Wednesday, August 31, 2005

"I Work For The Government, So I Don't"

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Would A Good Work Ethic Have Helped ?


Killing the mandatory half-hour to 40 minutes stuck in the mandatory traffic jams on the Airport road driving into central Bangalore is much simpler now. For one, this writer is mentally reconciled to it, second, there is a spare book or an extra set of newspapers. No longer is one engulfed in the `state of panic leading to despair' syndrome that usually accompanies such unexpected waits.

The Indira Nagar flyover which will ease the situation considerably is still under construction. A court order should have cleared some litigation and work should have been under way, a month ago. Not quite. On the three occasions one has passed this site in the last three weeks, on one I counted three workers who seemed engrossed in, possibly, counting the number of steel rods that were used in the previous attempt to build the flyover.

A largish crane stands silently near by, its not even clear whether its in the building, renovation or destruction business. One expected frenetic activity, 24X7 flow of men and materials in order to solve one of Bangalore’s biggest logjams. Mistake, mistake. Possibly, they are working, between 10 am and 5 pm, when most government officials do, if they do.

Floods & Choking, Here Too

Its been raining in Bangalore and some areas on the Bannerghatta Road were flooded on Sunday (Aug 28), the local papers tell me. Angry residents from Bannerghatta protested the `pathetic’ state of civic amenities by descending on the roads and blocking traffic near the Ring Road-JP Nagar junction for nearly two hours on Monday morning. Middle class Bangalore is at it once again.

In a situation depressingly reminiscent of Mumbai, one learns that clogged storm water drainages are the reason. The Deccan Herald quotes K S Pai, the president of the Ranka Colony Resident’s Association. “We have made several representations in the past in this regard, but to no avail. Hence, we resorted to protest.” The residents have been asking the Bommanahalli City Municipal Council (CMC) to desilt the drains, but to no avail.

An estimated thousand families were affected. And many were stranded as waters gushed into their apartments. Two and four wheelers parked in basements were partly submerged, in water and filth. Office goers and students alike stayed back at home. Elsewhere in the city, manholes overflowed and brand new `test’ roads have been washed away.

Why Civic Agencies ?

Having lived through Bombay’s Terrible Tuesday, what happened in Bangalore on Sunday/Monday is obviously tame. Its not condonable and once again raised a issue that many people are now increasingly grappling with. Why do civic agencies exist ? What is the mindset of an average worker in a civic agency ? What defines their work ethic, their contribution ? Most of all, who or what do they work for ?

The simple answer is perhaps, themselves. A civic job is like most other goverment job today, often paid for or got through some favours. It becomes, as has often been documented, a vehicle for personal security and prosperity. It’s a way to do little and be occasionally accountable, as and when the shit hits the fan. Even then, chances are you are not, considering that your boss or bosses are equally unaccountable, uncaring and exist for the same reason you do.

Of course there are exceptions. Every city in the world is rewarded with a committed, honest, hard-working and determined civic leader at some point in its history. Thane, Surat, Nagpur, New York and London, all have had the privilege of rare civic leadership – one that has galvanized the work forces, turned `liabilities’ into assets and brought about radical changes in the cities they governed.

Many of these cities have also had the good fortune to have successors aspire to similar levels. Not so everywhere. Thane (near Bombay) is slipping back into the morass it was once in, Bombay was never lifted out of it. So, Bombay will await its turn, for leadership, direction and change.

Even The Public Sectors Lead The Way

As a `member’ of one of India’s recently liberalized, fast-growth private sectors, I know and observe how organizations work these days to survive in a competitive, globalised world. Forget private sector, even public sector companies seem to wake up every morning and work like they are faced with extinction. I refer to oil and gas companies, steel companies, banks and even electricity utilities. They toil like they are possessed, like there is no tomorrow.

Which is not to say that this culture of dedication and commitment has always permeated workforces everywhere. It has not. Not even in the private sector, in some cases only recently. Groups like the Tatas are classic examples of organizations that have shaken themselves up in the post-liberalised era, sometimes violently. Having regularly visited Tata’ headquarters Bombay House a stone’s throw from the beautiful Flora Fountain in south Bombay, I can catalogue how once sleepy and morose offices are today buzzing with activity.

Its no different in Bangalore. IT & manufacturing organizations, including in the public sector, work to world-class systems and processes. Particularly in manufacturing. Don't forget that in addition to the bleeding edge work being done by IT giants like Intel, Motorola and Texas Instruments, companies like Toyota Kirloskar make critical components for vehicles like the Toyata Prado just two hours away in Bidadi.


The Deadweight

And yet, while all these organisations represent one end of the work-ethic spectrum, the civic and state authorities, whose job it is to support all this, reside on the other. Workers across the country are working like never before (three years of continuous solid growth on most part of corporate India), we are witnessing a decade or two of momentous productivity, the sort that propelled the Koreas, Japans and Chinas into the next big league.


But unlike the Asian giants, we are being pulled back, by the deadweight of terrible civic infrastructure and services. The deadweight of a work-ethic that is in complete variance with the eco-system around it..remember the Bombay Municipal Corporation took two days off after Terrible Tuesday. A deadweight which is forcing organizations to keep backing up as much as possible, from power to other services they can control or purchase.

The solutions are not simple nor will they come overnight. And they can only do so if leaders, business and political work towards a larger cause. Bangalore is a cause, it’s a poster boy for India, the private sector knows so and exploits it. The political class (at least the local, present one) does not care though some politicians have, we know who they are. Bombay is a cause too, if only you looked at it like that. So is Calcutta.

But causes must become mission statements that translate into everyday action. Calcutta has much feeling and little action. My feeling for Bombay means I will not dirty it and contribute in what little way I can to it upkeep. I don’t know if my local corporator thinks similarly. The last I heard, she was protesting against excessive citizen involvement in civic issues. Whose fault is it, hers for behaving in a pig-headed manner or the citizens for not perhaps involving her better ?

Are We On The Same Page ?

More importantly, is the average civic worker or state government employee plugged into the same cause as you and I ? Does he or she feel what I am losing out when I spend an extra 40 minutes on the Airport Road or bust my spinal cord on the potholed roads of Bombay ? Can he or she be made to ? Without force ? Or does he or she not care because they know people will figure out how to `adjust’, with books, newspapers,long phone calls and of course spiritual and physical exercise.

Not necessarily. Of course its easy to blame civic workers or state service providers but maybe the matter deserves a little more introspection. Maybe it calls for civic and political leaders to talk more about these issues to the people who work with them so that they understand and feel rather than react. Maybe it calls for greater bonding together at the citizen level, for the common cause. Easy to write, tough to execute.

I could say much more, but will defer to someone in a position of power, who can act. But the next time I see a civic worker, maybe on the road outside my building, I will try and be a little more understanding, maybe empathetic to his problems, maybe exchange a word or two. Maybe that will make us both work together for a better city, today.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Save Our Soul (Ourselves)

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Sorry, The Cops Are Not Part Of The Plan

In an earlier post and article elsewhere, this writer had cribbed about how, on the way home on the night of 26th July (and morning of 27th), he failed to spot a single policeman on the road. Citizens, as always, rose to the ocassion, doing everything from directing traffic to helping people wade through their respective localities.

It now transpires, going by a most insightful interview (in www.rediff.com) of Maharashtra Director General of Police Dr P S Pasricha by Archana Masih that the police are not even part of the state's disaster management plan ! Well, well, who then is part of the plan, you might ask ? Search me. The correct answer is nobody. There is of course a plan on paper and has been there for 7 years or so. Don't worry, a committee has been formed to `look into it'.

As this writer has pointed out in the past, it was not just a failure of systems on 26th of July but also of leadership. At a recent disaster management meeting brought together by ONGC (the oil major's process platform on Bombay High caught fire on 27th July killing over 20 people), senior Navy and Air Force officials pointed out that he just couldn't fathom the command structure in the state government.

For instance, the ONGC fire happened (160 km offshore) around 4.30 pm on the 27th of July. As soon as he was informed, ONGC chairman Subir Raha called the senior most Naval officer in the western command. Assistance was on its way within 45 minutes, the Navy says. Whereas, a whole day apparently passed before the state government called the Navy to help out in the city. The conclusion in that meeting was the central government agencies responded to each other pretty swiftly but they collectively encountered a wall when it came to the state.

All this only intensifies the argument made in the previous post. Look out for yourself, or else. Interestingly enough, Pasricha, in the interview, speaks about the need for rejeuvenating the civil defence unit and including it in the school curriculum (am reproducing the relevant parts below). He also alludes to other potential disasters that could occur, such as chemical. Read on..full link below.

Rediff interview With Maharashtra DGP Dr P S Pasricha (Extracts)

This time it was the rain, next time it could be an earthquake or worse. What lessons have you learnt? How do you think things will change if a disaster were to happen?

Pascricha: I am going to send my recommendations to the government and some of them are like this. We have 14 SRP (State Reserve Police) battalions all over Maharashtra. One battalion has 40,000 people. We have decided that each battalion will have a company of around 100 people, well equipped and well trained for disaster management. We'll not wait for the government. We'll do it on our own, whether we are a part of the disaster management committee or not.

Ultimately, we are the first responders so we will prepare ourselves to face various kinds of disasters. That we have taken a decision, details have been worked out, we're going to start any moment. That is one thing.

Secondly, I'm going to advise the government that civil defence should become an integral part of the school and college curriculum like Japan and China. There are sirens -- some nine types of sounds for different disasters. Every child knows that if this is the sound, it is war, if this is the sound, it is an earthquake. They have been taught. You have to do this in this situation. They have been taught.

In the 1962 war with China, NCC (National Cadet Corps) was made compulsory for us. There was no choice. So why don't we teach civil defence? Because ultimately people have to help themselves first. The one person who is best committed to protect you is yourself alone.

A citizen expects the police to be the first to respond in a law and order problem or any other calamity. You don't think of the municipal department or any other department but the police first.

Pascricha: Absolutely! And the poor police constable -- I went to the police lines after five, six days -- and a number of policemen hadn't gone home in three, four days and their families were also suffering. Their houses also had four feet water inside. There were problems and the police did their best to the extent possible.

There might have been some inadequacies also in the first few days. There were some administrative inadequacies but they were in the first few days. The warning system should have been activated but when the second round of rains came the media was totally covered and people were told not to leave their houses.

This could have been done on July 26-27 also. That weakness was there in the total system because it was not totally defined -- who is to do what when the water began rising. The traffic problem was there but then everybody was shaken and started building up strength.

This time it was the rain, next time it could be an earthquake or worse. What lessons have you learnt? How do you think things will change if a disaster were to happen?

Pascricha: I am going to send my recommendations to the government and some of them are like this. We have 14 SRP (State Reserve Police) battalions all over Maharashtra. One battalion has 40,000 people. We have decided that each battalion will have a company of around 100 people, well equipped and well trained for disaster management. We'll not wait for the government. We'll do it on our own, whether we are a part of the disaster management committee or not.

Ultimately, we are the first responders so we will prepare ourselves to face various kinds of disasters. That we have taken a decision, details have been worked out, we're going to start any moment. That is one thing.

Secondly, I'm going to advise the government that civil defence should become an integral part of the school and college curriculum like Japan and China. There are sirens -- some nine types of sounds for different disasters. Every child knows that if this is the sound, it is war, if this is the sound, it is an earthquake. They have been taught. You have to do this in this situation. They have been taught.

In the 1962 war with China, NCC (National Cadet Corps) was made compulsory for us. There was no choice. So why don't we teach civil defence? Because ultimately people have to help themselves first. The one person who is best committed to protect you is yourself alone.

So let us now awaken the people so that people know what to do, how to respond apart from the government machinery or NGOs. So that is one thing I'm going to do.

Then I'm going to recommend that the municipal corporation must be well equipped. They did not have adequate water pumps, they did not have necessary tools and machinery to remove people trapped under the debris. They did not have inflatable boats. We were begging from the navy and army. The plane couldn't take off or land, so we couldn't take help. Why should they (municipal corporation) not have inflatable boats located in different places?

You have to think in those terms that anything can happen, not only floods but god forbid, what if there's an earthquake, a chemical leakage?

Disaster management plans are there -- voluminous books -- but what do I do with the books? 600, 800, 1,500 pages. I basically want the gist -- that this should be done. The police should do what they are supposed to do. Fire brigade should do what they are supposed to do.

Then let us go for a helpline like 911, you have an integrated, fire brigade, ambulance services. This is how the system works. We are talking about nuclear power, we want to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and all that, then let us also think big like others have done.

The other thing is they have to invest money to improve the drainage system. It is 150 years old, it has stood the test of time but today it does not have the capacity of more than 1 inch and people who throw garbage anywhere are also blocking it. So let us go for a better system. It is worth spending money, worth improving.

Lastly, all political parties should forget their political interests and come together without blaming each other, think together, involve the media, police, municipal administration and say these are the things we will not allow.

Today the Coastal Regulatory Zone, applies only to authorised constructions, but if you build jhopadpattis that is okay. Why should hutments be allowed near the airport? Let the vote bank be, let us segregate it from the ground reality. Let us think rationally, you rehabilitate them in a proper way. It need not be in Mumbai or Kurla (in northeast Mumbai) only. These are some of the issues that will have to be collectively examined without any personal interest, only in the interest of society, the nation.

I did not know that the police is not part of the disaster management plan. But the police is the most visible arm -- that people expect help from...

Yes, they are in uniform, people feel they are omnipresent, they are superhuman beings, they are gods.

The police force has come under greater scrutiny after the floods. What are you doing to restore people's faith in the police?

First thing is we have to tell them the truth -- that these are the constraints. That we are not part of the system but still we have done our best. The misinformation, the wrong perception has to be changed. The police has got a limited role, even then they have done their best.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Learning To Be Safe, At Home

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Survivors From The Fire: Even The Best Disaster Management System Can Fail


The ageing Dauphin helicopter takes a full circle before coming around to land on the iron-mesh helipad, high above the somewhat turbulent seas - as we look out, a fully `cloaked' fire fighter waits aside a hydrant, ready to `fire' powerful jets of water in case something were to go wrong.

Nothing does. The helicopter settles down with a light thump and we alight. As we walk towards the metal ladder that descends below to the deck, the rotors are still spinning, sending powerful gusts of wind in our direction. As we walk down somewhat gingerly, the helicopter revs up again and lifts off.

This was ONGC's Bombay High North oil process platform, some 160 km north west of the Bombay coastline. Was because, a month later (July 27th), an offshore supply vessel collided with the platform, setting off explosions and a fire that raged till next morning. A total of 22 people (12 missing) died in the tragedy.

As we reach the deck, the officials on board welcome us and lead us through a door into the cool and welcome confines of the work and operations areas. Our first destination before we do anything else is a safety briefing, we are told. "Whoever visits the platform has to first sit through a safety briefing session," explains the official escorting me. "There are no exceptions ?" I ask. "Absolutely not, he said, this is a very hazardous operation," he says as he opens the door and shows us into largish conference room with tables arranged in a semi-rectangle.

Simple & Effective

The power point presentation is short but sharp and focussed, the it takes us through potential hazards, the safety features built within the platform, the fire fighting capability and the kinds of chemicals used and for what kind of fires. The safety officer even plays out the kinds of sirens that would sound, depending on the kind of hazard.

The officer making the presentation does not display the slightest fatigue that one would associate with a daily chore like this. He answers questions energetically, and smiles when the predictable smart ones come up (will we all fit on the lifeboats ?). He is a man who takes visible pride in his role as custodian of the unit’s safety.


On a flight out of Mumbai last week, I met an (Indian) fund manager who was in London when the floods happened. He had some reservations about the manner in which the media covered the floods; I disagreed but that was not the point. According to him, while the administration had clearly failed in its role as as guardian of citizen’s lives, the citizen themselves were not aware, alert or equipped to respond effectively to calamities such as this. Not quite the case, he argued, in most parts of the developed world.

Which got us talking. And I wondered. When the fire alarm goes off in your work place, what’s the first reaction ? Well, let me tell you, it will most probably be: someone must be testing the alarm or, better still, it must have gone off accidentally. How many of us would lift ourselves and head for the exits, instantly ? Not too many, I would think. Most of us, hardened and deadened perhaps by the city’s very pressures of existence, would react similarly or more aptly, not.

Do It Yourself

So, while the administration may or may not respond effectively, in the short or long term, citizens have no choice but to find their own solutions, the manner in which they respond to crisis situations. Think Mumbai, a affiliation of citizens is putting together a book on how to understand and respond to disasters in the city. Its important to update oneself on and imperative to practice, disaster response, in homes, schools, colleges and work places. Children, as we know, are often a powerful driver of such initiatives for entire families and even communities, particularly if taught well.

Response mechanisms will have to be forged at home. Then, they ought to be extended to the building, society, area, whatever. Its very much possible that the circle of inertia may grow as the group becomes wider. Little wonder, that most developed countries (and I am reproducing a response from Swati Kaushal of Minnesota (US) below) and towns and localities within them drill down such responses till they become part of life.

We may or may not see Mumbai 944 again, though the chances are high. We may see other natural or even non-natural calamities. Our responses to them have to be fine-tuned now. Running out of a building during an earthquake, as Mumbaikars did a few years ago, is one such natural response. Floods and the like are more complex, there is water now and a possible epidemic later.

To conclude, we all need the equivalent of the safety officer on the ONGC rig to be talking to us constantly. Challenging as it is, he ensures that the message never falters and over time, it becomes ingrained and systematized. That person may not exist in our eco-system and hence needs to be found within all of us. I pray the officer is alive and well.


From Swati Kaushal.

Information management, especially in today's world is a powerful, powerful tool. But in a situation where there is poor infrastructure in normal times, a disaster will always be exactly that...a disaster; information managed or not. Yes office workers may stay in the office after reading internet posts but slum dwellers...?

What is required by the government given Bombay's vulnerability to heavy monsoon rain is a system to manage that. Better drainage infrastructure. Enough capacity to drain rainwater into the sea as it falls.

An efficient metereological department that is staffed to anticipate and monitor weather and issue timely advice. If there is one, all the media networks will know anyway to use it real time and people will know to take it seriously.

I live in Minneapolis Minnesota; I moved here from India four years ago. Here, we get tornadoes. The city and every suburb has a tornado alarm, (It's like a lamppost but with a really loud siren at the top) at say at 3-5 kilometer intervals. Whenever the Met department picks up a tornado-like system, the alarms sound and that means everyone has to go down to basements, fire escapes or other safe areas till the alarm stops sounding.

Every first Wednesday of the month at 2:00 p.m. these are tested for two minutes so we know they work.

We also get severe snowstorms. Again; the Met department tracks and issues warnings. Snow plows are positioned and put in place to clear snow realtime, as it falls. Even then, sometimes you cannot anticipate the severity...what appeared on the Met graphs as 8 inches of snow can become 18 in a matter of an hour. People look out the windows and make conservative choices.

Metereological Department, Tornado alarms, snow plows. Not rocket science. The important thing is that these WORK and EVERYONE TAKES THEM SERIOUSLY.

That is the kind of infrastructure that I think would really be helpful in Bbay: flood detection, management, prevention and early warning system that works and everyone takes seriously.

Drains. Advanced Metereological Systems and Trained professionals. Flood warning alarms. These are neither expensive nor difficult. The goverment's time and money would be well spent in putting these systems in place. Citizens and Media would do well to focus their demands, and persevere to ensure that the government follows through.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Are We Missing The Point ?

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It's a failing administration's dream come true. Localise the issue that everyone is making the loudest noise about, make it appear that this (issue) was the cause of the entire mess, set up not one but two committees to study the problem and then sit back till the next crisis erupts.

Mumbai's 13km long Mithi River is a disaster that was waiting to happen, like countless other disasters in the city. It does not take an expert in urban planning or perhaps, more appropriately, toxicology o determine where the river was going or not going or how badly it was stuffed with effluents and garbage.

A 10-year-old looking out of a local train while crossing the bridge over the river between Mahim and Bandra suburban railway stations in north Mumbai could have concluded the same; that its an utter failure of urban governance, if it ever existed to begin with.

The slums that mushroomed up around the mouth of the river on the Mahim side didn't appear out of a magician's hat. Someone allowed them to come up just a few years ago, like they did up the river, on both sides, as they still do across the rest of the city, even as we speak.

At Mahim, around the still, stagnant waters, just before the river flows under a railway and then a road bridge and meets the creek and then the Arabian sea, the slums jostle with each other in resplendent third world glory – surrounded by huge mounds of plastic bags and assorted garbage, which lie untouched even today.

The same child would have told you that people who live in such conditions are sitting ducks for any and every disease that hits town, unless their genealogical structures are so sturdy that they can withstand any viral onslaught. The child would have also explained to you that an epidemic - or whatever soft and convenient term that the authorities decide to use for it – was bound to emanate from this
liberal churning of water, filth and animal wastes.

The BMC (or whoever it passes the buck to) is responsible for this problem both ways, for allowing people to set up shop in such miserable and pathetic conditions and then failing to either manage the floods or curb the disease that inevitably broke out. In case you were wondering how to find the Mithi river, note that the stench will hit you before the view does.

Worse, as subsequent paragraphs will show, the Mithi river problem, including the potential of flooding in the surrounding areas, has been well documented, discussed and catalogued, even in Parliament. So, the issue is not whether the floods were unprecedented, the issue is what are these pollution creating encroachments doing there in the first place ?

In not being able to address this basic issue, Mumbai's civic officials have, as always, displayed complete and total disregard to their fundamental duties. And yes, you don't need a committee to tell you this, like you wouldn't if you wanted to establish why the garbage truck didn't arrive this morning.

Former BJP MP Kirit Somaiya has filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) against the state government, the BMC, the Collector, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and the Airport Authority of India, among others, for what he terms their abject apathy and utter negligence. Somiaya was BJP MP for Mumbai North-East (1999-2004) that includes Kurla, Saki-Naka and Powai, the region where the river originates.

While Somaiya does suffer the more than occasional reputation of parachuting into crisis situations and grandstanding for political gains, to be fair, he does his homework. And whatever the reasons, he has been at the Mithi River issue for more than two and a half years. The story is out but the details, as pieced together from various letters to the authorities and their responses, give you an insight
into yet another case of administrative paralysis and frightening systemic apathy.

1. In January 2003, Somaiya first complains to the CPCB, specifically
points out out how industries were dumping their garbage in the river. He also says the BMC had failed to treat the sewage water.

2. In February 2003, CPCB Chairman Dilip Biswas assures Somaiya in a letter that the matter would be investigated by a joint team of CPCB representatives and the Collector of Mumbai Suburban District.

3. In March 2003, the joint team 'investigates' the river and takes water samples. Later, in the same month, March, Union Minister for Environment T R Baalu, in response to a letter, tells Somaiya the matter would be thoroughly investigated.

4. With the monsoons looming, in mid-April 2003, Somaiya dashes off another, prophetic letter to Baalu where he once again refers to the encroachments by the oil and scrap dealers. Further, he says, come monsoon and the overflowing water from the Tulsi, Vihar and Powai lakes of Mumbai would come to Mithi River (The river originates at the Powai/Vihar lakes in north Mumbai). The river wouldn't be able to
take it because of the encroachments and pollution and the nearby residential,commercial, industrial and slum areas would be flooded, Somaiya claims. He predicts, direly, that the chances of floods in the coming monsoon were high and more than 10 lakh people would be affected. Somaiya even requests Baalu to 'pay a personal visit'.


5. The CPCB report that emerges later in April is damning. It acknowledges the pollution caused by 'illegal' oil processing activity and drum washing, which in turn discharged oily wastes. It says that nearly 3,000 such, unauthorized units were operating near the river from Kurla to Mahim (flowing from north-east to west Mumbai).

It talks about hazardous solid wastes lying dumped all along the riverside. It points out that 1.2 lakh people are believed to be staying in hutments along the river and that they discharge about 5 million litres per day (mld) of sewage.

It also concludes, using parameters like Measured Dissolved Oxygen (DO) and Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD) that the water is not fit for any use, even in high tide when there is some dilution in the water content. And yet, it says, the river water was being used for bathing near the Mahim confluence point. Incidentally, you can still see slum dwellers bathing if you glance out of the window on the Mahim-Bandra local train stretch.

The report closes off by recommending, in effect, the ridding the river of all the unauthorized, pollution-causing units. It also asks for a time-bound plan to do the same.

6. Meanwhile, Baalu's minister of state, Dilip Singh Ju Dev, responds to Somaiya's second missive, promising a team of senior officers including the CPCB chairman and state government officers would visit the site on May 3, 2003. Even air-conditioned cars for the officials are to be commandeered for the day.

7. In July 2003, Baalu reverts to Somaiya, saying that the river was indeed highly polluted on account of the pollution caused by chemical units/storage godowns. Accordingly, the CPCB has asked the Maharashtra State Pollution Control Board to prepare an action plan, involving the concerned agencies, namely the BMC and the MMRDA.

Three days later, Somaiya forwards the letter to Mumbai Municipal Commissioner K C Shrivastav, asking what action the BMC has taken following the visit of May 3, 2003. Somaiya claims he never received a reply to this letter.

8. In mid July, CPCB's Biswas writes back to Somaiya, saying how he has, as a follow-up of his visit to Mithi river in May, asked the chairman of the MSPCB to prepare an action plan, involving of course, all the concerned agencies once again. Five days later, Somaiya dutifully forwards the letter to the MSPCB chairman, also pointing out that the MMRDA had apparently told him that they would conduct a full
study. He mentions that it was decided to measure the water levels and water logging at the peak of the monsoon.

9. In August 2003, the Maharashtra Coastal Zone Authority responds saying the principal secretary, urban development for Maharashtra had agreed to convene a meeting of all concerned to find a solution to the problem of pollution of the Mithi river. Munshi Lal Gautam, the member secretary, also says the Authority discussed the same issue in its own meeting in January 2003. And, in a final touch of bureaucratese, Gautam requests Somaiya to take up the issue directly with the urban
development secretary since both the BMC and the MMRDA were directly responsible to him.

The paper trail runs cold here on but Somaiya says he pursued it to the point that, after another `joint' meeting, a Rs 65 crore clean-up project was agreed upon, which would be shared three ways between the state government, the Environment ministry and the MMRDA. Work was supposed to begin in December 2003, obviously it never did.

Elections arrived in 2004 and Somaiya (he lost his seat) obviously did not pursue the matter with equal vigour. He says many of his papers and letters were washed out by the rains of 26th July, after his office was submerged under 4 feet of water.

The letters demonstrate that the situation was crying for action from day one, not for investigations, surveys and guess what, committees. The correspondence also shows that like everywhere else in the city, the BMC sleeps through its most basic duties for which it collects taxes and pays its employees their salaries – of keeping Mumbai clean and free of illegal encroachments.

Focussing on Mithi is important, but to think that it's the only cause of Terrible Tuesday is making a terrible mistake – for instance, every storm drainage system in the city (5 major ones) is clogged and encroached upon. Mithi is a larger manifestation of the rot that pervades the civic authority in specific and the state administration in general. An administration which instead of halting all encroachment, conjures up new ways to release public property to politicians and land sharks.

An administration which should be out on the roads recovering if not preventing more public land from being eaten up by slum lords and encroachers, instead of allowing its employees to collect haftas from them. An administration that has set up Mumbai to become the biggest, unmitigated, urban disaster, possibly in the world. Cleaning up Mithi is the start. A complete clean-up of the administration must follow.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Build Systems If Not Leadership

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The Event That Should Have Created A System



August 25, 2003: An otherwise normal, warm, Mumbai workday was shattered with news of bomb blasts ripping through the city. For several hours pandemonium reigned as panic-struck citizens jammed phone networks in an attempt to reach other. News reports suggested several bombs had gone off across the city, killing or maiming hundreds. It was only in the evening that a clear picture emerged. Only two bombs had gone off, one at the Gateway of India parking lot and at the other, at the Zaveri Bazaar gold market in south central Mumbai. The death toll was high though, at 44.

A few days later, Mumbai joint commissioner of police Javed Ahmed called up television news channels in the city and sought a meeting with their senior editors. The ostensible reason was to understand how to work together and disseminate information effectively. A dozen or so journalists made the journey to the grand stone Mumbai police headquarters in the bustling Crawford Market area. Once everyone was seated in his office with its large windows and many rows of chairs, Ahmed started off by pleasantly introducing himself. He then chatted a little about the channels the journalists belonged to, asked about their roles in them and so on.

Crime Scene

Then, almost abruptly, he changed tack. He wanted to know how some channels had reported several blasts in various parts of Mumbai when, in fact, there were only two. Caught unawares, the journalists attributed it to sources and the like. "Did anyone of you see those blasts in north Mumbai?" he asked. Murmurs. "If not, why didn't anyone call me, or any of my colleagues to confirm or cross-check," he went on. One journalist began to raise his voice in indignation but was stopped short by the now seething Ahmed. "Do you know that I can arrest you for rumour mongering ?" he thundered.

That was perhaps the high point of the meeting - journalists being told that the law would come after them if they didn't behave responsibly. Matters cooled off susbequently and the discussion shifted to the handling of similar events in future. The journalists agreed to Ahmed's suggestions that he himself or his deputy commissioners of police (who were also seated there) should be called directly for confirmation the next time. He also requested the journalists to stay away from bomb scenes, since it disturbed the evidence. The journos said the politicians (L K Advani for one) were blundering in and they only followed. Ahmed promised to look into that as well.

Taking Charge

This account is not about a senior cop losing his cool or knocking down (perhaps deservedly) a few trigger-happy journalists. Its about his ability, albeit post-facto, to take charge of the situation. Its about a man, acting on his own accord or under orders, displaying leadership on a potential crisis issue. Its about what was missing on 26 July when the city was submerged under 10 feet of water. When there are no systems, the process breaks down, lines of command blur and accountability shifts. When there are no systems and no leadership to fill the void, expect total disaster. That's what Mumbai got that night. While Ahmed initiated the beginning of an effective citizen alert process by showing leadership, he or his department failed in taking it through by building a system.

Two days after the deluge, I called up a senior official of a cellular company in the city. Was there, I asked, a system whereby emergency alerts were conveyed to cell companies to flash to the millions of subscribers in Mumbai. "Not really," he said. "Would you charge for such a service, or are there any other glitches in such a system ?" I asked. "Not at all, we would be happy to do so," he said. Had the state government, or any functionary ever got in touch with him and talked about initiating such a process ?" was my next question. "No, the (then) police commissioner did reach us once after the bomb blasts. He knows he can reach us if he wants to but there was no such attempt made to put down a system," he said.

Still No System

Guess what ? Ten days have passed, the monsoon is still in spate and there is still no system to talk to the many news channels that are now so prominently anchored in the city. Or for that matter news websites like this one. A mass of mass media platforms are sitting in this city and no one wants to use them. The cellphone company official had this to say. "Actually, both cell phone companies, television and radio organisations should be sent constant updates the moment something like this happens, I am sure everyone will relay it." So, fellow Mumbaikars, you suffered not only because of an utter failure of leadership but also the monumental neglect in putting a simple system in place. And you will continue to do so till that happens.

Unless Government wakes up and understands that in times of calamity, the onus is on its functionaries (elected or otherwise) to collect information and disseminate it, in the fastest possible manner. So as to prevent the disaster from telescoping. The onus cannot be on eager beaver reporters to prise out the information from various departments and the like. A disaster management system is effective only if it works as a system. The second time it rained down, the police seemed a little more pro-active. Police commissioner AN Roy and the Jt Commissioner of Traffif put out messages to the citizens asking them to stay at home or leave offices by 2 pm. But this is sporadic leadership, not a system. A system is agnostic to people and personalities. And that's what this city needs, at least in the area of information management.

Simple, If You Do It

What can be done ? The chief minister's office or the BMC (hopefully in the larger interests of the community they are talking to each other) needs to call in a meeting of all the information disseminators in the city, a bit like what Javed Ahmed did after the blasts. It needs to understand how best it can deliver the information and at what frequency, were a natural or some other disaster to occur. It needs to understand how it can use technology more effectively. Further, it needs to set up a website or a microsite which is constantly updated. Then, it has to appoint an officer or two and put them in charge of sending out emails with updates at pre-decided intervals.

It needs to work a similar arrangement out with the mobile companies whereby it tells them that in a Code Orange situation, or any term the authorities decide to use here, this is what needs to be disseminated and how often. Creating a website which can be fired by the PA to the Commissioner or the secretary in charge of the disaster management cell can be set up in a couple of days. Im sure a TCS, Patni or Mastek (Mumbai headquartered software companies) will be glad to help.

Till then, all the Mantralaya needs to do is snap its fingers, assuming of course the gravity of the situation has dawned upon its residents. One call and the media fraternity (television, print, internet & radio) will dispatch and station a reporter there. Leave it to their enterprise to get the information out.

Managing The Back-End

This is the front end. On the back-end, a will to create a system is imperative. That will happen with better co-ordination of departments, information sharing between them, Code Orange like scale-ups in response times, specific accountability for information flows and so on. But that is a larger issue, possibly being addressed in some earnest and not the subject of this piece. Speaking last week, Shiv Sena MP Suresh Prabhu said the disaster management system was a disaster in management. People like Prabhu have run organisations (a bank in his case) in the past, maybe their help should be sought. There must be others in the ruling coalition as well.

After a media interaction with chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh earlier this week, most journalists went back with a distinct feeling that this man did not care much for what happened in north Mumbai. He said very little except to read out some statistics collated by his bureaucrats. Here was a politician who, for various reasons, political or otherwise, was waiting for the buck to land elsewhere. He chose silence as the easy way out.

He refused to even comment on what he felt on visiting the devastated suburbs and refrained from any guesses on what could have gone wrong or who should be accountable for this, if ever. A child could have said so, without prompting. But that's not the point here. Someone, whether its Mr Deshmukh or some caring bureaucrat, has to set up a simple, pro-active information system that works, so that citizens of Mumbai are not once again held hostage to a failure in leadership.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Get Angry, Dammit & Stay So..

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That's How High The Water Was (Courtesy: Rediff)


"How can we allow them to get away with it?" my colleague screamed. It was past 10 pm in the office, two days after the great Mumbai flood and another colleague had got off a phone. He had heard rumours that the sluice gates at Vihar (a large lake supplying water and located in north-east Mumbai) were to be opened. Residents living near and around the lake were panicking.

My colleague was furious. "Why isn't the BMC (BrihanMumbai Municipal Corporation) issuing a clarification? Surely they know about it by now." As it happened, a private television channel was on air in minutes with a statement from Mumbai's municipal commissioner, around the same time we began calling other officials there.

My colleague then called up someone she knew at one of the FM stations and told them about it. Admirably and quite instantaneously, as they had through the previous two days, they picked it up and relayed it.

Millions of Mumbaikars, mostly belonging to North Mumbai, have felt anger in the last few days. Anger at the administration for the lack of an early warning system. Anger at the lack of or the terrible quality of infrastructure. Some people I know have felt anger at themselves for not anticipating the 15-hour journey home from their offices in south and central Mumbai.

"If only I had stayed back in office," said a lady colleague, after spending that fateful night in a taxi. She returned to work, like many others, two days later.

Some were too shocked to be angry. One colleague wading through Kalina (Santacruz East, a Mumbai suburb), one of the two or three worst-hit areas, recalled a dead body floating past, unable to suppress an involuntary shudder as he did. "It was like going to hell and back," he said.

Another colleague from the same area returned to her building two days after the deluge to find that two ladies living on the ground floor had died, trapped in by the rising water, unable to open the doors. The mother managed to throw her two young children out of the window. They survived.

Terrible Tuesday: Mumbai copes with a calamity

The town of Kalyan, north of Mumbai, is littered with carcasses of buffaloes and, if anyone cared, some humans as well. The town has gone without power, drinking water and food for four days now. Newspaper reports have it that two days ago, some 2,000 residents stormed the office of the civic administration and let loose on the vehicles and a towing machine kept there.

Back in the heart of Mumbai, in several suburbs, including of course Santacruz, Kurla and Saki Naka, people demonstrated for resumption of power.

Mumbai is angry. Not for the first time and surely not the last. Unfortunately, as always, it faces the danger of this anger dissipating and flowing away, into routine, into the usual, private, occasional outbursts. It risks dissolving into memories, into dinner table cribs and beer bar stories, into water cooler accounts in offices and, perhaps, bureaucratic laments.

This is how it has been: for all the city's spirit of bravery and resilience, it utterly lacks the ability to get truly angry.

This needs to change. Mumbaikars need to direct and vent their present anger effectively, individually, collectively and most importantly, over a sustained period. The present anger is and can be focussed on ensuring the BMC or the local administration in Mumbai's outlying towns do the basic, minimum work for the taxes they collect from their citizens and for the salaries they get paid.

Did you know that the BMC dutifully took the two state government declared holidays and stayed off. Sure, emergency services must have worked, but what kind of signal does this send? If this does not make you, the Mumbaikar, angry, what does? But the bigger question everyone needs to ask is what next?

An angry city needs to focus on the fundamental issues that have resulted in its inability to cope with a flood. As an enlightened colleague in the profession asked the state's finance minister on prime time television two days ago, "Isn't it time you re-looked at the reckless construction and development we are seeing in the city, particularly in the suburbs?"

Environmental activist Shyam Chainani also present concurred. Obviously, there was no answer. Did he even see a connection?

Instead of wondering in amazement at the shiny fa├žades of the king-size malls in the north Mumbai suburbs of Malad and Mulund, an angry city needs to ask where is the infrastructure to support all this. It isn't there, let's not even debate it. Instead of gazing up wide-eyed at the ever-rising skyscrapers and marvelling at the riches that fund it, an angry city needs to stop all further construction and take stock.

The new skyscrapers of South Mumbai will not only put tremendous strain on roads but also suck up drinking water meant for existing, older buildings. But South Mumbai is not the issue here, decadent North Mumbai is.

An angry city should divest politicians like Narayan Rane of their burgeoning police protection detail and transfer them to work for the citizens. This writer can personally quote examples of why citizens of this city need greater protection from Mr Rane and his family members rather than the other way round.

An angry city should get these politicians out on the streets, to work, not to 'tour affected areas.' Another colleague saw former minister Kripa Shankar Singh walking around in Vakola (Santacruz East) with his pajamas held up. She couldn't help but notice the posse of Sten Gun toting guards that accompanied him.

Okay, let me quote a personal example. In a three-hour drive from mid-town Mumbai to the suburb of Bandra on the night of the heavy rains, there was not one policeman to be seen. Ask around, everyone has a similar observation to make. So, at the cost of sounding totally naive, may one ask; what's the ideal thing these policemen be doing on a night like that?

An angry city should ask why we have the lowest people-to-open space ratio in the world and what we are doing about it? Mumbai has 0.03 acres of open space per thousand inhabitants. New York has 5.53 acres. And please, lets not treat this as a frivolous statistic. It affects you and me and was one of the reasons millions of citizens spent that night on the roads or died.

Does anyone think of these things when permission is given to build on open spaces or tear down smaller cottages and independent houses to build multi-storeyed buildings? The suburb of Bandra is a classic example. The tiny lanes of this suburb are already jammed with traffic and the construction shows no sign of stopping. As we speak, the administration is fighting residents to hand over more open land for construction, at Bandra Reclamation.

An angry city needs to focus on critical issues and agitate constantly:

Overcrowding, rampant construction and lack of infrastructure.

North of Andheri, beyond the turn for the international airport, the much-touted MMRDA (Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority) assisted roads returned to their pothole status within weeks. The deluge of July 26 needn't have happened. The BMC might blame the MMRDA for clogging the sewer pipes and vice-versa.

That's not the point, gentlemen of the BMC, who hopefully have returned to work now. This city is overflowing, to the point of self-destruction. Infrastructure for a few million is now supporting 18 million. And it will become 28 million in just 20 years. And, except for one or two honourable exceptions, there is not a clue nor care in the political and bureaucratic class, that this is a burning issue that needs to be tackled now.

An angry city needs to look within, see how its own citizens' atrocious civic sense worsens the situation. That means every citizen has to think twice before tossing plastic wrappers onto the streets, even whilst spending thousands of rupees in beautifying their living rooms.

Let's admit it, Mumbaikars can now count amongst the filthiest in the world, the commendable efforts of the Advanced Locality Management (ALMs) notwithstanding. This filth clogs drains, prevents easy cleaning and can lead to spread of disease.

The biggest threat is not the next deluge or 90 cm of rain. It is the return to normalcy. Of letting our anger fade away. Of focussing our energies on catching the 9.03 local. If that happens, we have no business blaming anyone else.

PS: www.rediff.com was kind enough to carry this piece as well.
 

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