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Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Presidential Visit to IIT Kanpur (Convocation 2013)

I want to recall the visit of Shri Pranab Mukherjee to IIT Kanpur as the Chief Guest of our convocation in 2013, and place on record all the issues that I faced as the primary person responsible for organizing his visit in the hope that it will help others organizing a Presidential visit.

A presidential visit is an honor for the Institute. He is Visitor to the Institute and in that role responsible for approving statutes, deciding who the next Director will be, sending a nominee to the selection of ALL professors in the Institute. So he is one of us, and we look forward to the Visitor visiting us. However, convocation is too complex a function to be made even more complex by merging the Presidential visit with it.

We had a new Director, Prof. Indranil Manna, join the Institute in November, 2012. He was keen to have his first convocation to be a very high flying event with wide coverage by media, and he decided that he will invite none other than the President himself. We sent the invitation in March, and were pleasantly surprised to receive an acceptance letter within days. It was for a convocation to be held in June, 2013. However, a month later, we received a letter from President's office canceling his visit because of his other engagements. By now, all our graduating students had booked air tickets (mostly non-refundable), and I was of the view that we should invite him again for a different event. But the Director was insistent and sent a letter informing them that we are willing to postpone the convocation to any date that the President finds convenient. So a new date was decided. It was 5th July, 2013.

This would be the last communication that we would receive from the President's office for the next 2 months or more.

We were under the impression that we invited the President and hence we were the hosts, and we would be dealing with his visit. But President's office does not look at it this way. For them, the host can only be the state government, and the state is represented by Chief Secretary. So every letter from them would be sent to Chief Secretary in Lucknow. And since Digital India was not yet the project of Government of India despite an earlier President, Dr. Kalam, being very tech-savvy, all such communications could only be through a fax. The Chief Secretary office will forward all such faxes to the office of Home Secretary which is right in the same building in Lucknow, but it won't be sent by a person, but through a fax. Home Secretary will send it to Commissioner, who will send it to District Magistrate, who will send it to SDM, who will send it to Registrar, IIT Kanpur, and each one of them would use, you guessed it right, a fax machine. A person in Registrar office will bring that fax to me, and there is no way I can read anything written on it.

On a couple of occasions I sent a request to President's office to send the same letter to us directly through email, and if they don't wish to recognize our existence, they could at least send the same letter to Chief Secretary by email, but I never got any response from them, nor did I receive anything through the State Government route which was legible.

While I could not read anything in those faxes, the District Administration would tell me what the letter says. I always suspected that they are not reading that letter but just saying what they want us to do.

Right from the very beginning, different people in the district administration would come to us and tell us all sorts of things to do. I was sure that those were neither required for security nor were part of any protocol, but you will never hear from President's office regarding what are the security and protocol requirements that we are supposed to follow.

Just to give an example, we were told that a lot more electric sockets are needed in the auditorium. We didn't know why, but had no option. So we told them that it would be done. Not so soon, you must get it done by a specific contractor, and not by your own people. But why. Because this contractor is security cleared and our men are not security cleared. It occurred to me that the electricians who did the wiring in the auditorium 20 years ago may not have been security cleared either. And security of the President should depend on the quality of wiring and not on who does that wiring. So I asked them to give me a formal letter giving a list of all security cleared contractors. I was told that the list is confidential and cannot be shared. I asked him to give me at least 3 contractors so that we can call for quotations and take L1 among them. But he would not budge. And, of course, if you do secure wiring by the security cleared contractor, it would only cost you twice of what a normal contractor would charge, and we should be willing to pay this extra money since the security of the head of the state is involved. I refused. I was warned that the venue will not be security cleared and President's office will be informed that there is risk to his life. I told him that if they can check all the 20-year old wiring, they can check a small amount of additional wiring and if they don't agree, they can tell the President to stay at home. Well, they agreed to let us do it ourselves.

Similarly, a small set of steps outside the auditorium was considered the best place to have a photo with the President. This place won't be security cleared for photograph unless the tent is taken from a security cleared tent contractor. We refused and made the arrangements for the photograph anyway.

But these altercations were causing too much stress, and I didn't know how to deal with the situation any better. One day, I called up a few of my batchmates who are in IAS and asked them for advice. It was simple. I should request the District Magistrate for a coordination meeting in IIT Kanpur with all his staff who will be involved in planning and execution and all our internal teams responsible for the convocation. During the meeting, I should call the DM by his first name, which he won't mind. After all, he is so junior to me. But each one of his staff would notice and assume that I have a very close and direct connection to him and would start behaving. This is exactly how it played out. They were most helpful in most things after that.

But the security guys would continue to give us hell and closer to the event, even admin staff would play truant.

What if the President suddenly feel the urge to take rest. Well, we would certainly welcome him to our guest house, and keep a suite reserved for him. No, the entire guest house must be vacated. I told them that we didn't vacate the guest house even for PM's visit (Dr. Manmohan Singh had come for a convocation a couple of years earlier). And we have had pretty much every President visit us, including Madam Pratibha Patil and Dr. Kalam in recent times. OK, at least the entire wing of suites. No way, Sir. I don't think our Chairman, Board of Governors, and our distinguished guests like Mr. Narayan Murthy could be settled in small rooms. Finally, we agreed to three suites. A corner suite for the President on the ground floor. The suite next to it for any other VIP in his contingent, and the suite directly above his suite for the security guys.

Invitation cards were getting delayed. We had sent the first design well in time for the approval from President's office, but no reply was forthcoming. After many reminders, just 2 weeks before the convocation, we received a large number of changes along with the instruction that it was not final, and we must still get it approved from them after making all those changes. We did those changes and sent it again. No response again for a few days. Finally, we got the invites printed without approval and distributed them. After we had done so, we received a couple of minor changes to the card and we were told that this was final. We printed a small number of cards with these changes and sent these new cards to all "officials" like MHRD. I don't know if President's office really thought that invitation cards can be printed and distributed all over the country within a day or two, when they can take weeks to respond to a request.

The biggest fight was about who will sit on the stage. In IITK convocation, almost 40 people sit on the dais, and we have kept it this way even when previous PM/Presidents have come for the convocation. But this time there was a determined DM and an equally determined security chief to not allow this. We were supposed to send the dais plan to President's office and get it approved. We were sending it repeatedly by email, but it would be beneath the dignity of the President's office to respond to IIT Kanpur. Who were we in comparison with the state of UP. And they would only respond to letters from the state of UP. On the day before the convocation when we were putting chairs on the stage, an officer asked a staff to remove those chairs. When I challenged him, he showed me a fax approving the stage plan that someone in the local administration had sent, and of course, on the plan that he had sent to President's office, he had written that IITK has created this plan, which was a complete lie. I told him that we will continue with the plan that we have sent by email unless they specifically tell us that that plan is not acceptable to them. And I told him that if he interfered with my work, I will have to ask him to leave the auditorium. He threatened that he will ask the President office to cancel the visit. I was so used to this threat by now. I told him it would indeed be great if the visit is canceled. I was sick and tired of this visit where the President's office thinks that their host is state government and not IIT Kanpur, and have consistently refused to talk to us. Let the State Government host him and he does not have to come to IIT Kanpur. I was quite prepared to conduct the convocation without the President. And we had a complete plan B ready for the entire convocation if there was a last-minute cancellation by the President.

This officer called up someone and gave the phone to me. Some Army officer in President's office. He first insisted that only approved plan for stage has to be implemented. But I explained to him that the plan has been approved by falsifying the information that it was IITK plan. He must look at the IITK plan, and if he feels that something needs to be changed because of security or protocol concern, we will do so. He asked me to send it again, which I did, and within minutes he called to say that our plan is approved. This was the turning point of the entire arrangement. I talked to him about the photograph venue. He approved it.

The security guys weren't pleased. And they had to keep coming up with many demands. President could not be walking in the aisle of the auditorium. It would be too dangerous. What if we give all corner seats on both sides of the aisle to policemen. No, it would still be too dangerous. President can quietly sneak in from the backdoor to the stage once the academic procession has reached the stage. I called up President's office and the officer said that the President has always participated in academic processions in all convocations he had attended and there can be no exception at IITK.

Throughout the evening, many issues would be raised. In all such cases, I would call up the officer in Delhi, and he would always agree with our viewpoint. Where were you for the last 3 months, I cried, when the local officials were harassing me to no end.

A large contingent of security forces descended on the auditorium as soon as our rehearsal ended. They checked every seat, the stage, the green room, the place where the President will get down, and so on. For the next few hours, it was a war zone, and in the night, they left, satisfied that the venue is safe enough for the President of India.

But, wait a minute. where is UP Police. Not a man in sight. You clear the venue and you just leave. Last time when SPG sanitized the venue, they made sure that not even a bird could enter the place without multiple levels of security checks. But now, even a truck could enter. What kind of security is this. I was scared. I felt as if the responsibility of the security of the President has fallen on me and I didn't know how to deal with it. I called up the Chairman of the Security Advisory Committee, and requested him to assign several internal security persons to guard the auditorium in all directions throughout the night and not allow anyone at all to enter. At 2AM, I thought I could catch a 3-4 hour sleep and went home.

At 4AM, I was woken up. A truck full of flowers had landed with lots of workers and they had to do their job. I immediately reached the auditorium. No policemen. Only one hand held metal detector with our people. I requested additional guards. They had to check all flowers with that metal detector, and check all workers while they worked. At 8AM, they left. In between, DOAA staff had arrived with all the degrees and certificates, medals, and no one to check them.

At 7AM, lots of police shows up. There is a contingent of police that wants to re-sanitize the auditorium. Someone realized the mistake. I told them that the President would be coming in 3-4 hours, and we have to start seating people within two hours. So they did a hurried job. And in that hurried job, did not check any of us (about 25 persons in the hall at that time). Suddenly, they had this question. When was this stage built. I told them that it was 20 years old. What if it is unsafe. Well, they should have asked that question a long time ago.

So the people start coming in. A police officer comes to me. Where is the seating for IPS officers. I told them that it was in the second row, middle block. The most prominent seats were reserved for them and the IAS officers. But he wasn't happy. Do you think that DIG and IG would sit in the second row. Why can't at least these two be given seats in the front. (Notwithstanding that IAS officers senior to IG were going to sit in the second row. Shouldn't they be given the first row seats as well.) I explained to him that in the front row, we had half the seats reserved for President's office folks that they had insisted on as per the protocol. Then we had two seats each reserved for the distinguished persons getting honorary doctorates. We had an MP and an MLA and one Padma awardee, then our Deputy Director and myself as the Master of Ceremony. He questioned the seat to DD. I was irritated and told him that every professor in the Institute was in the higher grade pay than his IG and yet we are acting like a good host and not giving second row to our faculty who are so senior to all of them, but to our guests. And DD is too important for us compared to any police officer. He then asked me to ask MP/MLA to sit in the second row. I told him he can do that himself. I can't ask them to move. He got mad and said that if DIG/IG were not given a front row seat then no IPS officer will sit in the hall. I asked him if he could confirm it so that I can let more faculty members sit in the second row. I was under tremendous pressure for seats from all corners and faculty was particularly unhappy at being not given enough seats in what is essentially an academic event.

As soon as I finished with this officer, I was called behind the stage. We had made arrangements for refreshments for the President, just in case. A lady officer was looking at the crockery and told me that she hadn't seen such dirty crockery in her life. I told her that this is the finest crockery we could find in the market and it has been washed and dried and looked just fine to me. And the waiter. There was this man who was the best waiter in our guest house, who had been given a nice dress, ironed and all, and was looking smart. We had requested a local 5-star hotel to give him extra training on how to serve VVIPs. How can you even consider such a dark complexioned person to be waiting on the President of India. I was under severe stress, and almost at the point of breaking down. With all the courage I could gather, I told this officer that only 30 minutes are left before the President arrived. We cannot replace him with a light complexioned waiter. Would she mind serving the Head of the State, as she had the light complexion. She could not believe that someone could reply to her. She started shouting and while shouting, left the venue altogether. Good riddance to bad rubbish.

Finally, the President arrived. He and his team were extremely nice. Nothing to be hurried. Not only the press and the official photographer with passes could take the photograph, but even some of us with our phones could take photographs. The President was introduced to the academic procession and he was trying to know each one of them. Again, no hurry, no worry. He gave a long speech, much longer than the time his office had specified. And it was one of the best convocation speeches that we had heard. People who accompanied him were perfect gentlemen. No unnecessary requests. Always cooperative.

So it ended extremely well, but was the end so good that it justified tolerating all the stress for three months. Absolutely, not. I wouldn't invite President unless I am assured some support from his office right from day one, and not only on the last day.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Engineering teachers should interact with civil society

What do we teach our students in a network security course regarding authentication. Well, that it can be done based on what we know (password/pin), what we have (a card, or a device), and who we are (biometric). Unless you are an expert in biometric, a typical teacher will give an impression to students that biometrics is a fool proof method. It is fool proof because it is "private" and it is "unique." We can forget password, or others can guess our password. We can lose our card or others can steal our card. But we can not forget our fingerprint, we cannot lose our fingerprint (in normal situations) and others can't steal our fingers, of course. And we don't need to remember anything, since we always carry this information with us.

I think all such teachers should either follow the biometric research or follow the Aadhaar case in Supreme Court. Biometric is neither private nor unique and hence has a certain failure rate.
It is not private in the sense that lots of people have your biometric or can get it easily. I must have given my fingerprints to more than 10 people so far (passport, visas, driving license, aadhar enrollment centers, a few airtel agents, a few vodafone agents, and so on) and they could have saved them for replaying them at an opportune time. It is also not unique. Not just that every sensor is slightly different, but the position, the pressure and everything else is going to be slightly different. To some extent, an approximate search is possible and you may compare only some important features of the biometric, and it can authenticate you correctly. And if the issue is only the process and the sensor, you may just try again, and hopefully you will get authenticated. However, "who you are" changes with time. Fingerprints change and it is quite possible that if you attempt authentication against the fingerprints stored 5 years ago, you may not succeed in this. And you may fail in authentication at a very crucial time.

Now, this post is not to argue for or against Aadhaar. I don't want to get into whether despite these shortcomings, we can make something work, or are these shortcomings so fundamental to the scheme of things that there is no possibility of making it work. That would be an interesting debate and I will continue to follow the case in SC for that. (Would also be open to any paper by a knowledgeable researcher/technology expert.)

Here, my only contention is that as an academician, it is our responsibility to tell our students the limitations of any technology that we teach. Interestingly, when I just searched for some course notes on network security courses in Google, I noticed that courses in top CS departments even 10-15 years ago were teaching the shortcomings of biometric based authentication in those courses, since researchers knew about them long time ago. Are we doing the same in India. (I can say for myself that on a couple of occasions when I have taught network security course, I indeed have pointed out to some shortcomings.)

In general, the point is that we must keep our eyes and ears open for any information that relates to what we teach. We typically learn by following journals and conferences. But let us face it, we often teach courses which are beyond our research areas, and in those areas we do not read papers. Our regulators like AICTE would tell us that we should interact with industry to know broadly what is going on and the shortcoming of our educational institutions is that they don't encourage interaction with industry. To me, it seems, that it is even more important to learn about public policy and laws as they relate to technology and incorporate that learning in our courses. In a lecture on authentication, we should be able to present Aadhaar as a case study.
Our graduates should be solving the challenges faced by industry and build new technologies. But they should also be sensitive to the use of that technology as an instrument of public policy and whether that will necessarily benefit the society. They should be able to participate in such debates and ensure that the government takes informed decisions.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Middle Class India No Longer Travels by Train

Only a decade ago, any invitation to travel would have meant looking at train options, thinking about reservations. For official travel, one could look at flights, but traveling with family meant trains. Not any more.

January 2018 may be the first month when the combined AC passenger traffic on the entire Indian Railways may be exceeded by the number of passengers flown by airlines, and we are only counting domestic passengers. Why am I saying this. Well, airlines flew 11.2 million passengers in December 2017. If past is any guideline, we should have between 11.1 and 11.3 millions passengers this month. Railways do not release their monthly figures, but as per their annual report for 2015-16, the total number of AC passengers that year were 140 million. Assuming about 5% growth rate, the total number of AC passengers in 2017-18 would be about 155 million. January is their lean period, and indeed the worst period due to fog. A point to note here is that almost half of AC traffic either originates within a 500KM radius of Delhi, or terminates in this region (25% of AC traffic originated at Northern Railways alone in 2015-16, add to that NC, NW, NE traffic and traffic from all other zones which come to these zones). This is the region badly hit by fog in January, leading to major disruptions and cancellations of trains. So, if the traffic was equally distributed, January would see 13 million AC passengers, but if there is major disruption in half of this traffic and even for the rest of the country, it is a lean season for Railways, it seems reasonable to assume that we may have less than 11.2 million AC passengers in January, 2018.

Of course, this is comparing the best month of airlines with the worst month of Railways, which is not very fair. But even on an annualized basis, the number of flyers in 2017-18 would exceed the number of AC sleeper passengers (That is, AC-1st, AC-2T and AC-3T combined), which means that middle and long distance passengers are preferring airlines over trains.

Also, on annualized basis, 2017-18 would see the kilometers traveled by passengers to be more on flights than on trains, including AC CC and EC passengers. Airlines have flown 111 billion passenger-KMs in 2017, a number similar to what trains have done counting only AC passengers, but are expected to complete 116 billion passenger-KMs on a financial year basis. The average distance flown by an airline passenger is 950 KM, while the average distance traveled by an AC passenger is 750KM. If we consider sitting versus berths, the average distance traveled by CC/EC passengers is 400KM, while for AC1/AC2/AC3 is more than 800KM. (One may note that airline distance is the straight line distance, while the train distance is much more than straight line distance.)

One could dismiss this by saying that trains are still running full, which means that airlines are only meeting the unmet demand. As and when the capacity enhancement happens in case of Indian Railways (like when the two freight corridors complete, and many of the electrification, and doubling projects complete), and we are able to run additional passenger trains, middle class will flock to trains. So, nothing to worry.

I am not so hopeful. I think this change is permanent. People when they get used to value their time in a certain way, they aren't going to go back to not value it. If we look at the distribution of traffic by Indian Railways (only AC passengers), there are really three segments it is holding on to.

One is the short distance passenger, mainly CC/EC classes where the destination is within 3-6 hours or so, and primarily the CC segment, since it is very cheap. EC class is less than 1% of AC passengers, anyway. Note that the traffic in distance of less than 3 hours is eroding due to good quality highways that have come up over the last 10-15 years. And as highways improve, this segment will be further under attack. Also, as the short distance flights become available, the 5-6 hour distance will get competition. To give an example, Delhi-Kanpur pair has about 3000 CC/EC passengers every day, which will be impacted if sometime in future there are multiple flights to/from Kanpur.

Second segment is overnight journey, 6-12 hours. This is the primary segment in which AC2/AC-3T is going strong. This segment will be retained in foreseeable future, since people don't consider sleeping in train as costing them time. But this segment is facing competition from overnight buses in many parts of the country. Also, once the frequency of flights increases further, and in particular, if we can go in the morning and come back in the night, the 10-12 hour train journeys will be impacted. Railways can remain strong in this segment only if there is reliability in the service. Delays take up part of the valuable day time, and spoil plans.

The third segment is journey between pair of cities without a flight connection. People are willing to travel even 15-16 hours if that includes night time, since flying to a distant airport and then changing mode of transport would take as many day time hours and would be inconvenient. But this is clearly the segment which is temporary. Once schemes like UDAN become operational, more people will take up those flights. So, if we consider the city pairs where trains take more than 12 hours, and they are connected by reasonable flight options (at least a flight each in morning/afternoon/evening in each direction), the trains are no match at all. The extreme example is Delhi-Mumbai which has become the third busiest city-pair in the world for air traffic with more than 10,000 passengers traveling in each direction every day.

There is another segment, which is tiny and shrinking. People who travel by trains because they value the experience of journey and not in a hurry to reach the destination. The AC-1 experience in a Rajdhani is something that I would be happy to go through compared to any airline. The problem is that the overall experience including the cleanliness on the stations, good waiting areas, and lack of punctuality is on a decline. But I think this is one segment which Railways should care for, since these are people who are not just comparing the fare, but comparing the overall experience.

Note (added on 24th Jan):
I have been told that the data given out in the annual reports is of PRS booking and not of actual number of passengers. So, the total number of bookings is 140 million in 2015-16. The total number of passengers could be somewhat different, since people would have booked in January for May. In fact, January typically has lowest passengers, but maximum bookings since the school vacations are in May, and with 120 day advance reservations, the maximum reservations are done in January.

Also, I have been told that Railway passengers would be somewhat higher, since the PRS does not count infants and children below 5 years of age, while airlines count them. Also, reservations done by TTE on the platform or in the running train are not entered back in PRS. Further people with passes, particularly staff members, sometimes don't do reservations in PRS. So they don't get counted, while airlines will count any free ticket holder as a passenger.

On the other hand, PRS bookings include passengers who cancel their tickets, which is quite substantial. So they should be subtracted, but they are not.

Overall, the number of train passengers should be less than what I have quoted above, but even if they are somewhat higher, the fact remains that only a decade ago, airline traffic was a fraction of AC passengers on Indian Railways, and now it is comparable.