For 22-year-old M. Mariappan, the anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare might as well be happening in another country. Having been made to run around one of the 13 Regional Transport Offices (RTOs) in the city on Friday just to know the procedure for the ‘name transfer' of a motor vehicle, he says, “nothing much has changed.”

Though help and information centres are mandated under the Citizens Charter, they are either dysfunctional or non-existent in most RTOs. The information barrier directly contributes to graft, say those who frequent government offices for a variety of services and schemes.

Mariappan, a car driver who earns Rs.7,000 a month, says he borrowed money to pay a bribe for a driver's licence four years ago. “I was made to wait for three months just to get a learner's licence. But I got my driver's licence in a day. Corruption drives the system,” he says.

He has personally seen RTO officials come in to work at 8.45 a.m. to clear the previous day's billing backlog, though the office opens only at 10 a.m. The system becomes extremely efficient once ‘speed money' has been paid. Many of those who approach the RTOs also alleged that such an arrangement seems to have been institutionalised with the help of ‘agents' from driving schools.

“It is obviously an act of corruption to pay a driving school to facilitate the process,” says Kaalicharan S. Goswami (20), who got his licence recently. “What about the people who can't afford it? They are made to go through so much harassment because of those who are willing to pay,” he says. A youngster next to him, who had paid Rs.1,500 to a driving school, while the official fee is Rs.400, squirmed.

It is as if the current raging debate on corruption has simply bypassed government offices, he says. “I think every applicant must be prepared to spend a day at the RTO office just to understand the process,” Mr. Goswami adds. The level of ignorance is so much that not many even know about the Transport Department's eservice portal, http://transport.tn.nic.in/transport/. All application forms can be downloaded free of cost and even a meeting be set up with the respective RTO.

The link between a bribe and access to any government service is inescapable and prevalent, complain city residents.

Try registering a plot of land and you will understand how this system works, says a dejected resident of Anna Nagar after several attempts. “Unless you approach one of the touts who call themselves document writers, nothing moves,” he says. Bribes are demanded depending on the value of the property registered. Victims also complain that touts seemed to have greater access to senior officials.

However, a senior official of the Inspectorate-General of Registration, says: “The public are corrupt first and then, our officers. Even if there is facility for e-stamping, many still believe that only a stamp paper lends authenticity to the transaction. The public should take initiative, approach officers directly and be aware of the procedures,” he said. “Touts will be there as long as the public want them to be.”

The response from residents is that nothing ever gets done without a middleman. V.Rajan, a resident of Anna Nagar West Extension, says: “I got water and sewer connections in a month only after I paid Rs.8,000 to a licensed plumber who acts as a mediator.”

Though Metrowater has a 24-hour grievance cell (45674567), residents like him mostly never complain as they are dependent on the staff in the area office.

Though there is no such dependency for those seeking services at the passport office, the influence that the touts wield is common knowledge. Many applicants complain that getting passport is extremely difficult even after paying a bribe. With middlemen swarming the office complex, people who are not familiar with the procedures fall prey easily.

Then, there are instances where residents themselves have something to hide. Mukesh Kumar, a businessman in north Chennai, says an official of the Electricity Board asked a bribe of Rs.1 lakh for a new commercial connection, which included purchase of electricity cable. “After negotiations, the price was brought down, as I did not want to earn the wrath of the local officials by lodging a complaint with the higher officials or the vigilance wing. Since the building was not constructed as per approved plan, I was afraid that the electricity connection may be denied.”

A.M.S. Gunaseelan, joint director, Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption, says the police and RTOs top the list of offices against which graft-related complaints are received. “People should also be more forthcoming with specific complaints. With regard to touts, the local police have to act as our mandate is to ‘entrap' public servants. Existing provisions of the law must be fully utilised.”

(With inputs from Ajai Sreevatsan, Meera Srinivasan, R.Srikanth and K.Lakshmi)

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