Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Red tape after a catastrophe

Bobby Jindal, who almost became governor of Louisiana and is now a Congressman there, writes in the Wall Street Journal about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina:
There have already been a number of instances in which an overly inhibitive bureaucracy prevented an appropriate response to the disaster. For example, on Wednesday of last week a company called my office. With only three hours before rising waters would make the mission impossible, they were anxious to send a rescue helicopter for their stranded employees. They wanted to know who would give them a go-ahead.

We could not identify the agency with authority. We heard that FEMA was in charge, that the FAA was in charge, and that the military was in charge. I went in person to talk with a FEMA representative and still could not get a straight answer. Finally we told the company to avoid interfering with Coast Guard missions, but to proceed on its own. Sometimes, asking for forgiveness is better than asking for permission.
Jindal lays out some more examples of red tape in his article, and suggests a solution:
[W]e need, in the future, a single, strong leader with the power to override the normal process restrictions and get things done. That individual must be identified from the very beginning. But below that person, other individuals up and down the line need to know they can make obvious and sensible calls in an emergency.
That is exactly the reason that many people, including Milind Deora, are calling for Mumbai to have a strong, empowered mayor in place who can guide the city after a disaster like the recent floods. That is needed at the national level as well, where a single individual should have the power to coordinate all disaster management in a crisis. We have much the same problems in India as the ones Jindal talks about, and need to find a way to cut through the red tape. Assigning responsibility clearly and streamlining processes is the logical way forward.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Self-inflicted damage

Joel Kotkin, the author of "The City: A Global History," writes in the Wall Street Journal:
The key to understanding the fate of cities lies in knowing that the greatest long-term damage comes not from nature or foreign attacks, but often from self-infliction. Cities are more than physical or natural constructs; they are essentially the products of human will, faith and determination.

A city whose residents have given up on their future or who lose interest in it are unlikely to respond to great challenges. Decaying cities throughout history--Rome in the fifth century, Venice in the 18th--both suffered from a decayed sense of civic purpose and prime. In this circumstance, even civic leaders tend to seek out their own comfortable perches within the city or choose to leave it entirely to its poorer, less mobile residents. This has been occurring for decades in the American rust belt--think of Detroit, Cleveland and St. Louis--or to the depopulated cores in old industrial regions in the British Midlands, Germany and Russia.
There's something to think about here for citizens of all of India's cities. Our apathy can be worse than any natural disaster.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Our Flood & Their Flood

I have been watching images on various news channels showing the devastation left behind by Katrina.

I have been following Maitri’s blog on the more personalised aspect of surviving Katrina.

And one thing struck me - however developed you may be, how ever well trained your response teams may be, when it comes to dealing with Nature’s fury - all that can be achieved is minimisation of damage. not much else.

With something like Katrina - the last one week has been “Katrina is coming” news all over the place. Evacuation has been in full swing. Yet the loss of lives has been phenomenal. Property destruction was anyway a given, nothing that could be done as far as houses or vehicles are concerned.

One of the things i do like about the MSM in the US, is their ability to highlight the positive, instead of finding just the negatives to shout about. In that sense the media in Mumbai, when it came to covering our own terrible Tuesday, was caught up in sensationalising rather than providing information. This an article from the NYT highlights rescue operations:

“If we come across a body floating?” Sgt. Chris Fisher of the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office asked.
“Let it go,” Maj. Bobby Woods replied, as Sergeant Fisher and other rescue workers prepared for the day’s mission. “Let’s first go for life.”

There were policemen here too, ill equipped - who did much the same. But, there was no highlighting of the positive, until much, much later. Only the cacophony of ‘you should have’, ' you f***ed up. Even today there is so much of finger pointing and so much of negativism that it is quite difficult to get past the negativism and move on to do something constructive.

Maybe, it is time that the press in India realised that they don’t just have a responsbility to the bottom line of their newspapers. They also have have societal responsibility. And maybe it is time that they grew up to the maturity challenge.

Here is a much more developed nation, with a finely trained disaster management system, where evacuation of people had began earlier. And yet, on the day, there wasn’t a thing that could be done to prevent mayhem. And reports talk about weeks before people can go back to normalcy. I am not saying that we need to let up on Government inefficiencies, but there is a time when we need understand that there is only so much that can be done in a given situation. And all these recriminations of ‘you should have’ needs to give way to a slight degree of balance. We seem to like to score points. They leave that till later - after the calamity has passed and life goes back to normal.

Like in the case of Mumbai, part of the problem seems to be greed - and the ability of business and Government to stand by and rape the environment without any thought of the consequence.This a readers’ opinion from the NYT:

Upstream levee-building has also had the effect of turning a sluggish river into a fire hose, helping to destroy marshes and barrier islands that once provided some protection. The steady destruction of coastal wetlands by residential development and years of oil and gas drilling hasn’t helped much either. The combination of subsiding land and rising seas has put the Mississippi Delta about three feet lower than it was 100 years ago.

I guess that the Free Market is not as free as we think. Sometimes the price tag is so high that generations to come end up paying for it.

The one thing that we didn’t get to see on terrible tuesday here, which unfortunately seems to be happening in New Orleans is looting.
This is not the first time that one has seen pictures like this come out of the west. We saw similar pictures out of Gujrat during the riots. And, at a very primal level it is scary. The break down of civil society as we know it.

I hope that people there are as safe as they can be. That they get back and resume a normal life, as soon as possible. That they are reunited with their families and loved ones soon. All that we have in a time like this is hope.

cross posted on a POV