How do we control urination in public places? How do we get people to disciplined parking in commercial streets? How do we prevent people from littering? How do we get people to wear helmets or seat-belts? At once simple and commonplace, they are also among the most difficult of challenges facing municipal authorities in India. How do we address such civic problems? This post will examine the challenges in all its dimensions and subsequent posts will look at solutions that stand the best chance of success.
As we all know by now, regulations and punishments though necessary are not sufficient. They need to be accompanied with enforcement. But enforcement immediately raises several troubling issues. Let us take the case of urinals. How can we enforce a ban on public urination without adequate and widely available public urinals? Even if adequate urinals are constructed, people will not use them if the maintenance is poor (as is often the case). And maintaining urinals with the cleanliness and in the scale required for large Indian cities costs money and demands the collection of reasonable user charges. Are people, especially those who need such urinals, willing to pay these user charges?
Even assuming people will pay, there is the very practical issue of locating large numbers of urinals. Given the size of our cities, labyrinthine roads and streets in commercial areas, and population densities, it becomes important to have urinals located close to each other, atleast at the major public places. This becomes all the more important given the considerable search costs (even with signages) and time value of the likely users. Further, since these areas are all built up, all these toilets will have to be constructed along road margins and adjacent to existing commercial establishments. This naturally generates the "not-in-my-backyard" resistance from the nearby shopkeepers.
And, I have not even talked about the formidable socio-political obstacles that have to be surmounted at each of the aforementioned stages! The same analysis can be extended to littering - even with large numbers of dust bins (with the risk of being stolen) - and parking - even with adequate parking lots, large numbers of policemen and private security guards and outsourced parking contractors.
Popular impression of law and its enforcement is viewed in terms of mainly penalties and less so, rewards. Governments promulgate laws and establish enforcement agencies. Law breakers are penalized and the deterrent effect of these penalties keep people honest. If people continue to violate, then it is a problem of enforcement. All this appears very simple and therefore baffling to citizens about why governments can't get it right.
However, I am inclined to believe that the aforementioned narrative does not convey the full story. It gives the impression that fear of punishment is the major reason why people abide by the law. This overlooks the powerful influence of people's inherent civic sensibilities in bringing about collective conformity to law. In societies marked by widespread conformity to law of the land, the latter (civic sensibility) is a far greater contributory factor than the former (punishment). The deterrent effect of enforcement acts mainly at the margins, on those most likely to violate. Its power lies in forcing the small numbers of deviant people into conforming to the standard practice (among similar people).
In simple terms, strong enforcement will be successful in deterring the exceptions, not the norm. When everyone, or atleast the majority, are violators, then violation becomes the norm, the unwritten (and stigma-less) convention. Such practices persist because of their convenience - minimal or no costs, ease, socialization, inaccessibility to alternatives etc. Overcoming them requires addressing the problem at all these levels. Without this, it immediately provokes public resistance and political opposition.
Therefore, at a practical level, the challenge of enforcement when the major share of the population (the "public urinating" part of the population) is not internalized into using the public urinals (by searching out the urinals and paying the user charge) is enormous.
Further, since problems vary across localities (in terms of the respective magnitudes of the different contributors), there is need for location-specific implementation designs. This in turn depends on local initiative, driven by the respective local officials and the local community. As we are aware, the former is scarce and the latter suffers from the collective action problem. A confluence of both these forces is therefore a matter of chance or luck. See this excellent account of one such experience by Shoba Narayan.
Let us also not be carried away by exceptional achievements of a small localities in a few cities which have achieved success with such civic issues. They stand out precisely because they are the glorious exceptions and not the norm. However, these bright spots may provide important lessons that are necessary for any effort at successful emulation. Even with all logistics and other requirements in place, it would require massive personal commitments and efforts at every level, coupled with fortuitous confluence of circumstances and dollops of luck for such initiatives to succeed.