Friday, 19 June 2015

The Population Effect

Swami Gulagulaananda said:
"Battles won are inconsequential when the war is lost"

"Indians don't have any civic sense. Look at the way people drive! Look at all the garbage being strewn around. Tchah! That's why everyone moves to America and Europe. Things are so much cleaner there and people are so much better too. Not unlike here..." is a complaint that is often heard during moments of frustration - especially when that pesky autorickshaw driver cuts you off or comes in the wrong way in a one way road.

I had often wondered if these claims are true or not. On a trip to the US, I decided to make comparisons and make some mental notes. My first stop had been the West Coast of the US - San Francisco and the Bay Area predominantly. I found that people drive in a very disciplined manner - There's lane discipline, people don't cut other people off, traffic signals are followed religiously and the distance between two vehicles is enough to fit another vehicle between them. People drove at high speeds without worrying about random people (or animals) crossing the street like in a video game to test your reflexes. Pedestrians crossed the streets at zebra crossings, drivers waited till pedestrians crossed the street. Some even waved me across despite my insistence that they drive away. Yes, those claims are indeed true, aren't they? My friends also said that driving wasn't stressful at all. I didn't find garbage strewn all over the place. So I began to wonder if the conclusion that the mentality of people in the US is significantly better than Indians is true after all - Of course, I am talking about driving and garbage and not making broad generalisations.

Then I went to New York City. I hailed the famous yellow cab and told him my destination. I had hardly settled down in the taxi and the car made a wide turn very quickly pushing me against the door. I found that the driver was trying to overtake another cab - and he cut him off - exactly like a Bangalore autorickshaw driver. There was no indicator, no request, no permission, no thank yous... just plain brute force. I was suddenly reminded of Bangalore. A few minutes later, I was in the middle of a crowded street, with several vehicles all around. My taxi was on the leftmost side and the driver in front of us suddenly stopped the car and got out. Our cab was so close to his car that a person could have barely crossed across through the gap. The driver put his head out and yelled at him. The man apologised but did nothing to rectify the situation. My cab driver yelled out the famous American expletive "Asshole" and started backing his car as the one behind him honked. After a lot of manoeuvring, the cab continued to inch forward as a wistful smile appeared on my face... Just like Bangalore, I thought, thus restoring faith in humanity in an ironic way.

It is the same American people - How is it that the mindset is so different? The major difference between Bay Area and NYC is the population. Bay Area is very sparsely populated. At one point of time, I could see not a living soul till the horizon and I was in the middle of the town - I have a picture to prove that this is not an exaggeration. NYC is like any major Indian city with people everywhere. That's how I concluded that population is the driver for aggressive behaviour. Let's see why.

When everything is alright, life is stress-free. If you have an appointment at 5 and the time is 3 and you are less than a kilometre away on a pleasant day with nothing to do till then, you are not stressed out. When you are hungry and there is plenty of food around in your house, you are not stressed out. Stress is when you are not in control of the situation - Like being over ten kilometres away from your meeting place with under an hour remaining before the meeting starts and you find yourself in the middle of a terrible traffic jam. You curse all animate and inanimate things around you, praying for lightning to burn all vehicles around yours and clear a path for you...

When you have limited resources and too many people competing for those resources, there is stress. If there is one job and 50 people trying to get it, you are nervous - There is a high chance of finding a better candidate than you. If there are 50 jobs and 3 candidates, you are relatively stress-free. Think of all the places where an increase in the number of people attempting for a limited resources makes you get aggressive - Roads are limited resources, just like movie tickets, seats in a restaurant, seats in a college, jobs, bus etc. And when you see a queue in front of the theatre counter, you wonder if you will get a good seat or even get to see the movie, people standing around waiting to be seated in the restaurant makes you nervous and wonder if you will get to have a decent meal that day before you start getting that hunger headache. Let's not forget stressful times during seats in colleges or a bus even.

And so it is natural that you will do whatever it takes to win - "After all, it is survival of the fittest. If you do not do what it takes to win, someone else will do it... Why not you do it?" reasons one person and fires the first salvo. He takes more food as he passes through the buffet queue fearing that he may not get it later. He tries to shove others in a bid to get into the bus first so that he may get a seat. This shoving and his subsequent success in getting the seat teaches the same lesson to others - "If you do not do what it takes to win, someone else will do it". And thus it spreads like an infection in an air-conditioned room, and it mutates along the way resulting in students from well to do families using caste based reservation because "If you don't do what it takes to win...". Gaps between two cars get filled by two-wheelers at odd angles causing problems to cars - this results in cars closing the gap between themselves and the vehicle in front of it.

The other disadvantage of population is the multiplication effect. Jerks are jerks and jerks are all pervasive. It is not that America is jerk-free. When the population is higher, the number of jerks also get multiplied by a factor, and considering jerk behaviour is contagious, my guess is jerk behaviour grows exponentially. Also, jerk behaviour can be taught to others like lessons - like life hacks.

So to summarise, there are problems everywhere and jerks everywhere and no country is perfect. It is just that an increase in population increases competition and makes some people feel that you have to be creative in problem solving - Things are more apparent when you have too many people doing it. The problem is hard to fix because these changes have to come from within and that's a challenge. Countries like the US solve this effectively by imposing very high fines, such as around $650 (more than Rs 40,000) if you are caught littering or urinating or a couple of hundred dollar fines for traffic violations. This is a huge deterrent. Also, fewer people are easier to manage making enforcement easier. In India where people outnumber enforcers by a large margin, enforcement is harder - Although high fines with enforcement in some areas and slowly spreading out should help in culling annoying habits. Do you agree with this? Or do you think I am completely off the mark? I would like to hear your opinions

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One shoe doesn't fit all - Before judging, read this post