You are at a conference, and it’s lunchtime. There is a long line of people waiting to pick their food on the buffet table. You go to the tail of the line. And then the organizers come to escort you to the head of the queue. Why? It’s because you are the one who will be delivering the talk. Enter Queue Breaking, an old India-habit. Is it fair to have jumped the queue whatever your credentials? That’s a moral question.
Why are we a nation of queue jumpers? Does scarcity cause this? If yes, how do we explain people jumping queues inside aircraft and rushing ahead even before the aircraft has come to a halt?
How do other countries stack up
Russia is not a nation of queue jumpers though they have lived amidst scarcity. An experiment conducted in China showed that a dozen students standing in a line break it the moment an empty bus that could accommodate 50 people comes! Singaporeans queue up overnight to be the first in line for any freebie. Japanese line up for soccer games. They come, write their names on the ground outside the gate in the sequence of their arrival, and leave. They return a few hours before the game, simply walk in, and occupy their seats. Well, they don’t deface the ground with all the marking. They stick tapes in the field and write their names an order of arrival on those. In Holland, the shopkeeper just asks whom next, and the customers assert their rights of precedence and do it correctly.
Once, President Obama stepped into a restaurant for a quick lunch. The wait in the line is known to extend up to three hours. But the president jumped the queue, offering to buy lunch for the family he was overstepping. Can you expect anything of that kind in India? Fat chance.
Permissible jumping and opportunity cost
The pain of waiting is dependent on the time of waiting. A wait for seven minutes in a baggage counter that you reached within one minute of deplaning looks bigger than a wait for seven minutes in a baggage counter that you entered four minutes after disembarking. Also if you are told about the cause or the extent of the delay, the pain of waiting is less.
Then there is some permissible queue jumping. Like, doctors allow critically ill patients to walk ahead of others. At the airport, when the lines are long, the officials create a second service counter and instead of making people move in an organized and fair way from the first queue, it’s a free for all. The result: those who come in early lose out.
Products are produced while services are experienced. So if you are a service provider, you must find ways of ensuring that the wait is less painful. Imagine as a customer you are in a queue for 20 minutes outside two restaurants of comparable food quality. One of them gives those with telephonic reservation precedence over you, the other does not. In which of the two would you feel treated well? That depends on whether you had the telephonic reservation or not.
Queue jumping has an opportunity cost. India’s per capita income is about Rs 125,000, So when I jump a queue that saves me 15 minutes, it saves me a cool Rs 4 approx. That’s Rs 0.25 per minute. India’s working population is 725 million. If they do not save 15 min each day by jumping queues, the GDP loss is Rs 1 trillion! Our lack of traffic sense is an example of queue jumping. Yet when we go abroad, we follow all the rules of the game. And in much the same way foreigners when they get to India quickly learn our ways of jumping queues and traffic signals.
Such, and more are the questions that the former IIM professor V Raghunathan raises and answers in his absorbing book, “Are we a nation of queue jumpers?”