Fighterization of Government

The problem with the proposed Jan Lok Pal bill is that it’s highly personality dependent. Given the kind of powers they want vested in the Lok Pal, it is clear that the proponents of this bill (Anna Hazare and co.) have simply assumed that a “good and incorruptible person” will occupy this post. What they don’t seem to have considered is that governments usually mess up in such appointments and it’s not guaranteed that a “good and incorruptible person” will always occupy this post. And that for that precise reason it’s dangerous to create an institution whose performance is highly dependent on the person occupying the post.

I’m reminded of two “high offices” to which people are appointed by the Central Government. Both these offices have gained prominence due to their occupation by high-quality people who did much to enhance the stature of this office, but have been undermined later by the government (UPA 1 and UPA2 in this case) appointing people with shady backgrounds to this post.

The first is the office of the Chief Election Commissioner. While this post has existed since the time of the first general election, the office was brought to prominence by former CEC TN Seshan. He was followed by a few other respectable gentlemen (James Michael Lyngdoh comes to mind). But then who did the UPA appoint to this post? Congress crony Navin Chawla, who in his earlier avatar as an IAS officer had been indicted by court as being “unfit to hold public office”.

The other case refers to the Central Vigilance Commissioner. By definition, this is a vigilance office and one of the implicit duties of this job is “vigilance”, which implies action against corrupt practices. You can think of this post as being a sort of a “mini Lok Pal” (for bureaucrats only, politicians being excluded). Again, when this post was created it was assumed that “honest impeccable incorruptible persons” would occupy it. And who did the UPA try to put there (before the Supreme Court struck down the appointment)? PJ Thomas, who had been indicted in a scam about 10 years ago.

There is no guarantee that people like Chawla or Thomas could come to occupy the post of the “lok pal”, which will completely undermine the purpose of the institution. I hope the thousands of people who are blindly supporting the “Jan Lok Pal bill” (and this includes you, Bharatiya Janata Party) take this little technicality to note. I exhort them to ask themselves if they’ll be ok having Navin Chawla or PJ Thomas as the Lok Pal. If they think it’s ok even if such people were to occupy the post, they can go ahead wiht their support. My assumption, though, is that most people haven’t really thought about this angle and are blindly supporting the anti-government agitations.

Coming to the title of this post, what we need is to create institutions that are not personality-dependent. We need to create institutions and systems with appropriate checks and balances such that even if people of “lesser integrity” were to occupy it, it wouldn’t be possible for them to significantly undermine the office. We need to effectively “fighterize” these posts in order to ensure that it’s not possible to sabotage them by means of a few bad men occupying them.

And the way I see it, the institution of the Lok Pal as envisaged by the Jan Lok Pal Bill (or by the government-sponsored bill for that matter) is highly personality dependent. And that is one of the reasons I’m opposed to this current Anna-Swami-Baba movement.

Axioms and fear

So it is around the time when I’m taking part in religious ceremonies that I question my religion, or lack of it. That’s when I need to interact with priests regularly, and sometimes talking to them is frightening. What is most frightening is their level of belief in certain things that I find absurd.

Every major religion is founded on a basic set of axioms. These axioms are designed in a way that they cannot be disproved scientifically.

Sure, there is no way to prove these axioms either, but then given that religion is the “defending champion” it has fallen upon the atheist to disprove the religious axioms. But the way these axioms are stated makes it extremely hard to disprove them. The best that most rational people can do is to call the axioms “absurd” and leave it at that, but that does nothing to convert people on the fence.

For example, take this concept of rebirth and reincarnation which forms the basis of a lot of Hindu thoughts. I find it absurd, and there is no scientific way to prove it (especially since the “universe” is so large since you could be reborn as any species). But there is no scientific way to disprove it either, which is what gives the proponents of this axiom more mileage.

The other thing I observe is that the easiest way to propagate religious thoughts is to create a sense of fear. Stuff like “say your prayers daily else god will punish you”. And then there are some selective examples (with heavy bias in selection) given of people who didn’t make the right religious noises and hence had to suffer. When faced with all this, the young child has no option but to comply with what the religious elders are telling him.

Then I realize that the way you are “taught” religion is extremely absurd. Growing up, you are simply taught a set of processes that you need to go through, without ever going to the significance of any of them. Even the axioms that form the basis of the religion are not exactly taught. In some cases, even the parents would have simply “mugged up the religious practices” and are in no position answer when kids ask them questions about these practices.

For example, when I read Dawkins’s book a couple of years back, I was shocked that there are people that actually believe that there was some “god” who created the universe. I’d always taken evolution as a given. Similarly while talking to priests yesterday (my mother’s first year death anniversary ceremonies are going on) I was shocked to find they actually believe in rebirth, and life after death. Of course, I do believe in Live After Death and think it’s an awesome album.

I just hope I’ll be able to inculcate a sense of questioning and rational reasoning in my kids, and help them protect themselves from blind faith.

Why Inclusiveness Matters

I want to take examples of two situations from traffic engineering to demonstrate why inclusion is important, and it is critical that everyone be “taken along” in any grand plan. The usual arguments for inclusion that you find from proponents of schemes such as the NREGS is that if you don’t include, people will riot and cause harm to others. What I want to show is that even if people have non-violent non-disruptive benign intentions, non-inclusion can lead to disaster for the society at large.

My current workplace is at Embassy Golf Links on Inner Ring Road (between Koramangala and Domlur). Approaching from the Koramangala side, one needs to take a u-turn at the old airport road in order to access the complex. And the story of my first two weeks in office has been that it takes 25 minutes to get from home to the other side of the road, and another 25 minutes to take the U-turn and get on the right side of the road. Some quick and dirty analysis of the bottlenecks tells me that the problem is not with the design of the Airport Road flyover (as many would suspect). It’s much simpler.

A common error in traffic planning is that the planners fail to take into account pedestrians. Pedestrians are not counted as “traffic” and are assumed to somehow get on with their lives while the cars and bikes zip by or crawl in the traffic. Because of this, not enough facilities are made for pedestrians – for them to walk, for them to cross the road, etc. thus forcing jaywalking.

If you look at the area on inner ring road around the airport road flyover, you will notice that the biggest problem is pedestrians. No, pedestrians are not a problem, the problem is lack of facilities for pedestrians which forces themĀ  to jaywalk. So every handful of metres on the road, you’ll notice a handful of pedestrians holding across their arms and trying to wade through the traffic, thus significantly slowing down the traffic. It is because these pedestrians were not included in the original traffic plan that the whole system has failed. So we see that even though the pedestrians mean no harm to others, they are inadvertently causing harm to society at large. And it’s still not too late – a couple of overhead crossing bridges can be installed which should make life peaceful again.

Coming to the second issue – public transport. Last monday the Vijaya Karnataka had done a feature on the Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC) and had carried out a scathing attack for not doing enough for the common man. I just skimmed through the article and the central idea was that public transport is essentially meant for the poor and downtrodden who can’t access any other kind of transport, and so the BMTC’s focus on higher-end buses (Vajra and Suvarna) is doing a lot of harm for the mango person who still has to go in highly crowded buses.

What the writer of the article fails to notice, or chooses not to notice, is the substitution effect. Give a poor man a comfortable bus, and you will take one cycle or scooter off the road. Give the rich man a seat in a comfortable bus, and you will take a car off the road. And taking cars off the road means that everyone now gets to travel faster – both the remaining cars as well as the buses – carrying both the rich and poor. Thus it is probably more pareto-optimal to put an extra high-end bus on the road rather than an ordinary bus (though of course we need enough of the latter).

One major bane of public transport planning in India (and abroad) has been the assumption that public transport is for the poor, and excluding the rich out of the equation. Not finding decent public transport option, the rich has thus gravitated to using one-passenger cars which have had a disastrous effect on traffic in general. And it is only now that cities are taking an inclusive approach and planning public transport for everyone, and you see various cities putting in place high-end buses. Given the secular growth in cities and in traffic, it is probably not possible for us to do an analysis as to what would’ve happened without high-end buses, but I’m sure we are better off with these rather than without these.

So the moral of the story is that when you are planning (regardless of whether you are the government, or a corporate, or the head of a family), you will need to take into account all possible stakeholders, including those outside the system being designed. Only then will the design be efficient.