MH370 Families: ‘Bad Pennies’ that won’t go away.


The 2 day tripartite ministerial meeting (Tripartite) involving Malaysia, Australia and China ended 22nd July 2016 with a decision to suspend the search for MH370 should the search in the remaining 10,000 sq. km return empty handed. Many families of passengers were relieved that the search was to be ‘suspended’ and not ‘terminated’ while many sections of the media reported the Ministerial communique as paving the way for an exit from the search.

On the sidelines was another distressing display of callous disregard of families by Malaysia during the last ten days. Two and a half years on, it seems the establishment there has not learnt the essential lessons in courtesy, respect and dignity in dealings with the families of passengers on MH370. During this period, it has stubbornly refused to acknowledge the existence of and engage with Voice 370, the Family Association of MH370 passenger families. This in spite of explicit International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) provisions that recognise the role of Family Associations.

This time too, the Malaysian Government didn’t acknowledge a formal request from Voice 370 for a meeting in Kuala Lumpur prior to the Tripartite. China too failed to respond to a similar request. Australia alone responded and while the Minister was unavailable to meet the families, the officials from JACC and the Australian Transportation Safety Board (ATSB) made time to meet the families ahead of the meeting. One hopes that for Malaysia, learning happens by association and that it is never too late. It is hard to fathom the obdurate Malaysians: is it rooted in fear, disdain, or a culture that brooks no challenge or questioning?

The families were told through email (and in many cases also through a phone call from the Malaysian Airlines Family Support Centre ) that they would be informed of the outcome of the Tripartite before the scheduled Press conference on 22nd July. About a dozen family members who had assembled in Putrajaya, outside the Malaysian Prime Minister’s office in anticipation of a briefing received a rude surprise. Neither was a briefing planned nor was access to the Press Conference allowed. Families received an email before the Press Conference informing them of the suspension of search should the underwater search yield nothing, and if there was no new information to go with. No opportunity of an engagement with the authorities was afforded to question, clarify, and better understand the decisions and their implications The increasingly agitated families were whisked away under the pretext of a briefing planned at a different location by airline officials –an unlit room of sorts without any seating. A strong fear arose that the doors would be locked and the family members held captive.

As suspected, no briefing was intended. On insistent questioning, the airline official merely said he was following instructions and knew nothing about a briefing. The families then quickly trooped back to the original location outside the Prime Minister’s office in the hope that at least a couple of them be allowed entry to the Press Conference. The Ministers were in, the officials were in, the media representatives were in. The families who had travelled a considerable distance to the venue were kept out.

In a nutshell, the families rather than be dealt with as interested parties – an active participant in the decisions that involved their loved ones – were dealt with at best as serial protesters who had to be kept at bay, distracted, and at worst, as dangerous, requiring to be isolated or better still, altogether removed from the scene.

This experience fits a pattern of abominable conduct, and runs contrary to the protestations of care and concern for the families by the authorities. If one wishes to be wicked and charitable at he same time towards Malaysia, we may wish to acknowledge that communication has graduated from SMSs to email. Who knows, the next step might be something that is read out online to a closed group of families. Seeking a face-to-face dialogue seems a far cry.

If one looks for a moment beyond the shabby treatment that families have receieved, into the substance of the Ministers’ statement, the families have welcomed the ‘suspension’ if necessary rather than ‘termination’ of the search. For them, this is not mere semantics with both effectively pointing to the same thing.

Families read into the Ministers’ statement a continued commitment to the search for MH370 and investigation in all aspects linked to its disappearance and will hold Malaysia accountable for actions that follow through on this commitment / intent. This includes the commitment to review the search area and extend it or chalk out an altogether new area if ‘new information’ that emerges necessitates such a step.

While it is not clear what constitutes such information and where it might be sourced from, the families believe that such new information / evidence has already washed ashore on and off the coast of East/ South Africa, and more is likely. Families expect to see concerted action to mobilise and incentivise local communities in coastal East / South Africa, Madagascar, Mauritius, and other areas based on expert oceanographers advice in the search for debris washed ashore. Furthermore, an ongoing process of refinement in reverse drift modelling of ocean currents too could provide clues that families expect will not be ignored.

Families also expect to see Malaysia press hard on France to turn over the very first debris find, the flaperon (found on Le Reunion Island) that it has retained custody of. It is close to a year now since France took possession of it and has failed to report fully what its investigation has concluded. France’s silence and apparent non-cooperation may well be tit-for-tat for the lack of cooperation from Malaysia that the French received during their own investigation into MH370 and into just a matter of legal tangles within the French system.

Importantly, families believe that the continued commitment to search and investigations means little if Malaysia does not actively engage a wider range of countries and seek their commitment for resources on a contingent basis. The families would like to see Malaysia set the process in motion and announce a sizeable contribution to the entire search and investigation to, as the saying goes, “put money where the mouth is”. Malaysia is a wealthy nation. It has generous friends, just in case.

Families also expect that sooner than later there will be a comprehensive update on the criminal and other aspects of investigation as well. Surely merely labelling something as ‘criminal’ doesn’t consign it to the dark, inaccessible dungeons of some shadowy world where ‘normal’ people are not permitted a peek at the goings on, a world wherein an indeterminable timeline of investigation ensures that speculation becomes an acceptable substitute for facts and truth.




Learning Democracy, Living Democracy

There is surely a strong breeze (some believe it is raging fire) sweeping many parts of the country these last few months that simultaneously gives cause for celebration and worry. It seems that the consciousness of the nation has been stirred. Passions have been stoked and there are those who have quickly come forward to suggest which passions must be fanned. Voices muted or distant have become loud and closer – in one’s neighbourhood if not within our homes. Of course there are those once again who profess their voice to be more true than some others. You and I can perhaps never agree as long we hold that there is one truth in human experience.

Some have read into the agitation of the last few months the death throes of this or that, and some others the birth and rise of something else. Depending on your perch and view, you celebrate or mourn the birth or death. The processions and the din therefore evoke the festive and the funeral.

At the heart of the recent struggles as a nation is the question of our democratic ideals and how we might reconcile our differences regarding our history, the direction of our future, and the modes of expression in the present. Also relevant here is to question a selective form of engagement that we find our comfort in.

My recent conversation with a 40 + year old manager from a global IT major was revealing. This was when the ferment in JNU was fast transforming into a broader question of the institution’s relevance and the university as the site of one’s education in politics. This manager was dismissive of JNU, and was critical of the misdoings and anti-national nature of the goings on. When quizzed on the basis of his opinions, he declared “We can’t even go there for campus recruitment. We won’t get even one suitable candidate”. When queried further on the ‘anti-national’ it was soon evident that he drew his lessons from a handful of TV channels that mostly pass off opinions as facts. It was a most astounding judgment that betrayed utter ignorance on the one hand, the success of a campaign to recruit into a particular idea of institution-worthiness and a brand of nationalism that has only one colour.

Our modern democracy is a work-in-progress resting on hallowed ideas of diversity and plurality, and grappling with the shadows of oppression, discrimination, denial and deprivation brought on by religious, caste and class divides. With traditional community structures and living processes near extinct and residing in our latent consciousness as a trace, we need to perhaps renew our idea of citizenship. What would responsibility for the ‘whole’ and not just to ‘me and myself’, the part, mean? How is one to live this in a context that fuels unbridled individualism and the pursuit of unabashed self-interest as the new order? The political, the social and the economic, are not just out of step with each other. In the absence of an active and engaged process of reflection, dialogue and shared commitment to align values and reshape structures, processes and behaviours, the lines that divide us will feel like impregnable defences to thwart any real change towards living the values we dearly espouse.

Parliamentary debates are all very well. However if we believe that we can outsource our responsibility to be an active participant in shaping the practice of democracy to elected representatives, we will have surrendered our rights and forsaken our obligations. Our record as ordinary citizens is unflattering. Our direct engagement with dialogue spaces, and public hearings is replaced by vicarious participation through televised discussions and a cacophony of debates. At the other end of the spectrum, even our voter turnouts are often rather middling.

The practice of democracy is messy at times. It comes with risks. It is threatening to pre-existing hierarchies. It often underlines what we must give up in order to have what we espouse. So it is hard work. It requires active learning. It requires us to learn what it is to value the human being rather than a statistic or a pair of hands and limbs and to treat one as such with respect and dignity, to see and call out when this valuing is under threat. It requires us to learn to value the rational and the sentient part of ourselves, and to not treat one as somehow more desirable or worthy than the other. It requires that we learn to value subjective truths and dialogue about them in order that we learn a higher order of truth that can hold apparent contradictions, and the truth of who we are in our multiplicity.

Democracy then sounds like an exciting and life long pursuit. But where does one begin? Where do we learn? And what do we do with those who haven’t learnt the lessons ?

As things stand for most Indians, lessons in democracy don’t start at home. Conformance is replaced by a resigned friendliness as the child grows up. The notion of ‘respect’ for elders mostly remains coded in behaviours / practices that belong to a bygone era and equalisation is verily not possible.

Students in India can vote in elections once they reach 18. But mind you, academic campuses are not meant for political activities as you have been reminded more than once in the recent weeks. Never mind that quite often, student Union elections are proxy battles between mainstream political parties. Students are told that they need to develop an inquiring mind, and a scientific temper. It appears that this is fine if one is talking about mathematics, physics or chemistry but is condemnable if the gaze shifts to anatomy of the status quo. Nationalism is not an idea that must be inquired into and explored. Instead, it is a given as if it were a fixture in the curriculum authored by an immutable authority.

Most work organisations remain steeped in the classical hierarchical structures. Such organisation designs militate against the essence of democracy. The more progressive organisations have evolved variants to allow room for horizontal communication flows and ‘collaboration’ in order to ‘get the job done’. In essence they have space for ‘go along’, ‘get along’ and ‘get ahead’ behaviours; none really serves a lesson in democratic processes. It is interesting to note that in the midst of this raging debate on democracy, diversity and dissent, we have heard no business leader speak up, or speak out. One suspects that there are few organisations that would meet qualifying grades for internal democracy. At best they are consumers of the established rule of law, patrons to political actors, claimants to closeness of the powers that be, and beneficiaries of largesse (all for the organisation!) that their proximity confers.

Live broadcasts of Parliament in session has remained a mixed bag. Empty seats, heckling, sloganeering designed to disrupt, and many such don’t serve as object lessons and the long history of pious promises during debates not kept leaves one questioning whether democracy is about demagoguery, not deeds. Representative democracy they say has served us well the last 6 decades. What the lessons from your observations that you have brought into your practice of democracy in your surroundings?

I have searched hard to see where we might begin our first lessons in democracy and the results are not good. Perhaps the answer doesn’t lie with the structures out there but within ourselves as we start to our provisional answers and follow through with practice on the following questions: Who am I? What is my relationship to the world at large? What is the world I am creating right now by my words and deeds? What is the world that I wish to leave behind when my innings is over and it is time up for me?

The Cynic and the Rebel

The cynic reviles the present; he rejects the dream;

The rebel rejects the present; he revels in the dream;


The cynic’s anger is frozen, buried in cold storage;

The rebel’s anger is molten, rage ready to engage;


The cynic sees futility in all things and all pursuits;

The rebel sees a fight for all things new and couldn’t care two hoots;


The cynic says, “all things will pass”; stays rooted, silently nursing past hurt and pain;

The rebel says, “this too shall pass”, stridently forward, moves on, angst never in rein;


The cynic stays at “why is the world the way it is?”

The rebel starts from “why is the world the way it is?”

Reclaiming the neighbourhood, redefining national service.

It will not suffice to be democratic in theory, predatory and self-serving otherwise, inclusive in public affairs and feudal in private, global in concerns and ignorant of, and untouched by the local.

Participation in a democracy is about many things… the ritualistic trip to the ballot, joining in the grand decision making processes through raising and shaping public opinion, having one’s say where there is opportunity, creating opportunity when one has something to say (and do). It is so easy to be carried away by an ennobling vision of inclusivity where voice and vote carry weight in notions of democracy. However, citizens’ access and delivery of public goods and services so critical to an experience of inclusivity that democracy engenders is given short shrift. This is made worse by all round indifference and apathy. A nation like India, tall on ideals, steeped in history and impervious (or indifferent) to imminent misery, has spawned a maze of laws, policies, schemes, and programs…. an administrative / bureaucratic framework that is often impenetrable by the common man, and an implementation workforce that needs ‘forcing’ to work, generally speaking.

The proposition here is that democracy starts with individual responsibility for one’s neighborhood, in the first place, a commitment to ensure that one participates actively in its affairs and builds a record of service that goes beyond service of self. It will not suffice to be democratic in theory, predatory and self-serving otherwise, inclusive in public affairs and feudal in private, global in concerns and ignorant of, and untouched by the local. However high and mighty, and whatever be the scale and significance of one’s stage and play, it requires first and foremost that one fulfills a certain minimum set of duties in a spirit of service and community for the larger good of the neighborhood.

The government of the day pursues legislation to translate its intent and mandate into an implementation and governance framework. For most part, governance as an experience comes from the quality of service delivery, how accessible and dependable, how prompt and responsive, and how transparent and fair it is. It would appear that given the size of the population, the lag in enabling infrastructure development and technology absorption, the quest for high quality service delivery is a lost cause and most people are resigned to deficient service delivery processes. Among the rest, the impatient have found ways to circumvent the system. Given the experience of the decades gone by, the government – administrative edifice actually offers little hope that it can create a viable mechanism. It makes no claims. It offers no plans. It has very few publicly spelt out service standards that it holds itself accountable to for any range of services. Promise nothing. Deliver whatever. In such a beleaguered state, there is talk from to time of reduction in the size of government, which is another way of saying that hiring is frozen, and unabashed embrace of technology without preparedness.

Arguably, the government machinery as it stands is insufficient, and incapable of any significant enhancement in service quality delivery unless it works hand in hand with the beneficiary -community / the neighborhood. A strong platform, local, and voluntary, collaborative and information-enabled at the neighborhood level that works hand in hand with the government machinery is an essential requirement to augment the shortfall in deployable resources, deal with peak demand, enforce provisions of law and service quality commitments, promote accountability, audit performance, and build wider ownership for the community, including common resources. Evidently, it again points to the requirement that each one extends beyond what is sufficient for his own personal need / greed.

One of the key difficulties in demanding service quality and enforcing the provisions of laws, rules, and the ubiquitous schemes is that they are cloaked in obfuscation, legalese, procedural labyrinths, provisos and exceptions that make it hard for anyone to be sure that the trip to a government agency will not be wasted. One might argue that given the complex demographics, illiteracy and under-developed infrastructure, rule making is tough and rule breaking relatively easier, and hence the need for safeguards, which get mistaken for tortuous routines. The experience invariably is of selective enforcement of rules, delay, rework, frustration, and frayed tempers. The recourse is to touts, agents and other expediters who feed on the ignorance and casual negligence of the public and rely on their own superior understanding of the rules, exceptions and workarounds, Processing or renewing a passport application till recently, or getting a ration card (issued, renewed or transferred) is often illustrative of this experience.

Service delivery could improve if more knowledgeable people – those familiar with the law, the process, procedures and documentation requirements – were easily accessible for consultation. One doesn’t have to recruit a large army on government payroll. Instead what one proposes is to make it possible for Departmental ex-colleagues who have superannuated to offer their time and expertise, to help and guide, to interpret and advise and to intercede on behalf of those who do not have the capacity to make their case.

Volunteers can be enlisted to man help-desks, fill out documents for the unlettered, etc. Presumably some prior training will be necessary – to be beneficiary-centric and rigorous – so that such mobilization of resources complements the effort of various Departments to deliver prompt and time bound service. Spikes in demand for services can be addressed by a corresponding augmentation of volunteer resources.

In the case of the volunteering public. one has in mind the multitude of unemployed and college going who could benefit from training and imbuing a spirit of service. A stipendiary fund can perhaps be considered. Something on the lines of the MNREGA for the city’s unemployed who sign up for this endeavor may serve the dual purpose of engaging the youth and unemployed, and help a sharp focus on service delivery. Or, could there be a social business model here?

One would go so far as to suggest that what our nation needs for some years to come is not an army of clerks keeping the first world comfortable and leisure seeking, but a very large volunteer force that is committed to improving the quality of life in its immediate environment. As outrageous as it may sound, maybe it is time we made it mandatory for all to render a certain number of hours / days of National service over a 3-5 year period – service that is directed to improve the quality of public services, and herald this contribution with celebration and pride. Historically, national security and jingoism have been strong drivers for recruitment in the armed forces, and highlighted as a shining example of service to the nation. A persuasive yet powerful case can be made out for tenure in national service to improve our lot, our context, and the conditions of everyday life.

Is this armchair musing? Maybe. And as one is used to saying, it depends. What is there to feel optimistic?

One is counting on the increasing anger with the yawning gap between the promise of a better life and the stubborn culture of ‘anything goes’. The cynics are not the enemy. They are a lot who have buried their hopes and have come to believe in the futility of hope. They are a lot who, scorched by their angst have distanced themselves from it, and not known how to use the heat to transform. They have suffered, not frozen. And now, the anger has welled up one more time. It is not private, this time.

The other that one is counting on is information technology – it can offer a platform for enlisting, assigning, training, … so much is possible. With online petitions becoming popular and things going ‘viral’ reaching people one has not known or met, the hope that the essence of this call to join in, volunteer, and act can reach out to millions and create a surge in interested volunteers.

Something like what is envisaged here can start small: in pockets, pilots and mohallas, It does not need some mega – scheme for starters. In essence, what is one rooting for: reclaiming ownership of one’s neighborhood and shrugging of passive recepienthood, an extension of the idea of self-help to include the community through participation and collaboration, and use of experienced resources to ensure services reach beneficiaries.

What is one up against? What would it take?

This is a daunting one. It is a long list: they are structural, social, economic, political, psychological, …one just has to mentally wade into this space to feel weighed down…

Collaboration in technical and economic spheres is often seen as a necessity, and individuals and organizations are willing to struggle with the arithmetic of trust and comparative gain. In the case of national service,  people are required to step out of their narrow confines of home and occupation as citizens, join hands with others who may have little in common except their commitment to each other and the community at large. It may well turn out to be humbling when our trappings of status and power, comforts and privileges jostle and join with the pedestrian and the human.  One is asking of people to revive a sense of community that has shrunk and come to be restricted to the ‘like minded’, ‘kith and kin’ or some imaginary grouping that is conjured in conversation to make a point.

Any call to active involvement in service delivery and a upsurge in response would inevitably call to question the staple responses of officialdom, the alibis of resource crunch – human and material, the recourse to hierarchy as refuge, and confidentiality as fence. It could generate a counter force  under the garb of regulation to keep the public out. Since collaboration as is envisaged will require co-habiting of the public servant with the public that he / she is duty bound to serve, a redrawing of the boundaries and the safeguards that regulate the service delivery machinery of the State will be necessary. Who will ultimately be accountable for service delivery? Who will answer for accuracy, timeliness and compliance with regulations? What will the superintendence structure be? These need thinking through, a dialogue process to begin with. Such dialogue will need to include the role of citizens in shaping priorities, and delivery processes on the ground.

Public participation as envisaged would mean a responsibility to reach out and create the forums (on the ground and online) and processes necessary to elicit others’ active engagement. It will require mechanisms for the deployment of volunteer resources in ways that balance individual ability and choice, with need and urgency as relevant to the neighborhood / public utility / services. Since we have lost the ability as communities to dialogue, converge and engage with conflict in a way that is beneficial for the community, there is much that we will have to struggle and learn along the way on how precisely to do all this. One can only hope that our commitment to the collective and its wisdom is stronger than our avowed belief in the supremacy of our point of view.

As any volunteer who enlists for a cause discovers sooner than later, there are always vested interests one is up against. In this instance one can expect – to borrow a phrase from across the border – state and non-state actors who have thrived, and enriched themselves in pecuniary and non-pecuniary terms over the years who are unlikely to give it all up without queering the pitch, and even possibly bloodying the process. Public involvement as envisaged here is likely to raise questions and awareness, challenge the nexus between politician – official – contractors – industry, the cronies and the mafia who keep alive a perpetual state of sub-standard efficiency in service delivery and feed off public apathy.  Even if we get past the technical – structural issues that create the framework of collaboration and partnership between the people and the State Institutions, one is not free of the threats from the local hoodlum, the lumpen and the hirelings of the political class and the powerful, whose menace one has to contend with through the instruments of law enforcement. The threat of violence as a way to derail public efforts and deny orderly participation is a possibility. The need for the political class to rethink their role as representatives is one of the inevitable consequences, and one may well see stiff resistance initially.

In conclusion:

There is much discontent in the public sphere, particularly with respect to delivery of public services. It is not for the want of institutions but their commitment to responsive and quality delivery that has left the public at large, resigned apparently, but seething within. As a result, it has appeared that we have been too tolerant to the point of indifference and apathy, or too self-focused to care enough for the public interest. While the Government can create the legal and institutional framework for service delivery, in light of the size, scale and spread, and not to forget immense ‘on the ground’ socio-economic – cultural – demographic …complexity, it is incapable of delivering on its best intents with the people it can marshal.  A framework for public participation is needed to supplant the government machinery if any movement towards defining and delivering service standards in public services is to be achieved. This is the New Deal. The panacea does not lie in privatization where the fundamental premise is not on nation but book building, or in empowered watchdog institutions who will come calling after the event (much like the final climactic scene in an Indian action thriller when the cop is the last to arrive on the scene). The idea of National service, starting with being an active participant in the affairs of one’s neighborhood is a good place to start, a sound place to start building one’s democratic credentials, redefine one’s understanding and relationship with community, and reshape the context.