A Derailed Andolan

It was with much admiration that I had raised my voice in support of Anna when he first articulated my frustration with the government. It seemed like a David versus Goliath folly, yet there he was, ready to fast in protest of corruption. He and his team had a draft of a Lokpal Bill. It would create an ombudsman with the power to investigate and prosecute corruption among the elected politicians. Quixotic and astonishingly ambitious, I was certain it would fail, yet I stood firm by them.

And many, many, many did. There were protests all over, everywhere. Insane numbers of people dropping what they were doing to land up at protest locations and spend time sitting in the sun and protesting. Film personalities, public figures, activists, religious leaders and even political parties fell over themselves in alignment with what was very obviously a massive demand from the people.

It was astonishingly powerful and even took Team Anna unawares. The movement was going good.

From then to now has been a slippery slope of eroded focus.

Much of it was deliberate and orchestrated by the government. Personal attacks in the form of accusations against team members, fabricated allegations of corruption, exposes of previous misconduct of the team members…

Yet, it is my belief that a movement as massive as this cannot be killed from the outside. It takes self-destruction.

And self-destruct they did. What they failed to realize was that their support was largely derived from frustration over the scams and the UPA/Congress lack of any self-policing without pressure. While they criticized this, the movement was tightly focused, with a singular objective. Their stated non-alignment was unnecessary at that point, but appreciated anyway.

Somewhat at the prompting of the government and media, but willingly enough, they criticized some entities, disowned others and started voicing opinions on everything. The media wants sensation, and they were it. The government wanted them to spread their resources too thin. However, their supporters found themselves defending too many statements of theirs not related with the task at hand. They were all over the place and overloading people following them attentively with irrelevant stuff. Still other supporters found their own core alignments criticized and disengaged.

This was lowered support, but still not the end of the world. They could have self-assessed and self-corrected, or even openly accepted criticism and acted on it to become more coherent and focused. On the contrary, they chose to become larger than life, using the credibility of the powerful movement to air own opinions – again on a variety of things not related with the main task.

Further power games followed including totally inexplicable forays into election campaigning, canvassing opinions in electorates of specific government personalities, whatever. Like I said, too much clutter. People started tuning them out.

The more this was pointed out or criticized, the more they refused to reflect or respond and the more reactive they became. A classic instance was the Kiran Bedi and inflated bills issue. It is a common enough occurrence and really all that was needed was admitting that it was not ethical and not doing it again and following whatever resolution was issued. We do many things we don’t register as corruption, but the important thing is what we do after it is brought to our awareness.

The adamant insistence that it was not wrong was a major milestone in the destruction of the IAC’s credibility.

Anna is probably the only one of the lot who seemed to be aware of this and he made several attempts to refuse to comment or take vows of silence, but not enough. Too many thoughtless comments still happened. Kejriwal and Bedi were totally oblivious to the impact of their words.

This also gave strength to the government, because when you are criticizing too many things all the time, it becomes your quality rather than a thought out comment on something.

Contrary to what people imagine, speaking in public is very easy once you have started. The high of all the attention and questions keep you going indefinitely. The real difficulty comes in knowing when to not speak. When and how to disengage and create boundaries without alienating people. It is something that comes from experience and introspection.

Admittedly, these mistakes are easy to make, and holding the space for a diverse group of people to feel an ownership is one of the most incredibly difficult tasks that can face a leader.

The sudden and unexpected response to the Andolan also put Team Anna well beyond their own leadership abilities, and I think much of the arrogance came from the spontaneous perception of being massively right that a large following creates. It was a lack of humility and disrespect for those they chose to judge that compounded matters, but these too are human qualities. We all have them to some point or the other.

I do respect them for the stand they are taking and their determination to forge ahead no matter what. It is easy to criticize, but an enduring courage of conviction is an admirable commitment in itself.

I do believe that a Lokpal can serve a functional role in our country. I do know that there is risk of corruption there too, but then with this logic, we can’t create anything. I think it is admirable the way in which they have evaluated inputs and arrived at what they believe are the optimal conditions for a Lokpal. Some compromises are going to be necessary, but they begin with a starting point that is well researched, and theirs is certainly that.

I also don’t think all is lost for Team Anna. It is possible for them to become low key and keep their words in public strictly true to their purpose. Those listening will notice, and there is still a following that believes in the original purpose even if they lost focus later – like them.

I think that the time has come for the Lokpal to be robustly debated and there are no people who have thought on this subject more than the IAC. Their public comments will also influence thought whether accompanied by threats or not.

I think, they should do quiet support groups rather than protests. They should explore the power of data by presenting in their gatherings data and statistics that support their stand on different issues under debate in the Parliament. There is no need to fast. Follow the Lokpal debate carefully and comment on what they see going wrong or what they think needs to happen. Offer their considerable expertise and thinking for consideration, but accept whatever the Parliament finally comes up with. Their commentary will reach ears that matter. Their epic struggle has ensured that. The quietening of rhetoric will allow thinking space and the Lokpal will gain from that.

Today, they stand at a point where a ground booked for large crowds saw a few hundred supporters – there was a time when that many were in my locality alone. I do think that many factors conspired to the poor turnout – the holiday season, when people schedule special time with families; debates happening in the parliament on the Lokpal Bill – which actually would keep analytical and vocal supporters and home and glued to television screens BECAUSE they support; the cricket match which is another strong passion for most Indians – that too with Sachin’s hundredth century on the horizon… that is some really tough competition for attendance.

I also have a feeling that the Lokpal debate got delayed by the government precisely to hit this time frame, but I have no proof, except observations of multidimensional dis-empowering being a recurring pattern with the government.

While I too had moved away from them when they derailed, there is a part of me that still admires them, appreciates their courage and the service they are doing to the country by doing everything they can to create an ombudsman that will be as effective as possible.

One thing is certain that without them, not only would we not be debating a Lokpal Bill (which is something many would prefer), but we also wouldn’t have seen this massive political awareness and galvanization of the country and the willingness to have a stake in contributing to its future that we see among citizens.

Whatever happens to the Lokpal bill, this is one unmatched service they have already done to the country – got citizens thinking that it is possible to have a hand in shaping the destiny of their country in a legitimate manner. They have successfully given shape and maturity to the volcano of civil fury that was smoldering and given it an outlet that is non-violent and believes in shaping the country rather than overpowering it.

Today, I am a little nostalgic at the subdued closure of the fast. I want them to know that I appreciate all they have done, and whether they succeed in having a further influence, or fail, I acknowledge that they have done much for India.

Donation request – Truth or scam?

A man just came to the door. Said he was registering “everybody’s” name for polio. I told him Nisarga’s name. He said he wanted mine. Mine? What for? He handed me a register. It had a list of names of various women from our building with amounts next to them.

So I asked him, what were the amounts. He said they were donations for poor people to get polio. Now polio dose is free in India. They even monitor kids in each locality and physically come and verify if you have given or not and administer “home delivery” for free. So this donation drive for polio raised alarms.

I asked him what he meant by compulsory donations? He said he was taking names of everyone, and the donation amount could be whatever we wanted. But compulsory. WTF?

Pretending that Nisarga needed my attention, I came inside and tried to call cops. Line busy. Tried for quite a while. Line busy. Gave up, came out. Asked him for information about his organization. He gave me some laminated papers, which I promptly took photos of, with my mobile.

Shree Anath Bal Seva Ashram, run by Rashtriya Samajseva Bahu-uddeshya Sanstha in Nagpur – was the name on the laminated handout he showed me, along with a copy of their receipt. Both things anyone can print out and laminate. A Certificate of Registration he showed me was a crumpled piece of paper which looked more like a random printout than any official document, but I don’t know what official documents looked like.

Some organization in Nagpur, collecting money in Borivali for donations for polio vaccinations? Big time alarm.

He didn’t like me clicking pics. He asked me why? He will give me a receipt. I pretended to be a big shot social worker with the power to get him a big donation, but first I would have to verify the information. Pretending to call my “social work organization” I called the cops again. Again no go.

So I told him there must be some problem with the lines in my office and to return tomorrow. He said that would be a problem. He could come next month. I said fine, I would figure out if and how much I would donate then.

He left.

I immediately tried calling the number on that receipt, line busy.

So here I am, putting it up. Whether this was a genuine fund raising effort, or it was a scam, at least ten names from our building paid a minimum of hundred rupees, and it seems without asking any questions at all.

The fun and profit approach to anti-corruption

Percentage of time devoted to rural news on TV

There is big attention to corruption these days. People are exhorted to stop supporting corruption, to blow the whistle when they witness corruption, etc. At the same time, after much noise, few are actually doing it.

After much thinking, I concluded that it was because:

  • Corruption provides some advantage.
  • Corruption makes things easier by bypassing lengthier processes.
  • Bribes allow an unfavorable authority to be converted into a more pleasing one. Most people dislike being in the wrong.
  • Fighting corruption is inconvenient at best and can be downright dangerous as stakes get higher. Everything from character assassinations to actual assassinations can become possible in retaliation. There is little motivation for a person to get himself into added work or actual trouble because of what “should” be.

I think that till these fundamental blocks can be addressed, the number of people making an effort against corruption (as opposed to verbally supporting anti-corruption) will always remain low. There is too much deterrent and too little motivation.

In my observation, going against the tide happens for three main reasons – fun, profit and survival. Whether the going against tide is breaking laws, or preventing them from being broken.

Fun

This is important. This includes the thrill of power – of beating odds, of being hero, whatever. It is a psychological high.

Profit

Be it giving bribes or selling National property cheap, profit is another big motivator. Everyone needs money, whether they need it or not.

Survival

People under threat will do anything to destroy the threat. This is less related with corruption and more in the zone of terrorism, security, and such. In a few cases, could be assosicated with going bankrupt, for example, but rare.

To combat corruption, the first two levels must be leveraged effectively to create strong motivation and overcome reluctance.

Some ways I see this easily possible are through media and government policies.

Media

Media has the power to direct attention, to create momentary heroes, to create a feeling of being appreciated and respected. The “fun” factor. There should be media shows making heroes out of whistle blowers, showing “best stings of the week” kind of stuff. Description of two kinds of shows as examples:

Truth seeker of the week

Interview with a whistle blower or RTI activist or such who has helped crack some big wrong doing. Hearing the story from him/her, showing any clips or photographs or graphics applicable, etc. Possibly more than one 2-3 per show, if it turns out footage is not enough (though I don’t see how footage can not be enough with an interview 😀 )

Top Ten Stings

A programme that solicits sting videos from the public. Hidden camera footage of bribes, etc. With short commentary of the whole story, and following the count down pattern.. “and this weeks number one sting is the shocking expose of … blah blah”

Newspapers can do similar stuff with whistle blowing information that leads to arrest, for example. A weekly column of some or the other wrong set right because of a citizen hero. These are just ideas – our media is far better than my limited imagination at creating sensational news 😉

And it is a win win. The bad guy being brought down by the common man is never going to go out of TRPs.

This kind of heroism associated with truth seeking will go a long way to prevent social discrimination against truth seekers for rocking boats, will encourage more people to become heroes when they realize that people respect these actions.

And the reluctance to be the bad guy by challenging wrong doing (which is a sorry truth) will be replaced or at least diminished by knowing that their action will be valued.

Government Policies

Investigating corruption isn’t an initiative as is being pimped so loudly. Investigating corruption is enforcing the country’s laws. We need initiatives that encourage fighting corruption.

Awards on a National, state, regional level is one possibility, but sadly, there will be fears of corruption in their allocation. We are in an extremely insecure or rather paranoid phase about corruption.

But what can easily be done NOW is to provide a percentage of the money saved or the estimated value of whatever crime is prevented as a direct and confidential deposit into the bank account of the whistle blower. EVERY revealing of wrongdoing/breaking of law should be considered as whistle blowing – without exemption. We also need to consider setting aside a budget for witness protection programmes for people who are in danger as a result of their service to the country. The whistle blower’s bill passed in the Lok Sabha yesterday, so that is a good move too. This needs to be done in addition – an amendment might be good.

When corruption comes under attack, all the processes it smoothens for people will become sores, and proper solutions can be created for them where legitimate.

Yeah, that is it. If fighting corruption will lead to fun and profit, like corruption leads to fun and profit, then the ground is level for the challenge and the desire for a better world will empower change rather than frustrated talk.

What to do in case of a nuclear accident – Learning from Fukushima

Most people really have little clue about what they can do in case of a nuclear accident. Research and surveys conducted in Japan after the Fukushima meltdowns revealed that many people didn’t really know what they could do, and exposure to radiation among citizens could have been significantly lower if they knew what was safe, what wasn’t and what they could do to protect themselves better.

The widespread disinformation about radiation being harmless to certain kinds of people or in certain conditions, raised safety limits and such don’t help matters either.

Similar stories come out of Chernobyl.

I think such information should be widely distributed in all countries that use nuclear power or weapons, so that in the even of an emergency, the human damage may be as minimal as possible.

So here is what I have found out. Most of this information is from information shared by various people who went through these measures or official instructions. It you have something to add, please comment.

  • If a release of radiation is possible/expected, but has not happened yet. (The reactors at Fukushima, for example failed after the earthquake, but it was a while before radiation spread).
  • Charge your phones, laptops and anything that needs charging – priority communication devices.
  • Switch on the TV/internet and follow any news and instructions that may be given.
  • Store drinking water in bottles, utensils and other air tight containers.
  • If there is time, buy food that will last long – in sealed packets.
  • Procure iodine tablets if available, but don’t take them unless radiation is confirmed and instructed.
  • Bring children, pets indoors.
  • Secure an area with minimum possibility of radiation and dust entering. Basements are good if you have access to one – the ground around is a good shield, or at least shut and seal closed windows, etc. Choose a room that doesn’t face large open spaces if possible.
  • If there is a burst of radiation expected, try to add “shielding” to outer walls, doors, windows, etc. Moving a cupboard in front of a glass window, taping several layers of newspapers, fixing thick quilt, etc for example. Lead, concrete and steel are very good, but anything will work if sufficiently thick.
  • Set air-conditioning to recycled air.

The idea is to put barriers to penetrating gamma radiation and prevent dust from entering the living area. Here is a list of the effectiveness of some barriers from Wikipedia

MaterialHalving Thickness, inchesHalving Thickness, cmDensity, g/cm³Halving Mass, g/cm²
lead0.41.011.312
concrete2.46.13.3320
steel0.992.57.8620
packed soil3.69.11.9918
water7.2181.0018
lumber or other wood11290.5616
air6000150000.001218

As you see, different materials shield from radiation to different extents. Using enough thickness of anything will eventually shield. Try and line the outer walls with as much protective material as possible.

After a release of radiation:

  • Follow all the above steps as far as possible without risking contamination.
  • Wear mask to cover nose and mouth to prevent inhaling radioactive particles. This is the greatest danger in a radioactive environment (even greater than ingestion – dust masks have been observed to reduce this risk to near negligible levels.
  • Confirm if your area is contaminated. If you are in a contaminated area and it is possible to evacuate, do so. (suggestions below)
  • Avoid going out, unless it is to evacuate. As far as possible decrease time spent exposed to radiation.
  • Do not handle contaminated (or suspected contaminated) objects with bare hands as far as possible. Ideally, use uncontaminated instruments to add distance. Tongs, dustpan and stick… whatever.
  • If you have been out, have a thorough bath, bathe pets with you to prevent re-contamination.
  • Bag and place used clothes outside the house.
  • Use food and water sparingly. Avoid using tap water till it is confirmed free of contamination.
  • Follow guidance on news media and rescue workers with regard to safety. When following instructions, remember that the instructions from nearest your location overrule others in case of contradictions or differences in guidance say – in national media and local rescue workers.

If evacuating:

  • Wear your face mask at all times.
  • Wear full sleeved clothing, shoes and rubber (or other) gloves as far as possible.
  • Pack essentials – money, papers, medications, portable valuables and clean food, water and clothing.
  • If you have your own vehicle, use it with windows closed, air-conditioner recycling air.
  • Avoid exertion that requires you to breathe harder.
  • Avoid touching any objects in the open as far as possible. If necessary, use a tool to keep distance or use a clean barrier you can discard.
  • On reaching safe location, follow all decontamination instructions carefully.

As you can see in all these instructions, the idea is to minimize exposure to radiation and radioactive particles through minimizing contact and exposure. So you can use common sense and improvise to ensure this when in doubt.

Here is to hoping we never need to use this information. At the same time, like most people never face a fire or dangerous earthquake, but learn what to do as a part of preparedness, I think information on radiation safety should also be widely circulated.

It adds to knowledge and it can save lives.

Contact information || Privacy information || Archives