Have you seen it rain?

Have you seen it rain? I mean really rain. I mean the kind that starts with some grandfatherly clouds with their grey hair and cloudy beard moving overhead at the kind of pace that only grandparents move? They’re not slow, strictly speaking. They look like immovable objects who’d really rather not be moved. Those clouds. The kind that grow bigger and darker by the time you’ve made some tea to enjoy by the window. They’re not bursting at the seams quite yet. They’re biding their time. Just hanging out and watching the baby sparrows learning to fly and the humans below scurrying around to find shelter before the downpour. The only ones who aren’t, are some kids playing football. The sparrows aren’t retreating just yet either. The breeze is now a little more brisk than a moment ago. It’s brought with it that familiar petrichor which makes me want to step outside and raise my face to the clouds, arms outstretched like we used to as kids. Someone in my house is yelling (at me?) to get the clothes from the balcony where they’ve been hung out to dry. As I stretch out to grab the last ones, a huge droplet of water lands on my hand. I accidentally drop the clip that had secured the pyjama on the line. I yell at my sister to run downstairs to retrieve it. She ran out, leaving the main door open behind her. The wind was stronger now. It would momentarily force the door shut, loudly. My neighbor’s clothes, I noticed, are still out on their clothesline.

And then it starts. One by one the massive drops of rain hit the ground. Pitter-patter, pitter-patter, pitter-patter. It gets heavier by the second. In the distance, a solitary rod of lightning. Thud-Tut-thud. Thunder. It’s a bit muffled but powerful. It’s not just a loud sound. It’s like music in three syllables. Thud-Tut-thud. It’s only the first one but it sounds like a drumroll but like the short notes the dummer plays before the gig begins. Just a playful warmup act. The birds seem to have got the message. They’re nowhere to be seen. The kids too have gone home in a hurry, it looks like. They’ve abandoned the football outside. I should probably unplug the TV. The rain is now heavier. 

I can no longer see anything outside my balcony. If I stood by the window, the rain would hurt my face. They raindrops are heavy. From here, it looks like a curtain of water. Perhaps this is what it’s like standing under a waterfall. Occasionally, a powerful enough gush of wind will cause the curtain to flutter. But it’s resolute and unrelenting and it will be this way for hours. Just bouncing off leaves on trees and disappearing into the shrubs below and soon forming a little river on the roads and a muddy stream on the footpaths. The sound of thunder is now coming at me from multiple directions in quick succession. But even those aren’t loud enough to be heard clearly over the sound of the rain. There’s no electricity now. We’re shrouded in darkness. For a split second, the lightning reflects off the million drops of rain and lights up the entire neighborhood. This is theatre. The rain is dancing. The sky provides pyrotechnics and the clouds, sound. I’m only watching on in awe. How is this all for free??

It’s no longer so loud. You can heard the thunder, though. Those kids have ventured out to the ground, unfazed. They’re not interested in the football anymore. The puddles are more inviting. They’re splashing each other like that advertisement for surf excel. I see their parents out on their balcony, hands on hip, absolutely fuming but reluctant to step out to retrieve their offspring for fear of getting drenched. I think they’re shouting but their voice isn’t quite carrying. 

The clouds are now clearing up. The birds have returned to carry on with their sorties. The kids are throwing the football into the puddle and laughing at whoever the water splashes on. It looks like fun to be honest. 

Now, the only falling water is the residue from the leaves and the soaking wet clothes in my neighbor’s balcony. The earth feels fresh. Everything feels alive now. The birds are in full flight and chirping. The kids have started playing football again. The distant roar of thunder has been replaced by the cacophony of traffic. My poor neighbor, entirely drenched and probably famished, has just parked her scooter. She probably doesn’t share my enthusiasm for this weather. 

Have you seen it rain? That rain. 

Bengaluru, 2018

The Silent Orator

I want to start this post with the following quote:

 Everyone is afraid of the consequence of error, but the greatest error is not to move, the greatest error is to be paralyzed by the fear of failure.

Mike Ryan, Executive Director, WHO Health Emergencies Program

Mike Ryan was one of the key figures involved in the response to the Ebola outbreak in 2014. Two weeks ago, he made the above statement which has resonated with me to no end especially in the context of the work I, like so many thousands of others, am doing. But it rings especially loudly in the Indian context now. In an earlier article I praised the bravado it took for PM Modi to declare the nationwide curfew in India. And the problems that bravado has now thrown up are slowly turning into a humanitarian crisis in some states. The scenes from Delhi and other parts of the country are heart-wrenching, shameful and belie the notion that PM Modi is some sort of administrative magician who can do no wrong. But once again, let me reiterate. India is an unenviable situation. The outcome of any action the government of India took last weekend was likely to result in chaos. The question was if we could steer the chaos in a direction that we had the capacity to manage. The answer is unclear but one thing is certain. At that point, inaction was not an option.

The reason I’m writing today is to drag out a point I mentioned briefly in my earlier post: Why is Modi so mind bogglingly allergic to a (virtual, unscripted) press conference? In Today, more than ever, there is a need for a two-way interaction with the Prime Minister and his team to clarify some extremely important questions about the execution of this national curfew and other steps the government is taking against the coronavirus. Perhaps, had an interaction of that kind happened instead of his 45minutes address to the nation, the questions about “essential supplies”, the plight of migrant workers and so on could’ve been answered BEFORE the lockdown and we could’ve avoided the confusion that resulted in the following days. My intention isn’t to say India isn’t doing enough. India simply isn’t being told why (or how) it is doing some things.

In six years, PM Modi has held exactly one unscripted press conference.

For someone hailed as a great communicator, modi’s reluctance to face tough questions is a failing that we can’t afford at this time. The Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Home Affairs has put out at least a dozen notifications to clear up the confusion regarding the implementation of this curfew. In the process, they’ve added several exemptions, created new rules and guidelines for state and local administrations to follow. We know from the disastrous excursion that was demonetization, that these reactionary bulletins create more, not less, confusion and by the time these messages trickle down to implementation, it has probably already caused too much damage.

Modi’s “governance by diktat” is problematic. India is far too big a country for someone to show up on TV, announce something and hope that it all works out. Again, that isn’t to say that announcing the curfew was the and decision. It certainly wasn’t. But the fact that it came with little or no notice to the general public, to local police and, it seems, even the finance minister, suggests that there was only one plan: “Dekha jayega” (We will see). The result? The police hitting the “aam aadmi” with lathis for defying a curfew. People trying to buy medication and groceries aren’t “violating the curfew”. They’re trying to prepare for a 21 day lockdown of which the PM gave nearly zero details.

Modi Seeks 'Forgiveness' From India's Poor Over Coronavirus ...
Migrant workers crowd up outside a bus station as they wait to board buses to return to their villages during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to limit the spreading of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Ghaziabad, on the outskirts of New Delhi, India March 28, 2020. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis/File Photo

And still, at the time of writing, other than some choreographed PR appearances, the man leading this crisis response has not answered a single question about the steps he has personally announced. The Jt. Secretary (Health)’s press conferences are the only other avenue for clarifications and while the officials answer some questions, even they have been evasive in recent days especially regarding questions around testing, confirmed cases and community transmission. But he too has little to do with some of the PM’s other policy decisions. Take for example, the trust that has now been set up under the name of “PM CARES” (Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations). PM-CARES is a laudable crowdfunding initiative that Modi announced for people to donate to in response to the coronavirus. Donations have poured in by the crores in the short period since it has been set up.

But it begs a basic question which has now been asked on Twitter with no real answer: Why did the PM set up this trust when we can all donate to the PM's Disaster Relief Fund like we do all the time for every other disaster? 

In 2018-19, the fund had 3800 crores in it. It is regularly audited by an external auditor and is a trusted place for people to send in donations for emergency response. We know basically nothing about this newly set up PM CARES trust. And sure, it might be a well intentioned financial vehicle set up to distribute resources quickly and perhaps it is audited in the same way as the disaster relief fund but we would’ve known that on day one if someone would only take these important questions about things he announces. At the time of writing, the distinction between the two funds remains unclear and has given rise to entirely avoidable controversy about its legitimacy- a controversy which a country battling a deadly virus can ill afford.

Let me circle back to the top. Inaction is not an option. I will stand by every step Modi takes, as we should all, because there is no playbook for this response. Nobody knows the “right way” to deal with this deadly and we shouldn’t believe any quack who claims they do. The only people we should listen to are the experts. And for them to work, we need to clear the decks and wholeheartedly support the implementation of some rather dramatic steps. But it is incredibly difficult to follow someone in the dark. And that is exactly what Modi expects India to do. Like some guardian angel, Modi wants everyone to trust his instincts without explaining his logic or his plan. I don’t hide my resentment for his policies and the bigotry of his colleagues but in this moment of time, I will give him the benefit of the doubt if he claims that he has a plan. My problem is, he won’t tell anyone what that plan is unless we stick a needle to the TV at 8PM on a random day and absorb his fine oratory straight into our veins. What is this? North Korea?

I’m mad. I’m upset. I hope you are too. The uncertainty into which we threw our fellow countrymen is unforgivable. This was supposed to help, not hurt them. Giving migrant workers who work on daily wages just 4 hours to figure out what happens to their lives is ridiculous. It seems only obvious now that so many of them tried to go back to their homes by train, or bus or even by foot. Is that Modi’s fault? Probably not. Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20 so perhaps I’m being too harsh because who could’ve seen this coming? But that is too long a rope to throw to a man who did exactly the same thing with the demonetization and seemingly learned absolutely nothing from it. Instead, the ministry of Home Affairs under Amit Shah has refused to take responsibility and has doubled down by reiterating that states must prevent mass migration at all cost. I agree with that idea because it was accompanied by several notifications that could’ve prevented the chaos in the first place. Things like ensuring those laborers would be paid on time despite not having work and that they wouldn’t be evicted from their homes until the lockdown is finished are absolutely the right things to do. But I can’t think of a single reason why those things weren’t part of the PM’s address because those were questions that were raised immediately after his speech by several people on social media and on news channels alike.

Migrants near the U.P. border, having walked all the way from Delhi en route to their villages amid the nationwide lockdown, on March 29. Photo: Ravi Choudhary/PTI

I trust Modi to fix this mess soon. Not because I want to trust him but because we have to. We have to be patient while he maneuvers the country out of the way of a deadly global pandemic and if we, the people, pull in different directions we will only make it infinitely harder for all of us. But Modi needs to reciprocate that trust and shed whatever anxieties or complexes he has which prevents him from simply answering some goddamn questions about his actions. Modi has not failed but now, more than ever, accountability matters. One of China’s earliest mistakes was to suppress critical information which could’ve helped people in that country and everyone else to prepare for the spread of this disease. Modi’s information opacity is leading India down an eerily similar path. The shockingly high numbers of confirmed cases in the US is definitely sending out alarm bells globally but it is also helping the authorities and the people here to respond appropriately. The fact that our authorities deny that community transmission of COVID19 has started in India is outrageous and a flashing warning light we should not ignore because according to experts, India isn’t testing nearly enough people to make that assertion.

Modi and other leaders in India including Pinarayi Vijayan, Shailaja teacher, Uddhav Thackeray and others have done plenty right in this response. I hope that continues. But Modi is making a mistake that the others aren’t – he’s making big decisions and not standing around to be held accountable. In fact, they helped is cause by holding their own press meets to calm the public and share more information. I can’t overemphasize enough the importance of this seemingly small step at this early stage in our response. There is no point laying the blame at his doorstep after this blows out of proportion. There is precedent even within this government of how to do this correctly: Finance Minister Nirmala Sitaraman does a commendable job with her public announcements and provides great clarity on the schemes she announces. Why won’t the Prime Minister do the same for his??

Mike Ryan is right. We can’t be paralyzed into inaction by the fear of failure. But with Modi it seems like he’s so afraid of being held accountable for potential failure, that he has chosen to abdicate that responsibility entirely. In the weeks after his monumental announcement of demonetization, Modi had made another massive, emotional public appeal: “Give me 50 days and if you find any shortcomings with my actions, I’m ready to face any punishment”. Not only did he (or anyone else) not face any punishment, he conveniently changed goal posts and spun that horror show into a “win”, the consequences of which our economy is still reeling from. It seems like he’s trying the same strategy again except this time, the goal posts aren’t for him to move. The virus has set the goals. And again this time, irrespective of whether he faces the consequences or not, several of our fellow Indians will and that, I think, is unforgivable.

21 days for each other

By the time I post this, India would’ve started day 1 of a 21 day curfew. It’s an insane idea which will not just inconvenience a lot of people but also throw lives into disarray. The economics of it is of course terrible but the human costs are much more severe. Lots of people will be out of jobs, out of their homes, hungry and unable to access basic resources. We will hear heartbreaking stories about people who are beaten up by the cops for no real reason. We will hear about the ridiculous lack of capacity at government hospitals. There’s no denying that for the foreseeable future, we are going to hurt just as the rest of the world has. There is nothing “right” about this decision to confine people to their homes and, in many cases, to the streets.

And now imagine all those exact same consequences for all of those people but with the additional burden of a virus that, as of today, has no cure or vaccine.

India is an unenviable situation. But we’re at that stage in this pandemic where inaction is not an option. A lot needs to be done. But the first step is to ensure that this is a crisis we can handle and the only way to do that, is to stop the spread. Two weeks ago, New York City where I live had 21 confirmed cases of Coronavirus. Today, 14 days later there are in excess of 14,000 confirmed cases (with more to follow). There are all sorts of statistical disclaimers which need to go with that but one thing is absolutely clear – left unabated, this virus will spread and do so quickly. For sake of transparency, I should add that the death rate in NYC is far, far less than that in Italy (where a majority of those who died where older people). But that is neither comforting nor the point.

The point is simply this: Our hospitals in India are desperately and depressingly under-resourced. The All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi is the premier government medical institution in the country. Wait times for critical procedures at AIIMS is so high, people often have to camp outside for weeks to get in. AIIMS is no outlier. According to the World Bank, Italy has 3.4 hospital beds per 1000 people in the country. The United States has 3. India? India has 0.5 hospital beds per 1000 people.

Image result for aiims people waiting
Patients camped outside AIIMS waiting for their turn (for weeks).
Source: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/no-filter/waiting-for-doctors-appointment-spends-cold-nights-on-pavements-bus-stops-and-subway/

A 2017 study in Madhya Pradesh, found that there were only 2.5 critical care beds per 100,000 people in the state (and 75% were in private hospitals) and only 13% had a round-the-clock intensivist. These shortages of infrastructure and personnel are not unique to India but they’re especially acute given that a majority of our population rely on government hospitals.

All of that lack of capacity, is on a normal, business-as-usual day. But we don’t live in normal times.

There are people with life-threatening disease OTHER THAN coronavirus who aren’t able to access critical care in India. Now, imagine you add even a small number of “critical” coronavirus patients on a list to be on ventilators. You might save some coronavirus patients but you’ll almost certainly kill the others. And THAT, is the point. An overwhelmed healthcare system will collapse if we add strain to it and while statistically the coronavirus’ death rate maybe low, all the other life-threatening illnesses haven’t been put on pause.

What makes coronavirus special? Why shutdown the country because of coronavirus and not, say, because of Tuberculosis? GREAT QUESTION. India’s “contribution” to global TB cases is, a slightly terrifying 20%. But TB is, in theory, with the right treatment protocol curable. But the fact that drug-resistant versions of TB have emerged and we’re too under-resourced, too untrained and overall still struggling to deal with it is all the more reason to take the coronavirus seriously. In 2019, Prime Minister announced at the United Nations that India will aim to eradicate TB by 2025. A laudable mission and one that we must absolutely win. But in the meantime, we cannot afford another disease outbreak.

We cannot afford another disease outbreak

That’s the point. That is the only point. It isn’t whether coronavirus will kill us all. It probably won’t. But you only have to turn to China, Italy, the UK, the US or any other country to see what kind of strain it puts on the system. The system is put under strain when people who are vulnerable (the “at risk” population – people with underlying chronic medical issues or old people) need to get critical care. Even if you asked them to stay at home, people around them might be infected and, in turn, infect them. So it is beyond urgent to make sure that we reduce the number of carriers and spreaders of this disease.

Go back to the top of this article. Think about the consequences of the curfew for all those people who are likely to be affected by it. Now think again if, under that circumstance, someone in those families needed urgent critical care. We simply wouldn’t be able to give it to them.

A sign pasted on a security barricade is seen after the India Gate war memorial was closed for visitors amid measures for coronavirus prevention in New Delhi.   Source: Reuters

It might turn out that in a week’s time, after widespread testing, the virus hasn’t spread that much at all. If that happens, it is easy enough to roll back the 21 day curfew and “re-open” the country. Doing that backwards, is not an option. Three weeks ago, NYC was open to business. Day before yesterday, the governor imposed a state-wide shutdown but only after 10,000 cases were already confirmed. A shut down, as evidence shows, is inevitable. WHEN it happens, is a hard decision and one that I’m glad Modi took seriously.

Demonetization was a pea-brained idea and I roundly criticized it at the time and I continue to do so. I can count on the fingers of one hand, the things that I like about PM Modi: 1. The Swacch Bharat mission and 2. That hilarious troll video of him placing garbage on a beach. This curfew ranks highest on that list because it could literally save the country.

There’s one thing he still needs to do though. That is host a (virtual and unscripted) press conference where he and his covid response team takes questions about India’s preparedness and gives the people answers. It is mind boggling that in his 6 years, PM Modi has done exactly one press conference. The lack of accountability is astounding and that can’t be the case with this crisis. This “governance by diktat” where he shows up one evening, broadcasts a video and disappears is unsustainable.

If you don’t think coronavirus is serious enough to mandate a curfew, please critique the decision (from home). If you really like the decision, please celebrate it (from home). As I said in an earlier post, the Janata curfew was a test which a large portion of the country passed but we also saw exactly the stupid, irresponsible, illogical, irrational behaviour that we’ve come to expect from some people. The reason YOU should take it seriously is so that you can then convince others to do so too. There will absolutely be challenges in implementing this curfew. We have to figure out how to get food and money to the people who need it most for these 21 days. But that is a far, far easier problem to solve and its the kind of goal-oriented, mission-mode task that our colonial bureaucracy is optimized for. We have to figure out rules for allowing people to buy groceries and medication. That will be challenging too but if we’re not all collectively crazy, we can get through with it.

I haven’t thrown thoughts onto a page this incoherently in a long time but it is really hard to focus my thoughts on this subject. Please just follow up the rules. Please stay safe and stay at home. If you’re sick, you will most likely recover at home over time. Just make sure to stay away from other people especially those who have old and/or vulnerable people at home.

This is for all of us.

Of course this is all the government’s job. But the time for passing the buck is not in the middle of a crisis. Where we can help mitigate the damage this will cause for the poor and the disadvantaged, we must. This is for them. Got ideas? Share them! Lets try to find some support and do it! (Crowdfund a weekly PayTM deposit to your regular sabziwallah aunty or someone similar who you know personally who needs it?)

I can think of my neighbors, even those who refused to give us back the ball when we accidentally hit it into their balconies or those who ratted to your parents because they saw you with “some boy”. Those aunties and uncles may mean nothing to us but they’re someone’s parents and grandparents. This is for them.

There will be cops under scrutiny to keep the streets clear 24×7 even now instead of being with their families like the rest of us. Don’t add to their job. Thank them later. This is for them.

The grocery store employees who have to show up to work despite the risk of contracting the virus? Don’t be rude to them! Be nice. Keep a safe distance. Wear gloves. This is for them.

If you have a driver or a gardner or a domestic help, please pay them and ask them to stay at home. If you have a security guard in your housing society, ask them about their families and help them in meaningful financial ways. This is for them.

There are people working crazy hours, behind the scenes in some government office somewhere creating the policy response to this, creating the solutions to these problems and who have to take critical decisions by the second. This is for them.

The people who are going to be under most severe stress in the next few months are our doctors. I could hear your pots clanging and bells ringing all the way in NYC. Now don’t forget them. This is so that they can focus on their (already insane) stressful jobs. This is for them.

This is 21 days for all of us.

P.S: Don’t forget to wash your hands (and don’t touch your face).

Thoughts on Janata Curfew

Late last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered what can only be described as a statesmanlike address to the nation regarding India’s response to the Coronavirus. The 30-minute speech is one I’d encourage us all to watch and take to heart because the full force of that crisis is yet to hit India (and long may it stay that way).

Screenshot of Prime Minister Modi during his address to the nation on March 19.
Source: https://youtu.be/h12UQUnhxtA

Wishful thinking aside, there is nothing to suggest that India will be spared by this global pandemic which has already killed 13,000 people. All over the world, several strategies have been deployed to varying impact but they all seem to be some combination of social distancing, large scale testing and whatever hospitals can do to keep patients alive. Alongside “social distancing”, the phrase “flattening the curve” has dominated public discourse (at least in the US) and for good reason. If you haven’t heard of it yet, flattening the curve refers to the concept of slowing down the number of people who need to be treated by the health system of a country so that the total number of patients doesn’t exceed the capacity of the system at any given point of time. In other words, treat the same total number of people but over a longer period of time.

Image result for flatten the curve
“Flattening the curve”.
Source: NPR. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/03/13/815502262/flattening-a-pandemics-curve-why-staying-home-now-can-save-lives

It is in that context, that Modi’s latest call to action becomes relevant. Per his call, on Sunday, March 22, India will observe a “Janata curfew” or a curfew, as he described it, “for the people and by the people”. Modi has also called for people to step out to their balconies, windowsills and doorsteps at 5PM and make their appreciation heard by clapping their hands or ringing bells for the millions of first responders, hospital staff and others who are on the frontlines of this crisis.

Many have criticized, indeed mocked, the Prime Minister’s appeal for being too insouciant in the absence of any other discernible policy response. Yet, as insignificant as it may sound, the Janata curfew and 5PM applause, in my opinion, will prove to be a significant policy tool in India’s toolkit in the weeks ahead.

I’m living through a shelter-in-place in New York City right now. That means, that for the foreseeable future, we’re not allowed to go outside unless it is unavoidable and we can’t gather in groups for any reason. Yet, despite how serious community transmission has been in the US, I see people walking to the park nearby with their friends and family as if nothing is happening in the world around them. Not far from here, in Prospect park, the scene is no different. People are craving for some of that spring time sunshine and it turns out, not even a pandemic will stop them. That isn’t to say that it isn’t working. For the large part, it is. Times Square is nowhere as crowded as it usually is and that’s a great thing. But it is impractical to think that enforcing a curfew for long periods will work perfectly when you try it especially in the middle of a public health emergency. The scenes from Miami, are unfortunate testaments to that fact. As I write this, somewhere in the distance I can hear an ambulance. Even by NYC standards, the frequency of those sirens has increased in the past few days. Make no mistake, this virus is dangerous and fatal for some but an overwhelmed health system means life or death for many more.

Scene from Prospect Park on March 21
Scenes from Clearwater, Florida, U.S. March 17, 2020. Steve Nesius/Reuters
Source: https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/miami-mayors-message-spring-breakers-amid-coronavirus-pandemic/story?id=69697779

Every Indian knows that implementing something like a shelter in place in India for an extended period is going to be next to impossible. “We are Indians and we are like that only”. But, the Janata curfew is a chance for both, our people and our system to recalibrate and get ready to fight this. If it fails to get the response it deserves, there’s no cause for panic. It will last only one day. A Sunday that too. No one cares. We can dust ourselves off, pick ourselves up and try it (or something else) again. But, if it succeeds, it can be a true force multiplier. Low-hanging fruit, as it is called. A chance for the nation, amid these trying times, to say that we achieved something. And on that brick we shall stand and lay the road forward, one brick at a time -nudging people into action (or in this case, in action. Stay at home).

This isn’t only philosophical. It has practical consequences. Rather than. throwing a system into disarray, it gives everyone the opportunity to practice social distancing one day at a time. It gives the police and the rest of government a chance to identify where the messaging needs to reinforced by observing the response. The weird idea that ringing bells at 5PM will “deactivate the virus” (which is a real theory circulating on WhatsApp) is well…weird but it certainly forces India to remember those faceless doctors and staff on whose backs we will ride out this crisis and all we have to do, is to sit exactly where we stand and do literally anything other than getting out of the house. It is also subtle reminder to Modi’s own cabinet colleagues that there are other ways to display activism other than “Go Corona, Corona Go“. Remember, as inevitable as it is, community transmission has not been confirmed in India yet. Which means that we can start taking these steps sooner than most countries did. These measured, nation-wide announcements will, indeed must, become more common. And the time for them is now, before the panic sets in. The time for quick wins is now, when you need to start getting people’s attention. The time for action is now, before the real crisis begins.

p.s: Stay at home, wash your hands and don’t touch your face.

For The People: Designing for Humans

Late last week the National Transport Safety Board (NTSB) published its findings after an investigation into the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines aircraft crash disasters of 2018. The report established that Boeing’s flawed assumptions of how aircraft crew would use the new safety sensor mechanism on the 737Max plane in the event of an emergency was to blame for the disasters which resulted in the death of 346 people. Neither FAA safety assessments nor Boeing’s training modules took into consideration that in real-world experiences of aircraft crews, pilots were faced with multiple alarms and alerts at the same time and consequently, their response to these alerts was inconsistent with Boeing’s assumptions. 

This gap between design assumptions and real world user experience is not uncommon in other sectors. Consumer product manufacturer Samsung Mobile, announced their new “foldable” phone earlier this year. The new flexible screen on the phone had a thin, protective layer of plastic which was critical for the display to function. But when the product was delivered to the first set of customers this summer, users instinctively (and contrary to Samsung’s expectations) removed the plastic layer assuming it was simply temporary packaging material which all smartphones, including Samsung own phones, ship with. The display stopped working instantly and Samsung was forced to recall the device from market.  

What is Human-centered Design?

These examples reinforce the need for more “human-centered design” (HCD). Sometimes referred to as “design thinking”, HCD is a simple but powerful set of tools to consult with the target audience of a service or a product and arrive at innovative solutions which respond to their needs.

Vienna’s Church of St. Leopold designed by Otto Wagner is an example of human-centered design in architecture. The 800-seat church is part of the Steinhof Psychiatric Hospital. To adjust to the requirements of the patients, the church has very few sharp edges and in the original design, the pews were of different widths to accommodate different types of patients. Wagner’s design carefully considers how patients and those who care for them would use the church and sought to create a restorative environment for them. (Example quoted from unpublished manuscript of “Public Entrepreneur” by Professor Beth Simone Noveck (forthcoming 2020))
Otto Wagner’s St Leopold Church. Vienna, Austria.
© Jorge Royan / http://www.royan.com.ar / CC BY-SA 3.0

HCD also finds application in the public sector especially since government must design services for a diverse spectrum of beneficiaries with differing needs and circumstances. Yet, it does not find widespread adoption in traditional public sector service design. A recent survey by the Governance Lab at NYU of 380 government officials found that less than half of them had used Human Centered Design practices in their job and within that group only 20% had done basic tasks like testing ideas with residents for feedback prior to implementation. The result is sub-optimal service delivery (often disproportionately affecting minority populations), frustrated residents and wasted public resources. Take the example of California’s food stamp program. While the state allowed people to apply online, that application was 50 web pages long with over 100 questions. Most families who started the process would end up abandoning it. The NGO Code for America, after engaging with the end users of the service to analyze it from their perspective, re-designed the application process so it only took 10 minutes to complete it resulting in a substantial increase in enrollments. 

How do you do it?

There are several well-documented approaches to design thinking comprising surveys, creating user personas, observing human behavior, beta testing products with focus groups, creating “journey maps” and so on. Organizations like IDEO, NESTA and the GovLab have toolkits, courses and practical guides to help entreprenuers learn and practice this skill. Thorugh each step, the aim is to understand the problem from the point of view of the person experiencing it. In some cases, this can be done by observing them “in the wild” by letting users have a go at using the product and making detailed notes of how they use it. In other cases, more structured questions might be required to guide our understanding of a problem. There is no single “right way” and often one might have to employ multiple techniques to arrive at a conclusion. To do it well and to set oneself up for success, defining our hypotheses, laying out assumptions explicitly and identifying those who are most impacted are all pre-requistes to the design thinking process. 

But to obtain any meaninful results from it, HCD can not be treated as a mere “checklist” item. It is a manner of approaching a problem and acknowledging at the very beginning that we often have blindspots simply because of the fact that we do not have the lived experiences of the people we seek to serve. Making empathy an important of our problem solving process is at the heart of design thinking. The resources and techniques are simply a way to structure that mindset into a process which can be taught and learned.

Of course, design thinking is not a panacea. It is only one of the implements in a 21st century problem solver’s toolkit. For instance, identifying new sources of data and analyzing them to make more data-driven decisions is a technique that increasing numbers of entreprenuers, organizations and governments are employing. But neither design thinking nor data analysis works in isolation. Whether you’re designing safety systems for an aircraft, making consumer tech products or delivering public services, in order to get a clear understanding of a problem or the impact of a certain intervention, we must do both – look at the data AND speak with people. 

By The People

The response to Kerala’s worst natural disaster in a century has shown us (again) that citizens mobilize widely and rapidly when called on. So why doesn’t government take advantage of that more often?

“We were trying to find victims, but everywhere we found only heroes”

Large, white parcels, all safely wrapped up in packing material line up against the wall by the entrance to the club house in a swanky apartment complex in Neotown, Bangalore. Labelled clearly – “Sleeping mats”, “Blankets”, “Bedsheets”, “Gloves”, “Gum Boots”, “Cleaning Supplies”- they are all ready to be loaded on to trucks headed towards the neighbouring state of Kerala where almost a million people have been displaced from their homes and many of them are still living in relief camps and temporary shelters after a devastating flood last week destroyed homes, schools, hospitals, resorts and everything else in its path. 

Over 400 people have died so far and many of those who have survived have little to go back to. 

The estimated financial loss to the state runs into several billion Indian Rupees but the true magnitude of what has been lost by many families is unquantifiable. For most families in Kerala, a house doesn’t simply provide the security of shelter- it is their life’s toil and savings and building a house is the bedrock of the middle-class dream. For many families, the floods have shaken that bedrock and for some of them, destroyed it entirely. 

The task ahead is daunting but while the rivers roar on, a glimmer of hope shined brightly through the grey clouds. All across the state, political and religious lines disolved as people turned out to help those in distress. Fisherfolk with their boats helped move thousands to safer lands, the Indian Navy and police airlifted hundreds of others and classrooms and prayer halls became relief camps. From neighbouring states and cities, thousands of people pitched in to raise funds for emergency supplies and made sure it reached those in Kerala who most needed it. Once again, heroes were born when they were needed the most and with their help, kerala is sure to power through this tragedy. 

Screengrab of NDRF officer, Kanhaiya Kumar, running across a bridge to take an infant to a doctor just before the bridge is engulfed by the flood waters.
Image source: Malayala Manorama

Tech-enabled Disaster Management

Kerala has one of the most decentralized governance structures in India and it was in full force in response to the floods. Emergency decision-making and crisis response at the local level were left to the the district administrators who were given the authority to do what was necessary to save lives and mitigate the damage. Over time, it would be worth studying the impact this step had on mobilizing resources and manpower to the right places quickly. But at the scale that disaster struck kerala, it was always going to be too much for government to do on its own. 13 out of 14 districts in the state were on “red alert”- the highest level of alert issued by India’s Meteorological Department (IMD). The deadly cocktail of torrential rains (257% more than anticipated for that time of the year) and the unexpected release of water from some 36 dams brought “God’s Own Country”, as it is popularly called, to its knees. Every single dam in the state was filled to capacity and all of them had to be opened (some for the first time in over two decades) in order to prevent a dam burst which would have had even more severe consequences.

Almost overnight, the government’s IT department was able to set up keralarescue.in to help coordinate the rescue operations. Some 1500 engineers (from all over the world) who are part of the Kerala chapter of the IEEE made the website in just 96 hours for the government (for free). The state government deployed it and made it the center of their rescue and relief efforts. The website had everything from district-wise emergency supplies requirement lists to a facility to request to be rescued (which the disaster response teams used to locate survivors) to a portal for solicting financial contributions and even a map of flooded streets using satellite-driven data. The site has logged over 10 million requests for aid in the short span of time that it has been active. It is unclear how many of those very fulfilled by government but citizens certainly responded to the call. 

Several organizations and individuals who were able to organize the logistics to send trucks into the worst-affected regions of the state began collection drives all over south India (with financial contributions coming from the North too and organizations like Punjab’s Khalsa Aid setting up camp in Kerala to make food for the survivors). Several truck loads of food, clothes, sheets, sanitary napkins, diapers, water bottles and other essential items reached the survivors with little or no involvement of government. In Bangalore, where I was, heartening stories poured in about auto rickshaw drivers who refused to take money from those who were transporting these supplies in the city and grocery stores offering discounts to those buying supplies in bulk for Kerala. My taxi driver to the airport earlier today narrated how he spent some of his day’s meager savings on buying fuel for the trucks ferrying the supplies to Kerala. The middle-aged domestic help at home donated her new saris to those who’d lost everything to the floods while several others in the city pitched-in in quantities both small and big, realizing that every drop in the ocean counted to making someone’s life a little better. 

Through Instgram, Whatsapp and Facebook, those on the ground in Kerala sent updates to those in other parts of the country in real-time (faster than government and even faster than news channels) about the new list of requirements in specific relief camps in each district of the state. These social media powered volunteers were even able to identify and resolve problems with an agility and efficiency that would have been hard for government with its fatigued and anachronistic bureacracy. For example, with some camps housing over 5000 people, a major sanitation issue was reported through instagram- used diapers and sanitary napkins were piling up outside the camps since there was no state machinery running to collect trash. Instantly, a request went out to those in neighbouring districts who had access to incinerators to dispose the waste. In a matter of hours, several people responded with locations and drop off instructions. The problem, of course, is that these informal channels are only anecdotes. But these little anecdotes from all over the state certainly went a long way in mitigating the humanitarian crisis that these floods have set off. 

Formalizing Informality

When I put out a request to my friends to contribute in anyway they can, several of them readily agreed to send me supplies or money for supplies if I would hand over supplies to responsible organizations. While some of them even contributed to the Chief Minister’s Disaster Relief Fund directly, others were more cynical. There was an element of doubt in giving more money to government. I noticed this lack of trust in government even in speaking with some other people around me. It was a curious contradiction given that Indian’s trust in government as per Gallup’s recent poll is among the highest in the world. 

Trust or not, the fact is that people turned out on the streets to help Kerala when they could just as easily have sent some money to the CM’s fund online and let government do its thing. But why does this civic activism in our citizens only awaken during times of crisis? What does it take to be active citizens 24×7? 

In reality, the assessment that civic activism awakens only in response to disasters like this one is probably a bit harsh. Even in just the past decade, Indians have shown a healthy appetite for mobilizing to effect change. Starting with the protests to Nirbhaya’s rape in Delhi to the massive public support for Anna Hazare’s Jan Lokpal bill, the incredible response to the net neutrality debate and most recently surrounding issues being heard in the supreme court like the right to privacy and decriminalizing homosexuality, we’ve shown that we will turn out for a wide range of causes provided that there is a clear call to action. People on informal channels of communication like Instagram have figured out that being extremely specific about what you need from the crowd is the most effective way of engaging with it. It is unlikely that a message from the Chief Minister saying “Please help Kerala” would have mobilized even a fraction of the support that the state received thanks to the specific requirements lists that were shared on social media and through keralarescue.in. This is an important lesson that we’ve seen multiple times in other citizen engagement efforts. For instance, asking people for their opinion about a particular issue through an online portal has been proven to be ineffective in multiple projects around the world. At the same time, asking people for solutions to solve that issue based on rigoursouly defined problem statement has led to several innovative suggestions that have helped solve issues ranging from computational biology and astronomy to urban transportation and trash management.

Redefining our democracy 

A democracy can’t simply be for the people and of the people. It needs to be made BY the people too. We’ve shown that we have so much to offer to government, not just financially but by way of our sheer capacity to mobilize, ideate and implement on the go. Citizen engagement is not a panacea. It will not solve all our problems but there are some situations where our involvement will help government make better decisions, provide better services and implement projects more efficiently. There is no dearth of organizations (both in India and around the world) doing research on identifying in what context and in what form citizen engagement is most effective. But irrespective of the context, there are two precursors to executing widespread citizen engagement in government. The first, is that citizens should be willing to engage with government and take part in reasoned, informed debate with space for compromises and experimental ideas and the second is that government (and its entire bureaucratic machinery) should be willing to listen to the people. The question is, are we ready to engage? And if we are, is government listening?

To help rebuild Kerala, you can contribute to the Chief Minister’s Distress Relief Fund at this link: http://www.cmdrf.kerala.gov.in

For updates about the situation in Kerala, check out keralarescue.in or follow the Chief Minister on Twitter @cmokerala

To contribute to NGOs, consider volunteer groups working on the ground such as: http://rebuildkerala.gtechindia.org