If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It

“How many dead?”

“None.”

“Burned beyond recognition? At least seriously injured or maimed?”

“Hmmm…I don’t think any.”

“Any coverage in the media?”

“To the best of my knowledge, nil.”

Answering the Minister’s questions was a bright graduate of the elite Administrative Services College of the country, whose smile had been growing wider and wider as he responded to each question thinking about how effectively he had been managing his area of responsibility, and now went from one ear to the other.

“Is this an issue which the western world has expressed concerns about and which might lead to cancellation of overseas jaunts of senior ministers?”

“Not at all. We keep giving them other issues to express concerns about.”

The bright graduate was positively beaming, imagining his future prospects.

The Minister, so far looking down at a piece of paper on his desk, with a pen in his hand as if poised to sign, looked up. He took off his glasses, wiped them on his kurta sleeve, and put them down next to the offending piece of paper, which seemed to be triggering his questions.

The bright graduate quailed. The muffled sound of the glasses being placed on the desk sounded like a thunderclap.

Looking him squarely in the eye, the Minister asked, “Did you hear about the Elphinstone Road foot over-bridge stampede?”

Of course he did. It was the latest man-made disaster in a distinguished series of man-made disasters over many years and through tenures of multiple governments. On the 29th of September, till the time of writing of this article, twenty three people had died in a stampede on a foot over-bridge at the Elphinstone Road station of the inhumanly crowded Mumbai suburban rail network.

“Yes…yessir,” he stammered.

“Since when has the suburban rail network of Mumbai been inhumanly overcrowded?”, the Minister continued, even before his stammered phrase could be completed.

“I don’t know sir. I have known it to be overcrowded ever since I gained consciousness.” He was a Mumbai lad and was well versed with the history of his city.

The Minister was on a roll. He was not asking those questions to get answers. He was driving home some messages. He was fed-up of bright graduates coming out of elite colleges spouting theory at him and asking for approval for frivolous proposals. It was time they learnt some practical lessons. “How many times have safety concerns been expressed arising out of overcrowding of platforms, overcrowding of bridges, overcrowding of coaches?”, he shot back.

“Many times sir.” He was a bright student and was warming up to the format. He had excelled in quizzes in school and college and followed news and current events closely.

The Minister leaned back in his chair. A smile was playing at the corner of his lips.

“Now tell me, did you read about the forty people who did not die because the Corporation fixed the platform tiles so that people did not accidentally slip and fall in the path of an oncoming train?”

The graduate was flummoxed. He had not come across such a news item. His face expressed his lack of awareness.

“Or the seventy who did not get electrocuted when the Corporation fixed the live wires that had come loose and were hanging dangerously close to passers by?” the Minister continued without pausing.

“When did that happen sir?” he could not help asking, and displaying his ignorance.

The minister looked at him squarely in the eyes once again. He shifted uncomfortably. The Minister asked, “Tell me, what is the primary duty of a democratically elected government?”

“Why, to look after the people of course”, he brightened up, on getting a question he knew the answer to.

“Exactly. And such incidents, where nobody dies, and which nobody ever hears about, who would they give any comfort to? Would these incidents give a feeling to the common man that the government has his back?”

“Obviously no-one sir.” He was getting the drift he thought. He loosened up a little.

“What is a responsible government to do? With great power comes great responsibility. Spending the tax collections is an exercise of great responsibility and a hard-earned one. Why will a government, not just ours, any government, waste it on measures that do not give comfort to the common man?”

He was flummoxed again. ‘Twas the day for him to be flummoxed. “Then what does the government do, sir?” He could see the issue, but did not have the mental capacity to imagine the solution.

“The government does the only thing that a responsible government can do; wait for an accident to happen, as we did in the case of the Elphinstone Road foot overbridge stampede that killed several people. And now that it has happened, once again, like any responsible government, we have cancelled the leave of all officials and flown them in from various parts of the country for urgent consultations. After all, the taxpayer money has to be spent productively, isn’t it?”

“These officials, as we know, are from an elite corps, and have already hit the ground running. After analysing the situation they will reach a conclusion that everyone has known for many years. But these officials will reach the conclusion while lodged in expensive hotels and eating expensive food, hence their conclusion can be considered to be the final word on the event. Moreover, they will even absolve everyone concerned of any responsibility and attribute the accident to a freak confluence of events that everyone could have predicted.”

“But there will always be Doubting Thomases questioning the intent and effort of the government. Therefore, further analysis will be done by the high-powered group who will decide to spend more money on a review of all random things that can be thought of in such a high-pressure situation, like testing the strength of airport runways in the country, checking the depth of water in lakes and canals and installing traffic lights where not required. For the safety and security of the common man of course.”

He was beginning to see the real picture. He may have received his college degree many years back, but he was getting educated today. He could picture himself sitting in the minister’s chair in the not too distant future, serving the nation and the common man. Dreamily he asked, “Then what sir?”

“Then what? Then we will wait for the next stampede at an overcrowded Kumbh Mela in Allahabad. Or the next unplanned town to be washed away in a cloubburst in Uttarakhand. Or the next 8-year old to be murdered in a school in Gurgaon. Or the next unsafe building to catch fire in Delhi with tenders unable to access the site. And roll out the time-tested plan for ensuring the safety and security of the common man.”

“Tell me. Have you not heard of Nirbhaya?”

The bright graduate suddenly came to. After all, who had not heard of the gruesome rape in Delhi several years back that led to a slew of initiatives to prevent rapes, from pink coloured taxis to women-only banks.

“And have rapes stopped? Or slowed down?”

His eyes lit up. It was all clear to him now. With a touch of reverence in his voice, he asked, “But how do you handle all this, sir? After all, manmade disasters are such an innate part of the fabric of our great society.”

The Minister took a deep breath, and slowly released it as if trying to release the burden of his great responsibility to the common man. “It is a tightrope walk. Between running advertisements announcing great achievements of the government, security detail for ministers and self-appointed godmen (and women), money paid to consultants for coining new and imaginative names for government schemes, and providing safety and security to the common man. But, like I said earlier, with great power comes great responsibility. We have to take judicious decisions keeping all interests in mind.”

The Minister was floating on a cloud of his great responsibility towards the common man and did not notice the bright graduate quietly picking up the printed proposal he had taken to the Minister for his approval for the Corporation to fix platform tiles so that people did not accidentally slip and fall in the path of an oncoming train, the piece of paper that had started the interrogation, and walk out of the  office while crumpling the proposal into a ball and expertly tossing it into a basket placed strategically near the exit.

 

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Defanged

Eventually, the beauty of the solution lay in its simplicity and elegance.

But that is what leaders are for. To see what the common man cannot see. To do what the common man cannot do. To hear what the common man does not say. To take decisions where the common man needs none. And to dither and vacillate where the common man needs one to be taken.

Billions of rupees have gone down the drain in the search for solutions and cures. Numerous lives sacrificed. Decades lost.

Yet, year after year the scourge has kept coming back. Like the proverbial bad penny. Developing, evolving newer and hardier strains, mocking the advances made by society. Come monsoon, typically between June and September in most parts of the country, it bares its fangs once again and readies to strike.

Even a plethora of meticulously unresearched advice, blindly forwarded on WhatsApp groups, has had no impact. Like the one I received yesterday informing me that the mosquito responsible for dengue cannot fly above knee height, hence all that people need to do is take care to cover the body below the knees, and all will be well. In my 11th floor apartment, with the dreaded buzzing sound audible as soon as I step out onto the terrace, this message was like manna from heaven. It seems the little tyke can fly upto the 11th floor of a building, significantly higher than knee high to a person at ground level, but once it reaches that height, it loses the will to fly above knee height. I took my phone and read the message aloud to the creators of the buzzing sound on the terrace to tell them how they needed to behave. A follow-up session is scheduled today evening.

By now you might have guessed that I am talking about mosquito-borne diseases like malaria and dengue, which have traditionally held sway during these months. If malaria was more lethal in one year, it would be dengue in the next. Last year, chikungunya, an unknown new mosquito-borne disease, became the flavour of the season, eclipsing malaria and dengue. Like an unheralded Boris Becker, all of seventeen years of age, coming into Wimbledon in 1985 and laying established stars low. Who knows which disease will rule the roost this year. Online bookies are doing roaring business.

Cities and governments around the country have been trying to solve the problem through planned, scientific means, with dismal results. Just when it seemed all was lost and that we were consigned to being forever held to ransom by mosquito-borne diseases every monsoon, came an inspired, swift, unilateral decision by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) which has put the spring back in the steps of the common man. What is even more inspiring is that it appears that the decision is based neither on logic nor any substance.

Not for nothing has Mumbai been the commercial capital of the nation.

Public Health Department (PHD) officials of the BMC have come to the rescue of the common man from the annual mosquito menace and slapped a notice on a popular Radio Jockey (RJ) in the city whose satirical song on potholes in Mumbai’s roads and mocking the BMC has garnered over a million views on YouTube, for breeding mosquitoes in a clay bowl kept under the plant pot kept in front of the front door of her apartment.

Now who would have thought that mosquitoes would be bred by a popular RJ whose satirical song on potholes in Mumbai’s roads and mocking the BMC has garnered over a million views on YouTube. That too in a clay bowl kept under the plant pot kept in front of the front door of her apartment.

PHD officials can clearly make out that a clay bowl kept under the plant pot kept in front of the front door of the popular RJ’s apartment, the RJ whose satirical song on potholes in Mumbai’s roads and mocking the BMC has garnered over a million views on YouTube, is being used for breeding mosquitoes, but clay bowls kept under plant pots kept in front of the front doors of other apartments in her building, whose occupants have not put out a satirical song on potholes in Mumbai’s roads and mocking the BMC that has garnered over a million views on YouTube, are not being used for breeding mosquitoes.

The world has changed. Clearly you can’t pull wool over the eyes of officials of the PHD of the BMC any more. They know.

“When the city has several agencies controlling roads, how can BMC be blamed for potholes, even though it is our responsibility?” the BMC has shot back at the RJ. “Problems with the railways and airlines are not because of us,” the BMC has added, bolstering their argument by citing examples of services they have nothing to do with. Even the RJ whose satirical song on potholes in Mumbai’s roads and mocking the BMC has garnered over a million views on YouTube, will not be able to argue with that.

As the BMC is ruled by a political party whose founder built a reputation with scathing political cartoons before turning to politics, it is only logical that scathing humour at their expense is not to be tolerated. The party has identified that since they so enjoyed and identified with it, the video was an insult to every Mumbaikar (resident of Mumbai). It was apparently a unanimous decision taken by the leader of the party alone.

In order not to get left behind, Delhi has proactively decided to retrospectively issue mosquito breeding notices to organisers of the protest march “Not In My Name” last month, despite the monsoon becoming active over Delhi only in July, as a preventive measure.

To eradicate the menace of mosquitoes from the country, it has been decided to ban all forms of creative dissent.

A simple and elegant solution, wouldn’t you agree?