A few years ago, I attended a fascinating lecture by game theorist Avinash Dixit. He showed the audience two videos as part of his presentation on how societies coordinate activities. The first video was of a busy traffic intersection in St Petersburg, Russia. People drove at high speeds in the belief that everybody would be paying attention to the traffic lights, but every now and then they were blindsided by a truant driver who jumped the signal. There were car crashes galore on that busy traffic intersection in St Petersburg.
The second video captured traffic movement at a similar intersection in an unnamed Indian city, but one that had no traffic lights. Every driver was cautious. The vehicles moved slowly but there were no accidents. Dixit used these two videos to explain to us the difference between “law without order” and “order without law”.
Order in numbers: Crowded trains can be chaotic, yet organized in an informal way (Wen-Yan King/Wikimedia Commons)
I am often reminded of these videos when I am trapped in the manic evening rush in Mumbai. Drivers cut lanes, jump signals, park at will and bully pedestrians. The disregard for traffic rules helps nobody, as cars crawl amid the bedlam. Everybody would be better off following traffic rules, but few actually bother doing so.
Some would argue that such behaviour is a natural response to overcrowding. But then look at how people behave in the packed trains that snake through the metropolis. There are few formal rules laid down by the authorities. The sheer number of people crammed into a single compartment is an invitation to violence. Yet, a host of informal rules ensure that people get off the train before new passengers enter. There are also rules about how to sit, where to keep a bag and how to make way for others. The brave hearts standing at the door often lend a helping hand to desperate commuters trying to jump in even as the train picks up speed.
Are Indians more comfortable making their own rules rather than following those laid down by governments? And what does this mean for the social choices we make as a country?
Game theorists describe social life as a series of coordination games, which chart out what strategies people use in situations where some agreement is needed. One of the most common illustrations of such games is the one in which two drivers coming in opposite directions have to decide which side of the road they should drive. An agreement between them will lead to a more efficient outcome compared to a situation where both insist on driving on the same side of the road.
A more insightful coordination game is adapted from a parable found in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the French philosopher. It involves two men who are out to hunt down a stag. They need to work together to snare the beast; they will fail to catch the stag if either person abandons his mate in the forest to chase a rabbit for its meat. It makes far more sense for the two hunters to collaborate, but each is tempted to defect.
The fact that societies exist means that cooperation does emerge in some form or the other. The various coordination problems that we call social life are solved by three main forces—behavioural patterns that are hardwired into our brains through the process of evolution, by formal rules imposed by governments under the threat of retaliation and by social conventions that evolve from repeated interactions between human beings.
The radically different behavioural patterns on the road and in the trains suggests that Indians are perhaps more comfortable with social conventions than formal rules as a means for coordinating social interaction. The problem is that many of our social conventions have emerged from the feudal past and are designed to create trust between smaller groups such as castes rather than crafting a wider arc of social cooperation that involves other people in all social groups.
The extended political debate between the modernists and traditionalists in Indian politics had its roots in this problem. I am reminded here of something I read in a Marathi novel based on the life of D.K. Karve, the pioneering campaigner for women’s education in the early 20th century. A social reformer asks a political radical: “How can we stand together to fight the British when we are unable to sit together for a meal?”
The rhetorical question has relevance in a different context today, to explain why we are like that only. Many social conventions in India have emerged out of a heterogeneous society of caste, regional and linguistic differences. We often have a better record of coordination within our specific social group than with people outside its pale. One possible result of this is that we find it hard to agree on the provision of basic public goods that will benefit every member of society, instead preferring subsidies to our particular group. Is this preference at the root of our inability as a nation to build roads or provide clean water or maintain public hygiene or build primary schools?
I must admit here that this is only a tentative hypothesis. But some economists have shown in their research that stratified societies find it more difficult to agree on broad social needs. For example, economists Alberto Alesina, Reza Baqir and William Easterly showed in 1997 that US cities with higher ethnic fragmentation were less likely to provide common services such as education, roads, sewers, libraries and trash pickup compared to more homogeneous cities, after controlling for socio-economic and demographic parameters. However, economists Abhijit Banerjee and Rohini Somanathan, in 2006, argued in their research on the provision of public goods in India, “Measures of social heterogeneity that have been emphasized in the recent empirical literature on public goods are relevant but not overwhelming in their importance.”
The entire debate on why the Indian government has been unable to spend enough on things that benefit all citizens may then have to be reconsidered in terms of our own social preferences, more specifically our historical inability to broaden the arc of cooperation. It is what could lie at the root of a common sight in our neighbourhoods: swank cars parked on broken roads or air-conditioned homes overlooking open gutters or loud music played outside the hospitals that treat us.
None of this means that things cannot change, as we can see in so many other countries in Asia that have climbed the ladder of prosperity. But weak political leadership, a soft state and opposition to reform of traditional social arrangements are serious obstacles in this necessary transition. Till then, we will continue to be the stag hunters who run off in search of a rabbit.
Niranjan Rajadhyaksha is executive editor, Mint, and will write a fortnightly column.
Write to Niranjan at firstname.lastname@example.org