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Chai-Pani – by Jay Rege


‘Chai-Pani’ – when translated to English means ‘tea and water’. But if you have lived in Mumbai for long, you know exactly what it means. Yes it means ‘bribe’ – especially the petty ones paid to government officials to get things done. We hear about it, we speak about it, we read about it; it’s part of our system and ironically we have accepted it as standard operating procedures. Yet being in a situation where you experience a ‘chai-pani’ moment firsthand, is a feeling quite queer in itself; definitely not a comfortable one for the first timer.

Offering ‘chai-pani’, is not as easy as you think. You don’t just walk up to the officer on duty, put a few 100 rupee notes on his table and say “Here. Take it. I need my job done ASAP”. Just because you are willing to pay, doesn’t make life any easier for you. You still need to follow the rules and procedures. You still need to run from pillar to post, fill out the required forms, wait in queues, and be confronted by rude officials. At some point during this whole running around you even begin to develop this futile hope that maybe you might just be lucky enough to get things done without having to offer any chai or pani whatsoever. But soon you realize that it isn’t your lucky day and parting with your money is inevitable.

Now your greatest fear is how do you make the offer? What if you get arrested during the illegal act? What if, like they show in movies, the officer you are dealing with turns out to be an out right ethical guy who just fumes at the very mention of ‘chai-pani’? What if there is an anti-corruption squad watching your every move, waiting to pounce on you the moment you pull out the cash? It’s a scary thought. But public officers I guess are good mind readers. They understand your anxiety and apprehensions at making a direct offer. Hence after they are done with all the required formalities, in a mellowed tone they put forth their request “Jara humare chai-pani ka bhi dekho saheb”. For the first time you get addressed as ‘saheb’. That’s when you let out a smile, a sigh of relief, and a few hundred bucks and ask “Par kaam ho jayega na?” “100 percent. Aap befikar raho”, comes a prompt assurance. Now there is ‘chai-pani’ and then there is ‘Settlement’ or ‘Adjustment’. Settlement/adjustment is ‘chai-pani’ given to cover up your mistakes. So making a ‘settlement’ offer is a little more difficult than offering ‘chai-pani’.

My Chai Pani Moment:

A few days ago I was caught by a cop for a traffic violation. After checking my driving license and pointing out my mistake (which of course I admitted) the cop said he would give me a traffic violation notice (a ticket). I was fine with that. But then the procedure was a bit skewed. On issuing me the ticket, he said he would withhold my license. Then anytime within the next three days I would have to report at the police station, pay the fine, and collect my license. I tried to argue that I was willing to pay the fine right there, but the cop refused to accept it. Apparently he was not ‘officially’ allowed to accept money, and I was not in the mood to make any ‘unofficial’ contributions to his kitty. But the problem with the whole procedure was that, to collect my license I had to visit a police station close to the place where I had committed the offence – which was unfortunately an hour’s drive from where I live. Which meant, the next day, I had to drive an hour each way just to pay the fine and get my license back. So finally I decided to go in for the ‘settlement’ route.

“Kuch settlement nahi ho sakta hain kya?” was my benign request. My request brought about a complete change in his demeanor, transforming him from a tough cop to a friendly gentleman. For the first time I saw a smile on his face, which was a good enough indication that he too preferred a ‘settlement’. So looking around, and ensuring that nobody was watching us, I pulled out my wallet. But the moment I opened my wallet, I realized that I only had a 500 rupee note in there. That was way too much a price to pay for ‘settlement’ and I didn’t know if it was appropriate to ask for change in such situations. But left without a choice, hesitatingly I put forth my concern. “Saheb, chutta nahi hain” I said as I showed him the lone 500 rupee note I had. But that didn’t bother him at all. He patiently pulled out his wallet, drew four hundred rupee notes and handed them over to me as he pocketed the 500 rupee one. The ‘settlement’ was complete and I drove away from the crime scene.

But the settlement actually doesn’t end there. Your guilt, your conscience, your so called ethics do not let you get off that easily. But then you try to console yourself: the poor cop is anyways overworked and underpaid; toils all day in the hot sultry weather bearing all the noise and the pollution; probably my 100 rupee would be spent towards fulfilling a need that he or his family has been waiting for long. You try to justify your actions with thoughts like these, as you constantly look back in the rear view mirror to ensure that you are not being followed by an anti corruption squad :)

What’s your take on this Please comment.

By Jay Rege