I’d been talking to experts at the Bombay Natural History Society (BHNS), the RSPB’s equivalent in India, and I had mentioned the Deonar tip. I knew that it once had thousands of vultures circling over it and pouncing down on to its scraps of food. But they had all died out. Or so the BHNS people believed. I thought I should check it out, and at least find out what birds had taken over from the once omnipresent vultures. The society gave me a driver and a vehicle for the morning to get there. They were not very optimistic about my chances of getting on to the tip itself but at least, they suggested, I could see where it was and have a squint at whatever birds might be in the air above it.
We – my young Hindu driver and I – set off through Mumbai’s honking traffic. Everyone honks their car horn incessantly here. And that is irrespective of whether there is anything in the way. My driver did the same even when, on rare occasions, a short stretch of road was empty. Needing something to honk at is clearly unnecessary.
On the rather flimsy pretext of studying the birds feeding on the tip (it was hardly a study), I managed to blag and bluff my way past three sets of bureaucrats in track-side shanty offices, each of them trying to prevent me from getting any further. It all made my driver distinctly uncomfortable. He wriggled incessantly. He looked nervous and harassed. He frequently suggested turning back (using rudimentary sign language because we couldn’t otherwise communicate). And he looked generally much paler than when we had set out.
Bureaucracy is an advanced art form in India. It could win the Turner Prize hands down. Supposedly an inheritance from the days of the Raj when English civil servants showed the locals the skills of endless form-filling, the bureaucrats of India have raised it to another level of time-consuming complexity and expertise.
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Speeding it up usually requires a little money to oil the snail-like flow of any action that might eventually result. I had forgotten about this when our vehicle was flagged down at each of the three sets of scruffy track-side shanties. At each I jumped out and signed papers put in front of me oblivious as to their content. Presumably I was absolving the authorities of any responsibility for my safety and wellbeing. I argued incessantly as the tip officials tried to tell me that further progress towards the gross smelling object of my desire was definitely not possible. But persistence paid off. Or it does at the Deonar tip anyway. Trying to seem as official as I possibly could, I insisted that it was of vital importance for me to see the birds living there and that I had come all the way from the UK to do so.
Maybe the unfailingly polite but very discouraging tip bureaucrats asked me for some cash to oil the bureaucratic structures but I have no idea if they did. I couldn’t understand a word of Marathi or Hindi (or any other of the plethora of languages in the country) and they spoke no English. So our communication was almost zero and no bribe changed hands. Perhaps my journey would have been easier if it had.
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