A nation of anarchists

Lawlessness proliferates because we seem to have a selfish streak to achieve our objectives at the cost of the legitimate needs of others.

One of the hallmarks of India’s urban landscape is the chaos. Some would say it is due to our humongous population, over 1.2 billion strong. India accounts for 17.5 per cent of the world’s population crammed into 2.4 per cent of the world’s land area. Think of the classic experiment with more and more rats being introduced into a cage. Pretty soon, the shortage of turnaround space starts getting to the caged rodents  and mayhem follows.

Others would ascribe the chaos to our diversity. The Wikipedia states that only the continent of Africa exceeds the linguistic, genetic, religious and cultural diversity of India. Now, a dictatorship could, perhaps, squelch this diversity from going haywire. But, with the free democracy we have given ourselves, internecine battles among the various diverse groups do tend to get out of hand.

However, there is another cause which rarely gets mentioned, probably because it glances off our armour of self-righteousness. That is the trait of most Indians to cock a snook at rules and regulations, if they think they can get away with it. This habit has become ingrained in all varieties of our countrymen, young and old, rich and poor, leftist and capitalist, villager and urbanite,  fundamentalist and atheist, Brahmin and SC, northerner and southerner, commoner and VVIP, illiterates and PhDs -- in fact, all shades of citizens of this country.

We are not talking here about rape, kidnapping, homicide or terrorism. No, the infractions we are discussing are minor. But, aggregated over the whole population, these small misdemeanours create the inchoate and indisciplined environment of our cities.

 The illegalities proliferate in a variety of ways in many locations and activities, such as youngsters driving two-wheelers without helmets, people at rail stations crossing railway tracks instead of using overbridges, farmers driving tractors on the wrong side of highway dividers, slum dwellers taking direct illegal connections from overhead electrical conductors, bus drivers stopping their vehicles arbitrarily away from earmarked stops, builders constructing way above sanctioned floors, passengers riding on bus rooftops, nursing homes dumping medical waste on roadside, factories storing incendiary waste without any fire precautions and what have you. If our footpaths are no longer negotiable by pedestrians, it is because they have illegally been occupied  by a host of usurpers like small time vendors, parked two-wheelers, pavement dwellers, mendicants, etc.

Special feature

This contempt for rules and regulations is a propensity even among the affluent. Bangalore’s main roads are having a parking problem, not just because of the jump in the number of cars. Many of the commercial buildings along the roads do not have no basement  parking places, although their sanctioned plans show the spaces on paper. The builders conveniently converted the basements into additional commercial space. A special feature of bungalows in Noida, bordering  New Delhi, are their ‘extended gardens’ which encroach the footpaths, forcing pedestrians to  spill over to the roads.

There are several reasons why this lawlessness proliferates in this country. We seem to have a selfish streak which propels us to cater to our needs at the cost of the legitimate needs of others. The crux here is not the magnitude of the illegality but the attitude that if one can get away with it then why not do it? Because of this, Indian roads are more dangerous than the Afghan war zone. (In 2011, Afghanistan had 10,000 war-related deaths; Indian road traffic claimed 1,20,000 fatalities.)

We also have a tendency to condone the small discomfort of the illegalities perpetrated by others in a spirit of accommodation,  little realising that the exceptional illegality is thus encouraged to become a regular, demanded ‘entitlement,’ to the detriment of the community as a whole. Then there is the patronage aspect of our politics. Calcutta’s (the city was not Kolkota then) footpaths and even the grand old Maidan were encroached in the Seventies  by ‘do-it-yourself’ shops put up by the followers of the Congress as well as the CPM.  One of the reasons why Mumbai is more slum than city is such patronage.

The propensity of the law enforcers to be lax about ensuring that regulations are followed also encourages such transgressions.  For example, enforcement by our traffic cops of the rule regarding wearing of safety helmets by two-wheeler riders waxes and wanes like the moon, depending on the quota of collection of traffic fines set by the state government. Naturally, this laxity encourages youngsters to be casual about wearing helmets while driving.

A similar effect is seen on long distance trains which are inundated in the mornings at suburban stops by ticketless commuters making their morning trip to the big city. These ‘invaders’ are never checked by the TTs.  So, this ‘occupation’ has become  accepted practice, causing discomfort to the long distance passengers in the reserved coaches and, of course, losses to the Railways.

The frightening thing is that chaos can ultimately fugue into anarchy and tragedy. It is already happening in bits and pieces but can soon multiply into an unstoppable tsunami. Population pressure is only an excuse. Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore have equal population densities but are epitomes of orderliness. The ethic of their inhabitants is characterised by discipline. Unless we infuse some of that in our urban environment, existence in our cities may become unbearable.

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