Shakedowns are a way of life in India. They happen to everyone and that’s just the way it is. Literally, things are set up so that corruption is the most economical, most efficient, most expedient, and most common way of doing business and settling legal matters.

Indians measure the costs and benefits of breaking minor laws with two primary weights in their scales: money and expedience. And more times than not, breaking the law weighs out to be more appealing than following it. This goes for EVERYONE in India, not just the hot-shot Goan twenty-something on a crotch rocket zipping through Calangute.

Prime example: if you’re on a motorbike of any kind, the law states that you need to wear a helmet. It’s a good law. Hell that’s not even a law in America, the land of too many laws.

I estimate roughly 95% of all people on motorized two-wheel vehicles ride without helmets. This is everyone from old geezers to businesspeople to teenaged girls. Helmets aren’t a big thing in India.

Now the general strategy of Indian traffic cops, at least that I’ve seen, is to set up a roadblock, most often a partial roadblock, and then stand out in the road, yell at random people to pull over, shake offenders down for money, and then let them go. This money collected, I have been told, is then skimmed by the local traffic cops, sent to headquarters along with the bullshit police reports that the traffic cops fill out where it is skimmed again, and then sent to the state, where it is absorbed into the gaping maw of the bureaucratic apparatus. This strategy seems to work well enough, particularly in the high season in Goa where there is no shortage of tourist prey eager to part with a couple thousand rupees to just be on their way.

So I’m on my way to Old Goa. I get across the bridge to Panjim. On the other side of the bridge I hit a partial roadblock, get hailed, and like a total ponce, I stop.

Now, in America, if you don’t stop when a cop hails you, there’s a good chance he or she will jump in his or her car, chase you down the road, and if you’re lucky, he or she might pull their 9mm, charge you for evasion and resisting arrest, impound your vehicle, whack you a few times or some other splendid thing. (Like Dave Chappelle says, I don’t hate cops but I am a bit scared of them. American cops can be pretty crazy.)┬áIn Goa, and at these particular roadblocks, the cops just don’t give enough of a shit to make that kind of effort. They a) are relatively lazy, b) already have a handful of people around their vehicles who they’re shaking down, and c) know that if you don’t stop they’ll just get the next guy.

Unfortunately my American reflexes at getting hailed by a cop kicked in and I pulled over.

The guy asks for my license and I give it to him. He then asks for my international driver’s permit. BOOM I give him that too. But this guy was good. He looks at the endorsement on the permit and points out correctly that my endorsement is for four-wheel vehicles, not two-wheel vehicles. True enough.

(Parenthetically, it is utterly ridiculous that the license translation equates Indian scooters with American motorcycles. There are a lot of motorcycles and even more scooters in India and they are two very different machines. A motorcycle can do 180kph. A scooter cannot. A motorcycle has gears. A scooter does not. A motorcycle can accelerate fast. A scooter cannot. Scooters are literally easier to operate than most video games these days. I know that sounds stupid but it’s true. Gas, brake, horn, blinker. Seriously. That’s it. You experienced two-wheelers can call me out on this all you want. You’re probably right about whatever you say, OK? I’m bitter, what can I say.)

So this cop says well, here’s the fine list. He flips a load of papers over the top of his clipboard and shows me a fine sheet taped to the board. Of course this is the tourist list of fines, created and used specifically to shake down foreigners. It has no letterhead, no seal, no contact info, nothing, and the cop does a quick little show-me-the-fine-and-cover-up-the-paper thing, and then gives me the classic poker face of authority when it knows it’s laying down bullshit.

Of course later I learned that the actual fine is 350 rupees. Of course. And at the time I’m thinking, I wonder how much more than the real cost this is.

Now this is just speculation (actually not, I’ve had several Indians confirm this) but I’m guessing that the way it works is, there’s the real fine (Rs. 350) that the government expects to receive for each violation, there’s the shakedown fine (Rs. 2000) that the cops try to get out of people, and then there’s the actual fine that probably in most cases lands somewhere in the middle after a bit of haggling and whatnot. Whatever fines above the official fines that the cops receive are pocketed between the cops themselves and their higher-ups before the real fines are handed over to whomever receives them to deposit them into the state bank of whatever.

Let’s say on average a cop gets 1200 rupees per violation, rather than the full 2000. 1200-350 is 850 rupees. And let’s say the cop skims 25% before passing the money on. That’s about 210 rupees per violation. And let’s say the cop handles 25 violations on a given day. That’s about 5000 rupees per day. Not a bad gig, methinks. 5000 rupees is a good chunk of change here in India. Might explain this particular cop’s nice gold chains and Swiss watch.

So backing up a bit, the very first thing I do before I even hand over my license is take all my rupees out of my wallet and stash them in my back right pocket. I didn’t want the cop to see that I had money if necessary, even though I only had around 1100 rupees on me at the time. Just a good practice, and not just in circumstances like this.

Standing there looking at the cop, I know he’s just doing his thing, feeding me a line behind his facade of authority and knowing that I can’t do a damn thing about it. So I start feeding it right back to him. I tell the cop well, I don’t have any money on me now, so how do I pay the fine? He says you can take a taxi back to where you are staying and get money there to come back and pay. I tell him I’m in Mandrem and I don’t have any money on me to pay for a ride back. He then suggests a bus. Good one. So I pull out my wallet and show him that I have no rupees on me.

He says hmm, well where did you get the scooter. I tell him truthfully that someone lent it to me. He said well then you call him and get him here so he can pay the fine, because technically he should not have lent you the bike without first checking that your license and permit were valid for a scooter. I tell him truthfully that he is several hundred kilometers away and unable to make it here. So he tells me to call the owner of the bike, which I do, and the owner does not pick up.

This seems to exhaust all possibilities for the cop, and I keep giving him the what-can-I-do line which starts to push the point a bit. I ask if I can pay the fine later and he says no, later I will bring a truck here to get your scooter and bring it to the Goa Police Station. Then I will drive you home and you can get money, come back tomorrow, pay the fine, plus a release fee to get your scooter back. Now I know for sure this is complete and utter bullshit. These guys have way too easy of a racket going to go through that kind of ordeal, and I’ve never seen a scooter being hauled away on any kind of truck, let alone a police vehicle.

So I say OK, that sounds good. I’ll do that. And the cop just kind of blinks at me like man, why don’t you just pay me and go, you’re being a total pain in the ass. Hey, takes one to know one pal.

So I play the waiting game for a good 30 minutes and watch this cop and his partner in crime shake down a handful of other tourists. Standing there, I decide that I’m annoyed enough with already losing an hour of my day off that I don’t want to hang out here any more to navigate my way through the corrupt operations of the Goa Police. So I surreptitiously move what I think to be 360 rupees, which was actually 650 rupees, from my pocket to a small pocket in my backpack. (I swore that I left the 500 rupee bill in my pocket and grabbed three 100 rupee bills, but the 500 rupee bill magically made it into the bag. Damn.)

I wait for the cop to finish shaking down a couple Russians and go up to him. I say, so when will you come for my bike? He says at the end of the day, around sunset (it’s like 1:30 in the afternoon). So I tell the cop honestly that I really wish that I had some money so I could just pay the fine and be on my way. He says yes, that is your problem. I say yes, yes it is. And then I say well, I might as well check my backpack, maybe I have some rupees in there.

Now at this point I’m pretty sure he knows that I’m feeding him a line just like I know he’s been feeding me a line. I’m certainly not the first foreigner to cry poverty and try to avoid a shakedown by a corrupt cop. But that’s just the way it is here. Everything can be haggled, everything has a price. Doesn’t matter who you are.

So I start making a show of exploring my backpack, looking in the big compartments first and finding nothing, then moving on to the smaller pockets until I make my way to the pocket where I’d stashed what I thought to be 360 rupees and which was actually 650 rupees. I think to myself, just grab any single bill. If it’s the 10 rupee bill, give it to him and then grab a 100, then another 100, and then yeah, probably the last 100 and give it to him, and hopefully he’s happy. Of course, that’s not how it goes. The first bill I fish out is the 500 rupee bill that I thought was in my back pocket. Pfft. And even better, the 100 rupee bill apparently sees its older brother leaving and starts getting lonely so it grabs hold of the 500 rupee’s coattails and comes along for the ride, fluttering to the ground beside the cop’s jeep.

The cop is completely unphased by this; as I said I’m sure he was allowing my song and dance because I was allowing his. (If I really wanted to I could have made a stink about this whole ordeal: show me the law, show me the fine sheet on official letterhead, I’m calling your superior, blah blah blah. Total crap shoot. No thanks. Not experienced enough for that. But for what it’s worth, I was not acting like the average tourist with this cop and I could tell he was weighing that into our interactions. I had the right (or almost the right) documents on me, I was polite and informed, and I didn’t let him push me around.)

Now this is great: I pick up the 100 rupee bill off the ground and start giving him the 600 rupees just as he says, give me the 500 rupees. It was the kind of timing where my hand was already too far outstretched for him not to accept what I was giving him by the time he said it, so he takes the two bills and just throws the 100 rupee bill to the ground. I pick it up smiling.

So the cop finishes up his paperwork and blah. He gives my license back and tells me to go. So I go.

For most of the rest of the day, and a little bit of the next, I was little pissed. But really, when it comes down to it, it’s a good reminder of a couple things. First, laws are laws and like them or hate them they do affect you and me and everyone else. And second, my country is completely batshit insane when it comes to traffic violations. There are places in America where you will lose your license and do jail time if you drive on the wrong license endorsement, i.e. ride a two-wheel vehicle on a four-wheel vehicle license. At least here in India you just pay and go, although by the books you are technically written a ticket which you then pay later in a court, as I’m told. (And to this point I think it’s a valid counter-argument that if India didn’t have a quintillion people and could enforce more draconian laws, it might well do so. That’s often the way governments roll.)

So in talking to a few people here, I have since learned that 500 rupees is a pretty good deal as far as ‘market rates’ are concerned. One guy who’s been here for almost a decade said hey, 500 rupees is not bad at all. Well done mate. So I got that going for me.

One guy who has been here for a long time on and off over the last several years told me that he does this:

Before leaving have 200 rupees in his wallet ready to go.

Stop if hailed but doesn’t give over license or keys.

Apologize and be subservient at first. Eye contact, I’m sorry, I apologize, sir sir sir.

Cop names a price and he just gives them to 200 rupees and starts coasting. More times than not that’s it. If they block him or protest he stops again and says hey I’m not rich, I paid the fine, I’m leaving. Boom. Done.

And to that point another guy who has also been around Goa for a long time told me that the best thing to do next time is just not stop. If it’s a full roadblock then there’s not much that can be done. But if they’re just waiving people down then you can just gun it and go.

Am I recommending this? No. Is it a viable option? Well, here’s a message from my mate from three days after this happened to me and relating the story and the above-mentioned guy’s advice:

“Cheers for the advice on the police mate. We came to the end of the bridge and a guy startes blowing his whistle at us and walking in our path, I accelerated past him and around his 3 colleagues and away onto the roundabout to get away! We were shitting ourselves but managed to lose them and get away free :-)”

Take it for what it’s worth. YMMV.

See you on the side of the road,

Nathan