Broken Windows in India

The Broken Window theory is a criminological theory of “the norm-setting and signaling effect of urban disorder and vandalism on additional crime and anti-social behavior”. In other words, it suggests that an atmosphere which is indifferent towards small and petty crimes tends to promote antisocial behavior and provide crimes of greater magnitudes a conducive environment to flourish in.

Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.

Or consider a pavement. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of refuse from take-out restaurants there or even break into cars.

This is applicable to other unwanted trends our society tends to pick up too, like littering of public places. Take for example the pool of garbage all around the dustbins placed strategically in our locality. Or the pools of garbage not around those dustbins and everywhere else.


The most interesting and practically useful suggestion it makes is to counter crimes and other unwanted occurrences in their infancy, before things get out of hand. This is of course much easier written than done. Litter had been around us since we were little kids. After all, we have grown up seeing little children take a shit on the side on the road almost as often as we have seen Akshay Kumar make a sensible movie (not that often, thankfully). Our community, it feels, had always been indifferent towards dirt. This trend passed its infancy long ago.

In India litter, it seems, has always been and will always be. It’s something we grow up looking at every day.
But it’s not like we are dirty people, oh absolutely not. Our house’s floors look like that’s where all the Fair and Lovley is applied (two shades lighter in 3 weeks, was it?). Nobody tries to improve their basketball by throwing junk at dustbins indoors or at any other place of social significance (They all dunk). It need goes without saying that we are at our best when we are someplace that has received an investment by either us or somebody else, both in terms of time and money. These good manners are more evident when the concerned party is either directly present or can take action if informed later. Take restaurants, temples, societies and offices for instance. Be it the owner, the societies head, our boss or even god we always wish to please them. I dare you to litter your kitchen.

So what happens when the boundary of ownership becomes vague and finally disappears? We have all seen Hotels and Shops where this boundary is actually visible. Clean rectangular patches of roads leading in, surrounded comically by junk on all sides. We are clean only about our personal spaces. What Happens the moment we are left where to our own devices in places only the government is (supposed to be) worried about. Basketball time.
So this brings us back to The Broken Window theory. Crime was rampant in New York during the mid-1980s. Subways provided the poor, helpless artists of New York a means of transportation and infinite steel walls to spray paint. Fair evasion was so common that culprits were not even chased after. Dangerous gear was smuggled almost as often. This was happening when above ground, the conditions were even worse. The New York City Transit Police hired George L. Kelling as a consultant and some major policy revisions, based on ideals from The Broken Window were enforced. They recognized the vandalism and fair evasion as one of the key factors which helped this criminal atmosphere thrive. It reinforced the belief of Police’s incompetence and left even the innocent passengers in contact with possibly dangerous men. No one cared up until then.


The “zero-tolerance” roll out was part of an interlocking set of wider reforms, crucial parts of which had been underway since 1985. Bratton (another intellectual and a natural leader) had the police more strictly enforce the law against subway fare evasion, public drinking, public urination, graffiti artists and the “squeegee men“. They were in other words targeting the roots of this plague, the smallest of things when compared to murders, kidnapping and car- jacking etc. Without going into details let’s just say that the effects were immediate. A success in the subways led to timely reforms in the NYPD too. Today William Bratton is the current NYPD commissioner.

New York solved is problems this way, but can we do the same with respect cleanliness? It would require a pretty heavy handed approach with the dreaded “chalan” for every minor act of polluting the environment. The pan eaters would suffer the most, followed by the rest of us, for anyplace we can’t sleep is a place we can litter. The feeling that just this one packet of chips won’t tip the scale when it joins the rest by the side of the road is our problems take root.

Years and years of negligence have left us devoid of all feelings of responsibility. How ironic that we are in such huge numbers all over the world, in so many aggregated societies in so many countries, yet we feel it’s alright to spit out the window of a car here. It’s because of all the broken windows all around us. Why would someone pull us over when there are half a dozen people fertilizing the bushes (or brick walls) near-by. Why would someone stop me from throwing my food wrappers when every other person is throwing it too. This cycle of why should be the first will never end on it’s own as there is no shortage of self-righteous hypocrites for whom the outside is just another place which doesn’t belong to them.

New York had the courage to begin penalizing minor criminals and miscreants heavily. Every fare evader was search, questioned and examined by the NYTP. The resulting arrests due to carrying concealed weapons, prior charges and pending cases was over whelming. As outlined in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, all social epidemics are the dedicated work of a few who knowingly or unknowingly spread the wrong message throughout their social group. These could be a father setting the wrong example for his kids, an angry driver who makes honking sound way better that it should. This is where, in a society, the roots of negligence, of apathy and eventual degradation grow from. These are the roots which need to be taken down.

Whenever you are about to contribute to our diverse, dazzling and ever growing collection of litter next, i would like you to ask yourself a question. Is it already too late for this neighbor, this locality that there is nothing you can do to make it look better? If not then go ahead and give the next hoodlum his excuse.


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