In a country full of people who apparently know ‘important' people, it must pose a real challenge to extract money for a fine

The strange thing about getting caught by the cops, is that you always think you've gotten away with it. That bubble of hope lasts until, just as you're congratulating yourself on having dropped the phone like a hot potato from your ear on to your lap, the cop eyeballs you, waves you down and gives you the look. The look conveys many things — a contempt of your lame attempt to deceive him, his satisfaction in having caught you and his intent on dealing with you mercilessly.

Last Sunday, I was breezing down Poonamallee High Road contemplating lunch, when a friend from the States called. Since it was an international call (and therefore, as I have been conditioned to think, expensive and important), I picked it up while driving. Just as I took the turn to head into Nungambakkam, I spotted him. The phone made its usual journey from ear to somewhere on the floor of the car in a jiffy, but I was too late. The eagle-eyed officer raised an arm, courteously gave me space to park and demanded my license. I produced it, and tried that line: ‘Sir, emergency, sir.' If any cop ever asked me to explain the emergency, I would be hard-pressed to come up with something that treaded the fine line between a convincing lie and an unverifiable fact.

‘Rs. 1,000,' the officer said. I tried telling him that I did not have that much money on me (which was true), pleaded this would never happen again, would never have happened if it hadn't been an ‘emergency', accompanied by my most heartfelt look.

Note: Talking your way out of paying a fine rarely works, but I always attempt it. I have paid multiple times, tried the hands-free route, failed and been caught again. Since I am the city's expert in parking where it is obvious to everyone but me, that parking is not allowed, the fines have been legion.

The police's problem, the cop told me, was actually collecting the fines from law-breakers. Vehicles with red lights (signifying VIPs) could not be stopped for obvious reasons and the rich and the influential (in big cars) invariably ‘knew' somebody important. They were reduced to fining ordinary motorists. ‘And they invariably complain that since we do not fine the rich lawbreakers who can actually afford the fine, why should they have to pay up,' he told me. 

This aspect of the situation had never struck me before. In a country full of people who apparently know ‘important' people, it must pose a real challenge to actually extract money for a fine. As much as we complain about the ‘system' every time somebody breaks a road rule and inconveniences us, we (or at least, I) are reluctant to pay a fine for a legitimate violation. The Chennai traffic police do a superb job under difficult circumstances. Except that their system, we think, should apply to everyone except us (or me).

I quickly glanced into my purse and debated the virtues of paying the fine (abiding by principles and being a good citizen) vs. a sumptuous lunch (immense satisfaction). My principles leapt up and ran away.

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