Monday, 27 July 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, 24 July 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, 9 July 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, 3 July 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.