Saturday, June 30, 2007

Friday, June 29, 2007

The Killer Cabs Strike-- For Their Rights

From July 1, over 10,000 lorry and cab-drivers in Karnataka will be on strike. They are protesting against the government's heartless ordinance to install speed-governors that would limit their speeds to 65Kmph.

In city conditions, even at the best of times we can hardly exceed 40-50kmph. I cannot imagine why anyone might feel "constrained" if asked to drive at a respectable maximum of 65Kmph. The cabbies might argue that, by this logic, all cars must have a speed-governor installed. Why single out those poor, defenseless killer-machines alone? The answer, in my opinionated opinion, is rather simple.

I pause to ponder, in the few moments immediately succeeding a narrow escape on way to work. I do have a few choices, when an arrogant cab squeezes into a narrow space on my left (even as I am on the left edge of the road myself). I could continue in my lane and bang into the squeezy cab. I could swerve to avoid, and bang into the guy on my right. Or I could brake suddenly, thus saving me from the converging flanks. In this case, the guy behind me would be tempted to ram it in!

In all the cases, one would deem both (or all) the drivers culpable for an accident, if any. The difference is that I am merely a driver, struggling with my gears. He, however, is one with his machine. Like a T-Rex, there is a small but nimble brain inside that gigantic body. Like a crazed T-Rex, the cabbie can stomp through the roads at will and not even feel a scratch. The pedestrians and cars trembling under their shadow are but a few twigs being scrunched in the path of the monster.

This is not a comparison between equals; in fact, this is a fight we can never win. We, who use the road only few minutes in the day, essentially to get off the road and to be someplace else. They, whose skill and guile on the wheel is at the very core of their survival, who earn a living from the road, by the road -- who live on the road. We, the average worker tottering between home and office in a 4 year old Santro. They, the lean, mean, sleep-deprived drivers ferrying call-center executives and harried passengers in their mammoth, well-embellished Sumo and Qualis.

They drive rash because they can. Because they have been on the road long enough to own it. Because the SUVs given to them, in addition to seating more people, is also an imposing creature towering over the rush-hour ants.

They need the speed-governors because we understand that they are under pressure. Pressure from the HR executives to ferry the agents on time, traffic jams be damned. Pressure to work at unearthly hours, with little or no sleep between shifts. Pressure to brave the roads of Puttenhalli at 3AM.

They need speed-governors because they might be pressured enough to not see a frail old lady trying to cross the 6 lane main-road. Because, they may be pressured enough to make mistakes even though they are still human at heart.

They need the speed-governors because, to quote another super-bug: with great power, comes great responsibility.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Bangalore Passport Office - New Improved

Continuing my previous post on the ordeal of applying for a passport in India. Considering I had an appointment for 3:39PM and at 4:13PM I am already back at my workstation, typing this blog, I'd say it wasn't an ordeal at all -- rather, it was a good deal.

Some observations:

1. The old passport office kept people standing for miles outside, under rain and sun. The new one lets you sit. Under rain and sun for the ones outside, sufficient seating in the Halls inside.

2. At Rs.20 for 4-wheeler parking, the moon-surface parking lot behind the building was a huge improvement and relief, compared to the old office. I wish they'd build Multi-level parking quickly in such prime areas. The parking space is never going to be enough!

3. "Online Applications" are submitted on the first floor. The room is designed like the US Visa consulate, except leg-room between rows is better here. A token system was in place. I registered online last week, so all I had to do was wait for the token to be called. Ironically, many people do not turn up for the appointment, so the token was called 10 minutes early.

4. A Holy Trinity mans the counters. When your number is called, the first one checks whether all papers are in order and retains the application. The lady next to him verifies the information in the application against original documents. Finally the third one accepts the payment and gives a receipt. In my case, old passport was returned after "Cancelled" stamping.
All three were pleasant, polite and spoke English. (Am I in a dream?? But it was true!!)

Some gaffes:

1. The system is still confusing for newbies. Saw many urban ladies and rural families wandering aimlessly.
My View: Have couple of executives wandering WITH them, to assist and guide people. The security guy could do it, but they do nothing... not even make us feel secure!

2. SpeedPost will deliver the new passport and only to the residential address. The RPO still lives in a world where your wife would obviously be home to collect the courier!
My View: Allow for "delivery address" to be different from the residential address on passport. How will this cause any security breach??

All in All?

So far it has been a painless exercise. I commend the RPO for taking the right steps and wish that, for all our sake, they succeed in making this as easy as opening a bank account.

For now, I must wait for the delivery by Speed-Post and/or run around for collection of the courier (since no one at home all week, high probability that it will be returned). Then, of course, starting the process all over again for Bumpy's passport.



I must blog that my experience has been pretty good with the RPO. The application itself was well regulated using Internet registration. The delivery was done promptly within 20 days of applying. Since I was not at home, the speed post guy left a note. I was able to collect the passport from Speed Post office within 5 minutes this morning. So relieved to see they had not made any typo or other silly errors.

These instances provide some semblance of living in a developed country. Feels great when that happens!!

Passport - Freedom of Movement

India has been making strides in reforming the most cumbersome of Government processes. At the forefront of this effort are the Income Tax, Election Commission and the Passport Authorities. Considering these affect almost the entire population, success in making these procedures hassle and corruption free will take us quite a few laps forward in the "Developed Nation" tag race.

In Bangalore, two changes have happened as regards the Passport procedure.

The first is outsourcing fresh passport application to something called the "Bangalore One" initiative. This is a public-private partnership with centres across the city. Their aim is to assist citizens of the locality in getting routine government works completed in a techno-savvy, comfortable and courteous surrounding. Typically, one can submit fresh passport application at BangaloreOne with a minimal queue (unlike the three hour wait at the RPO) and with polite, patient guidance from the agent sitting there. I would strongly recommend using their services.

The second has been shifting the Regional Passport Office (RPO) for Karnataka into a massive new building in Koramangala. The earlier passport office was a cramped space in the heart of Bangalore's MG Road. The new premises should help not only process the applications faster, but allow the process to become more transparent and hassle-free.

Of course, being Babus, they cannot help be themselves to some extent. For instance, the website does not give a location map or any landmarks for the new premises. The layout map, the instructions and other details still refer to the old office. The cryptic 'postal address' works only for those who already know the location!!

Then of course, there is the process itself, with its police report and list of documents. Even in the age of nomadic IT workers, the RPO is heavily tilted in favor of "ration-card holders". The alleged reason for making the process so cumbersome, is to prevent people from flying under the radar. As the Katara and Abu Salem cases show, those who need a fake passport can still get it pretty easy. All that these archaic procedures do is to introduce knots into a system, that unravel only with lubrication obtained from "well-versed" facilitators. Hasn't everyone--and i mean, barring no one-- received the police report after greasing the constable palms? This is valid even if you did your first poo poo in that house!!

My take is that while some sections of the bureaucracy are working to mitigate the ills, there are others who wish to retain secret trap doors for misusing the system. It is near impossible to prove misdeeds in such case and the Rs.200 bribe is cheaper than the hassles (and eventual victory) one might gain from protesting.

60 years after the success of Gandhi's freedom movement, freedom of movement still does not seem like a birthright.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

(Ad)Sense and Comment-ability

I stayed away from blogging for many years since first signing up on blogsites. For fear of not being read. For fear of not being any different from the billion blogs cramming cyberspace. For fear of simply vanishing. Or worse yet, being found and dispensed with!

Which is exactly what happened finally. I get comments commenting on the utter lack of comments on any of my posts! From an alleged friend. Well, as he/she said, that's what friends are for. To protect you from the ignonimity of being yourself before the whole world finds out!!

While I contemplate options before me, to create multiple fake id's to leave comments here or make this blog "by invitation only", I wanted to take a last chance. For those who may not know, there is a little link at the end of each post that says "0 comments". Click on that to leave comments about what you liked/disliked in each post.

While you are at it, please click repeatedly on the Google Ad next to the post as well. It will help me buy diapers for Bumpy!

Friday, June 08, 2007

Myspace doesn't end at Death

Came across an eerie website while browsing for something completely unrelated. I have no words or opinions. It is just something that made me uncomfortable.

The fact that the images are taken off MySpace profiles gives it a familiar, yet morbidly surreal aura...

I first came across something similar when an Indian student died at Virginia Tech shootout and someone faked her Orkut profile "as a joke". This website is no joke. Unless of course, you enjoy the irony that it is hosted by Blogger and features exclusively MySpace members!

Wonder what kind of people spend their day maintaining the portals such as YourDeathSpace - A Collection of Dead MySpace Users


Volvo - Mass Transit Made (Un)Comfortable

About 5 years ago, two things happened to road travel in India. The first was the massive pan-India highway reconstruction project, heralded by Atal Behari Vajpayee as "The Golden Quadrilateral". The aim was to connect major metros by 6 lane, secured toll highways. Spanning the country, they provided comfortable connectivity to smaller towns along the way as well. This project has largely been a success, even though the momentum has slowed since the last elections.

The second was introduction of so-called "Volvo buses". Initially started on popular routes such as Bombay-Pune, Goa-Bombay, Delhi-Jaipur and Chennai-Bangalore, soon every small and big operator had a fleet of Volvo buses, thanks to the canny operation cost and huge demand. These were the B7R model buses made by Volvo of Sweden, with a dreamy suspension, comfortable reclining seats, low-step access, space-age driver's cockpit and bump-free rides at greater speed.

It was even said that Volvo would ensure maintenance as per stringent Volvo standards, failing which the warranty would be void, and also train the drivers for a smart international experience. Road travel in India had leaped from the era of hard wooden seats in over-crowded, rickety metal heaps spewing black smoke.

Five years later, Volvo has sold whatever it can. The warranties are all long expired. Volvo doesn't care anymore. The owners never cared.

On a recent trip from Bombay to Pune on "Shivneri" (branding for Volvo buses owned by the State Government), the air conditioning was broke and helpless passengers sat sheltering their babies from water dripping through the AC vent above. Indian ingenuity made up for government apathy (once again!) as this picture shows.

Even on the streets of Bangalore, attractive red Volvos ply intra-city, routinely spewing thick black smoke and change lanes suddenly. Add, of course, my pet grouse of regional script on number plates. The designers never imagined that the maneuverability of these monsters in the hands of KSTRC drivers was like an AK-47 in the hands of an infant!

In case of these buses, despite the huge initial costs, we scrimp on maintenance costs. As a nation we destroy the environment for future generations and continue to remain backwards despite the prosperity!

Why do we as a nation pay such low premium on "maintenance"? Can a penny-wise pound-foolish nation really aspire to become the next super-power?