Diary of a Disillusioned Consumer Rights Activist

Corruption is such a deep-seated rot that the average citizen is totally helpless.

As I stepped onto the pedestrian crossing some days ago, a teenager on a scooter whizzed past me, nearly knocking me down. I yelled and stepped back, but the fellow quickly sped off. I noted down the number and made my way to the police station down the road.

The reception I got was unusual. I go there often – to collect traffic complaint cards to show during my talks at schools and colleges, and, occasionally, to file a complaint (over the breaking of traffic rules). But this time, the constable on duty welcomed me with a smile and said, “Madam, will you have tea?”

Good PR? Not quite, as I discovered a day later, when a woman called me to say, “Madam, don’t you have a son?” Baffled, I said that I do. “How would you feel if the police came after him? Don’t you have any motherly feelings?” she asked.

It turned out that the policeman had traced the teenager’s registration, visited the house and demanded a bribe to drop the complaint; failing which, he would take the boy to the police station and harass him.

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When I make a complaint, the police station is not supposed to reveal my name or personal details without my permission. This constable had not only revealed my telephone number – so the  mother could call me and chide me for “causing trouble to an innocent teenager” – but used my complaint to extract a bribe.

Now I understood why I was welcomed so effusively at the station – my complaint was a source of income for the corrupt cop. Thereafter, I stopped noting down the vehicle numbers of rash or irresponsible drivers. I used to think that if more citizens assisted the police (they are short-staffed, they say), our rights as pedestrians and commuters could be strengthened. But that is not the reality.

In meetings and workshops, I used to speak animatedly about the civic responsibility of participating in law enforcement and improving governance. Now, I wonder whether I have only been helping the corrupt line their pockets.

What does one do? If policemen – who are supposed to protect us – milk our complaints for easy money, where do we turn? Complaining against the police is not feasible, since I cannot prove that the man demanded a bribe to drop my complaint. The teenager’s mother is not going to confess that she paid a bribe. Antagonising the neighbourhood police station may not be a pragmatic decision either.

It is not just the police. Corruption is such a deep-seated rot that the average citizen is totally helpless.

A handicapped woman needs an official certificate to claim her disability concessions and facilities. The official harasses her, makes her undertake several trips (which she cannot afford to do) and trots out any reason for why the work cannot get done promptly. A resident needing some routine document related to his ancestral property is made to run for months by clerks who make a variety of excuses – “the concerned file is not traceable”, “come next week as my supervisor is on leave” and so on.

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A “little something” (not so little, as it turns out!) pressed into their palms will do the trick in a jiffy. But for those who do not believe in bribes, it is an endless – and often futile – exercise.

While I waited with others in a queue to pay my annual property tax at the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) – a wait that lasted 45 minutes after the “official opening time after lunch” – we could see the staff through the window, just chit-chatting. We were all retired senior citizens, because working age citizens cannot take time off to stand in queue to pay dues. When my turn finally came, the clerk said, “Madam, I cannot take your payment as your property does not exist.”

Apparently my details were not showing up on his computer. Had he not keyed them in? Or was he just harassing me to extract a bribe? I had been living on the premises for 23 years and had receipts to prove annual payments. When I raised my voice in frustration, his supervisor came and asked what the “galatta” was about. He then said, “She is an elderly lady. Accept her payment and give her a temporary receipt.” It seemed like the BBMP was doing me a favour by accepting payment!

This is what activists (and thousands of citizens) come up against everyday. What was that promise Prime Minister Narendra Modi made? “Na khaaunga, na khaane doonga”?

If a day comes when activists too decide to throw up their hands and give up, where would we turn? Any answers?

Sakuntala Narasimhan is former vice-president, Consumer Guidance Society of India (Mumbai) and a National Award-winning columnist on consumer rights.