Today the long tentacles of corruption entered my comfort zone. We had gone down to Guwahati to meet the regional passport officer. We had been told when we applied for the renewal of Amy's passport that as we had all the documents, there would be no problem. But, unfortunately, it was not so. As Amy was born in Bahrain and her last passport was issued in Dubai, the passport officer in Guwahati decided that he needed to see this person for himself before he could sanction the passport. Amy says it was to make sure she was not a terrorist!!
Our 'agent', who has now become a good friend, very kindly came down to Guwahati with us. She is a retired government official, who helps people with passport application as she has a friend in the passport office. While we were waiting for Amy to come out of her meeting with the officer, she suddenly dropped a bombshell during routine conversation - that she was giving some money to the person she knew in the office to smooth things along.
So here I was on the horns of a dilemma - every instinct in me wanted to walk out then and there, but I knew that doing so would embarrass this very kind lady and the close friend who had introduced us. I also had to accept that in my subconscious mind, I had certainly considered the possibility that part of the fee that I had paid for the passport would be going somewhere I did not want to know about. I had just not wanted to know - if I had been truly righteous I would have made things plain right at the start. And of course, there was the fact that walking out now would probably jinx any chance we had of getting the passport through this office. And here was this sweet lady who was feeling bad for upsetting me and explaining that it was nothing much, just a gift, the 'normal' system of things and other platitudes.
And then it struck me - any of us who have got some official work done through an agent - passport, licence, visa, PAN card, registration - have all possibly become part of the corruption racket of our country, albeit unknowingly. Of course, I do concede that there surely must be agents who desist from greasing palms, but I have a feeling they must be few and far between, as their job will be almost impossible.
For this is the system. Were it not for the 'friend' inside, we may have had to stand in interminable queues for many hours over many days only to find at the end that our application had been rejected. There have been times before that I have been confronted with such situations. Mainly when travelling unreserved as I did a lot in the 'good old days' before my post-graduation. Then it was easy to cock a snoot at the ticket collector who wanted money to give me a berth and walk off to the unreserved compartment. And most times, the TT would think I did not have the money (I must have been a scruffy traveler!!) and offer to reduce the price!!
Another memory is of my first application for a PAN card. It happened during my time in Jharkhand when the government decreed that all of us needed to have one. An agent came to the hospital and told us there were 2 streams of application - normal, which cost `100 and fast-track which was `500 (not too sure about the figures, but you get the picture). So all of us paid for the fast-track stream and felt good about ourselves. But being in Jharkhand for nearly 2 years had made me a trifle paranoid about such things and just before he left the hospital, I ran after him and asked him what exactly the fast-track meant. Then he laughed and told me that it basically meant that the extra money went to the officials to make sure the card was issued. So I told him to put me on the normal track. He too was surprised and told me that if I did that, he could not guarantee if and when the card would come. I said I would take my chances. He was right. The card never came. Later, when I was back in Vellore, I applied again through the auspices of CMC and got my card. And somewhere in the Income Tax offices of Ranchi, my application gathers dust. Or (as I hope) it was thrown in the basket a long time ago - if another card suddenly arrives, I may be in trouble!!
Today, I could not be so upright. Respect for our kind friend prevented it. As well as, I guess, some dampening of the idealism of youth. When Amy came out, we quietly came home (after a sumptuous lunch, courtesy of our friend). I can hear the idealists among you sharpen your swords. I have betrayed all that I stood for, you say. That is possible. I may have erred. And my excuse of not knowing about it before does not really hold water. I just did not want to know. I wanted the easy way out with no strain on the conscience. I know there is no easy answer to this question. If I use an agent again should I ask right in the beginning what my money will be used for. Should I spend 2 or 3 days (probably many more) to drive down to Guwahati and stand in a queue the whole day. It is a question all of us need to have answered in our own minds - where do we draw our line. For as long as there are people willing to pay, corruption will never caese.