Monday, March 23, 2015

Spare the rod?

    Some months ago, when we were visiting Kolkata, there was talk of a bachelor/bachelorette. Then there a general shunning of the "going out to party" idea because none of us really like that and in any case, all we wanted to do was talk, eat and drink.
    As is the nature of conversations between tight friends, we covered all things important, ranging from health and family to annoying relatives to books and bad TV before we eventually got to politics and inevitably, the still-fresh major BJP victory and our PM.
     Swachch Bharat came up and managed to turn the otherwise relaxed conversation into a furious one, causing a rift of the kind you think will result in irreparable fall-outs (but of course they never do)-- I thought it was a good move, a starting point at least. The Opposition thought it was too little too late, especially since most people do not care about these things in India until there's the fear of the Dunda- literally, the stick/rod. Punishment for misbehaviour like public littering or jumping traffic lights is extremely lax, which many think encourages miscreants because they can get away with it.
    Some thought it made zero sense to push public cleanliness because all the trash eventually ends up in the same dumping grounds minus any proper recycling. I think it's a laughably weak argument. If we don't litter in our living rooms because "it all ends up in the same place anyway", we shouldn't do it outside either. If you’re going to come back at me to say “but I do litter in my living room too”, I’ll just say that makes you a dirty pig.
    The Dunda argument, to my mind, made more sense, though at that time I fought tooth and nail say given the many restrictions politicians operate within, an attempt to ask people to "clean your thoughts" sounds like a better idea than to say "we'll throw you in jail if you don't".
     The reason I recount this story is because Lee Kuan Yew died today.   What LKY did for Singapore is there for all to see. How he did it is what starts conversations.
The grand old man of Singapore basically got his country where it is today by implementing the Dunda against everything from chewing gum to not flushing public toilets to teaching people to smile more and be less noisy.
All of this as he ruthlessly pushed business, made friends with the British and the American and kept his politics free of any –isms. “We were called a Nanny State," he told the BBC in 2000.  "But the result is that we are today better behaved and we live in a more agreeable place than 30 years ago."
   Let us, for a second, think what an LKY would have faced if he were to implement his laws in our country.
 The punishment for drawing graphiti in Singapore is caning.  I can almost hear the media, Twitter, college goers and FB activists getting ready to jump, claiming “loss of liberty”.  Look at what happened when a state government made a law asking everyone present during elections to vote unless they were sick or otherwise unable to for serious reasons.
A part of the media and people said it was infringing on people’s freedom, when we all know most of us do not exercise our voting rights because we are too lazy to step out on a “holiday”.
Taxi operators in another state went on a strike because they were championing their rights to refuse taking in customers during duty hours.  Even this found some sympathizers among the public.
If you are not up to speed on this, these taxi drivers are notorious for refusing customers just because they can. They want to wait for a longer routes, refuse to take you in unless you agree to pay more or simply say no just because.
Repeat, this is during duty hours. The state government decided to implement fines on rogue cabbies and the union protested.
They found political backing among champions of the poor and the government had to backtrack considerably.
Can you imagine what would happen if the State put a strict check on the use of bad language or spitting in public places? I can immediately think of at least a dozen people who would protest and say “but trash-talk and spitting are my birthright."
 You know what LKY said when people criticized or questioned his policies of fines and caning for public misbehavior?
"Putting chewing gum on our subway train doors so that they don't open, I don't call that creativity, I call that mischief making," he told the BBC in 2000.  "If you can't think because you can't chew, try a banana".
So what is our problem?
Why do we, in the name of liberty and citizen rights, insist on mischief making and bad behavior?
Last month I chided a young friend because he threw his cigarette stub on the road. He came back to me with an “aami maani na”, or “I don’t agree”.
I asked him what he did not agree with. That littering is wrong? Or that he was being dirty and would insist on having a right to be so?
Is that not abusing the rights that we are lucky as citizens to have received?
There are problems with governance, yes. Trash cans are not as easy to be found as they should, but nothing would be lost if we just wait till we come by the next one  (or use one of the bins little stores keep by the road for themselves).
Initially as I read about Singapore’s stringent implementation of policies, I was disturbed.  But I've been thinking about it and  am pretty convinced that there comes a point when desperate times need desperate measures.
Naughty children get taken to the Principal’s office to get punished. It really is quite simple, isn't it? Of course, it is easier to rule a class of about 6 million people as opposed to a class with a billion, but we're talking about the intent. 

India’s problem comes from the complexity of us being stuck in the middle of a strange progress and our half baked understanding of what "rights" mean. The government tells us we are the fastest growing economy in the region, we have Burger Kings and Zaras and nightclubs and a reasonably liberal media/ government that allows us to exercise our rights as citizens. So a big percentage of us think we have arrived, and how dare anyone berate us?
  Caveat: I have no empirical data to back claim of “big percentage”, just my interaction with people.
Which is why, when The Economist calls us a continent sized embarrassment, we accuse them of colonialism, without pausing for a second to consider that the globally respected publication might not necessarily have a personal bone to pick with India.  So we have learnt to champion our rights, but we don’t know how to use them or even what those exactly are.
 We know we should challenge autocracy, but don’t fully understand what that means and what the difference between challenging autocracy and yelling against a government trying to make us vote is.

Finally, Lee Kwan Yew was famously ideology-free, but he was pro-business. Some people say a lot of the push towards asking people to smile more and be less noisy was so that businessmen or politicians from the Western World would feel at home interacting with inherently reticent Singaporeans.  Ok, so that was pandering to Western capitalism, if you will. But what’s the harm if the end result is a better life for everyone?
Singapore is greener than any city in India is (so pro business is not automatically = bad for environment), is obviously cleaner, swindlers-free, economically strong and works more efficiently.  True, there could be a feeling of oppression that creeps up with an extended stay, but seriously, if you had to pick, would you choose Tower of Babel over a mild feeling of oppression that comes from everything running a tad too efficiently?
The only problem is, we can’t have our cake and eat it too. LKY’s iron hand would mean we could get told who to marry and give up a free press, things most people in the free world would not even consider an option. 
Right now however, as I look around me, I’m not sure one would be such a bad alternative over the other.


2 comments:

Saiku said...

Indian elephant is always slow to act/react compared to Asian tigers and Chinese dragon. But it is steady and strong. It has a capacity to accommodate over billion people and their baggage of soaring aspirations, deep rooted prejudices, irresponsible civic behavior etc. Only way to make ride faster is to shed unwanted baggage. At times I get radical thoughts about jettison irresponsible people. kya kare!!! though democracy is not best form of governance, there is no better option than that. Benevolent despotism comes close, but not sustainable.

I always wanted to do critical study LKY and Deng Xioping governance models and try to understand them and see if India's lost generation could have done anything different. We are atleast one and a half generation behind them. See, your blog is reading my mind.

Section 66A is quashed because it's violating fundamental right. We need strong sense of performing fundamental duties as well. Judiciary can't fill this gap but education, surely, can.

Nivedita Bhattacharjee said...

Like always, thanks for reading.
You are right, democracy isn't perfect, but definitely the best possible option.
The problem with a benevolent dictatorship is that I feel it is so much against the grain of human nature to not lord over people the moment they know they can, that there's always the danger that the benevolence withers off and all that remains is the dictator. There are some exceptions, maybe, but then those just prove the rule, isn't it?

Then again one thinks what if we were lucky to get that one person who would not lose sight of benevolence and yet be ruthless in implementing some important measures? But then, if wishes were horses..

where the mind is without fear and the head is held high..

where the mind is without fear and the head is held high..