'I felt looted, insulted': my 23-year, 20,000-rupee battle for a 20-rupee rail fare refund

Indian lawyer Tungnath Chaturvedi tells 'The National' how he overcame a sclerotic legal system - and the opposition of his family - to win his fight against corruption

Indian lawyer Tungnath Chaturvedi, 66, has won his legal battle with Indian Railways over a ticket. Photo: Tungnath Chaturvedi
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On a foggy Christmas Day in 1999, lawyer Tungnath Chaturvedi was overcharged for a short train journey in his home state of Uttar Pradesh. His journey for justice, and a refund, would take two decades.

Mr Chaturvedi won a 23-year legal battle in India this month against the state-run railways that overcharged him 20 rupees ($0.25) for two passenger tickets from his home town Mathura to Moradabad.

The now 66-year-old lawyer had handed the ticket clerk a 100 rupee note for the tickets worth 70 rupees but was given 10 rupees in change and a handwritten receipt for 90 rupees.

Confused, he questioned the staff and requested they return the exact amount.

“But he refused, saying it was the correct amount,” Mr Chaturvedi told The National.

As the argument escalated, the train prepared to leave, forcing Mr Chaturvedi and his friend to board. But he didn't forget the incident.

“I was furious at the thought of being cheated,” he said. "It kept hovering in my head. As a lawyer and a law-abiding citizen, I felt looted, insulted and dejected."

After checking the ticket price at his destination and complaining once more, he eventually filed a case against the Indian Railways — the state-run behemoth transporter — on charges of cheating.

The case was filed at a consumer court in Mathura, where Mr Chaturvedi practices law. The court deals with consumer-related disputes, conflicts and grievances but often lacks enforcement and fast redressal, with a high backlog of half a million cases, a scenario mirroring the overall criminal justice system of the nation.

Mr Chaturvedi was no exception.

For the next 23 years, the lawyer attended 120 court hearings under five different judges and spent about 20,000 rupees on court fees and paper costs to fight the case.

But he eventually won the excruciatingly prolonged legal battle when the Mathura court on August 5 ruled in his favour, and ordered the railways to pay 15,000 rupees as compensation, along with a refund of the original rupees 20 at 12 per cent interest a year.

“My fight was against corruption," he said. "I wanted to prove that I was cheated and that the railways were the culprit. My fight was against the corruption in the system."

Champion of justice

An Indian Railways train runs on a submerged railway track during heavy rain in Mumbai. EPA

Born in Mathura, the birthplace of Hindu deity Lord Krishna, Mr Chaturvedi completed his law education at Babu Shivnath Aggarwal College in 1991.

He started practising as a civil lawyer at lower courts.

A father-of-three, Mr Chaturvedi had a very simple background but with “great values”, he said.

He was awarded the Sangram Medal by the Indian government for his contribution in maintaining peace and serving the community during the India-Pakistan war in 1971, at the age of 15.

He says his values of righteousness and determination helped sustain him throughout the legal fight.

The railways had challenged the consumer court's jurisdiction to hear such appeals and insisted on moving the case to a railway tribunal but he blocked the move after producing a Supreme Court precedent that made the forum eligible for such cases.

Outside the courtroom, his family and friends tried to dissuade him from pursuing the case, calling it a waste of his time and efforts and at times even mocked him.

“My family used to scold me and friends shamed me that I was fighting for 20 rupees. I could survive the ordeal because I am a lawyer,” he said.

Malaise of corruption

India, a country of 1.3 billion population has a deep-rooted problem of corruption. Bribes are common in both public and private systems.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday said corruption was eating the country like a termite and sought public support to end the practice as he addressed the nation on the 75 years of India’s independence from British rule.

India ranked 85 out of 180 countries in the corruption perception index in 2021 by Transparency International, a global charity that aims to end corrupt practices.

A 2020 survey by the organisation found that 39 per cent Indians pay bribes to access public services, the highest proportion among Asian nations.

Mr Chaturvedi said corruption has almost become legal in the country, as taking and giving bribes is as normal as day and night, with high rates of illiteracy and a blase attitude among the general public.

“Corruption is rampant," he said. "We may have got independence from the British but not the ills.

“Corruption is everywhere but if you specifically talk about railways, look at how easily they fleece people. They keep 1 or 2 rupees change, now imagine the number of passengers they swindle every day but who has the will to fight?" he said.

Sluggish judiciary

India has a painfully sluggish judicial system in which cases can stretch for decades due to a vast backlog and pendency of cases and an inadequate number of judges.

The country has only 21 judges per million people, the law ministry said this year.

There are more than 47 million cases pending in various courts, including 70,000-plus in the Supreme Court alone.

The slow pace of the judiciary and the cost of fighting the cases usually dissuades people from taking legal recourse.

“When I filed the case, I was young and now I have become a pensioner," Mr Chaturvedi said. "I dedicated my whole life to this case."

“I continued the fight in hope that I would get justice in the next hearing but every time, there was either one judge missing from the bench or there was a holiday."

But Mr Chaturvedi feels the story of his endurance, resolve and victory will “pave way for people to fight for justice”.

“I have shown people a way that if they are overcharged, they can take the court’s help.”

The lawyer is overjoyed at winning the case but says the compensation he received is meagre and doesn't compensate his mental anguish.

He wants use the payout to make a donation.

“The compensation amount is paltry and means nothing in this time of inflation,” he said. "If I get it, I will donate it to the Prime Minister’s fund."

Updated: August 19, 2022, 6:00 PM