Thinking out loud

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Are we prepared, indeed?

A few months ago, I wrote about our unpreparedness for facing disaster - natural or otherwise. We have just been demonstrated just how unprepared we are. The recent downpour in Mumbai and nearby areas have brought the state and crucial services throughout the country, to their knees.
Local railways in Mumbai are always closed down for a few days each year. This year was a totally different story though. News clippings showed trains, but no signs of the tracks. People had to be evacuated using ropes - cliffhanger style. Some people walked 23 hours from the trains to their homes, with luggage on their heads. The roads were flooded to knee level at some places; and shoulder level at others. Homes did not have electricity or drinking water for days. And this was the condition in India's biggest metropolitan; the business capital.
Conditions were much worse in other parts of the state. Some villages were completely wiped off. And apparently these villages were not even on the maps of the government, let alone on their radar.
Cellular phone networks went down affecting the city even more in the time of crisis. SBI's ATM service across the country collapsed because their central server resides in Bombay. Our hostel mess was flooded with water; and remained so for about 2 weeks - thanks to L&T construction.
At this point, I'm not blaming the government or private enterprises for inaction. Enough people across the country have done that. What I'm more worried about is the state of our engineering. One wonders what civil engineers we are producing; The infrastructure they build have no way to cope with heavy rains - let alone floods. One wonders what kind of reliability engineering we are doing that heavy rains in one city affect banking operations across such a huge nation. We don't have redundancy measures in our systems. We are incapable of delivering communication services in a crisis. We are incapable of running rescue operations in a crisis.
It is true that several villages are built without consent or knowledge of the government. However, I cannot understand how they can remain out of sight of the government. Today perhaps Google Maps flaunts better pictures of all of India than the Indian government itself. What is the state of the art in remote sensing that we have? Don't we have enough computer engineers that can write software to analyse such imagery and develop safety plans? Are we only capable of running Call Centers; solving problems in running MS Word or processing credit requests in the UK? It is hard to believe that this may be true; but as of right now it seems to be the case. Is it time we do something about it?


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