Delhi, Brock Lesnar and the Canadian Census

New Delhi, 8:pm

1. Brock Lesnar

Just finished watching UFC 116. (Yes, in my hotel room in Delhi; I’ve been trying to download it on this slow wifi connection for DAYS now).  I stunned even myself when I found myself screaming out loud, as Shane Carwin pummelled Brock Lesnar in the first round, “Kill the fucker!!!”  Yes, that’s exactly what I exclaimed.

Clearly, I don’t like Brock Lesnar.  His antics, which I described here, ruined the good name of the martial arts.  However, the beast managed to beat Carwin in the second round, and even showed some class at the end of the fight.  So maybe he’s learned something about appropriate behaviour.

2. Old Delhi

Today I took a few morning hours for a stroll through Old Delhi, specifically along Chandni Chowk, the “moonlight” walk of classical Mughal times.  It is thus named because at its imperial peak, a canal ran along the centre of the street, reflecting the moonlight at night.

Even Old Delhi has changed.  It’s still the heart of bustling Delhi, still the place to see working camels towing wood and equipment around the rail station, and still the place to dodge bicycle rickshaws that dart out of the various mosques and mandirs that pepper the main and side streets.  But even here, people tend not to notice or bother the tourists anymore.

Now, a caucasian visiting India for the first time, may disagree with this assessment.  But trust me, five years ago you would have been molested on all fronts by touts and beggars.  Today, not so much.

I find it further interesting that in previous visits, I was clearly identifiable as a brown man of foreign origin.  The locals would immediately try to speak English to me.  This time, I’ve lost count of the number of times someone has struck up a conversation in Hindi with me, only to back away confused when faced with my toddler-like abilities in the language.

Now, I’ve said some nice things about the Delhi subway system.  Did I mention the trains are built by the Montreal company Bombardier?  Technologically, it’s quite an impressive system.  But India has yet to develop a subway culture.

Ever seen the Tokyo subway during rush hour?  Delhi is ten times worse.  The doors open, and an army of people surge forward, elbows up, without letting the deboarding folks off first.  Today I was literally lifted off my feet and into the press of flesh within the car.  I witnessed an eight year old boy similarly crushed.  It was really quite disgusting.  In this floating sea of compressed humanity, a good third continued yapping away on their cell phones. People, if you wait 30 seconds for the exiting passengers to deboard, there will be twice as much space for you!

But that’s not the way for a city of 13 million, where people have learned the hard way that you need to take what you need, and take it now, before the opportunity is plucked from you.

As the subway expands and as usership increases, the crowds will become a huge issue, especially in terms of safety.

At this point I need to explain something to those of you who’ve never travelled to India.  The Indian men of the northern cities are a skinny lot.  I’m a small man by North American standards, but am of average height in Delhi.  I’m also twice as old as the average man here, but… and believe me when I say this… I’m also easily twice as muscular.  The dudes who work with their hands here are tough as nails, don’t get me wrong.  But the office workers are soft and light.  I do not exaggerate when I say that I could bench press most of them, and would probably burst out of most of their shirts.  And I’m a petite girly man!  Among the middle class, there is not a culture of gym fitness, something that occupies a good fifth of my personal time, though there is a fair bit of vicarious living through laughable action stars and their fake martial arts.

I mention this because at two points today, while lining up to buy subway tokens, a “gentleman” has jumped the queue in front of me, completely disrespecting my place in line.  Both times, I grabbed the miscreant by the collar and yanked him back, at one time even baring my teeth in the process and probably unintentionally uttering a loud expletive.  The interesting bit is that in both instances, the men just went limp in my hands, neither resisted and neither protested, and neither changed his facial expression when thusly physically admonished.

What this tells me is that in both cases, the fellow knew he was being transgressive and was taking advantage of the yokel (i.e., me).  Lesson learned.

The new New Delhi is a place profoundly lacking in social graces and common courtesy, as rush hour subway travel accentuates and illustrates. If you step aside to make way for an oncoming person, he will not thank you, nor will anyone else do the same for you.  On the plus side, no one seems to get mad when others cut them off or fail to give them opportunity to merge into pedestrian traffic.  The furstrating part is that it is all so inefficient.

I’m usually of the “when in Rome” school of travel.  If this is the way they want to live, then so be it; I can do it, too.  The exception is when someone cuts in line in front of me.  Sorry, that’s when the teeth come out.

3. The Canadian Census

Now I’m going to take a break from my regular India travelogue to comment on a recent development in Canada, specifically the elimination of the mandatory nature of the long form of the Canadian national census.  The census of this country has traditionally consisted of two components: the short form, which is mandatory and which applies to everyone (though perhaps not Aboriginals), and the long form, which has also traditionally been mandatory, but only applied to a subset of Canadians.

There is no question that the data is useful for researchers like me.  But is usefulness a sufficient positive to outweigh the negative of compelling citizens in a liberal democracy to share personal information to their government?  I’m not so sure.

A senior colleague of mine is organizing a formal response, through the university, to the Canadian government, to argue for the reinstatement of the mandatory long form.  His argument is that failure to add the force of law to this information will cripple valuable information-gathering attempts by researchers and policymakers alike.

This person gives a thorough argument for keeping the longform survey mandatory, though I think he (I think it’s a he) understates the privacy concerns.

Personally, I think that unless we’re looking at an emergency situation (e.g., a disease outbreak or intense national security situation) civil liberties and privacy always trump the government’s desire to collect information.  The need for quality data is not sufficient impetus to apply the sledgehammer of criminal law to compel the vitiation of such privacy protections.

For one thing, there is no such thing as a guarantee of privacy where the government is concerned.  We learned this the hard way in the wake of 911, when the Bush government raided all federal databases to find terrorism links, including those that were collected under the precepts of complete privacy and confidentiality.  In short: there is no such thing as privacy; all it takes is a shift in government, government policy or the greater political landscape to make all extant data open or at least semi-permeable.

The extreme Libertarian view is that the census is innately an oppressive governmental tool.  I would not go that far, but the potential for abuse is always there.  And such potential suggests that compulsory participation, especially in this era of renewed distrust of government, may not be appropriate.

I wrote about this back in 2006, back when the government was weilding its sledgehammer in an irresponsible manner, threatening criminal action if I didn’t mail back their ridiculous census form.

Not only is this tack offensive, it’s also inefficient.  What is the goal here?  To compel maximum participation in the census?  Easy.  Instead of threatening citizens with the hammer, cajole them with the carrot.  Instead of spending tens of  millions on the criminal enforcement of census compliance, spend a single million on a national lottery: everyone who sends back their longform survey is entered, for free, to win that million dollars.  Trust me, this would be cheaper and much more effective.

And then let’s make the shortform survey voluntary, as well, okay?