Friday, May 28

Naxal attack on Jnaneswari Express, Gulf Coast disaster: antiquated governments buckle under weight of 21st Century challenges

Thousands flee Athens wildfires, August 2009

Naxals slip through cracks of time: "The Indian Railway has effectively accelerated and increased the load on the system using 21st century technology while relying on an information process from the 19th."

Satellites trawl the heavens, dumping their catch of electronic signals into blindingly fast computer systems and it all ends up on a terminal on a desk in a government agency. From there --

System Overload

September 1, 2005 in wake of Hurricane Katrina: On-air exchange between CNN TV journalist Anderson Cooper and Louisiana State Senator Mary Landrieu:

COOPER: Senator, appreciate you joining us tonight. Does the federal government bear responsibility for what is happening now? Should they apologize for what is happening now?

LANDRIEU: Anderson, there will be plenty of time to discuss all of those issues, about why, and how, and what, and if. But, Anderson, as you understand, and all of the producers and directors of CNN, and the news networks, this situation is very serious and it's going to demand all of our full attention through the hours, through the nights, through the days.

Let me just say a few things. Thank President Clinton and former President Bush for their strong statements of support and comfort today. I thank all the leaders that are coming to Louisiana, and Mississippi, and Alabama to our help and rescue.

We are grateful for the military assets that are being brought to bear. I want to thank Senator First and Senator Reid for their extraordinary efforts.

Anderson, tonight, I don't know if you've heard -- maybe you all have announced it -- but Congress is going to an unprecedented session to pass a $10 billion supplemental bill tonight to keep FEMA and the Red Cross up and operating.

COOPER: Excuse me, Senator, I'm sorry for interrupting. I haven't heard that, because, for the last four days, I've been seeing dead bodies in the streets here in Mississippi. And to listen to politicians thanking each other and complimenting each other, you know, I got to tell you, there are a lot of people here who are very upset, and very angry, and very frustrated.

And when they hear politicians -- you know, thanking one another, it just, you know, it kind of cuts them the wrong way right now, because literally there was a body on the streets of this town yesterday being eaten by rats because this woman had been laying in the street for 48 hours. And there's not enough facilities to take her up. ...
System Failure

May 26, 2010:
Speaking at a California solar panel factory, President Obama used the [BP] oil spill to urge comprehensive energy reform. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, is urging the government to cut "cozy" ties between the oil industry and regulators. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said President Obama is considering adjustments to his plan to open exploration wells for drilling in the Arctic. ...
May 26, 2010:

Anderson Cooper, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, Louisiana Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser, New Orleans resident and Democratic strategist James Carville are in a motorboat bobbling in fudge-brown oil sludge in a Louisiana coastal marsh in Plaquemines -- such marshes a last line of defense to slow the fury of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes bent on laying waste to coastal cities.

The sludge is already killing the marsh vegetation but it's the dead silence that rattles the boating party most. Marshes teem with the sounds of wildlife and insects. Now, nothing; not the call of a bird, not even the drone of a mosquito. Dead, all dead, or departed.

Jindal and Nungesser had turned to CNN for help after sending increasingly desperate messages all week to every bureaucracy they could think of; they'd been begging for simple things -- equipment, manpower -- that any modern government should be able to provide. They'd gotten nothing in return.

They also got caught in a Catch-22: No, they couldn't erect sand berms to halt the oozing of the sludge into the marshes. They needed a permit for that and before they can get a permit, they were informed, a study had to be conducted to determine the environmental impact of the berms on the marshes.

"We're dying here," whispers Carville into the silent marsh. Then, his voice rising, his face twisted with fury, "We're dying here."

March 26, 2010:
Obama, under pressure, plans a rare news conference. ... Republicans won't deal with him. Blame for the historic Gulf Coast oil spill is heading his way. The left is mad at him, and so is the right. ...
May 28, 2010
(Delhi) Indian train crash: Leaders under pressure over Maoist attack India's leaders were under pressure tonight to clarify their strategy to tackle extremist leftwing violence after at least 80 people died and 200 were injured when suspected Maoist rebels derailed a passenger train in West Bengal state.

Even as rescuers were working desperately to free hundreds of passengers from the twisted wreckage of the [Jnaneswari] Express near Sardiha, 100 miles south-west of Kolkata, in the early hours of this morning, the Congress party-led administration of Manmohan Singh was under attack for being unable to stop a string of increasingly violent attacks.

"They are looking quite helpless. There's a sense of administrative collapse," said MJ Akbar, the influential editor of the Sunday Guardian. ...
May 28, 2010: Shlok Vaidya analyzes the latest Naxal attack:
... In the case of the Jnaneswari Express, Naxals removed about 50 feet of pandrol clips (designed to hold the track down ... ) to achieve instability at high speeds, and then removed a foot-long section of track in order to generate a catastrophic event. This is 51 feet of affected track, on a route spanning hundreds of miles.

The Jnaneswari fishtailed but was able to come to a stop with only a few derailed cars, though they came to rest on opposing tracks. However, the system immediately cascaded, as a high speed goods train was approaching from the other side, did not have time to stop and was not informed of the original incident. It hit the cars from the Jnaneswari that lay in its path.
Then he analyzes the cascading system failure:
Every day, the Indian Railways sends inspection engines to navigate its network, looking for any at-risk or failing infrastructure or problems. These engines move either when the passenger or good trains aren’t scheduled or accompany them (more and more likely given how tightly coupled the system is) and radio back if there are any problems. This is what occurred in the case of the Jnaneswari Express.

"An inspection engine is believed to have piloted the Ranchi-Hatia Express down the same track at 12.37pm. No damage was reported then."

The derailment occurred at 1:15 am, a full 12 hours after the last check.


Given how just in time this transportation system is now, with up-to-the-minute computer controlled management of train dispatch and scheduling, it cannot operate without a real-time view of its environment. This disconnect directly contributed to the huge body count in this particular instance (knowing that the Jnaneswari was off the tracks could have halted the goods train – there was a gap of a full five minutes). For example, this hole can be filled through the use of aerial surveillance (faster) or sensors (more real-time and distributed).

As it stands, the Indian Railway has effectively accelerated and increased the load on the system using 21st century technology while relying on an information process from the 19th.
Visualize an organization chart. You're looking at shorthand for government administration since the rise of civilization and its cities. Nothing has changed fundamentally since then: the king sits at the top, his ministers ranged underneath, and their underlings beneath them, and the information cascades downward and across then flows downward again, and across and downward again.

The modern state imitates that ancient government structure. Now let's see where we are today, after a month that has seen organized violence bring three capital cities -- Athens, Bangkok, Kingston -- to a virtual standstill; after a winter and spring in which scores of major cities and hundreds of regions across the globe suffered from 'Black Swan' events -- unexpected extreme weather/seismic events, several of which were historic.

May 28, 2010:
(BBC) [...] West Midnapore district, where the [Jnaneswari] incident happened, is the hotbed of Maoist rebellion in West Bengal, one of the states where the rebels have a presence.

Tribespeople dominate the district, especially the forested Junglemahal region bordering Jharkhand state. They feel ignored and deprived by the Communist government which has been ruling the state since 1977. Most live in abject poverty. The only visible signs of "development" I spotted during a trip to the area some years ago were cheap liquor shops.

Strong Support

Fed up with the state of affairs, Junglemahal's tribespeople even agitated for a separate state. When neighbouring Jharkhand was carved out as a separate state, their alienation grew and they were quick to welcome the Maoists, who wield most influence in areas which are poor and dominated by tribespeople.

The Lalgarh area in Junglemahal is the rebels' most formidable stronghold.

In February, they stormed a police camp in Lalgarh, killing 24 policemen.

Rebels love to describe Lalgarh as a "liberated zone" where the state has withered away - schools and medical centres have closed down because teachers and doctors are afraid to attend, and policemen are confined to the police stations fearing reprisals.

Friday's incident in West Midnapore demonstrates how the rebels are taking the battle to their enemies ever since the federal government launched an offensive in what is known as India's "red corridor" earlier this year.

This comprises 223 of India's 636 districts in 20 states which the government says are "Maoist affected", up from 55 districts in nine states six years ago.

Ninety of these affected districts, the government says, are experiencing "consistent violence."

The rebels have been carrying out attacks with impunity in recent months - two major attacks Dantewada in Chhattisgarh state left more than 100 people dead, including 75 paramilitary troops. ...

Following the twin Dantewada attacks, the government said it was reviewing its strategy for fighting the rebels, who have refused to respond to repeated government offers for talks.

Analysts say that the strategy of "clearing, holding and developing" rebel-affected areas evidently inspired by the US strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan is not working.

'Visible retreat'

One reason, they say, is that the surge of security forces and resources on the ground are not sufficient enough to take on the rebels who are spread over a vast swathe of remote mineral-rich forest lands.

The government is now in a "visible retreat" after a spree of rebel attacks, says security analyst Ajai Sahni.

He believes that a lack of adequate forces, training and intelligence is leading to these "disasters".

"Unless local capacities for intelligence and operations are enormously augmented, this [offensive] can go nowhere, and lot of lives are going to be lost for no useful purpose," Mr Sahni says.

But the under-equipped local police and intelligence-gathering networks remain Indian security' s weakest link, and there no visible efforts to bolster them.

The government appears to be confused over how the rebels should be tackled - there are differences in the ruling Congress party itself on whether the state should strike hard against it's own people.

Recently federal home minister P Chidambaram requested wider powers to deal with the rebels, saying that he had been given a "limited mandate."

He said the chief ministers of some of the worst affected states have asked for air power to be used against the rebels - a measure that the government has refused to sanction.

Analysts believe that many states are not doing enough to take on the rebels, leading to a "centralisation" of the problem.

"The principal responsibility for dealing with the Maoists remain that of the states; the first responders, the local police stations, have to be strengthened and equipped to deal with the task on their own."

Till that happens, the rebels will be seen to have an upper hand in what promises to be long drawn out and bloody conflict, the like of which India has never seen.
Now overlay that situation on Bangkok and the Arizona border region, Mainland China, and thousands of situations in the USA and around the world where the central government's top-down relationship with states has been inadequate to address the problems of this era.

Is there another structure of government administration, one that wouldn't balkanize nations but which is better suited to the age of megapopulations and its technologies?

As the 20th Century started to draw to a close, an American I think of as a Yankee tinkering genius set off on foot from Boston, Massachusetts. He then walked to the other side of the country, to the city of San Diego in California state. He left Boston on June 6, 1978 and arrived in San Diego on December 24, 1978. As the crow flies the distance between the two cities is 2,582 miles (4,155 km).

His walked across deserts, over mountains; through forests, thriving cities, dying towns and vast tracts of farming and grazing lands. He made the journey to inspect his country, in the manner that the ancient world's wisest kings visited every region in their kingdoms. He studied how land was being used, the country's agricultural and industrial practices; he questioned the people everywhere he went about their work, their living conditions, and their aspirations.

From his his study a different form of American government administration began to form in his mind, one that viewed the relationship between the states and the federal government in a new way.

In honor of his journey I'll announce his name on June 6th and introduce you then to his ideas. For now, I'll load you with homework so you'll find the discussion easier to follow:

1) Black Swan author Nassim Taleb. (The interview is during the 12-1 AM hour of the Friday, May 21st Batchelor show on WABC-77 AM radio. The discussion is the last one on the podcast for that hour.)

You can also download the segment from the Batchelor Show at the 77-WABC radio archive page.

2) Read or re-read my February 17, 2009 essay, Localism, Faux Localism, and the Rise of the Red Tories and read Phillip Blond's Red Tories essay, which I link to in the post. Also read the February 19 update to my Red Tories post and the link to the Hyscience article there.

3) Read the following excerpts I provide to a Christian Science Monitor report on the alliance that formed between David Cameron and Nick Clegg and keep in mind, or realize, that Phillip Blond has been called Cameron's "philosopher king."

4) Finally, return to the Batchelor-Taleb interview and take special note of the part about the importance of species density and how this applies to offsetting globalization's tendency to destroy small, diverse businesses.
British coalition of Cameron and Clegg may survive on their new localism
by the Christian Science Monitor Editorial Board
May 19, 2010

An unexpected revolution in governance has begun in Britain, like a shot heard round the world. It is one that former colonials in America might want to track, perhaps even follow.

The revolution comes out of the surprising coalition between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats after the country’s inconclusive May 6 election.

While perhaps a shaky alliance, the odd-fellow team of Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg could easily survive for some time if only for one reason: Both men have a strong desire to decentralize power away from London (for Americans, substitute “Washington”) and toward local government and community groups.

Mr. Clegg, the Lib Dem, says Britain has the most centralized government in Europe (bar Malta), and he wants a “power revolution” that would be the biggest shake-up in the country’s democracy in 178 years. It would, he claims, “transform our politics so the state has far less control over you, and you have far more control over the state.”

For his part, Mr. Cameron, a post-Thatcher Tory, ran on the promise of a “big society” whose core idea is that government should be a catalyst for revitalizing civic groups, entrepreneurs, community volunteers, and local officials to carry more of the burden that central bureaucracies do now.

Their conjoined ideas aren’t anti-government, as old Tories were, or the Reaganesque, government-is-the-problem Republicans. Rather they offer a different form of government, one that is closer to the people, less intrusive, and more reliant on private efforts.

This could easily be dismissed as a nostalgic attempt to recreate an idealized version of 19th-century life, when charities and churches dealt with society’s woes. Cameron’s big-society campaign pitch was, in fact, too vague for voters to give Conservatives enough seats in Parliament for a firm majority.

In the United States, too, President George H.W. Bush talked of a society powered by “a thousands points of light,” a concept that quickly went dark. And his son’s “compassionate conservatism” ended up mainly with two massive federal programs, the No Child Left Behind Act and an expensive drug program for Medicare.

Any top-down devolution of power can be difficult – simply because it is top down. But what Cameron and Clegg can build on are current trends toward localism, such as movements to use local food, local renewable energy such as wind, and even in a few places in the US, local currencies. And the United Kingdom has recently shed much government power to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

But there is one compelling reason for Britain to throw more responsibility to the locals: The central government’s finances are on the rocks. It has little ability to spend more. A new austerity is needed, as in much of Europe (especially Greece). The welfare state needs help, and it can’t rely on more national taxes.

Britain’s debt is 12 percent of its GDP, and by the end of the year, could be the largest in Europe. To lower that would mean a revolution in the delivery of social services, or rather, as Cameron Conservatives see it, a change in the way citizens see their role in society.

Cameron wants to find ways for adults to join neighborhood groups that provide services. He plans to introduce a “national citizen service” for 16-year-olds. People would have more say over their police and local government (similar, for instance, to charter schools in the US). Such steps would develop local interdependence, more private giving, and social entrepreneurship.

This new coalition sees Britain’s fundamental problem as social: the atomization of society with many individuals lonely, and hungry for connections. In the past 40 years, the number of people living alone has nearly doubled. Like the Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby, many die alone.

This revolution-in-progress might even make sense to a former community organizer from Chicago.

But the Cameron-Clegg duo first needs to put more meat on the bones of their ideas.

Britain, which calls itself the cradle of democracy, may be ready for this experiment in a different kind of democracy.

The Yanks should be watching.

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