Lessons from London

by Ivor Soans    Jul 08, 2005

Yesterday, it was London’s turn to experience what many global cities have experienced earlier-the horror of terror on a scale that’s the worst nightmare of humanity. So, London joins New York, Madrid and our very own Mumbai, which experienced terror on this scale more than 12 years ago.

But despite the terror and the immediate panic it generated, and alert buttons being pressed as a result by governments across the world, including in India, one fact stood out-London had a plan to deal with such attacks and the plan seemed to be working.

So, BBC’s homepage wasn’t down, but working, and rather than just speculate on what had happened, the Beeb provided do’s and don’ts for the public, contact numbers, etc. This information occupied most part of the page, so no one could miss it.

The multiple transport companies were able to provide relevant information on a timely basis too. So, commuters knew which systems were working, which ones were working partially, and which ones were completely shut, and alternate means of transportation. Even international travelers knew that transport systems to some airports were not working well. Airlines too were aware of that and ensured that flights were deliberately delayed, and helpdesks were also set up to ensure that passengers who missed flights would be accommodated on other flights.

The police provided clear information on the roads to be avoided, and websites such as BBC provided that information in manner that was loud and clear. While I was able to monitor only the Web part, and not local television since I live in Mumbai, thousands of miles away, I have no doubt television and radio played their part too.

Even the cell phone companies played their part; while networks were clogged, the reason was because companies had allocated most bandwidth to emergency services-where they were needed most.

At the end of the day, despite the rush of people to get home, and some even leaving London, roads were not grid locked, and transport systems were performing admirably well. Certainly, London had learnt its lessons from 9/11, and had learnt them well.

The interesting part here is that IT plays a huge role in co-coordinating and managing any sort of workable disaster management plan, and it was clear that the systems the city of London had set in place had worked. What’s even more interesting is that many of the stakeholders involved are private companies that run many utility services.

Compare that with India, where the railways are completely government-run, buses are government-run, even the PSTN system is largely government-run. And yet, if a similar disaster had struck any large Indian metro, you’d have chaos. Our railway system cannot manage to make normal announcements in case of minor failures; our telecom ‘giants’ simply fold up in such situations, leave alone having the capability to transfer bandwidth to emergency services. And why just the government-our private telcos are no better. I have been an Orange subscriber in Mumbai for years now, and every time there is a rush situation, every time there is a large crowd (for instance, an air show on Marine Drive), my cell phone can only be used as a paperweight.

It’s time we learnt our lessons in disaster management. Setting up systems that ensure redundancy, that prioritize traffic, which ensure timely information is provided, etc, doesn’t require rocket science. IT can help in many of these areas, and the resultant benefit in the wake of a disaster can be huge-hundreds of lives can be saved.

But are our local bodies and Central and State governments listening?