India’s massive corruption in government has come to a head with Anna Hazare’s hunger strike. However, corruption is not exclusive to India, nor is it new in that country. But India may have made it a fine art.
When I traveled to India, lo these many years ago, I was aware of the bribery (or baksheesh as they call it) before I went. However, due to an ingenuous blend of naiveté and stubbornness I managed not to pay a single rupee. I probably extended my waiting, boredom and frustration but I made it through with the limited funds I had. Mostly, I imagine they left tourists alone who might not know the system or understand what one had to do. There are only two incidences that I think involved a try for a bribe.
When I left the tribal state of Meghalaya, I had to make sure I had a transit paper or visa that showed I was allowed in the state, where foreigners could only enter with a special permit. Because I was traveling into Assam, the neighboring state, I needed to show I was allowed to travel between states. The border was closed at the time because the Khasis and Assamese were fighting with each other (they’re traditional tribal enemies). It was a very long, hot and thirsty bus ride to the Assam airport and then, typical of Indian time, a three-hour wait for the late plane.
I’d probably been sitting there two hours when three men came rushing over, in three different colored suit jackets asking to see my passport. At first I was confused because there was nothing that indicated that they were official in any capacity. And for all I know two of them might not have been. Then I was taken into a back office where they pored over my passport and the papers and wrote everything out, in painstakingly slooooow handwriting. I believe they were trying to intimidate or scare me into paying but I wasn’t sure so I just sat there and let the guy write out everything. After all, I had time to kill until the plane arrived.
The second time was as I was returning from Nepal into India, where you must go through a double border check. Due to the fact that Indians will give you directions even if they don’t know the right directions, I had been told to wait for my connecting bus from the border town of Gorakhpur (near enough to be a major outpost) at the wrong spot and therefore missed it. This meant that I had to take a later bus not meant for tourists. So I was the only white person and only woman on the bus that drove off into the dark of night. Everything was fine and I was sleeping when the bus was pulled over and two men in nondescript jackets boarded and demanded to see my documents and what was in my bag. Note that in India (at least the areas I was in) men and women do not touch in public at all. This doesn’t mean they won’t try to sneak a fondle at a tourist’s expense but it means that a male border inspector won’t search a woman.
I showed them my papers and one bag and then they said, get off the bus. It was not just dark outside but pitch black, barely any lights to indicate a city and nothing but fields around. So I asked them to get my pack off the roof (where bags were stored) and which direction was the closest city. All I could think to do so late at night was walk. They looked at me and said, “What are you doing? Get back on the bus.” So I did, wondering if they had wanted me to pay baksheesh but too bewildered to know it.
The saddest example of seeing what bribery was doing to India, was when I was in Shillong, Meghalaya. I was talking to these bright young men, some in university. They were already defeated because they said that there was little chance of getting a good job without paying baksheesh. They saw no future for themselves and it was such a waste of brilliant minds. Now this was before Microsoft and the IT industry started outsourcing so maybe it got a bit better, but obviously one of the biggest epidemics in a country 1 billion strong, is the rampant bribery that still affects them.
For a bit of fun, here is an artist’s image of Baksheesh Boy.