Friday, July 13, 2018

On Dogs Lovers and Power Illiteracy

Stray dogs protecting their turf (Pic source: DNA 14Dec17)

I have always found it difficult to understand the dynamics and the power of "Noble Intentions". How is it that when two sets of well meaning people, both trying in their own way to create a better society, end up making it more dysfunctonal?

Let me illustrate this with an example: stray dogs in our cities. 

Most people are wary of stray dogs, and see them as a threat, and a health hazard, while there is another set of folks, the 'Dog Lovers' who see nothing wrong in having stray dogs share our roads, parks and public spaces. If anybody gets bitten it is because they 'provoked' the dog, and therefore deserved what they got. 

Does their love for dogs extend to other animals as well? Not quite. Nobody would raise a finger, let alone filing a police case, if a harmless rat snake was beaten to pulp, or if pigs drowned in the sewers. But dogs? They are a 'man's best friend', and therefore, special.

Quite unlike the folks who get bitten on the streets, the Dog Lovers are superbly networked, and well organised. They are loud and vocal; they have the ready attention of not only the local newsreporters but also the sympathies of the Supreme Court. So when they take up cudgels on behalf of the strays, filing police reports against those who are violent towards stray dogs, naming and shaming people, all that the opposition can do is to roll over, and play dead.

How did the Dog Lovers come to weild so much power and influence? Why does our overstretched police force take on the unikely role of protecting stray dogs? The answer is simple: the law requires them to do so. 

As per Indian law, street dogs cannot be beaten, killed or driven away or displaced or dislocated. Under the Animal Birth Control (ABC Dogs) Rules, 2001  enacted under Section 38 of the Indian Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1960 (A Central Act), stray dogs can only be sterilized, vaccinated, and then returned back to their original locations. 

What happens when the state ABC department does not have the capacity (funds, personnel, infrastructure) to deal with an explosion in the population of stray dogs? Nobody seems to know, or care.

In NOIDA along there are an estimated 13,600 stray dogs. A few months ago, a child got severely mauled by a pack of stray dogs . When alarmed citizens got together to drive away strays and ended by beating a stray dog to death, police cases were promptly filed against them. So, at present, the very thought of messing with the Indian legal system, with its backlog of cases, is enough to deter any sensible citizen from messing with stray dogs. It is better to get bitten than to get stuck in the Indian courts.

How did a small band of Dog Lovers manage have such a disproportionate influence on the law of the land? A part of the answer lies in what has been articulated so well in Eric Liu's TED Talk - "Why Ordinary People Need to Understand Power"

Liu rightly points out that power illiteracy all pervasive and that citizens have depressingly low levels of civic knowledge, civic engagement, participation, and awareness. They are naive about all the forms of power that are at play: money, people, ideas, information, misinformation, the threat of force, the force of norms.

Those few who do understand how power operates in civic life, those who understand how a bill becomes a law, how a friendship becomes a subsidy, or how a bias becomes a policy, or how a slogan becomes a movement, the people who understand those things wield disproportionate influence.

Clearly, Dog Lovers in India belong to the power literate elite who weild a disproportionate influence in our cities. In many ways they themselves are like the proverbial dog in the manger - they will not ease the burden on state ABC departments, nor will they stop barking at those who act against stray dogs.


Kerala, seems to be among the few states where stray dogs do not enjoy a special status. It has citizens groups that actively participate in anti-stray dog campaigns and support the culling of strays. Across India, only the High Courts of Kerala and Karnataka have taken the position that local municipal laws prevail over the PCA ActIt is not a state of affairs that pleases the stray-dog lovers.

Thanks to this awkward state of semi-rebellion the state sees a lot of parodies centered around the helplessness of the civil society. In this one, a local alpha stray-dog, "Tiger Sabu" is being interviewed by a nervous TV news anchor, a few days after demonetization: 


* Jaagruti - Indian street dogs and their rights -
* Noida - child mauled by stray dogs -
* Animal Welfare Board of India -
* (4 Jan 2018) Hindu: Stray dog victim still in ICU -
* (1 Apr 2018) ToI: Noida: Residents, security guards booked for thrashing stray dog to death-
Eric Liu's TED Talk - "Why Ordinary People Need to Understand Power" -

Monday, July 09, 2018

Digital Media and its Echo Chambers

The Japanese have a phrase to describe Indians - インド人 "Oshaberi Indo-jin", which translates politely into 'Chattering Indians'. A term reserved for insensitive folks who talk for the sake of talking, without consideration to others.

Nowhere is this more painful than at public lectures, seminars, workshops and conferences. At international events, it is often a nightmare for the organisers that unfolds at three levels: First, the embarassment about key speakers not arriving on time, leading to announcements that the event is delayed because so-and-so got held-up at an "important meeting"; Once the meeting starts, it is about speakers who ignore the clock and carry on blaberring, ignoring frantic signals to cease, and finally, the pain of enduring a Q&A session. Here again the organisers plead for short, pointed questions from the audience, and what they get instead is long speeches from folks who refuse to let go of the mikes.

Last Friday, I participated for the first time, in a seminar where the organisers tried a novel way of dealing with the Q&A problem. This was an event organised jointly by IIC, CPR and the Niti Aayog called Metamorphoses - part of series that calls itself "a modest effort to try and bridge the gap between digital technologies, which are transforming our lives, and our understanding of their multiple dimensions".

Despite the absence of one of the main speakers, the event started more or less on time. As expected, the event had its panel of heavyweights on stage: the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Prime Minister, along with representatives from Twitter, the Silicon Valley, and think tanks. The format for Q&A came with a digital twist. 

A slip of paper placed on each chair in the hall had a certain number to which you had to send an SMS, if you had a question for any of the panelists. A representative from IIC/CPR would then choose from the messages received, and convey selected questions, to the panelists on stage.

Much like the Twitter algorithm discussed in the seminar, this Q&A format created an echo chamber in which the panel received only sanitised, insipid questions that gave an illusion of public engagement. The organisers may have suceeded in sticking to timelines while nipping out presky mike-grabbers and their long-winded questions, and but it also robbed the event of its human touch. A podcast may have served their purpose just as well.

SMSs at the Q&A Session@IIC, New Delhi

After this event, I now have a greater appreciation for the "Explained" events organised by the Indian Express. It starts with a public advertisement in a newspaper (not a mere mailing list), attracts SMS confirmations from a fairly broad spectrum of the public (not just retired bureaucrats), and their Q&A sessions are orderly without being overbearing. 

It also helps to have an alert moderator on stage, who also directs a team that passes wireless mikes to the audience. Since the norms are enforced with an even hand, the post-event discussions turn out to be lively and spirited, giving you a much deeper understanding of the issues discussed. 

When it comes to organising real public engagements, perhaps it is time IIC, CPR and Niti Aayog learned a thing or two from folks at the Indian Express. We could all then step out of our echo chamber's and have a discussion that is really worthwhile.


* Centre for Policy Research and its Metamorphoses -
* Explained by the Indian Express -