Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Addressing civic issues - limits of regulation and enforcement

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.


KP said...

Dear Gulzar,

A nice post and an optimistic piece on Divya Nahenders work.

Clearly initiative cannot be replaced purely by incentive and human behavior controlled so narrowly. If that were the case the agency of incentive (/disincentive) alone would suffice as a solution to all problems.

The difference between being a leader and manager (till the two roles were conflated by every average management theorist and HBR) - is leaders drive opinion and create or represent the social milieu they strive to signify. Managers working in an environment suitably constrained (positively) with incentive - hardly qualify, in my view.

Tougher still is grassroots leadership, because it has very little by way of glory ... at least in India ... and hope this will change.

Any facility with the word "public" is mostly avoidable –and your example of public rest rooms is on top of the list. There is a subtle bias here - because we are a society that measures class by cash, our expectation that restrooms in airports will be better than restrooms at bus stands (terminus) – does not evoke any feelings of discrimination.

Extending this to education – where we expect a “corporation” school to be underfunded and leaking / drab / and lacking facilities – does not challenge our sense of what should be the norm – for it satisfies our biases.

Another example - state slum clearance boards - produce miserable housing, because they suffer from similar notions - apart from the omnipresent corruption etc.,

I could be wrong, but I suspect that even the provisioning of budgets for public facilities like restrooms is made with the expectation of producing low quality facilities.

Contrast this with a capitalistic society ( state capitalism to be clear) like Singapore, that is egalitarian in the provision of public services like restrooms / transport / water / parks – all of the highest quality irrespective of who it is catering to.

Underlying this is a consumerist society that believes in “value” based price discrimination. Both of these go hand-in-hand, but in the public arena there are no glaring inequities.

I credit that to a fine balance provided by Lee Kuan Yew – balancing both the capitalist and socialistic leanings of the early leaders of Singapore.

The government meeting the basic needs with high quality infrastructure, forcing aspirational spending to be on goods and services of even higher quality.

Politicians should understand civic messaging from Singapore, where a under-developed country with miserable infrastructure in the 60’s was transformed largely by civic messaging driven by politicians – and the bureaucrats followed.

Politicians solely focused on awarding contracts – with no underlying message of purpose or directions – are only inflated managers – and mediocre managers at best. Without the capability to inspire the country, politicians behaving liked bureaucrats on steroids – are neither.

In the absence of any enabling circumstances – people like Divya –grassroots leaders stand out.


The Ugly Indian said...

Nice article.
I wonder if you have had a chance to see, which takes a slightly different approach to the same civic issues.

Jayan said...

Very well written!

The very very long route would be improve the education.

Sai Prasad said...

I think we cannot do away with tough enforcement. It is the primary instrument of getting on with the addressing the issue raised.

As u are aware, a lot of folks feel that awareness campaigns would do the job. An awareness campaign and the process of educating the public could certainly be a good beginning and allow the idea of forthcoming regulation settle into the minds of people. I do not think that positive incentives are likely to work in this case.

The effort involved in making positive incentives actually work is too large and is not possible to replicate in india.

gulzar said...

thanks for all the comments.

KP, interesting sociological observation, and i agree with you. one of the reasons for the neglect of quality in public assets in India can be traced to the political need to cover as many numbers as possible with scarce resources (you try to cover as many areas as possible with roads, and so compromise on quality, in many ways).

sai sir, i agree with the absolute pre-requisite of tough enforcement. positive incentives work at the margins, not in achieving wholesale behavioural/attitudinal channges.