The Financial Express, November 24, 2007

By Pradeep S Mehta

You walk up to any counter in India, be it at the post office or airline check-in desk or railway station or bank. People swarm around the counter like bees, half expecting the service person across the counter to be like Durga, with 10 hands to serve as many people at the same time. If one asks the other person to fall in line, then one can expect a nonchalant response or even an angry riposte.

What has this to do with the comparison between India and China? Very simply, the Chinese, too, suffer from a similar distortion of cultural decency norms. The difference is that they are acutely conscious of it, and are making a big effort to improve it, but are we?

Worried about what foreigners will think when they arrive for the 2008 Olympic Games, Beijing’s authorities in February 2007 kickstarted a campaign to promote good manners by introducing monthly “queuing days”, and raising the number of covered bins for the disposal of spit.

The Chinese capital has also tightened the enforcement of its $6.45 fine for littering and spitting in public places. “Hosting the Olympics is an opportunity for the city to raise its level of civilised behaviour,” said Zhang Huiguang, head of Beijing’s Cultural and Ideological Bureau.

This should not offer any consolation to our own countrymen, who are as bad as the Chinese, or worse, in upholding civic norms of good behaviour. We, too, have our own Commonwealth Games coming up in Delhi in 2010, but has anyone thought of doing anything similar? Or should we wait for some bigger tamasha to do what we should be doing on a day-to-day basis anyway.

Proper civic behaviour is conspicuous in India by its absence. Increasing road rage in Delhi and elsewhere is symptomatic of this unhealthy trend because of which we lose many precious lives every year. The other day, a Delhi newspaper carried a report on how a bad driver reversed his car into another and when the person whose car was hit blew his horn to register his protest, the former came out with a hockey stick and smashed the latter’s car even further — to the accompaniment of the choicest throaty expletives.

Motorists are quick to take umbrage at the mildest of faults. In a case of road rage in Delhi in 2006, a man was fired at from point blank range. What was

his fault? The victim’s car slightly touched the bumper of the aggressor’s car from behind. Insane men fighting or abusing each other at traffic lights are common sights in Delhi. About 98-odd killings this year by Blueline buses in Delhi stand in ruthless testimony to the erratic behaviour of humans.

In a very thought-provoking speech at Hyderabad in October 2006, former President APJ Abdul Kalam observed, “In Singapore, you do not throw cigarette butts on the roads or eat in stores. You pay $5 for it. You would not dare to eat in public during Ramadan in Dubai… You would not dare to speed beyond 55 mph (88 km/h) in Washington and then tell the traffic cop, Jaanta hai main kaun hoon? (Do you know who I am?). So and so’s son. You would not chuck an empty coconut shell anywhere other than the garbage pit on the beaches in Australia and New Zealand. Why do you not spit paan on the streets of Tokyo? …You can respect and conform to a foreign system in other countries, but cannot in your own. If you can be an involved and appreciative citizen in an alien country, why cannot you be the same here in India?”

Compared to most other big cities, there is still some sanity in Mumbai on how people drive and even stand in queues — thanks, in part, to Morarji Desai. He was the chief minister of the undivided Bombay province in the early 1950s. He posted policemen at every busy bus stop whose job was to shepherd people into queues. That has created a legacy of good civic sense. It seems to be working even today, and we can see why.

The danda-wielding visible policeman does offer a disincentive for people to break rules. Is that the only way forward, then so be it. It should be on every city and state government’s agenda. Why wait for a big international event to drive the fear of national embarrassment into us?

How can any country make progress with boorish behaviour fast becoming the norm? Our leaders do not even let out a whimper to tell people that this awful behaviour should stop. Why? Leaders in India, sadly, belong to a class that does not set high standards in etiquette for the people to follow.