Saturday, September 01, 2007

Waiting for the Tipping point

I have often wondered why Indians follow rules so obediently when they are in a (foreign) developed country whereas they flout every conceivable rule when in India. Is it the system or is it the people? What is it that makes them behave so inconsistently?

For example, an Indian living in US ordinarily follows all the traffic rules there. He would give way to a pedestrian, yield when joining a major road, will not honk unless necessary, and will stick to the lanes. However, the same Indian would flout all the rules when in India, giving the excuse that ‘it is how one gets ahead in India’, or ‘you won’t survive if you keep following the rules’, or that ‘one has to be a Roman in Rome’. While he would consciously collect the trash and put it in the right place in a (foreign) developed country, the same guy would not hesitate for a second to throw trash right in the middle of the road when in India

What is it that makes an Indian behave so differently in different lands?

Many people have answered this saying ‘It’s the system’. What they mean is that in India this whole society, the laws, the state, the government, etc, is organized in such a way that it does not allow one to follow rules and hence one needs to flout those rules. Whey else would the same Indian, who has the capacity to follow rules as clearly demonstrated by his behavior in a developed country, would ignore such rules when in India? Definitely, ‘the system’ in India is making him flout such rules. It is not giving him enough room to follow the rules.

Though such an answer seemed like quite a good explanation at the outset, I was not ready to buy it. I always felt there was something more to it than this simple and easy answer.

I found the answer to this when I went to Edison in New Jersey this summer (2007). I have visited this place quite a few times before in the last ten years, and had lived there for few months as well. Most Indians living in USA follow the traffic rules quite strictly (except New York where everyone seems to have a different set of rules). Most Indians are invariably one of the most law abiding residents in USA. The same can be applied to Indians living in Edison area of New Jersey. Even though there was a huge concentration of Indians in this area, which has been steadily growing for quite some time now, rules were still adhered to. There was a strong indication which suggested that this part of USA was not very different from the rest. Of course, there were minor flouting of the rules here and there, but nothing was dramatic.

But during this recent trip to this area, I saw complete change in this behavior- there was utter and complete abandonment of rules! Stop Signs were completely ignored, horns were blaring, decent ladies did not yield to the pedestrians, and it was free-for-all as if it was a mini-India. What happened to this area in these last four years? What changed the situation so dramatically?

Tipping point

I would like to introduce a concept called ‘tipping point’ here. A tipping point is usually used to explain why certain epidemics spread quite dramatically once a certain critical number of people get infected by it, or how people react in a similar way all of a sudden resulting in crash of stock markets worldwide. A sustained chain reaction starts once a critical number is reached, called the tipping point. Below this critical number everything is under control. But once that critical point is crossed, the increase in penetration is no longer linear, but it is like an avalanche effect where there is no stopping- where it goes completely out of control.

In Edison of New Jersey, the concentration of Indians has been growing steadily for quite long, but of late, I believe, it has reached the ‘tipping point’. In this case it is the increase in the number of people-who-flout-the-rules above a critical point (the tipping point) beyond which it spread like an epidemic make it an all-prevailing situation. The Indians in this region celebrate this newfound freedom, which is a recreation of India-like atmosphere, and often regale in it with nostalgia. What is amazing is that while they flout rules in this area, they dramatically change their behavior once outside it, going back to being strict rule-followers.

Now, how did this happen? How do we see an island of non-adherence of rules in a nation of rule-followers? It is very important to understand how this phenomenon is working. The key to understanding this phenomenon is ‘how many flouters of the rules’ are there in a region at a given point of time. Because this is the understanding by which whole of India can be explained.

How many flouters-of-rules do you have?

The difference between India and developed country is the percentage of population who are willing to flout rules. Such flouters-of-rules exist everywhere on the planet. As long as the number of people ready to flout the rules is less than X (the tipping point), it is much easier to catch and punish the offenders, and therefore the number of rules violated will always be less and hence quite manageable. This is what happens in most developed countries.

But once the number of people who are ready to flout the rules is more than X, then there is a deluge of incidents of non-violations and it suddenly becomes impractical to book every non-violation. This in turn encourages others to violate the rules because they believe they are getting behind while the offenders are getting ahead. This spirals into an avalanche effect and it spreads like an epidemic, completely out of control. This is what happens in countries like India.

So, I reason, that it is nothing to do with the system. It is everything to do with ‘how many violators are there in that population’ at a given point of time. And when it comes to Indians in India, irrespective of the system, irrespective of where they live, the number of violators is always in excess of this X. Hence it’s completely chaotic everywhere. In a country like USA, the Indians form a small percentage and therefore number of wanna-be-violators gets diluted. But once the concentration of Indians increase, the percentage of wanna-be-violators increase, and there is a greater chance for crossing this X. What happened in Edison is an example of this. Once the number of violators exceeded X, it spread like a wildfire. The number of violators was so many that not all were getting booked. Hence, it gave incentive to others to do the same. Soon, you have created a mini-India.

A friend who has lived in Singapore was telling me that it’s the same in that country as well. While most of Singapore is immaculately clean, there’s a place called ‘Little India’ where its really dirty and shabby, where rats run riot, and sewage and drainage are open.

The opposite effect

Let me discuss the opposite effect of this phenomenon using the same ‘tipping point’ concept but in the reverse direction. Many of these developed countries had experiences in the past of regions and places where laws were completely flouted. Even now, they witness certain situations where rules are indeed abandoned in localized and special cases. How does one start from a lawless society and then achieve a rule-following society?

Now, imagine another tipping point, Y, which is approached in the reverse direction. This is the critical number of rule-adherents (as opposite to rule-flouters). [Note: At a point of time there are few rule-flouters, few rule-adherents, and many non-committal ones whose mood is swung either way depending on the prevailing direction].

In a region, if the number of rule-adherents increases beyond Y, then there is a motivation to adhere to rules, because one stands out when he flouts rules, and seems to get noticed or punished. The incentive to abide by rules is now both moral and economic. Also, in the ensuing situation where such lawfulness is established, it seems to benefit everyone in the long run and therefore the continued interest to sustain it.

What India needs is that little increase in the percentage of rule-adherents. If we are able to push this number beyond Y, then suddenly we will start seeing the change, and very soon, rule-adhering becomes a universal phenomenon. For this to happen, many of us have to become rule-adherents in our daily life. Avoiding trying to cut corners, resisting temptation to get ahead in lines, stopping throwing trash in the street, and instead resorting to yielding and following traffic rules would definitely help.

Why do I have hope?

Though I criticize India a lot, and actually believe that many of the Indians are quite idiotic (not in the sense that they mentally retarded, but in the sense that they refuse to use their more-powerful-than-supercomputer brains which is a culmination of 4 billions years of evolution], I still carry lot of hope for India. I continue to believe in it and put my energies into creating something beautiful out of this godforsaken place, believing that few examples is what we need to turn the tide the other way.

And I will tell you why I have the hope.

Wherever I go in Bangalore, I usually stand in a line, even when there is none. I assume and pretend that there is a line, and stand there firmly believing that there is a line. Many a times, I get left behind, and usually I end up waiting for quite a long time. Sometimes I end up losing out completely where I have to quit. But many other times, which happens almost 25% of the time in Bangalore, the line eventually gets formed. People start noticing the line, hesitate a bit, and then join the line. Sometimes, some people pretend they have not seen this line and get ahead. When they are told that there is a line they give a sheepish smile and get in line. Of course, there are always some folks who do not care.

The fact that a line gets formed eventually when none existed before gives me hope that Indians, when given good examples, are ready to follow them. That gives me hope for India.

I believe that there is a tipping point for making this nation a better one. All it needs is few adherents, few rule-followers, few who are willing to stick to the line. It doesn’t need thousands, it only needs few people. If only those few people are willing to set examples, I believe that others are going to follow them, and once that gets started, it’s an avalanche effect of rule following in this country.

What difference does one man make?

People tell me, ‘What difference does it make when you are the only one NOT throwing trash on the road, thousands others continue to do it. Your actions are of no use.’

All I can do is set examples. I can’t stop someone throwing trash on the road or force someone to follow traffic rules. However, what I can do is adhere to the rules myself, hoping that there are more people like me. It is my dream and my hope to see India cross that tipping point (Y) in my lifetime. Of course, getting those adherents is a great challenge- the biggest battle. But if people wish to bring change in themselves, and starting acting, then they would be setting examples. That would inspire others to follow, and hopefully we will cross that tipping point. And when that happens, it would be much easier to implement better rules, better laws, expect a cleaner India. And may be we also get to see people doling out courtesies in this country!


  1. Interesting theory. But two points I wish to make - 1. A lot depends on the strictness of law enforcement. In Edison, if the cops themselves are now of Indian descent (which is quite plausible, given the high Indian population as you say), then the police authorities might themselves start relaxing standards. Unless this has happened, I don't see how the population will start slacking off - in the US, a ticket gets into your driving record for a good seven years in most states. So the fear would be there. I've never been to Edison, but from what you say, I suspect it is the cops themselves who are looking the other way (mainly because they are now from the Indian community?)

    I've been to Little India in Singapore many times and I agree with your friend.

    Regarding drivers in India, it should also be borne in mind that the majority of 4-wheeler traffic in India is driven by uneducated poor men from villages. And this includes buses, lorries, call taxis, call centre SUVs, etc. Even among families that own their own 4-wheelers, at least half employ drivers. So only about 20% or so of the 4-wheeler traffic is driven by people with a decent education. This is the opposite of the US, where the majority is driven by the owners themselves.

    So the minority has no choice but to go with the flow of the driving pattern of the majority from the villages. If you brake for a pedestrian (as you do in the US), chances are you will get rear-ended by the call-taxi wala, since he wouldn't expect you to brake in the situation.

    It is a no-win situation for the educated traffic-rule abiding minority.

  2. Ledzius:

    In Edison, if the cops themselves are now of Indian descent (which is quite plausible, given the high Indian population as you say)

    yes, indeed, some of the police officers of Indian descent.

  3. Ledzius:

    It is a no-win situation for the educated traffic-rule abiding minority.

    Though I do agree that uneducated drivers contribute to the mess in Indian traffic, I would not consider it to be the main reason, and I would go on to discourage this explanation, for two reasons.

    1. This putting-blame-on-others explanations have not allowed us to take the onus onto us to set examples. While we continue to reason that its not us but them ('them' being illiterate here), we will never ever solve this. I tend to see many examples of rule-breakers from educated class as well. Its not like the uneducated are prodding these educated to set wrong examples. Few incidents come to mind.

    Back in 2003, when I had just returned from US and was still in a belligerent mood, I was held up in a traffic jam on a narrow lane just because the guy ahead of me parked his Skoda (car) right in front of a sign which said 'NO PARKING', got out and was nonchalantly walking away. He was in his suit and looked urbane and suave (just like one of us educated). I pointed out to the sign and said, 'Hey, No Parking!', to which he retorted quite violently, 'You are policeman or what?'

    And yesterday, in Koramangala, while waiting for the traffic light to turn green, I witnessed a horrible incident. Windows of a Hyundai Santro opened up to dispose of all its trash onto the road. It happened in phases where plastic came out, then food particles, then pepsi cans, etc. They were in the middle lane and were disposing it off nonchalantly. And they happen to be two couples and looked, once again urbane and educated (just like one of us).

    I didn't see any uneducated person forcing them to do this.

    2. If your argument is indeed valid, that uneducated people seems to contribute the mess, I should never have witnessed chaos in Edison (irrespective of whether the policeman was Indian or not).

  4. From today's Financial Times -A "solution" that Maruti is working on with the Indian Govt about traffic training -

    How Maruti clocks up custom
    By Amy Yee and John Reed

    Published: September 3 2007 17:23 | Last updated: September 3 2007 17:23

    Under the guidance of a driving instructor at a test track in New Delhi, Shweta Singh coaxes a small car grudgingly uphill.

    Ms Singh, a 26-year-old human resources associate at a healthcare company, bought a new Chevrolet five years ago. Like many middle-class Indians, she has a driver who shuttles her around the city. However, she is learning to drive herself because then “you can go anywhere”, she says. “It is a mark of independence.”

    It is still unusual for women to drive in India. To prepare herself for the country’s chaotic roads, Ms Singh has enrolled at the Institute for Driver Training and Research in New Delhi. The school‘s sponsor is Maruti Udyog, the country’s largest passenger carmaker, which launched it jointly with the Indian government.

    India is one of the world’s fastest growing car markets. Sales are growing at 15 per cent a year, with volumes due to rise from 1.3m in 2006 to 2.1m by 2010, according to Frost & Sullivan, a consultancy. Yet services and standards common in developed countries – such as driver education and road safety awareness – are absent.

    Maruti’s training centre helps bridge the gap by training thousands of truckers and car owners to navigate India’s roads more safely. In doing so, it hopes to expand its base of future customers.

    Driving lessons are essential in a country where first-time buyers account for at least 35 per cent of sales. For more than two decades, passenger cars have been mostly the preserve of India’s wealthy, while the masses relied on two-wheelers or feeble public transport. But on the back of rising incomes and strong economic growth, more Indians are buying cars. As Maruti is finding, these customers need extra hand-holding to get them on the roads.

  5. Re. creating the line out of chaos.

    I wouldnt go that far myself esp. if it meant losing out on something say a bus ticket I needed badly but would be OK for say a movie ticket. I admire the attitude if you are implementing this everywhere without consideration for costs to yourself.

    I have been able to create a similar effect sometimes with traffic lights by stopping for the red when everybody else is sailing thru.

    I have been honked at, abused, and on a couple of occasions rear-ended by traffic that 'naturally' thought I would jump the light.

    Sometimes I wonder whether its worth it. But on most occasions there is a small queue of vehicles that has formed behind, waiting with me for the signal.

    The practical way to do this for now is to follow the laws but not get in the way of those who want to break it!



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