Sunanda K Datta-Ray: City of dreadful scams

Last Updated: Fri, Sep 07, 2012 19:20 hrs

Delhi is probably India’s most dishonest city. No, I don’t mean only the targets Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal rant against. I mean the way Delhi fleeces visitors and corrupts innocents. Both were worrying long before the CNNGo finding that Delhi is the world’s third worst “scam city” and “full of cons”.

It wasn’t always so. My memory goes back to the early forties and life in my father’s saloon in a deserted Old Delhi railway station. We were back again a few years later when he was attached to the Kunzru Committee, wandering in an unkempt Lodi Gardens – no chanting, clapping, yodelling, jostling crowds – that a cousin who lived in the Lodi Road quarters still called Willingdon Park. He photographed us on an octagonal stone slab with bevelled edges, obviously from some monument, that I have looked for ever since. It’s gone like that older, quieter Delhi, sedate as any cantonment, a prim and proper administrative headquarters like Canberra, not the throbbing commercial Punjabi heartbeat, with Haryana and Uttar Pradesh clawing greedily for pickings.

No taxi driver started a journey then with a promise that he aggressively repudiated when the passenger had no option but to yield to pressure. It was not a city where yokel heads were turned when they suddenly imagined the stars were within their reach. “I can’t see you this morning,” a journalist from Kolkata, low down in Delhi’s reporting scale, once announced with blustering self-importance. “I have an appointment with Rajmata Vijay Raje Scindia of Gwalior!” So he did. So did a hundred others. The Rajmata was holding a press conference. It was open house.

Another original Kolkata resident says he can’t visit his native city any longer. Raj Bhavan cuisine upsets him. Kolkata’s Oberoi doesn’t match Delhi’s. Buying Rabindrasangeet cassettes in Kolkata, he was embarrassed at the Bengali shopkeeper’s awe at a single purchaser squandering so much. “How can you live there?” he asks pityingly. Village and metropolis being cheek by jowl, the former now eagerly assumes what it imagines are the latter’s airs and graces while the latter wallows in rustic crudity. I heard a fashionably short-haired woman in slacks, one of a former Indian high commissioner’s lunch guests at an august London club, explain she was “visiting from Delhi only”. She “couldn’t be living in India at all if it hadn’t been for Delhi. Delhi is just like London!” she pre-empted Mamata Banerjee.

With so much posturing and no disciplining authority to fear, it’s no wonder greed gets the better of taxi-drivers. Merely unaffordably high fares would reflect a uniformly high standard of living. But that isn’t so. An ambassador who complained of a bustee of 20,000 people (“Quite a vote bank!” was his contemptuous dismissal) near his Chanakayapuri embassy saw no point in clearing it. “Others will move in. There’s no shortage of poor people in Delhi.” It wasn’t pleasant hearing a foreigner say so.

There’s no embarrassment because there is no delicacy. The receptionist where I am staying books me a taxi for eight hours at Rs 950. At the end of that time the driver insists that was for a different car; and wants Rs 1,200. I order and get a metered taxi and discover on the road the meter doesn’t work. It never has worked. A half-day booking is Rs 450 says one receptionist; Rs 500 says another; the driver demands Rs 550. “I’m getting out,” I storm and open the door. “All right, pay Rs 500,” says the driver placatingly. It was Rs 300 from the airport because Delhi Traffic Police made the booking. With no police, the return trip is Rs 500.

It’s catch as catch can. Everyone is out to make a fast buck, as the Americans say. When I told a bullying car operator I wouldn’t talk to him, he asked, “Who will you talk to then?” All the cars were his; all the drivers were his employees. It was a cartel. Taxi-owners squeeze drivers who squeeze passengers. Receptionists may get a cut. Perhaps the squeezing starts at the top and works its way down.

With everybody squeezing everybody else, there’s no shame in being identified as cheats. They know that thieving can’t be compartmentalised. Protection is guaranteed because society follows a mendacious pattern. If you have swindlers behind taxi wheels, saints can’t be running the administration. With 700 million Indians predicted to move into urban centres by 2050, the country will be pockmarked with many pus-filled Delhis, many cesspools of dishonesty. It’s a frightening future.

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