30 October 2009

this is halloween!

Half the world lies in darkness. Power cuts are a regular feature even in India where there hasn't been a single day of uninterrupted power supply the past two years in my city. It is only October. It is just Halloween and already Harrods have turned on their Christmas lights. You would think that in times like this 'they' would lend 'us' a thought.

In spite of not meeting demand for electricity and dealing with short-falls in power production, India has managed to emerge as a world business leader. I have been travelling recently and in Hong Kong Christmas decorations have already gone up. Singapore lights up Orchard road in its entirety. The amount of power they use lighting up billboards and neon signs are utterly fascinating. Granted we do the same with our store-fronts but it is about time that an end is put on superfluous waste.

Festivals are joyous occasions where thanks is given for what we have. Unfortunately they have also become a commercial opportunity with Christmas always being the most commercialized. Turning on lights for a festivals a month in advance is simply a waste when everybody is trying to be responsible about the environment.

Just thought I'd put out this wee rant.

Photo: Akhila Vijayaraghavan ©

15 October 2009

road rage on NH47

National Highway 47 is a a busy highway connecting Tamil Nadu and Kerala. It connects most of the important southern cities like Salem, Erode, Coimbatore, Palakkad, Thrissue, Kochi, Kollam and Thiruvananthapuram. It is officially listed as running over 650 km (390 miles) from Salem to Kanyakumari. Out of this a 16km bit, Avinashi Road is in Coimbatore and serves not only as a connecting National Highway but also a main arterial road within the city. It is also fraught with mis-management and poor planning.

In 2006 plans to make it a 6-lane highway was approved and construction started. This resulted in all the trees lining either side of the road being cut off, increasing city temperatures up to 2 degrees. The construction itself has taken a lot of time with severe interruption to traffic flow and general annoyance to commuters. It has only just been opened out to a six-lane highway and it is a right joke. The examples of Indian governance makes for stellar stand-up comedy material and this rankles me.

The lanes have been segregated according to vehicle type as opposed to speed; so although you have to switch lanes to make turns, technically you cannot. This confusion means that already lane-senseless drivers are even more perplexed adding to the incessant honking and general mayhem before you even cross a signal and shift a gear. Indian people make for rather inconsiderate drivers - I'm not sure if this is because we do not care for rules or if we have the 'I don't care, I own the road' attitude. Everything we do in terms of driving screams a certain kind of 'educated-idiot' syndrome - this includes cutting people off, mad honking, this insane rush to get a few paces ahead, talking to people in the middle of the road in a parked vehicle (!) no parking-sense and general road-rage. Of course all of us give in to some variation of this behaviour from time to time, which basically means as a mass we have no road-manners. Poor infrastructure often adds to road -rage especially during rainy seasons and peak hours.

Why am I venting about driving on an environmental blog you might ask? Driving is something that everybody does at some point and it relies on infrastructure in place and it also relies on sense and sensibilities of people using that infrastructure. Road-sense is a bottom-up approach to law enforcement and it should be ensured with stricter licensing controls in the first place. When it comes to infrastructure: most roads in India are badly maintained, inadequate and support more traffic than they were originally planned for, there is virtually no town planning, environmental impact assessment and no fore-thought when it comes to expansion efforts.

Every time a structure is built, resources are used, it makes more sense to overestimate the amount of traffic than underestimate when anything like a bridge, a highway or road is constructed. There are numerous examples even in the big cities where its capacity is reached within a day of it opening - this is simply due to poor planning. This structure will be reconstructed, expanded, renovated five years later when it is already groaning under the weight of wheels it cannot support when the planning should have happened ten years earlier.

Secondly, the best fuel consumption occurs when vehicles gently accelerate and stop only minimally where it is essential i.e., at traffic signals. Bumper to bumper traffic does little to conserve fuel especially when we all wait in line with our air-conditioning switched on and mindlessly 'horning' at the fellow in front of us.

Third, construction of city infrastructure is a huge environmental disturbance which we have to off-set adequately which does not happen in India. Trees that are cut down are not replanted, local ecosystems which are destroyed are not restored and all this further adds to increase in pollution within city limits.

The question I cannot answer is why? Why is our infrastructure appallingly abysmal? Even countries in worse-off economic situations like Thailand have better roads in place. China's cities are growing in leaps and bounds in terms of infrastructure. Whereas we take pride in the maxim "learn to drive in India and you can drive anywhere in the world" - which is not true because most other countries have something called 'road-sense'. We all blame the government, but really we do not have a sense of entitlement to demand the best from our leaders which is precisely why they get away without accountability.

Democracy is a two way street.

14 October 2009

safe food now!

The Indian food supply is on the brink. The first GM-crop, Bt Brinjal has been approved by the GEAC for release. The approval by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee was expected on the basis of test results submitted by seed company Mahyco which is a subsidiary of Monsanto who developed the crop.

After two reports were presented to the GEAC, approval was delayed until April 2009. Mahyco's results were sent to several independent scientists for review and two studies showed several inconsistencies. One study by Dr. Seralini in France showed that Bt Brinjal affected animals like rats, rabbits, goats etc and even induced antibiotic resistance. The Seralini study has been instrumental is putting a delay to the GEAC approval. however the roadblock has disintegrated. Requests for Mahyco's studies to be made public has been refused by the GEAC. The Gene Campaign has filed a PIL to ensure that no GMOs are introduced without proper testing. However now that the GEAC has approved Bt Brinjal it is now time for the Center to decide.

The Environmental Minister has previously said that he does not support the release of GM food, so it is time now to make good on his promise. The release of GM-Brinjal into the mainstream will open the flood-gates for other crops to follow. A previous post talks about the environmental and health hazards of GM crops which are well documented and it is in public health interest to ensure that such crops are not encouraged. Write, fax or email Jairam Ramesh now to let him know your views.

Email Address for Jairam Ramesh: jairam@vsnl.com or jairam@sansad.nic.in or mosef@nic.in

For more information look here.

Photo Courtesy: Down to Earth

12 October 2009

climate change - the other side

Arguments over the reason for climate change have been going on back and forth for years. Some experts believe that it is part of the Earth's natural heating and cooling mechanisms rather than 'man-made activities'. Others of course vehemently oppose this view by saying that only Man's activities are contributing to this increase in temperature. The third, more balanced view is one that gives allowances for the Earth's natural cycles and still holds that human activities are probably hastening the increase of temperatures the world over.

I'm uncertain where I belong. I don't know if it is as simple as a 'this or that' situation and there are definite grey areas in scientific and technical information to ascertain if decision making can be that simple. In the face of almost equal evidence for both sides of the argument, what we do for sure are:
  • Temperatures are increasing and we are facing consequences of that i.e., extreme weather, loss of biodiversity and collapse of ecosystems
  • Policy makers are unsure where they stand on climate change and methods to tackle it
  • As a consequence of the this, industrialists are unsure how to incorporate a business model that ensures business development and yet is environmentally sustainable
So the welfare of the world has been dunked in a potpie of madness and everyone is arguing of who gets the biggest share. So right now, I'm wondering if this quagmire of doubt and uncertainty will make more sense with a different approach or a different hypothesis for the theory of climate change.

A recent BBC news article on the same topic talks about Pacific decadel oscillation (PDO) which talks about cyclical warming and cooling of the Earth's oceans. According to temperature data, for much of the 80s and 90s it was warmer than average and global temperatures were warm too but in the last few years it has been losing its warmth and has recently started to cool down. This means that global temperatures could also follow because these cycles have lasted nearly 30 years.

If this is true, then current temperatures are set to decrease instead of increase. So far on record, 1998 was the hottest year and the recent heat-waves have not even come close to matching those temperatures. These evidences, also scientific cannot be ignored anymore and this also holds true for evidences supporting Man-made climate change. It is unimportant where we stand on the issue of climate change because regardless of cause; it is happening.

This theory offers a glimmer of hope for mitigation and adaptation efforts. But can hope be banked on?

04 October 2009

the fury of water

Photo: NDTV headline for 4th Oct 2009. www.ndtv.com © NDTV

The recent headlines have been alarming - another tsunami in Samoa, a typhoon in Philippines, earthquake in Indonesia and half of India seems to be drowning in floods. Just a little over a month ago there were serious concerns of droughts in India with water levels running dangerously low in the very states that are now flood-hit. This is further evidence that climate change causes erratic weather patterns. The brunt of the effects are being borne by the developing nations in a twist of unfair fate. These nations have not the resources for neither mitigation nor adaptation to the dark side of climate change. Their economies are fragile and dependent on climate-sensitive such as agriculture.

The furies of Nature being unleashed here are always borne by a patient understanding of fate. The influence of Eastern religion and the emphasis of karma can be clearly witnessed on how people struck by such calamities cope. "This is our fate", they say pragmatically and go about rebuilding lives from scratch with nothing. What do they know about the polluting west and climate change? Will they be angry if they knew their lives are at stake so that somewhere, someone can drive a bigger car?

So for so long this part of the world has been ignored because for many reasons, they are voiceless. And if you are voiceless, you are also faceless. So after years and years of being ignored, this part of the world is waking up. Nature lashes out regardless of blame, we are all at fault. As a prototype of the human race, it is my fault. Mea Culpa. We all have the collective arrogance to believe that we inherit the Earth, we are all subject to those feelings of helplessness and apathy. We all should shoulder the responsibility. And yet, there is a imbalance in the way that Nature chooses to punish. We all do not inherit the Earth equally, there are some who pay a higher price.

Philosophizing helps when the Truth gets bitter to take. But how is it going to help the ones who have been rendered homeless? The ones who have lost their home, loved ones, livelihood? Every Man's worth is ultimately judged by a combination of these three factors and when everything is destroyed, will be perish? Is this the survival of the fittest? Will Time eventually reveal to us what he conceals in his cleverly made web of false promises? Will we care to see redemption when all is lost?

Such questions are hard to articulate and even harder to answer. But what we do know is that the day of reckoning will come. And when that happens, the furies we see now will pale in comparison.