Rules and the Indian

Written by  //  December 10, 2010  //  Economic & Social Policy  //  1 Comment

Three incidents in the last month have made me philosophical and as is inevitably the case with philosophical questions and thought processes, I’m really no closer to getting an answer. So here are the rather disparate examples first. The questioning follows.

Last week, I attended an absolutely spectacular wedding. The venues were beautiful, the decorations artistic, the food, unparalleled, the couple, adorable, and the atmosphere buzzing with excitement that only a once-in-a-lifetime event such as a marriage can generate. In the midst of this frenzy, the academic in me couldn’t help but notice a peculiar sociological fact –Nothing ever ran on time and no one seemed in the least distressed by it. By the end of five days, I too had worked out, that the actual time of any particular event would, on an average, be between an hour to two hours later than the printed time. I guessed everyone else had already factored that in to their respective calculations and so impeccably managed to be ‘on time’ for all the events despite the enormous potential for a disastrous communication gap.

Second, I was in a serpentine and standstill queue at the Calcutta Airport waiting to be security checked.  The reason the queue was so spectacularly standstill was the officially sanctioned queue-jumping that took place every five minutes. For anyone who had the good fortune of landing up late for a flight, there lay a reward of getting a place in the front of the queue at the security check to ensure that he/she boarded the flight and that it took off on time. It seemed astounding to me that promptness would be punished with a back-breaking wait whereas delay, which often was tantamount to rule-flouting (checking in with less than 45 minutes for take-off) would be incentivised with a prized queue-jump. What was more astounding was that no one protested. I could only infer that this was prompted not by immense patience, since that is a quality Indians in a queue don’t generally possess, but rather a general disdain for rules and a far-sighted realisation of the benefits that could accrue when one was on the other side of the fence, and late for a flight oneself. You scratch my back, I scratch yours and to hell with the system.

Third, I was hauled up by a traffic cop in Mumbai for speeding. I protested since I was driving at 75 kmph when the speed limit was 65 kmph and it was known in practice that no action would be taken unless the speed was at least 85 kmph. The policeman was violating a salient unspoken understanding shared between drivers and the law enforcers. Despite my little spiel about why the speed limit was unscientific and why this fine would shatter my faith in the system as it operated and hence should not be imposed, I paid up. Rationally, he was right, but since when has a traffic rule in India been about rationality?

Connecting the dots, the first incident pointed to the non-sanctity of the written word in social interaction in India. Rather than follow the staid print in black and white, wedding-goers were far more comfortable relying on more traditional modes of understanding such as intuition and experience. Unfortunately this is a phenomenon not restricted to wedding timings. Ranging from scores of non-implemented laws and rules in statute books to train timings, to sweeping Supreme Court orders, the written word in India has little sanctity, serving merely as a marker for subsequent negotiations and implied meanings. The second example perversely rewarded rule-flouting and was largely accepted by the fliers present. Both aspects, rewarding of rule-flouting and its consequent acquiescence are general characteristics of society in India. One needs only to think of the lakhs of slum regularisation schemes by the government and the tacit acceptance of corruption in the governmental machinery (unless something extraordinary like the CWG or the 2G scam unfolds) to realise their pervasiveness. The third example is a warning of the perils of such an unofficial system of communication, pointing to a case when the common discourse breaks down. It shows, rather pointedly, the power wielded by the authority in situations of uncertainty and the lack of checks on the subjective and arbitrary exercise of such power. And the manner in which power structures operate in India, who one is (think Manu Sharma, Vikas Yadav etc.) and what connections a person has (son of a judge, daughter of a big industrialist),  would then become the determining factor in rule enforcement, rather than the actual content of what one has done.

All of which makes me ask some fundamental questions- Are democratically agreed upon rules, despite their moral superiority, an ineffective form of state-society interaction in India? Are we as a society inherently averse to rule following? Can rules subject to negotiations, which is broadly the model followed in India, be a stable alternative basis? Is there anything ‘Indian’ about such a model?

I realise these are not practical questions and neither are they intended to be a foundation for an alternative system of pan-Indian communication and governance. It’s just a channel for venting my frustrations at interminable delays, long queues and arbitrary fines that I’ve faced in the last month. Which reminds me, I have an appointment in half-an-hour’s time. Let’s wind up this piece here, lest I end up being ‘too late’.

One Comment on "Rules and the Indian"

  1. Alok December 10, 2010 at 10:05 am ·

    I have problems with the examples you give, but I’m not going to nitpick, so I’ll take up your main point. How do Indians understand “rules”?

    I have a feeling we may be in the worst position to answer the question because we are in the midst of a change that will probably only be properly understood 50 years from now. A few reasons why I think why.

    1. Urbanization. A 3000 year rural culture is slowly becoming an urban culture and this is huge. Rules, customs, habits and modes of thinkings useful and necessary for rural life have to be discarded in favour of those necessary for urban life. Except, that these rules, customs, habits, etc. are not written in black letters. I’m not here referring to the traffic rules which are in fact, written in black and white, but the slightly bigger things, like why obey these rules at all? What obligations do we owe to our fellow city dwellers about whom we know nothing and share nothing but a limited common geography. I suppose we are in the midst of figuring these things out and if (and when) we do, it’ll be the true maturing of an urban culture not seen here since the Indus Valley Civilization.

    2. Enforcement, or rather, consequences. Enforcement of laws and rules also comes with costs. Religions get around this by putting enforcement in the hands of a divine/supernatural entity. If God doesn’t punish you right away, it probably means the Devil’s stoking the fires of hell hotter just for you… or some such thing. For the State however, enforcement is in very mortal hands, and if the costs of enforcement are too high, then maybe the rule is not worth enforcing. Individuals working for the Government also make this calculation. If enforcement gives nothing to the individual but non enforcement comes with benefits, then the choice seems fairly simple.

    3. You value more what you have less of. India’s moving from a country that had less of material goods and lots of intangible values, such as honesty and obedience of the law (at least if old timers are to be believed) that now has more material goods and fewer intangible values. For people who had fewer material goods and possessions, I guess, such things have more value in the eyes of the average Indian than intangibles so unless we have enough examples of people who have lots of both ( i don’t think the two are necessarily opposed) we will continue to see this situation.

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