Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Into the babu-dom

Brief background: My driver's license and car registration documents were seized by officers of the RTO for the crime of Driving In Karnataka Without Paying Road Tax. Now, I'd already paid a "lifetime tax" when I bought the car. But that was in a different state, and you're expected to pay lifetime taxes to every state that you then move to - even if said relocation is within the span of your current lifetime and not a future reincarnation. Of course, you're entitled to apply for a refund once your stay is over, but - given that this is somewhat the opposite of the pleasure of paying the state about 13% of your vehicle's cost - it might prove to be just a tad more difficult than the easy, painless approach I outline below.

xxx

The day started bright and early, at 10 AM, in the RTO I'd been instructed to go to. Room 13. It was long and rectangular, with 10 counters or so, each with multitudes milling about. Having no idea whom to talk to, I shuffled across to the least populated of the counters and went about attracting the attention of the babu behind it. This proved to be harder than I thought - especially considering that those chaps presumably sit there primarily for serving the various folks who press their faces up against the circular hole in the glass in front of them. After a few minutes of concentrated effort on my part, chiefly involving the imitation of a buffalo with a sore throat trying to get a hard-to-dislocate bit of phelgm out of its throat, the chap looked up from his papers with an expression of mild enquiry on his face. I showed him the receipt the officer who'd seized my license had given me.

He gave it one glance and directed me to Counter 5. I trundled over and waited my turn. Unfortunately for me, Counter 5 spoke no language other than Kannada. (Mr Spock would've described the situation as "illogical," given that the sign just above said "Non-Karnataka Registered Vehicles.") After a fair bit of excuse-mes and sign-languaging and enduring of irate, why-is-this-so-hard-for-you-to-understand looks and some translation by the slightly more helpful lady sitting to his left, I understood that I was to write a request, with copies of some of my car documents, to be handed over at Counter 9. I purchased pen, paper, got the documents Xeroxed, summoned memories of my formal-letter-writing classes from school*, and was soon in the queue for Counter 9.

On my turn, I was told that my Documents Had Not Been Verified. "But that's them stapled to the request," I protested. "Yes, but have they been Verified?" came the retort. "Err..." being the best I could manage, I was directed to the end of the queue for Counter 11. The chap there initiated the highly specialised, labour-intensive process of Verifying The Documents. It's a testament to his skill that he made it look easy - he flipped through the pages (all three of them), wrote "documents verified" on the first page, and handed 'em back to me. It took all of 20 seconds - 20 minutes and 20 seconds, if you add the time in the queue, but it wasn't his fault that I couldn't cut through the throng faster.

The documents now having met the approval of Counter 11, Counter 9 was free to do some calculations and do a bit of scribbling on the first page. With that, I was back in the queue for Counter 5 (the general, the Xavi, of the whole road-tax payment process), who glanced at the figure written on the paper and directed me to Accounts. (This bit of instruction, apparently, was out of the jurisdiction of Counter 9.)

Accounts was at the other end of the building, and on reaching there, I was told to make a DD for the amount. Given that about two-and-a-half hours had now elapsed, and there is indeed such a thing as too much of a good thing, I hoofed it for home.

xxx

The next morning started out at the bank, followed by the Accounts queue. I gave them the DD, collected the receipt, and was back at Counter 9, who studied it, and made me go back to Accounts to pay another 30 bucks (which was the second figure after the fourth word in the third sentence of his scrawls the previous day). Once I got back, he wrote "the case may be closed" on my papers. I was back with Counter 5, who underlined Counter 9's phrase and directed me to the Audit room.

The auditors, I suppose, are the babus who verify that the other babus do their jobs correctly. Perhaps they also have to ensure that the number of counters hopped is above the RTO's established guidelines, for I could think of no other reason why my getting my license back had to rest on whether the chaps behind the counters hadn't messed up the exceedingly complex and error-prone duties I've listed above. Anyway, so it was that I took another cross-department trek with the papers in hand.

The lady there was quite obviously their star performer, the Messi of Babu-celona. For (mandatory queue time discounted), she did in about two minutes, what had taken me four hours and 413 counter changes** so far. Which was:-

a) Check Documents.
b) Calculate Tax.
c) Compare Tax Calculated With Figure On Receipt.

Quite satisfied, she wrote "Audit Verified" or something along those lines on the papers and directed me to her superior officer, who had a room all unto himself and was gazing at the ceiling with a faraway look. The huge desk was empty, save for a coffee and a newspaper. He greeted me with a look of such infinite blankness that I was momentarily discomfited and could only manage a mumble and a point at my papers. He nodded, scribbled his signature on it and sent me on my way.

I was back at Counter 5. The gentleman ahead of me was dismissed for some reason or the other, but he refused to move and stood there pleading. I wanted to hand over my freshly-audited documents, but the chap was glued to the counter, auditioning for a Fevicol ad. It was all very awkward. I found the space eventually courtesy of the man's armpit and a crack in the grill, upon which the babu nodded once and disappeared with the papers. On reappearance, sans papers, he resumed poring over his papers.

The minutes lurched by on babu-power, with lead tied to their boots. About 25 minutes had passed by in standard reckoning when he looked up, and with a series of grunts and facial contortions endeavored to communicate his surprise at my continued presence there. I indicated, chiefly by drawing rectangles in the air, that I hadn't yet got my license back. He pointed at a cabin to his left. I understood that I was to go in there, but given that a sheet of glass stood between me and the cabin, and no door in sight, I was forced to institute further enquiries. He made a big 180-degree sweep of his left arm, as if to indicate that I was to try the passageway outside. I did so, but the door to the cabin was locked. From the outside. With a cop standing guard.

The cop having silently pointed at the lock, I was back at Counter 5. The same movement of the arm, multiple times this time, each more impatient than the last. I have had a horror of cops from early childhood, but I was by now sufficiently mad to argue with the one on guard and demand entrance. I managed to drag him to Room 13, with the intention of making Counter 5 speak to him, but one look inside and the cop understood all. He suggested I go through the staff entrance, and proceed through the babu side of the counter on to the other room. It seemed an unorthodox approach, but I was willing to try anything.

Having sailed the heart of babu-dom and survived the horrors to make it to the other end of the room, I now had two options. One was to speak to a senior-looking gent to my left. The other was to go through a 6-inch gap in the wall to the room that Counter 5 had indicated. Given that doing so would've brought me up to the rear of the chap sitting there, I thought I might give Option #1 a try instead. I asked the gent on the left whether he could help retrieve my license for me. He looked me up and down with distaste and wanted to know who gave me permission to disturb him. I indicated the rear-left ear-lobe of Counter 5. To which I was told, in a tone of voice that gave the impression that I'd just said something disagreeable about his mother, to go back to Counter 5 and ask him whether he was sure I wanted to disturb His Highness. I was reluctant, but didn't want to hang around much near the Maharaja, either.

It was time to try the Gap In The Wall. Having squeezed my way through, I knocked on the side panel. He turned and courteously waved me to a chair across his desk - as if a chap materialising to his rear right, next to the dustbin, was the most natural thing in the world. He got my papers out and enquired whether there had been any harassment. I didn't quite know how to answer this one. Dismissing the first few phrases that came to mind, what with "have you got your license back yet?" playing in a loop in my head, I eventually managed to get a few sentences out. I hinted that I'd spent several hours over two days just to make a payment. He answered that Counter 5 was the only one assigned to handle this, and he being overloaded, the poor dear, a slight delay was inevitable.

What he really meant was, did anyone ask a bribe of me? The answer to this, I had to admit, was "No." Should I have played good citizen and harangued him further? Possibly. But the thing is, I had just about had enough and couldn't recall ever wanting to get out of anywhere more desperately than just then. And thus, with my driver's license clutched firmly in my hand, ended my visit to babu-land.

*Given that no-one so much as glanced at its contents - save to check that the page was there - I could've dispensed with the "Dear Ma'am / Sir," the lengthy description and, indeed, the polite "With Regards" bit, and thrown in a "Me wants back me license" instead.

**This is obviously a highlights package. You can't expect me to document every little jaunt between counters here. Only the major ones have been listed.