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Chennai's Flood Fight Makes A Strong Case For Self-Governance

13/12/2015 5:08 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Volunteers rescue flood affected people on a country boat from a residential area in Chennai, India, Thursday, Dec. 3, 2015. The heaviest rainfall in more than 100 years has devastated swathes of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, with thousands forced to leave their submerged homes and schools, offices and a regional airport shut for a second day Thursday.( AP Photo)

Over the last few days, Chennai witnessed unprecedented rains that brought everyone and everything to their knees, sorry, hips. What was heartening was the fact that the citizens showed their resilience and compassion by helping one another in countless ways. Social media was also used creatively to help those affected by the floods. The people of Chennai have proven that self-governance is possible provided they have the right tools and technology.

A few examples of how people creatively helped each other :

1. They set up control rooms to co-ordinate relief efforts and centralise all information.

2. They posted messages if they could accommodate extra people to let those stranded nearby have somewhere to seek shelter.

3. They raised money online, sharing receipts and pictures of the things that they purchased for flood survivors.

4. Someone suggested that all wi-fi routers use the word Chennai as the login and password so the city could be one large hotspot that that anyone could use to contact relatives and seek or mobilise help.

5. To prevent the spread of misinformation, people called to verify whether a particular message was true or not and then used the hashtag #verified

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Personally, what I found most beautiful to witness was the "wisdom of crowds" - how people self-organised effectively, learning, adjusting and solving problems. For example, one person posted that a software company had arranged buses to take citizens out of Chennai. Another person called the company, verified that the news was wrong and quickly alerted everyone. Within 30 minutes, those posts were gone. It was crowd theory at its best.

Market economies, traffic systems, the human brain and natural eco-systems are all highly complex, non-linear, adaptive systems that operate without hierarchy.

On the other hand, the government machinery was totally ineffective, as they neither had the means nor the experience to coordinate anything. The bottom-up approach to tackling the disaster simply eliminated the need for a top-down intervention and in the process, it even provided an opportunity to the citizens to demonstrate their creativity, compassion and helped them to come close to each other.

All around us, we can see that truly complex systems thrive without hierarchy. Market economies, traffic systems, the human brain and natural eco-systems are all highly complex, non-linear, adaptive systems that operate without hierarchy. We have seen in our cities how crowds self-organise whenever there is a traffic jam - in fact, we need to do some research to get data points between outcomes when systems are in place (for example, traffic signals) versus where they are not (for example, sexagenarian Mr Ramprasad who helps to regulate traffic in his neighbourhood near IIM Bangalore).

I was reminded of educational researcher Dr Sugata Mitra's "Hole in the Wall" experiments that demonstrated how, in the absence of supervision or formal teaching, children can teach themselves and each other if they're motivated by curiosity and peer interest. This was mirrored in Chennai which proved that people can govern themselves if they have the right tools and technology. After all, a government is a process created by people to govern themselves. Here are some insights from Dr Mitra's famous TED talk:

Can Tamil-speaking children in a south Indian village learn the biotechnology of DNA replication in English from a street-side computer? And I said, I'll measure them. They'll get a zero. I'll spend a couple of months, I'll leave it for a couple of months, I'll go back, they'll get another zero. I'll go back to the lab and say, we need teachers. I found a village. It was called Kallikuppam in southern India. I put in Hole in the Wall computers there, downloaded all kinds of stuff from the internet about DNA replication, most of which I didn't understand.

The children came rushing, said, "What's all this?" So I said, "It's very topical, very important. But it's all in English." So they said, "How can we understand such big English words and diagrams and chemistry?" So by now, I had developed a new pedagogical method, so I applied that. I said, "I haven't the foggiest idea... And anyway, I am going away." So I left them for a couple of months. They'd got a zero. I gave them a test. I came back after two months and the children trooped in and said, "We've understood nothing."

I said, "What? You don't understand these screens and you keep staring at it for two months? What for? So a little girl... she raised her hand, and she says to me in broken Tamil and English... "Well, apart from the fact that improper replication of the DNA molecule causes disease, we haven't understood anything else."

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Children using "Hole in the Wall" computers

The principles of self-management have already been put to use in the private sector by companies like Zappos, Sun Hydraulics and Buurtzorg with great impact and outcomes where employees govern themselves without formal hierarchical roles, structures and leaders. There are tools like Holacracy that facilitate the self-management process and a "leaderless" movement is emerging.

With the right tools and structures, the mindsets of citizens can be effectively oriented to "how can I contribute?" from "who can I blame?"

With the right tools and structures, the mindsets of citizens can be effectively oriented to "how can I contribute?" from "who can I blame?" Over the last few days, we saw this mindset in Chennai. People were not blaming anyone, even the politicians, and in fact, whenever someone started a blame game, the crowd quickly put it off. This may change after a few days but it is commendable.

What is government, after all? It is a process created by people to govern themselves. Why do we have to stick to a process that doesn't work effectively?

The Chennai example proves that self-governance is possible and validates the need for a Holacracy-type model in governance where citizens can actively participate and contribute solutions for the problems that they are facing in their lives on a daily basis. It can work closely with traditional governance structures after creating the right interfaces between the two models. Leaders need to shed the "I" and melt into the "we" to leverage the wisdom of crowds and their collective consciousness. Hats off to the people of Chennai! They showed what is possible and have created opportunities to take governance to a new level.

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