the brazen depravity of ePass

I had misfortune of having to travel on April 25th and at that time details of what is ePass and how you can acquire one was vague and one of my cousins had figured out how to get a ePass – at that time they issued two wheeler ePass for next district but needed a car to travel beyond 50 kms. They chennai City had its own ePass website but they did not take applications after 5pm but the Chengalpet district helpline was functioning and they issued an ePass. As we both were driving to Pondy, I was reflecting on how unfair the system was – you had to own a car or have means to rent to a car to be able to travel when someone really close has passed away. But reasoned since the pandemic was kind of crazy event this looked like a reasonable alternative.

What triggered me was I had to travel again in July and this time it was crazy – my niece had arrived from UAE and completed her institutional quarantine and tested negative and wanted to reach her home. She had applied got an ePass when she left UAE but she reapplied and they did not approve and when she called the hotline they just kept saying it will be processes in 30 minutes. Next day morning she got a more helpful person who explained since her ID proof had Pondy address and she was trying to travel to her home 10 kms outside Pondy but in Villupuram district they could not approve her ePass, so next she scrambled to apply to Chennai Corporation but their helpline was not at all manned, so after talking to multiple people we started travelling without ePass (use air ticket and Covid test results should allow you to travel!) and finally ePass got approved in the evening. This whole experience was unnerving and put my extended family on the edge but I believe par for course for any government run services – which are often staffed by earnest but not properly trained folks and getting service is usually hit/miss.

Restricting travel to only folks who have means to rent a car is not something we can impose on common folks for 4 months, while we allow celebrity to secure ePass to travel to farm house and women trying to get her sick husband and invalid son to hometown was denied ePass many times. This shows that those who govern have lost touch with reality and do not have any empathy for common person. Often we live in our own bubble and really seem to not think about how policies impact most disadvantaged is the biggest dichotomy of substantial growing population of urban people with means and rest 70% of filled with people who are disadvantaged. This was post was meant as rant which might have been one of those FB posts but due to self-imposed exile and even after almost a week, I still had this strong sense of injustice made me write …

Living with Covid

June and July has been brutal in Chennai, where basically government had to deal with outbreak exploding – their shenanigans in disclosure finally caught-up their hubris in declaring lockdown within lockdown. Clearly June in was frustrating because only good thing about Cases in TN was relatively less mortality rate but then that too started trending higher. Finally a hard lockdown of two weeks was required to slow the spread in Chennai and now we see Bangalore, Trivandrum starting to follow Chennai.

It very clear that Indian politicians and bureaucrats are at their wits end , as their normal obfuscation is clearly not working and they are not realising that by not providing transparent information they are contributing to the pandemic being not treated with required caution.

an example (this tweet thread) it is statistically impossible to be range bound on deaths for 2 weeks, similarly the positivity rates and even number of cases during April all seems to be managed. Why ? misguided belief that reporting actual number will cause panic, lead to uncomfortable questions. When will we hold our governments accountable

I am really starting to worry about all those people whose livelihood is affected in city like Chennai – those working in school, providing transportation to school kids, working in malls, theatres, restaurants, food vendors on road, house maids, tailors, folks who press cloths etc. A pandemic that is probably causing some death but probably lots of mild cases mean for >80% of population making a living is starting to become very critical and we cannot simply afford to continue to lockdown. I do not think governments can re-start schools / colleges without pandemic under control, so there is going whole class of activities we may not be able to resume – AC Mall, movie theatre but maybe 70% activity will resume.

Private space both in physical and social sense in align concept. We tend to aggressively poke our nose into others private space of individuals and also when out in public areas, we tend to encroach on other person private space including unnecessary contact while queueing-up, So it is harder to observe physical distancing and somehow government has failed on communicating need to wear mask, so it is inevitable Covid19 is going to be circulating in Indian cities for many more months .Top 10 cities in population are already hotspots and next 40 cities (for example Madurai in TN) will see explosive growth in Covid once economic activity expands and we are going to go thru cycles of some form of economic activity resuming and cases reaching a unsustainable level, more drastic lockdown leading to some level of control. So for country like India our coping strategy will be “Living with Covid” – we are going to see a cycle economic activity expanding and when infection rates start climbing and reaching certain level then force a hard shutdown and bring the spread levels lower and then resume activity.

Waiting for Exam Result …

Today evening I saw new break – ICSE /ISC exam results will be announced tomorrow and I could hear excited conversation outside where our Daughter was talk about same thing with my wife. That made me recollect all the results that I waited in my student life …

Matriculation Exam(1986) – We had taken exam and summer progressed, I learnt one of my classmates had means get the result a bit early, so he collected a few roll numbers and I think we got the marks about one week before official results. I knew I had missed 200 (197) in maths and mildly worried about Tamil (105/200) , so overall very thrilled with the marks.

HSC(1988) – Somehow gotten a bit over confident and under performed in the exams, also few weeks after we wrote our exams, we learnt that a bunch of chemistry answer papers got mishandled and our school was impacted so we anxiously waited to find out if we had to re-take exams. I did not have to re-take it, which was big relief. Basically given I had opted out of Engineering and I knew I was not going to score in 90s in all subject – So probably waited for results to be announced then went to school to find out about marks I scored and devastated to learn score pretty low in Computer science (but also got life lesson that any programming paper (not lab) means I would under perform as I never gave cookie cutter answers) …

Bharathiar University / Bishop Heber College 1998- 1991 – We looked up for two different results – first one 2/3 of semester they would paste attendance eligibility and we would eagerly look it up to know what is safe level bunk rest of the way – 6th Semester I was literally tracking every day! Initially I learnt results would be available in University campus pasted outside library. I would cycle all the way and try to see if results are out. Once in 3rd sem I did not clear Operations Research (it was odd because only 3 people failed in our class and I was one of them) paper and pretty out of contention for university rank, stopped chasing result! I learnt university exam evaluation is crapshoot – mostly non-expert teachers were assigned and often used the answer key to score, so results can vary widely. In 4th Sem last of tamil paper in life i scored class first and the classmate who always scored 70+ failed.

PSG College of Technology 1991-94 – We had similar system for attendance but you could not survive our Dept with lousy attendance, so that was never a problem ( But I did get lots of exempts in 5th sem – CSI student conference and Login related!). Mostly results they just read in class in our times or you went to staff advisor room to learn your marks. After Second sem, I was half dreading results for Operations Research paper (I did not do well in Internals and screwed-up Theory part, plus usually calculation mistakes – I had no one to blame this time) , Dr. Navaneethan who has very soft voice was reading results and he read my marks and looked-up at me with puzzled look as i had failing marks (was just 3 marks outside cut-off for grace marks). and other than my bench mate no one heard my failing score. Next period was break and I had a hard time convincing rest of the folks I had failed !!

So exams caused me nightmare but I was never anxious about results as I knew it was too late to worry after exam. Also generally I had very good sense of how I had fared and had ballpark estimate of score but Bharathidasan university gogglies were beyond me. Also given my life experiences I do not look down on people who might have failed and had to re-do subjects or scored less marks.

#BlackLivesMatter

As explained in my earlier blog post (My Encounters with police), my life experiences and reading and question the world I live, has led me down the path of learning what makes a full functioning democracy – participative transparent decentralized governance in democratic way, an independent news services, police that ensure civil order by following the law of the land and judiciary that delivers timely fair judgement upholding the consitution.

What triggered #BlackLivesMatter again ? This movement started in 2013 but mostly championed by african american community but here is what happened – community impacted by Covid19 disprotionaly , delayed arrest in ahmaud arbery murder, bird watcher falsely accused in 911 call and finally video recording of George Floyd killing and subsequent response of minneapolis police response. With already young people at home with schools and colleges closed , many jobs lost the protests have spread to all parts of US and police by using disproportionate or unprovoked force have made the protested return or continue protest.

This is complex socio economic and governance issue of many generations in making but these are the key issues

  • African Americans as 2.5X likely to get killed by Police than white
    • In India also mostly the under privileged as subject to harsh treatment and worst force is used to force confession. Extra judicial killings are often seen as counter to slow moving judicial system.
  • Police targeting of people of color means many innocent end-up jail, complicated by three strikes law , Mandatory sentencing and Prosecutorial system
    • interesting it is problem in India also undertrail jail population , people spend more time in jail than what would have been maximum for their crime because they do not have means to obtain bail.
  • In past two decades in US, the police unions have become very powerful and have been able to block many reforms, tried to keep in place many laws on police disciplinary records secrecy, finally been able to inflate the compensation of long tenured cops all leading elected politician not being able to exercise any sort of oversight on police force
    • In India Police corruption is big bane and they have mostly stopped being guardian of citizen and have been tools of rich and the political masters of the day.
  • This contributes to more families pushed to poverty or not allowed to get out of poverty for many generations and this is a big challenge for many prosperous cities in North east quadrant of US (it is wide spread problem but gets accentuated with concentration of African Americans in urban centres). The irony is most often governed by same Democrats who survive in most places due to African American support.

In US politician have this block of wanting to be seen as law & Order Politician and often do not want to take any decision that might break status quo in negative way, so they have not taken decisive actions but these round of protest and other initiatives are starting to build-up pressure and hopefully will lead to positive changes in years to come.

COVID19 – May observation

COVID19

Like any prudent person, I am taking steps to protect myself and my family and cause minimum impact on society around me.

  • my reading is now 95% about COVID, so initially it was to understand what is happening, all the new information available and how different countries are dealing with pandemic
  • my own perspective (aka bias) made me look data churned out by my local government and question what are they hiding ? Why are they not testing more ? Why is the spread so low in big metropolitan city you live in ? Are we really lucky that we have low mortality rates or we are mis classifying deaths ?
  • now the question
  • when leaders around the world are not stepping-up and really leading their country and help the most impacted, it is gut wrenching because you can see the impact within days

COVID19 is showing us we are today more than ever very interconnected society and contagious disease will spread, governments need to do learn and do things which they often cannot do well, individuals need to understand that our actions is going to possibly cause harm to others, so we need to protect ourselves and need to take steps “not to impact others” (wear mask, reduce unnecessary contact with others) and also help those in need.

My Encounters with Police

Our Views, biases and thinking is evolving based on our living experiences and our ability to reflect on them and learnings we take away from them. So now in the past week most of my reading has moved away from COVID to #BLACKLIFEMATTERS, I have been thinking about what has shaped my thinking about this and as I looked back in life my encounters with Police seems to be a big influencer.

I do not recollect which year this was but somewhere in 84-85 fits, my recollection. My mom was out of town and so I was sleeping along with my dad and then we woke-up next day and realized few things went missing my watch which was under my pillow, my dads watch and a ring etc. We lived on the first floor of independent house and there was sunsade in the portico and from that you could get into Balcony of two bedrooms and from the balcony you could open the Balcony door from the adjacent window and I had grown tall enough by then to be able do this a few times we got locked out (in 70s our landlord who grow to head TNHB one day had installed automatic door lock which was a nuisance). So we go register police complaint and police conclude someone accessed the house thru this route and also probably used some kind of power to leave us unconsious. After maybe 4 months we get a call from police saying they have arrested the person who used to do painting job and have recovered sometimes. My dad was busy and I was assigned to go with our house keeper to identify our items and that is my first recollection of stepping to Ashok Nagar police station, which used to run down tached roofed place in 80s.

My next encounter happened in 1992, I was pretty badly messed-up with DBASE Lab project, so there some sort of college holiday and I left for Karur to use small Computer center my Friend Gopal was running. I we get a frantic call and my brother had travelled from Madras to Coimbatore to try to locate me. One of my Friends had eloped and Police had found my Parents address and were trying to locate me to enquire. Once contact was established they asked me to travel to Madras and my father had promised to make me available for police enquiry. My parents were worried and my dad had tried to reach out to his friends and it so happened in his social circle my friends uncle who had lodged the complaint was very well known to my father and so they eventually connected and as I was travelling to Madras, uncle called the police inspector and had mentioned he would personally bring me to police station. So in the morning me and my dad to went to uncles house in T Nagar and then from there we went to thousand lights police station, the police spoke to me for 20 minutes and since I was really clueless about what happened they sent me home. When we returned home my dad mentioned I might have got trashed if not uncle stepping-in as this was high profile case and when got caught-up with my friend 6 months later (their story would rival any elopement movie made in 90s) and when I learnt what all happened, this thought that I had narrowly missed getting thrashed by police got re-enforced and probably shaped how I view police in India.

My next encounters were in US, one LA I was late to meeting a friend and was driving near Westfield Mall in Culver city, when I jumped a light and as I was clearing the intersection saw patrol car to my left in intersection and my hear beat jumped and pretty soon saw the cop car in my rear view mirror. the officier came and informed me I jumped light and eventually gave me $330 ticket, which was mind blowing amount in 1999. Later in Traffic school which I attended to make sure ticket stays off record, I learnt that you should exit the intersection before signal turns red and signal is time based on speed limit (40 – 4 seconds, 30 – 3 seconds). The instructor also mentioned #1 cause of road fatalities in LA was people jumping lights and hence very high fines. After the first one, I have been lucky to not get ticketed subsequent 6 more years of driving in US and frequent travel in bay area.

Next time was when returning back to Boise after vacation and my friend was driving my car and we were about 50 miles away from Boise when High patrol flagged us down and ticketed my friend for speeding.

After I returned to India in 2005, I had been ticketed by traffic cops for speed limit and using mobile phone while driving and almost every time I have just paid the fine and moved on because it was very clear what they were saying is true (though 60km speed limit on OMR strech seemed ridiculous). Next time I stepped into police station was retrieve my friend vehicle that was seized in non-fatal car accident and the fact that they were harassing him for not paying bribe made that whole visit very unpleasant. My in-laws had a problem with person who had contract to construct their home and so we had to go to police station to lodge a complaint, which was mostly a non-event.

So as you can see being from very privileged background, my encounters have been brief but every encounter makes my heart beat accelerate and almost always uncomfortable. In the meantime police in India has transitioned to becoming tool of governing class and elites and they often use unlawful force to discharge duties, which has gotten worse in past 10 years. The poor underprivileged view police as oppressing force and avoid them and now even upper middle class in India avoid entangling with the.

As the eternal optimist, I was always hoping we can professionalize the police and make them upholders of law, and most often would look for options in the west mostly US. What is truly concerning is US policing which I thought had become more professional and accountable had in the past 20 years moved in the opposite direction.

uncertainty and breaking of order

Human beings despite all the hardship, have survived basically because we all optimistic and believe tomorrow/ future will be better. Generally a bigger portion of population of people in this world have started to have better access to basics of life and for us we have gotten used to some order and generally seems to survive many a calamity while roughly about half the world population lives in uncertain world and bleak future.

So as the person occupying well to do part of top 10% of the world, here is reflection of how I with uncertainty

  • I got introduced to this circle of influence in 2006 and it kind of caught my attention, because somehow intuitively have been able to have good grasp of my circle of control and have learnt to not get too perturbed about things I cannot control. So that is how I deal with uncertainty to large extent. A surprising subproduct of this is It allows me to get past / let go of peoples mistakes that has personal impact.
  • People of often feel weird when I try to help others by sharing my perspective in my circle of influence. I often treat them as service I am obligated to do but the person receiving will make the best use of it which means even ignore
  • I have also been curious and often read about things that happen and that gives me sense of what might be happening, so often can start seeing some trend or be able to reason out why ?
  • my circle of concern is very large and often the inequality and injustice in this world makes sad, question many things and my own existence in the context but like everyone else struggle to expand my circle of influence to address any of them
  • so I have simple way of living my life everyday I do my best in my circle of concern and circle of influence while being aware of circle of concern, make sure I do not lose sleep over it

With breaking of order that I am used to, means many more things have become uncertain, so I have to constantly keep reminding myself that the way I used to live has changed and so I need to slowly stop trying to brute force myself out of this situation thinking we will return to old ways for example I have never been someone who makes lots of phone calls or uses chats, so that is one thing I need to start dealing with.

Inspirations from Kerala’s handling of Covid

In Depressing times it is good to write about some things that are positive, how Kerala has handled various natural disasters in past 3 years has been inspiring in many ways, so what is that they are doing differently

Humble politicians

  • state where politician are lot more rooted and accessible, which means they are grounded and can feel the pulse. since politicians are accessible , it goes without saying government machinery is accessible and more responsive
  • Unfortunately this is not the case in many states including tamil nadu, so there is an arrogance and more of ruler mentality than a governing approach.
  • more elgaratarain society, meant politician and everyone had more empathetic approach to pandemic which is a social and medical challenge

Decentralized Governance – One of the major disappointment of past 10 years has been amount of damage done to decentralized governance in India, there were lots of reform in panchayati raj and generally getting governance and accountability distributed is important for functioning democracy, I think it is has been in display in Kerala.

  • Health minister is able to take decisions about pandemic and but CM took care of inter-ministerial co-ordination.
  • Further Health Dept at district level able to tailor policy and have ownership
  • Block level foot soldiers who are paid decent wages
  • have organized volunteers for natural disaster response
  • one of the reason Tamilnadu is struggling is because of deliberate sabotaging of local government has considerable dented covid response and made the government more removed from people

understood and implemented Test – Treat -Trace- Isolate – I think they learnt a lot from Nipah and have used that learning well.

  • The have proven to be model for handling pandemic
  • they published patient movement maps for super spreaders, had a call centre to handle inbound calls
  • they understood it wasn’t policing but it was consistent follow-ups, providing answers, addressing anxiety that makes home quarantine successful.
  • they had better public health care facility

Transparency – Hall mark of any democracy is transparency , sure there is corruption in Kerala but it is has not descended to levels of other southern states and in this pandemic they have been very transparent and also the political leadership was willing to provide information and answer questions from Media

  • Dashboard – comprehensive has details about community kitchen, hotspot, pandemic details
  • CM / Health minister daily news conference

Willingness to learn – based on new learning they adopted to challenges posed by the pandemic.

  • Adjusted food prepared in community kitchen for migrant labour
  • home of supply ration for quarantine people
  • adjust policing

That feeling of helplessness …

When things around you are falling apart , as individual one feels insignificant and helpless, I often end-up in this state with constant news of migrant workers struggles. By nature a very optimistic person but this pandemic often triggers desperation at the absolute lack of preparedness.

Let us grant that when the PM announced lock-down people did not understand extent of migrant worker potential movement but the wave of folks trying to leave Delhi and subsequent chaos should have made people prepare for this ? Why did they not work with all state governments to prepare a comprehensive plan. At the minimum 15 days of time in the first lockdown. I think there was no comprehensive plan of what to do after lock down.

Even when second lockdown was announced, they was zero communication about what will happen to migrant workers, they were not part of any plans. To top it they did not cancel the trains even after announcing lockdown extension.

Here are 4 simple steps they could have done

  • Set-up a simple portal to register immigrant and asked each collector to systematically register everyone, details of where they worked, where they are from
    • do not assume everyone will have mobile or adhaar
    • asking police to register was the kind of worst decisions
    • this would have also enabled food / shelter to be made available
  • Next keep making public how many folks have registered and you are working on plan to organize transportation.
  • Now this would have given host states and home states a good idea of number of folks intending to travel.
  • Also given Railways important information on scale of logistics and ability to publish more transparent plan

Above is bare bones plan you would get if you organize a bunch of MBA kids. If you wanted a more comprehensive plan.

  • As you are planning to re-open economy, work with employers to announce which types of activity and bonus plan to get migrant workers to stay.
  • If folks still want to leave, organize for pooled testing , so that you could possible have packed trains with more capacity and lessened burden on home state.
  • this kind of database also could have enabled handing out cash , in case people did not get money from aadhar linked transfer earlier.
  • You could use this in future to get all unorganized sector employment and build safety net

Finally what triggers me

  • blatant lies people are saying about the extent of problem
  • state governments not doing their part to be more organized and handle this better
  • guess the stupidity of 85% funding by central government propaganda

Life at the time of pandemic

Since I am news junkie have been following pandemic since early Feb 2020, initially as news then possibly something that is going to spread and then around late Feb realization hit that it is going to be world pandemic event. Clearly the rumours that warm weather might slow seems to be not that accurate.

Exponential growth and breaking the chain – by late Feb as Italy , followed by Spain introduce near total lockdowns that you start understanding one of the characteristic of pandemic is exponential growth and the only way to slow pandemic is breaking the chain of infection. Physical distancing is slightly easier concept in west but is alien concept in country like India. For one even though we are big country physically, we often in public space have zero concept of physical separation which often big cause of frustration for me (tell me about queue in airports in India). Given this scenario I often find the elite folks who work from home or can pause their work & be confined to home complaining about common people not maintaining physical distance to be both comical and lacking in empathy.

Human behaviour and Optimism bias – Humans have survived because we are very optimistic by nature and overcome lots of challenges, but once in century pandemic and Optimism bias is recipe for disaster. Greater good is hard concept in a materialistic/individualistic world but it is even more challenging when recklessness of few can endanger many. Only when death reached certain level that people in the region have taken the pandemic seriously, which had disastrous consequences.

completed this on 5th April …