Tag Archives: Bangalore

What can fire tragedies teach project managers?

Today evening, we lost at least 9 innocent lives in the fire at Carlton Towers, Bangalore, and many more are still battling for life. All these were office-goers who worked an honest living and were part of the burgeoning IT industry. While details will be out in next few days, preliminary reports, live tweets from some of the people stuck in the building, and eye witnesse accounts all suggest that these most of these lives could have been saved. I write this blog post to offer my tribute to those lives that we lost, and want to share my anguish by means of lessons that we project management can (and must) learn and hopefully avoid such tragidies in everyday project, and in homes and workplaces where we work and our families live.

Emergencies can strike anytime

This was otherwise a perfectly normal day – as normal as it gets. No rain, no thunderstorm, not really hot day, no major loadshedding. We don’t know whether it was a short-circuit (reports at this hour do suggest that short-circuit was the most probably culprit), or some other cause, but the circumstantial evidence suggests that there was nothing that could perhaps be blamed on an ‘external’ factor. I am reminded of the famous lines from Fred Brooks timeless classic, The Mythical Man-month, that it is ‘termites’ more often than the ‘tornadoes’ that hit the project. Most often, our carelessness and neglect sustained over time leads to breeding grounds for such termites and results into such grave catastrophes. It is important to ensure that regular health checks are part of any infrastructure, project or a system, for nothing is big enough to escape an emergency, even if its probability of happening might be miniscule.

Emergencies can strike anyone

This was a facility in a busy residential locality, and houses some restaurants. There is nothing around the building that could raise its threat level from fire due to its location, or due to its inhabitants, or nature of its business (it has mostly IT offices on upper floors). There was no real hazardous business carried on inside the offices. Still it met the fate that it met. Titanic sunk because its designers and crew thought it could never sink. Probably, someone in Carlton Towers felt the building was safe and hence there was no need for periodic checks and other fire-safety measures. However, as history forces unpleasent and unforgettable experiences down our unwilling throats, we somehow manage to neglect them in good times. It’s almost like the eventual fallacy of the eternal youth – only when we are past the so-called ‘eternal’ youth that we realize the true and bitter facts of life. Likewise, no project manager must ever think that he has fortified his project enough to be immune from any acts of man or god!

Fire Drills prepare us for dealing with emergencies

At this point, we don’t know if regular fire drills were conducted or not, but initial reports suggest that many (if not all) fire extinguishers did not work. It is also very likely that in panic, people were not able to figure out how to operate fire extinguishers. Also, initial reports suggest that some fire exits were blocked. If periodic fire drills were conducted, most of these issues would have been identified and hopefully rectified on a routine basis. Just now, as I watch news, I came to know to my shock and horror that there was no fire exit beyond 7th floor – and the building has 10 floors! How can we expect hundreds of officegoers to maintain calm and manage an emergency where they are stuck on 4th or 5th floors of a building on fire when there is no way they can defend themselves, no way they can fight the fire. I am always reminded of the golden mantra of armies – the more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war! While the loss of lives is condemnable and an irrepairable loss to their loved ones, the people whose negligence led to this tragedy must be held accountable. Would they be able to sit down with their families for a dinner tonight without their guilt asking them some simple but difficult questions that they know they can’t ever answer? In projects too, we must understand the true nature of the beast, and create adequate planning to simulate all possible trajectories. While plans can, and will, change in real-life, the real value is in the process of planning and the more one goes through the script, the more one discovers hidden problems languishing in the dark alleys and breeding in difficult to reach nooks and corners. A project that runs without script might look cool, but when the crisis hits (as it eventually must!) the team members have no clue how to respond.

Tweeple created alternate channels of communication

People like @jackerhack were able to reach out to the outside world by their tweets. While I don’t know if there were more, but thanks to them, we were able to get a heads up that might have probably saved some time and lives (at least I do think). Similarly, in projects, formal communication mechanisms often are inadequate, late and too rigid to be of any real use. Informal communication, especially the distressful one coming from the trenches, is perhaps the most important one that most managers tune out due to several reasons, most of then unreasonable. It is important to create back channels of informal communication where the real heartbeat and pulse rate of a project and the team could be felt without getting adulturated and sugarcoated, and available after a week in the next project report.

Conclsions

Unfortunately, this was not the last of avoidable tragedies. We create systems and infrastructure assuming there will never be a mayday, and live in a soft fort made of dry sand, blissfully unaware that forces of neglect are slowly and softly chipping away at our sand fort. If we take the ‘all is well’ for granted and wrongly assume it to be a result of our meticulous planning and flawless execution, we might only be burying our head and hiding ourselves a little deeper in the sand like the ostrich. A project manager must learn invaluable lessons from such unfortunate tragedies and put them into practice. Hopefully, they will avert a bigger disaster. If not that, at least that would be a small tribute to the tragic loss of those innocent lives.

Solution to Bangalore’s Traffic problems ?

We Bangaloreans love our city, its greenery and reasonably well-maintained gardens, its great weather, its wonderful people who are mostly peace-loving and gentle in nature, its attitude (“swalpa adjust maadi“), its food (simply too good !), its openness and warmth towards non-Kannadigas (thanks for making us a part of your culture), its intellectual capital and its generally understated elegance anchored by universal middle-class values like simplicity, respect, hard work and honesty. We also love its IT industry like a rare vintage wine, and its newfound romance with its vibrant enterpreunership eco-system that continues to attract best of the talent from all over India to its doors.

Of course, we don’t love its roads…and we simply love to criticize its perennial and ever mounting traffic woes.

After living in Bangalore for last 14 years, and paying all my taxes to Karnataka government on-time, I feel I have earned the coveted rights of being called as a ‘Bangalorean’. It is with this self-endowed right and pride that I share my view of what ails Bangalore traffic.

I think the real problem in our country behind unmanageable traffic in big cities is GOI-sponsored sixty-year old policy to only create mega-facilities in select cities. This self-appointed eliteness and preferential treatment, even if highly irrational even back then, of national capital and other so-called metros has ensured a huge and irrconciliable chasm between ‘India’ and ‘Bharat’ and has caused mass-scale migration of economic labor across all socio-economic strata of the society. For example, up until 10 or 15 years back, for every damn thing, you had to go to Delhi because that’s where the real ‘power’ was played. Similarly, by not doing any development in North East (and graciously supported by commies), we have a time bomb in Calcutta with some 11million+ population (and events like Lalgarh are only the beginning). Today you go to any state in India – I think more than 70% of economic output is generated by its capital city and except another 2-3 cities, other cities have virtually no industry or miniscule economic contribution. The only source of income in over 90% of such cities and towns is government jobs and small trading. Take UP – systemic misgovernance over last several decades has ensured there are today virtually no industries in UP. Commies have ensured there are no industries in WB and Kerala. The horror stories continue in almost all of the top 5 or 6 most populous states, with other states being only marginally better off. 

All this is forcing people like you and me to travel to such megacities in search of livelihood – this is not only the white-collared salaried professionals hailing from Lucknow or Baroda or Vizag or Madurai, it includes the carpenter from Kanpur, the mechanic from Patna, the plumber from Ujjain, the kirana shopkeeper from Kota, the jalebiwala from Ambala, the cabbie from Dharwad, the cash counter girl from Salem, and the Watchman from Nepal or Darjeeling – look around and you will find those are people who have also come to Bangalore and other big cities along with us. Why? For the first time in their several generations, they have all got an opportunity to do something bigger in life – move up the pecking order, so to say. With opportunities to make a decent living dried up in their hometowns, all they carry is hope in their souls and reams in their eyes to take a small sip from the fountain of newfound prosperity that a modern India has to offer – but unfortunately, only available to a select few in some big cities. Who are we to stop them from buying their first mobike (even if second-hand) or their first car ???? Just because we have enjoyed all that an urban life in such a wonderful city had to offer, do we have the right to stop others from having the same ??? I think that is a very selfish thought. So, whether we like it or not, economic labor migration is a reality that has always been there ever since human beings started settling down, and will continue to – it is as simple as water finding its own level. You and I can’t stop it.

Then people complain that all these migrants are the real reason behind traffic problem – they are causing undue pressure on a city’s public transport system that simply can’t scale up anymore. And when these people arrive in life, they upgrade to personal mode of transport and then once again add to the already overcrowded roads.

So, off we go thinking for a solution. Since we are not Singapore (though we aspire to be like Singapore but don’t have the guts to put in decades of hard work and no-nonsense governance before we become Singapore), we can’t stop people from buying vehicles. We don’t want to levy a city decongestion tax like in London. And since we are not China, we don’t want to control a city’s population by ‘regulating’ who all can come to a city and who can’t (90% of China’s wealth, top jobs, internet users, businesses, etc. are all in 5 cities – and yes, no common citizen who doesn’t have the skills to contribute to the economy of these 5 cities is allowed to just like that enter and live like a parasite). So, we neither have the stomach for tough decisions nor the wherewithal to implement hard measures. Some people say use public transport, some say use two-wheelers instead of cars, some say Metro will solve the problems…..

I think all that is just nonsense. You tell me how safe it is being on a two-wheeler on Bangalore roads where BMTC drivers start, stop and drive buses at their whims and fancies, and almost after 8pm any day, every second car is driving drunk. It is very easy to advise people to give up their four-wheelers and use a two-wheeler – question is, will you do the same and compromise on your family’s safety ? If not, then you have no right to advise others to do it. Let’s take buses. Every day I pass by the stretch of land in front of Lido Mall (can’t call it ‘road’ howsomuch I try to imagine!) and at 8am, I see some ~100 people waiting for bus. Probably there are more people already inside the bus! This must be true of pretty much every bus stop. This is not the life I asked for. No, I don’t think it is a sustainable solution. Let’s take Metro. IF and WHEN it gets completed, it would be yet another frivolous experiment at the cost of taxpayer (just like the fun that will begun IF and WHEN Worli-Bandra sea link opens – there are problems of congestion at the entry and exit points waiting to happen the moment the sea link is thrown open). It won’t solve any real traffic problems in a meaninful manner. For one, it won’t be point to point. So, first I need to drive to my nearest metro station, then catch the metro, alight at the station closest to my office, and again find a way to reach the office. Many times it will be too early in the morning or too late in the evenings, or it might be raining, so I can’t always walk down to the metro station. I need either an auto or I need to drive. But if I drive, where do I park my vehicle ??? I think it is not difficult to visualize the problems that will come up. I am not overcriticizing it or dramatizing it for effect – doing something once or twice is easy, very easy, but sustaining it over a prolonged period of time is what tests a system. I don’t think most people who drive cars today will consider Metro as a viable option to commute to work. Secondly, if BMTC buses are NOT taken off road once Metro starts operation, then we are worse off then when we started. I don’t think Metro will ever have the extensive connectivity that BMTC buses offer today, and hence there will be too much public backlash if any of the existing routes are discontinued. Then there are thoughts of widening the roads – you would have seen those red-colored hand-painted signs like “+4.5 mtr” – tell me, if that compound wall has to be pulled in 4.5 meters, the commuters on the road will probably be within kissing distance of the building occupants! Is that how we want to build a modern city ?

Meanwhile, some people thought of another clever solution: carpooling.

I think of all these things, carpooling is a collosal waste of time becuase its hides the real problem and creates illusion that it is really a simple problem that can be solved by taking small baby steps. Do we all really think 10,000 carpoolers will change the real problems in Bangalore in the long-run in a sustainable manner ? Even if tomorrow we have 100,000 carpoolers in Bangalore, that will not have any meaningful impact on traffic snarls. The problem with such models is first of all they are impactical to be scaled up beyond a point and that they give you the illusion of over oversimplicity that such a model is scalable to address Bangalore’s traffic issues which are nothing but some youngsters with an indifferent civic sense wanting to drive their newly bought cars everyday to work, and take away focus from core issues that the city is simply not enough for us all, and today it is traffic that is choking – tomorrow it will be housing, then water, then schools – traffic is only its first visible symptom! We need to realize that traffic is not a problem – traffic is the first victim of a much bigger problem that is waiting to explode anytime in future – and not just here in Bangalore, but in every such mega city which is target of mass migration of economic labor.

I think the solution lies only in decongesting cities over time. Develop other cities. Make sure no new industries can come to Bangalore, or at least no new staff augmentation happens in existing companies. Create tax incentives so that people setup industries in Hassan, Dharwad, Mangalore, Mysore and like. Make really good highways that ensure even if you worked in Bangalore, you would not mind living in the serene Doddaballapur or some other such place because commute will be such a breeze. Make sure all future IIT, IIMs and any other new engineering and medical college only goes to a Tier3 city. Make sure their is great 3G connectivity so that I could actually work from my ‘hometown’ and not just from home. Change labor laws to make teleworking attractive (today some 25% of Australia workforces does teleworking of some kind a few times a month) so that people can live anywhere in India and still work for a Bangalore-based office. Make sure no one has to ever stand in queue for doing silly things like making payment for electricity bills (at least in cities like Bangalore) – ensure 100% e-governance. I think these are real impediments that are choking us, not the traffic.

Noble efforts by a few, like the carpoolers (and I have admirations for their efforts – just that I feel their efforts won’t bring in the results that believe so passionately in), will help us highlight the problem and raise civic awareness, but no sustainable solution will come out of them and achieve critical mass unless we attack the root cause. When faulty policies are the root cause, the solution also must be found within correcting them.

And yes, let’s not envy those lesser blessed countrymen who, for the first times in their generations, have the real opportunity to improve the living standards of their coming generation, even if they have to live 2,000 miles away from home and survive on bare minimum.

I am proud of my fellow Bangalorean’s civic sense !

I live on a main road in east Bangalore, which is meant to be a one-way street. From morning until late in the night, I see familied people (kids in school uniform on scooters), autos, call centre cabs, people with 18-foot long sedans – just about everyone violating the one-way rule ! Every single day ! What surprises me is how these citizens and grown-ups face up to their kids and teach them to become law-abiding citizens when they themselves break the law at every single drop of hat. I guess this is happening in every single lane of every single city in our great country. Why are we so insensitive to the environment around us ? If we can’t add to the solution, can’t we at least NOT add to the problem ?