I think the behaviour of people in traffic, reflects their culture. On daily travels around My Wonderful City (MWC), I’ve made a few observations and drawn some (cultural) inferences.
In MWC, I routinely see people driving through an intersection despite having a red signal. It happens more often at intersections where there are no policemen in sight. Worse, when one or two drivers go against the red light, it is taken as license for those behind to do the same. In fact, drivers horn angrily at those in front of them, who choose to abide by the rules and are patiently waiting for the green light.
At a red signal, one expects drivers to stop in the appropriate lane. Meaning, if one wishes to make a right turn, one would stop in the right lane. In MWC, however, people frequently come to a halt on the extreme left, when they want to make a right turn. Consequently, they block those who wish to turn left and when the light turns green they block those who want to go straight.
It is common to see vehicles driven on the wrong side of the road for some distance, instead of following the rules, which would entail a longer path. Worse, these drivers horn in irritation at those who come in their way.
At a busy intersection near my home, due to the heavy traffic waiting at a red light, two-wheelers are regularly ridden on the footpath to gain some distance. Worse, the riders glare and horn at pedestrians walking on the footpath, as they try to get by.
On the streets, Might is Right. Drivers in bigger vehicles believe they have the right of way at all times. There is an implied hierarchy on the streets. As a rule of thumb, the cyclist yields to all vehicles, two wheelers yield to cars, cars yield to buses. The pedestrian has no rights. She or He is looked upon as a hindrance to the smooth flow of traffic. Zebra crossings have no meaning in MWC. All drivers bring their vehicles to a halt on the zebra crossing, sometimes even beyond.
There appears to be a perception that overtaking the vehicle in front of you is a mark of good driving. There seems to be an urgent need to get ahead of the other person. Nobody wants to drive one behind another, in an orderly fashion. As a friend once observed, “sabko first aana hai”. While the rule is to overtake from the right, drivers overtake from the left as well as the right. Worse, drivers have come to believe that they have the right of way, when they are overtaking you from the left side.
When a driver is stopped by the police for a traffic offence, the most common argument is “Why are you stopping me? Why are you letting that person go?” This is a ridiculous argument. For various reasons, some traffic violators are lucky enough to escape the policeman but that does not exonerate the violator who is caught. The fact is that the person who has been caught, has broken a traffic rule and must suffer the consequences.
The use of horns is unbelievable. People are almost constantly horning at the traffic around them. With so many drivers horning at the same time, it is difficult for you as a driver, to know if the horn is being directed at you or someone else. Worse, I have seen people horn on streets where there is almost no traffic; where there is absolutely no need to horn. They horn partly because it has become a habit, but also because subconsciously, they know they are speeding and want everyone out of their way.
It is common to see drivers flashing their lights at the vehicle in front of them. This is a signal to the driver in front to move out of the way. First of all, this is not an official traffic rule, at least not for city driving. It’s a practice which started on the old highways where there was only one lane for traffic in both directions. The width of the highway could only accommodate two vehicles side by side.
Therefore to overtake a vehicle, a driver had to be on the wrong side of the road. Thus, the driver would flash his lights to warn an oncoming vehicle. Nowadays drivers flash their lights on city roads and at the drop of a hat, simply because they want someone to move out of their way. Even when there is no space for the driver in front to move to. Flashing your lights does not give you any special right over the driver in front of you. So why do people flash their lights?
Over the years, the use of turn indicators has gone up which is certainly good – but it’s often misused. Many drivers turn their indicators on at the last possible moment, believing that others must instantly yield to them. They don’t realize that people behind them are in momentum and cannot be expected to suddenly stop and allow you to cut across just because you have suddenly turned on your indicator.
We think it’s alright to go against a red light when there is no policeman in sight. We seem to think “Unless there is a policeman, I am not obligated to follow traffic rules”. We believe that it is the government’s job to make us follow the law. What we don’t realize is that a system of laws only works when the population is law-abiding. In any country in the world, if the masses decide to break the law there is nothing a government can do. A system works only as long as the people are willing participants. Instead, we believe that the government has to do everything for us, including forcing us to follow laws. We don’t accept responsibility for ourselves.
We are conformists. We feel justified in doing something when we find that most people are doing it. Hence when we see others breaking traffic rules we start breaking them too. This rationale applies in other situations as well. “So and so cheats on his taxes and he has not been caught so why shouldn’t I cheat on my taxes as well?” “No one comes on time so why should I be punctual?” “Others charge so much extra for this so why shouldn’t I do the same?” “That officer takes bribes to sanction a license so why shouldn’t I do the same?” “That politician has acquired crores through illegal means so why shouldn’t I do it too?” Every single day countless Indians break laws, in every imaginable sphere of activity on the basis that others are doing the same thing. By and large, we don’t think for ourselves.
Our behaviour on the streets reflects our feudal culture. We have a deeply embedded sense of hierarchy. We believe that we must have things our way because we are in the bigger vehicle. If not the size of the vehicle, it can also be the position and status (real or imagined) of the vehicle’s occupant. No one stops to think that the law applies equally to all drivers on the road. Everyone horns at everyone, each expecting the other to yield to him, and to make matters worse, egos step in to add fuel to the fire. Indians simply do not understand the principle of equality.
We display impatience, indiscipline, immaturity, and utter mindlessness on our roads. The same qualities are reflected in other activities, including the governance of our country. The result is that India is a mess. Until the underlying culture changes, there can be no meaningful improvement in the country.
India has undoubtedly made tremendous progress since independence. With the economic liberalization launched in the 90’s, change has been both positive and dramatic. Rising incomes, greater employment opportunities, a larger and wealthier middle class, a consumer boom, a thriving real estate market and the emergence of the IT industry, to describe a few examples. However, to quote a Paul Simon song, after changes upon changes, things are more or less the same
…… We are still unable to provide all our citizens a 24-hour supply of electricity and water. Our infrastructure remains woefully inadequate. The quality of our civil services is pathetic. Our governance is shoddy. The judiciary is in shambles. Crime has increased manifold. Corruption has become so rampant that it is now impossible for citizens to lead a completely honest life.
Anyone who has visited any developed nation is instantly impressed by the general orderliness of those countries. Those nations are democracies just as we are. Their constitutions embody the same principles as ours does. Yet there is a world of a difference between their standards and ours. We take pride in calling ourselves the largest democracy in the world but has anyone stopped to think about the quality of our democracy? We are a democracy only in terms of electing a government periodically. In all other measures of democracy we fare miserably. For instance, a few months ago I read a news item in the papers. In a murder case, the accused was acquitted by a High Court. An eyewitness, who had deposed in the trial, criticized the acquittal when interviewed by a journalist. In response, the High Court slapped a contempt of court suit against him. What kind of democracy is this where a person cannot freely comment on a court’s judgement? This effectively means that our citizens don’t really have freedom of speech. What I considered more shocking was that there was absolutely no comment on this by our intelligentsia. Arundhati Roy went through a similar situation some years ago when she protested against a Supreme Court ruling in connection with the Narmada River Valley project. I can assure you that in the USA at least, any person can openly criticize any court decision (including the Supreme Court) without fear of reprisal of any sort. Judges there are secure enough not to feel insulted by criticism.
I believe that there are cultural reasons for the poor quality of our democracy. A system is truly democratic only when its people are democratic by nature. Indians are a feudal people living in a democratic system. Integrity and equality, two intrinsically democratic values, are alien concepts to us. Little wonder then that the spirit of democracy gets short shrift in our country. I have often heard the refrain that the developed countries function better because they have better systems in place. Well, they certainly do, but it’s not just the system per se that matters. What is perhaps more important is the quality of the people in that system. It is the collective effort of a generally disciplined, efficient, sensible and honest people that creates an enviable system. Imagine for a moment that the entire population of the US magically disappears overnight, leaving all the existing systems intact. Let us also suppose that about 270 million people (the approximate population of the US), randomly selected from India, are transplanted in the US and take over that country. I am of the firm opinion that these transplanted Indians will reduce the US to the quality of a third world nation within a matter of a decade or two. My point is that we simply don’t have the maturity or the mindset to create or maintain a progressive democracy.
Reforms Every Which Way
In addition to economic reforms, we need administrative reforms, legislative reforms, judicial reforms as well as cultural reforms. Systemic reforms alone, will have little meaning without a change in our attitudes. India will be truly empowered only when each of us practices integrity and equality. I use the word integrity not in terms of just honesty, but also in terms of function. In other words a consistency between thought, speech and action. One of the things that strike me about the US is that by and large people there actually say what they mean and do what they say they will do. Things promised are delivered in good quality and on time. This is not true of Indians. We are a people who say one thing, mean something else and do yet another. As a result, Indians are simply not dependable. This is borne out by the fact that in India we have to constantly chase people to get things done.
People routinely promise things and fail to deliver. A colleague promises to meet you at a certain time but shows up half an hour later. Your lawyer promises to draw up some papers in a day or two but actually does so in a few months. The tailor promises to have your clothes ready tomorrow but actually takes six weeks. Your friend promises to repay a loan you gave him, in two months but in reality he takes two years. Your mechanic says the car is repaired and either it’s not properly done or it comes back with some other defect, which was not there originally. Your building contractor takes an advance from you only to disappear without fulfilling the contract. Payments are routinely delayed in the business world.
Lack Of Integrity
These are the day-to-day occurrences that demonstrate a lack of integrity in us. Little things, you might argue, but it’s precisely this “chalta hai” attitude which contributes to a degradation in our national character. Lack of integrity at the individual level certainly translates into lack of integrity at the organizational level. Simply because individual attributes dictate the manner in which an individual performs at the work place. Be it the government, a private enterprise, a social organization or a student organization, there is ample evidence of inefficiency, indiscipline, mediocrity and dishonesty. For this to change we must, as individuals, begin to practice and value integrity by becoming accountable to ourselves in the first place.
Equality – Whats That?
Another major weakness in our society is a complete disregard for the notion of equality. Certainly the principle of equality is expressed in our constitution. In practice though, we are definitely not an egalitarian society. It’s not just gender equality that I am speaking about. There is an overall chauvinism that is obvious in our society. A sense of social hierarchy is deeply embedded in the Indian psyche. Each person intuitively categorizes another into a social grouping defined by caste, (perceived) status, position or power. Furthermore, we consider each person as being “above” us or “below” us. Best expressed in Hindi as “… aap bade aadmi hai, hum chhote aadmi hai…”. Depending on our classification, or need of the moment, we are either sycophantic with those we perceive as being “above” us or arrogant with those we perceive as being “below” us. Very rarely do we treat each other on genuine equal footing.
For example, at work, managers talk down to those below them and sweet talk those above them. At home families talk down to the servants they employ while the servants are well, servile. On the streets, drivers of larger vehicles believe they have a greater right of way than those driving smaller vehicles. Our government functions more like a repressive and authoritarian parent rather than an equal participant in a democratic system. The junta are viewed as subjects and not as citizens. Bureaucrats behave in a high-handed manner when interacting with ordinary citizens but become boot lickers when interacting with those who have more power than them. This type of behaviour is akin to the “survival of the fittest” law of the jungle. We are a highly egotistical and emotional people. Every conflict, large or small, invariably becomes a prestige issue. Sooner or later the original issue is forgotten, the conflict degenerates into a clash of egos and the feud becomes personal and hurtful. There is simply no evidence of unbiased reasoning. We don’t reason. We only express emotion. This leads me to characterize Indian society as one that is still hopelessly juvenile.
To be empowered, Indians must begin to treat each other with respect and equality. If we begin practicing integrity and equality at the individual level, we can accomplish several important changes in our collective character. For one, hypocrisy will disappear. Substance will gain precedence over appearance. Merit will be rewarded as opposed to sycophancy. Reason will prevail over ego and emotion. Dignity of labour will finally be a reality in India. Our self-esteem will get a tremendous boost. Perhaps then, we will truly be a super power.