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Tripped Up by a Rupee's Worth of Trouble

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Bureaucracy is the art of making the possible impossible, or so the saying goes. Which brings us to India. Even as that country is undergoing great economic change, its gigantic government bureaucracy continues to employ millions of civil servants. As NPR's Philip Reeves describes in his Reporter's Notebook, some of those government workers are masters at making people jump through hoops.

PHILIP REEVES: These days you can't buy much with one rupee. A couple of boiled candies, perhaps. A rupee is worth about two cents. That doesn't go far even in India. But it's amazing how much trouble one rupee can cause.

The other day our utilities bill arrived. Electricity is a sore point in New Delhi. Despite its rapidly expanding economy, India still can't generate enough power to keep the lights on round the clock in its capital. Even so, we'd run up a big bill trying to keep cool in the sweltering summer months. We owed a bucket load of rupees, 19,923 to be precise. There's the problem. We weren't precise. We pay these bills by banker's draft. This time there was a mix up. The draft said 19,922 rupees. It was short by two boiled candies.

In the gloom of the New Delhi Municipal Corporation, amid the bundles of yellowing paper, cobwebs and wearing fans, such matters are taken seriously. No, we couldn't pay the missing one rupee in cash, said the clerk behind the desk. In fact, he wouldn't accept the banker's draft at all. So it was back across town to the bank.

There, the clerk behind the desk was amused enough but he said there was another problem. He couldn't just issue a new banker's draft. We'd have to cancel the old one first. That would mean writing the bank a letter. It would be better, he said, to go back across town to the Municipal Corporation and plead with them.

The supervisor back at the corporation was grim-faced. This was evidently most irregular. Finally, he relented. With a flourish in his pen he signed a piece of paper. Then with an air of some importance, stamped it. Just this once, the corporation would make an exception. The offending one rupee would be carried forward. Of course, he explained, we couldn't give him the draft right away. We'd have to come back for next day, stand in line again and hand the piece of paper he had given to us back to him then. Thankfully, that bill is now paid.

In my house, the lights are on, at least most of the time. We're eagerly waiting to settle our one rupee debt, and we're waiting even more eagerly for this booming, brilliant country to unravel itself from its engulfing web of red tape.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.