Right after I read her comment, another friend mentioned her harrowing experience at the passport office today. The key elements of the theme - long queues, weather-beaten citizens at the mercy of elements while the clerks sit across in air-conditioned cubicles on the other side of the window, complete absence of a clearly written procedure, multiple points to which one must go to complete the job - can be replicated at the Regional Transport Office (RTO), the Delhi Municipal Corporation, The Directorate-General of Foreign Trade... you name it.
The reason for this is simple. The powers-that-be and the minions-that-serve-them WANT citizens to suffer. So that the very thought of going to such a place inspires Terror. So that at least a few -and perhaps more -will fall prey to the expedient offered by the channels of corruption.
A few weeks ago, I went to get my International Driving Permit at the RTO in Sheikh Sarai, new Delhi. There are two access routes to the first floor where applications are to be submitted - one past stinking toilets, the other through a lane where touts accosted me with the offer: "Just 2000 rupees and we will place the permit in your hand within 30 minutes." "And if I go on my own?" I asked. "Then it costs just Rs 500, but it will take you 2-3 hours and you will have to come back in the afternoon to collect the document."
I chose Option B and counted the process steps.
First, get a medical certificate if you have not brought one in the required form. I had already done that beforehand - but I saw several people, including one who was actually one-eyed and one on crutches - walk over to a conveniently located medic within the same complex. The charges? Rs 100.
Next, climb two flights of stairs to a hell-hole where 5 operating windows are cramped in a room barely the size of a government office toilet. Submit the application form, medical certificate and photos. Time taken in the queue - 23 minutes.
Once submitted, they give back the papers. I go back down two flights of stairs and around the building to Window No. 6 where a computer entry is made and a sequence number transcribed on the form. That took just 8 minutes.
Next? Go back up the steps to aforesaid hell-hole upstairs and wait in a line to have your photo taken. This queue had people coming in from another direction - apparently those who had taken the "shortcut" route. Time - 38 minutes, and then I was told to come back after 3 O'Clock. "Till when?" I asked. No later than 4, said the pleasant, polite man at the window, looking as cool as he must have felt in his AC ambiance while I sweltered.
I came back at 3:45PM. Nothing was ready, no one seemed to know what to do next. Someone who appeared to be "in the know" said, "Just wait." Finally, at 4:15, the handful of IDP applicants for the day were marched into the adjacent room for a senior honcho to sign on the issued permit page. He asked the person in front of me for his passport. "Passport?" The applicant - he was probably approaching Senior Citizenship - asked incredulously. "I had brought it in the morning but was told at the time that it wasn't necessary." "Not then, it wasn't," said the officer, "But it is mandatory that I see it before I hand over the IDP. Come back tomorrow." His protests were ignored and the officer turned to me; mercifully, I had what was needed. As I walked out in triumph with my IDP in hand, I saw one of the touts gently tap the dejected older man on his shoulder.
I don't claim to be in a state of fine fitness - but I can still outrun my teenage daughter. Yet, the two trips on a warm day to the Sheikh Sarai RTO had left me physically and mentally drained.
How positively brilliant. There is no overt corruption here. But the dice is stacked against the old, the infirm, the person-in-a-hurry who must return to her or his office to earn a living, the armpit-smell intolerant, the claustrophobic - in short, at least half the people who need to come to this decrepit, disgusting disgrace to so-called Modern India. And the touts are waiting for them. Patiently. Like vultures.
And this was just for an IDP. A regular license - that's another story. The volume of traffic is much more, the systems even smarter. No wonder there are still so many killer drivers on the road.
So what's the solution?
1. Before going to the RTO, plan ahead and read all the fine print on the website if possible, go along with someone who has been there recently and knows the process. Carry a chinese fan and lots of drinking water.
2. Petition your elected representative. Ask him why we cannot have cleaner rooms and waiting areas, well-displayed and rigorously followed procedures, queue management the way one sees at airports, a finally a more rational, citizen-friendly process flow. Insist that agents be legitimized where appropriate, else should not be tolerated at all. Have separate timings and windows for these agents; tax their service charges. Those who can afford to pay in black can also afford to pay in white.
4. Report corruption wherever you see it. We know it exists, but flag it in public forums, grievance sites and to watchdog agencies. I have tried all of these, and patience has paid. Trust me, they grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly small.
5. Don't give up. Spread the word, at the very least.
One Anna against crores worth of corruption. Surely we can throw our weight behind him.