India can learn some lessons from Boston / Unlike Indian cities, Boston cares for its residents

[ Daily News and Analysis, 21 Apr 2013 ; The Shillong Times, 23 Apr 2013 ; Echo of India, 24 Apr 2013 ; Millenium Post, 24 Apr 2013 ]

The city of Cambridge is home to both the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where I work, and Harvard, where I used to be a student. I have been living here for the last 7 years or so, though the last 24 hours have been unique in many respects. After the Boston marathon bombings, there was speedy resumption of normal routine. Things got haywire from night of April 18 when a police officer of MIT was killed, in front of Stata building, across the street from my Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. The chase and hunt that followed ended about 24 hours later.

During that time, Boston, Cambridge, Watertown and a few other towns were ‘shut down’ – public transport was withdrawn, people were strongly advised to stay indoors and keep doors locked. This led to the internet and TV becoming the source of information about events that were unfolding in our vicinity. As I joined many others in the Boston area in this, I could help notice certain things that made me remember the subcontinent.

I discovered from my friends here that one could actually listen in live to the wireless messages that were being exchanged between the police teams. It was called the ‘scanner’. The messahes are broadcasted in publicly accessible frequencies. It is important to point out that this sort of listening is different from the freely viewable spectator-sport that is broadcasted by the Lok Sabha TV. The listener was incidental in this case and therein lies its value. As power seeks to control society more and more through CCTVs and other such monitoring devices, this police scanner was an odd CCTV of sorts, trained at the law-enforcers themselves. No relationship of trust can develop between people and the law enforcers without transparency. I am sure that police anywhere abuses power, but such scanners are part of that repertoire in the hands of the people that rein in such abuse a little bit. Such scanners should be publicly available in the Indian Union where people can also listen in to their own khaki on their job. Otherwise, we are left with the occasional grainy MMS to implicate one policeman beating up one woman or a policeman dragging someone by tying them to a motorcycle – thus keeping the ‘bad apple’ logic always available as an escape route for decorated cynical brutes.

MIT, like all major US universities, has an emergency alert service for students, faculty and staff. Since the initial incident had taken place at MIT, SMS alerts were sent by MIT to all subscribers periodically. Between 10-48 pm on Thursday and 9-24 pm on Friday, MIT sent 17 such updates to its subscribers and also on its website. Forget a university, in the subcontinent, do governmental authorities keep the populace updated about far more fatal scenarios? The sad bit is that this is not rocket science .The same parties which control the government use this kind of technology to woo voters before elections. It is do-able – it is simple deemed unimportant in an atmosphere of unaccountability.

Finally, after one of the suspects lay dead and the other injured suspect was in custody, the police chief and other city officials did a press conference. They mostly thanked the people of the Boston area for their cooperation and gave certain details of the situation. There was not much self-congratulation. This seemed quite ordinary until I saw another police official talking to the press on TV. A 5-year old girl had been raped, an Assistant Commissioner of Police had repeatedly slapped another girl who was protesting police inaction and another policeman had tried to bribe the 5-year old’s father to keep him mum about the rape incident. Deputy Commissioner of Police Prabhakar started in that very desi barely concealed  doublespeak method – ‘I would not like to congratulate ourselves but…’


Its the night of 19th now. As per information received till now, one of the 2 suspects of the Boston marathon bombings, has died. The other suspect is wounded and been taken into custody. There were  gunfights leading  up to it. Through the day I have heard helicopter sounds above and police-car sirens. The primary theatre of  action was Watertown, a city near Boston. Boston, Cambridge, Watertown and a few other cities had been ‘locked down’ as a security-measure. This is somewhat different from a curfew. The governor Deval Patrick has requested residents to stay indoors and keep their doors locked. Public transport systems were suspended. Now that measure has been lifted.

The long string of events that started yesterday began from the evening of the Boston marathon. This marathon is a part of Boston’s urban culture – like how the Book Fair is an integral part of Kolkata’s urban culture. This is not only running a long distance. Many people running there were doing that to raise money for different kinds of charities and causes. The Laboratory where I work, has 7 members. Among us, 2 people were running that day. The proportion should give us an idea how wildly popular this is and how enmeshed this is to the city’s urban culture. Hence, after the explosion, almost as a point of defiance to terror tactics, Boston was back – walking, dancing, running, working, playing – as it generally does. This is not simply a rhetorical statement – being an outsider, if you will, I have noticed this very starkly. In the Boston marathon bombing, 3 people have died altogether and more than a hundred people were injured. Many friends of mine from Harvard and MIT went to donate blood after hearing that the hospitals were running especially low on their store of platelets. In Kolkata and Delhi, when much larger catastrophes have happened, have youths from universities and middle-classes queued up to donate blood?  I do not know.

On the night of April 18, I got an SMS alert from the MIT authorities at 10-48 pm  to stay indoors and that there had been a shooting incident near the STATA building. Incidentally, this is bang opposite to my own Lab in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. This is the incident when an MIT Police officer was fatally shot by the Boston bombing suspects. US universities have campus police who are specifically deployed in university areas – and they are different from the city police. I got the alert within 10 minutes of the incident, pointing to the promptness of the MIT emergency alert system. Periodic alerts continued in the MIT emergency website and also by SMS – at 1-20, 11-41, 12-01, 12-28, 12-37, 1-04 and 1-31. Finally, at 1-56 am, the campus was declared safe, that the suspected asailant was not on campus anymore and the staying indoors directive was lifted. These periodic alerts were important as many researchers are present working till late into the night in any major research university in the US. So this had real relevance.

Such alerts continued through the night- updating everyone associated with MIT with the situation.The main theatre of activity had shifted to Watertown by then. Like many other people, I was also glued to the news and updates, being locked in. Early on, on the 19th of April, MIT declared that it would be closed on that day. I got similar messages from Harvard and Lesley, the other two universities I have been associated with. The extent to which they took safety seriously did evoke trust and gratitude in an affiliate like me. Later in the day, MIT President Rafaek Reif sent an email message to all of us. I must mention that such alert messages do come on other days, but very rarely. In matters of security, the police had been working, at least in this case, on the basis of written law, not on the basis of ‘orders’. Recently, at the gates of the Presidency University of Kolkata, as a mob of hoodlums belonging to the ruling party vandalized the university and attacked students inside the campus, the police forces that were posted there told the Registrar that they did not have ‘orders’ to stop this. Police in India do not seem to need orders when they slap and bloody women repeatedly when they protest and ask questions about the inaction over the rape of a 5-year old.

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