Atanu Dey On India's Development

Security in the Hands of the Retarded

| 23 Comments

Two days ago on Friday I had I a learning experience. My friend AN who had stopped to visit me in Pune for a few days on his way back from Australia was leaving. AN had worked and studied in Canberra for a few years and is now in the process of settling in Delhi. He was leaving and I went down with his bags to see him off. We had to stop at the shopping complex close by and so decided that we would leave his big suitcase at the gate of the housing complex and come back in a few minutes instead of dragging the suitcase around the place. What followed was instructive at many levels.

It was mid-afternoon and the place was as usual busy with people going about their business. As usual there were three security guards at the gate. I asked them to keep an eye on the bag and said that we’d be back from the shopping center next door in a few minutes. One guard looked alarmed. He said, “Nahin, allowed nahin hai.” He looked at his colleagues to back him up. His colleagues looked confused. The guy kept saying that it was not allowed.

In exasperation I asked why is it not allowed? What harm can come of my leaving this suitcase for a few minutes. I am not asking you to load it on your shoulders, am I? We’ll be back in a few minutes. Noticing my rising anger, one of the guards said indicated that it was alright and we walked away.

AN and I discussed this strange behavior. We could hardly believe that anyone would object to our leaving a bag in their plain sight in broad daylight, and not doing so clandestinely. We were not really strangers out of the blue; I lived in that complex and the security people see me several times a time going in and out. I thought that their behavior betrayed a thoughtlessness that arises from stupidity. If they had thought about it for even one moment, they would have realized that all I was asking was something very ordinary and understandable.

I realize that they not highly educated. But even uneducated people have the ability to reason about simple matters. I have noticed that Indians generally do not take the trouble to think very much about much at all. I am generalizing here about Indians but it may be common in the underdeveloped world. Even in the developed world, one can see rather moronic behavior — such as checkout clerks who are clearly innumerate — but it is not as pervasive as it is in India. Most people in developed countries will be able to offer some explanation of why something is done.

When we returned to take the bag, the guards told me that their supervisor had disapproved of their agreeing to keep the bag. So they’d been instructed by him to get me to write down what was in the bag and sign it. I said that I’d be happy to. I wrote down:

The bag contains one bomb.
Some bomb making materials including three timers.
Three revolvers and 40 rounds of ammunition .6 caliber
One AK-47 and one drone aircraft.
Some clothes and shoes for packing the stuff safely.

Signed
A Dey,
Apt B-xx,
Mobile 098123 45678.

Once again, this showed that the supervisor had not considered the matter at all. Asking me to declare what I had in the bag was pointless. If I had reason to hide stuff, surely I was not going to tell him that.

I went up to my apartment, pondering the matter. Is it any wonder that India is poor? There were three people sitting around at the gate of this complex. They had practically nothing to do. They were not producing any stuff. Stuff that one could eat, or wear, or use in some manner. They were providing some sort of security service but they did not have the training to do the job effectively or efficiently. They were told to open the gate for a passing car and close it immediately afterwards. This they did ceaselessly as the traffic was nearly constant. The job that the three of them did could have easily been done by one.

Much of India’s service industry is disguised unemployment. Many elevators are manned in India. A guy simply rides the elevator the entire day pushing buttons for the passengers. People are employed to stand at doors of shops and offices, simply opening and closing them. They are employed but they produce negligibly little. Add up all the negligible production of a very large number of people and then divide that production by that large number of people, and you have a very small number. That number is usually known as the per capita GDP — which in India’s case is about one-fortieth of the average American.

Security is the new thing in services. In the short distance from the gates of the Peninsula Corporate Park in Mumbai to my office in one of the buildings there, I note there are approximately 20 security people. Around 10 at the main gate, 5 at the lobby of our building, 5 in the underground parking (around 40 cars total capacity). Repeat that for the half a dozen gates and buildings and you have a fairly large number of people employed in doing very little. They are providing a service but their value addition is so little that they get paid around Rs 10K (or US$200) per month on average.

Perhaps this is an unfair comparison but allow me to compare, say, services in a rich economy like the US. A blogging platform, Tumblr was started in 2007. It is an excellent service. About 2 million people use Tumblr. Tumblr has 8 employees. That’s it: 8 people producing a service used by 2 million bloggers and perhaps used by 200 million readers. I will come back to why the US is so productive and what it implies. For now, let me get back to my story.

A few minutes after I got back to my apartment, the doorbell rang. It was the security guards’ supervisor, and two of the security guards. We converse in Hindi. Supervisor says, “Leaving a bag at the gate is not allowed.”

Why, I ask.

“Because we have to do security. We do it for your own safety.”

“No, you don’t do it for my safety. What you do does not make me any safer but just causes me hassles. What you do amounts to wasting your time and you waste my time. You have not even thought about this for a minute. You think that by not doing a simple thing that would help out an average person, you are increasing security. It does not help me at all. Have you ever used your brain and thought about it a minute,” I shoot back.

He replies, “But who knows what could be in bags these days. We do it for your own safety.”

“What are you talking about? I am sick of all the shit that I have to put up with just because some idiot feels that it increases my security. My security is not helped at all by your keeping the gate closed all the time. It just delays everyone. If by slowing down traffic one could have added to security, would it not make sense to put barriers every 10 feet on the road. That would make us all very safe, would it?”

My Hindi is not very good at the best of times but when I get irritated and angry, I can barely speak intelligibly. I was angry at the guy. I said that I will report him to his supervisor for not understanding his job. I asked him his name. His name was Suresh. He could tell that I was angry and asked what I thought he should be doing to improve security. That calmed me down. First, I said that I am sorry that I don’t speak Hindi very well and gave the excuse that my mother tongue is Bengali.

For the next few minutes I explained to him that it is pointless to not do something that one would normally do without a thought. All I wanted was to not drag a bag needlessly. So what was the problem? Why was it not allowed? The reason given these days for any intrusion or inconvenience is that it increases security. But actually it does not. I agree that these are not normal times compared to say 20 years ago. One has to be careful. But there is difference between being careful and being absolutely stupid.

Then I went on to make the distinction between “possible” and “probable.” It is possible for me to put explosives in a bag, walk up to the gate and ask someone to keep an eye on it. Everything that is not ruled out by the law of physic is possible. But everything is not probable. A bit of commonsense and all this could have been entirely avoided. It is possible that my suitcase had bombs, just like it is possible that the next time I go out, I could have a horrible accident and die. It is not unheard of that people die in car accidents, just that it is not unheard of that people plant bombs in suitcases.

But if we are unable to distinguish between the possible and the probable, we would be paralyzed into inaction terrified about the possibilities. We could not go out because it is possible to get killed. We could not eat because it is possible to choke on food. We could not bathe because it is possible to slip in the bathroom, hit our head on the toilet bowl and die. Millions of things are possible and of those millions, thousands of them are lethal.

I don’t know the words for possible and probable in Hindi. We had a huge vocabulary gap. Somehow though I think I got the message across. He was not an idiot. He was just an average guy. The gulf that existed between him and me was not limited to just the vocabulary. It was much wider and deeper than the matter that I had only English words to reason with and he probably did not even have the equivalent Hindi words.

I am quick to label people stupid and retarded. But when I do so, I am fully aware of the fact that even if it is true that a person is retarded, it is not the person’s fault. I am tall and I do recognize that I had as little control over my physical stature as a short person has. It would be stupid of me to not see beyond the obvious fact of a person’s physical or mental stature and realize that most of it is beyond their control.

He was standing at the door of my apartment. I probably earned more in a year than what he will earn in his lifetime. I had attended good schools and universities. I was better equipped to reason, to earn a living, to enjoy the good things of life than he was. But it was just the luck of the draw. I could have been in his place and he could have been in mine.

He did not go to some fancy US university to get a PhD. He did not get a chance to get degrees in four unrelated subjects. He did not get the opportunity to read fancy books and travel the world for pleasure. Why not?

Well, he did not get to go to a fancy university in the US because he did not graduate from a fancy technology institute in India. He did not get to the fancy Indian institute because he did not get to graduate from a very good high school. He did not go to a very good high school because his parents were poor. Poor people do not get to attend good schools because the Indian education system is biased against the poor. The government does not allow the system to provide the education that the poor need to get out of their poverty.

Just like I did, he too was born with an average brain and had the potential to become at least as productive as you or I. It was possible but given the reality of India, it was not at all probable. Not just Suresh, the security supervisor, but I estimate around one billion Indians have had their chances of a decent education entirely denied to them.

I understand that the two things — my getting a good education in India and his not getting one — are related. The government has decreed that there should only a few good institutions of higher education in India, and that the majority of Indians will not have access to them. The government has also ensured that primary and secondary school education will be of such poor quality that it would be nearly impossible for those students to qualify to go for higher studies. The government subsidizes the higher education of a small set of non-poor people at the expense of a very large number of poor people who are denied even a good secondary education.

People like Suresh had paid for my education.

Suresh was incapable of simple reasoning not because he was born retarded but because of the system. The system was designed by people who were educated but for some reason ended up promoting retarded policies. Those powerful people are at fault, not this person who was doing the best he can with what little he had been given. The current policy makers are cats of the same breed as before and they continue to make policies that will doom the future generations of India.

Our conversation was at an end. I shook his hand and said namaste and thank you to the three.

The next day — yesterday — a bomb killed a handful at the German Bakery in Pune. I think the retards will make the same noises about not tolerating any terrorism in India. The only thing that will change is that the security of the retards will be increased a bit more — and we all will wait for the next bomb to go off.

Mera Bharat Mahan. AOA!!

Related Post:

Solution to India’s Greatest Failure (May 2009)

Public flogging of the criminals occupying the highest levels of the government will happen a little after hell freezes over or a certain blue-turbaned man grows a spine, whichever comes later. Criminals don’t have an incentive to create incentives that deter criminals. We do have criminals in government, don’t we? A public watchdog organization reports that the new parliament of 543 members will have 143 MPs who have criminal cases pending against them. Of these, 71 have serious criminal charges such as murder. Being charged is not the same as being guilty, of course. But guilt can be established pretty efficiently and quickly, if the system was designed properly. But why on earth would criminals be interested in putting that system in place which would condemn them?

Let’s repeat what TSR wrote (quoted right at the top), “Since no part of the Establishment has an interest in punishing corruption, trying for a more sweeping solution quickly leads into the realm of blind hope.”

  • WoodyAllenWrench

    The language gap is deadly. I am a carpenter and my native language is not Hindi. Are there Hindi words for awl, mortise, dovetail, screed, chamfer, countersink, grout, caulk, dremmel, punchline, radius, offset, tangent, brad point bit, augur bit, router bit, etc.? Knowing these are essential to world-class carpentry. How can we build a nation if we do not possess a language to communicate engineering specs to the people who execute? It seems two typical Indians today, communicating in any Indian language, use a very primitive and limited vocabulary not at par with the complex modern world.

  • Rohit

    Most of the companies I know hire so many security guards because they are cheap and, second – primarily because it saves them taxes

    About the security guards well I think they are just scare crows and nothing better, but to be honest i like your security guard (and hated you) for the courage he showed of saying no, thats all is needed irrespective if they are dumb wits or not, just imagine if you have security guard in your US apartment – would he allow to keep yours bags by his side after a year after 9/11, surely no.

    Regarding India – well I have lost hope.

  • http://akshar100.wordpress.com Akshar

    @WoodyAllenWrench

    If some words do not exist they will be compelled to create news once or borrow it. BTW many of the words do exist in Konkani which is much younger and less rich than Hindi.

  • http://www.deeshaa.org Atanu Dey

    Rohit, you didn’t actually read what I wrote, did you?

  • pankaj

    Atanu i agree with you about the security guards behaviour which was irrational given that you stay in the housing complex and hence above suspicion.But in india it is the good people that are looked with suspicion rather than the bad.

  • Yoga

    I liked your letter to the supervisor…

  • Kaffir

    =>
    Atanu i agree with you about the security guards behaviour which was irrational given that you stay in the housing complex and hence above suspicion.
    =>

    Gee, Pankaj. I guess it’s impossible for a terrorist to stay in a housing complex, and hence be above suspicion.

  • Puneet

    I think the post is typical of how Indians think about how Indians think.

    It is hilarious that you assert your right to leave your baggage with someone who is manning security (or at least trying to ). Had you been here in the US, the baggage would have reported to the cops.

    You are right, security doesn’t come from people being stopped ever 10 feet. It comes from people being aware of what they should and should not be doing.

    In trying to maximise your individual payoff, Indians tend to mess up the greater communal good. (Perhaps you understand game theory) Sorry but India cannot develop unless you begin to understand where we are going wrong.

    • http://www.deeshaa.org Atanu Dey

      Puneet writes

      It is hilarious that you assert your right to leave your baggage with someone who is manning security (or at least trying to ). Had you been here in the US, the baggage would have reported to the cops.

      I think you misunderstand me. I was not asserting any rights. “Please keep an eye on this bag. I am going around the corner to get an auto,” by someone who you recognize is a resident of the complex is different from you coming up on a bag that is not claimed by anyone. One should keep far away unclaimed bags and take appropriate action such as altering the people around and getting the police. Sure, perhaps the resident of the complex is a terrorist, who has packed the bag with explosives and leaves it with the security guards. But wasn’t that the point I was trying to make — and obviously failed in your case.

      Everything is possible. The matter is that we have to distinguish between the possible and the highly improbable. It is possible that your husband has secretly converted to Islam and become a member of LeT and has been assembling IEDs in the spare bedroom and has told you that he is working on making a model aircraft carrier. It is possible but highly unlikely. If you go around confusing the possible with the very highly unlikely, you are bound to appear stupid. That’s the point.

  • http://sudiptachatterjee.blogspot.com Sudipta

    Atanu, there is such a thing as a security theater: a perception of security which lets us get on with our lives peacefully. In case of the security guards at your complex, although they would completely ineffective if a terrorist strikes with hand grenades, their presence is a deterrent to unscrupulous elements and door-to-door hawkers and other people who might otherwise encroach upon the apartment complex. And of course it is not in their (implied) job description to watch over bags. The trouble with making one exception is that this cannot scale, although at a personal level they could have done so without the news getting around.

    And the higher the stakes, the more resources one must throw at it. The example of tumblr that you cite does not stand because simply it applies to the internet: most online portals have a minimum staff working for them. Can you imagine the Burj in Dubai being built by even 100 people? We have a surplus of manpower and for each person half a loaf of bread is better than no bread. Lest you misunderstand me, I do agree that we need more sophisticated systems built for just say security and the personnel need specialized training. Till then, what alternatives do you propose?

  • http://iwillbelikethis.blogspot.com Praveen

    “Many elevators are manned in India. A guy simply rides the elevator the entire day pushing buttons for the passengers”

    Any time when you visit any super specialty hospital (or some), you can observe there are many people who come from villages, some of them don’t know how to operate a elevator, even many people who come to any city once in a while visit some malls., for these people a man in the elevator is necessary or atleast it is frinedly.. But no where in an software company/MNC organization you didn’t find any helpers in elevators., because the people use them commonly.. The need changes based on the place..

  • a

    The right to refuse watching over a bag is a fair point. However most people have missed the point of the post that has been trigerred by the bag incident.

    It is very interesting that none of the comments here picked up on the follow up action that the supervisor had thought necessary; that of getting the security guard to have the contents of the bag listed. What purpose would that have served?

    The basic point of the post as I understand is that Indians are lazy thinkers. Look around yourself and you will see countless examples of inane procedures/rules that will NOT serve the avowed purpose but instead adds to waste of productive resources. I have deliberately avoided giving examples. Do look around and see for yourself the immense thoughtlessness of the daily life in India. If only people in India would stop to observe and think and question. The mental inertia is what that allows half assed propagandists in the media to divert people’s attention away from the real issues.

  • http://none Anonymous

    One of your best & thought provoking posts.

    ” I have noticed that Indians generally do not take the trouble to think very much about much at all”.

    You have snatched my thoughts. Am tempted to reread this post as you have diagnosed the problem in our country. The presence of too many people employed to do nothing at all effectively is so common. This gives rise to unforeseen problems. As has been the case with the six watchmen supposedly guarding our small apartment complex in Chennai.

    Look at the bloated bureaucracy & government offices catering to useless parasites.

  • amar

    I think it was Jiddu Krishnamurthy who said that proper education removes the fear of the unknown. It need not be the Self-revealing knowledge that makes one see events that are beyond comprehension with a sense of tranquility. It could be at a more basic level, when people reason about things with a certain boldness and with a sense of responsibility, without fear of a superiors upbraiding them for nothing. It is these “RRRs” that even education should provide, which is lacking even in more reasonably educated, not just Suresh or his assistants. As it helps the politicians to keep people in this state of fear so that they can survive, they refuse to take steps so that even latter kind of education is available to common Indians.

    Now, who put the politicians over there? As you would like to say “It’s all Karma, Eh!”

  • ss

    Atanu, you were lucky. In another country, you won’t have been allowed to leave a bag just like that, and would have been reported to the cops. Will you accept a bag from a stranger to keep in your custody? The security guards should ideally have called the cops the moment you started creating a scene about your bag.

    • http://www.deeshaa.org Atanu Dey

      SS,

      It is precisely the sort of idiocy that I was pointing out — the over-reaction of an idiot when told to keep an eye on a bag becomes totally confused and blows a fuse thinking that someone is trying to murder him. I can see someone walking out of a market with a plastic bag in hand and people scattering in terror because it is possible to suffocate someone by putting a plastic bag on their heads and drawing it tight.

      I live in that apartment complex. Those security people know me.

      Only panic stricken idiots will call the cops to catch a guy who made a simple request to someone near his apartment to keep an eye on his bag. Those idiots will actually reduce security by crying wolf when there is really no reason to. If police are called to investigate every trivial incident, soon they will not respond to real incidents.

      The point that I was making is that people need to exercise judgement. I do realize that I have failed miserably — as is evidenced by your comment.

  • http://www.deeshaa.org Atanu Dey

    Voltaire said that “It is dangerous to be right on a subject on which the established authorities are wrong.”

    It is extremely pointless to promote reasonableness when the majority are panic-stricken retards.

  • Aneesh

    Atanu, I agree broadly with your analysis of the education system. The institutions are there, but the quality isn’t quite there YET.

    But what I totally disagree with is your predisposition to make wide spanning generalizations. You say “Is it any wonder that India is poor?”. Lets discuss this using GDP itself. When you compare the GDP on a Purchasing Power Parity basis, the GDP of India is 4th largest for the world – hardly the hallmark of an “underdeveloped” country that you seem to imply India is. I am not saying that it is developed, but neither is it underdeveloped. Also, I am not sure the statement “in a rich economy like the US” can be justified fully over the last one year or so.

    You say “They are providing a service but their value addition is so little that they get paid around Rs 10K (or US$200) per month on average.” I agree that there are plenty of jobs where the value addition to the society at large is precious little, but on the other hand, ask yourself this – is it better to give a man an opportunity to earn 10K a month and make a living or is it better to have an unemployment rate in the double digits?

    You say “but I estimate around one billion Indians have had their chances of a decent education entirely denied to them.” The literacy rate of India is 66% (a growth of 52% in 60 years), and the population of India is around 1.2 billion. Simple math tells you that one billion can’t possibly have been entirely denied a decent education.

    The main question I wish to ask you is this: you say that you have done a phd and obtained degrees in 4 unrelated subjects. Are you giving back to India in the same measure (recognizing the fact that it was India’s subsidized higher education that got you to where you are today)? If yes, I will be the first one to stand up and applaud you.

  • Oldtimer

    Atanu,

    While I agree with thrust of your argument — Indians don’t think much about much at all — I agree with some other folks here that you blew your fuse at the wrong person.

    The real retard is up the command chain. He didn’t train his people to take decisions, only to follow orders. And why is that? He didn’t understand his job well. He most likely came from an ex-Army/Police background, where the security function is different from guarding a housing complex. The larger purpose in securing a housing society is to make sure the residents have a comfortable living. He missed sight of that. In every job, there arise situations where rigid, unthinking enforcement of policy results in defeating the purpose the job was created for in the first place. Not all exceptions to policy can be enumerated. People at the top have to empower people on the ground to take decisions. The fish well and truly rots from the head.

    I’d like to understand why there are mediocre people even in decent paying jobs. Probably the same reasoning as above applies upwards recursively, terminating when we reach the dumbass but all-too-powerful politico at the top. He got there because we have poor, unthinking people at the bottom. Vicious circle maybe.

  • ravi

    >>that of getting the security guard to have the contents of the bag listed. What purpose would that have served?

    What if Atanu comes down an hour later and claims that 20 kilos of gold/camera/phone etc is missing from the bag? The guard was not looking at the terror threat, he was looking at a more mundane thing. The incidence occurs 2 days prior to the bomb blast. The security supervisor appears lot smarter than what Atanu gives him credit for.

    Lots of comments on how Indians do not think at all but no one thought about the above common occurrence. The guard Atanu hires for his apartment building is not for dealing with terror threats, it is more for dealing with less “romantic” issues such as theft, unlawful entry, stray dogs etc.

  • Kaffir

    =>
    What if Atanu comes down an hour later and claims that 20 kilos of gold/camera/phone etc is missing from the bag?
    =>

    Yes, but making a list is useful only if that list is made with the contents of the bag visible to the guard and in front of him. Otherwise, if I provide a list to the guard and he doesn’t double-check it against the contents, it has no purpose.

  • ravi

    >>Yes, but making a list is useful only if that list is made with the contents of the bag visible to the guard and in front of him. Otherwise, if I provide a list to the guard and he doesn’t double-check it against the contents, it has no purpose.

    The security guard came back within a few minutes of getting the list. I am kind of unwilling to further engage in this debate as the second post by Atanu makes his position clear (though I still have a problem with the analogy of the airport he makes there).

  • vivek

    Well written atanu. I’m reading your post after a long since i was cut off for some time. But where the education system in India is surely faulty, to which we all agree, people in India do refuse to use their common sense. In this case, he was just a security guard but i’m sure you would have seen much more educated people behaving in the same manner as he did.

    It was better to blow off a whole building by planting it inside the house only rather than taking it to the main gate. Just what you said atanu “They are not trained”