Public Policy

“What? You must be kidding. There’s gotta be a mistake. This can’t happen.”

Though I could not hear what had been said as the speaker had plugged the headphone wire into his mobile and the other end in his ear, I could sense that my one-seat-away-on-account-of-social-distancing neighbour in the Delhi metro coach was beginning to get excited. My Indian ears perked up as another opportunity to pry into someone else’s affairs presented itself.

After a brief gap, when he was apparently listening to the person on the other end of the phone connection, he said, “You mean they are not a non-profit. That is news. Do you know what you are saying? That the sole purpose of their existence is not to selflessly serve people like you and me and that they need to earn money. I am shocked. Why did nobody tell me earlier? I am sure there is a mistake.”

After a few seconds of silence, when the voice on the other end presumably became active, he erupted, “Like hell I will agree with their updated policy. That too for free? That is rich. This is India, my friend, India! Not some first world country where these things are allowed to happen with impunity. There are laws here, OK. Laws. We don’t follow them but we have them. These companies cannot do whatever they feel like. Remember, we live in a society driven by the rules of a free market.”

During the silence that ensued while he was presumably listening to the voice on the other end, I could not help but admire his nationalism.

“Over my dead body! Next, they will ask for permission to use my phone number. Like hell I will give them permission. Do you have any idea what this number is used for? I use this number when sales people in Delhi malls beg me to fill forms with my personal information so that I can stand a chance to win a lottery. This number is the one I register with on online websites that promise to teach you tricks with which one can become rich overnight. It is personal and confidential. How can it be shared with a company whose service I am using.

It was a powerful argument. I could hear the silence on the other end.

“Just what do you mean by that? What if I did not read the T&Cs when I signed up? What if WhatsApp and Facebook already have my personal data and are using it for commercial purposes? Does it mean that whenever they ask me to agree to something, I should do it without protesting on ethical and moral grounds? No means no. I will not agree. I will not sell my soul and self-respect to a monopolistic foreign nouveau imperialist capitalist plutocratic hegemonistic…”

There was a pause. Perhaps for catching breath after the effort of stringing together so many important-sounding words together.

“…company,” he finally found the word to complete the sentence, and submitted to the voice for a few seconds, before standing up and bursting out, “Why should I move to Telegram? Or Signal? Just why? Have I done something wrong? Am I a criminal that I should seek refuge elsewhere? After this call, can you message me the URL for downloading Telegram and Signal?” He was a man of principle.

Though I could guess about the subject of this conversation, the last couple of sentences confirmed it. It was about the recent action by WhatsApp, the messaging App, of asking users to agree to their updated Privacy Policy, or lose access.

“Look, I don’t expect the common man to understand or appreciate. But I am a responsible employee of the Indian government. I can. Do you know that even for official matters I don’t use my official government email ID and instead use my personal gmail account? Even my bosses cannot see what is going on. Beat that for privacy and security.” He had continued with his principled stand.

For the first time I looked at his face. My eyes perhaps betrayed my respect and admiration as he immediately frowned and looked the other way, and, after a brief pause, continued. “What? You don’t know the changes made in the new policy? Even more reason to not agree. These companies are trying to make changes without even asking or telling us. We have to resist.”

After a brief period of “hmm”s and “OK”s, he was on the warpath again. “Let them cancel my account. I don’t care.” He paused, looked up as if in deep thought, as a realisation of the impact slowly dawned.

His voice came out softer. I had to strain my ears to keep up. “Bbb…but how will I communicate with my mates from school receiving and forwarding random messages? More importantly, how will I claim it is so wonderful to be connected again on WhatsApp? We may be connected on Signal or Telegram, but then we cannot claim that it is good to be connected on WhatsApp, isn’t it?” A dispassionate, objective analysis if there was one.

I could sense it was all getting too much for him. His eyes had turned a shade of red while he was still speaking. He could speak and think at the same time, that was certain. He could not take it anymore and started sobbing. “How will I send condolences? How will I wish people on their birthdays and anniversaries? Do you think I have the time and energy to call or personally greet people who I love so dearly? What will happen to my connections if they stop receiving my Good Morning messages with pretty flowers? How will I show my patriotism to my connections? How will I receive and forward messages that I have no clue are fake or real? How will I waste time in meetings? How? How? How?” His plaintive cries rang out in the coach.

He stopped. Everyone in the coach was looking at him. It was perhaps a common issue they were all struggling with at that moment, but he had articulated everyone’s innermost feelings. I realised I was not the only one listening in on this conversation. I wanted to hold him and express my support but the Covid-19 protocol was in operation. I could only watch him while he cried himself out. It seemed to calm him down. He blew into a handkerchief. He was able to speak in a more composed tone after that.

“They have my age? OK.” The voice at the other clearly had been active. “Sex…Music playlist on Prime…OK…Sounds good…Netflix serials I am watching,” he was perhaps repeating what he was hearing on the phone. “Location…Milk delivery time…Blood group…Bank account number…Bank account password…What I had for breakfast today…Breed of my dog…Childrens’ vaccination schedule…Websites searched…Tax returns filed…What? They know my golf handicap…That is not fair…Credit history.”

There was a pause again.

“Is that all? If this is the only data they have, I have no problem in accepting the new policy, whatever it be.”

The voice was perhaps active again as he seemed to nod his head occasionally. “There, what did I tell you? If, as you say, Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg has said that they are collecting personal data to improve their services, it must be true. He is a good man. After all, he runs a large company. It must be a non-profit like all large companies. And his sole objective must be to provide us free services and protect our interests. By the way, when are we getting free Tesla cars?”

Without waiting for a response, he added, “And why not? Do we pay for Google? Do we pay for Facebook? Do we pay for WhatsApp? We sign-up without reading the T&Cs and use. Why should we pay for Tesla?” as he got up to get out of the coach.

Everyone in the coach was smiling. Having just accepted the new WhatsApp policy, they were perhaps busy choosing the colour of their free Tesla car.

Driving Skills – 2

Stirred into action on seeing two accidents in a short ten kilometre stretch from home to my son’s school (click Driving Skills – 1 for full story), I have started compiling a list of easy-to-follow guidelines designed to bring equality and democracy to our roads. I am conscious that some of the guidelines set out below are more applicable to male drivers, and some to drivers in the Delhi/Gurgaon/NCR region, but that is more on account of a) more drivers being male and b) I have lived in the Delhi/Gurgaon/NCR area for over ten years, rather than a desire to give these two constituencies a competitive edge over others.

In order that benefit to society is neither delayed nor denied, I am not waiting to complete the document and, instead, will publish it, as I progress, in instalments. This is the first instalment. 

While going the wrong way on a one-way street (“is there any other way to go?” you might be tempted to ask if you live in Gurgaon), if oncoming traffic honks at you, flash your high beam. We all know the magical properties of the high beam. When aimed correctly, it should make the errant vehicle vanish. Especially in India, a generally hot country with long hours of bright sunshine, where, particularly in the daytime, the beam’s magical properties make it invisible to the naked eye.

If they don’t get out of the way when you flash the high beam which they could not see, roll down your window, make a tight fist and wave it randomly in the air. If the oncoming car still does not get the message, stop your car and get out. If you can’t go the wrong way, nobody goes nowhere mister. At this point roll up your shirt sleeve for the trading of punches which is likely to follow shortly.

If you need to turn right at an intersection, ensure you are in the left-most lane at the moment you need to begin the turn to the right. The right turn must be made in a graceful arc sweeping across the rushing vehicles in the centre and right lanes in a manner that brings them to a screeching halt mid-stride. This strategy is even more effective when you have to make a U-turn to the right. The simple beauty of this strategy can be judged by the fact that it is equally effective the other way round; while turning left from the right-most lane.

Never, ever, stop on the left side of the road where it is prohibited to either stop or wait. Stopping on the left side of the road, next to the kerb, will only cause a minor disruption. For maximum impact, stop right in the middle of the road. Purpose of stopping is irrelevant. It can be to let a pedestrian jaywalk across, or to ask the driver of the taxi next to you for directions. Experienced drivers will know that the second reason listed above has been found to be most effective for maximum disruption as two cars will be stopped in the middle of the road side by side while others try to navigate around them.

In any condition of stopping in the middle of the road, never forget to turn on the blinkers (the flashing lights that are meant to be a “caution” signal for others) to gain the moral high ground in any ensuing confrontation, should you encounter outraged fellow-travellers or even a rare cop trying to enforce rules.

If you see a traffic signal turning amber in the distance, what do you do? Even young children know the answer to this. It is obvious really. You must speed up in order to ensure that you are able to reach and cross the signal before the light turns to red. Distance to the signal is irrelevant. If you can see it, you can cross it.

A corollary of the above rule is that you should never, ever, be the first to stop at a traffic signal. Doing so is bound to lead to an immediate and irrevocable deterioration in your social status, if an acquaintance were to notice this act of weakness, especially if you happen to belong to Delhi or its surroundings. As we know, acquaintances of people living in Delhi hang around at traffic signals waiting to spot you being the first to stop at the signal.

The other outcome of this unnatural behaviour, should to choose to indulge in it, is that everyone behind you will need to stop. Can you imagine the chaos a moment’s irresponsibility on your part will create for the city? Choose to act in a responsible manner today. Never be the first to stop at a red light.

Always drive with your child, preferably an infant, in your lap. Borrow one if you don’t have one of your own. In order to create the right environment it should be done without the child wearing a seat-belt. In any run-in, either with infuriated fellow-commuters, or with the law, blame the other guy for not being sensitive to the child. An unintended benefit will be that the child will imbibe these driving habits early.

Please understand that the law asking you to wear a seat-belt while driving has been introduced for the safety of the cops trying to enforce it. Never, ever, wear a seat-belt while driving. Make sincere efforts to avoid detection by holding the buckle end of the belt and stretching it as far as the point where it could be buckled, without actually doing so. Not only will this permit you to cock a snook at the efforts of the traffic policemen to become safe by getting you to wear a seat-belt, you will also be able to engage one hand with the belt buckle, leaving only one hand to drive, shift gears, etc. The situation, as you can guess, is pregnant with possibilities.

In order that you are not overloaded, we will stop this instalment here. We hope you will find these guidelines useful in bringing order to our increasingly chaotic roads.