doesn’t mean that it is a permanent fixture. You strike me as somebody past their 30s who has grown cynical. I haven’t given a bribe in the past 4 years. That’s saying something for this country.

    Ok that being said, yes poverty is one of the roots of corruption, and as you say the second is a poor system – in this case it is India’s Socialist System. Nehru started it, but Indira Gandhi did the real abuse with it. She is what brought about the complete destruction of most of our institutions. Socialism in our country breeds corruption like weeds. Simple example – any company which employs more than 100 workers needs permission from the government to fire them – this means you have BRIBE a government offical to go out of business!!!!
    Let’s take another example – in Socialist India, a Telephone was actually considered a luxury. Result – zero capacity for phone lines, a 5 year long waiting list, and then naturally, the bribes will follow.
    Further, add archaic laws written by Queen Victoria which are YET to be amended/re-written and you have the makings of the current situation.

    But of course, you and most of your sycophants in this site feel everything is doomed, and we should all migrate to the west.

    Further, you of course choose not choose any points of reference, but simply report on what you se today or last week, which one can’t fault you for, because it is obvious that your are playing to a crowd. However, I have a frame of reference:

    - I lived here in 1991. I had to pay a bribe for a water connection, power connection, gas connection, phone connection, driving license, traffic offense, passport

    - in 1998, I moved to a different colony. I had to pay a bribe for a water connection and traffic offense only

    - in 2005, you can get a gas connection over the internet at http://www.ebharatgas.com, with no bribes. I live in Delhi, so the electricity distribution is privatised – run by BSES. The meters are electronic, the call center staff is polite, and I didn’t have to pay anything except the designated fees to get the name on my electricity bill changed to my actual name (this would have been a bribe-worthy event a few years ago).
    Landlines are available within 24 hours, and so is fault repair (also bribe-required events a few years ago).
    As for traffic offenses, in Delhi, they don’t stop and fine you, they simply send the fine home to the address of the registration number of the car that committed the offese. You go and submit the fine (or contest it in court). I haven’t had my car towed away here, and in the few areas where somebody else had had theirs towed, they were in the wrong so I maybe that requires a bribe. Finally passport – I had to get a new one made so I went through the necessary proceedings, and the police verification dude came by, and I simply threatened him with a report to the CVC (http://www.cvc.nic.in/) and he let up. I got my passport 2 weeks later, and I can check the status at http://passport.nic.in

    Now I’m not trying to say India is a first world country and we’re all done, but I think it’s time you stopped presenting everything in this frozen state, when things are clearly changing, and that too for the better. It’s all fine and dandy that you “tell it like it is” – but let’s not forget to talk about “how it used to be”. India is growing, incomes are rising, and people are getting better educated and pulling themselves out of poverty, of course, they are just not doing it as fast you would like. Other people I have read call you an India-Hater but you seem to just come across as the standard ABCD/NRI to me.

  • http://www.sharvari.com/blogger.html SN

    here is another story you probably cannot beat:
    my friend’s friend was driving a motorcycle. A cop asked him to pull over and offered to “settle” the issue. Unfortunately, all this guy had was loose change amounting Rs. 1.50. And the cop took it! He actually said something like “ek time kaa paan ho jayegaa” !!!Assuming the guy was in the wrong, he would have to pay atleast Rs. 100. But the traffic dept. lost out on it because someone wanted a free paan.

  • Sazzala

    Brett, thanks for pointing out the corruption problems in America during the early 1900s. I will have to read up on that history to decipher how the country extricated itself from that trap.

  • http://www.beyondtherim.blogspot.com Ram

    Hi Atanu! This is Ram… was your junior at tiss. Hope you remember the tall basketballer from TN.

    Well, you have practically put in words what I’d done. I’ve spent a decade in govt. service and am out now. Though I didn’t know the concepts when I came to tiss then, my endeavour was to get out of the vicious cycle of the Prisoners’ Dilemma. I did notice two things: The challenge is systemic; and the people in this system are just like you and me. They are smart people attuned to ‘rationally respond to our structural feature’ as a way of getting by in life. The solutions and approaches to the problems and challenges we face, I find, is in great personal change… that will, as it increases in the degree of its manifestation in the society, sparks off individual revolutions within each person… that reaches a critical mass – and we have the Indian Freedom Movement, American Civil Rights Movement etc.

    The bottom line – change ourselves in such a way that it will change our environment; a kind of spiritual KAIZEN. Too many change initiatives assume a certain constant that is not even connected to strong foundational principles, leave alone questioning them. Not that I have any conclusive answers… but I do have a strong sense of direction towards where we might find them.

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  • philip

    Subhas mentions about India having one of the best religions…but why this all-prevalent religious fervour not translate into a moral commitment, is a question which needs to be addressed.