The goose that lays golden eggs…

When I was a little girl, I loved story time. There was no better way to spend an evening than to listen intently to my mom tell us magical tales of fairies and witches, dragons and princes. But those that stayed with me over the years are perhaps among the most loved across the world – Aesop’s fables. One in particular keeps coming back to me over and over again. The story of the goose that laid golden eggs.  

A farmer and his wife owned a very special goose.  It was special because it would lay a golden egg everyday. This made the couple very rich.

One day, the farmer’s wife said to him,  “Just think, if we could have all the golden eggs that are inside the goose, we could be richer much faster.”

“You’re right,” said her husband, “We wouldn’t have to wait for the goose to lay her egg every day.”

So, the couple killed the goose and cut her open, only to find that she did not have any golden eggs inside of her at all. What was worse was that they now had no more golden eggs…

There’s another story in the making.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, agriculture accounts for over 70% of the freshwater usage across the world. In some countries, this figure even goes beyond 90%. The implication is that unwittingly, farmers and their decisions have profound influence on the fresh water availability of the world. Their actions will govern the fate of many a region. Now when we say farmers here, it is really a broad term that includes not only the archetypal farmer who grows cereals, pulses, vegetables, fruits and cash crops such as cotton, sugarcane and the like but also those involved in the animal husbandry industry as well as corporate giants such as Cargill,  a privately held company that employs 142,000 people in 66 countries. They describe themselves as ‘an international producer and marketer of food, agricultural, financial and industrial products and services’ and have an extremely wide range of offerings such as grains, oilseeds, sugar, chocolate, sweeteners, starches, meats, eggs and poultry, salt, cotton, dressings, sauces and oils and also petroleum and fuels. So if you’re wondering where the problem lies, it is simply that, looking at it purely from an anthropocentric angle, i.e human perspective, freshwater, in its usable form presents many spatio-temporal issues. In other words, it is not always available where people want it and when they want it and in the quantities they want it. In order to overcome this problem, many resort to tapping a source of water that has been considered more reliable and of a better quality than surface water such as that found in rivers and lakes – groundwater.

We’ve mastered the art of abstracting groundwater from deeper and deeper sources but our understanding and appreciation of how groundwater comes to be, is just as rudimentary as aesop’s farmer’s understanding of golden eggs.  Before I talk about the larger problem, and the latest research, here’s an interesting primer on groundwater first.

UNEP’s global environmental alert service has issued a report in Jan 2012 about the impending crisis because of increasing global reliance on groundwater. It notes that ‘Intensive use of groundwater is a relatively recent phenomenon beginning in industrialized countries in the 1950s and reaching much of the developing world between 1970 and 1990’. The key to this phenomenon was the development of cheaper drilling and pumping technology. As a result, many aquifers across the world are now under threat because the rates of abstraction have gone way beyond the time taken to replenish the aquifers. (Perhaps I should rephrase that as the people of those regions are under threat.) Again, not all aquifers are replenished. So some regions are currently using what is known as fossil water.

So which are the specific regions where groundwater is extracted at unsustainable rates?

Scientists have made estimates based on available data. This has been further confirmed by NASA satellite images.

The most serious instances of overdraft occur in regions where there is intense agriculture – India, China, USA. In short, ICU (Medical terminology seems apt here ;-))

The report states that several studies have confirmed that the Indus River plains aquifer, beneath the India-Pakistan border demonstrates the world’s worst groundwater depletion. The Indian Ministry of Water Resources has classified a large proportion of northwestern India as ‘overexploited’ and the water tables in the region show significant decline. Some urban areas have reported a decline as much as 10 metres in a single year. (As far as India is concerned, several media reports too cover this issue of groundwater decline across the country. For examples see here and here.) A similar story unfolds in the North China Plain aquifer system and a developed economy like the US is no exception to the laws of nature. Large-scale irrigation in the west-central United States has proven quite disastrous for the region. Several counties in Texas are reported to have experienced declines of over 45 metres in the aquifer. A 2010 study estimated that ‘depletion of groundwater in the Texas Central High Plains area of the aquifer was ten times the rate of recharge.’ Similar over-exploitation can be seen right across the world.

What happens when we over-extract groundwater?

The UNEP report explains it well:

‘Even when abstraction does not exceed recharge, it can alter complex aquifer system dynamics, decreasing spring and stream flow and degrading water quality (12). In addition to undermining the sustainability of continued human uses, depletion of many aquifer systems in arid and semi-arid areas has been linked to diminished capacity for support of ecosystem functions and to environmental damage (12,13).’

‘Salinization often occurs in coastal aquifers where overexploitation of groundwater can stimulate recharge from more saline waters within the groundwater system and seriously degrade water quality (34,12). Several areas in North Africa have experienced this type of seawater intrusion, including Tunisia, Libya and the Nile Delta (34). Excessive withdrawal of water from some aquifers has led to significant land subsidence. This is of particular concern in urban areas where the damage can be substantial. A study in Mexico’s Toluca Valley estimated areas of subsidence up to two metres between 1952 and 2009 (35). On the Southern Yangtze Delta in China, subsidence from over abstraction of as much as three metres has caused cracking of buildings and failure of buried pipelines (36). Declining water tables can reduce stream flow, affect water quality in wetlands and lakes, dry up wetlands, diminish the capacity of rivers to dilute inflowing pollutants and change areas of groundwater discharge to areas of groundwater recharge (6,37). These changes can directly eliminate or degrade habitat and result in loss of biodiversity, and can indirectly cause repercussions throughout aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems (37).’ Shortage of water also leads to potentially unsavoury practices such as  land grabs in Africa where states such as China, India, South Korea and the Oil-rich gulf states are buying up water-rich land to secure their food supply.The current state of understanding and management in the UNEP report is well worth a read.

Is there hope yet?

Yes. In several pockets.  For instance, there is research being done on water, culture and identity in Balochistan. Ancient community owned irrigation structures such as Karezs  that have been ignored, if not discredited in the quest for ‘modernity’. Several sponsors in conjunction with the state, have been encouraging tube wells at the expense of the local society and the environment. However research reveals that protecting them could bring back not only lost livelihoods but also dignity to the rural poor. Another significant benefit would be that the entire community would be invested in protecting groundwater together and it wouldn’t be an ‘each for himself, God for all’ approach that private tubewells tend to propagate. Read more here.

Another example – In India, six thousand farmers in Andhra Pradesh have become ‘barefoot water scientists’. They have been trained by NGOs on groundwater management. As a result, they are empowered to manage their resources and cooperate with other farmers of the region. Watch this video.

There are several more examples, but they are currently only sporadic. The need of the hour is systemic change. So irrespective of  whether you and I are farmers or not, each of us is the protagonist of this story. Each of us needs to find a way to stay informed and more importantly get involved somehow. Some ways that come to mind immediately are researching, advocating, legislation, finding new technology, creating communities that understand the implications and demonstrate care, running private enterprises or social enterprises that can find innovative solutions to the problems listed above. After all, there is not a single person who can claim to not benefit from groundwater either directly or indirectly. If you think this is not your problem, take a look at this video.


How much water do you use everyday?

If your answer to the above question stops at the quantity you use for drinking, cooking, washing, it is incomplete. Even if you don’t quite know how much water you use everyday, through this particular blog, I hope to share how each of us benefits in daily life from far more water than meets the eye. I also hope to briefly explain the changing landscape of water. The answer lies in terms such as virtual water and water footprint. ‘What do Elton John, Bob Dylan, Marilyn Monroe and Virtual Water all have in common?’ asks Tony Allan in his book Virtual Water. The answer is simple enough. Tony tells us that ‘They all required a name-change to get noticed.’ He should know best. He coined the term after-all. In today’s digital age, thanks to virtual teams and virtual meetings, one may have a vague yet innate understanding of the term. It refers to ‘embedded water’. Not the water that is actually physically present but the amount of water required to produce anything and everything. It seems simple enough. Yet it was radical in its time. As cumbersome as accounting processes are, remarkably, water has never been considered as a factor of production in its own right even though economists do take land and raw materials into consideration. Water plays a pivotal role in the world economy yet has been ignored for the larger part of the century. But that’s changing, thanks to visionary academicians like Prof.Tony Allan, Prof.Arjen Hoekstra and their teams and other heroes from the non-academic world like the people of Plachimada (a tiny village in the state of Kerala, India) who help us see things anew.

There are many doom and gloom stories about water scarcity. It is important to note that the world isn’t running out of water per se. Far from it. It is just that we depend on freshwater far more than we realize. Not only are these sources being threatened due to rampant destruction of ecosystems but the pattern of availability is also changing due to climate change. Much has been said on this issue. But concepts such as virtual water and water footprint (as articulated by Hoekstra) help us separate the wheat from the chaff. We’ve all been told sometime or the other to turn off the tap while brushing our teeth, take shorter showers, put a brick in the toilet cistern to save water.  They are all important. More so when we realize how all our actions contribute to the whole picture of  local water security.  However, Tony adds a game-changing dimension to this when he informs us that most of the water we use at a personal level, comes through our food consumption. In the case of the US or Europe, the average non-vegetarian diet consumes about 5 cubic metres of water EACH DAY. To put that into perspective, it is roughly about 15 bathtubs filled with water. In comparison, a vegetarian diet consumes about 2700 litres of water per day. That is roughly about eight bathtubs. ‘Forget bricks in the toilet cistern’ he says,’ going vegetarian would save many lifetimes of toilet trips.’ The latest research from Hoekstra and team also reiterates this. ‘ Nearly one-third of the total water footprint of agriculture in the world is related to the production of animal products. The water footprint of any animal product is larger than the water footprint of crop products with equivalent nutritional value.’ See source.

Delve deeper into water footprints and you will find yourself  also being surprised when you realize how much water goes into producing stuff around us. Take for instance an A4 Sheet of paper. Its water footprint is 10 litres PER SHEET. Now, one ream of paper contains 500 sheets. So that means every ream of paper that we use, required about 5000 litres of water to produce it.  Using Tony’s analogy again, that is equivalent to roughly about 15 bathtubs filled with water.Take another example – leather. Of course we don’t purchase leather by the kilo but we certainly use enough of it in our leather sofas, shoes, bags, jackets, belts and other household items. The water footprint of leather is 16,600 litres per kg. If you care enough to actually trace the exact quantity of leather in such a household and do the math, soon you’ll be dealing with numbers that are beyond everyday comprehension/care. (You can download a nifty iPhone application  from this site. The application lets you learn about how much water our everyday food and beverages really consume.)

Yet we hardly stop and think about this. In itself, this usage of water is not a problem. It only becomes one when you fail to consider the context around where that water comes from, as the Coca-cola company learned from a very painful experience at Plachimada. A multi-national company with revenues in billions of dollars was forced to re-think its overall strategy and viability, because of what water meant to illiterate but determined farmers in the village. If you are unfamiliar with the plachimada case, more information is available here and here. Thanks to this emblematic case, today Coke takes great pains globally to demonstrate in reality and in PR, care of the local ecosystem and protection of the watershed, ie – the source of water at each of its plants. See the website for more information. But before we dismiss this as an isolated company trying to garner PR brownies, let’s stop and understand this further.  Water has made its way to corporate boardrooms where there are active discussions on the physical risk of the non-availability of water in the company’s operations/ supply chain. ‘No water, no barley, no beer’ is a pithy slogan but it contains more than a grain of truth in it and it could be similarly applied to several industries. As seen from the Coke case, the risk to a company’s reputation, regulatory and financial risk with regard to water are also factors that cannot be ignored any longer.  Even the guru of savvy investing Warren Buffet seems to have noticed the changing waterscape. According to this article, in 2009 his company ‘Berkshire Hathaway, became the largest shareholder in Nalco, a water-services, treatment, and equipment company that has no public profile but 12,000 employees and nearly $4 billion in revenue’. Water business is slowly but surely becoming big business…a market as big as $400-billion-a-year.

Speaking in general terms however, there are several examples of the disastrous consequences of taking water for granted. One  that is commonly known in academic discourse but is not as well known in popular circles is that of the Aral Sea. These are images of what confronts us today in a region that once used to be known as the Aral Sea.  (Courtesy: Wikipedia)

Aral Sea from space, August 1985

Aral Sea from space, 1997

Aral Sea from space, August 2009

Simply put, this is largely attributed to the mismanagement of the region in pursuit of the cultivation of a very thirsty crop – Cotton. 11,000 litres of water are required for a yield of one kg of cotton.  Needless to say, a very thirsty crop in an arid region is a recipe for disaster. Merely reading what wikipedia has to say about the impact of this degradation on the environment, the economy and public health is enough to confound even the most indifferent person. All this could have been totally avoided. But that direction of thought is stuff of mere fantasy right now. Reality demands that we take heed of this example and act wisely to avoid similar situations in other regions of the world because the story of the Aral Sea is probably being repeated in several parts of world, especially in the developing world. Retail stores in developed economies offer fantastic discounts on ‘branded garments’, most of which are manufactured in the developing world. China and India are the world’s top two producers of cotton. Need I say more?

A ‘scarce’ symbol of abundance

I’m coming back to this blog after eons. Although there was no dearth of topics, did not write for a variety of reasons. The most important of which was that I was distressed by my latest research findings and I did not want to add to the gloom and doom literature on environmental issues all around us. Since it is the start of a new year, I begin afresh with faith in my heart that there is still hope. Today I write about a resource that is intriguingly and ironically perceived as being abundant yet scarce, quotidian yet precious. Much like breath that nourishes our very existence, but is rarely thought about, this resource has come to be the linchpin of modern life all across the globe. Yet, beyond a few select circles, we hardly ever pay attention to it. The resource I write about is – sand. Because I have so much to say on the topic, I intend on presenting this information in bite-sized chunks, so there will be a couple of pieces to this topic. Stay with me till the end…

‘I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore…’(Genesis)

Sand is a quintessential symbol of abundance for people of many faiths and cultures. In fact within popular discourse, the bounty of sand is deemed to be so large that it is considered impossible to count the number of grains of sand on Earth and by extension, it implies an infinite supply. Mathematicians at the University of Hawaii have tried to guess how many grains of sand there are on the world’s beaches. Their calculations pointed them to the following number: 7,500,000,000,000,000,000, or seven quintillion five quadrillion grains of sand (McAllister, 1994-2003). Definite as this number is, however, it only represents the sand on beaches and excludes sand found around rivers and on the ocean bed. Thus it does not bring us any closer to really understanding how much sand there is on this planet. For this reason, I was very surprised to read reports on scarcity of sand in various places particularly in the context of the construction industry.

Image courtesy – Kristel Anbu, my kind sister-in-law

Despite being commonplace and non-charismatic, sand provides the material basis for ‘development’. From uses such as glass-making to litter boxes for pets, sand is directly used in several familiar ways. The most astounding of these in terms of volume is the creation of ‘new land’ For e.g. Around 500 million m3 of sand was reclaimed (from the ocean bed) for the Palm Island II (Jebel Ali) and Waterfront projects on the coast of Dubai.. ‘This equates to a row of trucks encircling the Earth about 22 times‘ (Jan De Nul Group, 2009).

Image Courtesy – PRP International

I was amazed to discover the wide breadth of applications that sand has, ranging from the mundane to the miraculous :

  1. Construction mortar, concrete and in making bricks for commercial, residential, industrial, administrative, recreational buildings etc.
  2. Beach nourishment/ replenishment for eroding coastlines and land reclamation- extending coastlines, creation of new islands, port development
  3. Infrastructure such as roads, highway surfaces and walkways, parking lots, airport runways, bridges. Consider this example. In the United States, 85,000 tonnes are required in order to construct one mile of four-lane interstate highway and an average six room house requires 90 tonnes of aggregate (Kondolf et al., 2001)
  4. Glass for window panes, glassware, glazing for pottery, lenses, television tubes, mirrors, fibre glass reinforcement, lamps, stained glass art, lasers, insulators, telescopes, bottles and containers for alcohol, soft drinks, and food items like jams, pickles etc. (USGS, 2011)
  5. As a source of strategic minerals such as Silica, Garnets, Thorium and ores such as Titanium, Uranium, Zirconium, Ilmenite used in applications too numerous to list here. Two examples a) Titanium is used in production of ‘lightweight alloys, aircraft components (jet engines, aircraft frames), automotive components, joint replacement (hips ball and sockets), paints, watches, chemical processing equipment, marine equipment (rigging and other parts exposed to sea water), pulp and paper processing equipment, pipes, jewellery’ b) Zirconium is used in ‘Ceramics, refractories, foundry sands, glass, chemical piping in corrosive environments, nuclear power reactors, hardening agent in alloys, heat exchangers, photographic flashbulbs, surgical instruments’ (IIED and WBCSD, 2002). Heavy Minerals such as Rutile, Sillimanite and Monazite that find use in in the paint industry, welding electrodes, ceramics, foundry and also various applications like plastics, sun screen, food colouring and biomedical applications (Corpwatch, 2007)
  6. Industrial uses in metal foundries, industrial casting, sand blasting, sand paper(NISA, 2011)
  7. Semiconductors in electronics and IT Hardware. Semiconductors ‘serve as the essential component in almost every electronic device we use today, ranging from personal computers to notebooks to cell phones. Not even cars can do without semiconductors and electronics today, because semiconductors control the air conditioning, the injection process, the ignition process, the sunroof, the mirrors and even the steering (check out BMW’s Active Steering)’ (Tom‟s hardware, 2007)
  8. Sandbags for the first line of defense in military operations, railway ballast, fill material, grit on the pavements exposed to snow
  9. Hydraulic fracturing applications (, 2003-2010)
  10. Water filtration and purification (USGS, 2011)
  11. Recreational needs such as sand pits in playgrounds, artificial beaches, residential pool filters, horse racing tracks, greyhound tracks, football pitches, tennis courts and golf courses especially the sand traps and ball fields. (NISA, 2011)
  12. Litter boxes and building artificial habitats for animals (The Greensand Trust, 2010)

Interestingly enough, despite the significance of sand to modern life, one notices several glaring contradictions in the way this resource is treated:

Sand is classified as a ‘low value’ resource (IIED and WBCSD, 2002) and also a ‘minor’ mineral resource even in legislation (See MAC, 2007 for info on the Indian context). Mining operations of any sort are known to be disruptive and destructive in most cases, especially when not managed well. Sand in particular, is extracted at gargantuan rates and used in quantities that surpass popular imagination. In terms of sheer volume, aggregates of construction minerals (such as sand and gravel) account for the largest material volumes mined in the world where the global production as estimated in 2000, was estimated to exceed 15 billion tonnes per year (IIED and WBCSD, 2002). Yet, much literature explicitly states that sand mining is not as environmentally destructive as other kinds of mining. For e.g. The United States Geological Survey (2011) (USGS) states ‘Except for temporarily disturbing the immediate area while mining operations are active, sand and gravel mining usually has limited environmental impact.’ Strange. Don’t you think?

Is there evidence that establishes ‘Scarcity’?:

Yes – the scarcity is both real (i.e physical) and perceived. Unfortunately though, much of this literature is nonacademic and therefore may sometimes lack cohesion and power. It would be great to see this topic being taken up for further research and in-depth study that can then inform policy decisions. For now, I present what I found…

There are scores of examples of perceived scarcity of sand in varying coastal geographies across the world (Young and Griffith, 2009). Some other examples include Australia (Ratcliffe, 1997; Stoltz, 2011), Cambodia (Global Witness, 2010), Dubai (Palca, 2008),Ghana (Mensah, 1997), India (Hoering, 2008; Padmalal et al., 2008; Sekhar and Jayadev, 2003; Sreeba and Padmalal, 2011), Namibia (Hartman, 2010), Tanzania (Nyandwi, 2001), United States (Brynes et al., 2000; Brynes et al.,2004; Femmer,2002; Kondolf et al., 2001), Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, and Uruguay (Halweil, 2000), Bosnia (Clancy, 2004). Island states in particular feel the acute tension between „development‟ and the need to protect the coast. Numerous examples can be found in many of the Caribbean Islands such as Peurto Rico, Grenada, Tobago, Montesserat, British Virgin island and others (Cambers, 1997), Jamaica (Farrant et al., 2003), Sri Lanka (Gunaratne and Jayarooriya, n.d.), Indonesia (Kamis, 2011, The Jakarta Post, 2007), Maldives (PTI, 2008, Jacob, 2010).

From the creation of jobs (Young and Griffith, 2009) to the production of many material objects listed earlier, the many positive impacts of sand mining traverse a fine line between convenience and necessity. The negative impacts mentioned in the above literature are briefly elaborated in the table below.

Negative Impacts of Sand Mining Examples
Threat to water security Loss of groundwater storage due to lowering of alluvial water table. For instance „The Lake County (California) Planning Department (1992) estimated that incision from in-stream mining in small river valleys could reduce alluvial aquifer storage from 1 to 16 percent, depending on local geology and aquifer geometry.‟ (Kondolf et al., 2001, p54)As explained above, when the deep ‘sponge’ of sand that acts as a reservoir to charge groundwater wells and aquifers is removed, water is consequently no longer available at shallow depths and wells have to be dug deeper where the quality of water might be different. It also implies a significant rise in water costs and hence makes it accessible only to those who can afford it ( See Hoering, 2008)Mining of sand allows for intrusion of sea water and consequent salinisation of well water (Viswanathan, 2002)
Habitat loss including destruction and fragmentation of fragile, endangered ecosystems Mangroves, Coral Reefs destroyed (Myers, 1999)Sea grass beds (Global Witness, 2010)
Reduced species richness Sea Turtle Population Undermined (The Bajan Reporter,n.d.)Indian Otters endangered (Hussain, n.d.)A critically endangered species of crocodile – Gharial (also called Indian Ghavial), where „an estimated 200 breeding adult gharial left in the wild‟ further threatened. (The Gharial Multi-task force, 2006, p6)
Increased shoreline erosion rates Especially when mined unscientifically (Brynes et al.., 2000)
Threats to critical infrastructure such as bridges, roads, railway tracks and the like The costs of infrastructure damage directly attributable to gravel mining In the San Benito River, California, from 1952 to 1995 was estimated to be about $11 million, equivalent to about $3/ton of gravel produced (Harvey and Smith (1998) as cited in Kondolf et al., 2001)
Decreased protection from sea water , especially during ocean disasters Decreased protection from erosion by seawater for beachfronts after sand extraction (Myers, 1999)
Threat to construction industry of all kinds $1 Billion hotel development in Jamaica stalled because 500 truckloads of sand stolen from Coral Springs Beach, Jamaica (Young and Griffith, 2009)
Loss of livelihoods Tourism affected (Young and Griffith, 2009);Occupations such as agriculture, fishing Coir Weaving severely impacted (Viswanathan, 2002)
Changes in land use patterns Destruction of developable land for use in residential construction (which in-turn increases the pressure of urbanization on fertile lands) (Myers,1999)
Increased public health costs From unsafe mining practices (that could cause respiratory diseases like silicosis) (Myers & Muhajir I997)Damage to agricultural lands leaves pits that provide a breeding ground for mosquitoes and thus spread vector borne diseases such as Malaria (Mensah, 1997)
Several social issues Use of child labour and land ownership conflicts in Ghana (Mensah,1997)
Governance Issues Establishment of illegal activities and a mafia around sand mining (Gunaratne and Jayarooriya, n.d.)In India, a sand mine auction ban cost the Maharashtra govt Rs.800 crore (i.e Rs. 8,000.000,000) (Khapre, 2011)

In the next post, I will examine one particular case-study that was part of my research on the topic. For now though, in conclusion to this post, all I have to say is that the current milieu around sand mining / extraction is polychromatic and fiercely contested and definitely not as ‘unproblematic’ as some sources would have us believe.

Wildlife and you

Practically every other day, we are confronted with so many stories about vanishing species and yet, there are people who still doubt. Can human beings really impact the Earth? Isn’t nature all powerful? Hasn’t nature survived for millions of years? The answer is yes to all those questions. For better or worse though, human beings do have the power to affect the Earth as much as the Earth has the power to affect all of us. In 1992, Edward Wilson noted that human activities have increased ‘background’ extinction rates by between 100 and 10,000 times. ‘We are’, he said, ‘in the midst of one of the great extinction spasms of geological history’ (See source P 5). In 2007, as many as one in four of the world’s mammals, one in eight birds, one third of all amphibians and 70 per cent of the world’s assessed plants on the current list were in jeopardy. The list in question is the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™. The situation today seems just as grim across the world. One of the latest reports says “More than 40 species of marine fish currently found in the Mediterranean could disappear in the next few years. According to a study for the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™ on the status of marine fish in the Mediterranean Sea, almost half of the species of sharks and rays (cartilaginous fish) and at least 12 species of bony fish are threatened with extinction due to overfishing, marine habitat degradation and pollution.” It is heart-breaking to read reports such as this…BP Oil Disaster at One Year: Assessing Impacts on Marine Mammals.  The red tape seems to be getting worse though. The New York Times tells us that wildlife at risk face long line at U.S. Agency. “In February, the Obama administration declared the Pacific walrus to be at risk of extinction because its Arctic habitat was melting. But it declined to list the marine mammal as an endangered species, saying a backlog of other animals faced greater peril. “Read more here. At risk of extinction but cannot be listed as endangered. Such a shame!

Early this year, India released her own List of  Critically Endangered Species. “Critically endangered is the highest risk category assigned by the IUCN Red List to wild species. Critically endangered means that the natural population of a species has decreased, or will decrease, by 80 per cent within three generations, and all the available evidence indicates an extremely high risk of its extinction in the wild.” Decrease by 80% within three generations… In that list is a bird that had captured the imagination of so many generations through the epic tale of Ramayana.  Jataayu, the vulture who fought Raavan so valiantly now watches as his entire race is wiped off the face of this Earth through a combination of poisoning, and disease .  While you and I go about our business as usual, ignoring Jataayu’s peril at our own risk, the monster with 10 heads, Raavan finds life in people like us.

Is there any hope for these magnificent animals ?

In such a bleak atmosphere, however feeble, there is still hope. There are many high profile organizations working to save critically endangered species.  But hope can also spring from organizations working in ‘ordinary’ wildlife rescue at the grass-root level. In India, there are two that I’d like to highlight- Wildlife SOS and Vanamitra. Both are involved in numerous rescues and other work that is the need of the hour.  Each of the websites will give you more information about the organizations and their work. What I’d like to dwell upon here though, is how such organizations come to life through the courage of individuals. Many months ago, I received an email from a young person. A few lines from the mail read as follows:  “I have been reading a lot on sustainability issues.  The more I learn the more convinced I am that I should take it up as a full time career option. But whenever I discuss it with my family and friends I do not get a positive response to back my decision.” Like this person, I believe there are many out there who’d like to do a lot more but are afraid.

For such people, I’d like to share the story of one of the founder trustees of Vanamitra since I know him personally. He is a young, dynamic individual. I recently asked him why he had chosen to work in this field despite having an engineering degree that could get him a job in many prestigious MNCs (Multi-National Corporations).  In his own words :

“Coming to why I came into this field after engineering… Well this was pure passion. ‘Wildlife rescues’ is something that I have been doing for 11 years now. I was 12 when I rescued my first snake and I am just hooked on since then! Engineering was the “safety net” my parents and family wanted me to have as something to fall back on.🙂 So the deal made was that I would do engineering to please them and then take up a full time career in conservation which would please me and so far it is going great!🙂 ”

A snake rescue when he was only 12 years old! Such daring, you’d think comes easier to someone who did not live in cities i.e concrete jungles. But this person defies convention in many ways.

“The ideal scenario would be when you are exposed to various fields at a young age, you identify your passion and direct all your energy towards something that you like and are good at. That didn’t all happen in my case actually. Even though I had a passion for widlife, I was made to study engineering to have that degree as a “safety net”! I think I would have liked to study wildlife biology or ecology in my undergraduate course ideally.

I grew up in a completely urban environment actually. Been in Bangalore since birth. The skills to rescue that snake at 12 were definitely hard earned cause nobody was ready to teach me anything as I was too young. Snakes had always fascinated me actually. So I had spent a lot of time in just reading and understanding about snakes before I could actually handle one. There were few rescuers I knew around me who were doing an awesome job of it. So I started spending a lot of time with them observing how they do it and eventually I was able to handle them myself. After snakes, I learnt to handle injured birds and them mammals. Snakes still remain a personal favourite though.🙂 I started working on reptiles as a whole from a biodiversity and habitat research view point along with researchers from IISc and other agencies and still continue to do so. I am looking to pursue Masters in Wildlife Science through distance education from a university in America. Hope that materializes soon. ”

I hope so too and wish him every success.  It is good to know that people can still work very closely with wildlife even if they were born and raised in a city. Such courage to trust your instincts and follow your heart is rare but highly rewarding and also the greatest need of the hour. In the event that you cannot/ don’t wish to do such work full-time, do get involved with organizations such as Vanamitra. From Nature Camps that help us appreciate wild life to Rescue and Rehabilitation programs, there are plenty of opportunities to learn and contribute.  Will leave you with just these thoughts.

The term ‘ecological crisis’ is used so commonly today that it often fails to evoke the desired response. Crises today are met with either paralysis through analysis, shock and awe or are completely ignored, hoping that that problem will go away on its own. To remedy the situation and turn it into inspiraction, we only have to realize that the word ‘crisis’ stems from a Greek word meaning ‘a time of decision’

Received as an Email Forward.

The Tale of the Tiger’s Travails

I recall a passionate debate that I was witness to sometime last year in India. A young man couldn’t understand the fuss about tigers and the need to “save” our national animal. In his opinion, all we had to do was “just choose another another national animal”. The solution was supposedly as simple, or should I say as simplistic as that. Agreed the human construct of a ‘national animal’ needs better scrutiny but the ease with which he spoke of animal extinctions makes me shudder. My very first blog was about animals on the brink of extinctions. The animal chart my friend and I made doesn’t even begin to cover the number of species that are imperilled.  I wonder what is it that makes us so smug about being humans? Is it sheer callousness or just deep ignorance? What makes many of us believe humans will survive long after our ecosystem crashes into oblivion? A shallow way of thinking can paradoxically be deep seated sometimes. Humans are just another species that are part of an ecosystem or in simple words as Disney put it, a  ‘circle of life’. Break one critical link and pretty soon, the entire circle comes unraveled. This problem has been creatively articulated by Free Range Studios through a spoof of a popular movie. Free Range Studios does a fantastic job with every video they make. Truly creativity with a conscience!

So coming back to the Tiger,what is the status on India’s ‘national animal’?

The Government of India recently announced an increase in tiger numbers. One may rejoice at the increase until one sees these lines in the article. “For the first time, tiger numbers for the Sundarbans has been released. The estimate has been put at 70, while it has been maintained all these years that it’s above 200.” Another gnawing cause for concern is ” though the tiger number is up, the tiger occupancy area has come down by as much 20,000 sq km.”

Noted Tiger expert Dr. Ullas Karanth makes some extremely valid and critical points as he says “The result of the national tiger estimation exercise conducted over the past couple of years has been released on 28-3-2011.  It reports an increase in adult tiger numbers to 1636 (1706 including Sunderbans), up from the previous estimate of 1411 tigers in 2007. This is an increase of 16% compounded over 4 years, suggesting that the previous decline of tigers has been reversed.  However, since full details are not yet available as to how these tiger numbers have been arrived at, it is not possible to give an expert opinion about the new numbers. However, since various threats faced by tigers do not appear to have diminished in last four years, it is difficult to explain the claimed reversal of the decline of tigers.”(Emphasis added) Read more here. Dr. Karanth is so right in the points he makes. How would it be if the house were on fire and the fire brigade came in every 4 days to check how the house was doing? It seems to me that the same logic is operating here. For a country that exports complex and fascinating technology to the outside world, it is a crying shame if we have to still rely on monitoring of tracks by forest guards to identify individual tigers and I am flabbergasted that even this procedure is carried out once in four years instead of  monitoring it year-after-year!

While I’m highly appreciative that a private company stepped in to create awareness about something so crucial, I’d hate it if it were only an advertising gimmick. I’d also find it unacceptable if the Government of India (GoI) doesn’t do what it must. What is worse is if you and I become mere mute spectators to a charade. Project Tiger is supposed to be a flagship conservation project of the country. But comparing these two websites, one that belongs to the GoI and the other set up by Aircell in partnership with WWF, would immediately give you a sense of ambition and entrepreneurship in one and bureaucracy in the other.

Source: Project Tiger Website

Source: Project Tiger Website

How can we expect our forest guards to protect anything when they are equipped with slippers and lathis (canes) while the poachers are equipped with guns and vehicles and high-profile lawyers to fight their cases? Most importantly, how can we expect them to be efficient if their wages are not paid on time? I assume that most of their wages would already be pegged at subsistence level and if even those wages are not given to them, I can’t see how they can be expected to protect themselves, let alone protect the Tiger. If you haven’t already watched this brilliant movie ‘The Truth about Tigers‘ by Shekhar Dattatri, you simply MUST. It is a no-nonsense take on the issue that not only is brutally honest but also tells us what you and I can do about the situation. Also watch this chilling video of an investigation of trade in skin and organs of big cats  by EIA and WPSI in 2005:

Here is another article on this trade. How can any animal survive such onslaught? What has the government done to address all these concerns? With no information on the aforementioned, how is the public expected to believe the statistics?

As always, the point of this blog is not government bashing but to take a fresh look at the situation and see if we can find ways to take action.  To explore how we can avoid turning a blind eye to something that is on the brink of disaster. Let’s then take inspiration from the maker of film ‘The Truth about Tigers’ Shekhar Dattatri.

Shekhar Dattatri Image Credit:

He is highly acclaimed in his field, yet he chose to step back and look at the big picture. In his own words: “In 2000, after producing and shooting yet another ‘blue chip’* natural history film for television, I began to question where I was going with my work. I had achieved my ambition of becoming a wildlife filmmaker, and loved every minute of it. But, after 15 years in the business, it was becoming more and more difficult to ignore the fact that, all around me, wild India was wilting under tremendous pressure. Globalization, corruption, ignorance and a lack of political will for conservation are all taking an enormous toll on the country’s last wild spaces. Today, less than 4% of India’s vast landscape is protected as National Parks and Sanctuaries, and even these tiny enclaves are under constant threat. I began to wonder whether, with all the beautifully crafted films I was producing for television, I was doing anything other than documenting disappearing wildlife and landscapes. Sure, some of the films had conservation messages in them, but were they making any impact on a predominantly passive television audience?

So what were the alternatives? Did I want to make gloom and doom films instead? Would anybody watch them? More important, would anybody fund or air them? Television was getting less serious, not more, and with an incredible amount of choice available, the average viewer wasn’t going to sit in front of the TV to be told that the world was going to hell in a basket.

If I wanted to make a difference I had to do something different…” Read more

Powerful words there. Words that speak volumes of the tumult he must have faced while making a decision to dedicate one full year to the making of this film. Thereafter he has been relentlessly travelling from one place to another spreading the word on the urgent need to act now.  His movie has been made available freely to all those who can get access though the internet, through DVDs etc.  His passion for this magnificent animal and the forests is contagious. He is currently hard at work forming a youth movement for conservation and is expected to launch it in a couple of months. India desperately needs direction from such gurus.

But as Shekhar himself points out, it is not enough to wait for one person to change the world. Each of us is called to action in our own little ways.  Each of us needs to step back from the rat race and try and find innovative ways to contribute. At the very least, it is critical that we find conservation organizations and support them with our time and/or money. Will share more information in forthcoming posts.  For now, this site is a good starting point…

Mighty Mushroom Magic Against Petroleum Pollution

Thought it would be appropriate to begin this post with a picture of  the humble mushroom as ‘Mighty Mushroom’, no less than a superhero who has the potential to save us all. The foe we’re up against is no ordinary enemy. It is an enemy that has stealthily pervaded every facet of our modern-day life and is wreaking havoc with systems that enable life to flourish, making such vibrant systems in need of life-support systems themselves. You may be all too familiar with the effects of plastic pollution and our dependence on petroleum. I have written about this in the past. Available here and here. When I read stories about climate summits and how they stumble forward at a pace that is painfully slow, it makes me realize that true change can never come from dependence on nation-states and policy alone. It especially hurts to read things like “Some deadlines for accomplishing these have already passed and it appears little of substance was accomplished in Bangkok, with that work being passed on to the next meeting set for June in Bonn, Germany.” So while the so-called decision makers jet-set their way from one picturesque destination to another, trying to negotiate over something that should have been a foregone conclusion, it is heartening to see social entrepreneurs and start-ups dive into the deep end and come out tops with radical solutions that can actually save humanity.

The latest buzz is about a start-up called “Ecovative Design” based in Green Island, New York. Ecovative was started in 2007 by two students with a wild idea; “to make materials better than Styrofoam out of… mushrooms!” Today this company led by Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre is replacing thousands of petrochemical based packaging parts with a renewable biodegradable alternative: EcoCradle™

They actually use mycelium (or mushroom roots in lay terms) and crop waste like rice hulls or cotton burrs to produce a new chitinous polymer composite material that performs like plastics but does not depend on petro-chemicals, does not take food away from hungry people, and uses little energy to manufacture plus is 100% bio-degradable and home-compostable at the end of its life. What’s more, this technology allows for creation of products that are fire resistant (unlike styrofoam), moisture resistant, vapor resistant, insulating and even those that absorb acoustical impacts! How cool is that?! No one says it better than Eben. Watch a video of his TED Talk here where he explains the technology and the spirit behind this innovation, sorry ecovation!

On the 5th of Apr,2011 Dell announced a pilot program where it has started shipping servers protected by EcoCradle™ products instead of foam. Oliver Campbell, Procurement Director announced “We’ve tested the mushroom cushioning extensively in the lab to ensure it meets our same high standards to safely protect our products during shipment – and it passed like a champ.  Now we’re ready to take the next step and we’re proud that Dell is the first technology company to start pilot shipments.” Way to go Dell!

Ecovative has also teamed up with Ford to manufacture partially compostable cars! Now let’s make that a little more specific. What they have teamed up for is to use Ecovative’s mushroom-based foam as a key component in bumpers, side doors, and dashboards. Ford hopes to replace 30 pounds of each car’s petroleum-based foams with more environmentally sensible alternatives. More information available here.

Drawbacks to mushroom based packaging: This site says these products are denser and therefore heavier than styrofoam and that might in turn affect shipments. If that is true, I do hope they find a way to make it comparable. All else being the same, in comparison to foam, my vote would still go to this product any day! Also in question is that fact that some of the products deemed agricultural “wastes” are  already used as animal feed or as a component of fertilizer. Maybe true, but I guess it is then up to us to choose feedstock that is not already being used in this manner. There’s another drawback, business is pouring in so rapidly that the company is finding it a challenge to meet demand! But that is always a good problem to have. Isn’t it?🙂

It is very exciting to learn of such developments. This company has approximately 30 employees, has received a total of $4 million in grants and other funding for their research and development activities. I hope their story inspires many more to start their own ecologically sensitive venture. After all, what’s good for the Earth, is good for us and the reverse need not always hold true.  With products that are over-packaged today, this company’s venture is the need of the hour. The IMF has issued a warning that the global economy is entering a period of scarcer oil that could drive prices up rapidly. If this article is right, the  global packaging industry is worth US$ 424 billion and out of this Europe has US$127 billion, Asia has US$114 billion, North America has US$ 118 billion, Latin America has US$ 30 billion, and other countries have $US 30 billion. Irrespective of the statistics, there is HUGE potential for companies with the right products to make an immediate difference to the world we live in and profit from it too.

Those of you who are familiar with mycology, and also those who are excited about mighty mushroom magic,  listen to this exciting TED talk by Paul Stamets on 6 ways mushrooms can save the world and you will get many more ideas for many different kinds of companies that can be great for the world and you. It gets a bit technical in a few places but the overall message is very accessible.  Even if we don’t start a company like this ourselves, let’s try our best to support people doing such pioneering work that can benefit all of humanity!

Fossil-Fuel Free Future. Impossible? Think again…

Haven’t written in quite a while and this is going to be a long post. So brace yourselves.🙂

Change they say is the only constant. But some people will not accept a proposal for change until they can see a ‘pilot study’ or a prototype of sorts. It is very educational to observe how different countries are reacting to the ‘peak oil’ crises. Peak oil as the term implies is the point in time when the rate of production reaches it’s maximum and then enters terminal decline. Some people don’t believe in the concept of peak oil, they say it has been predicted hundreds of times but the predictions were always wrong. That may be right. But even the best astrologers whose main job is to make predictions find it hard to get them right consistently. So it is beyond me to understand why scientists are expected to be astrologers . Nonetheless, WikiLeaks may have just confirmed that Peak Oil is Imminent. Saudi Aramco’s Oil Reserves may have been exaggerated by  as much as 300 bn barrels. Saudi Arabia is the world’s leading exporter and wikipedia says it is a swing producer.  Think that is a misnomer. The country can never ‘produce’ oil. The Earth does. Companies, countries merely EXTRACT these resources. So they should perhaps be called ‘swing extractors’. But I digress.

Peak oil is not the same as oil depletion. But there is no questioning the fact that at some point in time, the economy will finally reflect the high price of oil that we already see in environmental and social terms. Just as it has done for millions of years, the earth may continue to produce petroleum but for all practical intents and purposes, such a resource will not be commonly available to us. Bearing this in mind, we can look at responses in a new light.

As Saudi’s reserves continue to fall, the US searches for newer sources such as the Federal Outer Continental Shelf, the 1002 area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the National Petroleum Reserve–Alaska, and the Bakken Formation.

Image courtesy Wikipedia

Many of these chosen sites are classic cases of  ‘Is man is more important than any other animal?’ kind of debates. Alaska, for instance is prime polar bear territory. The Natural Resources Defense Council, the group that sued to protect polar bears says that there is considerable evidence of a decline in polar bears in Canada and Alaska — with some of the animals starving, turning to cannibalism and drowning — and that most scientists believe the drop-off is directly related to the loss of sea ice. This site says “The noise associated with building oil platforms and high levels of human traffic would affect the animals and their environment, possibly driving away the members of this endangered species that reside there.” One would think that is common sense, but…

Image: Polar bears in Alaska

Image courtesy MSNBC

Finding new territories for ‘production’ of crude oil is not the only contentious concept. The concept of  unconventional sources is even more so. Tar sands/ Bituminous sands and oil shale top the list of  such ‘alternate’ energy sources. ‘Tar sands’ is actually an incorrect term since tar is man-made while bitumen is made by nature over time.

tar sands before after national geographic march 2009

Before and after?: a forest in northern Alberta staked out by tar sands prospectors and the Suncor Millennium tar sands site, Alberta in the March 2009 issue of National Geographic (Photo: Peter Essick) - Via Tree Hugger

There are some excellent videos on this topic. But for a quick primer, watch this

If you’re interested in learning more about this dirty, dirty source, explore these sources:

  • Brilliant Piece by National Geographic.  Love how it says “It’s a struggle to balance the needs of today and tomorrow when you look at the environment we’re going to live in,” he says. In northern Alberta the question of how to strike that balance has been left to the free market, and its answer has been to forget about tomorrow. Tomorrow is not its job.”
  • Watch the animation of  H2Oil here. I was amazed that the oil industry refers to the earth as ‘overburdened’ as if they are saviours who will lessen the burden of the earth by stripping it of ancient forests and scarring the land with toxins that can be seen from space! Such arrogance!
  • Watch this video by Greenpeace to understand how the Alberta Tar Sands is contributing to Climate Change.
  • For those of you who have the stomach for it, check WWF and the Co-operative Bank’s super comprehensive report titled “Unconventional Oil – Scraping the bottom of the barrel?” WWF challenged Shell’s greenwash where it advertised tar sands as ‘sustainable’ and WWF won.
  • Perhaps one of the most compelling ways of describing this mess is how the UN Water Advisor did. She likened Canadian Tar Sands to Tolkein’s Mordor (doesn’t the word sound remarkably like murder? The man was a genius!) where steam rises from the grounds and no birds fly above. Now how I wish the trees of the boreal forests would walk to their mordor and destroy their Isengard. But that’s fiction and this is reality where you and I are in-charge and no Ents are coming to save us. We can at best take inspiration from Frodo’s question to Aragorn and imagine the Earth is asking us this intense question that begs an answer, ” Can you protect me from yourself?”
  • Here’s information on something that is about to happen 3 days from now, on Apr 6th, 2011. Not so much a prediction as being connected to the right media sources. On April 6th , Alberta’s largest daily newspaper, Edmonton Journal, will carry this message from the Norwegian Grandparents’ Climate Action to the citizens of Canada: Read it here.

But the point of this post is not to go on and on about how terrible all development is. It is to inspire you and me to look for the right alternatives, in a sense to set the right goals. Before we get to that part though, I’d like you to watch Anthony Robbins talk about Goal Setting.

So are all countries caught up in this mad race? One country comes to mind as a shining beacon of hope. Sweden.

Prime Minister Göran Persson announced a national goal of making Sweden fossil-fuel free by 2020. More Information here and here. Now that is what I’d call a Goal! Imagine thousands and thousands of people putting their minds together to achieve this seemingly impossible goal. They may or may not get there by 2020. Some sites give us varying dates such as 2030 and 2050. They even point out quite correctly that to be truly fossil fuel free means there will no longer be any gas stations that sell fossil fuel based fuels, plastic bags, or fossil-fuel grown food. But the point is, they’re moving in the right direction and will be far ahead of other countries when peak oil does hit, if it hasn’t already.

All of this didn’t start overnight though. The book Eco Barons by Edward Humes gives some illuminating details about many more people and places. Check my previous post to know more about the book. Coming back to Sweden, it all started in 1990 when a renowned Swedish Cancer Researcher, Dr. Karl-Henrik Robert, joined by fifty other scientists, developed a four-step program explaining how a country could be transformed to embrace sustainability in every sector – business,government, industry and the daily lives of ordinary citizens. Dr. Robert called this plan “The Natural Step”. An NGO by the same name carries forward this mission today. In Sweden’s case, the king embraced the idea and it was launched nationwide as the goals the nation should aspire to achieve, through rigorous emissions controls on cars and through the use of alternate energy. The results have been spectacular. Sweden has become the most sustainable nation on the planet. It has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 9 percent below 1990 levels, an achievement that far exceeds the mandates of the Kyoto treaty whereas the rest of the world has continued to increase emissions. The book says that so far, Sweden has achieved a 70% reduction in the use of oil for home heating and has held industrial consumption at 1994 levels. While the major challenge remains transportation, almost one-third of Sweden’s energy comes from renewable sources. From my research, it is clearly not just the pet project of a few elites. It is the result of many ordinary people and many municipalities setting goals for themselves towards this end, vying to outdo one another in becoming the most sustainable city first. Watch this video about one such municipality. Warning – certain sections of the video are a bit distasteful if you are vegetarian/vegan. Another very interesting video available here.

So clearly, it is possible as long as there is a will to accomplish the goal. Sweden makes for a FANTASTIC pilot study. But the time has now come for the mission to go beyond one country. I’d like to end with two quotes from Eco-Barons:

Consider this: all the ants on the planet, taken together, have a biomass greater than that of humans. Ants have been incredibly industrious for millions of years. Yet their productiveness nourishes plants, animals, and the soil. Human industry has been in full swing for little over a century, yet it has brought about a decline in almost every ecosystem on the planet. Nature doesn’t have a design problem. People do.

– William McDonough and Michael Braungart, Cradle to Cradle, Remaking the way we make things

I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.

-Thomas Alva Edison, 1931, shortly before his death, to Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone

3 Development Concepts that are not Nature’s ‘Style’

It suddenly dawned on me last week that many of our commonly accepted ‘principles of development’ are not synchronous with Nature. I know this may be contentious but take these 3 for example:

  1. The unquestioned supremacy of the 24/7 concept: Most urban dwellers are conditioned to believe that the highest sign of development is the availability of goods and services 24/7.  To use Khalil Gibran’s phrase, in a collective sense we’ve become ” a stranger unto the seasons”. At the macro-level, cities are ranked according to round-the-clock availability of water and electricity. I can’t think of anything in nature that offers such 24/7 security. Are we making a mistake when we create a world that expects such 24/7 convenience? Perhaps we are because it creates a false sense of security and teaches us to expect a constant output while ignoring the systems that enable such output in the first place. It breeds wastefulness and apathy. Reminds me of children/teenagers who place constant demands on their parents without ever considering how their parent/s would be able to meet their demands.  We need to grow up at some point or else our parents can get very, very weary of  never-ending demands on them.  In creating such social systems, we’re cutting off people’s connection with nature. Most people would be hard-pressed to answer a direct question about where their water came from or what happened to it after their use. Where is the incentive to be like the squirrels or countless other creatures that prepare for the lean times?  At the other end of the spectrum, we have societies where women and children have to walk miles and miles to collect water and fuel for daily use. Sometimes, they spend 8 hours of productive time in such pursuit. Their potential could certainly be used better elsewhere if they had appropriate systems in place. What we must also consider is that more often then not, it is our desire for such 24/7 convenience that may contribute to such dire circumstances in the first place. You only have to think of how the big and powerful usually act as hegemonies when it comes to resource allocation to know this might be true.
  2. Growth can be eternal: Everything that we find around us in nature shows signs of stopping growth at some point. It is not nature’s way to continue growing forever. Yet our world economy is not yet equipped to handle signs of a slowdown. Found a lovely video that illustrates this point beautifully.  Watch []
  3. Death and decay is bad and must be avoided at all costs: We’ve certainly put ourselves in a strange place where we’ve created monsters that we’re not equipped to deal with. Remember reading somewhere that we’ve sort of become like Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein,too much in love with our own creations to see the harm they can do eventually.  Want an example? Think of our obsession with plastic and what it is doing to our world. Want another example? Watch this video:

At the other end of the spectrum there are products that are ‘designed for the dump’.  It is easier to replace IPods than to repair them. Also the case sometimes with larger items such as refrigerators and even cars in some ‘developed’ economies. Think of how earlier generations repaired things and used them till they could be used no more while our generation and the younger generations would balk the very notion. Certainly food for thought…

The Power of One – 2

As I stated in my previous post  titled ‘The Power of One‘, there are so many people in this world who have made a positive difference. People who have not allowed themselves to wallow in misery or focus entirely on what’s wrong with this world. They have built a vision of how the world should be and they have worked hard to bring that vision into reality. More often than not, their work has benefited hundreds of other people. I’m going to take advantage of the serial number here to present a double dose of inspiration that can rightly be classified as one. This post is about people that I didn’t know were husband and wife. But India is truly lucky to have such a duo. They pack quite a punch! The stars of this post are – Sanjit ‘Bunker’ Roy and Aruna Roy.

Sanjit is popularly known as Bunker Roy and while most people strive to rise up to the higher echelons of society, this person had the courage to follow his convictions and go down to work at the grass-root level. His mother apparently retired as India’s trade commissioner to Russia. Obviously, that’s no small post and it tells me that he came from a fairly well-off and stable family position. He studied at very prestigious institutions such as The Doon School and St. Stephen’s College, Delhi. What I’m intrigued about is how a person who came from such an illustrious background had the courage to drop everything and work in the villages. I find it astonishing that while most institutions, people look for the very ‘best’ talent to work with and reject so many until they find the finest pedigree they can find, this person decided to work with ‘ordinary’ people with no stellar academic degrees or fancy backgrounds, sort of making an evangelist out of a fisherman, if you will.  Bunker Roy set up ‘Barefoot College‘. It is a non-government organisation that has been providing basic services and solutions to problems in rural communities since 1972, with the objective of making them self-sufficient and sustainable. This college turns the old-fashioned idiom ‘You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear’ on its head. Here is what Barefoot College does…

“Rural men and women irrespective of age, who are barely literate or not at all, and have no hope of getting even the lowest government job, are being trained to work as day and night school teachers, doctors, midwives, dentists, health workers, balsevikas, solar engineers, solar cooker engineers, water drillers, hand pump mechanics, architects, artisans, designers, masons, communicators, water testers, phone operators, blacksmiths, carpenters, computer instructors, accountants and kabaad-se-jugaad professionals.

With little guidance, encouragement and space to grow and exhibit their talent and abilities, people who have been considered ‘very ordinary’ and written off by society, are doing extraordinary things that defy description.”

Barefoot College - An institution that builds hope!

It is little wonder then that in 2010  TIME magazine named him one of 100 thinkers who most affect the world. Here is what they say about Roy:

“Roy combines humanitarianism, entrepreneurship and education to help people steer their own path out of poverty, fostering dignity and self-determination along the way. His simple formula holds a key to what nations and aid organizations might do to build a more just world.” I agree. Every person born in this world has something beautiful to offer. Institutions like this one build skills, self-reliance and offer so much hope to avoid wasted human potential!

His spouse Aruna Roy is just as accomplished. She was an IAS officer (Indian Administrative Service) for seven years before deciding to become a full-time activist in the 1970s. Ever since, she has been fighting tirelessly to ensure the ‘democracy’ in India remains meaningful. She started the The Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) which roughly translates into “Organisation for the Empowerment of Workers and Peasants”. Thanks to this organization and its work, all Indians today can benefit from the ‘Right to Information Act which was passed by the Indian Parliament in 2005. It has been used widely to bring accountability and expose corruption in public administration, transforming governance and deepening democracy. Yet, she won’t take credit for it. She calls this act the gift of peasants and workers like Kesar Singh and Lal Singh and hundreds of others like them to the general population of the country. She rightly says the whole business of social transformation has not come from the educated middle class in the last 50-60 years. This act began as a fight of peasants and farmers to see records of wages when they sat on a 40 day strike.  The Legislation was then drafted by the Press Council of India within 3 months of that strike. Since 2005, four hundred thousand people in rural India alone have used this act successfully. Her views on participatory democracy are fascinating. Listen to her in the video:

If you’d like to know more about the RTI Act, watch this interesting video. Love how they say ” Pepsi-Cola, Mein Nahin Maanga (I didn’t ask for it), Coca-Cola, Mein Nahin Maanga (I didn’t ask for it), Limca-Shimca, Mein Nahin Maanga (I didn’t ask for it), Mango-Phrooti (Frooti😉, Bisssleri, Mein Nahin Maanga (I didn’t ask for it)…. Watch:

Our world needs more couples like this, don’ t you think?

5 things that took an Indian student of ‘Development’ by surprise

It is interesting to look back and make a note of the things that initially seemed so surprising/different well before one becomes too jaded. Here is a random list of five:

  1. There seems to be better access to information ‘about’ India from outside India and much less from within. London offers access to world-class institutions/ libraries and articulate experts on a wide variety of topics on India.
  2. The discovery that sustainable development had so much academic literature on the topic. Hundreds and hundreds of papers dissecting various nuances. Yet, that hardly seemed to matter in the business world. At best, in the corporate world, I’ve encountered debates about what’s more important, environmental sustainability or social sustainability. Of course, economic sustainability took precedence over the former two in most cases. I wonder why such informed debates don’t reach the masses?
  3. The ‘green revolution’ in India was not so ‘green’ after all in terms of resource consumption especially water
  4. The emergence of a form of neo-colonialism – ‘Land grabbing’ across the world particularly in Africa.
  5. The extent to which the issue of ‘population’ can stall the debate over development between the ‘North’ and the ‘South’. Many in the north see it as a show-stopper while many in the south see ‘excessive consumption’ in similar light.

and here is a bonus one🙂

It is shocking to learn of so many ‘development’ schemes that ignored existing knowledge of local people(s) and insisted on change for the sake of change. Would not have been a problem if it had not led to people becoming dependent on ‘aid’ because local governance structures were rendered useless/ incapacitated.

These statements may seem a bit vague and utterly random but I just wanted to reflect on my experiences as a student after working for the last 10 years. If you found something that resonates with you or you have your own list of things to share, I’d be most interested…

Could there be connection between ‘plastic’ and ‘Tunisia and Egypt’?

I looked up the etymology of the word ‘plastic’. It is interesting how in the 1630s the word meant ‘able to be molded’, in the 1830s it was used in surgery to mean ‘remedying a deficiency of structure’. The modern meaning largely refers to ‘synthetic product made from oil derivatives’. In the 1960s however, it started to be used as a slang meaning ‘false and superficial’. What strikes me is how something that started off as something impermanent, ‘not the real thing’ and even superficial has today for better for for worse, acquired the status of permanence. Modern human beings today cannot seem to live without plastic. Whether it is sturdier plastic used for kettles, bowls, bins and more or the kind meant for one-time use such as plastic bags, water bottles, disposable cutlery, packaging, plastic has pervaded every minute corner of our lives. Ironically, nothing seems more real and permanent than plastic today, both in super developed economies and emerging economies.

In my previous organization, the eco-groups tried valiantly to ensure all campuses were ‘plastic-free’ zones. The initiative was announced on earth day amidst much fanfare by a board member himself , and when it is a board member of an organization that employs over one hundred thousand people, you know the position holds tremendous clout. Yet the initiative failed to take off. Why you ask? Well, because people resisted the idea. Regular employees raised a hue and cry about it. Their main question was “What is the alternative for us to carry our lunch boxes in, especially during the rains?” The eco-groups tried selling cloth bags, yet it sold only a few hundred.  Vendors on the campus were asked to stop dishing out plastic bags. The supermarkets on campus started giving out paper bags instead. Don’t think it was a wise alternative and as you can guess, those were really not popular because they often ripped with the slightest weight. A particular vendor went so far as to force the manufacturer to print “This plastic bag is eco-friendly” on bags that were dished out on campus. Since the bags were “eco-friendly”, the purchase department could see no reason in stopping their sale on campus. I have written about greenwash and how shortsighted it is. There is today an entire island of floating plastic debris in the pacific ocean. Read the post here.

This post is definitely a call to ban single-use plastic.  But I’d like to present what’s happening in various countries across the globe in terms of solutions to this menace.

“Despite criticism from Italian plastic trade groups, Italy was the first EU country to ban plastic bags (implemented at the beginning of this year), and now countries around the world are giving consideration to similar legislation.

France, which has been slow in adopting consumer plastic reduction measures, has now given the go-ahead for a ‘plastic tax’ (EUR10 per kilogram of plastic bags) to take effect in 2014, and the African countries of Togo and Kenya have this week announced forthcoming plastic bag bans.

In the United States (US), Hawaii has become the latest state to pass plastic bag restrictions, outlawing bags for customers of merchants in Hawaii’s Kaua’i and Maui counties. Unlike the 2007 landmark ban in San Francisco, the new Maui mandate prohibits both compostable and non-compostable bags, due to the dangers bags in general present to marine life.” Read more here.

Italy’s ban is very significant because apparently “Italians use 25% of the disposable plastic bags produced annually in all of the European Union”. Read more here. Another country we love to call out in terms of pollution has made great strides too.

“In 2008, China instated a law that made it illegal for stores to give out plastic bags for free. Instead, shop owners were required to charge for the bags, and allowed to keep any profit they made for themselves. The results? After two years, the poorly-enforced law has nonetheless dropped plastic bag consumption by a whopping 50% — keeping an estimated 100 billion plastic bags out of the landfills.” Read more here.

In India, several states have experimented with using plastic bags in road construction. Read more here and here.  But here is a piece that really struck me. “In Rwanda plastic bags have been illegal for over 10 years and it shows. There is no trash on the streets or in the environment. If a country that had a massive genocide only 16 years ago can successfully outlaw plastic bags so can anyone. There is no excuse for any developed country.”  Couldn’t agree more with that penultimate statement. Read the original work here.

While solutions are great at the policy level. They are incomplete if they are not met halfway with bottom-up creativity. It is time to change our lifestyles. We only have to think back to the times when it was possible to live without plastic. The cost of convenience is too high for us, animals and the planet! We might need to go back to planning our purchases better instead of shopping on impulse. If that’s not entirely possible, a simple solution would be to carry around fold-able compact tote bag. That can’t be so terrible now. Can it?  If current events of Tunisia and Egypt can teach us anything it is to never, ever underestimate the power of the people. Ordinary people CAN topple an entire regime no matter how entrenched it is.  I’ll end with this catchy song :

Rogue Road – The Untold Story of the Path Itself

In trying to pick up the threads from my previous blog post on the World Bank aided project on rural roads in India, I decided to explore the less trodden path so to speak. You might have heard the words ‘love it or hate it – you can’t ignore it’. Well, I suppose the topic of ‘Roads’ is one that can disprove this term. Many love ’em, others hate ’em but more often than not, roads rarely occur in our stream of consciousness. If at all we do, many of us probably think of them while travelling on roads riddled with pot holes. Sometimes, we might even stop to reflect on how good some highways are and how going on long drives is so pleasurable. Development studies have made one thing clear to me though. Not everyone thinks roads are benign. Yet, the mainstream media rarely presents this alternative pivotal view.

By their very raison d’etre, roads make accessible areas that were hitherto inaccessible. Insofar as conservation is concerned, that is the worst thing that can happen to a forest ecosystem. The Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) indicates that the forestry sector, mainly through deforestation, accounts for about 17% of global greenhouse emissions, making it the second largest source after the energy sector. A document on policy options to reduce deforestation says :

“Constructing new roads or improving existing ones opens up new areas, brings down transport costs, makes markets more accessible and makes deforesting activities more profitable. In general, improving roads and infrastructure is a main cause of deforestation. This led Eneas Salati, a respected Brazilian scientist, to conclude, ‘The best thing you could do for the Amazon is to bomb all the roads’ (cited in Laurance 2009).” (emphasis added) There’s another problem with roads. They fragment forests. What difference does that make you ask? Plenty! Imagine a thoroughfare passing right through your house. Even if it did not take up too much space, your home would never be the same again, especially if there were to be heavy traffic that you could not control or loud noises that startled you out of your wits every few hours. In effect, roads serve to create two islands of forests where one unfragmented zone existed before and that can be a huge problem for animals who need to forage for food or migrate to survive. It also causes animals to breed within a restricted zone and in extreme cases, such inbreeding can be very costly for many species.  Just as humans need to avoid mating with close blood relatives to avoid children who are mentally or physically challenged, so too do most animals. This can be critical for the animal’s survival in these challenging times.  Rampant road-kills also pose a very grave threat in a country like India which boasts of having the second largest road network in the world, second only to the United States. A particular case study of Nagarhole-Bandipur highway in South India has shown that vehicles here kill around 15,000 animals every year in just that 10 km of road. (Source – T R Shankar Raman’s article. Link provided later in the blog). This study was done ten years ago when the traffic volumes were much lower. One can only imagine how bad the scene must be today. This unnatural death toll must be debilitating for many species.

Image: Kalyan Verma via T R Shankar Raman's article

Let alone the impact on animals, another prominent scientist  describes how new roads can imperil indigenous peoples and spread diseases. Malaria, dengue, and others have all be shown to rise along with roads.  He says ultimately restricting roads into the frontier is the “most realistic and cost-effective approach to conserving rainforests”. Read more here.

Reading all of this led me to ask if  these experts were the only ones who had a problem with roads. Apparently not.

You’ve undoubtedly heard of the famous ‘Chipko’ movement. But it is very instructive to learn that construction of roads may well have been the crucial trigger for deteriorating conditions that led to the world famous movement.  Wikipedia says  “However with construction of roads, and subsequent developments also came mining projects for limestone, magnesium, and potassium, timber merchants and commercial forestry which now had access to forests inaccessible till now.  Soon, the forest cover started deteriorating at an alarming rate, resulting in hardships in labour intensive fodder and firewood collection. This also led to a deterioration in the soil conditions, and soil erosion in the area as the water sources dried up in the hills, and water shortages became rampant…”  Read more here.

There’s another story that corroborates this pattern. Watch this well-made documentary about one of the most primitive people in India – the Dongrias and their fight to preserve their home, their existence, their God – Niyamgiri. I’d especially ask you to observe from 7.57 to 8.10 in the video how the Dongrias blocked the route to Niyamgiri and prevented roads from being made. Very clearly, they saw roads as evil and they didn’t ‘wait for their fate to be decided in a corporate boardroom’. A very different kind of road rage in a sense.

Knowing this side to the story makes for interesting reading. Do we also share a responsibility to do something about it? What can the common man do about it?

For starters, read this gripping article by TR Shankar Raman. In this article, he not only presents the magnitude of the crisis but also solutions that various countries have adopted. More importantly, he also highlights what you and I can do. Before you plan the next road-trip for your vacations, educate 10 other people from your circle of family and friends on the need to pay heed and act responsibly. Use your influence if you know policy makers or even road contractors. Petition the government to remove forest roads that are not critical.  Write to editors and reporters who only present the benefits of such ‘new development projects’. It’s the least we can do to ensure our children and future generations too enjoy nature’s fast diminishing bounty.

Will India’s big win turn out to be a big loss instead?

Permit me to take you back to what you probably studied in primary school – the natural water cycle.

The Natural Water Cycle

Seems so easy to grasp and so logical. Except that the time has now come for school textbooks to show a different diagram. Consider this graph:

Today, we already live in a world that is well beyond the 50% threshold and therefore officially more urban than rural in terms of population distribution. Now take a look at a picture of a typical city or what most cities eventually become:

Source: The Internet

A Typical Mega-city

The green surfaces and the vast expanse of land that permit infiltration as shown in the first diagram very often go missing as more and more skyscrapers and other urban structures stare at us mockingly. Urbanization has several major impacts. It isn’t rocket science to decipher that a crucial link is rapidly being broken in this natural water cycle, especially if urban sprawl is not contained. Most cities have more impervious surfaces (such as roads, sidewalks, driveways and parking lots) than ones that allow water to filter through. Most are also designed to rapidly drain the water off the roads into adjacent concrete-lined storm water drains. Insufficient water filtering through the soil means lesser clean fresh water in the ground water table, lakes, streams etc.  Some of the other impacts of urbanization include faster runoff due to road grids, storm sewer networks, alterations to the natural vegetation, and sometimes channelization of streams. Greater runoff volumes due to increased percentage of impermeable surfaces and compacted soils also enhances the movement of the runoff to and within the stream channels. As a result, when compared to rural conditions, urban streams will flood faster, more frequently, and with a greater peak flow given the same rainfall. In fact, in an urban environment flood conditions can occur with much less rainfall than that necessary for rural or “pre-urban” conditions. In simpler words, urbanization increases the hazard of  flash floods. (Read more here and here ) and it all begins with ROADS…

(Yes, I know what you’ve read so far sounds like  anti-development rhetoric but hear me out…) Earlier this January, the Indian Government and the World Bank signed an agreement for the largest ever funding of $1.5 billion for a rural roads project by the World Bank.

District-Betul, Road Name-Barbatpur-chopna-dehri5

District-Balaghat, Package No-0115, Road Name-BCKanai

As a part of the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) or the Prime Minister’s Rural Roads Program, the funding will be used to build more than 24,000 kilometers of all weather roads in the states of Rajasthan, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Meghalaya, Jharkhand, and any other state, which may join the program at a later date over the next five years. More than six million people are set to directly benefit from this project and that is great news.  So far this seems like the regular spiel one would expect from a Press release. It further goes on to claim “The construction and maintenance of these roads will create an estimated 300 million person-days of employment for the rural people. More than 20,000 engineers as well as many contractors and skilled and unskilled workforce will be trained in modern rural road engineering practices and business procedures.”  (Now we know what that means in the Indian context, don’t we? Many palms will be greased before these roads see the light of the day and this is a crucial issue but tangential to this particular post, so I’ll sidestep the issue for the time being)

It makes me wonder. If these are really “rural roads” , will they have dedicated cycle lanes? (The answer is most likely a NO despite the fact that cycles are the most common mode of rural transport. Instead of keeping this desirable rural practice, it is likely that vehicles will start crowding out cycles from the street) Aren’t we then pushing the common man towards buying gas-guzzling vehicles? Can India afford increased dependence on petroleum? Will the government also invest in high speed mass-transit modes such as trains? Buses are great but how many urban middle-class people, given a choice would choose a bus over a car? With a population of nearly 2 billion, aren’t these questions critical?

Now coming back to how we started off this blog – the water cycle. India is already facing high water stress that is projected to get worse over the years.

If you read the PMGSY site, it says “There is a risk of damage due to water in the built up areas. Therefore, when the road passes through built up areas, concrete pavement is constructed. Side drains are also provided to avoid damage to avoid damage to the roads.”

Aren’t we damaging much more than roads Mr. Prime Minister? Can we afford each department in the bureaucracy to work in vertical self-contained silos this way?

So is there a solution to this Catch-22 situation?

Apparently, YES.

Progressive cities across the world are now experimenting with permeable pavements and Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems (SUDS) roads, driveways, parking lots and sidewalks into which rain water can soak. Today, there is even something known as pervious concrete. 

Why is there no mention of such solutions that are already being tried out elsewhere? Will this big win turn out to be a big loss of opportunity after all? Why does India have to reinvent the wheel in order to progress? Why can’t we instead leapfrog over yesterday’s mistakes?

The POWER of one! – 1

As the new decade starts, I’m sure you have dreams, aspirations that you’d like to see accomplished. This post is dedicated to all those who’d like to make a difference in this world – a positive one, to all those who want to see a change for the better. Like myself, I know there are many people out there who are concerned about the state of the planet and want to do something about it. Many a times though, we might feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of problems facing us, feel helpless against such massive sweeping changes. At times like these, I  recall a former manager’s advice  – “Bloom where you are planted.”  There may be a million things that cannot be done, but I guess life’s goal is ‘to seek out what CAN be done and then DO it!’ I seek strength from people who refuse to give up, refuse to accept that today’s world is the best world we can build for ourselves, our children and our fellow non-human companions. I find inspiration from those who seek strategic levers that change the entire game.

Today, I’d like to write about such a person. A person who may not have set out to change the entire world, but who had the courage to fight for the little things he believed in. Consequently, his work has improved the quality of life for billions of others. It would be superfluous to mention the number of awards he has received, for such laurels follow as sure as night is followed by day. But if you think that might motivate you, more information is available here.

Thanks to this man and countless others who worked with him:

  • All Indians  (and for better or worse, that means 1.18 billion out of  6.76 billion people!) enjoy the ‘right to a healthy environment’ as a part of the ‘right to life’ guaranteed by Article 21 of the Indian Constitution
  • India’s crowning glory – the Taj Mahal, ‘the most visited monument in India ever!’ and one of ‘the 7 wonders of the world!’ was saved from ruin for the benefit of future generations and all world citizens who value it. Read more here. The Archeological Survey of India says that the number of visitors to centrally protected ticketed monuments has grown from 10956764 in 1996 to 31466731. In 2008, 2635283 domestic tourists and 591560 foreign tourists visited the Taj alone.  Read more here. Can you imagine the revenue this has generated for the nation and its people and how this might have been impacted otherwise? To all those who are in love, can you imagine losing this treasure? Can you put a number to that loss?!
  • Delhi went from having the dubious distinction of the ‘world’s most polluted city’ to become the first city in the world to have its entire public transportation fleet run on CNG (compressed natural gas). Credit here must also go to CSE (Center for Science and Environment) that initiated the multi-faceted campaign.

There are several more accomplishments, but i’ll stop here for now and let you explore further if  it interests you. If you haven’t guessed already from the tags above, the man in question is Mr. M.C. Mehta. Considering the global impact of this man’s work, his ordinary beginnings too can certainly be such an inspiration! Born in 1946, he hails from a small village in the Rajouri district in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. For a few years, he traveled 15 kms from his village to school and back and had to cross two rivers along the way. Read more here. His life and work seem to be a testimony that one can certainly bloom where one is planted!

Words from M.C.Mehta that strike me:

  • “I am not against anyone at any time, as I am often perceived to be. I am just for the environment at all times.”
  • “It was more a matter of choice than chance. I was provoked into filing the  (Taj Mahal) case by some dinner party patter about lawyers being mercenaries, unconcerned with social or environmental issues.”
  • “I don’t get anything for fighting environmental cases. And the battle for a clean cause is dirty most times. But you do what you have to regardless,”
  • “It’s time people realised that if they don’t come forward to protect their fundamental right to live in a wholesome environment, no one else will.”

I hope this man’s story has inspired you and more importantly, I hope you will turn that inspiration to action. I intend for this to be a series of write-ups about many individuals who inspire me, so do visit this blog regularly and don’t forget to comment. That inspires me to action too you know🙂. Would like to leave you with one of my favourite quotes:

“I am only one. But I am still one. I cannot do everything, but I can still do something. And because I cannot do everything I will not refuse to do something that I can do.” – Hellen Keller

Power and success to you my friend!

Green is the new AIDS

Before we go any further, I don’t mean to make light of something as serious as AIDS. This was a term I heard a very bright young entrepreneur use at a conference and it rang true. There’s so much hype around ‘green’ that it is hard to separate fact from fiction. I know for sure that too much hype around anything puts people off and it could even kill the very thing in question. If you want an example, think of the dot-com bubble. What I want to focus on today is something that irks me tremendously – ‘Greenwash’. What is it? Well, it’s simple really. Think whitewash and all its connotations and you’d immediately understand that ‘Greenwash’ is the equivalent practice of giving a green sheen to something that really isn’t.

Why does it get my goat? Well for one because it is misleading and confuses people. It makes it so much more harder to make choices that are good for you,  the society and the environment. For many corporates, it could be a good way to begin setting things right but it becomes a problem when the focus stops there and there’s more fluff than stuff. I agree with the ad from Greenpeace which reads  “Clean up your ACT, not your image”.

There are several examples of how large, multi-national companies have indulged in greenwash. For now,let’s take a simple example of something that we probably use in daily life, in order to demonstrate how pervasive it has become. Examine the picture below:What kind of rubbish fact is that?! There are people who’d actually believe this is a better product because of this statement. If you’d only would peel off the layers, you’d realize a very gory story out here.

Foam/Polystyrene/ Extruded Polystyrene (EPS) (popularly but incorrectly called styrofoam – read about why it is incorrect here) is a kind of plastic material that is one of the most common packaging materials even for food and beverages. In places like London (read places in the ‘developed’ world), it is ubiquitous. (Think take-away meals, coffees/teas, yogurt cups or even parties at home/work). In places like India (read ‘developing’ world) the trend of using disposable cups and plates is slowly but surely catching on. This is a stealthy but deadly problem. Why?

  1. A Problematic Source – Well for starters, because it is manufactured from petroleum (you don’t need me to tell you more about this non-renewable resource)
  2. Difficult to Dispose of – The foam coffee cup you used today could be sitting in a landfill even 500 years from now because the chemicals and materials used to make it take an incredible amount of time to break down in the natural environment. Unlike what the statement in the picture implies, it is estimated that by volume, it occupies as much as thirty percent of landfills worldwide. This situation adds on to the problem of disposing foam. Recycling this material is not easy either because there are only a few recycling stations. In fact, this website says that many local recycling stations do not accept foam products since they are difficult to store due to their bulk. Ironically, the properties that make polystyrene so useful such as its light weight, low cost and durability are the very things that make it hard to be recycled. Given the light weight and consequently relatively large volume of  EPS per unit of weight, the cost of transporting these products to a recycling plant  makes it often economically infeasible to send polystyrene for recycling.  Also, contaminated foam cannot be recycled. So foam used in food packaging would require cleaning before it can be recycled. Obviously, this adds to the cost of recycling and make this product even more impractical to recycle. Read more here.
  3. Impact on Human Health – Benzene, a known human carcinogen, is used in its production. Substances present in food products like lemon rind can corrode this material. Read this informative, yet humorous article in the New Scientist. No one seems to warn people of such dangers while they are dished out by the dozens.
  4. Impact on the Environment – Polystyrene does bio-degrade as you can see from the example above but takes almost forever. While even trace quantities can affect human health, environmental health is super easy to ignore until the problem explodes in our faces. Polystyrene foam and million kinds of other plastic objects are abundantly found in something euphemistically called “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch” when there is NOTHING  great about this except to highlight human shortsightedness and apathy! There are varying estimates of how large this island is. Some say it is thrice the size of Spain and Portugal combined, some that it is twice the size of Mexico, some that it is bigger than continental US! To quibble over such details is to ignore the real problem – The world’s largest landfill is actually in the ocean – an entire  island of human trash made largely from disposable stuff made of plastic and polystyrene foam. This stuff is wreaking havoc with marine ecosystems. Human beings overestimate nature’s ability to fight back  believing  that evolution will take care of it all. The only sad fact is that we conveniently forget that evolution took hundreds of millions of years and human induced change -barely a few decades. To understand just how devastating this is to the environment and eventually to us, take a look at the videos below:

Given how gory this story is, you can see how dangerous and shortsighted “greenwash” can be for the human race. This is but ONE example. There are millions of other examples of greenwash that are out there in our world.  When presented with false information, it’s small wonder then that we have so many people who have become skeptical of the word ‘green’!

Since the focus of this blog is to move from inspiration to “inspiraction” (i.e. inspired action) here’s what can you can do about it:

How to detect greenwash:

Sourcewatch offers a few rules of thumb to detect greenwash:

  1. Follow the money trail
  2. Follow the membership trail
  3. Follow the paper trail
  4. Look for skeletons in the company’s closet
  5. Test for access to information
  6. Test for international consistency
  7. Check how they handle their critics
  8. Test for consistency over time

Read more about all these here.

How to stop greenwash:

Greenpeace offers interesting solutions on how to stop greenwash. Read more here. If we can get ourselves to care enough, we can intuitively find several ways of doing something about it such as taking action as consumers, contacting policy makers, pressing for legal action, or even just educating ourselves and 10 other people in our family and friends’ circle and asking them to in-turn do the same . Each one of us is called to action. NOW.

Is the Indian Media playing truant yet again?

While “Barkhagate” and other scandals shamelessly hog media space,both print and online, there seems to be a silent scandal lurking in the background, escaping attention from most people – “the language and tone the media uses to communicate key issues” such as environmental concerns.

I find poll questions like the one above on the Economic Times website today quite disturbing. At face value, they seem so innocuous. But there are so many fundamental assumptions behind them. Let me explain what I mean in this case.

  1. Does it have to be a zero-sum game? Issues such as these are far more complex and I find that reducing it to a mere ‘black-and-white’ scenario does great disservice to the public.
  2. Are we talking short-term or long-term out here? Questions such as these make no mention of the timeframe we are talking about.
  3. Is it appropriate to classify actions of the country’s environment ministry (no less!) as environmental “activism”?
  4. Does such a classification have any repercussions?

Yes, it could seem like the environment is being given prominence at the cost of the economy. But History is replete with examples of times when “the economy” has gone too far, plundered a place and then simply moved on to a new place to start the destructive cycle all over again. Arguably that may be true today too and even more insidiously so. Think of how many times you/ people you know have lamented about the deteriorating environment in your locality and in the very same breath have said things like ” That is the price one pays for development.”

My discomfort lies in how common people come to accept such things as gospel truth! Is that really “development”? It also lies in the fact that the Indian media seems to be no better than others when it helps propagate such lose-lose philosophies. Are we doing enough today to highlight examples of where environmental considerations and development have gone hand-in-hand? I’m not talking about “greenwashing” here (Read more about greenwash in another post of mine)!  On the contrary, is the media doing enough to prevent greenwashing in the first place and hold corporations and others accountable? Does the common man know the strides the country is making in comparison with global behemoths? As I see it today, the answers to all these are probably a resounding “NO” and that is a shame for such a vibrant democracy!

One could find a million things that are wrong with the system today, but here are a few that make me proud of India’s ‘environment consciousness’ if I may call it that:

A brilliant article by Manish Bapna, Executive Vice President & Managing Director of WRI (World Resources Institute) says:

  1. India has pledged to reduce the emissions intensity of its GDP by 20–25 percent from 2005 levels by 2020. Even though this pledge is non-binding, it is significant when you take into account the fact that India has one-third of the world’s poor and it faces an ever-increasing demand on power-generation.
  2. Renewable energy, including wind and solar power, already accounts for 9.0 percent (16.5 gigawatts) of India’s electric capacity. This is more than twice the 4.0 percent (53.4 gigawatts) that makes up the clean energy slice of the U.S. power sector, and Delhi aims to further double renewable power generation in the next four years.
  3. While the U.S. Senate has apparently shelved legislative efforts to introduce a cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions, India is expected to enroll up to 700 major industrial polluters in a market-based mechanism to enhance energy efficiency later this year. These companies are responsible for half of India’s fossil-fuel use and  are expected to reduce energy intensity within three years.
  4. In January 2010, mandatory energy-efficiency ratings were introduced for four key appliances: refrigerators, air conditioners, tubelights, and transformers. India’s energy-efficiency plans will help avoid 20 gigawatts of additional electricity-generation capacity over the next four years and 100 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually, according to P Uma Shankar, the secretary of India’s Ministry of Power.
  5. The Indian government proved to skeptics that these are not just paper commitments when it allocated financing for the solar mission in the 2010–2011 national budget as part of a 61 percent budget increase for the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy. Moreover, the budget introduced another bold initiative: a 50 rupee (approximately $1) tax on every ton of domestic and imported coal. The tax will capitalize a new National Clean Energy Fund that will help support solar technology development.

from Other Sources:

  1. As early as Mar 2005, the country ranked second in the world in biogas utilization and fifth in wind power and photovoltaic production. Read the Ministry’s e-booklet on Information and Public Awareness here. (Page 4)
  2. Perhaps for the first time ever, a country has mandated CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) through Law. Corporations that have a net profit of 5 crores or more in a year have to spend at least 2% of the profits on CSR activties. Read more on the topic here and here.  It is no longer sufficient to “donate” a few thousand rupees to a “social” cause.  Think of how this legal clause shifts the dynamics.

Like most people, I feel more encouraged  and positive when I think about the progress we have made, no matter how small, rather than all the setbacks that plague the system.  What makes you proud of India? What makes you want to contribute to the country? Isn’t the media being irresponsible or even biased when only the negative news makes headlines? How does that shape public opinion? Shouldn’t our mainstream media be reporting and highlighting things such as those mentioned above?

Public Parks and Pavements in India – Just vestiges of the colonial era or do they mean more?

Among the many differences that strike me as I compare ordinary life in London with that in India, Public Parks and Pavements deserve a special post. When one  thinks of them in the Indian context, you quickly realize that you rarely, if ever, think of them. That statement probably also holds true for many planners. Alright! I know I’m being harsh here. But the point is that barring a few outstanding examples, for the most part, our parks and pavements are a joke!

Pavements, when present, are rarely more than three-four feet in width. Pedestrians have to contend with broken tiles, cables being laid, open pits without any barriers around them, hawkers encroaching on the pavements to sell their ware, people talking LOUDLY on their mobile phones (these people really don’t need phones. Sometimes, I feel their voice must simply carry over to other continents), rude people who have the temerity to honk when they’re riding two wheelers and cycles on a pedestrian pavement! And yes, how can I forget garbage dumped on pavements!

Ironically, the sign on the wall in Kannada says "Don't dump garbage here". I guess that's why they've dumped it BESIDE the road!








Need I say more?!


Physically challenged, yet mobile and independent, London

I see physically challenged people here (London) being remarkably independent in their mobility scooters and I know we in India have a long way to go before we start thinking about such minorities in urban planning. When a city chooses to ignore/reduce pavements, it does so at the peril of not just ignoring the physically challenged but also favouring the rich (with a vehicle, preferably a car) over the poor (without a vehicle).

It is the easiest thing in the world to blame the “Government”. But what about the people they govern? Most people have more “pressing” concerns on their mind and wouldn’t bother “wasting” their time with such issues and I must confess I was one of them until very recently. Such things however are beginning to become more and more important. They are small details, but they can radically alter the quality of life for everybody on the streets. Read this very interesting article on the R2W foundation’s website called “Maha Bharat – Yanking the ground from under our feet” that says “If you judge a nation by the quality of its pavements, India is an uncaring, boorish country that could not be bothered with its most vulnerable citizens.” I’m very happy to see that there are societies and NGOs like Right to Walk Foundation and Janaagraha doing fabulous work on raising civic engagement within cities.

Let’s now shift the focus to public parks. Believe it or not, parks in India have seen the entire gamut from sheer apathy to nail-biting drama. Why apathy? You know the reasons – garbage dumps, litter, drying plants, vandals who deface trees, a public who couldn’t care less and several such issues. Why drama? Well – In a country that is paradoxically the origin of the Kama Sutra and yet frowns upon display of affection like kissing in public spaces, many cavorting couples often seek refuge in public parks. This of course, makes residents around parks very uncomfortable especially if they have children. There is also no dearth of moral police who will pontificate  endlessly on the topic or even worse, think Operation Majnu (read more about it here, here and here) where police personnel actually slapped and beat couples in parks and what made it worse is that they had called the media in advance! Anyway, if you think that is bad, what would you say of this picture of below?

From Weekly World News – 3 Feb 1998 – Page 11

This edition of Weekly World News has many more bizarre articles and I wasn’t sure of this one’s authenticity till I saw “At the same time, Sáez’s late 1997 mis-step in Chacao of banning kissing in public plazas helped raise doubts about whether her success in the small, rich Chacao could translate to the Presidency.” on Wikipedia. Now, putting aside the sensationalism, whats strikes me most about the differences are :

  • The size of parks in general – in urban spaces that have buildings that are cheek by jowl, municipalities seem to inserting parks almost as an afterthought into remaining spaces. That could be the only reason for the ridiculously small sizes of municipal parks in some places. See pic on one in the making another that has been reduced to one-third its size due to encroachment by a temple (which you don’t see in the picture)

Public park that was reduced to one-third its size due to various encroachments including that from a temple!

  • The separation of people from nature even in the best maintained parks through wrought iron fences, well-defined walking paths with barriers on either side. My guess is that it is well intentioned and perhaps the easiest way to ensure the flora thrives without a million people trampling on it, plucking leaves, flowers, and defacing trees.

Was it always this way? Perhaps, I’ll elaborate on this in a later post. For now, I’ll let the pictures convey a thousand times more than what I’m trying to say.

One of the better public parks in Bangalore, India. People conspicuously missing from this landscape.

Public Park - Bangalore, India with well defined walking paths that don't allow people to stray onto the green

Green Park - London; One of the 10,000 acres of open spaces maintained in and around the city of London

The common thread between ‘The North Face’, ‘Espirit’ and ‘Pumalin Park’

It’s always fascinating to learn about the drive and the history behind the products that millions hanker after. Especially about the people who conceptualized these brands. It’s kind of  surprising though to learn of someone who people would label a “turncoat” in this context. Found such a story. In a book called Eco Barons by Pulitzer prize winning author Edward Humes. The beauty is that I think the person in question wouldn’t mind such a label at all!

Never imagined that “The North Face” and “Espirit” could be connected in any way. Though they may be totally disconnected today both companies have deeply entwined origins that they also share with a Nature Sanctuary in Chile that will open to the public on the 15th of Dec, 2010.

Image from the Internet

Image from the Internet

Image from the Internet

The common thread they all have is a pioneering individual named Douglas Tompkins. Must have been quite a metamorphosis for a person who was a white water kayaker, and a serious mountain climber and a skier with aspirations to compete in the Olympics to become the CEO of a billion-dollar global fashion empire.

That in itself is an incredible journey filled with  daring and adventure! But what he has chosen thereafter, speaks volumes of what helped him succeed in the first place in the ultra-competitive fashion world even as he turned coat on his former life. His story of passion and perseverance as he struggled to save hundreds and thousands of acres of  the world’s last intact temperate rain forests is awe-inspiring and well worth a read and more.

Here are a few things that struck me about this millionaire maverick:

  • He is a self-made millionaire who once borrowed sixty dollars from his girlfriend
  • In addition to all the exciting sports, he also dabbled in a film-making career
  • He found the mercantile world of ‘The North Face’ unacceptably mundane and realized he had made a mistake in making a business out of his main hobby.
  • He had the temerity to tell off the editor of a powerful magazine like Cosmopolitan with the words, “The Cosmo Girl doesn’t interest me. Your covers don’t look like our customers.”
  • He was less impressed by a job candidate’s experience in a specific position and more interested in reading habits, vacation plans, and ambitions.
  • He sold Espirit Germany to his friend/Employee Peter Buckley for all of  “One German Mark”
  • He believed in an “MBA” – Management By Absence🙂  and often took vacations (How many people in the corporate world can truly do that?)
  • He launched a new public service campaign in  the Espirit catalogue urging customers to “Buy Only What You Need” from Espirit and elsewhere.
  • Even legislators can barely agree on plans for the next fiscal year, but this man had the foresight to lay plans that would mature only in the year 3000. read more about his project “Alerce 3000”.

There are several nuggets that you’ll find very intriguing and soul-satisfying as you read about his story in the book. But what struck me the most was that he fought numerous battles for almost 20 years of his life and still held on to the belief that he would be able to save the forests and create a Nature Reserve.

Would YOU fight for something you believed in for that long?

Would YOU dare to hope for something well beyond your time?

Read his story in the book “Eco Barons”.

Inky Pinky Ponky – Choices and Consequences

Cetearyl Alcohol (hey! i know the second word!!!) , Ethylhexyl Stearate (…pass), Paraffinum Liquidium (mmm think that means liquid parafin), Carbomer (umm sounds like a car bomber… is that a good thing?), sodium Cetearyl Sulfate (wait a min….the second word sounds vaguely familiar), Simmondsia Chinensis Oil (ooooh sounds botanical…. can’t wait to google it), Tocopheryl Acetate (now I wear a broad smile, very smug in the fact that i know this is Vitamin E), glycerin (reminds me of pears soap and childhood… bigger smile), Allantoin (can only think of Prof. Allan), Dimethicone , Stearic Acid (…pass), Tetrasodium EDTA (sounds strangely sinister and akin to an abbreviation such as DDT), PEG-40 Hydrogenated Castor Oil (aaaaah, I know what castor oil is…smile), Parfum (oh good, good, perfume is always nice isn’t it? on second thoughts… only if it is mild), Benzyl Salicylate (…salicylate? mmm.. does it have something to do with Aspirin?), Citronellol (hey! i like the smell of citronella), Hexyl Cinnamal, Linalool, butylphenyl Methylpropional, Alpha-isomethyl ionone, Propylene glycol, (….pass, pass…. sounds like an Indian brand of a mouth freshner. Wouldn’t mind at all if they pay me for advertising for them :-)) Benzyl alcohol (aha!), Methylchloroisothiazolinone, Methylisothiazolinone, Magnesium nitrate, Magnesium Chloride, triethylene Glycol, Sodium hydroxide.…….. Seriously! Do people really read these things? Do they really care? Has anyone ever decided to buy a product because it had EDTA or some other obnoxious sounding acronym?  ( aside – know of people who have decided to not buy the product  because of health and safety concerns – See this simple video from a person/company I really love on you-tube )

Do we know what goes into a simple product we use everyday? If you’ve ever been to a super-market, walked around and admired the wondrous sights but have agonized over which product to buy? Should one go by the brand-name? or the price? or the contents? the smell, colour, appearance perhaps? or how about the coolness-factor? or any other criterion that I can’t think of right now… you’d agree that choice can sometimes be overrated. Now I wouldn’t for a second speak of eliminating choices completely….BUT why should a consumer have to worry about so many things?  I’m sure consumers don’t want a newspaper label on every product they purchase. but i’m also sure they’d want access to this information easily. Here’s where we need scientists working on a methodology that will keep things simple unless and until people want to delve deeper. It would be so cool if we could touch a product and see a google screen appear in thin air.. a la pranav mistry style. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, do take a look at this mind-blowing concept! if you do, take a look anyway. It’s worth a second look and more.

Transparency in product labeling is definitely the trend of the future. Many labels now already display information on how environmental friendly the product is (think paper from FSC – Forest Stewardship Council certified sources ) The latest buzz is that “A New Zealand wine has become the first in the world to display the carbon footprint of each individual glass serving on its label – laying bare to the shopper or drinker the full environmental impact of making and transporting it.” Read the full article here.

Coming back to what I was originally saying, some choices are best taken out of the public domain. I agree with an ex-colleague of mine who believed that working with manufacturers and systems is far more effective/influential than working with people to change their individual actions/ behaviour.

How many people can you convince to stop using plastic bags? Even if you were a pretty good salesperson, chances are that your conversion-ratio would pale in comparison to what you’d find in places that have banned plastic bags altogether. Surprise, surprise! people have managed to find alternatives! Come to think of it, people did manage fairly well before plastic bags became ubiquitous. But today, they have so many issues competing for mind-share that factors that do not directly impact them evidently do not make it to the top 10 list.

So much can be achieved if eco-conscious decisions are incorporated into the product/service design and conceptualization stage. A simple example that could affect you personally is the production of a universal phone charger. (assuming that about 99.9% of the readers who read blogs also use cell phones )

“The GSMA and 17 leading mobile operators and manufacturers today announced that they are committed to implementing a cross-industry standard for a universal charger for new mobile phones. The aim of the initiative, led by the GSMA, is to ensure that the mobile industry adopts a common format for mobile phone charger connections and energy-efficient chargers resulting in an estimated 50 per cent reduction in standby energy consumption, the potential elimination of up to 51,000 tonnes of duplicate chargers1 and the enhancement of the customer experience by simplifying the charging of mobile phones. ” Source:

Imagine how much more convenient it would be if one didn’t have to worry about having a separate I phone charger, Nokia thin-pin charger, Samsung charger and the like. One size that fits all would be very welcome indeed out here. Not to mention, the massive savings in terms of production costs, waste, electricity etc.

I’d love to see many more such changes and for all those of you who are  engineers/ designers, or chemical analysts, business-persons, techies or journalists for that matter, please, please do consider the impact of your work. You don’t have to be an activist shouting slogans on a road in order for you to be an environmentalist (read-  an environmentally conscious person). I’m tempted to say the Earth needs you. But the fact of the matter is that human kind needs you and your skill to be reflective of ecological considerations.

There are millions of opportunities out there waiting to be tapped, if only one cares to… That is, in my opinion, the most important choice of all.

“Developed” Nations have not arrived yet…

If the true meaning of  “sustainable development” includes allowing societies and natural systems to be efficient in all ways, both “developed” and “developing” countries have a long way to go. The term “developed nations” can sometimes imply one has “arrived”, when in reality, there are miles to go. Take for example the problem of plenty.

Whose idea of "developed"ness is this?

So often, there are too many leaflets, posters, pamphlets, discount cards, invites, club cards that are shoved in your face, whether you want them or not. All too often, they end up on the streets and the bins. Hardly anyone cares where they came from and fewer still bother with where they end up. Whose idea of “developed”ness is this ?

One could talk about inks from vegetable sources, using paper of mixed sources instead of using virgin paper, using raw material that is recognized by the Forest Stewardship Council, all that jazz and more. The fact still remains.

This is incredible waste!

Take another example – Lighting. 

While some parts of the developing world focus on “lighting a billion lives”, those who consider themselves affluent (whether from a developed nation or not) focus on lighting a billion lights!  We have a term for it. Pretty old one. It is called – “Over-illumination”. You might be all too familiar with  scenes of commercial over-illumination but  a sight like the one in the picture here is so common that it doesn’t seem odd/extraordinary.  Do we really need so many lights to be on 24/7? How is this extra light making life any better? On the contrary, it has been shown to have numerous detrimental effects from being the cause of migraines to decrease in sexual function. Not to mention how such lights have changed the living patterns of birds and left them confused. Whether the power source is coal or hydroelectricity or nuclear power for that matter, it doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility to use it responsibly.

Who will bell the cat?

It doesn’t matter if we’re from a developed economy or a developing one. This is definitely not what development is meant to be…











The Missing Link…


Image Credit:


I recall reading somewhere that ‘Becoming an expert is to learn more and more about less and less until you know almost everything about almost nothing.’ I can’t help but be impressed by how true it seems to be in the real world. It takes a tremendous amount of perseverance and focus to achieve a PhD/become and expert in a particular domain. (On a tangential note – visit this fabulous site for an illustrated guide to a Ph.D.) Coming back to what I wanted to convey however, what strikes me is how despite the huge number of experts in the environmental domain, (like many other fields) general public knowledge seems sorely lacking.

At worst, in this field, people  are actually misinformed or simply put off by media histrionics. From what I have experienced so far, only a very small proportion of  experts can actually communicate to people outside their “community”. It is almost as if possession of such specialized knowledge encourages people to become clannish. Without meaning to,very often, many begin to either talk down to people who ask seemingly ‘absurd’ questions or may answer such questions with jargon that can make most people bleary-eyed. The public, it seems, couldn’t care less eventually. They have more ‘immediate’ things to focus on and they conveniently turn a blind eye to such expertise. What then is the missing link?

The answer perhaps, lies in the words “Technical Writer“. the IT world has long faced this challenge of having people who think in terms of codes being unable to communicate to people who think in terms of words. Yet, more and more people are becoming savvy users of Information Technology. Much of this credit should go to these unsung heroes who work behind the scenes. The fields of environment,development,sustainability,climate change, conservation all need such champions. People who can stay abreast of the latest academic debates and decode them for a lay audience.( and no. I don’t mean something akin to a media blitzkrieg.) This is one field where cooperation is needed more than competition. But we need more than just the ability to write or converse/ convert geek-speak to plain-speak. Real change will perhaps happen only the masses change. What is needed is the competence to breathe life into the subject. In other words, INSPIRE change (check etymology here – we use the word so lightly today).

I wonder though, if there is such a “competence”? I wonder if the “experts” in this field can come to respect such “quasi-experts” for the value they bring to the table instead of dismissing them as “publicity-hungry”, “attention-seeking” jokers?

Its here to stay, weather you like it or not! DNA | Jun 02, 2010 | BANGALORE | Page 7

“Recently I was introduced to Kiran Pereira, of Infosys Technologies Ltd, who is hard at work on their project called Sustainability, which includes climate change. “The slowest changes are the most dangerous,” she says. “For instance, Bangalore once had over a hundred lakes but so many have been lost over the years. If the change had happened immediately, people would have jumped in and done something about it, but since it happened so slowly, it did not even get noticed by many people. Its the same with climate change in the world, which is taking place slowly, but surely.”
According to Pereira, people should pay attention to whats going on climate-wise and in the environment. “One of the initiatives that people can take is to construct buildings thoughtfully,” she adds. “Some years ago, many of our buildings were made of glass but when we realised that these buildings created too much heat, we began constructing green buildings with special ceilings that allowed light to enter but kept out the heat. Also, it is a known fact that planting trees can bring down the temperature of a place by many degrees. Anyone can do this easily.”
Her point? Dont just talk about the weather. Think about it. Watch the changes that are happening. See what part you can play.” – Asha Chowdary

Rebirth ka Raaz

I’ve cracked it! The cycle of rebirth. I can now identify what people (well at least many Indians) were in their earlier birth. It is so evident that it makes me wonder why people haven’t noticed it before. How, you ask? Easy – just look for the signs!

  • Where should you look for the signs? – The ROADS
  • When do the signs appear? – When you’re riding/ driving. Sometimes, they even become apparent if you sit and watch the traffic carefully and meditate on what you see. But not many people in today’s world have the patience for the latter, so the best bet is to keep your eyes and ears open when you’re on the road.
  • What kind of signs? – Here are a few I’ve found. Perhaps you will find some more and let me know.
  1. The Crabs who have become people. You can tell from how they move lanes and keep driving sideways instead of moving straight ahead. Even though they’re human now, their crab instincts are still pretty strong I’d say. The only drawback is that they also tend to make people around them crabby.
  2. The Indian Cheetahs who became extinct long ago obviously loved this land too much to sit in some pretty heaven in a far off place. Mr. Jairam Ramesh, in case you haven’t noticed, they’re back and they’re thriving, albeit in different shapes and sizes…and spots. How can you identify them? Piece of cake – through their need for speed. Picture this, you’re some distance from a junction or even a regular main road that also has a smaller perpendicular road leading left. Someone overtakes you from the right in a flash only to cut you short and turn left, even though that spectacular move would have saved them all of 0.09 seconds. Sometimes, you’ll even find that they overtake you only to park their vehicle. Cheetahs need their rest you see. Anyway, the moment you spot someone like this, congratulate yourself. You’ve now identified the cheetah who has taken human form.
  3. I don’t want you to think these signs are limited only to the most popular species. How about Leeches? I’m positive you’ve identified them and even dealt with them many a times even if you haven’t particularly classified this as a sign. Well, of course I’m talking about traffic cops (at least most of them). It’s almost uncanny how they have the ability to spot a juicy prey amidst all the distractions and latch on until they get their fill.

Hmm, I must admit though, I somehow prefer the creatures without the human body. They command so much more respect. Almost seems like I’m insulting them here. Don’t mean to. Just expressing my frustration at our general road sense and civic sense in India! I want to hear if you’ve experienced something similar too…

Are your kids smarter than you?

I had the privilege of being a part of the panel that selected International Climate Champions for South India. It was very invigorating to meet young people with a fire in their belly to do something for Mother Earth.

International Climate Champions is a youth oriented program run by the British Council in partnership with The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI). The International Climate Champions program is part of British Council’s global project called ‘Climate Generation’ which creates a network of Climate Champions across 60 countries and eight Regions. It is directly aimed at young people aged 18-23 and through them will engage the leaders and influencers in society, as well as reach out to the wider community. Climate Generation engages young people with a proactive interest in climate change who wish to take positive action at local, national and international levels.

Climate Champions are typically young people who:

  • are committed and enthusiastic about  tackling climate change
  • are strong communicators
  • are in a position to show leadership
  • have access to networks and can demonstrate the ability to act as influencers
  • can demonstrate a sound knowledge & understanding of climate change

You can read more about this programme here. In case you/ you’re loved ones ever wish to apply for this particular programme or any other interview, here are some tips from me:

  • Pay attention to the language you use while communicating your ideas. Take a look at the following 3 statements. No prizes for guessing which one is appreciated more than the others.

a) We can do XYZ to save the world.

b) I plan to do XYZ by <date>.

c) Corporates just don’t care.

The first is of course in ‘no-man’s land’ so to say. It does not convey any sense of ownership or urgency. It sounds more like a plea rather than a plan. The last is a blanket statement that is not supported by any evidence. It is also a statement that could be debated upon till the cows come home! The second sounds more impressive simply because it conveys “your” plan and a sense of ownership and urgency. It’s best to also make it a SMART statement. Many of you already know what SMART stands for – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound.

  • If you intend to quote names of people from organizations, please do your homework before-hand. You cannot afford to say “I know so and so  from ABC organization” and then get the name wrong. Your credibility with the listener would drop to an all time low instanty.
  • It is important to quote sources of ideas, data, text etc.
  • The devil lies in the details. Make sure you cross-check if the right information has reached them in the specified format. You don’t want to find out at the nth moment that you’ll have to speak without your presentation.
  • I could go on and on about public speaking. All I’ll say is join Toastmasters. It is one of the best decisions you will make irrespective of the field you choose to work in.
  • Pay attention to your attire and how you carry yourself.
  • Go prepared with supporting materials. Candidates who bring letters/ documentation that supports their claims obviously win hands down in comparison with people who just talk.

Coming back to this particular interview. 15 candidates were shortlisted for south India. My experience was that most of the applicants were students but their passion and commitment to the cause was clearly evident. Many of them had applied for patents, registered NGOs, started for-profit ventures, convinced corporate organizations to sponsor their projects, worked with media to raise awareness of issues at the grass-root level and even persuaded district administrators to take direct action. Some had even travelled to more countries than I could care to count. Now let’s not forget that these were 18-23 year olds. The younger generations never fail to amaze me.

The question I have for you is this:

I’d love to read what you have to say.

Loved Avatar? Now LOOK around you…


Doesn't take long for the apathy to spread now. does it?



I’m saddened by the state of Bangalore’s trees. Is it a reflection of how we now treat fellow humans too?  A few words from J. Krishnamurti seem so apt:

“What is your relationship with nature (nature being the rivers, the trees, the swift-flying birds, the fish in the water, the minerals under the earth, the waterfalls and shallow pools)? What is your relationship to them? Most of us are not aware of that relationship. We never look at a tree, or if we do, it is with a view to using that tree, either to sit in its shade, or to cut it down for lumber. In other words, we look at trees with utilitarian purpose; we never look at a tree without projecting ourselves and utilizing it for our own convenience. We treat the earth and its products in the same way. There is no love of earth, there is only usage of earth. If one really loved the earth, there would be frugality in using the things of the earth.That is, if we were to understand our relationship with the earth, we should be very careful in the use we made of things of the earth. The understanding of one’s relationship with nature is as difficult as understanding one’s relationship with one’s neighbour, wife, and children. But we have not given a thought to it, we have never sat down to look at the stars, the moon, or the trees. We are too busy with social or political activities.”

It is ironic that words that he penned in 1948 are so relevant in 2010. I guess, more than ever. Schools of thought such as “Deep Ecology” make so much sense in today’s context. (More on John Seed and deep ecology in another post). I’m happy that James Cameron took on such a challenge.  Wikipedia says that in December 2006, Cameron described Avatar as “a futuristic tale set on a planet 200 years hence … an old-fashioned jungle adventure with an environmental conscience [that] aspires to a mythic level of storytelling”. His movie has certainly awakened the environmental conscience and consciousness in many. I know for sure that so many of us came back from the movie wanting to become Na’vi warriors. If you belonged to that tribe, here is your opportunity in our very own world…”Earth”

The only question that is relevant now is “What are you going to do about it?”