Thursday, August 18, 2005

A minimum level of deterrence

On a recent drive in Bangalore, we wondered why the police in Bangalore doesnt invoke a sense of fear (in the absence of a better word) in the average motorist. For perhaps the most educated of all cities in India, traffic sense is perhaps among the lowest. Traffic sense all over India is abysmal and it goes progressively downwards. The best traffic sense is perhaps exhibited in Mumbai (which is where I spent a good part of my life).

Once a rule is established, it is enforced and followed. After the Mumbai terrorist blasts, a regulation was brought in that cars shouldnt have dark glasses beyond a cerain tint. Ditto for the seat belt rule. Autos cannot have more than 3 passengers, taxis more than 5. Each of these has been enforced. By who? By Mumbais favourite slang "Pandu", the (traffic) cop.

He can be found hiding in pan shops or just metres away from where a rule is usually broken or at a sufficient distance inside a one way so that the driver can never feign ignorance. He can stand in front of a signal or behind a tree. He can catch you for not wearing a seat belt, for going straight from the extreme right of the signal or if you change lanes. He can tear a receipt or you can bribe him, or depending on your luck, he will stop at nothing less than confiscating your licence.

But bribe or receipt, getting caught by a "Pandu" does two things. One he will not let you off in 5 minutes and two your wallet will be lighter. So, as a private car owner, you are better off not breaking a rule. As a taxi or a rickshaw driver, you are better off not being harassed. If you are a truck driver and you are caught, then it gets worse. The "Pandu", by his very sight is a deterrence. At a signal in Bangalore, my brother, also from Mumbai saw a "Pandu" and stopped, even as we made a mistake on a right turn. But the Bangalore cop doesnt bother, he is too timid (all of them arent, but on an average, he doesnt instill a sense of fear as much as the Pandu does). Therefore, when the signal turns red, people still try and beat it, rather than stop at a yellow. If it says U turn prohibited, there will be people who take a U. People even drive in the opposite direction, American style on these roads.

This works at all levels. People buy tickets for trains in Mumbai and not in Bihar because there is no enforcement. The reason rules are followed in the US (and other places abroad) and in Mumbai is because of the "deterrence" factor. Once a rule is established and enforced time and again, it reaches a tipping point, where breaking a rule no longer has a sufficient incentive. If you get caught 3 out of 4 times or better still, 4 out of 4 times, it just isnt worth trying to break it.

This is applicable at the policy level for government or at a micro level at home. Any rule well enforced initially for a sufficient length of time will ensure that the rule is then enforced by a bare minimum presence.

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