Thursday, 31 December 2015

Chennai floods: Need to take the 2015 lesson into the coming years

Murugan cleans my car in the mornings, and also that of many others in my apartments. I see him only on Saturdays, when he collects the key for cleaning the inside of my car. When the big floods came early this December, Murugan did not report to work for many days. That was not unusual, because many in Chennai could not travel to work during those deluged days.

He appeared more than a week later. Like everybody else in Chennai, he also had a story to tell. On Wednesday, 2 December morning at 3 a.m. his cot felt wet. He woke up to rising waters in his room. He came out without having time to collect any of his belongings. He sent his wife and four-year old child to her village by bus, and stayed in a rescue centre for the remaining days of the week.

When he recalled how the water from the Chembarambakkam reservoir flowing through the Adayar river took away his belongings, he repeated about losing his supply of rice, dal and salt, underlining how the water swept away even the most basic of his needs.

The New Year eve is muted in Chennai because of the floods
The November-December Chennai flood was in some way a great leveller. Usually in cities it is the poor and marginal that occupy the most marginal lands. And this usually happens in the banks of neglected waterways. The banks of Adayar river, which flooded with rain water and also the water from Chembarambakam reservoir is both a priced real estate and marginal land at the same time. 

If Murugan rented a room near Adayar river because of lower rents, the floodplains of the river also houses the richest and most powerful in the city. The picture that went viral on social media was of a leading industrialist being rescued from his Kotturpuram estate in a boat. Also, among those affected badly were senior government officials living in Manapakkam.

At least this made the disaster an inclusive one. Needless to say there was certain subaltern glee in the comments that followed the social media pictures of elderly industrialist and his wife in a fishing boat, or of the private jets that dashed against structures in the flooded airport. But more important, there was the consolation that the floods did not spare anybody, rich or poor.

This is of great importance at a practical level. Everybody in Chennai had felt the pain in some way or the other, and in that sense has a responsibility to ensure that this does not happen again.

The theme that keeps returning in all conversations in post-flood Chennai is fact that the Adayar river rose almost without any warning. It was not as if a cloudburst or a dam breach that caused the deluge in the river, but heavy rains from a low pressure condition which the residents of the city were aware of days in advance. And it was also not as if this was an isolated event. There had been copious rains from the first week of November, with very heavy showers in middle and later part of the month, and the reservoirs were getting filled to the brim. If excess water was released through the river in the interim period between the two events then the deluge and the cost to life and property could have been avoided.

Nature contributed the rains, but human decisions caused the deluge. There were three weather events back-to-back in November-December. They were not caused by climate change, and were caused by a combination of the El Nino effect and an Indian Ocean-specific movement of warmer currents towards the eastern coast of Tamil Nadu. This kind of event has happened before, and will happen again in future.

The linkage to climate change comes with the prognosis that there can be more such events in the future. The Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that there could be more extreme weather events in the future. The Tamil Nadu State Action Plan on Climate Change, on the other hand, predicts that though the number of cyclones may not increase they would increase in their intensity.

For those who went through the Chennai floods the linkage with climate change does not matter. For them the reality was that the water rose quickly, without warning, and in it they lost all their earnings and belongings. Some lost their family members to the rising waters. The insult to injury was when the administration opened the sluice gates of the reservoirs upstream of the city without adequate warning.

Weeks after the floods, the city is getting back to business as usual. A rather unusual advertisement was on the front page of newspapers a couple of days ago. A builder was making a mountain out of the molehill fact that his proposed apartments stood on ground that did not flood during the rains. We know how to make money out of every situation.

The city newspapers carry reports on the ongoing music festival. Even while we lose ourselves in the soulfully divine music of the Margazhi season, let us remember of the tens of thousands like Murugan for whom life changed that morning in early December. Move on we must, for that is what life is about, but let us at least ensure that we don’t walk into the same situation again.

Margazhi, Pongal and Deepavali, there will be enough reasons for us to celebrate. But let us not forget the lessons that this year’s rains taught us. If we do not put systems in place to ensure that what happened does not happen again, then we haven’t learnt from our lessons.

Let us not mistake our ability to cope with the floods as our resilience. That will be a costly mistake. We coped because we had to. Our lives, our livelihood is somehow linked to this city, and hence we coped. But building resilience is not about us as an individual or a community. It is about systems, protocols, delegation of authority and accountability. It is about being prepared, for the waters may rise again – when we have just about forgotten 2015.

Acceptance is the first step. Let us accept that we live in a flat, flood-prone city. Let us accept that we have not thought through our cleanliness and hygiene. Let us accept that we forget about our wastes as soon as we dump it in the bins, or around it, not realising that this itself comes back to cause diseases after the rains stop. Let us accept that we have messed up our tanks, lakes and marshlands, which could have otherwise served us as water balancing structures during heavy rains.

Let us also accept that we did not have a system to deal with the situation such as what happened a few weeks ago. And we never demanded that such a situation be put in place. Worse, if even after having lived through the floods we continue to avoid demanding for it, then let us accept that we are not willing to learn our lessons.

It will be a sufficient achievement if 2015 made us acknowledge and accept these inadequacies. When we hang new calendars on our flood-stained walls tomorrow, we can start with the process of ensuring that this does not happen again. Rains came in the past, and will come in the future. But at least we should avoid the impact of man-made consequences.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Chennai should act before its Surat moment strikes

The Chennai floods should be a lesson and the city should clean up before the Surat moment strikes. MORE ...

Heaviest rains in past 100 years drowns Chennai - again

If the runway of an airport is built over a dry river, there is a chance that the river may overflow its banks and flood the airport in a once in a lifetime event. This is what happened in Chennai in the early-December rains, when the impact of the downpour was multiplied by the water being let out from the reservoirs through the rivers in the city. MORE ...

Friday, 27 November 2015

Why Chennai drowned this monsoon

The extremely heavy monsoon rain in Chennai this November highlights the city's vulnerability to climate change and also the skewed development that has upset the fragile environmental balance and made it prone to floods. MORE ...

Between climate change and a hard place

In South Asian countries, a combination of poverty, environmental degradation and climate change is a heavy burden to bear for many communities. MORE ...

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Sunday, 1 November 2015

The road to Africa was laid a long time ago

“I have had for many years the greatest admiration for Jawaharlal Nehru, not only on account of the great work that he, in company with other Indian leaders, was doing for his country, but also, and probably more so, because I respected him as a man of purpose, of courage and determination, and one genuinely dedicated to the cause of India.”
- Kwame Nkrumah, first President of Ghana, in 1960

Driving through the avenues of downtown Accra, the capital city of Ghana, especially in the where the governmental buildings and monuments are located, I was struck by its resemblance to Lutyens Delhi. The Independence Square building in Accra had a striking resemblance to our India Gate. Tata buses jostled for space at the bus station, reminding me of similar facilities back in India. 

I visited Accra multiple times during my 30-month assignment at an international agricultural research centre in Cotonou in Benin. Travelling from the francophone Benin, through Togo, to the Anglophone Ghana always was a welcome break for us. In both India and Ghana the colonial master – Britain – had laid down a common layer of administration and governance over the countries’ histories.

The road to Africa was laid a long time ago
Even in their struggle for independence from the British, Ghana drew much strength from India which had crossed the milestone a decade before the African nation. Kwame Nkrumah wrote thus in an essay titled The impact that lasts in 1960. His essay was published in the volume A study of Nehru published by the Times of India group for Nehru’s 70th birthday. 

“As a fighter for colonial freedom, I followed avidly the progress of the revolution which was taking place in India prior to her independence. When the time came for me to do something about gaining the political independence of my own country, it was a natural thing that I should take inspiration from India and her leaders who has so recently had to face and overcome problems facing my own countrymen. There was no doubt whatever in my mind that Gandhi’s policy of non-violence was the only effective means of dealing with the colonial problem.”

It is not surprising that 55 years later, the present President of Ghana, John Dramani Mahama, along with many other African leaders praised Nehru for the initiative of building and strengthening Indo-African relations, much to the chagrin of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had carefully avoided references to Nehru or his daughter.  

The present context of the India-Africa Summit was more to do with economy rather than politics or history. In fact with the foreign-policy-begins-here-and-now outlook of the present Indian Government, history was not something that it wanted reflected at the meeting. Unfortunately, no nation is a historical island, and references to Jawaharlal Nehru would have been a natural reflex for many African leaders.

A whole group of African nations got their Independence in and around 1960, slightly more than a dozen years after India got hers. So for many of the leaders who led their countries through their independence struggle, India was the model of a new nation. It is India that they looked to for the way in which a constitution could be designed and a people’s democracy set in place. Even though many of the African countries did not develop an as effective constitution, or a robust democracy as in India, the image remained in their collective psyche. Jawaharlal Nehru was seen as the leader-statesman who led India through this process.

I was in Cotonou from August 2009 to December 2011, and even then China and India were both investing in projects in African countries. The difference between the two investments was that while China revelled in more in your face kind of engagement, India had a subtler approach.

Thus, the neatly tarred highway entering the city of Cotonou in Benin, a principal highway in Mali, or similar projects were funded by the Chinese with quid pro quos in terms of land for farming and other business deals. Indian deals were more to do with private agriculture and telecommunications. Airtel was entering the mobile phone market in a big way in those years.

That was a period of India’s heightened business interest in Africa. Even while the US and Europe was going through economic distress, China and India’s economies were growing. India’s confidence in its economy was growing and the rupee had a new international symbol.

That was also the period when the India-Africa Forum Summits started. The first one was held in New Delhi in 2008, and the second in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 2011. Africa was seen as the business destination where the next growth story would happen.

Today, while the third Summit was held in New Delhi last week, the prognosis about Africa remains the same, though India’s economic position has weakened. However, with China doing worse, the Summit was seen as an opportunity for India to enter the space vacated by the Chinese in Africa. Also, the meeting was an opportunity for India to garner support from African countries for its bid for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council.

A continent with 54 countries, Africa has a landmass that is eight times as large as India. In this vast expanse live one billion people. Its economic growth story is continuing at 4.5% to 5% of the GDP, according to the African Economic Outlook for 2015 published by the African Development Bank and other international partners. In 2013, the growth rate fell from the above 6% figure of 2012. Interestingly, the West African countries grew by 6% in 2014, despite the Ebola outbreak.

Africa’s population, however, is likely to grow in the coming decades. In 2014, nine out of 10 top countries with the highest fertility rate were from Africa. On an average, a woman in Niger had 6.89 children, and this was the world’s highest fertility rate.

For the national leaderships in Africa, their relations with India started even before their nation states gained independence from their colonial masters. Their business relations, on the other hand, started in the early days of their existence as independent countries.

History is not a buffet where we can pick and choose. Whether a dish is good or bad is a matter of personal understanding, but the buffet is in open view of all. Thus for African leaders, Jawaharlal Nehru is the earliest and an important leader of India with whom they relate. And they will remember him regardless of what the Indian Government of the day wants.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Voices from the margin

As the world moves from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), participation from the grass-roots becomes even more important. It is only through participation that mindsets and hierarchies can be shaken and stirred for generating inclusion, new ideas and innovations. MORE ...

Thursday, 22 October 2015

India's INDC: Bold but packs a strong caveat

India’s INDC is bold but packs a strong caveat related to finance, technology transfer and capacity building. The demand is to gove all the elements equal importance in the new agreement. MORE ... 

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Climate smart cities are path to low carbon growth

As India prepares to select the first 20 smart cities, it pays to be climate resilient and sustainable. It is also a $16.6 trillion economic opportunity. MORE ...

Monday, 28 September 2015

India's lifestyle talk cannot shift climate debate

India’s political leadership is facing a climate dilemma. While it is promoting India’s position as a leading emerging economy (more so after the Chinese dip) across the world, at the climate negotiations the messaging focus seems to be on taking the discussions back to 1992, with emphasis on lifestyles and climate justice. ... MORE ...

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Is it time for Kerala?

There is a harassed housewife-mother on our television screens nowadays. There have always been tired mothers on televisions screens, but this one is different. By the looks of it she is a career woman trying hard to balance her work and life. She is always on her mobile phone – talking, giving instructions. In fact she does all her housework while talking on the mobile, resting between her left shoulder and cheek. She has a moment of epiphany though, when she almost deposits her family’s clothes into the fridge. Eureka, she needs a break!

Then there is this young boy, not yet into his teens, who is always on a smart-phone, tablet or computer. His parents worry about his behaviour. They try to wean him off his devices, but cannot. 
Then one day it happens – he looks at a wildlife picture in a wildlife magazine (glossy print) and tries to enlarge the picture with his fingers. Eureka again, he too needs a break!

Needless to say, both the woman and the boy know where exactly to go for the break. Kerala it is, ‘God’s own country’. 

It has been two decades since Kerala has been making systematic efforts to attract tourists. It started as a well thought out, concerted campaign in the mid-1990s. The effort then was to attract the high- and middle-end international tourists. It wanted to shake off the image of being the backpacker destination, along with Goa, in the 1970s and 1980s.

“I don’t want the tourists to come and eat my ration rice and drink my tap water,” the tourism minister had confided to journalists informally then. “We want the tourists to bring in money for the State.”

In the mid-1990s the Kerala economy was slackening and the choice was between promoting tourism or industrialisation in the State. Even the critics of tourism who talked about cultural pollution admitted that it was better to opt for tourism rather than heavy industrialisation in the State.

The tourism machinery got its act together quickly. It fired on all cylinders, and Kerala was promoted slickly at international tourism fairs and exhibitions. The State was called God’s own country, when ironically it prided itself in the reign of the Asura king Mahabali. 

Though the thrust of the God’s own country campaign started with foreign tourists, over the years it was realised that it was the domestic tourists that were bringing in more numbers and earnings. Even Keralites travelling within their State to tourist destinations generated revenue for hoteliers, restaurant owners, vehicle operators, etc. 

In 2014, Kerala Tourism published the compiled tourist numbers from 2003. The numbers tell a story. While in 2003 one in three tourists was from outside the country, in 2014 it was one in 12. 

Foreign tourists
Domestic tourists

The number of foreign versus domestic tourists in Kerala

Even in terms of earnings, the money that the domestic tourists spent was much higher than that by foreigners.

Total revenue generated from tourism in Rs crores
Revenue from foreign tourists in Rs crores
Revenue from domestic tourists in Rs crores

Earnings from foreign versus domestic tourists in Kerala

Earlier, in 2013, Kerala Tourism published detailed disaggregated information on earnings from tourism for the years 2013 and 2012. 

Foreign tourists

Number of foreign tourists
Per day per person expenditure in Rs
Average duration of stay in days
Foreign exchange earnings in Rs crores

Domestic tourists

Number of domestic tourists
Per day per person expenditure in Rs
Average duration of stay in days
Earnings in Rs crores

The comparative figures speak an interesting story. The domestic tourists not only bring more than three times earnings to the State, but also spend close to half of what a foreign tourist spends in a day. 

Most of the domestic tourists travelled during their children’s summer holidays from April to June, and some in August-September. The foreign tourists, on the other hand, come to India between November and February. Thus, the domestic tourists also help in increasing the occupancy rate for the hotels and home-stays. 

Considering these hard facts, it is natural for Kerala Tourism to invite the harassed housewife or the distracted child to take a break and come to Kerala. After all there are houseboats to be occupied and tuskers to be bathed. 

However, where the TV commercial errs is in projecting Kerala as a kind of paradise different from the hustle and bustle of other parts of the country. On the contrary, Kerala is a highly consumerist state. According to a recent study by the School of Management Studies of Science and Technology, Cochin University, the State consumes more than 28% of the nation’s basket of high value speciality goods. This is despite the State’s contribution to the national GDP being only slightly more than 1%. The study defines these high end goods as high-value cars, fridges, television sets and mobile phones. 

The life of the people in Kerala is no different from the life that is being portrayed in the TV commercial. So where is the question of a break?

Interestingly, when Mikku the young boy tries to expand the picture of an elephant in a glossy magazine, his father sitting next to him is busy texting on his mobile phone. It is not difficult to guess where Mikku got his obsession for gadgets. Obviously, what should be the break has to have an entirely different explanation.

Till then, welcome to Kerala, God’s own country.