Why ‘Do Gaz Ki Doori’ Fails In India; It Is Negated By The ‘Elbow-Push Factor’
The next challenge is really about anticipating the rush for vaccines or medicines.
Government should not flunk the test – which is what happened when it failed to anticipate the outward migrant rush after the lockdown began.
The Prime Minister did well in his address to the nation yesterday (20 October) that while lockdowns may have gone away, Covid-19 is isn’t going away any time soon until we get a cure or a vaccine. He exhorted citizens to mask themselves, wash their hands frequently and maintain do gaz ki doori (physical distancing norms).
While complying with the first two rules is not difficult, given the average citizen’s willingness to make the effort, the last – do gaz ki doori – is simply not in our DNA. In crowded city spaces it may not even be possible.
A personal anecdote from a trip to the US a few years back serves to illustrate the average Indian’s inability to maintain safe distance from others in a queue.
I was at a food takeaway in New Jersey, and after collecting the food I had to pay the bill at a counter opposite the food window. As the previous customer had paid and left, I saw no one at the counter and moved in to pay my bill. A colleague who was just behind me heard an American nearby mutter: “Looks like someone is invisible today”, by which he meant I had not spotted him waiting in the queue. He was standing some four feet away from the payment counter and my Indian eyes simply did not deduce that he was standing in line before me. I would have expected him to position himself closer to the previous customer to indicate he was next in line. I muttered embarrassed apologies and left after paying my bill.
If someone like me, who normally observes queuing rules even in India, was unable to maintain do gaz ki doori in America, surely it tells us something about our inability to maintain physical distancing norms even when it is easy to do so.
Damodar Mall, a retail marketing expert, has something called the “elbow-push” factor (or rule) to explain Indian behaviour in queues or crowds. This rule says that if the distance between any two people in a queue is more than the length from your finger to the elbow, the queue will automatically compress due to pressure from those behind you. You automatically tend to close the gap even if there are only two people at a counter, for fear that someone may cut into the gap. The gap has to be small enough to prevent anyone from inserting himself or even cutting across it.
Researchers have found that the elbow-push factor holds good no matter where the queue is: bus stops, train stations, marriage buffets even at five-star hotels, temples, multiplexes, airport counters. Not for nothing does the queue in Tirupati lock devotees in iron cages so that they don’t rush and create a stampede. The gates open only when the previous lot moves to the next cage, till they reach the sanctum sanctorum.
The Elbow-Push Factor formulated by the researchers runs thus: “If you leave a space measuring more than your forearm — from the tip of your finger to your elbow — between you and the person just ahead of you in a queue in India, such a gap, is just not feasible to sustain. It shall get bridged or occupied within five minutes”.
One can speculate why this is so, and the common reason given is that Indians are much more comfortable with smaller personal spaces and jostling than, say, westerners, but this is unlikely to be the whole explanation.
Two other logical reasons come to mind.
One, in crowded urban spaces, where shop spaces are small and queues long, leaving lots of empty spaces between one customer and the next makes no sense. The queue would simply be too long even in kirana shops, leave alone malls or theatres. The only remedy is to create more counters and entry and exit points, if that is indeed possible. In the forthcoming Bihar assembly elections, the Election Commission is planning to open more than the normal numbers of ballot stations so that physical distancing can be maintained. One can only predict that it will not be entirely successful.
Two, given our high population densities (455 per square kilometre), several hundred years of Islamic and British domination when India turned from a land of plenty to a land of shortages, followed by half a century of socialist shortages of the licence-permit raj, the Indian mind is primed to the idea of shortage. The spirit of abundance that marked the ages before those invasions (they came to conquer and rule because India was a land of plenty) slowly made us fearful of scarcities. When you fear that there won’t be enough for you, you have to elbow people out to get your share or due. The oneupmanship in queues is about this shortage psychology that remains with us even after we liberalised the economy in 1991 and many shortages were eliminated. Covid-19 has reinforced our subliminal fears about shortages.
Given this cultural mindset, and the reality of urban crowding, do gaz ki doori is something worth talking about, but will often not be possible to enforce or even penalise. Put another way, it is masking and frequent washing of hands that will constitute the main barriers to Covid-19 spread.
This implies that we must, apart from redrilling the message into public consciousness, focus on three initiatives.
#1: Masks must be freely available to the poor, or at very low cost, maybe as part of their monthly rations. This may tempt a few people to collect free masks and sell them to others, but that is unavoidable. This happens with cheap foodgrain supplies too, and some poor people earning money from selling masks that are anyway freely available cannot be a seen as a problem.
#2: NGOs, shops, and offices must make available sanitisers to anyone passing by, and this is already happening in most places. This should now become ubiquitous.
#3: About maintaining do gaz ki doori, government must repeatedly assure everyone that they will get their rations or vaccines and no one will be left out. One should imagine a rush for vaccines once it is made available, as anxious people worry about whether they will get one in reasonable time or not. This means people must be given specific time and dates by when every one will get a shot at a vaccine. The same should apply to other products that are to be distributed by government, whether it is free medicines or food or masks.
Indians simply cannot avoid bumping into one another in a queue. Government must thus plan for abundance and provide frequent reassurances that no one will be left behind.
The next challenge is really about anticipating the rush for vaccines or medicines. Government should not flunk the test – which is what happened when it failed to anticipate the outward migrant rush after the lockdown began.
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