The government of India may aspire to give world-class services to its citizens but unfortunately it can't take the desi genes out of them.
The latest case to illustrate this time-tested truth is the vandalism on the spanking new Tejas Express that is supposed to be the country's first high-speed and world-class train. Most good things in India tend to run their course faster than you can say "Mera Bharat Mahan", but the alacrity with which Tejas went downhill is exceptional even by our accepted standards of barbarity.
Even before it was called into service, the train had stones thrown at its compartments. By the time this superfast train, which is supposed to propel the nation into the 21st century, entered Mumbai from the railway coach factory in Kapurthala, it had multiple cracked panes. The railway officials quickly claimed the damages weren't grave and easily fixable. But that's really not the point here.
Rather, the incident begs the question: why would anyone want to throw stones at a train in the first place? It's lurid golden yellow exterior may have offended some, but no one's buying that argument. Is it because they weren't, or maybe couldn't hope to be, on it? That's no way to express any sense of injustice either.
If you thought the ordeal had ended there, you clearly didn't know the hidden depths of our desi habits.
After its first run, between Mumbai and Goa, the train had lost some of the headphones provided to passengers. The swanky LED screens of the entertainment systems were scratched. Toilets were left filthy (but then, that's how we have always done things in the land of Swachh Bharat, anyway). Passengers disembarked the train in a foul mood, leaving those getting in with fouler tempers.
Reports did mention people complaining of the inedible breakfast and the absence of the promised tea and coffee vending machines, even patchy WiFi. Yes, official channels do exist through which these disgruntled souls could have reported their feelings. But then, can anything be a better stress-buster than some casual vandalism?
There is a time to be civil. Then there is a time to wrench out that headphone, deface a screen, cut a queue, push and shove, jostle, leave a toilet unflushed. In fact, here's a quiz question: can you tell which is the most commonly stolen object from railway carriages in India? Click here for the right answer. As for prize, you can scrawl your name and mark your victory on the wall of the compartment the next time you happen to be on a train.
Vandalism of public property is so routine in India that it's difficult to even muster proper outrage over it. You can almost hear the collective chuckle as the hordes alight from railway carriages or flights (yes, Air India is delayed 30-60 times a month due to unruly behaviour of travellers), having successfully committed some minor act of barbarism.
It's not the lack of etiquette, or the mindset to cultivate one, that has resulted in this public failure. So much of how a people behaves has to do with the ways in which laws govern their lives. On paper, there exists a Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act, 1984, but it's implementation is at best weak, not to mention near-impossible in case of vandalism by an unknown and unidentifiable mob. At worst, it's fraught with too many headaches to impose on the concerned parties with any degree of success.
It's easier, as the railway officials felt in the case of Tejas Express, to replace broken windows than trace the culprits, take on the onus of proving their guilt, and then punishing them.
Then there is the larger question of the ethos that has dictated our lives for sixty years since the country became independent. India has woken up to the 21st century a little late in the day, wanting to join the Big Boys, who were already far ahead. No surprise we are not as well prepared to face the demands of modernity as, say, our neighbours in the near East.
For decades, the people of this country have defecated in the open, treated any wall or street as a spitoon, touched priceless statues found in historical sites and carved their love letters on the walls of ancient monuments. Millions of them still do all these things without impunity — because they know they can get away with it.
But before we get too carried away, let's not also forget the way our public institutions have functioned over the years. Just the other day a user on Twitter posted an image, which, at a glance, looked like what smugglers' godowns did in 70s Bollywood movies.
Except it was a photograph of the interiors of India's hallowed National Museum in New Delhi.
If our venerable government cannot ensure better order, and set an example, in its own terrain, what good can it reasonably expect of its citizens?
This is not to make any excuses or absolve anyone of their misdeeds. Better education, more awareness of civic duties and a sense of pride in our resources are the only way to hammer in basic decencies. If not, there's always the law, which must rap ever harder on errant knuckles.
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