Home / Money / Personal Finance /  Opinion | An aspiring $5 trillion nation needs new role models

We’re getting back from an overdue team lunch and my colleague next to me in the car exclaims: “Oh! a VIP car is getting checked!" We all cheered. The new Motor Vehicles Act had just kicked in and stories of fines that cost more than the vehicles were giving social media its new outrage. Lawless Delhi was beginning to stop before the zebra crossing and the four-hour lines at the pollution centres were telling their own story of the degree of non-compliance with basic road rules.

We’ve all heard and told stories of order and rule of law in the more developed parts of the world and shaken our heads to say—how well we behave when abroad, why don’t we do the same here? Then we’ve aspired for tougher rules and their implementation at home. But bring tighter rules on the ground and we resort to strange acts of defiance—newspaper reports said that one drunk biker set his vehicle on fire rather than pay the fine. Reacting to the public outrage, several states are rolling back the steep fines with one eye on political gains.

How should we decode this apparent contradiction—of wanting better rules of the game and more order, but being totally unwilling to comply? The answer could lie in the behaviour of those who have “ruled" the country so far and their own lawlessness. The citizens see that those who make the rules, those who implement them and those who should behave better since they are in positions of power grant themselves a status that exempts them from the rules. They also don’t follow rules as a symbol of power. Look at the way 82 former MPs are still to vacate official bungalows in Delhi despite having lost the election almost four months ago. This number is down from 200 who were still sticking illegally to their Lutyens homes last month. Or of lawmakers giving themselves unjustifiable entitlements. Take the case of the recent uproar over finding out that Uttar Pradesh and Punjab exchequers have been paying the income taxes of the chief ministers and ministers for years. Newspaper reports say that for over 20 years, the income tax of the chief minister and the ministers is not paid by them but by the exchequer, which means the citizens. The Punjab government had stopped this practice earlier this year in February; you can read the announcement here, and the UP government has done the same. But the point is this: when average citizens see those in positions of power either flout rules or make rules that benefit only themselves, the appetite for rules and following them falls sharply.

The habits and norms needed for moving from a low-level economy to a higher one are different. A low-level equilibrium has existed till now where the elite get away with not following most rules and the rest figure a way out of not following them, usually by paying low-level bribes when caught. As the government tries to move the country to a higher standard of abiding by rules that is necessary for a higher level economy, it needs to remove the entitlements and abuse of the system by those in power. When the citizen sees the institutions abusing the system, disgust and disdain begin to build. For example, why would a Friday be declared a holiday just because a Thursday is off? When citizens see names of unelected people who happen to belong to a political family on the “exempt from toll" lists, the minor power brokers pull out guns to intimidate toll booth operators. When we see VIP cars zooming past with faulty number plates or tinted glasses, we resent the application of a higher standard on us.

Today it looks almost impossible that as a nation we will move to the habit of abiding by rules, but I want to quote from a paper written by economist Kaushik Basu, where he cites the example of a country that went from being always late to being always on time. You can read the paper here. In 100 years, a country whose workers seemed to have no sense of time and were always late, has morphed into one that is obsessive about being on time. That country is Japan. India will get to a new habit of following rules, but we need role models we can look up to and not the rapacious state and its agents that we have been used to for the past many decades. Then maybe the surprise factor of a VIP car being stopped would go away.

Monika Halan is consulting editor at Mint and writes on household finance, policy and regulation

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