Of late, I have been using public transport, the autorickshaw, quite frequently. After making sure that he has a working meter, is ready to go my way, does not look rude or surly and does not ask for extra over the meter, I get in. Once I do, I find a way to strike a conversation, which could be propelled by any occurrence on the way – a passing school bus, children overburdened with heavy satchels, pot-holed roads, bad traffic or offensive policemen. And the insight I have gained from these people are eye openers for those of us not on the distaff side of fortune and circumstance of birth.
The day I read the news about the son of an autorickshaw driver topping the EAMCET exam, I brought up the topic with my ‘vaahan’. I also expounded on the strong support system the boy was lucky enough to have had – his own commitment and innate intelligence, sacrificing and encouraging parents, an equally supportive school and college who condoned delays in payment of fees, imparted some free tuition and ultimately a scholarship to study further. “Yes,” agreed the man, adding, “we should all be so lucky. My child’s school will hound student and parent to pay the fees on time, additional tuitions cost a bomb which we are still willing to shell out, but teachers need to be equally committed to teach, shouldn’t they?”
This brought to mind the incident of an indigent parent who was sending her son to an ‘English medium school’ where the boy was struggling to cope with a language which was neither spoken at home nor in the locality where he lived. I offered to have the boy spend an hour or so with me twice a week to hone his language skills. He could bring along a friend or two if shyness drew him back and I would charge a small fee because I have seen that freebies are not valued for their worth. The boy showed no interest in taking up my offer and eventually the fifteen year-old quit school and is idle at home without any prospect for a job in the future other than menial or manual. Right there ended my dream of another APJ Abdul Kalam emerging from under my wing, his full potential nursed to fruition under my guidance!
Two other incidents relating to the police showed me how difficult it is for the common man to rise above corruption and bribery in the everyday world. The ubiquitous checking of valid papers by the traffic police appears to be nothing but a convenient way of skimming the unwary. Not only does it leave a hole in one’s pocket but also a conviction that trying to be a one-man crusader against graft only leads to grief.
Passing one such scene I remarked, rather sanctimoniously as it turned out, that to pay a bribe is as bad as to take one. If one is at fault one should insist on a chalan rather than have your hard earned lucre line your tormentor’s pocket.
“That doesn’t help at all Madam,” said the driver patiently. “The cop wants his cut, so if you argue with him, even if your papers are in perfect order, he will file a chalan citing some other reason, under some other section, such as verbal abuse or resisting the police”. I had absolutely no answer to this fact of life. India must be one of the few countries where the police are known more for harassing than for helping the common man.
I learnt recently of an incident involving my son who lives in Bangalore in a small apartment on the second floor. Apparently the party by the ground floor tenants had turned rather riotous and somebody had complained to the police. After putting an end to the festivities there, a couple of constables went up to the other floors, occupied by bachelors, for no other reason than to extract money. My boy shelled out the bribe; he didn’t realise that the cops had no right to enter a house without a search warrant, but youngsters do not wish to invite further harassment under other circumstances at some future date.
I wonder sometimes whether as parents we are really equipping our children to live in today’s world. I have tried to teach my sons the values that we hold so important and am proud of the way they have turned out. But I have no answer when, as questioning and often angry young adults, they say that they don’t see these values being practised where and when it matters.
What would you have said or done?