Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Driving License

I recently got an Indian driver's license. People here call it a driving license. Getting my license took many steps and much time, combining hilarity and insanity.

The process of getting an Indian driver's license can be summarized as a big charade. A license is an official government document, so there has to be real process with a real institution behind it. But as I learned, that process is highly bendable and even breakable. What was even more stunning was how hard it was to not bend the process. In other words, going through the process by the book required going out of your way to such an extent that it made attempting it highly unusual and/or insane.

How do I know this? It just so happened that my friend Shital was attempting to get her license at the same time I was. Shital is from the U.S., so we faced similar technical difficulties in getting a license. My approach to address the difficulties was to work through an agent, who provided you instruction on how to drive as well as steer you through the process of obtaining the license with the RTO (India's DMV). Basically, an agent is a middle man who has special relationships with the right people at the RTO to get your license in a frictionless way. Agents are not illegal; in fact the RTO pretty much endorses them. Shital decided to try without an agent. She rightly argued that using an agent is participation in a corrupted system, and the system will not change unless people resist it. More on how that turned out later.

My agent was named Bablubhai. He has a driving school (code for agency) on Ashram Road. Bablu was recommended by my rickshaw driver Narendra. My main criteria for an agent were dependability, quality of instruction, and cost. Bablubhai said he would get me my license without any trouble or delay. He gives the best instructions in town; students from one of the competing agencies nearby even come to him for lessons after failing to properly learn the first time. The other agencies teach in crappy cars, he gives lessons in a  higher-end Honda Brio. He seemed professional and confident.

Bablubhai's driving lessons consisted of 15 sessions of 30 minutes each. My instructor was Bablubhai's 20-something employee Chirag. Chirag and I would meet in front of the driving school, hop in the Brio, and go meandering around the area, driving in normal traffic so I could get a feel for it. Lot of the complexity in learning was taken away because I knew how to drive stick-shift; I could just focus on learning the ways of Indian traffic.

Much has been made about the chaos of Indian traffic, how there are no lanes and people honk lustily while avoiding cows and carts and cycles. How bigger has right of way over smaller, the exact opposite of America. How there is no "letting someone pass" or regard for traffic rules, and the culture is dog-eat-dog. All of this turns out to be true. In fact, my instructor Chirag would remind me of this constantly. He knew I came from a place where there was order and respect for rules. His catchphrase was "Kai 'rules and regulations' nathi" ("There are no rules and regulations").

I got the hang of the roads relatively quickly. Overall, I learned two main tricks for driving effectively and safely in India. The first is to drive slow. There is so much stuff happening around you. If you're driving fast, you may not be able to process everything in time and so your chances of mishap increase. The easiest way around that is to just drive slow. No one will honk at you for it, they will just maneuver around you and keep moving. The second trick I learned was to not look at any rear view mirrors. If you start looking around, you will freak out because there's all kinds of shit happening. It's better to keep a narrow focus and drive straight. If you mind yourself and don't make any sudden movements, everyone else around you will basically do the same thing and you will all get through it.

In Indian driving, there are no mistakes. People aren't going to get upset when you linger after a light has turned green or you brake suddenly. There's so much chaos that anything "wrong" you do at the individual level just blends in with the rest of the chaos. It's all part of the game, and there are no mistakes.

One of the most important and non-intuitive things to realize about driving in India is that knowing how to drive is a totally different matter from getting a license. In the U.S., the system is that having a license proves you know how to drive. In other words, the system is set up so you can't get a license unless you know how to drive. That's not how it works in India. In India, it is possible to get a license without never having driven, let alone being comfortable on the road. In fact, many people get a license, and after that seek out lessons to learn how to drive. This ridiculous situation is borne out of the fact (or perhaps reflects it) that the RTO is corrupt and fundamentally broken.

A few lessons into my learning I scheduled a time with Bablubhai to go to the RTO and get my kaachhu license (learner's permit).

The RTO in Ahmedabad is a deceptively huge building on aptly named RTO Circle near Ranip. Inside, it is a damp dingy labyrinth. As I walked through the various dark corridors looking for Bablubhai, I glanced into room after room full of dreary gray shelves to the ceiling full of old stained papers and documents. Around these shelves sat agents relentlessly doing paperwork.  Stacks of papers all around them, not a single computer in sight. I met Bablu, who led me hastily through this and that corridor. Bablubhai is a little man who moves like a torpedo missile. I had trouble keeping up with him. As he walked he would engage people he knew with a warm smile and how-do-you-do chit-chat. He talked a mile a minute. It occurred to me that Bablubhai's job was predicated on maintaining as many good relationships with as many people in the RTO as possible. We eventually entered one of the stacked rooms and parked in front of a fat man doing paperwork. Before we went to him, Bablu had advised me to not speak unless spoken to, and to let him do all the talking. My case was a bit sensitive because I was a US citizen and so didn't have any local ID. But with some sweet talking Bablu got a signed paper through that let me take the test for a learning license.

A few days earlier, Bablubhai had given me a book to study for the multiple choice test. I would have to answer 11 of 15 questions correctly about traffic rules and regulations. Instead of giving me a book of rules, though, Bablubhai gave me a book of all the questions (with answers) that would be asked on the test. If I just memorized all those questions, there would be no problem passing.

And of course he was right. I got called into the test room with a group of others. The room had computers in cubicles against all four walls. We sat at the cubicles and took the exam. I sat down and got question after question, each of which I recognized. I didn't have to even finish reading the question or read all the answers; I had memorized the location of the right answer. It took me 3 minutes to answer the first eleven questions I saw correctly. I went outside and around the corner, where I collected a crudely laminated black-and-white postcard sized printout of my photo and some identification details. I had my learner's permit!

I had 15 guaranteed 30-minute lessons with Chirag, but ended up only going through 13 because I had gotten the hang of it and a month had elapsed since I got my learner's permit, so I was eligible to go for my paaku license (official license). So on a Wednesday I showed up at 8:30 sharp as per Bablu's instructions to the RTO to take my road test.

I walked into the RTO's big dirt parking lot and found a buzz of activity. There were clusters of people, maybe 100 total, around 5-6 parked cars that belonged to a number of agencies around town. I found Bablu's cluster, he was busily filling out forms for all of his students who had shown up for the test. I tapped him on the shoulder; the look he gave me indicated he'd forgotten he had asked me to come. He pulled out a fresh form and scribbled my details on it. He asked if I knew how to drive a two-wheeler (motorcycle/scooter). I panicked; why the hell was he asking me that? Is it a part of my driving test? I was thrown off because he should know the answer, he was the one giving me driving lessons. I told him no, and he hung his head for a second. Then he said, "Don't worry, I'll handle that part of the test for you, just stand where I tell you to stand." As he scampered away I caught him and told him I wanted to do the test the "right" way; I didn't want any special treatment. This was a promise I had made to Shital, who inspired me by not giving into the corrupt agent system. He brushed me off. Sure sure, you will be taking the same test as everyone else.

As I stood around waiting for Bablu or someone else to tell me what to do, I noticed that some people were there for a car license, others for a two-wheeler license. The two-wheeler tests began first. Bablu stood next to an RTO agent, handing him a form from his stack to test each of his students one at a time. The two-wheeler test was ridiculous. You had to drive a motorcycle in a small figure eight in front of the RTO agent. That was it. It took no more than 20 seconds. Some people couldn't even do the figure eight, one lady could only take the cycle straight and couldn't turn. She drove into a crowd of people, braked just in time, got off the bike, and walked it back to the instructor. I think she passed. At one point Bablubhai handed the agent a form and then got on the scooter himself and did a sad stunted go-through-the-motions figure eight. I was pretty sure he was taking the two-wheeler test on my behalf.

The car test was just as absurd. I was able to go first out of Bablu's students since I was the NRI. We formed a line next to Bablu's car and a path was cleared 100 meters long ahead. The test was to drive in a straight line for those 100 meters. I got into the car with an RTO instructor in the passenger seat and another in the back. The one in the back sat with the stack of forms and handed the front agent one at a time to administer the test. I got in and buckled my seat belt, and waited. The agent, with no preamble, told me to turn on the car and drive forward. I did that, but worked slowly to not mess anything up. He was in a bigger rush, so he kept urging me to speed up. I started driving forward gingerly, making sure that I don't stall out the car. The agent said, "Go go!". The car had the two sets of driving pedals since it was an instructional vehicle. The agent put his own foot to his pedal and carried us to the finish line. I asked him if I should reverse back; I had noticed from other tests going on that people went forward and back. "No, that is all. Please sign this paper, you are finished." I signed and got out of the car. I wasn't even sure if I had passed, the agent didn't indicate one way or the other. I walked over to Bablubhai and asked him if that was it. Did I pass? He replied, "Well, did you sign the form? You can go home now."

Three weeks later, I got my license in the mail. It felt triumphant, and I was proud. On the other hand I looked back at the process and it felt like a big joke. Any fool can get a license, you don't even need to know how to drive. I used low-level corruption, and even worse it seemed like it was the only way to do things. Poor Shital is still in the process of getting her kaachu license; the first time she went to the RTO, they refused to let her take the computer test because she didn't have a document proving she had a residence in Ahmedabad (even though she did). They said her rental agreement was invalid because it wasn't notarized. Unfortunately she couldn't get it notarized because her landlord was in the U.S.. She argued with a number of people until she made it to a hidden room in the RTO where the head man sat. He was sympathetic to her cause, but one of the lower-level ladies refused to let her go on a small technicality. Later Shital returned to the RTO with notarized documents, only to be refused by the RTO worker because the date of notarization wasn't within the required timeframe.

On the other end of the spectrum, another American friend of mine (who will remain anonymous) walked into the RTO and out with his official license in hand in a single day. His process even bypassed the agent. Without taking a single lesson, without taking the computer test, without even waiting for the license in the mail, this friend knew and paid off the right people in the RTO and completed the entire process (which took me two months, and has taken Shital 5 months and counting) in a few hours.

Getting official documentation to drive in India is just like driving in India. It seems broken and arbitrary, but in spite of itself it continues to work.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. this whole post is all kinds of awesome. i pretty much laughed throughout!

  3. Hi Neil, I was told to check out this post - a great account of the trials and tribulations in obtaining a license here! Thanks for writing it up and also for sharing my story.

    Just in case you were wondering how the story ends: I heeded the advice of many to pick my battles wisely, and gave in. The other layer of my situation was that I actually have a Fua who was an RTO agent for 30 years. When I got back, I gave him a call, he arranged to meet me at the RTO, shook a few hands, exchanged small talk, showed my passport/US license, got all the necessary stamps and signatures, had me wait in a line to pay Rs 200 and get my photo/information entered, and that was it. Done in 1.5 hours (compared to the 5 hrs I spent before, when I was forced to leave without even a driving permit). No test. Didn't touch a car. He called the next day to say the license was hand delivered to his home, whenever I wanted to pick it up.

    The main lesson? I am a common person in India - a nobody. I lack information. Without information, I am powerless. I do not know enough information about a process to follow it properly - and even if I seek the information, it is not available. Having experienced this, I am now very aware of how lack of information can disenfranchise ordinary people. It has been humbling and disturbing, all at once. I'd love to shift the conversation now to what appropriate and realistic solutions might look like.

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