NID - Colloquium Paper...


  This paper was part of my curriculum at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, India.
Guides: Mr Pradyumna Vyas, and Mr Tridip Suhrud.

Written in July 1994. Some things mentioned in here may have changed since then.


  Calcutta... 1994... Indiaís second most populated city. The capital of imperial India. A city with a proud past. A city with an indomitable spirit. The city which also has the distinction of having the countryís first underground railway gnawing at its very roots.

Esplanade station. Brightly lit corridors. You proceed to the intimidating machine which goes by the name of POM, the Passenger Operated Machine. After locating the required amount in coins, you are pleasantly surprised to see that the contraption actually works. You pick up your magnetically encoded ticket and proceed on to the turnstile, which happens to be a shiny chrome post about waist high.
At this point the system falls apart. You canít find the slot in which to insert your precious ticket. In fact, you donít even get the time to look. One of those omnipresent uniformed attendants at the gate quickly snatches the ticket from you, and without giving you a chance to prove your worth, pushes the ticket in with practiced ease. The gate opens, and you are through. You look back to see the attendant patiently waiting for you to take the ticket from his outstretched hand.

This is one of the numerous examples of foreign systems, imported lock, stock and barrel from our more developed fellow nations, being just blindly transposed into the Indian context. No thought seems to be given to its suitability whatsoever. Isnít the whole point of having an automatic ticket-activated gate to save manpower? In spite of having invested in this Ďadvancedí technology, the attendant remains, making these miracles of modern technology absolutely redundant.

This is by no means an isolated example. There are numerous cases where Ďthingsí which have performed well elsewhere are not living up to their expectations

  Ahmedabad, the commercial capital of Gujarat, has of recent times, been blessed with a lot of traffic lights being used at its many intersections. In spite of that, an equal number of policemen are required to make sure that the drivers (an amazing number of whom seem to be partially colour blind, and completely devoid of any consideration and common sense) stop when the light says so. Needless to say, completely ignored are the white stop lines, the crossing of which will invite the instant wrath of the marauding policemen in cities like Delhi.

Calcutta, true to its inimitable style, outdoes even that. Back in 1987, when the finals of the Reliance Cricket Cup were to be played, the cityís fathers decided to gift it with a whole set of new signal lights, presumably in a bid to impress the many visitors, who had in fact been drawn by the excitement of a cricket match.
These lights were never used once. Nor do the earlier ones work today. The reason is simple. Calcutta sports a horde of helmeted gentlemen in white uniforms and black trimmings who go by the name of traffic constables. Putting two and two together, they have reached the inevitable conclusion that if the traffic lights are allowed to operate, they would, with utmost certainty, lose their jobs. To prove their point, that man is mightier than the machine (read that as these lights could never solve the cityís problems), they resorted to giving conflicting instructions, sometimes in direct contrast to what the light suggested. The result, Calcutta today does not have a single set of traffic lights which are operational.

Then there is the case of the Dead manís Handle. This is a device in all diesel and electric locomotives to ensure safe operations. It consists of a handle which the driver has to keep continuously depressed, or in newer versions, has to be pressed at regular intervals. If it is not done, the brakes are automatically applied to bring the train to a complete halt. Indian engine drivers do not seem to like the idea of being controlled by machines. The mechanism allegedly created problems, and they were soon removed. Consequently, the passengers are at the mercy of the driversí mindless devotion to duty; by ensuring that he keeps himself awake or that he does not suffer a cardiac arrest, or any other such incapacitating disease during his stint at the controls.

The above are a few examples where systems have not performed, or have not been allowed to perform due to the prevailing attitudes. No thought has been given to the user interface before importing the systems, or there has been a lack of forward thinking before implementation.

  The other side of the coin tells a different story. Indians have always managed to, with great expertise, circumvent problems which have arisen due to rapid industrialisation and the influx of technology. With the ideal combination of conservation, thrift and enterprise, they have been able to arrive at workable solutions to some peculiar everyday problems.

Bombay, Indiaís most populous city comes up with a marvelous example. There are tens of thousands of office-goers who leave in the morning to go to work in the city, returning only in the evening. This also holds true for most of the worldís great cities, prompting a certain Mr EB. White to come up with this amusing rhyme, entitled ĎThe Commuterí


A commuter- one who spends his life
In riding to and from his wife
A man who shaves and takes a train
And rides back to shave again.

Indians appreciate home cooked meals, creating the perfect setting for a problem. How do you manage to satisfy your palate with your wifeís (or your motherís) favourite dishes while sitting miles away in the bureaucratic jungle of your office?

Enter the Dabbawallah. A system which defies the abilities of MBA graduates. A short while before lunchtime, the meal is ready at home, just in time for the carrier to collect it and take it to the nearest suburban railway station or collection point, where other such steel containers are accumulated and sorted according to their destinations. These are then dispatched in the local trains and at the destination stations, these, along with the other consignments from other corners of the city are again sorted and grouped to their final destinations. These are delivered well in time for the hungry man to enjoy a hot home cooked meal. And that is not the end of the story. After lunch, the carriers collect the containers from the offices and deposit them back to the respective homes for use the next day.


  Fine you say. Whatís the big deal? Apart from the fact that it happens on an enormous scale, the clincher is that all the people involved in the carrying, sorting and delivery of the containers are absolutely illiterate. All the information is carried in the form of colour codes painted on the container. This is the only clue which is used by the carriers to ensure that these containers are delivered to their correct destinations. There rarely occurs a case when the meal reaches in less than a perfect condition, or late, or at a wrong destination.
That is a specific case based on a specific situation. Similarly, there are numerous examples of the Indianís ingenuity at surpassing problems.

A problem of a similar magnitude is handled by the dhobis in India. All clothes are washed in the community area, and usually not by the same person who deals with the customer. What could have resulted in considerable chaos is averted by marking the clothes by a certain system of symbols and alphabets to ensure that the washed clothes are delivered back to their owners, and nobody else.

Regular commuters on Bombayís many crowded suburban trains may at times have noticed the presence of lemons on the seat, keeping it vacant while the rest of the carriage is packed. Most would dare not touch the lemons as they are considered an ingredient of black magic among the believers. But does superstition have a role in todayís life? Thatís for you to decide, for the offending fruit had actually been left behind by a passenger, to make sure his seat was kept for him while he had gone to buy a newspaper.

The above is an example of how individuals have evolved methods of solving day to day problems, often for their own benefit, within the framework of a much larger system.

Smokers would notice that lighters, which have been branded and marketed as disposable (and therefore unrefillable) are not really so at the hands of these enterprising men, the gas replenishers, who occupy the pavements with their motley assortment of gas canisters, nozzles and spare flint. They simply use a pin to puncture a small hole at the base of the lighter, fill the gas through the opening, and instantly block the hole with the same pin, wedging it in tightly to prevent the gas from escaping. And before you know it, the lighter is back in business.

  Where else in the world could you even hope to get someone to mend a hole in a plastic bucket? Here in this country, peddlers making rounds of the numerous flats and housing societies offer such a service. They have patches of plastic of various colours and sizes, which they use to mend the hole with. What they charge is naturally far cheaper than the price of a new bucket. More importantly, it complements the celebrated national mentality of recycling.
And then there are the peddlers who will take your old used clothes, and in return give you shiny new stainless steel utensils, making them an instant success with housewives.

All the above instances point to a foregone conclusion. Indians are capable of over coming many of their problems with their indigenous know-how. At times, they have been blindly aping the west, trying to juxtapose totally alien characteristics in their society. One cannot just ignore ethnic wisdom. Indians like every one else, since times immemorial have had problems, and have solved them magnificently to proceed further. Therefore, it is imperative that this productive source of solutions is not ignored. Both have to be evaluated before a decision can be taken on the one to be implemented.

If it is deemed necessary to adopt external solutions, extreme care has to be taken when they are transposed on an ethnic situation, and will not yield the desired result unless suitable care is taken to see that it fits in well with the user, and is adapted or modified keeping the userís psyche in mind. Every region has its own systems, values and peculiarities, which its inhabitants have made a part of their lives. One cannot just arbitrarily implement a system and expect people to blindly follow it. The system has to be flexible enough to allow the user to adopt it without being overwhelmed.

Some effort has to be made to educate and inform the people of the benefits of adopting the system. They have to be told how the system works, how they can be a part of it, and how that would help them in achieving a better quality of life. Only when they see a distinct advantage accruing as a direct result of following the system, will they do it. It is pointless to police people into obeying. Take the Ahmedabad traffic situation for instance. The red lights are obeyed only when the lathi wielding policemen are present. People are still not tuned to the habit of stopping when the light turns amber, and wait for the copís signal. This also illuminates the fact that people are reluctant to be controlled by machines.

  There is also the inherent preoccupation of Indians to let things be. Their reasoning that everything, whether good or bad is divinely inspired, and nestles in the hands of fate, is another stumbling block in the business of helping them make their lives easier in their environment. Apart from a few who are branded Ďhyperí, most of us are too complacent, with attitudes too typically chalta hai (itíll do) to really care.
Another point which inhibits the acceptance of a new system is the deep rooted traditions of the Indian. The ancient Hindu society has more than its fair share of beliefs and customs, and over the years, these have multiplied, where today the same customs which were intended to make their lives better have only succeeded in hampering the influx of new ideas.

Many also have the attitude that if itís not too bad, itís fine. Not much thought is really given to the future. People, when searching for solutions, often look for short term benefits. It is this attitude which has to be changed for the people to be able to look at a problem, identify it and systematically work towards a solution, thereby improving the way they live.

Original solutions have worked in their home terrains as they have been developed specifically with their users in mind. They are based on studies conducted on the behaviour of their people, doing in-depth research to facilitate an understanding of human reactions, behavioural patterns, etc. Semiotics, semantics and local customs combined with colour psychology also play a major role in influencing user reaction.

On the other hand, Indians are proficient at working out their own solutions. The examples illustrated have been successful as they have been developed at home, and regardless of the scale or the complexity of the case, have been tailor-made to apply to the specific situation. For example, the system of refilling even disposable lighters highlights the fact that the concept of disposability, except in certain circumstances, is alien to the mind. It is difficult for them to actually throw away anything material, especially when it is quite simple for it to be got back to working again.

If a solution had to be developed abroad for operating a lunch carrying system akin to the Bombay Dabbawallahs, it would have made use of the operatorsí ability to read and write, making it absolutely unsuitable in Bombayís context as the carriers are illiterate.

  No problems! Says the enterprising Indian. Weíll use something that everybody can decipher (well practically everybody, with the possible exception of the aforementioned drivers of Ahmedabad). - Colour! Perception that virtually everybody is born with.

There have indeed been numerous cases where foreign solutions have done well in the Indian context. In those cases, they have either been adjusted to fulfill local requirements, or have been suitable in its original state.
The other reason why some systems have worked well is that in those instances, the solution has been older than the individual it had been applied to. When a person is born into a system, he generally accepts it and takes it at face value, and even if he does not, he gets used to it and becomes a part of it.

The point I am trying to get across is that in the search for solutions, one cannot absolutely overlook answers from within, which at times can achieve better results. Only if it is inevitable that indigenous solutions will not suffice, should import be considered. In such a situation, it is imperative, for the systemís operational well being, to ensure that the system blends with the peopleís lives, rather than expect people to alter their lifestyles. In many cases, people are not even aware where the problem lies, or what can be done to overcome it.

What the doctor orders is simple. Look within for solutions before you search elsewhere. And before you implement a system, give thought to the user, his social behaviour, way of life, frame of mind, and likes and dislikes, for it is he who is going to use, and be affected by the system, and it is with his participation that the system will grow.

The End

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