Saturday, April 16, 2016

Delhi Metro: The Odds of Being Intolerant

It has been a while since we saw our celebrities wielding the broom. What has become of the “Swachh Bharat Abhyaan” launched with much fanfare last year? 

Despite all the sporadic campaigns, many of us continues to cringe when we see children toss empty chips packets out of school buses; car drivers deftly opening the door of a moving car, to spit paan on the roads; shopkeepers tossing their garbage right on to the streets, and people nonchalantly walking past piles of litter on the streets. In our feudal mindscape it is still somebody else’s job to clean up after we have had our fun.

Delhi Metro has been struggling with the similar attitudes for more than a decade now. It has been successful, to a certain extent, in persuading commuters to stand in lines while waiting on platforms - especially at large intersections like Rajiv Chowk and Mandi House. Inside the trains, while it has now become rare to find men occupying seats reserved for ladies, and yet, a lot of people do get away with littering, sitting on the floors (especially in-between coaches), and consuming food & drinks on the trains.

I had an experience last week that illustrates something that had escaped my notice – the dynamics of behaviour change in our public spaces. 

On an “Odd-Even” day and I was returning home on the Violet Line of Delhi Metro. At Khan Market, a young couple entered the compartment, their arms overflowing with eatables - two cans of cola, and packets of chips and biscuits. The man got a ladies seat vacated for his friend, and both continues chomping and drinking as the train moved on.
Eating and drinking is prohibited on Delhi Metro. Having seen numerous instances of spilled drinks and discarded food on the trains, I ventured towards the man, apologised for intruding, and quietly requested him to avoid eating on the crowded train and to put away the drinks until he was out of the station.

"Sorry, can't help it", he said loudly, "we are very hungry."

Duly rebuffed, and not wanting to make a scene, I backed off. A few minutes later there was a huge commotion. The fact that a polite request had no effect on the couple seems to have rankled a lot of nerves. A number of passengers had now taken on the couple, and their tone had swiftly moved from polite requests, to expressions of derision, disdain, and anger.

 Now the shoe was on the other foot. Left with no choices, the drinks and food packets were quietly tucked away, and tempers started to cool down.

As I stood there marvelling at the way in which a tired, disinterested group of commuters had suddenly rallied together to keep a coach clean, it suddenly dawned on me that in a city were littering is so commonplace, we often overlook the remarkable fact that that a vast majority of passengers on Delhi Metro do follow the rules. 

In general, there is also an amazing level of toleration for those who break the rules -- until a trigger makes people explode in rage. The incident also reminded me that there is very little visible effort from DMRC when it comes to enforcement of rules and regulations. Never once in the past ten years have I seen anybody getting fined for breaking the rules.

In countries like Japan, eating and drinking is permitted on the metro trains. These are societies that value virtues of tidiness, self-control, and care for the others, a value system is hardwired into children from a very early age. As children turn into adults, it is not surprising to see that they need very little external enforcement of rules. A stage is reached when people not only regulate themselves but also take on the onus of gently reminding others to do so. 
It is time we become more intolerant about the litter and garbage outside our own homes.

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