Sunday, April 24, 2011

Exact Change

A couple weeks ago when I went through the toll booth on NH8, which is the primary road between Delhi and Gurgaon, I noticed a sign that read, "Please pay exact amount. Cars Rs. 21." I'm probably not the first person to think it's odd that you would set your toll price at an uneven number like that and have the gall to expect people to have exact change.

It would seem more appropriate to set the toll one rupee less and make it a nice even twenty rupee fee. If revenue is an issue, why not raise even more and make it Rs. 25? Alas, the toll commission (or maybe it's the National Highways Authority of India) decided on Rs. 21 and decided to invest in a sign expecting exact change. With this decision, you'd hope they also made a decision to stock their toll booths with one or two rupee coins. I grew up in western Illinois where there were two strange $0.95 tolls to get to the Chicago area on Interstate 88. I'm pretty sure those toll booths were well stocked with nickels.
Actually better organized than many toll booths in Chicago
On the way back from Delhi on Saturday afternoon, we were stuck in a rather long line at the toll. I was thinking to myself, "it's probably that 21 rupee deal that's forcing everyone to wait for change." Selfishly, we wanted to get through as quickly as possible as we had a staycation weekend planned at The Leela, which is located just on the Gurgaon side of the toll booth. And yes, I realize The Leela is fifteen minutes from my apartment, but we had a free room; you'd take advantage of this too. After waiting patiently in line for a few minutes, we approached the toll booth; finally, we were set to pay the toll and get on with our day. The bus in front of us went through the toll, advanced far enough for my trusty driver Kailash to pay the toll, and stopped. And it didn't advance.

We were trapped. Our weekend getaway blocked literally and figuratively by this large bus. A couple minutes later, the bus driver jumped out of the bus and walked back to the toll attendant. I immediately thought there was some sort of issue where the attendant had given incorrect change on the Rs. 64 toll (buses cost more than cars; exactly Rs. 41 more; again, pricing at its finest). A fairly heated discussion began. Sensing this wasn't going to get better without a little friendly intervention from an over-privileged Westerner, I rolled down the window and very politely asked what was going on. Hearing English, the toll attendant shrugged his shoulders and gave me one of those, "I don't really care that this is inconveniencing you; just deal with it" looks.

Kailash, always the protective one rolled his window down and asked a couple questions in what sounded like a fairly confrontational tone (though to be honest when you hear Hindi spoken it sounds confrontational more often than most languages, it certainly doesn't flow from the tongue like French). From what he was able to ascertain, it wasn't an issue of correct change, it was an issue of the bus driver's refusal to pay a little something on top (i.e., a bribe) to the toll attendant, which apparently is a fairly common occurrence for larger vehicles where, presumably, its not the driver's money being paid. But here's the thing, the bribe was a flat Rs. 10, thus making the total cost to pass for the bus to be Obviously, in the U.S. assessing an additional toll at a tollbooth would be pretty much the easiest way to get one's self fired and/or put in jail. Here, I've come to accept that these things happen, and there's not much I'm going to be able to do in the next eight months to change it.

What I can't understand is: why not make the bribe an additional rupee? It's win/win, Mr. Toll Booth Guy gets a 10% bump and traffic rolls through a little less less encumbered. Of course, this doesn't solve the issue of a bus driver refusing to pay the bribe, so it wouldn't have even mattered. Thankfully, with Kailash remaining somewhat involved and two increasingly agitated expats who may or may not have raised their voice a time or two, the bus pulled forward enough to let us pass. This entire episode likely took between seven to ten minutes, so it's not like we were stranded passengers on a tarmac for hours; however, do you have any idea how long seven minutes feels like when you you're waiting to pass through a toll you've already paid?

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