Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Chennai Police Does Deliver

This is a story about a time when the cops did not ignore the call for justice from an ordinary citizen. About a time when an ordinary citizen was pleasantly surprised to see his plea wasn't dismissed as a minor matter. When the interests of those who stand up to violence were taken care of.

I have had few interactions with cops outside of passport application related verification and a chance encounter where an officer offered me and my brother a ride. Most of my perception about them came from the standard channels - newspapers, stories and anecdotes from shared perspectives and sadly, movies. Given this background, I was not optimistic about redressal when life decided it was time for me to visit a police station and register a complaint.

It begins with road rage

I was riding to work one morning on my 2-wheeler when I slammed my brakes to avoid hitting another bike crossing the road, and in my anxiety screamed at him "Aaaaaaarggggh! What are you doing??" (in Tamil). As I watched him park his bike, he walked over to me. I expected him to engage in verbal jousts where I struggle to exchange abuses in Tamil. After a "How dare you shout at me?" (again in Tamil), he lands a punch with his right fist on my cheek. I am still perched on my bike, and I am now trying to find both my own balance and the one that perching on a bike requires. I lose the latter as my bike topples to the side. The former is naturally in check given the size of my aggressor.

A crowd gathers. Of course it does. No one is interested in resolving this. I urge my aggressor to come with me to a police station. He refuses. After the crowd pushes, he asks me to pillion behind him to the station. I refuse to trust him. I tell him we can just park our bikes and walk over. The crowd gets restless. One middle-aged guy comes out of nowhere and screams loudly at me "Deeiiiiiiii. Shut up now. Enough of this." (In Tamil). I refuse to let my aggressor leave. I try to block his escape path as he mounts his ride and prepares to leave the scene. The screamer screams again as I tell him I cannot let this guy go because he has punched me. Another person asks me to note the vehicle number and go to the cops. A lady cleaning the streets nearby is watching all this. She comes over and advises the same. As the perpetrator departs, in my heightened levels of stress, I am not even sure I noted the registration number right a few seconds after I did.

Meet the cops

I walk over to the nearby police booth. It's too early and no one is present. I call the number printed on the booth. Someone at Nolambur Police Station (W7) answers. I describe to him what I had been through. He asks me to find the station and come meet him in person. In 10 minutes, I meet a lady Constable seated at the entrance, and then I meet him for the first time - Constable C. Johnson. He was the person who answered my call. He listens patiently to my story, asks a few questions for clarification, and then asks me to lead him to the spot where the incident occurred.

Once there, he asks around to understand where we exactly were, to confirm that this belongs to his jurisdiction. No one claims to have seen the incident though. I urge him to ask the cleaning lady who is still at work in the area. He walks over to her, and I can see from a distance that she makes a punching motion with her hand. She was probably the witness that mattered in the end.

Constable Johnson asks me to return to the police station and lodge a complaint. The lady Constable guides me through this. Constable Johnson joins us later to complete the formalities. He calls a few resources to see if they can help him establish an address for the registration number of the perpetrator's bike. He is told they do not have this information, probably because it is a recent registration. He urges me to try and find apps or any other online tool that could help him get the address, because his only recourse now is to visit a Regional Transport Office (RTO) a long distance away to get the same. I meet the inspector on duty as well, who assures us that they will help us. A CSR is registered and I am asked to get on with my day as I normally would.

Hope runs low

As I await an update from the cops, I hear many accounts, including one very violent road rage incident, that have been without redressal for years. Anything but positive. I decide to give it my best shot by visiting the station personally every day.

On Day 2, I don't meet Constable Johnson. Another lady Constable on duty reveals that on that particular day he has been allotted a night shift. So I could either meet him after 9pm or the next day after noon. The lady reassures me that they will do their best and that I should not be too concerned.

I realize how gruesome their schedules can be. Day duty one day, night duty the next. I see other cops catching a few much needed winks on steel benches. Not the best conditions for a citizen's first line of defence.

On Day 3, I visit the station once again well after lunch time in the hope that I could meet Constable Johnson. The lady from Day 2 greets me again and informs me that he is having his lunch. I decide to wait, but Constable Johnson overhears this and calls me over. He updates me that since he was busy with another case of a daughter missing from her home, he requested one of his colleagues to visit the RTO and get the registered address for the bike. He asks me to be available around 8pm in the evening, in case they are able to nab the guy from his home.


At 8.30pm that night, I receive a call from Constable Johnson who urges me to rush to the station. They were able to get an address, and find the perpetrator and have brought him to the station. I take my brother with me for support. When we get there, we find a small crowd gathered. I manage to find Constable Johnson within that assembly and he asks me to identify from a distance whether the guy they have brought in is indeed the same person I lodged a complaint against. I was starting to fear I am forgetting his face, but as soon as I saw him, I realized I hadn't. A few more questions to reaffirm and match my account with that of the accused, and Constable Johnson advised us to let them proceed to register a case against the accused. The Constable informed us that he would be fined and a case would be lodged on his record.

As we walked away, I felt a sense of justice return to the whole affair. That perhaps this means our cops aren't as inadequate as we make them out to be. That perhaps they do care about our welfare sometimes.

I had a whole speech prepared to egg them on to perform their duty. One that involved reminding them that we look at them as our protectors. And that they should ensure we always come to them when seeking protection, and not go instead to a goon who can deliver instant justice in return for money. That all we wanted was to ensure perpetrators do not go about their lives in the confidence that their actions have no consequence whatsoever. That the small guy has no recourse.

I never got to deliver that speech. And I am glad for that. Glad to know that even if this is a small matter, we can all seek a little reassurance that the system does work at times. There are those in the police force who do their job. Who work long hours. Who work gruesome shifts. Who talk politely and reassuringly. Who take our feelings seriously. I salute them.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Chained To The Mailpost

 When I was a young developer learning his trade, I would look forward to receiving email on my official account. Email that shared important information, made me feel important. Email that asked for opinions, made me feel my opinions matter. Email that asked for help, made me feel I have an opportunity to be altruistic. That was when I used to get 10 emails a day.

Now things are different. I have been shouldered with responsibilities beyond just writing software. Email is now a massive sink-hole where your workday can go to die if you let it. Somehow every update about everything is now relevant because ... oh, you lead a team, and you never know what information might be useful to you.

Hook, line and sinker

"Some systems and services in Antarctica will be down this weekend". Why the hell would I care?

"Announcing the launch of a spanking new version of that product you never heard of". Whatever happened to

"Upgrade your mail-client now. Please do this before 18 September." But, it's only 18 May today.

"I am desperate. I need help finding how to write an asynchronous controller. Any examples?" Wow, you actually decided to email everyone on the team.

"Here's an idea I decided to dream up in my sleep last night. Let's discuss this over an email thread. It's only 4000 characters long." Sparks fly, and then everyone starts reply-all-ing. My mailbox just became someone else's open forum.

"I will be WFH today. My dog pissed into the garden hose." Please cc your neighbours as well, just to be certain. They ought to know there's a hose-desecrating mutt around. And while you're at it, please tell us whether you plan to flush the garden hose clean, or flush it down the garbage chute.

How does one sort through this mess without actually having to put some effort into the actual sorting of the mess?

The only thing a sender can do today is mark an email "Priority" or "Low Priority". But if you only look at Priority email, soon enough, people will figure you out and every email in your Inbox will flash a "!".

If you want my attention, show me you really want it

The Inbox needs to be turned on its head. It should not be trivial to just grab someone's eyeballs. Perhaps we made email too straightforward. Enough for someone to start feeling it is their personal radio station. 

I'm not here, in my Inbox, to entertain myself, but to see if someone is trying to tell me something I should know, or if someone needs me to go do something. If you did not put in adequate effort ensuring your email is designed to help me decide how to prioritize it, you don't deserve my time.

We need the ability to mark every email with a "sell by" date. If you read this after 18 September, it's too late. The closer the expiry date, the more likely I am to prioritize reading and acting on it.

We need the ability to tag each email. "Vital Information", "Immediate Action Required", "To Do", "Help", "Update", "Discussion" and of course, who could forget "WFH"? Better still, tag this separately for recipients who are simply copied because they "Need To Know".

A grown-up's mail client

Now, dear email client, give me the ability to filter by tags. Show an expiry date in the email summary, and let me order by it. Force me to tag each outgoing email, and encourage me to separately tag the ones on CC.

Hopefully when we do that, Discussions go where they ought to - online forums. And Updates go where they ought to - online announcement boards. WFHs disappear because people realize everyone has a delete filter for them, or reach only those who really "Need To Know".

Or better still, we figure out how to bring all the social features found in modern corporate social media to our mail client. Or maybe take our email to a more social platform. Now all those discussion threads, announcements, personal and team-wide To-Do lists, calendars, are right next to your other "Need To Know" and "Vital Information" email. Next to, not intermixed.

It's time to get the excitement back into working with email. Official email need not be a chore. It's OK to let a "Ding. You have mail!" be a heart-fluttering moment.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Wishlist For The New Government

I did not vote for you, but I did vote. I pay my taxes. I am a citizen of this proud country. Like all other citizens, this is now my government. Whether you read this or not, I have expectations of you. Here is my wishlist.

Don't reform just for the sake of it. Don't open up FDI without analyzing how it affects the masses. We don't want a local Walmart just because. Don't just simply pump money into infrastructure. Instead, have those who yearn for better infrastructure participate in this initiative. You set the business environment. You don't need to setup the business infrastructure.

No more free power, water, land to IT companies. They've milked the tax payers enough. A single Indian Railways employs half as many as the whole IT industry.

Don't ape the US. They are not worthy role models. They snoop on you for heaven's sake. Many leading American economists question their gung-ho capitalist model. We don't need a recession to prove our aping wrong.

Back all your work up with data and models. Hire statisticians on your policy-making panels. Have them predict trends and prove which models will yield expected results before we deploy these policies.

Be Open. Share everything. How decisions are made. How individuals are selected on panels. I should be able to Google anything about your work and land on a page. Share information about all subsidies for social schemes and sops given to big business. Let there be no doubt about whether we really are running a socialist government.

Auction everything owned by the citizens. No more doles for non-enterprising businesspersons. Bribing a statesperson or being their relative does not qualify as enterprise.

Increase the scope of e-governance. Make the middle-man obscure. I don't need a passport agent today. Push further. Bring everything online. I would rather not meet a "Babu" if had a choice.

Plug leakages in the PDS system. There are systems that have proved this is possible - Gujarat and Chattisgarh. Ape them.

Bring in universal PDS. You can never be completely sure who is not poor in a majorly poor country like ours. Don't guess. If a few non-deserving families benefit unduly, it's not as big a deal as deserving families being left out.

No more rotting grain due to a lack of storage facilities. Is there any greater sin to let this happen when millions starve each day?

Be pro-entrepreneurship. That is not the same as being pro-business. Make starting up easier. Provide a path to failure for those who wish to learn building something. Entrepreneurs will build those bricks for the foundation you want the future India to stand on, not your Ambanis.

Job creation through entrepreneurship not MNREGA. MNREGA is a band-aid. Not a solution. Entrepreneurs add jobs through their enterprise. They disrupt old norms that don't fit anymore. They create new markets where none existed. They need hands to help them get there. And so they hire. A 100 entrepreneurs will hire more over 5 years, despite a high failure rate, than your pampered big business bullies.

Internet connectivity to every school. This is how we will bring quality lectures to those who don't even have teachers. Enroll volunteers to dub lectures to local languages. Even better - maybe an entrepreneur will figure out how to monetize this. Post everything on YouTube. No barriers to education.

Abolish diesel subsidies completely. Enough bad smoke has filled our skies from folks riding 4x4s running on diesel. They can easily pay double to do the same.

Be pro-agriculture. Make farming a more attractive proposition for those who want to farm. It's not just that agriculture is a traditional occupation. We need self-sustenance and food security for stability at the large scale the second largest population on the planet desires.

Promote organic cultivation. Encourage agri-institutes to R&D and publicize "green" farming practices that ensure long-term food security.

Measure development not by economic growth but by "social mobility potential" - what sort of opportunities are available for upward mobility for those at the bottom of the pyramid.

Prioritize businesses that deserve sops based on long-term objectives. Like combating climate change. Ensuring energy security. Socializing education.

Protect the wild. This is not a nation known for plundering forests. We are historically oriented toward maintaining balance with nature. Empower those who care for our flora and fauna. India is more than just its billion-plus humans.

No more politicians in sport. We need them to take care of larger national interests - not run fiefdoms within sport. Sharad Pawar cannot simultaneously be ICC chief and agriculture minister. Let more sportsmen and businesspersons run sport - bring strategy, experience and business initiatives to sporting bodies.

Invest in citizen security. Pay our police fairly. Make their lives better so they can make ours safer. I'd rather my tax money went to them rather than to sops to big business. Train our police to investigate, coordinate with national security agencies, learn to use modern technology. It is not OK that innocent citizens continue to be blasted away without their families and friends ever receiving justice.

Push businesses to invest in R&D in tie-ups with universities. They cannot continue to sit on the outside and grumble about the poor quality of higher education institutes.

Stop bowing to the West in Climate Conferences and Trade Agreements. Despite their charity toward poverty-removal schemes, they don't give a hoot about poverty alleviation as soon as it directly conflicts with the interests of their own big businesses. You watch out for our best interests. Always.

I would like to believe these are the expectations of not just myself. I would like to believe they belong to an India where our aspirations are no longer bound by reality, but by the dreams the openness of the Internet has exposed us to. It is up to you now to involve us in making these dreams come true. We are here to help. You have our support. Show me what you can do.