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The broken window theory for Mumbai

A month ago I visited a poor village near Ajmer in Rajasthan. A rocky, deeply rutted dirt road led up to the cement block village school, animals milled in the school yard. But inside the open-sided classrooms, the kids, from 1st to 8th grade, were bright eyed with clean uniforms. They sat smiling with a book on the floor in dim light.

What you noticed was very attentive students, a soiled class room and a littered school yard. As an American, my first impulse was to say what would it take to buy a few gallons of whitewash and have the kids and parents do a clean-up?

Everyone is probably doing the best they can, said a friend. The parents are tired from working small farm plots. It’s enough to see the students show up at school. India is a very poor country, said another. It’s doing okay for a developing country. In other words, time to worry about appearances could come later.

Near the village a hustle was on to complete a four-lane section of the Mumbai-Delhi corridor. Courtyard Inn and a large McDonald’s were already operating and a new Toyota dealership was going up just down the stretch. Once completed, you figured these multinationals would demand that the rocks, rubble, dirt piles and litter all around their site gets cleaned up.

But again I was reminded that “this is India.” Companies are conditioned to living with rubble on their doorstep. That’s why they build walled compounds. It’s a social condition. In India’s big cities, well-off visitors are chauffeured past makeshift stalls and slums shacks to get inside gated hotel complexes, never having to meet the expanding real street life, growing each week as migrants flow in to make a better life.

So I capitulated to the “this is India” rationale.  Then I saw a comment by industrialist Anand Mahindra lamenting the degradation of public areas, asking if India had “debris disease.” It didn’t seem to matter where you were, he tweeted, someone always seems to leave a junk pile after finishing a job. If you live amid mess, does it spill over to your to work and personal life, such as accepting chaotic service as a normal condition? At the coffee shop in my building at Colaba, it can take 10 minutes to get a cup of coffee when there’s no line. Reason: too many people tripping all over themselves, forgetting the order and swayed by the slightest distraction. Nobody trained them.

But then a eureka moment arrived. My first flight on Indigo Air was flawless, combining on-time performance with a near flawless cabin crew, trained not just to serve, but to support the flight. The stewardesses make eye contact and deliver so well on passenger requests that when they ask you at the end of the flight to help clean up your aisle so they can make a fast turnaround, you hand over the trash like it was your own family. Spice Jet does the same.

A few days ago, over sandwiches at Mumbai think tank Gateway House, Saroj Datta, the former head of another service winner – Jet Airways – stated the obvious. “It’s what you spend on training. At the start it costs more. I brought in trainers from Europe. Once you have the system, it renews itself because everyone knows what it takes to be excellent. It only slips when a boss cuts people to cut costs. Then your people start to cut corners too.”

Suddenly you are back to the idea that how you treat public space – a park, a road, a lobby, a school, is ingrained with your work and life. You want to go back and paint up that village school so the kids can display their work. It’s no more a “this is India” condition than a crime-ridden, slovenly New York City was 30 years ago. Then a new police chief, William Bratton, imposed the ‘broken window’ theory. It was adopted from American socialist James Q. Wilson’s argument that one broken window means all the windows will be broken and crime will escalate from there.

Bratton introduced computer generated grids to police neighborhoods. If there was a defaced street sign, spilled garbage, a minor theft or a broken window on their grid, the cop had to follow it up. By attacking petty crime, burglary, rape and murder also declined and New Yorkers started to walk the streets without fearing a mugging. Wilson’s supporters said the ‘broken windows’ approach making cops accountable for protecting the community and not just the individual, gave everyone a stake in their neighborhood. Across Mumbai, thousands of private security guards are employed to keep a house protected – but don’t tackle common ground.

So what if there was a theory that said extending community welfare to the condition of the streets, the waste in the gutter, the cartons, wrappers and plastic bags strewn in the park, and serial spitting, would improve the city overall? Would you be brave enough to tell someone to quit hawking on the pavement? In China and Singapore they did do that – by arresting people, and it worked.

Is there a connection between a presentable city commons and how people deliver on the job? Is it fair to emphasize civic appearances with street families struggling for their next meal? No. But India does need to train some 120 million young people over the next decade – even for rudimentary jobs. So will the 10-minute coffee wait be the “good enough” standard for Indian shops, or will competition force them to be the best?

Manish Sabharwal, CEO of the temporary jobs service TeamLease, says it’s a conundrum. Employers don’t want to pay, they just want ready skills. Parents want their kids to get an education, not a trade. The kids just want jobs. He proposes an educational/ vocational degree with the promise of a job as one route.

There is no scholarship that proves less “debris disease” results in better on the job performance. But it’s also true that nations with powerful work forces such as China, Germany, Japan and the Nordic nations also have clean environments. China, a debris nightmare, enforced block by block rules like “broken windows.” Maybe it’s worth a calibrated try for India too.

Bob Dowling is Editorial Advisor to Gateway House.

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