The recent mass ‘exodus’ of people from the North-east defines a new security moment in India. Thousands left their jobs, fled in distress, poured into railway stations and clawed onto trains to make the long journey back home. The voice of assurance from the government was like a faint goodbye from an irrelevant bystander on a crowded railway platform.
It could be argued, somewhat unconvincingly, that the exodus was brought on by the power of ‘mischievous information’ to an already alienated population. That a combination of SMSes, social media and criminal intent lit a consuming fire that rapidly burnt out all faith in law and order and common sense. Such an explanation, however, for all its elegance and compelling logic is inadequate.
Four facts, in particular, stand out. First, it was overwhelmingly an urban phenomenon. Second, instant information carried more conviction than the government’s claims. Third, mass panic went beyond the local and was played out over a considerable period of time. Last, the events of the digital stampede made it apparent that there was no existing governance infrastructure for urban India that could address or respond to such a breakdown.
Restoring the ‘normal’ in such a situation principally involves intervening in ways that help re-establish and revive daily routines for the affected populations. Japan, as the world’s leading exemplar in disaster preparedness, offers lessons. It has been able to competently couple sturdy infrastructure and communication strategies with an excellent regime of regular disaster readiness drills for the entire population. Japan has even declared September 1 as National Disaster Prevention Day when the government, including the prime minister, participates in a mock drill. The point that stands out in contrast to the recent mass panic in India is the Japanese government’s ability to instantaneously emerge in such situations as the only credible and authoritative voice. In other words, disaster response has been crafted and sustained principally as an unrivalled public good.
However, many aspects of the security infrastructure in urban India are handled by the private sector. A casual assessment will tell us that most, if not all, housing colonies and office establishments in Delhi, for example, are manned by private security agencies. Water, to take another example, even when piped through municipal bodies, is now privately rendered safe through purification devices. Many other similar examples will show how the middle class and urban elites no longer look to the government as the main organising force in society.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, instant information has acquired the potential to be fitted into a terror module. Alienated populations in urban areas can be effectively mobilised through (mis)information campaigns. This is a new script and it involves coming to terms with new challenges. Given their lack of confidence in the system, people are prone to accepting a plausible story that feeds their fears rather than being enabled by a measured decision-making.
Given such a context, the (wrong) take-home message is to insist on an extra policing strategy where security surveillance is extended onto social networking websites and text messaging. In part, this limited strategy can be defeated easily. Policing the internet or controlling information is a taxing and difficult exercise to sustain.
Policing the internet, in other words, cannot be projected as the only solution. If anything, the recent exodus forces a policy rethink on the nature and type of the urbanisation model that is being pursued in India. Instead of following the World Bank and Washington Consensus strategy of repeatedly thinning government and eliminating public goods, we need the opposite. There is an urgency to put meaningful government on the ground. A governance capacity which can deliver to vulnerable populations their fair share of public entitlements such as health, water, housing and safety.
There is enough evidence now that points towards the fact that the poor and disenfranchised urban population is a volatile ‘social material’. If the youth riots in Paris of 2006 and the London riots of 2008 are anything to go by, systematic and intense inequalities in cities and urban spaces are subject to explosive and violent eruptions. These sections can be rendered even more vulnerable and dangerous by instant information.
The distress flight of the Northeasterners is a clear warning with a strong message. Only a meaningful government presence on the ground can provide a credible response to any sudden breakdown. Profit-seeking private services cannot replace the relevance and importance of the public good.
Rohan D’Souza is Visiting Indian Council for Cultural Relations Chair at the University of Tokyo. The views expressed by the author are personal.