The recently tabled Economic Survey has turned the spotlight on the importance of “nudges" to achieve the country’s policy goals. Encouraged, the Indian Railways appears to be pursuing the idea with gusto. In a bid to replicate the success of India’s “Give-it-up" campaign on cooking gas subsidies, the state transporter is reportedly finalizing a similar plan for rail fares, giving passengers the option to “voluntarily" forgo the subsidy component of their ticket price, either in part or full.

As the word suggests, a “nudge" is a gentle push. In theory, nudges are designed to guide people into taking difficult decisions that are good for them and everybody else. This is done by phrasing choices in such a way as to indicate what they ought to do, though they could well choose not to. A classic example is Singapore’s practice of displaying the average household electricity consumption of a locality on the back of power bills. In this case, just the knowledge of using more electricity than others is enough to nudge high-bill homes towards making conservation efforts.

Sure, crude messages could achieve similar ends. Railway ticket printouts bluntly telling passengers that a large portion of their travel was funded by “common citizens", for example, could make people opt out of taking any such favour. But this operates on outright shame, and often leaves buyers chafing about all the state funds used by public representatives that do not get flagged for people to see. For a nudge to work as originally intended by upholders of libertarian paternalism, it needs to be polite. As all advice should be.