Who will watch the Watchmen?

This question, originally asked by Plato to Socrates, defines the relationships of governments and citizens. Socrates defined a perfect society in which the citizens form one class, and the elites form another class that guards and protects the citizens. Plato asked who would keep an eye on the guardians themselves, and the right answer to that, has not been found yet.

Democracy is sometimes seen as the answer – that the governed watch the governors. By this all arms of the government (police, courts, tax collectors etc) are answerable to the people, or the people’s representatives.

Wait. Why go into all this? Because this post is about two experiments on Facebook, one that went right… and that boomeranged.

The one that went right is the Facebook page of the Delhi Traffic Police (DTP). Set up by the police department, it has attracted 24,533 fans (as of this post), from around the world. The DTP posts regular updates about traffic bottlenecks (and why) and about the number of traffic offenders caught and punished. Fans can also post their own traffic updates, as well complaints regarding traffic. The DTP responds to each post (and quite promptly too, for a government department!). Though it does tend to be a typical sarkari response “Thanks for your response and it will be looked into”.

The page had an unexpected consequence, which was not originally proposed. Fans of the page began to upload photographs of traffic violations, such as people crossing red signals and parking illegally. This has clearly thrilled the DTP (for it replies promptly with a “Thanks,action will be taken”), and it goes after these offenders. A certain Abhishek Nath seems to be a particularly enthusiastic whistleblower.

Eerie? Scary? Does it remind you of Orwell’s 1984, the novel about a country where all its citizens were watched, and watched each other? And reported the tiniest violations of the law to the police? Soviet Russia and East Germany were not too different from this situation, either. The New York Times, halfway across the planet carried a report on this, and we’ve commented in an earlier post, too.

The move has had a rather positive response, as many deplore the culture of scoffing at the law that pervades Delhi. Home to many VIPs, Delhi is notorious for its unruly traffic. Perhaps with its citizens watching one another, the temptation to break a signal or go the wrong way on a one-way street might be curbed.

Mumbai’s Traffic Police has a page too. But with just 740 fans, it is clearly not popular among Mumbaiites like its Delhi counterpart. It tends to post only data about the number of offenders caught, and some pontificating about obeying traffic laws. No traffic updates. No prompt replies to user complaints.

But there is another page for Mumbai Traffic Police (BTP). A page that the traffic police does not like. A page growing in its fan base (it has 2192 members as I write). A page that didn’t do what it was supposed to do.

The agenda of the page, in the words of its founders is:

This is the unofficial fan page of Mumbai Traffic Police. This page has been setup to allow Mumbaikars help the Traffic Police by posting pictures and info of traffic violators or traffic issues. Lets hope they notice our hard work and take action!”

It has been rumoured that the page is run by the policemen themselves, under the garb of being an unofficial page. We don’t know. But Facebook users have taken the ‘unofficial’ as meaning just that.

What has been getting posted is not issues of traffic violation (well, not all the time). Instead, there are photos and reports of the misdeeds of the policemen themselves. Reports of illegal towing of vehicles. Of VIPs getting away with fancy number plates, while commoners are harassed for defects in their plates. In a particularly telling photo, a traffic constable can be clearly seen taking money from a person, probably a rickshaw driver. And there doesn’t seem to be a receipt book in the picture.

The Times of India reported the happenings on the page on August 24, in which the Traffic Police has distanced itself from the page. But the brickbats continue.

This brings us back to Plato’s question. Who will watch the watchmen? Plato’s answer was that the watchmen would watch one another. But the People know better.

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About ozymandias

What am I? A body and brain, products of carbon concatenation chemistry, an intelligence and conscience to enable bits of DNA evolve. Maybe a pharaoh, maybe a dung-beetle, never more than a safe conduit for some genes.
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