08 January 2017 07:41:30 IST

When bribes go cashless

Going digital was meant to curb corruption but Indian minds have found a way around this

The Pakistani writer Sara Suleri once wrote a rather wonderful book called Meatless Days. In the last couple of months I have been reminded again and again of this book as we make our way through cashless days. As with Suleri’s Meatless Days, our cashless also covers a multitude of ills as we, one of India’s many small businesses, have been discovering.

Some weeks ago, we organised a cultural event that was followed by a reception. Since the venue was a public space, and since we wanted to serve liquor, we were required to get a liquor licence from the government. In the digital age, this should be a hassle-free and non-corruptible process. That is, if you can find your way through the maze of badly presented information on the Net.

‘Badly presented’ is, I guess, a relative term. If you’re a hotel where several parties are organised every day, or a cultural centre where the same happens, you can navigate the available information easily enough as you might be doing it routinely. But if you’re a small organisation that does not usually have events where you serve liquor, and if you’re a first-timer, then it’s difficult.

Anyway, it turned out that liquor licences could be obtained from a few outlets that were authorised to issue them. We found one such, headed there, got our licence, placed our order, made a credit card payment (we’re in digital India!) and came back.

A couple of weeks after, when the credit card bill arrived, and I compared it with the invoices, I found a discrepancy of ₹500 — an unexplained amount that had been charged over and above the cost of the licence. Surprised, I called the store, and after some humming and hawing, the store guy said to me, “Madam, actually this is what we pay, you know… without this the licence doesn’t get cleared.”

A cashless bribe? A digital chai-paani payment? It’s hard to escape this conclusion. I was impressed. Since the payment was recorded on my card, the chances that the store may be adding this on were somewhat low. I wondered if a similar payment gets added on to every licence issued? But there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, that are issued on a daily basis, and all those ₹500 must add up to a lot. A lot of money and a lot of silence. No cash though.

The digital, we have been told, will curb corruption. Cashless, we’ve been told, means less avoidance of tax, more recording of payments. But our Indian minds have found a way around this too.

Our woes did not end there. We go into the World Book Fair which begins on Saturday, an annual event which is important for publishers, and particularly for small enterprises, for it’s the one time in the year you meet many of your customers, and get to see your trade counterparts.

But the cashless regime means that we can expect much lower attendance, and far fewer purchases. How to make up the money we’ve spent on hiring the stand — something that was done before the cashless regime kicked in? Perhaps make provision for credit card payments? But the wifi inside the halls is terrible and slow, and often you have to carry your machine outside to catch the wifi, leaving your books unattended in the meanwhile.

So we thought, okay, let’s get a phone line and connect our credit card machine to the phone line. It was easier said than done though. While the National Book Trust organises the fair, a telephone line can only be had from the Indian Trade Promotion Organisation, which runs Pragati Maidan. No online applications for this one; you have to go there and spend a few hours finding the right officer and getting the right papers in place.

Once that’s done, you need to make another trip, this time to Khurshid Lal Bhavan in Connaught Place where you must make the exorbitant payment of ₹6,500 for a phone line for nine days in, wait for it, cash!! No nonsense about digital payments here. This is a government institution that refuses to recognise that we’re in a different era, a digital era. You want a phone line, you pay in cash. You want — as many bigger publishers do — six phone lines, you pay in cash six times over. So much for the digital age!

Currently, we’re in another digital dilemma. We’re trying to apply for an Export Code Number that enables you to export your products, surely something that our Make in India campaign should encourage. Because we are in the digital age, such applications can only be lodged online. There is no provision for submitting them physically. But the department — being a government department — works with outdated browsers (Internet Explorer) and for the last month their website has been dysfunctional. It shuts down each time you try to upload even a cancelled cheque. As our deadline for sending our consignment out draws closer, and we are still unsuccessfully trying to upload our application, I think, so much for digital India.

(The article first appeared in BLInk.)