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Note no. 56  

We had previously circulated the following two papers on the Y2K problem:

* 'The Millennium Incompatibility: Need For Timely Audit & Action": Disseminated on April 14,1997.

* "The Y2K (Year 2000) Problem": Disseminated on January 28,1999. Available at

Problems due to unrectified millennium incompatibility in computers and computer networks could have an unforeseen, adverse impact on national security, national economy, public health and welfare and individual and public safety.

Thanks to the timely and vigorous action taken under the leadership of the Planning Commission and the concerned Ministries of the Government of India, the likely sources of incompatibility in the public and private sectors have been identified, rectified, audited internally as well as externally where necessary and a stand-by machinery in the form of control rooms in New Delhi as well as in the State capitals is to be set up from next week to attend to unforeseen computer bottlenecks and take corrective action.

The task of public education through the media has also been given adequate attention by the task force of the Planning Commission with the co-operation of the private sector and non-governmental experts. The Government as a whole and, particularly those concerned with Y2K Management, are, therefore, reasonably confident that the computers and computer networks of the country in the key sectors should make the transition to the new millennium without any major problems. Fall-back arrangements in case of unexpected problems are also in position.

However, in matters concerning men and machines, one can never be complacent that all that needed to be done has been done and that nothing needing attention has been overlooked. As one is taught in training courses for commandos and intelligence operatives, in crisis or crisis-prone situations, there is always one more thing to do, which one tends to overlook, and realises only after a crisis that one has overlooked it.

It is, therefore, important to keep doing individual and collective thinking whether there is one more thing to do which one might have overlooked and to keep oneself mentally prepared to quickly deal with an unexpected problem, due to the unwittingly overlooked aspects not being identified and rectified in time.

It is important to underline that problems due to unrectified sources of incompatibility need not necessarily strike at the midnight of December 31,1999, like lightning. There is an equally strong possibility of the problems manifesting themselves only gradually as one advances in the year 2000. As those operating computers would have noticed, in many instances, computer-related problems do not come like a bolt from the blue. They slowly creep in, initially unnoticed and subsequently relentlessly, like Alzheimer's disease. The effect of unidentified and unrectified sources of incompatibility on the computer's brain will, more probably, be like that of this disease on the human brain.

In our second paper mentioned above, we had stated as follows:

* "The date commands in the embedded processors have made the problem much more complex and much more difficult to handle. It is estimated that the various electronic equipment in use in the world today has about 25 billion microchips, of which only about 3 per cent have date commands. Since, in the past, there was no proper documentation of the number and location of such microchips with date commands, identifying all of them for rectification is going to be as difficult as locating a needle in a haystack."

* "That is why computer experts are not confident that they would be able to locate and rectify in time all embedded processors with date commands. In spite of their best efforts, some could remain undetected and unattended, thereby posing problems."

* ''Another complicating factor could arise from the fact that even as software experts are dealing with the problem in the equipment acquired in the past, equipment of new design, but with old microchips with two-digit date commands might be entering the market, thereby increasing the possibility of many equipment with potential date problems remaining unidentified and unattended."

* "Recent months have seen a virtual crashing of the prices of computers and other electronic equipment in Asia and other Third World countries, with companies vying with each other in reducing prices and offering other incentives for the purchase of their equipment."

* "This is partly due to overproduction during the boom years resulting in large unsold stockpiles. Another possible--and a more disquieting-- explanation could be that these companies are dumping on unwary customers. unaware of the implications of the Y2K problem, equipment with potential date command problems, as such equipment, without rectification, would become junk by next year."

* "The consequences of unattended Y2K problems may not come like a thunderbolt at the midnight of December 31,1999/January 1,2000, as often projected in over-dramatised media accounts. They are more likely to occur as a creeping paralysis of government and private establishments, which have failed to take timely rectification, with the paralysis spreading ultimately even to enterprises which have tackled the problem energetically."

The timely, vigorous and commendable action taken by the Government and the private sector must have definitely taken care of such aspects, which have been extensively highlighted in the West, and any undue concern might, therefore, be out of place.

It would still be in order to highlight the need for the following steps:

*  The Y2K stand-by alert, put in place by the Government, should continue for some months till unforeseen problems can be definitely ruled out. The media reports give the impression that this alert would continue only for a week.

*  The need for total transparency in immediately reporting all computer/computer network-related problems by all governmental and private sector establishments to the central Control Room needs to be repeatedly stressed. Any attempt by any establishment to cover up any post-January 1 problem lest it affect its reputation could damage not only its operations, but also of others connected to it for no fault of theirs.

* Unforeseen problems relating to date commands of embedded processors could impact on individual and public safety due to malfunctioning of equipment with such date-defective processors. In all places where such equipment is used such as airports, railway stations, multi-story buildings, hospitals, super markets etc, the staff should be well briefed on action to be taken in case of malfunctioning of equipment. The recent tragic death of an eight-year-old child in the New Delhi airport because of the malfunctioning of the escalator was not due to an embedded processor-related problem. As the head of the unfortunate child was being bashed out of shape by the moving escalator, the staff of the airport and the airline and the public watched helplessly, reportedly not knowing as to how to stop the escalator. This would indicate the type of things that could go wrong if the staff of establishments are not well briefed regarding the action to be taken in case of malfunctioning of safety equipment with unrectified embedded processors.

B.RAMAN                                                              (21-12-99)

(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India,
and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.