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July 30, 1999


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E-Mail this column to a friend Dilip D'Souza

Service With a Smile, Apply Here

One afternoon early in March, my wife and I found ourselves on the sleepy, windblown platform of the Nira railway station, some two hours south of Pune. We were waiting for the Koyna Express, a huffing monster that plies between Kolhapur and Bombay. On the way, it comes to a wheezing five minute halt at Nira. Aside: they make some excellent rum in Nira. I wish I could tell you that that is what took us to Nira. But I found out only in later weeks. Pity.

Nevertheless, we were on that platform. When the Koyna Express finally chugged in, I raced up and down the platform looking for the air-conditioned chair car our tickets said we would be travelling in. From one end of the train to the other I ran, getting more frantic and frazzled by the second. No air-conditioned chair car. Then I found my wife clambering into an empty coach, decidedly not air-conditioned. A ticket collector -- one of those fabled TCs of the Indian Railways -- was at hand, urging her and then me on. No chair car today, he said. Travel in this coach instead. You will be refunded the difference in the ticket price. So about half an hour later, at the next station, he appeared at the window and handed us ... not a refund, but a small slip of paper. Go to the railway station in Bombay, he said, and present that to apply for a refund.

"Apply" -- as if for a favour, rather than getting just what was due to us.

But why can't you give us the refund right here, I asked. After all, the absence of the chair car today is your doing, not ours. You have a list of the passengers scheduled to use it today. You could just pay us the difference right now. The TC smiled that mysterious, inscrutable, smile that a whole gamut of government officials have practiced to perfection. You know, the one that says: this guy has no idea what he is talking about! We have our rules and regulations and there's no way we would ever, ever, do something as ridiculously simple as what he is suggesting. Elaborating the smile with a shrug, he melted away.

So back in Bombay, my wife did the rounds of various counters at the Western Railway headquarters and Churchgate station, searching for someone who would issue her the right form for her to apply -- "apply", it gets me like a fingernail on a blackboard -- for a refund. It took two trips before she was able to accomplish that difficult feat. She filled in the form, turned it in, and waited. Silly girl, she was expecting the refund right away. I can't give it to you now, the clerk at the counter protested. We will post it to you.

He was wearing, she tells me, another of those smiles.

That was on March 10. April 10 came and went. So did May 10 and June 10 and July 10. On July 16, four months and six days later, the day's post includes a brown Government of India envelope addressed to my wife. Must be the refund, I guess. I open it eagerly, expecting to find a cheque.

No. Inside, there's a small white card with my wife's name on it. It says the refund, Rs 310, can be collected from the Churchgate station master. Yes sir, this means still another trip to get what a TC should have, by any reasonable reckoning, handed over to us at Nira station over four months ago. Smilingly or otherwise.

Wait. Bear with me. My story's not over yet and sometimes I wonder if it ever will be. For various reasons, my wife cannot trek out to see station masters right now, not even to bring back Rs 310. So one evening some days ago, I set off for Churchgate station, giving myself 15 minutes before a meeting near there to get the money. Anticipating problems because I am not my wife, I took along our marriage certificate. That, my drivers' licence, my persuasive skills and my 15 minutes, I calculated, would get me the refund.

I calculated wrong, naturally. The man at the window gave me still one more of those smiles and asked: "Where's the authorisation letter from your wife?" Of course, I hadn't thought to bring one of those. And no, the marriage certificate would not do. After much argument and time wasted, he told me to see his supervisor.

That didn't prove too fruitful either. Where's the person named on this card, he started. He was shaking his head even as I began explaining, as I offered to show him my marriage certificate to prove I was married to the name on the card. No, no, no, he kept saying. You must bring a letter from her. In mounting frustration, I told him: Look, you're an officer and that's why you are here and your clerk sits at that window. You are paid to exercise your discretion in applying the rules. It is not easy for me to come here like this over and over again. And after all, this whole thing was a railway mistake and I've been waiting over four months for this refund. Why can't you just help me?

When it comes to money, said the mutton-chopped toad on the other side of the desk, we will not help. I opened and closed my mouth, somewhat fish-like.

So now I've typed up an authorisation letter. Got it signed by my wife. Got one witness to sign on it, anticipating problems. Anticipating the next question -- where's the signature of a second witness? -- I have faked the signature of a doctor I know in Bhubaneswar. Don't tell anyone. I'm hitching up my trousers for another expedition in search of the elusive Rs 310 that TC should have simply paid me all those months ago.

Such a long story, no? And what's my point anyway? All of you who have lived in India have been through such experiences with Government officials, many far worse. You know how the bureaucracy works. Yes, you have similar stories to tell. Perhaps you even laugh about them, as maybe I will once I've retrieved that Rs 310 and more months have passed. So what's my point?

That, in fact, is the point. That this kind of experience is so usual in India that we expect it, grit our teeth through it, laugh at it, forget it. I know every country has inefficient bureaucracies, but there must be few to excel India's heady combination of corruption, indifference, obstruction and unhelpfulness. There is no agency connected with the Government -- municipality, railway, insurance, government health schemes, banks, nothing -- which operates to any other plan than this. Nowhere in the entire public sector can an ordinary person go with an ordinary problem and hope to have it solved with speed and consideration. Not even when it is, like in my case, their fault entirely.

That's why I'm writing this column. We have yet another election coming up, and I know it will be fought on those big, weighty issues: Kargil, Hindutva, swadeshi, nuclear bombs, foreign origins, on and on. This column, for a change, is not about those issues. And yet I will give it to you in these very written words: after the elections, whoever wins, that glorified clerk I had to argue with will remain just as unhelpful as he is now. What's more, you know as well as I do that he, or his successor, will behave the same way five years from now. Or 10. Or 50. That's how much confidence we have that the working of our public institutions will remain shamefully shoddy.

This shoddiness is not one of those big issues. And yet it intrudes on the life of nearly every Indian, nearly every day, in ways far deeper and more insidious than any of those biggies. After all, each of us goes to the bank, or sends off a letter, or buys a railway ticket, or collects a pension payment, immeasurably more often than we fight off Pakistani intruders in Kargil.

It is the hassle of getting these little things done that makes daily living often so hard in India. So I wonder, why aren't these details of our lives, these vital details, issues to fight elections over? Whether you who run for office swear by pseudo-secularism or by pseudo-Hindutva, by liberalisation or by swadeshi, by Mandal or by a mosque to be pulled down -- whatever it is that moves you, you show not the slightest interest in tackling these details. Why? Why do we Indians have to hold on to that confidence in the perpetual mediocrity of our services, our institutions? Why does this aspect of Indian life never stop getting worse?

You have to wait, we hear, be patient. These are problems caused by 50 years of neglect and misgovernance, and we all know which party was responsible for that. Yes we do, and I wish eternal shame on that party for, among many other sins, turning India into a land of corrupt clerks who live to hassle us.

But what about now?

After all, nobody said, "You have to be patient" when it came to flinging intruders out of Kargil. Nobody offered 50 years of misgovernance as an excuse for not acting there, even if that is a valid reason for the situation on our borders. That was treated as a matter of national urgency. Why are the more mundane problems not treated that way too?

After all, too, in my state it has been five years since that shamed party was kicked from office: five years of rule by the parties that promised us change for the better, an end to the old Congress ways. No doubt five years is not long enough to set right 50 years of mess-making. But it is certainly long enough for us to see signs of change. Signs of attempts to change. Just a few. Even one.

So tell me, is there one person in my state who believes that the clerks in those windows show any more diligence, responsibility or consideration than five years ago? Enough asked, enough said.

And that's the worst thing about the BJP and its allies. To a country yearning for a change from a half century of Congress crumminess, they embodied hope for better times. They were the great untried alternative that would take us to a better place. Yet in the now measurable slice of time they have been in office in Delhi and elsewhere in the country, they have shown us that they are no more than just another Congress clone. From corruption to unnatural alliances, from inquiry reports trashed to criminals shielded, from clerkdom here to clerkdom there, there is simply no difference between these supposed poles of Indian politics. If the Congress was unwilling to come to grips with the things that make our lives difficult, the BJP is just as unwilling.

That snuffing out of a country's hopes leaves us, now, with no alternatives. That is how profound the BJP betrayal is. There are people, I know it, still smiling those inscrutable smiles.

Dilip D'Souza

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