Hardship, Not Ease of Doing Business- Indian Banking and the Hapless common man

Let me start with RBI’s detailed circular of 2017 on consumer protection in case of unauthorised electronic transactions https://m.rbi.org.in/scripts/NotificationUser.aspx?Id=11040. It puts the onus on banks to take any liability arising out of unauthorised credit card transactions if the customer reports the fraud to the bank or if the customer confirms the unauthorised nature of the transaction within 3 days of the bank informing the customer of such transaction. This protects any innocent customer with ‘zero liability’ in case of prompt reporting of unauthorised transactions in his/her account. A wonderful step indeed for customer protection.

I recently had an experience worth narrating regarding my Axis Bank credit card, which I feel gives some insights into 1. The hardships a common banking customer may face when dealing with behemoths like Banks and 2. How, the many customer protection measures a regulator like RBI may require of the Banks, do not get complied with.

On 25/05/2020, I was informed by the bank via email, of a transaction done on my credit card from abroad, and the mail further asked me to reply immediately to them if the said transaction was an unauthorised one. I quickly responded to the bank’s email, that the transaction was unauthorised and the amount should not be billed to me and that I have blocked the card (I had done that from the mobile app). The transaction amount was small. Thereafter, the bank’s relationship manager was in touch with me and assured me that the amount will not be billed to me. But I was in for a surprise when I got the credit card statement billing me for this unauthorised amount and an intimation on sms from the bank after two weeks of the incident, that the above amount has been debited from my account!!

I called up the Bank’s senior official whom I knew personally and who was in the know of the earlier correspondence of the unauthorised transaction. Then I get a mail from another Dept of the bank asking me to fill up and send the 1. Axis bank’s Cardholder dispute form 2. Incident Letter addressed to the bank in Hindi or English, and 3. Police complaint/FIR

What is irksome, customer unfriendly and needs correction: 1. The bank did not have any standard line in their first transactions monitoring email intimation(of 25/05/2020), which could have informed the customer(me) to fill up their Cardholder Dispute Form if the transaction was an unauthorised one. The said form should have been hyperlinked in a mail of such criticality. Thus the unsuspecting customer – who was not informed of the follow through process and has lost money for no fault of his/her – is hassled, 2. The bank already had my email intimation from 2 weeks earlier, regarding the unauthorised transaction in response to their then email. Yet they want another Incident Letter from me. Clearly one department of the bank does not know what another department has been doing with the customer. Thus the customer is hassled, 3. They want me to file a complaint with the police. But what will police do with this complaint which is regarding an unauthorised use of the bank card for a small amount in another country? There will be no FIR – only a stamp of receipt of my complaint in the police station. Why burden the police with this unnecessary step when the amount is small and hassle the customer with this process which anyway has no meaning since the bank is itself already aware of the unauthorised use of the card and has blocked the card because of the same?

On the RBI’s side, there is a very comprehensive circular since 2017, for customer protection in online payments. But does the RBI’s audit process capture the compliance of its instructions to Banks especially regarding processes put in place after such circulars? If not, the banking customers-that is, the ordinary banking customers- are not really protected and the circulars may be remaining on the books as good intent only. Maybe there is a strong need for auditing the compliance in Banks, of RBI circulars, through process checking.

So what are the learnings:1. If Ease of Doing Business is a sincere intent and especially for trust in the banking system to improve, all banking processes at customer (especially the depositors) pain points (like the examples in my case cited above, there will be infinite such issues with various banking services) should be reassessed by the banks and RBI. These pain points can readily be identified in customer complaints and every resolution of customer complaint should result in mandatory process improvement around the pain point. That way the number of complaints will actually decrease over time. 2. The ordinary bank depositor relies on the RBI to protect their legitimate interests. RBI too issues guidance on measures for customer protection by banks. Therefore, as mentioned above, audits from RBI’s side should have process checks on bank’s compliance of its customer protection directions. Otherwise, customers can undergo a harrowing time getting their complaints resolved. 3. Police should not be burdened with unnecessary complaints. There can be a monetary limit, only beyond which complaints should need to be registered with the police. That way the banks will be forced to upgrade their monitoring systems if they do not wish to write off losses in a large number of small unauthorised transactions. 4. Banks could offer a choice of sms alerts to their customers so that there is dual monitoring – that is by the bank as well as the customer- on unauthorised transactions. In my story above, I have not mentioned two more small value unauthorised transactions done in a foreign country on the same date that were not picked up in the bank’s transaction monitoring system, but had been billed to my credit card. Had ‘foreign transactions’ on my card been on sms alert, I would have got intimation of the same instantly and it would have helped stop the further fraudulent transactions.

Policing in times of the COVID

Writing in after a long time. But nows the time for some fresh ideas to be absorbed and quickly implemented if we want to have a successful social distancing and effective lockdowns.

1. Police stations should be the focal point of the strategy. Every police station can identify locality based grocery/pharmacy/milk shops to be kept open during lockdowns. Vegetable vendors should be allowed freely.

2. Police stations should contact coop housing societies and identify a single contact point for communication between police station and the residents.

3. Taxis and autos should be kept available in turns in every police station area so that they can be moved as per requirements in medical emergencies or otherwise for people’s needs.

4. Close coordination with local hospitals to check if any person in the police station area is advised home isolation. Ensuring the same the neighbourhood.

5. Police Control Rooms/100 emergency nos to turn their focus on supply chain management of essential supplies into cities.

6. Liaise with civic authorities to spread info in their area on the safety precautions that shops personnel should follow with their customers.

7. Use megaphones on police station mobile vans to calm people with repeated communication on police station phone nos and also essential supplies availability.

8. All online vendors handling essential supplies should be allowed to move on id production.

9. Help should be taken of a few ngos to handle any manpower shortages on keeping supply lines open.

I will put out more ideas as needed.

Weak Institutions

My friend, Shri Shailesh Gandhi, recently published his views on the recent news on the Lokpal. He does not see the Lokpal office becoming a powerful watchdog against corruption unless the selection of its members has more transparency in the sense of ‘perfect fit to the post’, and unless the work of the institution is measured against proper parameters of its responsibilities.

On the background of his views, I got thinking on the institutional failures on the issue of corruption. We have Anti Corruption Offices in all states and the CBI and Central Vigilance Commission in the Centre. Really no dearth of such institutions and legal framework. Yet the problem of corruption flourishes. For an ordinary citizen, to get his work done in time in government offices, it’s not unusual to be harassed for bribes. It’s more the norm. I was watching a Canadian comedy show called ‘Just for Laughs’ the other day and it had a scene wherein the comedian as a fake traffic policeman stops motorists and asks for bribe to not challan. 4 out of 5 people-men and women- roll their eyes in disbelief at him and do not pay! The norm there is of expecting integrity in public jobs and corruption is an exception. Here, if a traffic policeman stops a citizen and asks for bribe, the citizen will not find that unusual. Unless we have that level of public expectation, corruption is a hard problem to solve. Creating more institutions may only result in more frustration at the non resolution of the problem of corruption.

Mr Gandhi’s suggestions for choosing people who can lead the transformation in the corruption culture in this country and measuring the institutional performance of the Lokpal very tightly are very good suggestions. But I am very wary of person-based solutions to hard problems. You may get good and effective people in one term and not so ones in the next. That is a big drain on public hope and exchequer. So are there different ways to approach the problem? To change the statistics (I don’t know if we measure that) on India’s public expectation of integrity in public service delivery?

To me, prevention strategies are the other approach. They exist here and there, but we have not much focused on them with enough vigour. They need to be tackled with the same seriousness as the setting up of the institution of the Lokpal-it can indeed bolster the Lokpal into becoming an effective anti corruption agency. If the ordinary citizen experiences less corruption in his personal and business life, the citizenry as a whole will become less tolerant of corruption and that will be the tipping point for this hard problem.

Lessening paper in government offices, moving towards electronic data, and undertaking a nation wide drive to identify and remove all unnecessary points of public contact for the public official in every government department needs to be done as a focused effort on war footing. For the Police, say traffic charges based on CCTV surveillance through integrated databases of motor vehicles, driving licences and ownership and vehicle insurance. Or FIRs which can be recorded by a call to the control room instead of the mandatory visit to the police station. Licences which can be obtained online. Municipal authorities could monitor their garbage collection through gps. Whether its staff is keeping public areas encroachment free could be tracked through GIS. Computerisation of land records and property registers is another area for work.

The Income Tax Department did it quietly and efficiently in the online filing of IT returns and their randomised assessments within the department. The public perception of corruption in the IT department has gone down considerably as a result. The Indian Railways long ago did it effectively too- by their online ticket selling IRCTC. The GSTN- which removed all the octroi posts- will also chip at the problem of corruption faced by the common man.

Once the points of unnecessary interaction of the people with government officials are reduced substantially, body cameras on the few officials dealing with public, could have enormous impact on corruption.

I think such major reforms are required to be undertaken in the workings /of the police, municipal, revenue and departments like FDA/Pollution Control Boards/Agriculture. They will improve the quality of life for the common man and reduce his general tolerance to corruption.

Training for Problem Solving

Recently I got to read an interesting article, http://www.collaborativefund.com/blog/newcomers/. It argues that employee attitude to innovative thinking and problem solving is dependent on the high or low ‘reference point’ that organisations set for judging employee performance. And that this reference point must be nimbly changed in different situations to indicate what is encouraged and what is not. I found this argument to be very applicable in police organisations.

Police face the ‘new and unfamiliar’ more often than most other departments in government. However, like other govt departments, the reference point for decision making in the police organisation is set at ‘low’, and innovative thinking for problem solving is not brought to the table by decision makers – from police station-in-charge to the senior management.

We see the everyday social transitional dilemmas like the unequal status of women, children, castes, religions and the economically deprived, reaching the police station in more and more numbers, as crimes against women and children and civil and human rights abuses, when the law requires that all citizens irrespective of gender, caste or community be treated by society with equality and respect.

The rapid urbanisation through migration and infrastructure development currently in progress across the country, though good in itself for bettering the economic lives and reducing social stratification much prevalent in rural india, has its visible negative fallout in the rising crime and the chaotic traffic. Police, with their current manpower ( India has 152 policemen per 100000 population as against the target of 222/lac people, and this number 152 includes the armed police who are unavailable for the day to day policing of police stations, therefore the actual availability of policemen serving 100000 people on a day to day basis must be much lower) cannot effectively handle this. One therefore sees the huge effort made by the police departments across the country to be able to just about keep a semblance of control over these problems.

The solution cannot lie only in increasing the numbers. The department has to train this manpower in law and public order management and inculcate the public service ethics into this new and old manpower. Also, it is no more enough to merely train them in the laws and procedures. What is needed is a professional policeman even at the police station level, who has a mindset of solving problems and not merely a ‘tiding over the present situation’ approach.

To improve on this mindset quality, which will be more and more required in the police department, I see a big role for the training institutions within the police. Currently, there is no training for developing the problem solving, creative mindsets in trainees. There could be ‘class discussion’ type sessions taking up actual problems, like the ones described above, faced by the police across the country and short term, medium term and long term strategies can be discussed for minimising the size of the problems. Police stations could be asked to send their problematic concerns, especially their major crime challenges, to training institutions. All levels of trainees, from the police constable to the IPS officers, can be trained on such modules, and their performance on this subject could be given a significant influence on their overall grades.

Focusing on developing the right mindsets through training will result in a truly professional, decentralised and yet disciplined police organisation – where the boots on the ground will have acquired the ability to reduce and solve some problems, and also suggest practise-based solutions for long term resolution of issues, rather than merely manage them temporarily.

This is a skill which will serve not only the police while they handle crime and public disorder issues, but it will also function as a feedback to government for its policy making. The final purpose being to ensure a strife-less transition on various facets of our society.


I came across this UCLA Medical School Commencement Address by Dr Atul Gawande. Reading through it, I was struck by the solutions it offers for India’s current problems of rather frequent instances of violence on doctors in hospitals. The solution comes from the speaker’s philosophical thinking. I was also struck by the mission level commonality between the practice of medicine and practice of policing.

The first principle of the practice of medicine is that saving the life of any patient should be equally important to the treating doctor. Dr Gawande acknowledges that practitioners do not always live up to the principle. It is also the first principle of the practice of law enforcement- that there should be no distinction when acting upon complaints of persons from different social status. However, like in medical practice, but more so in policing, this principle is still only a goal to be achieved.

He mentions hospitals as places where you encounter the whole span of society-everyone, irrespective of position and means, needs medical care. Similar are the police stations- everyone needs good law enforcement work by police and the person’s position and means should be irrelevant for police when dealing with a victim or perpetrator of crime. Dr Gawande observes that US has a high incarceration rate ( currently 7 million people) and many of those incarcerated are blacks or the mentally ill and further, that 30% of the country’s adults carry a criminal arrest record! These figures are an eye opener about the unending circular link between poverty, social disadvantage and crime.

Impacting the nation’s economic growth and widely dispersing the benefits of better growth are not in the hands of the police but one of the significant fallouts of poverty and inequality is higher crime- which is fully a police responsibility. Poverty and inequality are two factors whose outcome is more crime in society. How then can the police cope with the hard problem of crime due to poverty and inequality?

Dr Gawande provides the solution for the medical fraternity- doctors need to be open to recognising the common core of humanity in each individual and develop curiosity for understanding what it feels like to be in the other’s shoes. In short, if doctors develop their capacity to empathise, it will help people dealing with doctors overcome their anger and fear through which they often act violently. I especially liked the way Dr Gawande expresses this ‘Once we lose the desire to understand-to be surprised, to listen and bear witness-we lose our humanity.’

What is in this solution which is beneficial for policing? Treating the especially vulnerable populations with understanding and respect means creating a more level playing field for access to justice. And what can cause this better understanding and respect? To my mind, it would be preventive policing through appropriate community policing schemes. It is therefore very important to nudge police activities in the direction of preventive policing through community policing. And a nudge which works here is the budgetary funding which government can provide for community policing schemes and supervised through performance audits of such schemes.

Crime, Commons and State Policy

In Police departments across the country, there is a good tradition that is still practiced – that of inspecting districts annually. In Maharashtra, the local supervisory officers-the Range IGs- inspect all the districts under their charge once a year, and the Additional DGs from the State Police HQ inspect 2 districts every year. This inspection, which lasts for 3 days, is meant for checking on the overall functioning of the district police. Besides checking the district functioning, it is also an extraordinary tool to mentor the young officers posted as district police chiefs. Most importantly, however, it gives a bird’s eye view of the issues in the districts and offers an opportunity for the police departments to propose policy changes that can genuinely reduce crime. This particular benefit of inspections has however not yet been actively taken up anywhere.

My inspections of two districts this year has made me think on those lines. Police needs to think like a problem solver using the ‘prevention’ hat to make a lasting and genuine impact on the problems of crime and public disorder. I’m convinced that if we can motivate the bottom leaders towards thinking ‘prevention’, criminality and corruption will genuinely reduce. And in many situations, thinking ‘prevention’ means tweaking existing economic and social policies to change behavior.

In one of the districts, I was invited to visit a young entrepreneur’s factory unit manufacturing fly ash based AAC blocks which are a variety of bricks made of aerated concrete. This youngster had worked with me in 2016-17 as a Fellow from the Maharashtra CM’s Fellowship Program and had contributed greatly to the Strategy Support System that we at the state police HQ use, for monitoring efficiencies in expenditure, crime , motor transport fleet etc. He told me that the bricks/blocks that his factory was manufacturing, were not made of mud i.e top soil, and therefore they were an environmentally friendly and yet 20% cheaper and equally strong substitute for mud bricks in construction.

The same evening at dinner, I met a young trainee IPS officer who told me about the severe problem of illegal river sand mining in the district and how he was undertaking frequent raids on the sand mafia to curb their activity. That got me thinking. The sand mafia illegally dredges river sand from the river beds as the government legally permits this activity only over a limited time and for limited amounts of sand. Since construction activity in India largely uses river sand for making concrete, river sand dredging is an extremely lucrative business @ around ₹7000 per metric ton. However, the dredging not only erodes the natural river bed and reduces the water table but also promotes crime and corruption since it is operated with muscle power and patronage. River beds are therefore an extremely lucrative commons in the area, and police enforcement actions can have only a limited impact on the crime. With police actions, the crime only shifts in time and place. Tediously repetitive actions on the sand mafia are therefore an inefficient use of the limited number of police personnel available.

It would be more useful for the police to think in terms of suggesting policies to the state, to make this extremely profitable illegal activity redundant through other means. Like making it mandatory to use manufactured alternatives to river sand and mud bricks in construction, especially in government works-which are a significant portion of the construction business in India. In the meanwhile, I suggested to the young ASP to call a meeting of the building construction companies and advise them to use the alternatives to river sand, like manufactured sand (m-sand) in their building projects. Similarly, if there are issues of illegal digging of mountains for mud brick kilns, encouraging cheap and available alternative products like the fly ash based bricks described above, can be useful to cut the economic incentives for crime and illegalities. Police have a certain authority in their areas and if this authority could be used to influence economic behavior, it could check river sand dredging from the ‘prevention’ point of view.

There are many such issues where police are intimately concerned due to the constant requirement of forceful enforcement and where policy changes could have an impact on crime – like slum proliferation & mangrove destruction in urban commons, human trafficking within and across states, etc. In Mumbai, the Mumbai Port Trust maintains a beautiful garden on the sea front on its property, where earlier there was a dump. Port Trusts across the country could be entrusted with creating and maintaining mangrove parks to prevent their destruction/encroachment by construction activity or dumping of debris. In human trafficking, a significant part of the problem is that the young victim and her parents get lured by the fake promise of a job and better future in the far away city, by the trafficker. The numbers in this crime could be minimised by creating local level call centres in the poorer areas of the state, where verified information on the location of jobs being offered to the young girls can be made available to her parents before they send her off to ‘work’ in the cities.

I believe police actions can be most effective when opportunities for criminal behavior are minimised through policy work. Therefore, ideas from policing must feed into state policy for a safer society.

Research in Police

Recently I got to read two fine papers on Citizen Police engagement in Lahore and Citizen Safety as public policy – both produced in Pakistan and published after rigorous work required of an economics research paper. Most interestingly, they deal with the idea of policing as a public good and therefore, requiring due data and analysis to constantly calibrate the delivery of services for optimum results in public safety.

The papers show that the crime victimisation and safety perception survey in Lahore has thrown up very clear findings on what needs to be done as a policy measure to make citizens feel safer and make policing more effective. One of the papers has also used the data of the crime victimisation survey done in New Delhi by CHRI in 2015 for comparing victimisation rate of New Delhi with Lahore.

What insights do these papers from Pakistan give us?

1. Much more than Pakistan, India is a rapidly urbanising country, urbanisation being actively egged on by India’s 100 Smart Cities project. Policing in these transition times, to be really effective, needs quick and frequent inputs from scientific studies on the ground. These studies should feed into overall state policy so that the various impacting issues like labour, employment, urban housing, urban healthcare etc can get integrated for building safety into the evolving urbanisation.

2. Police, because of its mandate to keep crime and public disturbances at bay, is given enormous legal powers over members of society. The counter weight to these enormous powers is the judicial scrutiny over results of police investigations after they are completed, and the protection against misuse of arrest powers offered by bail and such other provisions by the courts while the investigation is on. This system of large legal powers and effectively appropriate judicial scrutiny should lead to great trust of the police by the people. However, the volume of the problem of crime is so much that these accountability measures cannot have the same level of effectiveness as envisaged and instead leads to fear of the police in the common man.

Clearly, the problem needs to be looked at from outside the box. Annual or 6-Monthly Crime victimisation and safety perception surveys offer one such alternative way to increase the accountability of police institutions at the people level-that is in the police stations. Therefore, in India we should use Crime victimisation surveys not only to understand ground conditions vis a vis police crime data but also to change attitudes of the power wielding police stations vis a vis the people. There is great hope for changing the policing culture in India with this methodology.

Urgently Needed: Crime Victimisation Surveys 

I was recently reading about the state of corporate governance in India and of the focussed way in which we have framed the issue for corporate regulators like the Corporate Affairs Ministry and SEBI over the years. Since 2000 and again in 2003 with 2 committees to formulate thought on corporate governance from the investor protection point of view for SEBI resulted in incorporation of certain compliances and public disclosures under Stock Exchange Listing Agreements for listed companies. In 2013, the new Companies Act was enacted which further strengthened the Board responsibilities for corporate governance. There are therefore a reasonable amount of safeguards around how companies are run-since ordinary and institutional investors are invested in them. Profitability is indeed a big driver for better regulation, as it is for innovation. 

What is the status of our other public goods-especially the state of security? From the consumer’s point of view, 1.every law abiding citizen should be able to see police as the first person one turns to in case one becomes a victim of crime-not as someone to fear and go to as the last resort, and 2. every law abiding citizen should feel a sense of safety in her city. 

Although there are a lot of anecdotal misgivings about non_approachability of police, there are no reliable measurements about the fulfilment of these consumer expectations. The data on policing is all one sided-that which the police records in their crime registers. There is no independent evaluation of the delivery of the above stated public expectation from security services of the state. 

I have been a passionate advocate for these independent evaluations in the form of annual Crime Victimisation Surveys at the police station level for many years but the cost of such surveys is apparently a factor to not undertake this program in our country. However if we want real and lasting ‘reforms’ in Indian police, money should be put on goals oriented performance and delivering satisfaction to people on the state of security. Currently the focus of financing is on shortfalls or upgrading of equipments, motor vehicles and infrastructure. Crime Victimisation Surveys can reorient financing to the deficits areas of people led demands and therefore lead to more public satisfaction with police performance. Fulfilling the funding needs thrown up from the Surveys will yield better output in police performance at the police station level-which is exactly what ‘police reforms’ sets out to do. 

Both the above stated goals are measurable for a year on year performance by the jurisdictional police stations in every city, town or village. And they will be a good metric against which to see the police dept’s statistics. The broad picture on the state of security will gradually become truer and therefore more trustworthy.  What it needs is the will to implement these reforms. 

Rains, Floods, Disasters and Technology

Yesterday Mumbai had a harrowing night with the downpour of 300 mm of rains in one day. Many office goers stayed back at their offices and others who braved the waterlogged streets to head home were helped by local residents and Ganpati mandals and gurudwaras and mosques, with offers of food/water and shelter. Each and every time, Mumbaikars respond to calamities, with a great display of collective humane behaviour that shows the city’s citizen resilience towards facing problems.

There are reports today of the good presence of the city police on the roads through the night and their work in keeping the traffic situation in control despite very slow movement of vehicles through waist deep waters at many places. The sensitivity and responsiveness of the Mumbai Police twitter handle during the entire ordeal was really good and has been much appreciated by the users.

What does this episode of natural disaster teach us to do better next time?

1. Mumbai has more than 4700 CCTV cameras across the city. Whatever are the informative images from these cameras could be linked to the Mumbai Police twitter  handle so that situational information of what’s happening further up the road, is better communicated to the road users.

2. Electronic Board displays on roads could be increased in number substantially-again for better information dissemination.

3. Motorists typically rely on google maps to show them the fastest possible route to their destination. But in disaster times, such routes could be impassable. And they have no way of knowing that. Police can use GIS maps integrated with CCTV network as one very useful tool to periodically update and inform road users of the state of road and traffic conditions. A single map based view of the city with the ability to choose what geospecific information you want to see could be a great boon to the information hungry citizen stuck in a disaster situation. Currently, for the road users, there is no aggregation of the ground information on a map of the city. Further, traffic policemen can take photographs/videos of the traffic congestion at waterlogged sites on the roads not covered by CCTV cameras, thereby fixing lat-longs of such sites across the city on the map and giving a holistic view of the water logging and traffic congestion problem across the city. . Motorists and home goers viewing the state of road traffic on the map can then take informed decisions for travel. For the police on the road, this information can empower their man on the ground to take measures on the basis of the larger picture on the map to divert traffic away from waterlogged cul de sacs in his local area.
4. GIS map-based visual information on the Police website can additionally be used to display information on food/water/shelter sites across the city. Such information of voluntary efforts by citizens was seen to circulate on Whatsapp and Twitter last night. Aggregated information of these volunteer activities as well as the official arrangements, helps to reassure and keep calm despite a disaster situation. Electronic display boards could also display such information.

5. Hashtags for specific themes like traffic movement or voluntary aid in food/water/shelter can be used by police for collecting information and pictures from the public users of social media. This  information could then be placed on the map for users to get information relevant to their needs. Such map based aggregation of information will also be very useful to the police control room to respond with useful guidance to distressed callers.

In disaster situations, people look to government for proper information and relief. And technology can provide that single point authentic source for coordinating an effective response.

Suicides, AI and Meditation

There have been reports of some really disturbing incidents in the past few weeks. The only son of colleague government officers committed suicide-apparently with no provocation. I was browsing Facebook and I saw a trending video of a young district collector recording his thoughts and reasons for deciding to commit suicide just before he actually does that! A few days ago, I read about a popular online game which encouraged people to commit suicide as its final challenge- and many youngsters were actually doing that!!

There is a lot of concern on humans becoming too addicted to the internet, living their lives online and in the process losing the warmth and support and empathic nature of face to face human relationships. Fears of computing machines subordinating humans in the not so distant future are also often expressed. The addiction to the virtual world of the internet and the consequent information overload is so stressful to all, and especially to young minds, that the worth of an invaluable ‘life’ is not really appreciated. There is a huge need to quiet the mental turmoil of our period and for individuals to find peace within themselves.

I am currently reading Ray Kurzweil’s ‘The Singularity is near’ – his futuristic take on the exponential growth in the power of computing through machine learning and artificial intelligence, that will happen in the coming decades. He believes that we will achieve one human brain computing capability (currently at 10^16 calculations per second) at the cost of one cent around the year 2037, and then we will go on to achieve one human race computing capability (10^26 cps) for $1000 around the year 2049. He believes that technology will be used at the intersection of information and biology creating pervasive AI systems. This AI will not ‘seize power’ but integrate into humans. He talks of Nanobots, the futuristic robots circulating inside human bodies and constantly adjusting various chemical/ hormonal parameters intelligently to keep the physical body healthy. Future humans will thus have become part machine and part biological and they will be leading longer, disease free lives, thanks to AI.

So the exponential growth of computing is here to stay. But in this futuristic scenario, even if we gain in longevity and health, will we lose in terms of the individuality of our mental makeup? Our individuality is based on our individual unique set of genes and their genetic expression, creating the chemical environment for the state of our physical bodies and for our psychological makeup. If nanobots normalise everything for the optimum will we become identical to each other? Even at today’s level of computing power, our psychology at the level of society, is deeply affected and some extreme consequences are the reports mentioned in the first paragraph. I think deep wisdom is needed to guide human capabilities in computing towards a stable future for humanity. The alternative to that will be the advanced technologies being used frivolously as a game.

What kind of humanity are we evolving into – a restless, anxious and mentally disturbed race? How do we get to that point where we feel safe and at peace despite the gadgets in and around us? I think we need to feel more connected – not the Facebook friends or Linked In connections variety. But the connectedness which will give humanity inner peace. Finding time for solitude with oneself could deepen our connectedness with the universe. It will improve our lost sense of belonging and bring us a sense of peace.

I think meditation is a requirement, not an option, for today’s and future generations. Schools, universities, families – all need to set aside some time to devote to meditation. It may keep the unease and the artificiality of today’s living at bay. And give us a chance to have generosity and compassion towards each other as the foundation for a peaceful and stable society of tomorrow.