Saturday, 10 December 2011

Greener than we care to know

One evening on my street in Cotonou, Benin, I found four children playing under a table. The boy was pouting "brrruuuu", turning an imaginary steering wheel and shifting imaginary gears. The girls were passengers. 

The scene was similar, though a generation and a continent away. I have taken turns to be the driver and the passenger in imaginary cars in my childhood. I have had cordial as well as quarrelsome companions during my imaginary rides.

My primary ambition those days was to become a bus driver. It filled me with power thinking about it. On bus rides I would sit as close to the driver as possible, and keep his actions under constant surveillance. Back home I imitated his body language - reaching out with the left hand to shift gears or stretching with the right to press the bulb horn outside the door. I used to be particularly impressed with the power that his high position on the road gave him; he could look down at other erring motorists and shout.

My father worked with the then undivided Madhya Pradesh Government, and travel to Kerala on holidays involved long train rides. Steam engines had rhythm in their voice. In the early 1970s, in Bhilai steel township we could hear the engine coasting into the station over the sound of neighborhood gossip. The pistons clunked to a stop when the driver shut off steam. Clunk, clunk, clunk.

However, the diesel engine drivers impressed me more than their sweaty, black-with-soot, bandana-headed counterparts in the steam engines. Electric engines, which I saw only when we came close to Madras Central, were too quiet and smooth for my imagination. The diesel engine drivers were a picture of authority as the train came into the station, one hand on the window and other on the bright-blue control panel. The diesel engines embodied power, even when idling, when the silence was interspersed with ghud-ghud-ghud of turning motors.

I did not know, then, that more than the "authority" that a young boy saw in these occupations, these men did an environment-friendly job, transporting more humans and material spending minimal resource.

Imagine a long-haul train from Chennai to New Delhi - 25 coaches with 70 passengers on an average in each coach would mean transporting 1,750 men/women/children with one engine. There is one mouth to feed with fuel and one exhaust to take care of, i.e. if we assume that it is a diesel engine that is pulling the rakes. Since most of the main lines are electrified in India, the power to pull the train comes from a grid originating from a centralized power plant, thereby making it easier to deal with the exhaust.

We Indians take our rail and train network for granted. There may not be a man or woman of my generation who hasn't played train with friends in childhood – koo-chuk-chuk. Steam engines were mostly eased out by the time my son was growing up, but I did see him and friends snaking their way through our apartments. However, what we take for granted as a convenient and affordable means to move from point A to point B in our country does not exist as an option in many other parts of the world.

The rail line between Lome and Kpalime
in Togo disappears into the bush
Though the colonial masters laid the initial foundation for the rail network, Independent India systematically worked to strengthen and expand the infrastructure. In the past 30 months, I have lived in and traveled through four countries in West Africa. These countries too had gone through a colonial past – three under the French and one under the British. They too have had a few rail lines developed during the colonial period. The colonial motive was the same as in India – the railways were primarily designed for moving resources and troops that could be used for moving ordinary people. However, unlike in India, the rail system has not grown in these countries post-Independence.

Connecting urban centers and even villages with each other with a rail network is no more a challenge in India. The challenge is to see how the railways can be used to transport people within cities.

With the exception of Chandigarh, Lutyens Delhi and industrial townships such as Bhilai, most of the urban centers in India have grown organically from villages or cluster of villages. Laying rail lines through these unplanned urban centers and running trains through them is not an easy task – not only as an engineering exercise, but also as a political decision.

Trains for intra-city transport have the greatest advantage that any commuter can ask for in a city. They travel through secured passages and thereby have control over their running times.

During his three-year study in a college in Tambaram outside Chennai, my son knew exactly how many minutes his train travel from Kodambakkam would take. What he could never judge was the time needed to drive a scooter from Virugambakkam to Kodambakkam to catch the train. And since he knew there were trains every five minutes, it was something like stepping onto a conveyor belt at Kodambakkam and getting off at Tambaram.

Mumbai grew because of its suburban trains. So did the urban corridor between Guindy and Tambaram in Chennai. People bought property, built homes and offices along the rail corridors. The reverse challenge today is to create rail lines and run trains through areas where people have built homes and offices.

Delhi has done well with its Metro. Even in the late 1980s, a bus ride from Janakpuri to the Inter-State Bus Terminal would have taken hours. Today that travel time by Metro can be counted in minutes. Bengaluru took its first baby step recently. Kolkata, of course, prided itself for its Metro network since the 1980s.

Economic mobility in India has happened in the past two decades. Even as late as mid-1990s, there were not many families in the cities that owned cars. For most members of the generation that started their employment with the IT boom, a car (A-, B- or C-segment) has become their personal vehicle.

There is a historic and generational resistance against giving up the convenience of driving your car downtown. So if these young men and women are opting to take the metro or the suburban train, it means that they find it reliable, convenient and affordable; also environment friendly, though the commuter may not necessarily know it. The process has begun.

Monday, 17 October 2011

A tale on the hills

If you are a Google Earth aficionado you will empathize with my excitement of seeing satellite images of mountains and valleys in 3D and traveling through them. In spite of a slow internet connection this week in Cotonou, Benin, I was standing on top of Anamudi, the tallest peak in the Western Ghats of India.

The Idamalayar valley as seen from Anamudi
The pointer was showing north and I could see a deep gorge running east-west beyond the peak. I stepped beyond the ridge, into the gorge, turned my pointer west and flew in through the forested valley. It was like watching an IMAX movie at Prasad's in Hyderabad. I went down steps in the valley, into the midlands, and there the river widened into a reservoir. The legend on the map said Idamalayar Dam.

I did a U-turn with the pointer and headed back to the mountain. On the way back I noticed the walls of this valley were far steeper than the adjacent ones. This did not look like a gully, formed due to erosion, turning into a river valley. It seemed that the Idamalayar river was flowing through a rift valley formed along a geological fault. I checked my presumption on Google, and I was right. The earth must have cracked - some day in geological past - and the same force that thrust the mountain up created a crack for the river to flow.

When I was a young boy, I used to gaze at the Palghat Hills in the Western Ghats from my grandmother's house. The mountains had moods. They stood tall and cheerful on bright, sunny days, rocks reflecting sunlight and the forests taking a darker shade in contrast. They turned gloomy as they stood to hold back the monsoon clouds.

I could only imagine what was beyond the ridge. There are no limits to a boy's fantasy but the human eye has limitations. Today, sitting at my desk in West Africa, I can see far beyond the ridge on my computer. My knowledge is portable - I can see it on a smartphone in any part of the world. I notice that the Palghat Hills are contiguous to the Nilgiris, where I went to study in my teens. I also understand that the ridge that I thought to be the tallest hid taller mountains behind them.

The Western Ghats form a mountain chain 1,600 km in length, that runs parallel to the west coast at around 150 km distance. It runs through the states of Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, and though it has an average height of around 4,000 feet (1,200 meters), it has ridges rising above 8,000 feet.

The mountains, which form the uplifted edge of the Deccan Plateau, intercept the rain-bearing monsoon clouds as they enter from the west coast into the Indian subcontinent. This leads to high precipitation along the mountains, with some regions getting between 5,000 to 7,000 mm of rainfall in a year. This has led to some of the thickest and most biodiversity-rich forests in India to be located in the stretch.

The Western Ghats are home to evergreen, semi-evergreen, moist deciduous and dry deciduous forests. In addition, the mountains have the unique shola-grassland ecosystem in the upper plateau. This consists of grasslands on the hill slopes with evergreen forests of short-statured, close-canopied trees (shola forests) in the groin of the hills.

The shola-grassland ecosystem ensures that the streams flowing out of the small folds in the mountains have water throughout the year.  This system constitutes the ‘overhead water tanks’ for the plains of peninsular India, feeding into three major rivers – Godavari, Krishna and Cauvery – and hundreds of smaller rivers. For instance, the state of Kerala itself has 44 rivers.

In exactly a year from now, in October 2012, there would be international attention on the Western Ghats when India hosts the 11th Conference of Parties (COP-11) to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) at Hyderabad. The diversity of life on the mountains is rich, and it is among the biodiversity hotspots in the world. It has over 5,000 species of flowering plants, 139 mammal species, 508 bird species and 179 amphibian species. Many undiscovered species and at least 325 globally threatened species occur in the Ghats.[i]  

One of the framework conventions that emerged from the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (more popularly known as the Rio Summit) in June 2002, the CBD recognizes biodiversity as a sovereign property, and aims to promote its conservation, sustainable use and equitable sharing of benefits.

Since CBD is only a framework convention, the member countries require national policies and laws to put into effect its principles. India was one of the earliest countries to discuss and enact a legislation to protect the country's biological diversity. The Biological Diversity Act of 2002 was gazetted on 5 February 2003. Through the Act, the National Biodiversity Authority (NBA) was established in Chennai in 2003, and the establishment of similar institutions at the state and local level was recommended.

The Biological Diversity Act mandates that the country's biological diversity and traditional knowledge associated with it cannot be transferred out of the country for research or commercial gain without prior approval of the NBA. Similarly, for commercial utilization within the country of biological resources or knowledge, permission has to be obtained from the relevant state biodiversity boards.

The NBA or the state biodiversity boards, while giving permission can order that a part of the benefit from the commercial use of the biological resource or the knowledge has to be shared with those groups or communities that helped to preserve the resource and develop the knowledge. The Act has teeth, and contravention is punishable with imprisonment and/or monetary fine.

This Act strengthens the other forest-related legislation such as the Indian Forest Act, Forest Conservation Act and the Wildlife Protection Act.

As a journalist working with the Hindu Business Line newspaper, I closely followed the evolution of the Biological Diversity Act from 1997 to 2002. It was an interesting process, that had many consultations with the public in which citizen's groups, environmental activists, tribal-rights activists, foresters, bureaucrats, parliamentarians were involved. More or less at the same time there were discussions for the development of  the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers' Rights Act of 2001.  I wrote about the interface between these two Acts.

The biodiversity of the Western Ghats and the ecological services that the mountains provide, however, is far greater than what can be signified by legislation.  These ecological services are not only to the communities living in the hills but also to those living in the plains of peninsular India.  If the rivers do not carry enough water, it can adversely impact the downstream towns and cities and thereby India’s economic growth.

With new species of plants and animals still being discovered in the forests, the source of a wonder ingredient or molecule for medicine could be lost before being found.

While the forests in the Western Ghats have the power to reduce climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide, the mountain ecosystem can also be seriously and adversely affected in a warming world. In the higher plateaus of the Ghats , the climate is temperate even though they stand in tropical latitudes. A warmer world would mean the loss of these temperate pockets including its unique biodiversity. Economically, this could result in loss for the plantation industry – tea, coffee, temperate vegetables and fruits, etc. – that provide livelihood to millions and export revenue to the GDP.

As I zoomed out from Anamudi Peak on Google Earth and looked at the Western Ghats in their entirety, I noticed that the patches of green were fragmenting and the urban centers were expanding. Perhaps those living in the cities and towns do not realize that the mountains and forests give far more to them then what they are aware of in their day-to-day lives.

[i]Myers N, Mittermeier RA, Mittermeier CG, Da Fonseca GAB and Kent J. 2000. Biodiversity hotspots for conservation priorities.Nature, 403:853–858. 

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Dead starters and live economic growth

It was a year before he died. I used to work in Chennai those days and had gone to Thrissur on a holiday. The tube-light in the dining room was not working, and my father asked me to check it out. It seemed that the starter was dead. I got ready to leave for the store to buy a new one.

A green smokestack?
Father stopped me. He asked me to follow him to his study. His lung disease had progressed by then and he panted with the excitement of the effort. He took out a brown paper cover from inside a plastic box and said, "try one of these, it may work." I turned the brown paper cover to loosen the rubber band and saw his label for the contents inside the cover - 'Dead starters'.

My father was born in 1917, the year Indian soldiers who fought for the British in the First World War returned to their villages. Just two years before he was born, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, an Indian lawyer had returned from South Africa. Though not as an active participant, he had lived through the freedom movement and World War II. He had experienced scarcity, rationing and queues. For him there was nothing wrong in coaxing a dead starter to work for a few more months. 

Though the economic reforms were initiated in 1991, in 1995 (when my father tried to resuscitate starters) the Indian economy was not soaring. But even by then the use and throw culture was slowly coming into practice. Summer this year, when I had parked my Maruti 800 in Swaraj Round, Thrissur, I found a friendly message hanging from my rear view mirror. "Exchange your old car for a new Nissan Micra," it read. Just like that?

High domestic production and high domestic consumption is good for the economy. It is better than the export-led economies (like in South-East Asia before the crash of 1997), or the import-led economies (like in much of Africa). However, when consumption becomes an end in itself, when today's goods and services are bought from tomorrow's expected earnings, there could be danger ahead.

I was a journalist when Sir Richard Jolly, lead author of the 1996 Human Development Report which focused on 'consumption', came to Chennai to release the report. Explaining the concept of consumption to us, Sir Richard said that when the human waistline expands beyond 34 inches then the problems due to consumption starts. I presume the conceptual 34-inch waistline also exists for national economies.

Mall owners in Chennai today will assure me that waist size does not matter. They have jeans for all sizes. They also have jeans of all brands. They have enough jeans chasing my money.

This summer the contrast was yet stronger for me, since I was coming to Chennai from Cotonou in Benin, West Africa. In Cotonou, good money has to go chasing for goods and services. In fact, the city has a used-jeans market. I do not know how the supply chain to this market works, but I would not be surprised if the jeans used and put aside in Chennai would find their way here through a network of international traders.

To get a snapshot picture of the Indian socio-economy between 1995 and the present, I referred the United Nations Millennium Development Goal indicators. Infant mortality dropped from 72 per thousand births in 1995 (starting year for all remaining comparisons) to 48 per thousand births in 2010. Under-five mortality dropped from 100 per thousand births to 63 per thousand births in 2010. Maternal mortality dropped from 470 per 100,000 live births to 230 per 100,000 live births in 2008. The percentage of HIV incidence rate (mid point) in 15 to 49-year old decreased from 0.06% to 0.02% in 2009. With the exception of tuberculosis, which showed a slight increase both in prevalence and death rate, all other health indicators have improved between 1995 and 2011.

People's access to improved drinking water source increased from 76% in 1995 to 88% in 2008. Access to improved sanitation facilities, though still abysmal, increased from 21% to 31% in 2008. Telephone lines increased from 1.24 per hundred population to 2.87 in 2010. Mobile phones registered a dramatic increase. It increased from 0.01 per 100 population to 61.42 in 2010. Internet connectivity increased from 0.03 connections per 100 population to 7.50 in 2010.

However, all this was not without a cost. India's carbon dioxide emissions increased from 0.92 billion tonnes in 1995 to 1.74 billion tonnes in 2008 (more recent figures not available on the chart). The per capita carbon dioxide emissions increased from 0.96 tonnes in 1995 to 1.47 tonnes in 2008.

India comes 145th on the list in terms of per capita emissions, keeping pace with Georgia, Gabon and Angola. Qatar takes the top position with 53.5 tonnes emissions per capita in 2008; the USA in the 12th position with 17.5 tonnes; and the UK in the 43rd position with 8.5 tonnes.

When the country figures are listed, India comes third after China and the USA, and fourth if the European Union is counted as a block. Despite the ranking, the differences are considerable. In 2008, China had an emission of 7.03 billion tonnes (23.33% of the global total); the USA 5.46 billion tonnes (18.11%); the EU 4.17 billion tonnes (14.04%); and India 1.74 billion tonnes (5.78%). This data and analysis was made by the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center of the US Department of Energy for the United Nations.

This is the data on which the entire India vis-√†-vis the world climate change discussion revolves. There are two ways of looking at it. While one can argue that India is a major emitter, the counter argument is that a country with 17.28% of the world population only shares 5.78% of the emissions, and global warming is caused due to present and historical emissions. India's economic growth and increase in emissions is a recent development. The per capita emissions is amongst the lowest in the world.

I do not know how much of these arguments my father would have read through the newspaper. Even if he had, his philosophy would have been simple - if a tube-light starter can be brought back to life it should not be thrown away.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Welcoming an itinerant Maveli

This year Maveli is coming to Cotonou in Benin, West Africa. We are preparing to receive him on Sunday, 11 September.

Maveli is a good man, very considerate. He meets his people on a day of their convenience, rather than his. On Sunday his calendar should be full. I am sure as the earth turns he would be coming from Perth, Singapore, Dar  es Salaam to Cotonou. After shaking our hands he may be going to Accra, London, Chicago and San Francisco.

I am grateful, my King. We are humble immigrants, peripheral statistics in the global pool of migrant labor.

I left Kerala in 1987. Since then I have welcomed Maveli at New Delhi, Chennai, Hyderabad and now Cotonou. Many a year I have welcomed him at home, along with my family. Some years I have done it with friends, in a larger gathering.

At one such gathering, one of my friends asked me a question. "Did Parasurama throw an axe to reclaim Kerala from the sea?"

"I am told so," I answered. "I was not born then."

"Dashavatara says that Vamana came before Parasurama. Then how would it have been possible?" my friend persisted.


The point, of course, is not to check the historical veracity of mythological stories but to imbibe the spirit that they convey. In almost every part of India there are two major celebrations in a year. Call them Onam-Vishu, Diwali-Holi or Diwali-Pongal, these are post-harvest festivals where historically a predominantly agrarian society thanked the Gods for a good return on investment.

We have moved from agrarian to industrial to service sector economics, but maintain these celebrations that remind us of our gratitude to the soil of our land. An IT professional, doing a project in India for a company in the USA, has very little connection to the soil or the harvest. But he joins in because the celebration of the day links him with every other Malayali in the world, and also to his forefathers who celebrated this day every year during their lifetimes.

My first Kerala Onam experience was in 1976. My father had retired from government service in Madhya Pradesh and had bought our home in Thrissur. He was keen that his children experience the real Onam. We made Thrikkakara Appan in clay and laid the floral design in front of the steps leading home.

Only once did I return to Kerala for Onam after I left in search of employment. It was in 1991, the first Onam for my son, and like my father before me I wanted him to experience it. He was too small and may never remember that day, but I could not fail in my duty of baptizing him as a Malayali.

In 1976, the going rate for a Kummattikali performance was 10 paise. I knew that many boys went around the corner, changed into a new mask and returned as a fresh Kummatti. 

Today perhaps there are not that many Kummattis in Thrissur. It is not worthwhile to perform at the bottom of a multi-storeyed apartment block. Who watches? Who pays? Today's equivalent of Kummattikali are the Onam special programs on Asianet and the umpteen other television channels in Kerala. People watch. And since they watch the advertisers pay.

With satellite links some of these channels are watched by Malayalis all over the world. These programs make the Malayali diaspora yearn for the land of mountains, rivers, backwaters, lagoons and beaches that they left behind. This 590-km long thin (it is 150 km broad at the broadest point) strip of land  has the tallest mountains in India after the Himalayas. Forty-four rivers start from these mountains, with 41 flowing west into the Arabian Sea. A mesh of tributaries and distributaries cover the state.

Historically, Kerala was the landing point for all those who sailed from across the Arabian Sea, making it a cultural and religious melting pot. Apostle St. Thomas sailed to the coast a couple of decades after Christ's Crucifixion, and his followers were among the earliest Christians in the world. He is said to have landed near the present-day Kodungallur, the town in which one of the earliest mosques was built in the country. Buddhism, Jainism and Judaism were also practiced in Kerala.

In the mid-1990s, the Kerala Tourism Department started marketing this beautiful and rich land as "God's own country." As a journalist, I listened to officials talking about packaging and promoting the state to the discerning global traveler. They were right - Kerala is known across the world today.

However, the strongest ambassadors for the state have always been those who traveled out in search of employment. Good education and paucity of opportunities were the push factors. One fine day, early in his life, my father caught a train to Mumbai. He returned only when he retired from active service decades later. My wife's father sailed to Malaysia, carrying his hopes and a steel trunk. A generation later in 1987, my friends saw me off in a train out of Kerala.

Raji and I were on a tourist coach in Dubai in the summer of 2009. We were driving into Palm Jumeirah. The Pakistani guide was talking about the engineering adventure, and how it had attracted the rich and the famous from across the world. He mentioned something about Shahrukh Khan. We overtook an Ashok Leyland bus with windows open. The workers inside looked mostly Malayalis.

Maveli, my King, this Onam please give joy to them, and to all of us staying inside and outside your kingdom.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Ouidah road

There is a road along the beach connecting the city of Cotonou to the historic town of Ouidah in Benin. Some pictures.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

The missing link

The news is out – climate change reporting in the media has increased in the past couple of years. A continuing media monitoring study by the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research (CSTPR) of the University of Colorado, Boulder, USA, has posted the trends on their website. I saw it first on Mike Shanahan’s blog on the environment.

The CSTPR has produced graphs for global trends (2004-2011) and also for India (2000-2011), Japan (2005-2011), UK (2000-2011) and USA (2000-2011).

In the global graph, the curves for the continents look similar. Climate change reporting across the world has increased since the middle of 2006. The tallest spike in all the graphs is around end-2009, which correlates to an increase in reporting everywhere closer to the Fifteenth Conference of Parties (COP-15) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) held at Copenhagen, Denmark, in December 2009. There are a few smaller spikes after 2009.

The global trend on climate change reporting (source: CSTPR)

For the global study, Boykoff and Mansfield looked at climate change coverage in 50 newspapers. They used the keywords "climate change or global warming" over multiple search engines to get the number of stories.

Interestingly, after the spike related to the Copenhagen COP, there is a decline in climate change stories in North America and Europe. Newspapers in Oceania show consistent interest in the subject. In fact, since February the number of news reports have been steadily rising from Oceania. Maybe the flood in the eastern part of the continent and the drought in the western part is contributing to the interest in the subject. Though showing a decline in the recent months, Asia and Middle East have been keeping pace with coverage in Europe and North America in the past two years. The study records very few stories on climate change from Africa and South America.

The trend on climate change reporting in India (source: CSTPR)

For the Indian study, Boykoff has looked at four newspapers - Indian Express, the Hindu, Hindustan Times and the Times of India. The Hindu has had the highest coverage, followed by the Indian Express and Times of India. The Indian newspapers have had a peak corresponding to the Copenhagen COP. This is in keeping with the world trend.

There are a few other peaks in the Indian graph. I wrote to Dr Boykoff to confirm what was the reported during the other spikes in the Indian graph. They relate to the coverage around annual COPs.

Overall, the trend for India is clear. There are far more climate change stories in Indian newspapers since end-2005 when compared to the years 2000 to 2005.

The Indian graph caught my attention since it gave empirical evidence to a conversation I had with my environment journalist friend in India a few weeks ago. My friend and I go a long way. We both started writing on environment and development more or less at the same time - in the late 1980s-early 1990s. In 2001, both of us were invited to Helsinki to interview the Finnish Environment Minister, Ms Satu Hassi, before her maiden visit to India. He was representing the Indian Express and I the Hindu Business Line newspaper.

A few weeks ago, I was discussing with my friend the present environmental reporting situation in the Indian media. I have been away from the country for two years and needed to know the situation from him. He said that there has been an increased reporting on environment in India, and especially so on climate change. The CSTPR graph for India confirmed what he said.

The trend is not surprising for somebody who has followed climate change negotiations since the 1990s. India was not listed among the countries that had to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by the end of the first reporting period of 2008-2012. Even in the 1990s it could be foreseen that India would be under pressure to make binding commitments on making emission reductions in the second phase. This background went into all the discussions on emissions trading after the Kyoto Protocol of 1997. The sustained growth of the Indian economy in the past decade has ensured that the pressure to make India join has been getting stronger in every annual COP.

In the buildup to each COP, since the one held at Nairobi, Kenya, in November 2006, there have been international stories mentioning about Indian emissions in relation to the global picture. These cues have been picked up by Indian media and there are many stories on Indian policy position before, during and immediately after the COPs. The spikes on the Indian graph are not coincidental. 

In his blog Shanahan asks, “newspapers in developing countries are publishing more stories about climate change, but how much is locally relevant and how much is just recycled from the West?” 

In Indian media the dividing line is not between Western stories and Indian stories. The Indian media generates its own stories, and even when a story from the West is used it is contextualized for India. The dividing line is between the macro policy stories and the local stories on environment which do not link to the  larger climate change picture. 

Many of the local stories which have a link to climate change will not get counted in a study such as the one being done by CSTPR because they do not use the keywords (climate change or global warming) in them. Most of the stories on industrial pollution, forest rights, iron ore mining, wind energy and solar energy may not get reflected. 

All stories do not need to make a mention about climate change. But if they do then they will help building the concept of climate change among the readers. The issue of climate change and global warming are still vague for the uninitiated. That is still because the reader cannot link between the developments that he experiences in his day-to-day life to something related to a warming world and discussions that experts have in international meetings.

And herein lies the catch in the entire climate change narrative - the missing middle link. There are stories on global meetings and policies and there are local stories. How the macro links the micro and vice versa is mostly lost in the reporting. This, however, is not a gap with the reporting alone. Scientists themselves shy away from making the connection. Maybe the science on climate change is still evolving and it is not possible to make definitive statements.

At least in the recent years, journalists, scientists and policy makers have tried to talk about the linkage with climate change during major extreme weather events. In August 2010, for instance, there were two important stories that had caught global attention - floods in Pakistan and fires in Russia. The events were heavily reported.There were a few caveat-ridden hints to climate change in some stories and when interviewed scientists did make some indirect references.

Nearly 20 years after the UNFCCC came into being, people do talk about climate change. However, it is still a distant concept, which does not link to day-to-day realities. It will become tangible and palpable only when it reflects in local stories. 

Monday, 15 August 2011

A story about stories

A scientist reprimanded me once for asking for a story. “I do scientific research and am not in the business of telling stories,” he said, before ending the phone conversation.

Perhaps the use of the word “story” irritated him. A journalist uses the word so often that it becomes a creature in itself in newsrooms. Life is a story, and so is death, accident, tsunami, fashion show and the infidelities of a celebrity.

A scene from the movie In the Valley of Elah
However, I am sure journalism borrowed and used the word only because the concept of storytelling has been with humanity ever since civilization and culture started. I can imagine the editors of the newspapers of early days asking their reporters “do you have a story to tell our readers today?” But much before newspapers started there are records of cavemen telling stories about the wild animals they saw. Cave etchings testify to these storytelling sessions around the fire.

Growing up in a boarding school, we often reenacted the cave situation. Starting a fire inside the dorms would have got us expelled, so we exchanged stories while warming our hands over an electric stove to ward off the cold of the nights in the Nilgiris. There were new, fresh stories when we returned from holidays. Seven weeks of separation from friends was enough to generate creativity. Some amongst us told tall ones; the others were wannabes. Like the cavemen, we also recorded our succinct messages on the walls for posterity. A cryptic “PGP was here” scratched on the wall marked the tiger’s territory in our teenage social forest.

From time immemorial stories served the same purpose as our sessions around the electric stove. They brought people together. When domesticated agriculture started, communities sat together during that part of the day when they could not do any farm work and told stories.

In most societies storytelling evolved into an art. In Kerala, the Chakyar koothu tradition has evolved into a sophisticated performing art form. Not much unlike the present-day standup comedians, the Chakyars narrate mythological stories, interspersed with modern-day parallels.

Much of country music does the same. A guitar is not a difficult instrument to carry. It can give both rhythm and tone to music. The narrative, however, is not mythological. In a country of mixed histories that would not have been possible. The country songs instead dip into stories of yore, and talk about miners and railroad engineers.

Epics in all cultures tell the stories of the struggle of good against evil. They instill good values in societies.

It is because of the timelessness of stories in the epics that references are continuously made to them even in the present day. The movie In the Valley of Elah tells the simple story of a father wanting to find how his son died. The story of post-traumatic disorders suffered by young American soldiers returning from Iraq is weaved with the David-Goliath story of the Old Testament through a story-telling session between an old man and a young boy. The old man’s struggle for truth against a stonewalling army establishment is compared to David standing his ground and fighting Goliath.

It is said that the forced migration of the Joad family in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of wrath has parallels to the migration of Israelites from Egypt in the Book of Exodus. If Steinbeck linked to the past in this book, the story of Kino when he finds the magnificent stone in The pearl continues to find parallels to the plight of many poor countries when they find oil or minerals on their land.

Ernest Hemingway told simple love stories blended into the background of historical events. In A farewell to arms, Lieutenant Frederic Henry made love to Catherine Barkley, got her pregnant, crossed national borders as she was approaching labor and lost her in childbirth while the First World War raged in the background. In For whom the bell tolls Robert Jordan participates in the Spanish Civil War.

Memorable stories keep coming back to us. Even without being Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, we face the “to be or not to be” question almost every day of our lives. Have we not faced the situation like the salt tax inspector in Premchand’s Namak ka daroga where our principles are initially assaulted and then see us through difficult situations?

There are some story tellers who have the ability of explaining complex scientific theories through simple stories. Stephen Jay Gould, the Harvard paleontologist, spoke about the theory of punctuated equilibrium of evolution through comparisons with the price and size of Hershey chocolate bars.

In the mid-1980s, when my father bought our first television set, life was simple. We had one channel – Doordarshan. We watched unending saga of Buniyad and Hum log, the activism of Rajani, and the class conflicts of Nukkad.

Twenty-five years later, we have more than a hundred channels. But even today, while surfing channels mindlessly, at times I come across one frame in a movie which holds my attention. The director succeeds to hold me with the story in that frame. I stay on to watch the whole movie.

“To state is to kill, to suggest create” is an old adage in literature. Good story tellers suggest. They persuade us to experience the situation through our senses.

Hemingway compares this with the dignified movement of an iceberg. In Death in the afternoon he writes: “If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”

Stories are the foundations on which human civilizations and cultures are built. They link the past with the present. They blur the boundaries of truth and fiction, like the itihasa-puranas of India. They put gods and men shoulder to shoulder in the same frame, and create a class of demi-gods such as Achilles and Hanuman.

Many a time in restaurants, I have seen someone telling a story to a group at a table. The table would have been far and the language spoken unintelligible to me. But seeing the body language of the raconteur and his audience, I have become a party to the story.

For young adults, the ability to tell a story well is a sure way to attract members of the opposite sex. In my days I tried. I never got a response. Today, I read my university-going son’s stories on his social media networks. And considering the number of responses he gets, I know he has succeeded in an area in which I failed. Unfortunately some genes skip a generation before expressing their traits.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

An urban rainforest

Death is a celebration in a rainforest. The nearby trees grow into the canopy space left by the dead one. Life grows from the dead trunk on the forest floor. Life disintegrates the dead trunk into the forest floor.

When I returned after two years to Chennai on a holiday this summer, the urban rainforest was thriving. New businesses had taken over old ones; malls had been constructed over iconic theaters; new flyovers had eased traffic at old junctions, but reassembled vehicles on different points on the same road.

I missed landmarks, since they were no longer there. I took wrong turns because I did not recognize the junctions.

It is not surprising that Chennai has grown, since in the last decade every city in India has been growing. Chennai is a late starter. Bangalore was the first to grow with the information technology boom, followed by Hyderabad. As a journalist and as an on-and-off resident of Chennai, I have seen the city change. But the change in the past two years was much more rapid than the earlier changes.

In the summer of 1992, when I had moved to Chennai, the bridge across the Cooum at Anna Nagar had just been constructed; at Jaffarkhanpet it was a causeway across the Adyar river; and the main road in Ashok Nagar passing to the airport was dimly lit and donkeys meditated Einstein-like for hours on the shoulder of this arterial passageway.

The next year was a drought year and I had worked on a story on water diviners. These are men and women who have the ability to detect the location of water underground and thereby predict at which point digging for a well will be most productive. I had seen them in action during my childhood in Kerala. In 1992, I interviewed the few remaining ones in Chennai. They said that their service was becoming less popular since apartment blocks were replacing independent houses. When you have 20 families occupying the land that earlier one family did, then it is not enough to know if there is water in the aquifer. You also need to know how much water the aquifer will yield. And this investigation needed a hydrogeologist. Chennai the overgrown town was turning into a city.

When I had moved into my apartment in Virugambakkam in 1997, it was the wild west of Chennai. Today, Nungambakkam has spread into Virugambakkam. Fair enough, since it is easier to have downtown at your door than to drive through the traffic.

We bought our monthly groceries from Joy Stores, and we had credit with him. Then Royal Shoppe, a supermarket, started. Joy Stores closed down. Now Food Bazar has come in our neighborhood. We have a line of credit with them – through Visa card. Food Bazar is part of Chandra Mall, which has in addition to the shopping complex a food court and a five-theater multiplex. All this stands on the ground where National Theater once was.

In the 1990s, the urban authority had a program called sustainable cities in Chennai. “Sustainable cities” is an oxymoron. No city can ever be sustainable, since these are centers of consumption. When a city draws its water needs from the far-off Krishna river, power from the national grid with power plants across the country, petroleum from Arabia, coal from Jharkhand, fruits and vegetables from the Nilgiris, and rice from Thanjavur and Nellore, it cannot call itself sustainable.

Cities are centers from where the economy moves. Cities are epicenters of power, the place from where policies are made and implemented in the hinterlands. Cities are insular – they consume without bothering to know where it comes from.

Chennai does not have the history of Madurai or Thanjavur. Located 75 km from Chennai, Kancheepuram has a far longer history than Chennai. It was the capital city of the Pallavas, one of the strongest kingdoms in peninsular India between the 6th and 9th Century AD. Hinduism’s Adi Sankara and Zen Buddhism’s Bodhidharma are said to have walked the dusty lanes of Kancheepuram in its glorious days.

Chennai’s history begins as the most important colonial base for the British in India in the 17th and 18th Centuries. In the scramble for power in the 50 years after the death of Aurangzeb in 1707, the British outsmarted everybody else. Robert Clive, the general who enlarged the British presence during that period started life as a writer at Fort St. George in Chennai.

After the First War of Independence in 1857, the British Crown took over the administration of India. They started to create through English education a class of Indians who could administer the country on behalf of the British. The great Indian middle class was born in Chennai, Mumbai and Kolkata, the centers of British power. Chennai grew with the political and military power supported by an educational system. Those who had education and through it access to employment and capital, did not want others to enter their club. Chennai was educated, middle class and conservative, the trait had become the hallmark of the city.

Chennai benefitted from administrative infrastructure, early industrialization, railways and urbanization. Over the decades it became an important base for the manufacturing sector. The oil refinery added a set of downstream petrochemical industries. New car plants capitalized on the existing auto ancillary industries around the city.

When I started reporting from Chennai in 1992, I realized that the city’s strength was its manufacturing base. It prided itself for its IIT and the ingenuity of its engineer-managers who found solutions to intractable problems. For instance, starved for water in the drought of 1992-93, the refinery and the fertilizer plant bought secondary treated sewage from the Sewerage Board and treated it further to use for industrial processes.

With the information technology boom of the more recent years, the engineer-manager base of the city changed track from manufacturing to developing software. There is a critical difference though. Employment opportunities in the IT sector turned out to be far more egalitarian than in the manufacturing sector. The jobs in the manufacturing sector were less in number, and after these had been taken up by graduates from IITs, regional engineering colleges and government engineering colleges, there was not much left for anybody else. The hundreds and thousands of job openings in the IT sector could absorb graduates from even the engineering and other colleges that had barely managed to get accreditation.

More people earn better today; from a younger age. There is more money in the market and there are more hands to grab that money. Express Avenue has pipped Spencer Plaza as the place to hang out. The supplements of the Hindu and the Times of India are filled with advertisements screaming for my attention. Along with Diwali and Pongal, we also celebrate Akshaya Tritiya, Valentine’s Day, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day and whomsoever-can-increase-business day. The restaurant at the junction has a new name, new management. It used to be Safari, Pandian and Amaravathi, in that order of reverse history. Shopper’s Stop, Megamart, Pantaloons have all moved closer – for my shopping convenience.

Like the trees racing to get to that hole in the canopy left by the dead tree in the rainforest, businesses are constantly vying to grab the consumer’s attention. Some businesses die. Others grow from the dead ones. This Phoenix rises from another bird’s ashes.

Monday, 1 August 2011

A river of twists and turns

River Volta is to Ghana what Ganga is to India. It is the icon for the country.

Starting in Burkina Faso and running through the length of Ghana, the Volta twists and turns through the landscape. The name "Volta" (turn), was given by the Portuguese due to these twists. The Black Volta and the White Volta are the main tributaries, with a smaller Red Volta joining the White.

In 1965, the Ghanaian Government built the Akosombo Dam, thereby creating one of the largest man-made reservoirs in the world. The reservoir stretches from Akosombo to Yapei, 400 km north. The hydro-electric project at Akosombo provides power to Ghana, as well as Togo and Benin.

The ferry Dodi Princess does a day trip on weekends, taking tourists to an island in the reservoir and back to Akosombo.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

An Indian river-log

The Narmada is the most beautiful river I have seen in India. No, not at the rail bridge at Hoshangabad; that is a blur of steel girders. I absorbed the Narmada while walking along the rocky gorge from Kevadia Colony (the temporary town for the construction workers for the Sardar Sarovar dam) to Bamni in 1991.

Flowing through the rift valley, the Narmada has the Vindhyas flanking its north and the Satpuras in the south. The river valley is a platform of sharp-edged rock, and I trekked gingerly to avoid a slash on my feet and shins. The mountains are not tall – a few hundred feet at the most – but they rise sharply from the line where the earth broke millions of years ago.

I was representing the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) at a meeting organized by Medha Patkar at Bamni. The Narmada movement was strong in those days and the meeting had drawn many people from different parts of the country. We slept on the sloping ground while the river rippled gently below us. I saw stars in the sky, something that I had not seen for years in the smoggy Delhi.

We went to the river to bathe in groups. There were gharials (alligators) in that part of the river. There was this guy, more or less my age, who sang full-throated, baul-like as we held out our towels to dry in the damp river breeze. He had long hair, which he tied loosely in a turban. He had a PhD in environmental toxicology from Cornell University. When we climbed back to the hill top the smell of warm khichdi from the thatched kitchen pushed against the river breeze. We ate in leaf plates.

Chambal has alligators on its banks. It is muddy, washing the ravines continuously. The river takes a turn before the rail bridge. Whenever I crossed the river by train in the evenings, I have loved the brown of the river silhouetted against the orange of the setting sun.

The river Bhagirathi, which later goes on to become the mighty Ganga, was mucky as it reached Tehri town. The point where I stood, then, is below the water of the Tehri reservoir today. I traveled upstream by bus to Silyara village which is on the banks of the river Ramganga, which later joins Bhilangana, which in turn joins Bhagirathi at Tehri. On our return, my friend and I were 45 minutes early at the bus stop. A delay would have meant loss of half a day to catch the next one to Tehri. While waiting we drank tea from the only shop in the village. There was nothing extraordinary about the milk or the tea leaves, but the glacial-melt water from Ramganga ensured that my tongue remembers the taste after 20 years.

Scores of Ramgangas join the Ganga by the time it reaches Rishikesh and Haridwar. It carries the copious amount of swift-flowing water that is needed to wash away the sins of the hundreds of thousands of people who bathe in the river every year.

River Indiravati drains the moist deciduous forests of the Bastar Plateau in Chhattisgarh, curves and joins the Godavari. At Dhantewada, two tributaries join Indiravati. One flows clear and serene, and the other flows rapid and red, bringing down ore-rich soil from the Bailadila iron ore mines.

Crossing the Godavari at Rajahmundry is like crossing the ocean. The bridge almost never ends. In 1993, I was in this area covering a story on a gas well blowout in the Komarada region of the Godavari delta. In the evening I sat in the balcony of my hotel room and watched the solitary lights of the ferries fade as they carried passengers to the island villages in the river and across.

I have seen the Godavari in Ramagundam, Basar and near Shirdi. She is at her most magnificent at Rajahmundry. After this point the river breaks into multiple distributaries of the delta, creating hundreds of islands or lankas.

Beyond the Grand Anicut at Trichy, the Cauvery too splits into a delta. The land between the multiple branches of the river has traditionally been the most important rice growing region in Tamil Nadu. The water flowing into the delta has also been the bone of state’s constant contention with Karnataka. Driving through the winding roads of the delta, I realized that there was space for everything except automobiles on the tarmac. Harvested paddy stalks were laid out to dry and thresh, people were sitting and working on it, dogs, cows, crows, everything but cars. With thousands of years of agricultural history, the delta region is also the home to delicious cooking.

In the Nilgiris I was in the land where rivers began. There is no shola from which a stream is not born. More than thousand such streams join to form the four rivers from the mountain block – Bhavani, Moyar, Kabini and Chaliyar. While the first three in turn join the Cauvery, Chaliyar flows westwards into the Arabian Sea.

A river is only a drainage channel through which rain water flows into the sea. While Bhavani has water flowing throughout the year, the adjoining Noyyal basin, draining the dryer slopes of the hills, runs dry most months. Modern-day engineering is required to move water from the Siruvani and Bhavani rivers to be moved to Coimbatore and the other industrial towns in the Noyyal basin.

I could not have grown in the Thrissur-Palghat region without Bharatapuzha etching a long line on my psyche. I love to ride along the river every time I travel by train into Kerala. I had bid goodbye to my father and father-in-law on the banks of this river.

After two decades I saw the full-throated singer from the Narmada valley: on YouTube. Rahul Ram is the lead singer for the band Indian Ocean. When I heard his voice crack at the highest note of arey ruk ja re bande, I remembered the chitter-chatter of the river, the breeze on my face, the stars in the sky and the smell of Medha’s khichdi.

Monday, 18 July 2011

International Voodoo Festival

Benin is considered to be the birthplace of Voodoo. From here it spread to the Caribbean and the Americas with the slaves. Every year, on 10 January, the International Voodoo Festival is celebrated at Ouidah in Benin. Raji and I shot these pictures this year.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Elmina Castle

The castle at Elmina, 170 km west of Accra in Ghana, is one of the oldest and largest slave castles on the West African coast. It was in the hands of the Portugese, Dutch and the British. During the slave trade, thousands of men and women were held captive in the castle and shipped to the Americas. The walls, doors and the iron bars in the castle still tell the story of a time in history when man inflicted misery on another for greed. Raji, Varun and I visited the castle in January 2010.

Varun and I shot these poignant pictures.