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Build systems if not leadership

By Govindraj Ethiraj
August 18, 2005 15:15 IST
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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 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.

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 crosscheck," 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 subsequently 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.

This account is not about a senior cop losing his cool or knocking down (perhaps deservedly) a few trigger-happy journalists. It is about his ability, albeit post-facto, to take charge of the situation. It is about a man, acting on his own accord or under orders, displaying leadership on a potential crisis issue.

It is about what was missing on July 26, 2005 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.

Guess what? Till ten days later, the monsoon was still in spate and there was still no system to talk to the many news channels that are now so prominently anchored in the city. Or for that matter news Web sites, like this one.

A mass of mass media platforms is sitting in this city and no one wants to use it. The cellphone company official had this to say. "Actually, cellphone 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.

Get angry, dammit & stay so

Unless the 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 A N Roy and the joint commissioner of traffic 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.

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 Web site 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. I am 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 and radio) will dispatch and station a reporter there. Leave it to their enterprise to get the information out.

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 recently, 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 Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh earlier this month, 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. 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.

The author works for CNBC-TV18. The views expressed here are his own.

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Govindraj Ethiraj