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Raghu Raman : Burning stations and governance

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  • Thiagarajan Arunachalam
    From: karmayog - tanya http://www.livemint.com/Opinion/TyrHTkB1R4HRohrE8v7b9L/Burning-stations-and-governance.html Burning stations and
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 21, 2013
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      From: karmayog - tanya <info@...>

      http://www.livemint.com/Opinion/TyrHTkB1R4HRohrE8v7b9L/Burning-stations-and-governance.html

      Burning stations and governance

      India is a hard country to administer. Silo mentalities and turf wars make
      the task much more difficult

      Raghu Raman

      First Published: Wed, Feb 20 2013. 06 06 PM IST

      On 18 November 1987, a major fire broke out at King's Cross station of the
      London underground. The start of the fire-a burning tissue-was seen and
      reported to Philip Bricknell, a ticket collector. Bricknell promptly
      investigated this report but did not see it through or even mention the
      incident to anybody. A separate department handled fire safety and this
      ticket collector was simply following the unwritten code of the underground
      by not transgressing his remit. At that time, the underground was operated
      by the four chief engineers-civil, signal, electrical and mechanical-who ran
      their departments as fiercely guarded fiefs and jealously protected turfs.
      Bricknell, like all other employees, was ingrained with the unwritten rule
      of never calling the fire brigade or even mentioning the word "fire" aloud,
      lest it cause a stampede. And even if he wanted to, the strict chain of
      command forbade Philip from contacting another department without
      authorization of his superior.

      King's Cross was one of London's oldest stations with much of the structure
      still comprising the original material-wood and rubber. The ceiling of the
      station had been painted many times without removing previous layers of
      highly inflammable paint. The burning tissue was in fact, part of a much
      larger inferno that quickly spread through the station, fuelled by
      combustible material.

      Eventually Christopher Hayes, the safety inspector of King's Cross, began
      investigating the fire but still did not consider it necessary to involve
      the fire brigade. Ironically, dozens of studies by the London fire brigade
      had chastised the lack of training and preparedness of the underground staff
      and their inadequate knowledge of fire-fighting systems. Just two years
      before, the fire brigade had given specific instructions that they be
      informed at the earliest signs of fire. But Hayes was not aware of this, as
      the letter had been sent to the operations department. Hayes was not even
      aware of a sprinkler system that had already been installed to prevent just
      such an event because that was managed by another division and simply strode
      past it. Similarly, as in the past, operations had suggested that old paint
      be removed before fresh coats were applied but the maintenance department
      had advised them against interfering in their domain.

      When the fire brigade finally arrived, they chose to use the fire hydrants
      installed at the street level and run the hoses all the way down, instead of
      using those inside the station because their rules forbade operating
      hydrants of other organizations. As each train pulled into the station,
      disgorging more passengers, the fire was fuelled further with oxygen. The
      terrified passengers could not get back into the train because the drivers
      had explicit orders not to reopen doors once shut-to prevent tardiness.

      A year-long investigation found scores of such well-meaning, but disastrous,
      rules that contributed to one of the worst tragedies of the London
      underground that claimed 31 lives and injured dozens. Tightly siloed
      departments spurned external inputs and focused on protecting turf instead
      of the larger goal-customer safety.

      As The New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg points out in his book, The
      Power of Habit, organizations evolve unwritten rules to maintain a delicate
      balance of power that permits them to operate an environment of
      contradictions. While actions of individuals or departments may originate
      from good intentions, they often turn into procedures for protecting turf,
      ignoring damage to overall objectives. This phenomenon is further
      exacerbated in large and complex environments (such as governments) where
      overall goals are designed with a philosophy of "hope for success" but
      individual accountability is driven by "fear of failure". There are
      important leads in these examples for what India is currently experiencing.

      India is unarguably a country of contradictions. Governing a land of such
      bewildering diversity requires a complex machinery. But rising complexity
      brings its own problems, and organizational friction is one big one. While
      critics deplore the plethora of departments, divisions and ministries, at
      some level, such complexity is inevitable and when multiple and, all too
      often, contradictory objectives are to be achieved. Almost all challenges
      India faces are staggering in scale and consequently the solutions, too,
      require multiple tradeoffs of efficiency, cost, speed and caution. For
      instance, jobs have to be created for millions of citizens, something that
      requires industrialization on a grand scale, but without damaging an already
      deteriorating environment. Investment has to be made speedily but without
      compromising prudence. Corruption has to be stemmed using systems that are
      inefficient, outdated and corrupt. Justice has to be delivered speedily but
      without compromising its quality. Even if one assumes that governance
      mechanisms are not partisan or are selfless-which they are not, the
      paradoxes between narrow short-term goals and the broader long-term
      objectives decelerates progress.

      The King's Cross fire illustrates how a disjointed ecosystem of departments
      led to disaster while individuals in each department were doing what they
      thought was best from their perspective. A similar situation plagues India.
      Unless we are able to step back and appreciate the multitude of crises that
      we are already confronted with, our turf loyalty and parochial goals will be
      our tragedy of errors.

      Raghu Raman is an expert and a commentator on internal security.

      _
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