Why the idea of a cracker ban was a flight of fancy3 min read . Updated: 16 Nov 2020, 07:57 AM IST
- A ban on bursting crackers is no solution to this behavioural challenge
On Sunday, the day after Diwali, the Delhi-NCR (or national capital region) woke up to the predictable pollution haze. Triggered by the bursting of firecrackers, the already bad pollution levels in Delhi, measured by PM 2.5, jumped almost 200 points overnight to 525—a level classified as severe, and one in which all outdoor activities, including morning walks, are discouraged. In Noida, the measure was a staggering 611.
And this, despite a ban on sale, purchase and bursting of firecrackers till 30 November pronounced by the National Green Tribunal and endorsed by the Delhi government with the warning of jail time for violators. Throughout the night (and even on Sunday morning) crackers kept going off. Indeed the gap between intention and act was alarming.
The obvious conclusion to draw from this episode is vexing yet rather simple: a ban is no solution to what is clearly a behavioural challenge.
Worse, it may set off an adverse response and also absolve citizens of the moral responsibility of not polluting—since the onus has been outsourced to a policing agency. Worse still, it erodes the credibility of institutions, in this case of the government and NGT.
There is considerable indignation, especially on social media, as to why people insist on bursting crackers—more so when we are in the throes of our annual tryst with pollution spikes. People are right to be angry. But probably off the mark to reduce everything to binaries—exactly the mistake the NGT and the Delhi government made in issuing their diktat.
Citizens by supporting such binaries are playing into the hands of wily politicians who are perfectly content to package tokenism as solutions. Instead it is very important to understand as to why someone would wilfully indulge in something that is personally and collectively harmful. Something that is easier said than done.
Leaning on the insightful work—some of which is chronicled in his regular column for Mint—done by Biju Dominic, chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm, it is clear as to why bans don’t work.
According to Dominic, bans inevitably generate a push back. Citing psychologist Jack Brehm, Dominic argues humans hate to lose any freedom. “Whenever people believe that their freedom has been threatened, they enter into a reactance motivational state and act to regain their freedom. The individuals experience an increased motivation to indulge in the very behaviour that is forbidden," he wrote in a column published in Mint three years ago.
So true, given the history of bans in India. Use of plastic is banned; similarly, drinking liquor is banned in several states in the country. But this has not prevented the use of plastic. And the worst kept secret is that illegal supplies of liquor are accessible to those who can afford the premium; for those who can’t the choice is to drink illicit liquor—which in the backdrop of the frequent tragedies, comes at a huge health risk.
Dominic’s research ascertains that overwhelmingly it is the emotional and the unconscious part of the brain which defines our actions. So, altering human behaviour requires a new context which forces an unconscious rethink.
This strategy has actually been employed to reduce daily fatalities at unmanned rail crossings in Mumbai. Their research returned that humans underestimated the speed of the approaching train, till it was too late. So, they painted the sleepers on the tracks at intervals—the subconscious part of the brain could now comprehend the speed and forced the person to allow the train to pass.
Some similar intervention—creating a design framework to influence non-conscious behaviour—needs to be explored to rewire citizen behaviour towards bursting crackers and adding to the pollution problem. Something that will move the action of bursting fire crackers from the individual to the social space—which will bring it under public scrutiny. A long-term project no doubt.
Yet we can make a beginning by abandoning the idea of the ban.
Anil Padmanabhan is managing editor of Mint.Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org