People have expressed shock and horror at headphones being nicked from the Tejas Express, the new high-speed train linking Mumbai and Goa, and the first to offer airline style on-board entertainment.

There is in fact nothing at all shocking about this. It is of a piece with how public goods are treated in India, especially by the well-off.

For example, in most public parks in the country, shrubbery is stripped of blooms every morning by people who seem to come there for just that purpose. Ask them why they are stealing flowers from a public park and they will give you a horrified look and say: “I am not stealing, it is for my puja.”

The way I look at it, public parks are for the enjoyment of members of the public. Everything in them, including flowering plants, is for all of us to enjoy. When individuals pick flowers, for whatever purpose, they deprive us, the public, of this enjoyment. In my book, what the flower pickers do amounts to stealing from the public. And I also wonder about the gods who receive offerings of stolen flowers.

Privatising a public good

Pavements are another example. Public money is spent on building pavements so members of the public can safely walk down a street. But in almost every city in the country – notably in Delhi and Mumbai – public pavements have been encroached on by private car owners for use as parking, or by the entrepreneurially pious to build private temples. Members of the public are forced to walk along busy roads, risking life and limb. In my book, car owners who illegally park their cars on public pavements, as well as those who build temples on pavements, are stealing public space. They are privatising a public good.

Economists have defined a public good as having two qualities:

  1. That no one is excluded from using it, and
  2. That one person’s use of it does not reduce its use to others.

When someone pilfers flowers in a public park they are excluding the rest of us from enjoying a park full of flowers, and while flower thieves continue to use and enjoy these flowers, and possibly earn benedictions from their gods, our enjoyment of them is reduced to zero. It is the same with pavements. When a public pavement becomes a private parking space or a temple, pedestrians are excluded from those spaces. While car owners, temple managers and temple goers use the public space, their using it deprives others of its use.

Similarly, headphones on the Tejas Express are a public good in that they are placed on the train for the use of all passengers who may travel on that train. Those who purloined the headphones have deprived the passengers who will travel on the Tejas in the future of the use of the headphones and enjoyment of the on-board entertainment. We can assume that the purloiners will continue to use those headphones in private, while you and I, were we to take the Tejas Express, will have to stare at a soundless screen.

When tempers fray on the streets in India it is not uncommon to hear someone ask the local language equivalent of “Kya yeh tere baap ki sadak hai?” Does this road belong to your father? The honest answer to that is, “No, but so what?”

We are like that only. And until we start calling a thief a thief and an encroacher an encroacher, yanking out headphones from a fancy new train is not stealing – it is only helping yourself to a souvenir.