Why we need an end to defections

I have been reading the interesting book “Games Indians Play” by V.Raghunathan, the management expert who has tried to look at the depressing peculiarities of the “Indian way,” through the lens of game theory and behavioural economics.

Many frustrated Indians will readily identify themselves with the thread of introspective resignation that forms part of the book, although there is also a section that speaks of hope at some point in the future. For now, though, the short answer to the question of why we Indians behave the way we do, is that we cannot see the benefits of co-operation, and instead choose the easier (and ultimately costlier) option of defection behaviour.

To illustrate, we would rather behave in an extremely selfish way on the road, jumping red lights and disregarding traffic rules, because we believe everyone else is doing that and deriving a benefit. Thus, it is less sensible to adopt a law-abiding approach when others are ignoring them and forging ahead. What is more, the cost of violation is invariably low because effective measures against erring motorists are so rare.

I have lamented (without the benefit of Professor’s Raghunathan’s game theory analysis) the overall high cost to Indian society of our lawless ways. Talented and promising people die suddenly, as do others who have no option but to live riskily day to day – such as old people, children, women and the disabled. They are compelled to use our dangerous roads despite the absence of even basic facilities.

Every year, the families of nearly a 100,000 people suffer a permanent loss, adding to our shameful tally of road fatalities. Most of those who die are pedestrians and cyclists. Among those who are guilty of their deaths are the profit-hungry automobile companies whose markets in the West have shrunk beyond imagination. As the price of oil hits the 100-dollars-a-barrel barrier, they will have even less to be happy about. India and China are their big hope, but we sadly don’t have the roads, space or the safety culture to support their rapacious growth aspirations.

My perpetual anguish at the state of our roads is well-known to those who spend time with me everyday. The tragic and avoidable death of Dr. Mary Varman, the Chief Medical Officer of The Hindu in a road crash in Jaipur is the immediate cause for expressing it here. So many lives lost. Yet, such easy acceptance of violent death on the roads as a normal part of modern culture.

Is there any alternative to what Professor Raghunathan calls our “defect – defect” behaviour? I think if we were to reconsider our road safety regime, it would involve a determined campaign that has many different dimensions – raise new taxes on automobiles both on sales and use on a city-to-city basis and devote the money to build public transport networks of metro rail, trams, bus rapid transit systems and bicycle pathways; direct all vehicle licence holders to appear for a new test to be conducted in a recorded closed circuit camera environment so that there is evidence that the test was indeed passed; shift the entire corrupt traffic constabulary out to law and order or armed reserve to ensure that no one who had anything to do with traffic enforcement in the years since independence, including IPS officers, will have a role in a new environment (exceptions can be thought of after the rule is implemented); instal CCTV cameras in all cities with recording facilities, ensuring availability of evidence; quadrupling of insurance premium for anyone violating traffic rules and caught on camera; endorsing licences of drivers caught violating rules on camera; award summary compensation from government funds to the tune of Rs. 50 lakhs to the family of each victim who dies in a road accident; ban all vehicular traffic in shopping districts except for the disabled; make civic agencies and public works engineers responsible for road conditions with jail terms for those who fail to comply; and finally,  require all elected representatives by law to walk and/or use ordinary public transit such as city buses, suburban trains, metro rail or even autorickshaws on at least one day in a week (no car, no driver, period).

If our elected representatives claim credit for doing this, but try to stealthily use other options even partly, they could face the same embarassment that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg did, when the New York Times reporters tracked his commuting patterns – they found that he rode part of the way in a chaffeur-driven, probably ethanol powered Chevrolet Sports Utility Vehicle, rather than walk to a nearby subway station. But Mr. Bloomberg is at least trying to make a difference with his plan for congestion charging in NYC and to expand public transit. Ken Livingstone, London’s Mayor, has done that brilliantly for some time now.

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