Sri Lanka has much to teach India about civic sense
Visiting Sri Lanka earlier this month I was once again struck by the difference between civic sense there and in India. This is partially responsible for Sri Lanka being 73rd on the United Nations Human Development Index while India is much lower at 130.
Civic sense has been defined as “the norms of society that help it run smoothly without tripping on each other’s toes”. You could say without treading on others’ toes. At first sight it might seem obvious that there would be more toe tripping or treading in a country which has the second-largest population in the world and a capital now reckoned to be the second-biggest in the world. The entire population of Sri Lanka is less than the population of greater Delhi. But the traffic in Colombo is as dense as the traffic in Delhi. The difference is that Delhi drivers lack civic sense. In Colombo drivers respect pedestrian crossings. Delhi’s aggressive drivers don’t stop for anyone, least of all pedestrians.
What can you say about the civic sense of a society which tolerated the deaths of 3,034 commuters on Mumbai’s suburban railways last year? Most of them died because of the aggressive behaviour of passengers on overcrowded trains with open doors.
I asked a young Sri Lankan journalist who had studied at Delhi University what the most obvious differences she noted when she came home. Without a moment’s hesitation she said “less aggression and more cleanliness”.
Sri Lanka is certainly cleaner than India. Taking the train from Colombo to the North, I noticed that the track was not disfigured by the filthy mounds of plastic and other garbage that railway passengers see as they pass through Delhi and its outskirts. In the ancient city of Anuradhapura, the capital of Sri Lanka for 1,400 years, I saw the pilgrims visiting the massive stupas routinely put their litter in the plastic tubs designed for that purpose.
Several Sri Lankans suggested that their country’s welfare measures are responsible for its civic sense. In his majestic History of Sri Lanka KM de Silva wrote of an “impulse to social welfare”, which must surely be prompted by civic sense. The result, according to de Silva, was that by the 1960s Sri Lanka had “a whole range of welfare services unequalled in most parts of Asia”.
There are many who would say that the caste system and the hierarchical society that goes with it obstruct the development of civic sense in Indians. Caste exists in Sri Lanka but it is not sanctioned by Buddhism, nor has there been any significant practice of untouchability. Inevitably there have been arguments about the relative civic sense inspired by Hinduism and Buddhism. I’m not learned enough in Buddhist or Hindu theology and practices to enter this perilous debate. Back in 1990 Amartya Sen blamed elitism for what he described as India’s “shocking neglect of elementary education”. In 1931 Sri Lanka became the first country in Asia to adopt universal adult franchise. That gave it a head-start in empowering women, enabling them to play an important role in creating civic sense.
It is important not to be too harsh on India. Its low place in the United Nations Human Development Index hides the fact that Kerala and Tamil Nadu would be higher than Sri Lanka if they were regarded as separate nations. India itself has climbed five places in the 2015 Human Development index. Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants India to do better. As a social reformer, he wants to see a clean India, specially clean rivers, and a better-educated India too, with emphasis on better-educated girls. In one of his Mann ki Baat radio broadcasts he called for a reduction in the shocking death rate on the roads. He deplored the report that a cyclist had lain bleeding on a Delhi road and no one had done anything to help him — a shocking example of lack of civic sense, surely. Sri Lanka suggests to me that the prime minister will not fulfil his social reform programme unless he can instill more civic sense in Indians. He must persuade them that it’s not acceptable to drop litter, or to spit, or to foul rivers, or to drive aggressively and break driving rules, or to neglect girl children.
The views expressed are personal