My TEDx talk on "Civic Sense of Change", on why civic sense matters, why we Indians have so little of it, and what might raise it (15 min).
"Is India's civic-sense problem a result of our unrealized potential or the cause of it? As any Indian with knowledge or experience of international travel will tell you, things just aren't the same "there", and things "there" are just different and better. Going beyond the basic factors of national wealth and urban planning, why does India seem to be caught in a cycle of disillusionment, a strong sense of public entitlement and a weak sense of civic responsibility? Namit Arora explains in his TEDx talk how Indians themselves are part of the problem, and what we can do to address these issues."
FULL TRANSCRIPT BELOW:
An aunt of mine recently visited Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand—her first time outside India. A month after her return, I asked her about her strongest impressions from the trip. She said, ‘Their cities are so much cleaner; people behave so much better in public spaces; they follow the rules. Hum kab sudhrenge?’ she asked. When will we improve?
What my aunt was getting at is something a lot of us have known for a while: That we Indians are sorely lacking in civic sense. By civic sense, I mean public behavior that’s socially responsible and considerate to others. Our lack of civic sense is visible everywhere:
- Just look at how we drive: without lane discipline, on the wrong side; we honk needlessly; use full beam at night; we don’t stop at pedestrian crossings, or even at red lights. Few of us make room for passing ambulances! We may just have the wildest traffic in the world, which is reflected in our casualty rate that’s 5 times higher than the global average!
- Or look at how we park and use our sidewalks; or what we do to the walls of our cities; our infamous queuing etiquette; how we litter our streets, and dump construction waste right outside our posh apartments; how we burn trash and pollute our air—a very common sight across India; or how we contaminate our beaches, lakes, and rivers.
- Here is a picture that sums up what I’m getting at. This is the border between India and Bhutan. One side is India, the other Bhutan. I’ll let you figure out which is which.
There certainly are other aspects to civic sense, such as paying your full share of taxes, not bribing, being punctual, not discriminating against our fellow citizens based on gender, caste, religion, and so on. But today I’m focusing on a narrower subset—on general untargeted behaviors in public spaces that are also constant irritants when we go out.
(a) Because it makes our cities more livable. When was the last time you went out for something as simple as a walk in Gurgaon? I mean, who wants to put up with all the eyesores, bad smells, and smog? (b) Higher civic sense also reduces the incidence of infectious and other diseases, accidental injuries, and deaths. (c) And finally, higher civic sense correlates with greater social trust and cooperation, which is good for economic productivity and growth!
This concern for civic sense is not new in India. Many people and organizations have tried to raise it. But I’d say that it’s an old project that needs new energy and scale—esp. in light of the massive and largely unplanned growth of urban India.
Who do we blame for the state of our cities, and our general lack of civic sense?
- We blame others who’re not like us, such as poor migrants from rural areas.
- We also blame the government. And yes, the government has an important role to play. It needs to improve our roads, waste management, public transportation. It needs to ensure that a proper driving test precedes every driving license. It needs to invest in smart policies and good urban design. Yes, that’s a given. Our urban governments need to do more, and we have to increase and keep up that pressure.
- Curiously, we don’t blame ourselves very much. But if we honestly looked at ourselves in the mirror, we might notice that we—you and I—cause a lot of the problems we complain about! For example, who congests our roads and pollutes our air? Who runs diesel cars / gensets and avoids public transportation and car-pooling? Who generates plastic waste and leaves behind construction rubble? Who parks on sidewalks? Who breaks our traffic laws? Indeed, who causes so many of our urban problems – if not us?
Clearly, the government can’t fix everything. The government too is made up of people like us, who lack civic sense. We really need to ask: are smart cities even possible without smart citizens who display civic sense?
We are no different from other humans, so it has to be something in our culture and upbringing that accounts for the difference. What might those factors be? I’ll propose four:
- Our Flawed socialization in childhood, especially at home. We are not taught to pick up after ourselves. We grow up expecting someone else to do our dirty work, whether it’s moms or maids. I certainly had never washed a load of dishes or cleaned a toilet until I went to the US in my 20s. We also lack dignity of labor and look down on manual work, especially dirty work, which then stigmatizes those who do it. This needs to change.
- Our education system, which doesn’t teach us about being good citizens, about our rights and responsibilities, sensitivity to the environment, and even things like the importance of free speech, social justice, and gender equality.
- High levels of inequality and hierarchy—of both wealth and status, as in the caste system. This divides people and impedes a shared sense of the commons.
- We have internalized low expectations of how clean and functional our urban spaces should look like. One might blame poverty and illiteracy for this, but I’ve traveled through many poorer, less literate parts of sub-Saharan Africa that display better civic sense than India. So while poverty plays a role, it’s not an adequate explanation; besides, middle-class Indians lack civic sense too. So our collective expectations need to change.
So what separates countries that have high civic sense from those that don’t? What have they done that we haven’t? I’ll suggest 4 areas where Indians lag behind—what I’m calling the four E-s—with examples of what we can do to catch up:
- Educate: Urban civic sense is not an innate skill. It has to be cultivated by teaching civic responsibility and environmental awareness to urban kids. This should begin at home, with parents leading by example. How about a ‘civic sense’ course in school—or hosted by your Resident Welfare Association—not a dry course with a textbook, but a hands-on, participatory course where kids learn about their rights and responsibilities, waste segregation, recycling, conserving water and energy, planting trees, and so on.
In fact, an organization in Bangalore called Children’s Movement for Civic Awareness, works with schools to host “civic clubs”, where children learn such things by doing. They grow up feeling like agents of change. There is a nice multiplier effect with kids—they go home and teach their elders. And given how young our country is, this is the perfect demographic to focus on.
Another effective strategy is public interest ads on a large scale. In the 1970s, the United States transformed habits through emotionally stirring public interest ads on littering, fire safety, smoking, and so on. Some of this is happening with swachh bharat ads but far from enough. We citizens own our air waves—why can’t we mandate up to 1 percent of airtime for public interest ads on all TV and Radio channels? Imagine youth icons in these ads, making it cool to do the right thing. We could also make civic sense ads a category for Corporate Social Responsibility, or CSR funds.
- Engineer, as in better urban design. Good urban design makes it easier for people to do the right thing. Such design methodically invests in, say, lots of dustbins with recycling options; clean, frequent and well-marked public toilets throughout the city; multiple modes of public transportation that are sensibly interlinked; clear signage on roads; designated parking spaces; usable sidewalks—so we might feel like walking half a km to a bus stop or metro station. This is not rocket science!
In fact, we can learn from our own Delhi metro rail system. It’s very clean, isn’t it? The same people who litter outside behave differently inside the metro stations. Why is that? I think one reason is that there’s a cost to being the first person to litter in a clean space. The metro also puts out friendly reminders to do the right thing, such as letting people disembark before getting on, to not eat on the trains, to offer our seats to those who might need it more. All of this has the effect of promoting good behavior and discouraging bad behavior. And I’d say good urban design does that in general: it promotes good behavior and discourages bad behavior!
- Enforce, as in law enforcement: How often is someone in Gurgaon penalized for jumping a red light, or driving in the wrong direction? For burning trash, littering and dumping construction waste? For urinating and spitting on walls? Not very often, right? … The truth is that a credible deterrent is also necessary to change behaviors. And some of our cities are figuring this out! The Thane municipal corporation now has safai marshals who issue on-the-spot fines for many violations. A mobile court does the same in Rajkot. Chandigarh and Chennai have similar initiatives. This needs to become much more common, and we have to put pressure on our local governments to do so.
- Engage the citizen: By this I mean citizen activism, that’s really important to cut through the apathy and cynicism that surrounds us. A lot of us are very concerned about the state of our cities but what we look around we see urban administrators who lack the will, the incentives or the knowledge to make a difference—so we citizens need to step up and push for change. And we can really amplify our voice through collective action.
For example, a group of volunteers got together and began cleaning a stretch of beach in Mumbai, which sent a message to the administration. Another citizen’s movement called I Am Gurgaon, leads the planting and maintenance of the large Aravalli Biodiversity Park. The Raahgiri Day movement has pioneered the concept of car-free days in multiple cities, when certain streets are used only for walking and cycling. There are many such organizations we can join, or we can start new ones—arguably easier to do in this age of social media. We can also build and use civic sense apps like Hawa Badlo (or Change the Air), to raise public awareness and to put pressure on our local governments to act.
As responsible citizens, we also need to avoid turning a blind eye to bad behavior, when we see it. We can politely request, explain, or set an example for others. There are many things we can change in our daily lives that’ll make a difference. No one from above is going to come and save us; we have to initiate the change ourselves. A higher level of citizen awareness and activism exists in all countries whose civic sense we envy on our foreign travels.
Cultivating civic sense is, above all, a huge consciousness raising exercise. It’s a work of inner transformation. It both complements and strengthens governance—they reinforce each other. Civic sense is essential if we want to make our cities more livable and sustainable. And for that, each of us needs to look within and ask: what can I do to improve the civic sense around me?