Three Stories and a Lesson

Story One

This was when I was in Bay Area for a few months on a project.  I was a  frequent traveler by the BART.    In the train stations of the BART system, they have turnstiles where you one has to swipe the ticket both during entry and exit.  Presumably, the idea is that if you buy a ticket for a certain distance and overshoot that distance, the turnstile at the exit won’t let you out and you have to call for help from an official  who will then proceed to ticket you – I never tested this, but it sounds plausible.

Once, at the exit turnstile, I found to my chagrin that I had lost my ticket and I was stuck.  I looked around and realized that there was  a broader gate that one could open without swiping a ticket – this was to be used by handicapped travelers on wheelchairs and people like me. Of course, there was a booth with a BART official directly overlooking this gate, and as soon as I opened the gate to pass by, he walked up to me and asked me what I was up to.

I told him, with as sheepish an expression as I could muster, that I had lost my ticket.  The official took one look at me and said: “Oh you have lost your ticket? In that case, I will have to…”

I took a deep breath. Memories of my misadventures in Mumbai’s local trains came back to me. While I have never travelled ticketless, I’ve had experiences where I got confused and landed up at the wrong platform. Upon realizing my mistake, I would have to get to the overbridge to reach the correct one, and I would be stopped by the TC. On finding that the ticket or pass I had with me did not entitle me to that platform, he would tell me that he would have to fine me – and of course, that meant that I would have to offer a bribe. I didn’t expect to get away with a bribe here, but of course wouldn’t that mean that I would have to pay a hefty fine that was many times the ticket’s value?

“… charge you for the ticket.”

Wait, what? Not a fine? Just the price of the ticket? It was still a loss, but wasn’t a big deal anymore.

I nodded in assent, and he asked me where I had boarded the train from. I truthfully told him that it was the stop previous to that one.

“Oh just one stop? Foggetaboutit.” and he let me go. He had evidently decided that it wasn’t worth the effort collecting the small ticket fare for one stop.

I was grateful to be allowed out of the station without being poorer by the dollar and fifty cents it would have cost me otherwise. I also had that NRI reaction – you know the sinking feeling that an NRI experiences when he realizes that he would be treated worse in his own country than by the officialdom of a foreign one. On reflection, I found the whole  thing strange. What if I had lied about the stop I had boarded the train from? Also, did the official commit an “irregularity” by not following the rules and collecting the ticket fare?

Story Two

I was visiting my uncle in Bangalore. My uncle was then working in a public sector insurance company, and he introduced me to some of his colleagues. We got into small talk about the nature of my work. This was around 13 years back, and “computerization” was still a new thing and not accepted as a matter of fact as it is now.  So I ended up waxing eloquent about how awesome software was at automating routine tasks leaving you free to focus on the big decisions. While grunt work would be eliminated, computers would not take away the potential for knowledge work. All basic stuff, but remember that I was doing small talk, not giving a lecture, and that this was 13 years back.

At some point, I started realizing that we were speaking at cross-purposes. While I was trying my best to assure my uncle’s colleagues that computers would not make their decisions for them, it turned out that they, or at least the one person who was talking in a most animated way, wanted computers to automate decisions -his boss’s. Specifically, he wanted computers to somehow automate things in such a way that it left no scope for his boss to indulge in favouritism and politics during appraisals and promotions.  And this was a fairly senior person in the organization.

The discussion never got anywhere after that.

Story Three

I work in Hi tech city, Hyderabad. On my commute to work,  there is a T-junction, where a minor road connects to a major road. In the morning, vehicles have to turn right at the T to join the rush of vehicles that are getting to Hi tech city. The volume of traffic ought not to have caused a gridlock in any city except Hyderabad. In most western countries where traffic rules are enforced, the problem could have been solved by a simple stop sign. In Mumbai, they would have put in place a traffic light. But this is Hyderabad, where no one obeys traffic lights, let alone stop signs. When putting an actual traffic policeman to direct traffic did nothing to prevent an insane mess from developing every morning, the police hit upon a solution that is increasingly the norm in Hyderabad. They simply blocked off the T junction, forcing vehicles to take a left and a U to join the traffic.

These are three different stories, but all three have a common theme. The theme in question is about a particular trade-off in public policy. What is the theme?