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Monday, July 27, 2015

Coastal infrastructure needs to be resilient to climate change

With India building enormous infrastructure along its 7,500-km-long coastline, the need is to make this infrastructure resilient to climate change impacts. But there seems to be no money for this purpose, nor is sufficient attention being paid to the enormous problem. ... MORE ...

Friday, July 24, 2015

Station 50

Man had not walked on the moon when I was born. It took another five years for that “giant step for mankind.” I was born a long time ago; a rather long time.

In the year I was born India lost its first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. So perhaps my birth led to a leadership change in the country.

Even while I was a young boy, a not-so-silent change was happening in my country. Seeds of high-yielding food crop varieties were being introduced in the fields of farmers who had access to irrigation. The gift hamper that these farmers received from the government also included chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Together, the ingredients helped these farmers to increase food production in their farms, leading the country to food self-sufficiency. Exempted from the need to import food, there was a new vigour in the country.

Irrigation plus a package of support ensured that the country was self sufficient in food
The political map was also being redrawn simultaneously. While farmers with irrigation were recipients of government largesse to produce more crops from their farms, those who tended rain-fed farms were being ignored. While the Green Revolution was sowing the seeds of growth in less than one-third of country’s farmlands, seeds of discontent were being sown in the remaining two-thirds. I continue to see my country suffer from the fruits that the seeds of discontent produced.

My generation did not face famines that our fathers faced. But, we did live through shortages. And we did realise that jaggery was a reasonably good substitute for sugar in coffee.

We were not the wallflower generation. We just missed it. Thankfully. We did not need acid to see what others could not. We saw what we saw. We didn’t believe that there was anything more to see, or know.

Neither were we from the consumerist generation. We were before that. We believe that taking care of our parents is as important as supporting our children.

We did not know much about Vietnam. But we knew of Bangladesh, Mukti Bahini and Sheikh Mujibur Rehman. As our fathers tuned Marconi-valve radios to catch the latest from the front, we found new games to be played during blackouts. We had heard about Sam Maneckshaw and Jagjit Singh Aurora, the sardar general to whom Niazi had surrendered his revolver. We remember pictures of starvation and genocide from the war, refugees walking across the border.

Manoj Kumar injected us with patriotism – “Meri desh ki dharti.” He also gave us more advice. It was in his nature to do so. He told us not to trust blondes – “Koi jab tumhara hriday tod de, tadapta hua jab koyi chod de …”

Even in our childhood we knew Manoj Kumar’s patriotism was kitsch. But we got a lump in our throat whenever we heard Lata’s Aye mere watan ke logon. We still do, even though the Indo-China War happened before we were born.

We were rather young when the Emergency happened. Our parents experienced it, and through them us. The impact was forceful – we promised that we would never gamble with our democracy ever again.

We saw the turmoil in Assam, Kashmir and Punjab. We heard about killings in Punjab in our daily news on radio. We followed Operation Bluestar and its sequels – Indira Gandhi assassination and the post-assassination riots with apprehension and pain.

We realised that if the earth shakes when a tree falls, it will shake again, and again. It shook in 1984, 1992, 1993 and again in 2002.

India became a nuclear power in our lifetime. Not once, but twice. Some among us gave our lives in the Kargil War that followed.

Our rockets reached space in our lifetimes, though they first landed in the sea. Recently we saw our leader take credit for our spacecraft reaching the Mars orbit – a project that was conceived and implemented well before his time. The media applauded. A senior journalist repeated that his fingerprints were on the Mangalyaan.

That is where we are, when the media is no longer a chronicler of events but considers itself a driver of history. Every evening at nine, when we return from work to the comfort of our living rooms, we watch our political proxy – Arnab Goswami – demand answers for the nation.

Arnab Goswami-ko gussa bahut aata hai. He is the embodiment of our collective anger. He rallies against the “corrupt”, and stumps them in their answers every evening. And, if through the week we have residual anger left in us, then Aamir Khan provides us the platform for catharsis on Sunday mornings. The truth shall prevail, he insists.

We are angry, and impatient. For the first time since the Freedom Movement, we have been able to collectivise our anger. Anna-ji did it for us first; Arvind-ji turned it into a political force; and Narendra-ji continues to harvest the fruits of our collective anger and impatience.

We use QWERTY keyboards to register our anger. Only birds tweeted during our childhood. Now we tweet through our laptops and smart phones, but are unable to hear the tweet of the common house sparrow.

It is ironic that my greatest regret in the past 50 years relates to our first angry young man. He exhorted us to be angry, act and change our lives.

Flash back to boarding school days. Those were the days in the ninth grade when Amitabh Bachchan, Sashi Kapoor, Parveen Babi and Hema Malini were at school to shoot Do aur do paanch. More than a month at the location, they had enough time to indulge us with long autographs. “To Gopi, all the best,” wrote Bachchan when I stretched my notebook to him.

Later, when I came to Thrissur for my graduation the Coolie accident happened. The diehard fans among my friends were anguished. They prayed, sent telegrams to him for his recovery. I mentioned that I had an autograph. They wanted to buy it off me. The bidding began, and finally the deal was struck at one tea and two aloo bondas. Yes, I should have got more. I certainly should have got more for Amitabh Bachchan’s autograph. I was young and unaware of the ways of the market.

Today, I cannot claim to be young, but am still not very aware of the market. I get my high from my work. I write as I understand – as the truth unfolds before me. Unlike the oncologist, I do not need to climb the Everest to get a sense of being. Or, unlike the investment banker, I do not need to dive in the Andamans to look inside. God has been kind; immensely kind.


[I reached Station 50 a few months ago].

New waste rules puts onus on citizens, firms

If the new rules for waste management get notified, there would be a greater responsibility on everyone - households, manufacturers, municipalities and corporations - to deal with wastes more effectively.  ... MORE ...

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Smart city plan lacks climate resilience, sustainability

The government’s much-hyped Smart Cities Mission is essentially about improving physical and communication infrastructure; it fails to look at how these cities will sustain themselves, or how they can be made resilient in an era of inevitable climate change. ... MORE ...

Friday, July 3, 2015

Harley Davidson and the art of lake maintenance

You can hardly miss a Harley Davidson on the road. It is hardly ever driven alone, but in packs. And if you are driving the highway to Bengaluru during a weekend, you are likely to meet such a pack on the road.

Harley Davidson is not just a bike. It’s a statement – of affluence, power, adventure and leisure. It heralds that its owner has arrived. Not only does the owner have enough money to buy two wheels at the cost of four, but can also afford the leisure time to ride it.

I am a regular visitor to Bengaluru. Last week, in addition to Harley Davidson bikes, I saw citizens’ action to clean up the many lakes in the city. I met Annapurna Kamath of Jala Poshan, a citizens’ group that has taken over the management of the Jakkur Lake from the city administration.

Water birds roost on an island inside Jakkur Lake

But what is it that links Bengaluru city, lake restoration and Harley Davidson bikes? Let us start with Bengaluru. It was the first Indian city that nurtured the growth of the information technology and related industries. It was so successful that Hyderabad, Chennai, Pune and Gurgaon tried to follow in its footsteps. Bengaluru was the first city where the service sector boosted the economy rather than the manufacturing sector, as with the cities of the earlier generation, such as Mumbai and Chennai.

Bengaluru triggered the new kind of socio-economic mobility of the past two decades. This was more broad-based and less discriminating mobility, where young men and women from any background, or any college could aspire to compete and enter into an IT-sector job and then grow on ability and street smartness. If the city lights of Mumbai attracted the young aspirants from the 1960s to the end of the century, it is Bengaluru that attracted the youth in this century.

The city celebrated its young immigrants from other parts of the country in its numerous eating drinking and entertainment spots. In return, the young immigrants celebrated the city. Anjali Menon’s Bangalore days, which was the most successful Malayalam movie of 2014, talks about such dreams of young people from Kerala.

If Bengaluru was the first city to grow in the new economy, it also seems to be the first one growing beyond it. There is a certain restless energy in the urban middle class in the city. It is the ‘now what?’ question that comes after you have made your money, found ‘success’, eaten in the best restaurants and drank in the best pubs. Life, after all, has to have a meaning beyond this. Veena Srinivasan of the research organisation ATREE calls this a post-materialism phenomenon.

It is not as if Bengaluru is the only city where there is this restless energy. It is there in many other parts of the country. However, Bengaluru seems to be a pioneer in trying to put this energy to some use.

This urban middle class energy finds its source from an economic, social and political space that has been growing in the country since the economic liberalisation of 1991, which was re-strengthened with the IT-sector led growth in the economy. The economic restructuring that was initiated 24 years ago to escape a debt trap, created a new class of Indian citizens – the urban middle class.

Increased domestic consumption was one of the premise on which the economic liberalisation was structured. To consume there was need for a middle class. There were limitations to the consumption either by the rich or the poor. The rich were limited in number and the poor were limited in the capacity to spend.

It is in the early years of the 1990s that the great Indian middle class was discovered, or created. Commentators writing in business newspapers – pink and white – estimated this middle class to be between 250 million to 300 million strong. “The Indian middle class is as large as the population of the USA,” they commented.

The consumer became king, for he was giving force to the economy. Corner stores evolved into supermarkets, and then into malls. There were a surfeit of goods and services chasing his money. He participated with greater involvement in industry, through his retail equity participation. Or so he felt. Cheap airlines made air travel possible. The middle class could dream. Through his economic freedom he was also trying to carve out a social and political space. 

In the late 1990s there was another effort at quickening the pace of economic growth by giving a policy thrust for the development of the information, communication and entertainment sector. The aim was to leapfrog the economy by moving focus from the manufacturing (or the secondary) sector to the services (or the tertiary) sector.

Bengaluru was the first city to take benefit of this second push in the economic growth story since economic liberalisation. The city became India’s Silicon Valley. And this strengthened its urban middle class.

However, for an individual, the momentum to economic growth can also take one beyond growth. Both stages come with their own side effects. While the economic growth gives social and political space, going beyond growth can come with a side effect of listlessness. It is a sense of helplessness at not being able to do anything impactful with an individual’s time and energy, but being a small, unknown cog in the large wheels of the economy.

Ennui and space can be a heady combination. It is powerful. It can lead to boredom, frustration and violence; or it can lead to a desire and energy to make positive change happen.

It is this energy that Bengaluru uses – to restore its lakes or to buy and ride Harley Davidson bikes across the country. According to Kamath, on every Sunday a group of citizens living around the Jakkur Lake assemble, discuss, carry out bird and reptile censuses, clean, and design and implement ways to manage the lake.

The five-day working week of the service sector helps. In addition to the money, there is also an extra day for doing something more than the routine. Cleaning a lake or riding a bike with a group provides for social groupings, something that has otherwise disappeared in the days of instant messaging, social media and status updates. 

So while the city searches for its soul, some wear plastic gloves and clean a lake, and others don leather jackets and ride noisily on motorcycles.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Climate change: Is more news good news?

The Indian media has been reporting on climate change far more frequently in the past months. As the international community prepares for the end-2015 Paris Conference of Parties (CoP) to the Climate Change Convention – which will decide on the successor to the Kyoto Protocol – there have been far more stories mentioning climate change and global warming in the Indian media.

Indian newspapers and climate change
Does this signify a coming of age for climate change reporting in the country, or is this a flash-in-the-pan interest that will not continue after the Paris CoP? This question emanates from the trend for India in the continuous assessment graphs being plotted by the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado at Boulder, USA.  

The CSTPR graphs track 50 newspapers across the world using the keywords ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’. The global list includes four newspapers from India – the Hindu, the Times of India, Hindustan Times and the Indian Express.

Like with media across the world, Indian media’s interest in the subject peaked around the December 2009 Copenhagen CoP, where the world hoped for an international political solution to the climate change issue. However, that was not to be, and the media attention never peaked as much as with the Copenhagen CoP later. The only periods when the attention peaked was during and immediately before and after the annual CoPs, which were held near the end of the every year.

World newspapers and climate change
India follows this global pattern. However, there has been a consistent increase in media coverage in India since the beginning of 2012, from where there has been a near-consistent plateau in the CSTPR graph. Though this does mirror the global trend, there are far less peaks and troughs in the Indian graph.

Absence of peaks and troughs signify consistent day-to-day reporting, which means that there is a potentially higher issue recall among readers. This in turn means that there is potential for greater public pressure on policy makers to support greenhouse gas mitigation and climate change adaptation.

The CSTPR graph is just the tip of the Indian media iceberg, but it gives an indication of the trend. According to the Indian Readership Survey for fourth quarter of 2012 (the figures since 2013 have been disputed by the media industry), the Times of India, Hindustan Times and the Hindu are the top three most widely read English newspapers, with a combined readership of 13.5 million. The Indian Express added another 0.5 million.

The figures of the English newspapers, however, pale in comparison to the readership of the Hindi dailies, whose readership has grown manifold in the past 15 years. The most read Dainik Jagran itself had a readership of 16.5 million during Q4 of 2012. In spite of their lesser readership when compared to the Hindi newspapers, the four English dailies tracked by the CSTPR study have the potential of reaching a strong section of the readership in India and also parliamentarians and other decision makers.

Thus, if the increased reporting in these four newspapers reflects the thinking of the people who read them, then there is an increased attention on climate change in this section of the population. Even if it the other way around, i.e., these newspapers are driving the interest among the readers, it is a good indication that there is a greater discussion on climate change.

The CSTPR graphs show that in the build up to the Paris CoP, media attention on climate change has been increasing in most of the countries. In the USA, though the graph is still jagged the peaks of media stories, especially those contributed by the New York Times, have been high.

The graph for the UK is both similar and dissimilar to the one for the USA. The British media seems to have reported more frequently about climate change than its American counterparts. However, like in the USA there is one leader among the pack in the UK too. Since September 2014, the Guardian and Observer have been doing far more stories on climate change than any other media outlet in the world. In November 2014, the month before the Lima CoP, there were 446 stories in the Guardian and Observer.

Media in Australia and Canada continue to have periods of interest and disinterest. In the number of news stories on climate change published in a month, the Australian media scores much higher than the Canadian media.

As the CSTPR graph for India shows, the Indian media has had a weaker coverage on climate change before 2005, even though New Delhi hosted the CoP in 2002. This is despite the fact that India has been an active participant in the climate change negotiations since the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (the Rio Earth Summit).

Interestingly though, the Indian negotiating position has not changed much from the “we are against binding emission reduction targets” in the past 23 years. In Paris, India will need to show its commitment to emission reduction, even while keeping its space for economic growth.

This is where a steady flow of stories on climate change will help make the discussions in the country more comprehensive, and possibly also pressure the negotiators to have a more nuanced than a rhetorical position. The developed country vis-à-vis the developing country binary position of the early 1990s is certainly passé for India, and when there are more stories in the media there is more scope for the multiple dimensions of the climate change discussions to be articulated in the public domain.

Like with the Copenhagen CoP, an increased media attention on climate change in the build up, during and immediately after the Paris CoP can be expected in India. The likelihood of this momentum continuing is high, since the media has been steadily exploring how the climate change discussions link to the day-to-day lives of the readers, viewers and listeners.

_______________
Citation for the graphs:
McAllister, L., Nacu-Schmidt, A., Wang, X., Andrews, K., Boykoff, M., Daly, M., Gifford, L., and Luedecke, G. (2015). World Newspaper Coverage of Climate Change or Global Warming, 2004-2015. Center for Science and Technology Policy Research, Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, University of Colorado, Web. [18 June 2015] http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/media_coverage.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Building climate resilience, crop by crop

To deal with future climate change, an MSSRF project helps Kolli hills farmers overcome present weather unpredictability. ... MORE ... 

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

In projects, stakeholders need to agree on risks and benefits

Both sides can come to common understanding of risks and trade-offs if both use a common set of tools for assessment. Traditional cost-benefit analysis is passé. ... MORE ... 

Friday, May 29, 2015

Of 'Madrasis' and 'Bengalis'

The winter was just beginning in 1988. I saw him while I was waiting for the bus at R.K. Puram in New Delhi. He must have stepped out of the train just the day earlier. His wavy hair was ironed down with coconut oil, and his palms were sticking from under his pullover. He came close and struggled to ask me the direction to a location in Hindi.

Explaining the directions needed a few questions and answers. I could have relieved him of his discomfiture by talking with him in Malayalam. But then, I didn’t want to deny myself the vicarious pleasure of making him struggle with a difficult language. I was in my early 20s then, and at that age I enjoyed this mild ragging.

The skyline of Thrissur with the recent buildings built mainly by migrant labour.
In fact, he and I belonged to same class in the facelessness of Delhi – an immigrant from South India. The city called him, me, and also my friends from Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Pondicherry and Andhra Pradesh by the same name – Madrasi. We were those who ate “dhossas with sambur”. Fortunately at least then the Delhi-wala star had not made the lungi dance famous.

From being a Madrasi I had moved to Madras in 1992. I had my brush with the term Madrasi at a premier academy for training future officers of the armed forces. The Press Information Bureau (PIB) chief in Chennai had a programme to take journalists from Chennai to Government of India institutions in different parts of the country every year.

In the news bureau of the newspaper where I worked, we took turns to participate in this annual tour. When my turn came, the destination was Pune and its near-abouts. One institution we visited was the Academy.

Our group reported at the Academy early in the morning and attended a press briefing by the commandant – a lieutenant general – and his senior team before breakfast. It was November 1999, and the country had just gone through the Kargil War. For the journalists from Tamil Nadu, meeting and speaking with cadets from their State would have made excellent human-interest stories for their publications. They requested the general, through the PIB chief, for an opportunity to interview cadets from Tamil Nadu.

The general appreciated the idea. “Woh Madrasiyon ko bhejo!” the general told the colonel. “Woh Madrasiyon ko bhejo!” the colonel repeated to the major. I saw and heard the order getting lost in the military undergrowth.

After visiting the beautiful locations in the Academy, we returned for lunch. There were a few cadets standing ramrod in attention for us, in whites and blazer. “So, you are from Tamil Nadu?” asked the PIB chief. “No sir, we are from Kerala,” one of the cadets replied. Those following the general’s orders perhaps interpreted the term Madrasi in its generic sense.

Denoting a large community with a generic name has strong socio-political intent. It is a stamement of power. It means, “I don’t care who you are, where you are from, your individuality or your dignity. You are here to help me with my interests.”

More than two decades ago, Malayalis like me smarted under the generic reference. In the year when Tracy Chapman sang “you got a fast car” on behalf of all of us migrating in search of our dreams, my stranger-friend at the R.K. Puram bus stop and I had moved into an unknown land for employment. We hadn’t gone to Delhi in a fast car, but had taken the Kerala Express. Far removed from a fast car, a scooter was our near-term aspiration.

Flash forward to today, and I hear an equally disparaging expression being used, this time in Kerala. “Awan Bengaliya” (he is a Bengali) is a term that I hear being used in Kerala all the time. Again, the term Bengali here is as potent as the Madrasi in terms of its geographic reach. Perhaps more. It covers anybody from Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Bihar, the seven states of the north-east and maybe even Bangladesh.

These young men and women have got into trains and moved to lands with unknown people, language and food habits to chase their dreams of employment. They work hard, live simple lives in shared accommodation and send home as much money as possible. They run the Kerala economy from bottom up – constructing buildings, manning restaurants and private security services.

They are finding ways to make themselves comfortable in the new land. Recently, in a wayside restaurant the young man spoke with me in Malayalam without hesitation. “Midukkan” (smart boy) was my surprised compliment. Malayalam is not an easy language to learn. And to be able to converse in it with reasonable confidence requires far more than an average effort.

They are here, but not here in the Kerala society. Everybody is aware of their presence, but prefer to look through them. Interestingly, this is being perpetuated by the very Keralites who are at the receiving end of similar treatment in the emirates such as Dubai. Much of the workforce that migrates from India (or for that matter Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh or the Philippines) in the Gulf countries is treated as invisible part of the society. Theirs is to work and not be seen. And certainly not be heard. 

The tragedy is when a similar behaviour is perpetuated within the country – among fellow countrymen and women. As long as you and I see somebody from a different part of the country – from a village or town as real as ours – as a generically-labelled Bengali or Madrasi, we are abetting crimes of discrimination. We cannot then be outraged on social media over attacks on taxi drivers in Mumbai or on students from the north-eastern states in New Delhi.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Green memories

On how Jairam Ramesh found the middle ground of engagement on economic growth and environmental conservation. ... MORE ...

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Life among the monuments in Bhaktapur

In the past three years I have visited Bhaktapur Durbar Square, near Kathmandu in Nepal many times. Unlike many other heritage sites, this one teems with life. People work, play, pray and rest in the buildings that store centuries of Nepali history. Tourists from across the world come and experience the erstwhile royal city.

I have not travelled to Nepal since the 25th April Nepal earthquake. I share these pictures of those who live their lives among the monuments of Bhaktapur.



























Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Sunday, February 22, 2015

More gene banks can help cope with climate change

Stored in gene banks or in farmers' fields, the seeds that hold the genes for agricultural diversity could protect us from starvation as the climate changes. ...MORE ....