Friday, November 28, 2008

Mumbai mayhem and its repercussions

It was horrific to see all the devastation caused by a few foolish people with wierd, unrealistic ideas that go against all of humanity. What was more horrifying was to hear some of the intellectuals of our country on what should be done. Some of the common refrains heard were "put security systems in place" and that currently there has been an "absolute failure of the system" and that there is "a lot of anger" which needs to be chanelised.

Of course there has been a failure but I am more circumspect on how to deal with a failure. It is something like that old joke about finding something: It will always be in the last place you look and obviously so; after all, it would be really foolish to keep searching even after you find it. Similarly; failure is unknown till you encounter it. Till such time you encounter a failure, everything that was done could look good enough or at least, tolerable.  And when you encounter the failure; you feel that it happened in the last place you were looking at and feel supremely guilty for not having plugged that hole earlier. Just like at the end of a long search, one often gets an impression that it could have always been avoided.

I believe failure is not something to be worried about by itself and neither it is something that can always be prevented. Let me take an example: A building can never be designed to be completely safe. It will not stand rock solid in face of massive earthquakes, for example. What an intelligent architect would do is to anticipate failure and divert it towards consequences than can be tolerated. So when an earthquake does happen, a building is designed to buckle and bend gracefully so that the shakes and rattles that will be caused will cause minimal damages, especially to human lives.

Is there a point I am making, you may wonder... after all, I am also pointing to handling failure even if it means diverting the devastation caused during a failure. Someone not understanding the fine semantics may think that I am also searching for a solution to prevent failures. 

There is a difference which must be understood between what I am saying and what is currently being bandied about:  If one attempts to fight failures head-on, it is foolish and completely unrealistic. Put it more simply: It just cannot be done. Nobody can prevent failures. 

We will be in a state of denial if we think that we can stop failures. We are living in a world where there is bound to be some weird people who want to resort to terrorism. Earthquakes are bound to happen. For whatever systems that may be put into place, there will be that one act of terrorism or an earthquake which can still defeat all the systems that may be cleverly placed by the most intelligent of system designers. And when that happens, there is bound to be devastation.

A more realistic approach is to design for failure and divert energies caused during the failure as it happens. So the system designers for response to terrorist attacks should concentrate on setting up methods to deflect the menace during the incident, rather than attempt prevention.  I am no expert on securty systems, so I can only volunteer some unsubstantiated conjectures.  Maybe: alternate ways of escape, defensive measures such as containment, focused attacks after ascertaining all risks, etc. Probably most important of all would be crisis response training to citizens who could find themselves in crucial locations/positions/responsibilities. Maybe architects can also help crucially; by carefully working on escape routes, designing for crowd control and use proactive environment-behaviour simulations and studies for designing public buildings. We could also proactively attempt to think like terrorists and conduct scenario analysis where the outcomes of possibile situations can be theoretically analysed.

I am afraid much of the intellectuals are not talking in this direction. They are stating things like "not a single drop of blood should be shed" and other similar unrealistic statements. If the decision makers heed such statements then I am afraid we'll go in the direction of many foriegn countries: Paranoid citizens continously on pins and needles.

I was recently at the Pulkovo airport at St. Petersburg, Russia and I could see the palpable tension which was present on what should have been any normal day at an airport. The Russians are so paranoid about attacks from Georgia, Chechnya and other trouble spots of that region; they have systems and systems and systems which have tied them in absurd draconian knots. The Pulkovo airport has just a small sliver of a lobby where one can enter ... and even to enter that one has to first dispose off all water bottles you may be  carrying ... a machine-gun wielding cop ensures that you do.  And of course, you enter through the usual x-rayed doorway manned by another half a dozen officials.

The lobby has a coffee shop at one end and a set of toilets at the other end, and an even smaller sliver of a mezannine overlooking the lobby with another coffee shop and set of toilets there. Now you just cannot enter the rest of the airport till your flight has been announced. Whenever flights are announced, it causes a mad scramble for the doorways to the rest of the airport from that tiny lobby, leading to serpentine queues dividing the length of the lobby.  Your passport is checked by officials peering closely into your eyes and your tickets and what not. You are then immediately pulled into a security check: Remove your shoes and socks please. 

The security officer dealing with me was actually feeling the socks as if I had concealed something there. It made me feel as if I was the culprit and it was just a matter of time before I realized it for myself. Then I had to go to the ticketing counter where the young Finnair lady thought I was using a fake passport, and so she held me up till an official came over to check that out. After that ordeal was over, I had to again go through passport control: It didn't matter whether I was on the way out of Russia. They wanted to see my papers, visa and their absurd immigration cards once again, whether it was stamped by my host who verified that I indeed did visit them and so on. After that, I had to again go through security all over again! Remove your shoes and socks please! 

Then and only then I saw myself in the sanctum-sactorum of the airport: a lobby overlooking the tarmac. It had some threadbare sofas where people were morosely waiting for the transport to the aircraft. By the time I reached that place; I was shaken, stirred and possibly fully "sanitized" (a word that was being bandied about a lot in the media during this mumbai incident). For the life of me, I could not figure out what they could see in a pot-bellied middle-aged Indian with a smiling face. I then realized that they were purely systems driven and they were living in this mechanical, Orwellian world. I felt that it was most unfortunate that the terrorists who they were trying to prevent from coming into their lives, had actually succeeded though the Russians may not be aware of it.

Now landing at Mumbai airport, India:  No major systems to talk home about. Some minor scrap of paper to write the details of where you visited, etc. What a wonderful relief to be back in the chaos of Indians! We are humans once again. The shortfall of 'systems' that were missing was made up by actual human beings who were taking a look at what you did and curious about who you are and not whether you were a statistic in some system of theirs. There were some 29 counters at work to take care of the Airbus load of people who came in. By the time one could sneeze; each of us were out of most of the formalities, save for waiting for the bags to turn up on the baggage carousel. It does not mean that there was laxity. I could see that wise look from someone here, that subtle glance of appraisal from someone there to detect if anything was out of the ordinary. No systems. Real people. 

My friend, Dr. Nobhojit Roy, was agreeing with me the other day. One of the greatest strength of our country is that we can call ourselves truly free: We can stand in the middle of the road and laugh out loud, yawn without putting a polite hand over our mouths, even spit if we want to ... without anyone bothering us much about it. Dr Roy had spent a year doing a sabbatical in the USA and he could detect the difference. When in the US, he was straitjacketed by systems and more systems. He was "sanitized" and systemized.

Yes, of course there are downsides: There are people who would cross a red-light just before it becomes green, there will be loud-mouths with crass taste yelling and screaming outside a bar. Spitting is surely not an endearing trait. But we are also free to laugh here. In hindsight, all those deficiencies in us seem minor compared to the sepulchral world one sees in many foreign countries. Even the so-called "Mainhattan" of Europe, Frankfurt, does not have a soul in sight after sunset. When I was on the famous ICE high-speed train in Germany, I was chastised by a lady for playing my Mp3 player too loud. When I took out the earplugs from my ear, I could hardly hear anything from my player other than a small tingling sound. Maybe just a small buzz but to a systems-driven German, it was extremely out of the ordinary and therefore irritating.

A system that respects individuals is the only one that I believe in. Finally, it is the appeal to the individual inside us that would work. If we are carted into columns inside spreadsheets and other classification systems; we will only get alieniated.  You need subtle and supple systems that will bend and release energies built up during potential stresses. Rigid systems are prone to much more dramatic failures.  This is true of both the architecture of buildings as well as that of societies.

People are calling the Mumbai incident the 9/11 of India. I believe they are completely wrong. The terrorists had enough amount of explosives to cause more damage but they never got a chance to use them. One terrorist was singing like a canary within a few hours of the incident to our officials  -- definitely not a sign of a highly successful operation. The police, navy and the fire-brigade came almost in minutes; to the rescue.  Of course a lot of lives were lost in the incident. No amount of compensation can be made for each of those lives. Each life is a separate, individual story having incomparable value. Even if we want to blame whatever "faulty" systems we have in place, in a macabre way we should be thankful that only around 200 lives were lost here. I strongly suspect that the figures would have been much, much higher anywhere else which does not show the Indian fortitude and resiliance. 

As a simple example: The New York 9/11 saw two towers demolished and over 3000 dead. The potential to demolish two towers was equally present in the Mumbai incident but that did not happen. I don't want to draw up a one-upmanship based on number of people who died in such attacks because even if one person died, it would be an invaluable loss. The numbers are being mentioned only from a systemic point of view on what constitutes a complete failure of a system, as that is the subject here.

After my visits to various countries in Europe and Russia, my respect for our country grew much more. It is amazing that our country works the way it does: The local railways handles more people in two days than the entire population of some countries of Western Europe!  (3 million passengers per day. Denmark's current population is estimated as 5.5 million) Mumbai is one of the top 5 most populated cities in the world, and yet the kind of happiness and freedom quotient (if I can invent such a term) is far greater than any of the rest.  You can be out in the street and do practically whatever you want, whenever you want, without anyone asking you to turn down the volume of your Mp3 player.  

The approach on systems design that I propose reminds me of an interior design my office had made for the Konkan Railway Corporation: They wanted to have acoustic privacy for their officer's cabins and wanted "sound proof" cabins; which to them meant  cabins having only windows to the exterior and no visual access to the rest of the interiors. I told them that there is nothing which can be safely called "sound proof" and if attempted, it would only give a false sense of privacy. I convinced them of an Indian solution: The best sound proofing for privacy can be achieved by a cabin which is visually transparent. For it would be foolish for someone to stand outside such a cabin trying to overhear what is going on inside. The very fact that a potential listener can be seen from inside the cabin would become a deterrent. Such an approach is truly an Indian approach: Where we approach the problem laterally and give a focused, economical and subtle solution.

A danger of putting immature systems is that it can easily be hijacked by politicians for their own interests. I can imagine a political party (why imagine? the blame game has already started!) saying that the current system was not right for us, and something else should be put. Now such a blame can be placed irrespective of whatever system that may have been in place. So before we disturb the status-quo, we should truly understand what our existing strengths are.

I earnestly hope that those decision makers don't go for knee-jerk solutions and put in place so called "security" systems, which in the end will give only a false sense of security or be usurped by various vested interests. There is a saying among architects and structural engineers : A structure is only as strong as its weakest link. Hence more systems we put in place, more would be the chance of massive failures merely because there are more linkages. That is why a good structural engineer has to strike a good balance between minimal use of material and redundancy. Some of the greatest structures that man has made show such characterstics. The four towers surrounding the central mausoleum of the Taj Mahal (not the hotel) lean outwards by 4 degrees. The reason is subtle: In case of an earthquake, the towers will never fall on the mausoleum. The Taj Mahal is designed to handle failure but not stop it.

I agree with one point which surfaced after the Mumbai incident: It can serve as a wake-up call. We can demand for better individuals to enter politics. As citizens, we can go out there and do our bit by putting in our vote. Currently much of the voting is done by the uneducated/under-eduacated masses who are lured by populist and often sectarian interests. It is also easy to detect that politicians can easily divert incidents like this for their own use and we should not fall prey to their schemes. The absurd politics played by politicians who used divisiveness as their central method to garner popular support can now be proved to be hollow: I detected for once that most people were talking about India as one and not based this on this religion or that one, or this region or that one. Another lesson that should be learnt is to let agencies such as the police, the ATS (Anti-Terrorist Squad), NSG (National Security Guard) be given enough freedom to do their duties in a secular manner, without political parties coming in the way to support people of certain religions/regions.

Now to the question of "anger". Of course there should be anger. Anger is like a fire. It can be used for cooking or to burn your finger. We should be careful on how we focus the anger in us. If we allow it to dissipate, like the way it has happened many times in the past; the politicians will happily say that we are "resiliant" and they will go about controlling us in their own nefarious ways. The fire inside us should not be allowed to burn out. Yet, if we use it to burn our fingers; i.e. use it for hateful politics to divide religions, then again the politicians will (mis)use it. 

One crucial aspect of the Indian culture is that we forgive people. Forgiving is often mistaken for forgetting. We must forgive. Lack of forgiveness will lead to even more greater ills, and repetition of the same problems over and over again. But we should never forget the lessons learnt. Much of India emphasized on the much misunderstood concept of peace and non-violence. These times; such virtous qualities are often the stepping stones on which a lot of ill is carried out; especially by political parties. Yes, we need to be angry. Yes, we need to have systems. Yes, we need to handle failures even if we know we cannot prevent them. But we need to do all of that keeping in mind that we have many things going good for us in our culture. Let us carry out all the changes carefully without throwing the baby out with the bathe water.