Over the years, India has seen many behavioural change initiatives. The Swachh Bharat Mission was one such much publicized project. More than 90 million toilets were built across the country as part of this project. Several studies showed that building toilets was not so much of a challenge. The real challenge was getting people to use them. The story is the same with many other behavioural change initiatives in the country. They begin very well. There is a lot of focus on raising awareness about the dire consequences of bad behaviour, providing financial incentives or disincentives, enacting required legislation, etc. But many of these projects fail to achieve the desired large-scale change in behaviour.

As part of giving shape to a golden “New India", this year’s Economic Survey emphasizes the need to use “insights from human psychology to influence the choice architecture of people". Following the success of several countries, including the US, the UK and Australia, which have set up dedicated units to use behavioural insights for effective policymaking, India will soon set up a behavioural “nudge" unit. It will develop behavioural strategies that will compliment other policy decisions. Will the nudge unit be a success in India as it has been in many other countries?

Behavioural change of any kind is tough because the human brain adores the status quo. The human brain is never comfortable with change, even if the existing behaviour can cause huge negative consequences. Changing behaviour, more so of a large, diverse country like India, is an even more difficult task.

India has one of the oldest cultural traditions in the world. Over centuries, Indians have developed many strong beliefs and practices. For example, cleansing oneself with water before prayers is an integral part of Indian culture. Even the poorest of Indians keep their personal space as clean as possible. If cleanliness is such an inherent part of Indian culture, why many Indians defecate in the open and not in toilets? Due to a deep-rooted affinity for cleanliness, Indians are largely uncomfortable about having a place of defecation close to the kitchen. In our studies, we found that this belief was a much more significant barrier to the use of toilets than the lack of awareness about disease-causing germs. So, painting the newly built toilets in the same colour as one’s house, or installing a small mirror in the bathroom helped improve the household’s relation with that room, which in turn improved its usage.

For many Indians, a dip in the Ganges river is the ultimate act of cleanliness. The large-scale pollution of the river has not made any difference to this belief. The country’s mental construct of cleanliness is thousands of years old, whereas the germ story-based approach to cleanliness is not even hundred years old. To change India, one has to go deep into its cultural roots.

Hierarchy is an integral facet of Indian society. Age-old caste systems to present-day factors, such as income and education levels, have reinforced the hierarchical structure. This mental model of a hierarchical society creates many strong beliefs when it comes to behavioural change. It has become entirely acceptable to say, “Let the government get big defaulters to pay up before they ask poor defaulters to pay." There is no feeling of absoluteness when it comes to a behavioural change. Instead, there seems to be a hierarchical order in which people are willing to change their behaviours.

One of the most successful initiatives of the UK nudge unit was improving tax compliance. It found that the message that “nine out of ten people with a debt like yours, in your area, pay their tax on time. You are in the minority…" was very effective in getting individuals to pay their taxes. If this strategy is used in India, it is bound to backfire. Because in a country of more than 1.3 billion people, only a small fraction of the people file their tax returns. Less than 150,000 people declare that they have more than 1 crore in income. It is quite clear that a large number of people avoid paying taxes. In India, many other behaviours, too, are along similar lines. Those practising the right behaviour are in a minority, as compared to those indulging in the wrong behaviour.

In many cases, wrong behaviour is now the social norm. The normal human tendency is to follow the behaviour of the majority. So, most behavioural change initiatives in India, which will involve establishing a minority behaviour as a social norm, is not going to be an easy task.

Having proper infrastructure is one of the first steps towards achieving behavioural change. But in a few cases, building new infrastructure is creating new behavioural problems. In the last few years, good-quality roads have been built across the country. But this has led to an increase in accidents due to speeding. For many motorists who drive in narrow, pothole-filled roads, these new roads provide the rare occasion where they can enjoy driving. Going too fast is justified as compensation for the torturously slow driving experience on most Indian roads. There is a tendency to justify many wrong behaviours as compensation for the inadequacies that exist in society.

The biggest barrier to behavioural changes in India is that the common citizen does not have an emotional connection with the chief change agent—the government. Governments are considered corrupt and inefficient. Many citizens do not consider cheating the government a mistake because in their minds, cheating a corrupt person is justified. What is surprising is that many citizens have strong emotional connections with political parties and their leaders. But when the same politicians become leaders of a government, their behavioural exhortations fall on deaf years. This dichotomy is baffling.

The proposed nudge unit has quite a complex task at hand.

Biju Dominic is chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm.

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