Monday, August 01, 2005

Communication 101

It happened in Tamil Nadu, and now here. Communication could have made a massive difference. In both cases people in authority knew what was coming. In both cases they couldn’t get the news out quickly enough. Or in this case they didn’t at first. In such cases you can’t stop certain damage, but you sure can limit it with a well-timed warning.

On the Konkan trail while the rains smacked into Mumbai, I had first-hand experience of how coordination within the transportation sector works: it doesn’t. No one knew what was going on. To be fair it was a tough time for planners of routes, but with the little communication and wild rumors abounding, I found several familiar faces in bus stands in different states as we attempted returning to Bombay. We rely on hope and ourselves to survive. It’s a lousy way to live. And it all came back to one thing: communication. How soon can they communicate developments? Can they do it efficiently?

There’s another kind of communication: sending out the right signals. Lately, they’ve been quite off. Johnny Joseph replies to a question about Mumbai’s readiness with a not untruthful reply about the cloudburst being a freak occurrence, but doesn’t say much about what we’d really like to know. Are we prepared? Actually, that’s an easy one. And will we ever be or will we ever hear of things on time if the bureaucracy isn’t streamlined? Here’s what Thakur Prasad, the director of the Cyclone Warning Centre in Mumbai, had to say about why he didn’t inform television channels to put out a general warning about the cloudburst, as well as why he couldn’t break protocol:
“They come only when they want to. Also, we have our own system of information dissemination … Our duty is to inform the government and the various control rooms, and then it’s for them to take action… the TV channels will not listen to us, they only want sensational news, because that suits them. They are not interested in serious work.”
Though his interviewer, Anil Thakraney, unjustly makes Thakur look silly in this interview, Thakur’s assumption about the media is a scandal. Yes, he’s right about the sensational bit, but to not provide information on the basis that the media won’t be interested deserves censure of the sternest kind. And yet, it seems like just the kind of thinking that is widespread in government. But perhaps that’s a little way away. What would help, in the absence of water pumps and clean drains and a solid infrastructure, is an effective information relay system. Just warn us quickly, for heaven’s sake. We’ll try and manage the rest.