Perspective Urban Blues

Yatha shashan, tatha praja


The difficulty of being good in urban India, when the entire system is designed to produce urban adharma.

Nature does not give a man virtue; the process of becoming a good man is an art. So writes Gurcharan Das, quoting Seneca, in The Difficulty of Being Good. This may be undeniably true. But it is impossible to be ‘good’ as citizens in Indian cities. Because to be good, systems matter. Systems are man-made and man’s behaviour in public is determined by the environment he inhabits.


Every group discussion on India, about Indians, invariably ends on the following note — that the target groups (be it pedestrians, motorists, children…) need more awareness and education. The reasoning goes that Indians are incapable of being ‘good’ in civic life. Such a statement needs systematic examination before condemning an entire society to ignominy. How can we be ‘good’ as citizens, when all odds are stacked enormously against us, every step of the way? How does a man practice dharma in urban India – when the entire system is designed to produce urban adharma? Let us be clear. It is near impossible.

On the roads of a typical Indian city, one sees many sights. An elderly lady on top of the median, waiting to jump down and hobble across the road; a gleaming foot-over bridge entirely empty of road crossers; pedestrians walking in front or very near the cars; street vendors occupying space meant for pedestrians; cyclists zig-zagging across the road; bus drivers stopping abruptly around the bus stop, blocking the roads; vehicles parked in a haphazard manner, blocking free passage; car drivers, with scant regard for lane discipline or red lights. Chaos and indiscipline – urban adharma – all around.

How are these undisciplined actors to practice urban dharma and do what is right? How does an old lady climb a three-storey high over-bridge to cross a narrow road? How do we walk on a non-existent footpath? How do we drive in a disciplined manner when lines – meant to be drawn based on advanced engineering, taking multiple traffic and transportation components of the road into account – are drawn without an iota of analysis? Think about other urban woes and related ideas of being ‘good’. How should we stay ‘good’ and not steal common ground water using deep bore wells when there is not a drop in municipal supply lines? How do we park a car when there are no lines or meters – should the cars be parked parallel to traffic, at an angle or perpendicular? What is the disciplined approach? This is not to absolve us of all personal responsibilities. We should carry our litter few meters to drop it in the assigned garbage bin. But what do we do when there are no bins in sight? We should answer nature’s screams only in well maintained public toilets, but what does one do when none exists? We should stop at the red light and allow pedestrian to cross the road and not block traffic movement. But how do we become good drivers when traffic lights don’t function properly?

We often question how citizens of other countries, say Singapore, have the ability to be ‘good’. The usual answer is, when an Indian goes abroad, he obeys rules of that city. The implication of this is more damning – that Indians have such low self-respect that they subserviently obey other country’s laws while casually discarding their own.

There is a counter-intuitive way to defend Indians. Citizens of Singapore behave in a ‘good’ manner because their system has eliminated most hurdles to doing so. An uneducated labourer or an IT professional from India, in Singapore can live a so called disciplined civic life because all reasonable infrastructure and services – required for him to be ‘good’ – are already provided. Interesting question would be – who is deferential to whom – the Indian in Singapore who uses its well designed infrastructure that makes its usage his second nature? Or the Government of Singapore that provided the world class infrastructure almost in anticipation of that arriving Indian?

In any city, there are some who blatantly disregard the rules and laws. A good system ensures provisions to deal with them. There are sticks – cameras, parking meters, functioning traffic lights, well-designed and visible signage – not only to warn but to also punish the wrongdoers. A good system uses technology and physical infrastructure to guide the citizens, while saving energy and resources to discipline the few who are congenital offenders. Compare this with a junction in any Indian city, where a lone police constable is expected to be a substitute for well planned infrastructure. He is to stop red-light violators, remove illegal encroachers and vendors; punish speeding drivers; help cross hundreds of pedestrians and regulate traffic flow, all the while operating traffic light switches. When he fails to perform and stands mute witness to this omnipresent adharma on our streets, we accuse him of adharma – laziness, corruption, callousness and worse.

A system that ensures that we can be ‘good’ needs an understanding of a very critical element of modern urban governance. One of the great insights from the “Broken Window” theory is that bad humans act badly when given a chance, and even good humans behave badly when the environment is encouraging. Deny them this opportunity and remove the temptation — even bad become better and good stay good.

Gil Penalosa, who was in charge of parks and assisted in the astounding transformation of Bogota when his brother Enrique was Mayor, illustrates this with jaw-dropping charts. Prior to their intervention, crime flourished in and around Bogota parks. Penalosa’s insight: redesign parks to force persons passing one another to look into each others’ eyes which would prevent them from being ‘bad’. He redesigned accordingly and crime in parks plummeted. Same citizens in the same city, yet when the systems changed, the behaviours of citizens changed – by eliminating the difficulty, the system enabled the citizens to be ‘good’.

Current Indian attitude to civic life needs radical rethink – a new interpretation to yatha raja, tatha praja (like king, like citizens.) It expects exemplary personal qualities of the king to bring out the good in citizens. Our public space is our daily Kurukshetra where ironically, due to bad governance, planning and infrastructure, our righteousness, instead of our evils, is compelled to die a daily death. Let the king’s governance – irrespective of his personal qualities – guide and nudge citizens towards public, urban dharma. Let it be yatha shashan, tatha praja (like governance, like citizens).

Photo: objetpetitm

Raj Cherubal is Director (Projects) at Chennai City Connect.



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