Home / Opinion / Columns /  Opinion | The right way to threaten Indians into driving well

Observe the guy who has been driving like a moron and has finally crashed—he is stunned. It is the same expression on the man who is driving on the wrong side of the national highway and sees a truck coming at him—he is baffled.

Only the cow, which crosses the road like an Indian, is not surprised by things. Human Indians, on the other hand, are constantly startled by the most natural outcome of their actions. In fact, the national emotion of India is surprise. A few days ago, when the government finally increased fines for traffic violations by many times, Indians were, again, baffled.

The move to make fines hefty is an excellent idea. Union transport minister Nitin Gadkari justified the high fines by saying he wants Indians to fear the law. This is part of an on-going reformation of Indians. Keep the nation clean, pay taxes and don’t drive like a moron. But Gadkari missed an important step between threatening Indians and getting them to do the right things.

First, let me invoke a national mystery: Why is it that Indians do not spit or litter when they are in the Delhi Metro system? The same people who have no notions of civic respect, who in fact demonstrate a conscious disrespect for public spaces, surrender their feral freedoms on the Delhi Metro. This phenomenon holds across all filthy cities that are building or expanding modern Metro systems.

I believe that we can understand civic order in the Delhi Metro without the hilarious hypothesis of the sweet conscientious Indian.

When Delhi Metro opened its shutters, it was an extraordinary service and unprecedented in a nation that had until then viewed good design and air-conditioning as too much of a luxury for the majority. (Even the private sector had that view. Once, a top executive of a call centre in Gurgaon told me: “The swanky office is to impress the foreign client. Some of our people who work inside, I know they would be happy in a cowshed.")

Initially, the poor among commuters were mildly intimidated by the Delhi Metro. It was the first time that they had been allowed entry into a space that had escalators, automatic doors and clear instructions pasted everywhere. Yet, they were not in a swanky mall, they were not trespassers trying to steal cool air or glimpses of the rich. Those days, labourers and maids were so overwhelmed that they whispered instead of speaking aloud. Now, they have got used to the service.

The Delhi Metro was, and still is, the anti-matter of India. Trains arrived when the electronic board said they would, even when the time displayed was not divisible by five or 10. As the Delhi Metro was excellent at most things it did, commuters took seriously its threat of heavy fines for spitting and throwing garbage. The system conveyed that if it can run such a good service, it also knows how to fine.

The nature of stature is that it is something people grant and then they are awestruck by the very thing they themselves have granted. Delhi Metro has stature. Also, the trains and the platforms are so well designed that commuters have very little reason to violate its codes.

Of course, there are moments when India triumphs over the Delhi Metro, but most of the time the Metro prevails. Because it first created all the facilities, and then tutored, pleaded, threatened and implemented its threats.

Indian roads, on the other hand, are poorly designed and managed. Most countries in plain sight look richer than they really are. Indian roads make India look much poorer than what it is.

I live in Gurugram, where traffic signals hide behind trees, most roads do not have markers for pedestrians to cross and, like most Indians, they never really cross the road; rather, they flee death with that sheepish expression of being encroachers in their own city. And, the face of the government, the cops, elicit no respect, not only because of their reputation, but also because of how they look, their cheap uniforms and how they wear those uniforms, and how they place barricades squeezing dense traffic into zig-zag formations, India’s definition of “security", and how they sit on the roadside on plastic chairs, their large paunches like babies on their laps; and how six of them hide under flyovers to pounce on motorists in the great game that is the Indian daily life.

What India’s traffic system has not learned from Delhi Metro is that for a threat of fines to be effective, you should first win the respect of those you threaten.

This is exactly the reason why the Swachh Bharat movement, too, has had very little success. Why Mahatma Gandhi failed in this matter is very different from why Narendra Modi might. Gandhi commanded immense respect, but he failed because the greatest ambassador of political disruption and civic disorder cannot simultaneously be an icon of order. And cleanliness is entirely about order. Modi is a far more influential icon of order, but his cleanliness project may yet be doomed because its agencies have not won the respect of Indians through the excellence of their services.

Order makes Indians unhappy. They will use any ruse to romanticize and pursue chaos. If the government does not build its stature, its high fines will not control the wizards of chaos. The same incompetence of the system that designs bad roads will ensure that the market forces of bribery will enable cops and motorists to arrive at a happy equilibrium.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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