Some time ago we discussed the Harvard Law grad who threatened to sue a restaurant for overcharging him by four dollars, and then last year there was the Japanese man who sued his employer to recover the equivalent of 49 cents in lost wages. But Tungnath Chaturvedi—who is a lawyer—has fought far longer to recover even less.
On August 11, the BBC reported that Chaturvedi had finally prevailed in a case he filed almost 22 years ago after he was overcharged by 20 rupees (about 25 US cents) for train tickets he bought in 1999.
According to the report, Chaturvedi was traveling from Mathura to Moradabad when a clerk overcharged him for the tickets. I know what you’re thinking—why would someone take the train from Mathura to Moradabad, which goes through Delhi and Ghaziabad, when they could drive instead? Well, it all depends. If you drive directly, then you’re not on the expressway, and that can easily take more than five hours. The expressway bends to the west, but it would still get you there about 20 minutes faster. Yes, the train could take much longer, if you did something stupid like taking the Golden Temple line and then the New Jalpaiguri “Express” through Ghaziabad Junction, which would probably take about six-and-a-half hours. But you want the Sushasan Express, which wouldn’t take much longer than driving, plus you can relax on the train. So that’s why.
Of course, the options may have been very different when this case was filed back in the previous millennium. Google Maps doesn’t seem to have that information.
Anyway, he was taking the train, which should have cost 70 rupees. According to Chaturvedi, he gave the clerk 100 rupees, but only got back 10. The clerk refused to address this discrepancy, obviously not knowing who he was dealing with. Chaturvedi sued the clerk and the railway in a special “consumer court,” and the saga began.
Chaturvedi told the BBC that some of the delay was caused by the railway’s efforts to dismiss the case, arguing he was required to file an administrative claim in a railway tribunal, not a lawsuit in consumer court. If the railway was trying to slow things down by filing this motion, it worked. The proper venue may not have been clear at the time, but according to Chaturvedi, “we used a 2021 Supreme Court ruling to prove that the matter could be heard in a consumer court.” In case you missed it there, he said he relied on a decision handed down 22 years after he filed the case to show that he filed it in the right venue. As that suggests, and as the BBC also noted, part of the problem was just “the slow pace at which the judiciary works in India.”
You can say that again. And if you say it really slowly, and drag it out so it takes you like a week to say it, you might have some idea of how things apparently go, or seem to go, in India’s judiciary. As I spent some unfortunately not-billable time figuring out a few months ago (see “Parents Sue Their Son, Demanding Grandchild or $650,000” (May 18, 2022)), there are an astounding number of cases pending in India’s courts at any given time; more than 36,000 of them have been pending for more than 30 years; and at least one has been pending since the Korean War. (A hearing in that one was set for June 3, so maybe it’s been resolved. But probably not.)
Also, Chaturvedi said, hearings would sometimes be delayed because judges were on vacation or family leave. And that could contribute significantly to the delay in a case, given the ungodly number of hearings that seem to take place in that court system. “I have attended more than 100 hearings in connection with this case,” Chaturvedi said (the BBC said it was 120). “But you can’t put a price on the energy and time I’ve lost fighting this case.” Well, I could try, but I already did the train thing, so that’s enough for tonight.
Chaturvedi said his family tried to convince him to drop the matter several times, but he refused, saying it wasn’t about the money, but rather was “a fight for justice and a fight against corruption.” Twenty rupees worth of corruption, but sure. Also, since Chaturvedi is a lawyer himself, he noted, he didn’t have to pay legal fees. “That can get quite expensive,” he noted.
The judgment in his favor does award him more than just the 20 rupees, though. It also says he’s entitled to prejudgment interest on the 20 rupees, at 12 percent per year going back to 1999. And prejudgment interest can really add up. Now, I’m not going to—oh, goddammit, fine. Assuming it’s compounded annually, this calculator tells me that after 22 years the interest on the original 25 cents would add up to a whopping $2.78! (Adjusting this for inflation brings the total down to $1.58, but still.) The railway has 30 days to pay or else the rate goes up to 15 percent, so that should get it moving.
The judgment does also order the railway to pay Chaturvedi what the BBC calls a “fine” of 15,000 rupees (about $188 in U.S. money). So there’s that. I don’t know what tickets on the Sushasan Express are going for these days, but this windfall should pay for a couple dozen rides at least.