The Case Of The Missing Paisa

Rounding Of Rupees Has Become A Common Practice In India I get into arguments at billing counters so frequently these days that I wonder if it has subconsciously become one of my favourite pastimes. I have a fairly wide range of causes for these disputes. However the most common cause is that of the cashier gobbling my hard earned paise. The amusing and strange part of the story is that I seem to be losing these arguments with alarming regularity.

The events normally go something like this – I buy goods worth Rs. 99.25 and the cashier announces Rs. 100 as the payable amount. I ask him why he could not even show the courtesy to tell me that he was charging 75 paise extra. The reply is “Ok, Pay 99”. I tell him that it is not about the 75 paise but about business ethics. I next complain to the store manager who barely listens to me before ordering his staff “Take one rupee less from Sir!”

It is obvious that I have failed to impress the cashier or the manager with my talk about business ethics as they continue to overcharge me every time. When they realize that I am the same fellow who had pestered them a few days back, they quickly resort to the tried and tested “One rupee less from Sir” formula before I can raise my war flag. The formula works well for the store because as soon as the “One rupee less from Sir” announcement is made, the issue seems resolved as far as those in the queue behind me are concerned. They get restless and impatient as each one is probably getting late for something somewhere. Repeating my greivance to the manager and lodging it in the complaint book is the best I can do before I move on. The system stays as it is, efficiently swindling tiny amounts from 100s of customers everyday.

The distressing fact is that asking for the higher rupee amount has become a policy in stores across India. Petrol pumps probably invented this policy, as gobbling up fuel money has been a tradition for a long time now.

While the store example is annoying, in that case I at least manage to recover my money if I ask for it. An even worse example is that of road toll. A toll of Rs 118 is in fact Rs 118 plus a small ‘Dairy Milk’ bar worth two rupees that has to be bought at a combined price of Rs. 120. All differences in multiples of 50 paise are settled in Eclairs and Coffee Bites. As the toll booth operators would be buying in bulk and at a fraction of the cost, they surely are making fat profits through chocolate sales to hapless car owners forced to buy chocolates that they never wanted.  Unlike the store, you can’t even argue at a toll plaza as in sync with good old Indian mannerisms, the car behind you decides to honk ferociously until you accept your plight and the chocolate and finally move on.

Bus conductors have given their own spin to the supposed shortage of change. If a passenger pays more than the fare amount, he is told that he will get back the balance change after the conductor sells more tickets and has some free change. That never happens as the passenger either forgets to collect or has to get off the bus in a hurry. Rickshaw fare machines also seem to have magically adapted to the situation. Irrespective of the distance travelled, the fare always seems to work out to some multiple of five.

Shortage of coins and notes for small denominations is supposedly the cause for all the above problems. But if that’s really the case, the government doesn’t seem bothered at all. 5 and 10 paise coins have already been inducted into museums and 25 and 50 paise coins are currently undergoing induction training.

If we delve on it, this habit of not returning small amounts is not just an issue of business practices but an overall statement about ethics in India. We just don’t take honesty seriously enough to be offended by such unscrupulous acts. In most US stores, you get exact change right to the last cent. If your transaction amounts to 6 dollars and 3 cents and you hand over a 10 dollar bill, the cashier returns 3 dollars while the 97 cents emerge from a change machine kept beside the counter. The counter clerk doesn’t have to bother with change and the customer gets the exact amount back. Returning the last cent is not treated as a favour but is acknowledged as a right of the customer.

Economists can tell better, but I believe this habit of rounding off amounts is contributing greatly to the price rise in the country. No vendor will price his product at 3 rupees 25 paise even though that would be a win-win price for both the seller and the buyer. He won’t even price it at Rs. 4 but at Rs. 5 if not Rs. 10. Although this might seem unfair only to the buyer, in reality it is also unfair to the seller, as he loses all those customers who might have bought the product if only it had been priced lower.

Now that we have put more thought into the change crisis in India, I am sure it would have become obvious why Dhoni was paid 6 crores by the Chennai team when in fact they wanted to pay just Rs 59999999.25.

(Published as “The Case Of The Missing Paisa” on 23rd Feb 08 in my fortnightly column for the Maharashtra Herald)