Covid Days: Opportunity for societal disciplining?

By Prof Sunney Tharappan

Sep 18: In the third week of August, B R Ravikanth Gowda, joint commissioner of police, Bengaluru, shocked many who were concerned with social behaviour in public, through a press release which said that the Bengaluru police had registered 17.5 lac cases through contactless enforcement and collected fines amounting to Rs 96 crore. The major offences included non-use of helmets, jumping signals, violating one way or no entry, non-use of seat belt, using mobile phone while driving or riding, violating no parking signs and parking on footpaths. The police personnel used cameras installed in traffic junctions or identified violators from pictures uploaded by social media. Ravikanth Gowda said that they would continue the contactless enforcement which will not disturb the flow of traffic on any road.

Community Against Drunken Driving (CADD), a Delhi-based organisation did a survey through the collection of opinions of five thousand women to know about their alcohol drinking habits. They discovered that 25% more women had taken to drinking in a period of five years. In 2005, the per head use was 2.4 litres in a year, whereas by 2016 it had become 5.7 litres. However, this is less than the average increase of 38% of the drinking habits of all people in the country in 2017 according to studies done by WHO. CADD discovered from their studies that more number of women drink and they also drink more than they did earlier. Centre for Alcohol Studies, a government sponsored organisation under the central government speculates that the number of women who consume alcohol will increase by 25% in the next five years.

The two pieces of information from authentic sources are provided as a reference to human behaviour, the first being behaviour in public and the second in private, both unacceptable to the majority of people. The first refers to breaking of rules as a part of habitual behaviour, whereas the second refers to the development of habitual behaviour, both concepts to be studied while considering possible influences for neutralising such behaviour. The statistics of women consuming alcohol is taken here not because such statistics on men’s drinking habits are not available but simply to show how an otherwise uncommon behaviour of a group of people becomes habitual in nature.

Fred Fiedler’s famous book ‘New Approaches to Leadership’ has a chapter on Contingency Model Theory. This is taught in B-Schools. Fiedler believes that all human success is contingent or dependent upon situations. To some extent, he wants to prove that most humans are victims of situations. This is difficult to accept even though it is an accepted concept in business administration. All people do not become victims of situations. Some people are capable of manipulating situations to their advantage, where the doer benefits and others around may lose. Therefore, what is necessary is situation engineering where the doer as well as the other associates gets equal benefits or benefits that are deserved. Therefore, one need not always be a victim of situations.

It is difficult to accept that people are breaking rules or breaking a normally accepted custom because of situations. Most people break traffic rules because of various reasons, among which disrespect for rules is primary. This disrespect gives courage to the person to break the rule once and thereafter through repeated performances, and it becomes a habit. With the passage of time, the habit takes over and it is difficult to change the behaviour. In Indian societies, women do not customarily drink even when they tolerate their men’s drinking habits. However, once a woman takes to drinking, she will have no difficulty in breaking the custom of women avoiding alcohol, because it has become her habitual behaviour. It is easy to blame situations and escape from one’s own responsibility for selecting systems of habitual behaviour.

It is necessary to justify the title. Immediately after the lockdown, one could find systems of queuing in front of shops, but not now-a-days. Why did we change our behaviour? It is possible to dismiss it by saying that it is not in our culture. Our behaviour, immediately after lockdown, of queuing was just because of fear of punishment, some say. As the police became indulgent, the processes of queuing also disappeared. Somebody said that our problem is that we lack discipline.

This leads to a question on what discipline is. The primary thing about discipline is that it follows systems of behaviour which gradually become habitual in nature, so much so, that a person will not be able to behave differently. Such behaviour becomes that person’s discipline. Systems of discipline are of two types. One is that which is customary and social in nature and the other is that which is governed by laws, rules or regulations. While the former is an expectation, the latter is an obligation.

Whether Covid days could be an opportunity to bring in some discipline in behaviour in public is a matter of discussion among many. This is because there was a situation in which public discipline could be enforced. For example, if people are compelled to stand in queue in front of shops, they will get used to it, and it will become the discipline of the general public. Respect for laws, rules is a value which needs to become the base for human behaviour. However, many follow the law due to fear of punishments, though the fact remains that a large number of people do so because of the belief that these are necessary for peaceful and cooperative human living.

So, Covid would have convinced people about the need for new systems to be established in their personal behaviour. Therefore, systems like queuing or keeping physical distance or washing hands could have become a part of the discipline of the people provided efforts were put in to make it so, since such systems did not exist in everyday life earlier and these were not a part of the discipline of the people.

Who could enforce this discipline?

The best example comes from Australia. They handed over Lisbon, their city, to the army asking the latter to enforce a discipline of personal behaviour of people in public places. There were no batons which were being used; instead, there was simple persuasion to fall in line with the instructions given by the government. There were no cases of excesses committed by the army because they were not at war with people, instead they were at war with the disease and people’s assistance was needed. It was understood that the police personnel available with the city could not have influenced the people as their number was not enough and also they were needed for their regular duties.

India also could have done the same, of course, slightly differently. What we needed to do was not hand over the cities to the armed forces but create volunteer groups in each area and get them trained by the armed forces. So, the armed forces could have been deputed to the cities and towns and even villages of the country. A handful of them in each place would have been enough to lead many groups of volunteers, especially those with a missionary zeal, by giving them the needed skills to work with people for looking after the discipline of keeping physical distance, washing hands and wearing masks. All these could become habitual behaviour of the public. While we do not have enough police personnel for regulating traffic, it was futile to expect the police to do this. Also, we have a large number of personnel in the armed forces whose services could be availed of, since even if there is a border skirmish only a small platoon is generally deployed to deal with it. Also, they would have enjoyed their proximity to civilians. More than anything else, they didn’t need any training to prepare volunteers for the simple task of guiding people to enforce discipline.

An army Major with whom I spoke about posting the armed forces in some cities, at least to guide groups of volunteers to discipline people to ward off the pandemic, responded to me with shock, pointing out that there were protocols to post the armed forces anywhere. He said that the army could be called in only in times of war into public places. My answer to him was that we were at war with Covid and hence it would come within the parameters of protocol. I also mentioned to him that all protocols were created by us, and therefore, we could change the protocols according to the needs of the people.

If the armed forces were deputed, of course with new protocols in place for dealing with a non-wartime situation, they not only would have helped us in reducing the destructive impact of Covid but also created new disciplines for our people, making human life easier, more valuable and interesting. No doubt, it needs exceptional thinking and enormous courage to draw a new path. However, that is what is needed in a crisis.

Prof Sunney Tharappan, is Director of College for Leadership and HRD, Mangaluru. He trains and writes and lives in Mangaluru. Email:


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Comment on this article

  • Ganesan, Chennai

    Sat, Sep 26 2020

    Brilliant article, extremely well articulated!

    Such great thinkers should write frequently in leading magazines!!

    DisAgree Agree Reply Report Abuse

  • Rohan, Mangalore

    Fri, Sep 18 2020

    Excellent and timely article Prof.
    Your expertise in the field is evident from your writing which convinces people yet to be convinced to be disciplined. For the ones who are disciplined it gives confidence and a ray of hope that others will also follow them and build an inclusive society....

    DisAgree [1] Agree [3] Reply Report Abuse

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