Monday, November 19, 2012

India not superpower, so how about happy middle child?

In US News and World Report today, Scheherazade Rehman asserts:
India is not, nor will it become a superpower for the foreseeable future. There… I said it upfront.
How dare she! She must realize she insults almost a fifth of the world's population by saying so. It's like Dorothy opening the curtain to find an old man frantically turning knobs and pressing buttons only to end up putting on a long, worn out show.

India, the happy middle child? (Source: Jorge Royan)
However, this is old hat. Rehman is not alone in her opinions. In fact, the Wall Street Journal and the BBC have already put up their "let's put lagging nations in their place" Christmas tree lights earlier this year. Almost as a retort, a blog from The Hindu asked, "Who says India wants to be a superpower?"

Yes, who indeed wants to be a superpower anyway? It's a pain in the neck: Lots of emails to handle and dictators to pacify and constantly worrying about how fat you look.

Rehman reminds us that India is a land of contradictions. Growth seems to soar along with the poverty gap. Arundhati Roy puts this contradiction poetically, when she says:
India lives in several centuries at the same time. Somehow we manage to progress and regress simultaneously... As a nation we age by pushing outward from the middle -- adding a  few centuries on either end of the extraordinary CV. We greaten like the maturing head of a hammerhead shark with eyes looking in diametrically opposite directions. (The Nation, 2002)
Rehman also reminds us how it's been a bad year for India. I know. I've been somewhat chronicling the 2012 blow by blow in this blog. Since January it's gone from sewage, child malnutrition, adulterated milk and toxic air to the lowering rank of India's Child Development Index and disappointment at the Olympics.

So how can India flip the development coin like South Korea, which went from OECD donation recipient to OECD member? What will it take for India to catch up with star sibling, China; reach the heights of superpowerdom; and not end up like moody middle child, Russia? Too much. At least that's what Rehman seems to claim.

In fact, like in my previous blog, Rehman highlights Prime Minister hopeful, Narendra Modi. Well liked and the strongest candidate to revive India's economy on one hand, and on the other... is he guilty of allowing genocide against Muslims run rampant in his state? Eh...

If some of my friends are any indicator, then pro-Modi voters would argue that Rehman's negativity toward Modi is only because she's Muslim. In fact, I believe that much of the lower to middle middle class would take Rehman's blog and write it off as neocolonial mudslinging. However, Rehman's comments may be more of reality check than first world snobbery.

With the UK's DFID cutting aid to India and re-allocating it to other more needy parts of the world, will trying to claim heir to superpower status ultimately be too costly for India's poor? Oxfam asserts that India has dichotic economic voices and that DFID's cut on India will leave the poorest of the world bleeding.

Maybe what The Hindu's blog title suggests is the way to go for India: "Who says India wants to be a superpower?"

Hmm... reminds me of an old Indian adage:
Dhobi ka kutta na ghar ka na ghaat ka.
The washer man's dog belongs neither to river bank nor home.
Fitting into neither pre-fixed mold, India, like in her past, should continue to look for her own way into the future.

But what exactly is that way?

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Is Narendra Modi green?

Did anyone else believe that Narendra Modi would just go away? 

I mean, even after his feature in Time magazine, I honestly thought he was just going to be a flash in the pan. This apparently is a long drawn out flash.

(Source: World Economic Forum)

These days you need to be careful if you write anything even hinting of negativity toward Mr. Modi. After reading comments from Aakar Patel's recent Hindustan Times blog, I also question if I should write anything about him. However the point of this post is not Modi bashing but to observe "green-ness" involved in the Indian political debate. (And if you keep reading you'll actually discover some Modi brownie points.)

Actually, a few weeks ago I finally read the Time magazine article about Modi, and it actually made me have some feelings for Gujarat's Chief Minister (who did not prevent nor properly preside over investigation of the apparent genocide which occurred in his state, FYI).

This post, however, is about the environment and the Indian political system, and I'll keep it brief.

To answer the main question, yes apparently Modi can be considered green and unabashedly so, one-upping Al Gore by declaring that the issue of climate change is not an "inconvenient truth" but that we can take "convenient action." He calls his state a "game changer" for alternative energy, making it a "world capital" for solar energy. His vision is to have solar power rates equal to coal or gas by 2017. This is big environmental talk for a major political leader.


This is in contrast to US presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, fearlessly declaring, "I'm not in this race to slow the rise of the oceans or to heal the planet." America is at a very different place in how politicians need to place themselves on the green scale.

Modern India since the Stockholm conference in 1972 has an established position on the environment, even re-injecting the nation's constitution with green principles and presently mandating environmental education for all students across disciplines. Plus, India claims a green ancient history, due to the Hindu tradition of involving nature in religious practice and philosophy. Therefore, it is almost assumed that politicians will be green in nature.

However, Modi seems to go beyond this, aiming to put his money where his mouth is. With coal and energy scams in plenty in the Indian political system these days, for the Chief Minister to lay out clean affordable energy initiatives is quite a promise. For young entrepreneurs looking for both stable infrastructure for successful business as well as a sustainable future Modi seems like India shining.

(Source: Johann DrĂ©o)
This is because with Modi it seems that India can have economic growth with environmental conservation. However, the original Brundtland Commission definition of true sustainable development includes a third area of concern--social equality. With Modi's spotty past of communal violence (the US still won't give this freely elected Chief Minister a visa), does he also have big promise for social equality for all? Or does that part of sustainable development not really matter?

If Modi seems like he can drastically improve India's economy, like many other nations, maybe a few will need to suffer. A growing prosperous middle class seems to pacify past communal tensions. Maybe with enough money floating around this whole genocide thing will eventually go away. Hey, at least with Modi we'll go solar.


Note: This post was updated from when originally posted.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Is it fair? India’s farmers gain big from US fracking

Guar growing in Shailender's fields (Shailender)

Having lived both in India and the US, any issue that links the two countries tends to perk my interest. Having studied about the environment and society, any issue that links the two also perks my interest. And when the issue is about all four? It’s a quadruple whammy.

That’s what I found with the lucrative fracking industry in the US and guar farming in low-income rural India. Now ask the average Indian what “fracking” is and they’ll probably have no clue and likewise with the average American when asking about “guar.”

Right now in the state of Rajasthan, you’ll see fields of guar, a crop native to India. When I put up news on Facebook about the growing price of guar immediately Shailender, a friend of mine, wrote that his family in Rajasthan profits from the crop. He commented about their last harvest, writing in Hindi shorthand, “mja aa gya is bar” which in essence means, “This time it rocked.”

Growing guar for rural livelihood (Shailender)
Straightaway, I had started to wonder what farmers in rural India think about the sudden profits they’re making from this obscure plant. Do they know why they’re making such a profit right now? Do they know how environmentalists in the US are fighting against fracking? How would they feel about that? For the first time, many of these farmers are buying cars and better educations for their children.

This issue is especially poignant for my friend, Shailender, whose family is not only growing crops of guar right now, but is also supporting his studies in, none other than, environmental science. Do he and his family understand that they are in the middle of a huge environmental fracking debate in the US? I wanted to find out things from their perspective. He immediately agreed to an interview.

eStumbling: Your family is from Rajasthan, India and you plant guar. When did you start doing this?
Shilender: Long before my birth. I have always seen guar in my field in this present season.

e: How big was your crop last year?
S: 200 bigha.  Bigha is a unit of land measurement. [Note: In India a bigha can mean anywhere from 1,500 to over 6,700 sq. meters. Here it probably means around 2,500 sq. meters.]

e: Has it always been the same price or did you see a big increase in the selling rate recently?
S: About 9 to 10 years ago, it rose up to 10,000 rupees per quintal [roughly $2 US per kilo], but now the prices are very high. It was around 45,000 rupees per quintal last season [roughly $9 US per kilo].

e: What is guar used for?
S: For feeding animals and people eat the pods of guar as green vegetables.

e: Why do farmers think it became so expensive?
S: Actually, the farmers know that it is exported to the USA and China.

e: According to the farmers, why do people in the USA and China want so much guar?
S: I’ve asked them and they reply that guar contains gum which is used for making explosive material. It is also used in making around 200 types of cosmetics.

e: Interesting. Well, guar is also used in drilling for natural gas. Right now there is big business in the USA and China for natural gas, but people in the USA are fighting against this because it is not eco-friendly and pollutes drinking water. Have you heard about this? This is a drilling process called "fracking."
S: Yes, I’ve read about it on your blog.

e: Now that guar has become more financially beneficial, how has this affected farmers and their communities?
S: They’ve becomes more rich. Peoples are happier now.

e: Have people started to change their crops more and more to guar? Has this had any negative effects on society?
S: Initially there was a negative effect because of rise in prices. People who sold guar at low prices got depressed and some even attempted suicide.

e: I had mentioned that environmentalists in the USA are fighting against natural gas drilling (i.e. fracking). Actually, right now it is illegal in my state, but drilling companies are trying to make it legal. How do you think farmers feel about environmentalists fighting against this drilling which uses 80% of the guar gum that is produced in India?
S: They're getting money which means they are building their livelihoods up to a good level. Some farmers even constructed homes so that they could live properly. I’d need to analyze it more to give a proper response.

e: Well, how about your feelings? You are studying to be an environmentalist and your family grows guar. How do you feel about it?
S: As an environmentalist, I want to say stop gas drilling.

e: But your family will lose business, and many American’s don’t need to worry as much as Indian farmers do about money. Do you think this is fair?
S: No.

e: In terms of sustainable development, what do you think is fair for your family?
S: Actually for me as a global environmental concern drilling must stop, but for my family they don’t understand environmental concerns so continuation of drilling is fair for them.

This same sign is posted on my neighborhood food coop
(AP Photo/Mike Groll) 
e: For me it is a difficult issue. I could not say if it is right or wrong because on one side we want to see rural areas develop, on the other side we want to stop pollution of water and land, and on the other other side we need cleaner energy -- and natural gas is cleaner than petrol.  In my city there are signs on buildings saying, "NO FRACKING.” It is a big issue here. If you look on many environmental websites, they are always talking about fracking. This is important for Indian farmers since 80% of guar gum from India is used for fracking.

S: That’s why it was difficult for me to reply to your questions properly.

e: Stuff like this is probably why Rio +20 was considered a failure by many. You’re not alone in your confusion, even Obama doesn’t want to say anything about sustainable development. He didn’t go to Rio this year.

S: There is only one solution: Samajwad for the whole world.

e: Socialism? Why is that the answer?

S: The solution to these questions arising from the fracking issue can be dealt with by socialism. I’ll email you about it. OK, good night.

e: OK, send me some photos of your farm.

After the chat, I started to think more about this strange turn of events. Normally, when talking about environmental policy and globalization, the emphasis is on how global policies have reduced pollution in developed countries only to have it exported to developing nations. Companies not only shift manufacturing to other countries, but also the pollution that comes with it. Here it’s almost the other way around. Rural India profits while the US gets polluted.

I’ve yet to get Shailender’s take on fracking and socialism or understand what he meant by that. Maybe he was seeing how with this situation there is not only equalization in the distribution of wealth but also in the distribution of pollution. And by this the world’s scale again balances. Like two men on a tightrope exchanging bags of sand, it's only fair to distribute the weight.

Shailender out in family guar field (Shailender)

Gas drilling (fracking) in the US versus helping farmers in India. What do you think is fair?


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Sunday, August 5, 2012

Olympic medal count: What's it mean for developing nations?

Going for the medal count (AP)

China and the USA are hitting, splashing, bashing, lunging for Olympic medals in London like there's no tomorrow. My eyes bulged a moment ago checking the stats to see China on top of the collection list. This is after listening to a recent podcast on This American Life about how most Chinese do not feel that China is an up and coming superpower. Well, maybe they don't feel like it, but they are certainly acting like super somethings.

My cousin got me into looking at the medal stats a few days ago as he regularly checks them on his cell phone. I was taken aback when he showed me the top 5 (i.e. USA, China, UK, S Korea and France). Two questions popped to mind: (1) What ever happened to China's burly communist Olympic dance partner, a.k.a. Russia? and (2) S Korea? How did that tiny self-conscious Asian country squeeze its way to the K-top?* The UK's Telegraph summarizes S Korea's history in six words: Quiet. Along came technology. Scary neighbour. Scary is right, as they just made a historic win against the UK in soccer.

Medal count as of August 5, 2012 (Source: Google)

However as I thought about it more, I started to focus on the difference between China and India at the Olympics. Both are emerging economies. Both have populations over a billion. However, China is an Olympic superstar while India is basically absent. Who are a billion people supposed to root for? India just lost against S Korea in their own national sport locking them into the bottom quarter of field hockey ranks. India has been able to garner two medals so far in their shining event of last Olympics, shooting, but has just suffered a significant loss, and as of yet... no gold.

Academic economists, Cowen and Kevin, shed some light on this issue. Though population is a major factor in collecting Olympic medals, there are other elements at play. Firstly along with military prowess, China's investment into the Olympics has been part of their national strategy since the Cold War. As a communist country, the government could invest lavishly. This is opposed to India's vibrant, dynamic (and... wildly inefficient) democracy. For most in India, other than cricket, athletics are mostly a hobby. It would blow the mind of most people to see how much money and media coverage is invested into football and basketball at the high school level in the USA. Too bad cricket is not an Olympic sport. Imagine Sachin winning gold?

Another major factor against India is the issue of child malnutrition. Recently, India lowered in rank on the Child Development Index. Stronger children equals stronger young athletes. But as China's population ages, this may give room for India's young population (about a third under twenty) to do some needed catch up. But what would it take? A lot.

First of all, should India focus more on garnering Olympic medals? How important is London's medal count for each nation? Isn't it more of an image thing? For India and other developing nations, there's a bit of a catch to it. Should a nation spend money on the Olympics when its Child Development Index is falling?

2012 Olympic shooter, Vijay Kumar, winning a silver for India (Source: Times of India)

Well, if the sappy commercials are to be believed, then the Olympics are more than just showing off to other nations, but actually they're also about showing off to ourselves. Why do we root for an athlete that we've never even heard of until this summer? Because that person somehow represents us. If she or he makes it, we make it. And we prove it to ourselves that we can do it. Whatever it is.

I guess that's why this whole India medal thing bothers me. Part of me gets lost in the count.


* Note: Being Asian-American myself, I was always told we're not supposed to be good at sports. I guess it's another lesson on how not to listen to the lies that society tells us. 

Should developing countries like China and India spend more money on the Olympics? Why or why not?

Thursday, July 26, 2012

How many billionaires does it take to feed a child?

Source: hindu.com (2010)
India claims over fifty billionaires, making it one of the top 5 billionaire nations of the world -- and that's billions in terms of US dollars. The economy, though a bit shaky at the moment, still soars high.

Then why the downturn when it comes to child development? Save the Children's Child Development Index recently ranked India at 112 -- down from 103 in 2004. Meaning, while all the talk has been about India's soaring economy, her children have been left "eating air" (a common Hindi phrase, "hawa kha rahe hai"). From raw sewage in India's rivers and being ranked worst air in the world to high malnutrition rates among children and adulterated milk, this year's reports have not been kind to the nation.

Though South Asia did not bottom out in the organization's rankings (Africa bears that burden), Save the Children considers the subcontinent, particularly India, to have "high levels of deprivation." They explain:
South Asia has a high level of deprivation, scoring 26.4; this is 3 times worse than East Asia. It is also making slow progress, improving child well-being by just 32% over 1990-2006 (compared to East Asia’s 45% improvement). This is because India (where almost three-quarters of the region’s children live) made the least progress of any country in South Asia; just a 27% improvement. In this region, child nutrition is a substantial obstacle; almost 1 in 2 children is underweight. Malnutrition levels are not being reduced rapidly enough; the region’s enrolment indicator improved by 59% while its nutrition indicator improved by only 14%. Higher levels of economic growth in the region are not widely translating into reduced child deprivation. (Emphasis added.)

Source: hindustantimes.com
This only confirms that when the rich get richer their affluence does not "trickle down" to the poor. It gets stuck somewhere... maybe buying iPad apps? Who knows? This is confirmed by the statement by India's Planning Commission that "the benefits of high economic growth have not trickled down to the bottom 15% who are the most disadvantaged in the country" (as discussed previously).

So what is going on? According to a Down To Earth report, the problem is not that there aren't enough programs but that they are not implemented properly. In other words, the funds get stuck -- either in the pockets of the billionaires or just in the wrong pockets in general.

Money in the wrong pockets is a major problem all over the world. So as not to be overly hypocritical, it should be noted that while the US has over 8 times as many billionaires as India does and holds the number one spot in terms of number of billionaires (China holds the number two spot), it still only ranks 24 while China ranks 29 on the index. So how many billionaires does it take to feed a child?

In the end, how can this be fixed? Well, it's not like world leaders haven't been working on this for a long time. First of all the Child Development Index is a ranking system. Some nation has to be ranked 112th just as one needs to be first (Japan) and another last (Somalia). In fact, most of the countries improved since previous rankings. However, India as an "emerging economy" is the only one that dropped in rank. So, what can be fixed?

If the world's leaders can't get this done, then try from the bottom up. This isn't a new concept, but just a confirmation that world leaders tend to just exchange CO2, eating each others' hot air. So here's my list of things that need to be done (if it's worth anything), be it to "save the children" and/or the environment that sustains them:
  1. Don't rely on government structures, especially if (as) they are run by people who either don't care or don't know what they are doing or (sadly in most cases) both. 
  2. Empower whole communities to believe -- not in money but in themselves. We can blame the government, but if the people do not fundamentally believe in change, then what's the use?
  3. Find honest local heroes. Who are these people? They are doing it without the money and doing it better. Make friends with them. Get know them. Walk in their shoes. Let them open your eyes. You help them in whatever sustainable way.
  4. The rest you'll find in books and in long, long documents from the UN written by very smart people.
The principles above are not really new but have been becoming more and more clear to me the past few days as I've been reflecting on my last 10 years in South Asia and visiting China.

So really, how many billionaires does it take to feed a child? Well, someone could account for a country's number of billionaires and correlate it to their Child Development Index, deriving a complicated algorithm. But while that's happening, I think I'll sneak out and go figure out a way to help some local heroes that I know.

What do you think is needed to change a nation's Child Development Index?

Monday, July 9, 2012

Asian medicine + Good microbes = “Natural” food

Fresh "natural" greens on the farm

Neither the people of China nor my mother are known for eating organic foods, but while I was visiting my mother in China she laid out a beautiful spread of leafy greens, pronouncing with a smile, “It’s organic.” Impressed by my mom’s sudden food evolution, I asked her where she found such great leafy organic greens in the middle of China. Her friends had apparently started a farming project. It finally started to be productive, and they had just opened up a small shop in the city.

Unsure of what they meant by “organic” here and why they had started such a project, I went to check it out. I can say, though not a huge farm, I was happily charmed by their efforts. When we arrived, they laid out a lunch prepared from the produce of the farm. We sat on the floor and our host waved his hand over the food, saying, “This is all natural” … and it was all delicious.

After lunch, they took us around the farm. The first noticeable thing when entering the chicken area was that the usual acrid chicken coop smell was quite faint. “It’s all because of the microorganisms,” a friend explained. On a normal Western-style farm, there’s a force field of the acerbic fecal odor within a certain diameter of a chicken coop. However, here we were standing in the middle of all the chickens, literally pecking at our feet, without notice of any excrement around us. This was due to the ground being one-foot deep of microbe-enhanced mulch. The microorganisms were harvested from the nearby area, ensuring that local microbes were utilized which could thrive in the local environment to break down waste and release needed nutrients.

Chicks on the farm

We were also taken to a naturally cool storage area under the ground where the fertilizers were kept. The fertilizer ingredients listed like natural Chinese herbal medicine, making it sustainable locally while being free from petrol-based chemicals. For minimizing pests, methods included using a pepper concoction and applying tobacco leaves.

This small project began with training in what is called “natural farming.” Ten local families invested into the project. As with many more “natural” ventures, the process can seem lengthy, especially as this kind of natural fertilizer is not available on the market but has to be mixed by hand and the microorganisms need to be kept at certain temperatures. It has been difficult to keep farmers convinced of the long-term benefits of not using chemical-based products. My friend’s father who works in the USDA has had similar issues with US farmers not being convinced of “no till” farming. However, the project leader feels like the farmers are 80% convinced that natural farming is better than standard Western-style farming.

Something that would convince the farmers even more is finding the right market. They are still trying to discover better products. They recently found one off-beat leafy green that quickly sold out in the shop and they were trying to figure out the best way to grow it. Be it due to trendiness or for the simple need for safe food and a clean environment, the domestic Chinese market for organic and more natural food is growing.

Since the 1990s China has been regulating what they call “Green Food” and it has been a major grower of organic food since 2006, at least for the international market. Organic food’s domestic popularity was seen last year when Walmart China was reprimanded for selling 14.4 tons of mislabeled “organic” pork. So it seems that the people want greener and safer food, but the issue is about labeling and government regulation. I can tell you from personal experience how tough it was to tell even in the most upmarket shopping centers which clothes and shoes were real and which ones were knock offs. To regulate farms in far-off villages would be an even bigger chore.

However in the end, China seems to be making steps toward a safer, more sustainable, and tastier future for all.


Saturday, February 4, 2012

Rays of Light for 2012: India Advancing Beyond “Meh”

photo from PNike on Flikr

“Meh” is an expression I used in my last blog. On 22 May 2007, “meh” was the Urban Word of the Day and the Urban Dictionary defines it as:
Indifference; to be used when one simply does not care.
A: What do you want for dinner?
B: Meh. 
Hindi has similar terms: “Kya karen?” (What to do?) and “chalta hai” (it happens). “Chalta hai” is actually an attitude, essentially meaning: Things happen and we can’t do anything about it. This was the attitude I labeled on India about environmental issues in my last blog, however that doesn't present the whole picture.

Here are some recent advances that illustrate India’s environmental silver lining.

Report #1: India is the world leader in green light. Really? Yes. (Kind of.) Well first, the “yes” part. According to a Bloomberg study, India was number one in clean energy investment in 2011 at 10.3 billion USD. Yes, number one. This is a 52% increase from the year before, accounting for 4% of the world investment in clean energy in 2011. At this rate India will exceed its 11th five-year plan target for 12.4GW renewable energy by 2012. This is actually amazing when considering the globe's recent track record for keeping to emissions targets, putting lofty climate change goals into the international paper shredder. So India’s green light is not only on but leading the way.

Now for the “kind of” part. The National Solar Mission planned to equally distribute solar projects among different companies to promote competition and mitigate pricing. However according to the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), it seems like that isn’t what happened. One company, LANCO, may have set up front companies to get almost a quarter of the solar energy deal. What the government will do next is yet to be seen. Let’s again look at the silver lining...

Report #2: The Environmental Performance Index (EPI) report may have been bad, but India’s environmental trends were… better. The Yale-Columbia world study ranking 132 countries, putting India 8th from the bottom, ranked India a bit differently in an evaluation tool called Trends EPI. This index pulls India out of the bottom ten, helping it climb past China, Russia and even Costa Rica. Trends EPI ranks a country’s improvement in environmental performance over the last decade. Now to make it fair, for places like Costa Rica (EPI Rank #5), Switzerland (EPI #1) and Norway (EPI #3) which have gone down to lower than eighty in Trends EPI, it is difficult for them to improve more than they already have. So in summary, though India is considered a lower performer, overall environmentally it’s improving.

Graph from the Yale-Columbia EPI study, showing India at lower performance but improving
Image from epi.yale.edu

Report #3: The reporters. Be it through blogs, news columns, or campaigning on the streets, it’s encouraging and humbling to see those speaking out for society and the environment. It was the CSE that reported about India drowning in excreta, it was the Food Safety Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) that conducted the survey which found adulterated milk, and it was the Naandi Foundation’s report which put the issue of child malnutrition back into the limelight.

So I guess in a sense this an apology for the last blog to those working hard to push India and the world uphill toward a greener, fairer and more sustainable space, to those for whom the word “meh” is not even in their working vocabulary.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

31 Days and Drowning: Bracing for Environmental Cardiac Arrest

The first 31 days of 2012 have not been good for India. Report #1: India is drowning in its own sewage. Report #2: 42% of children under 5 are considered malnourished. Report #3: 68% of the nation’s milk is considered adulterated. And this last week the final blow, report #4: India has the most toxic air in the world. If this was a health report, the nation may anticipate cardiac arrest by summer.

Actually this last report is part of a greater report on the world’s environmental performance index or EPI. “Environmental performance index” sounds more like a report card, and actually it is a global environmental mark sheet, evaluating the overall environmental health and ecological status of 132 countries. And overall India ranks 8th… from the bottom and, as stated above, last in terms of air quality. So talk about getting hit while you’re already down. Why yet another blow at the start of 2012? Can India take multiple global pies in the face? Is this a national wakeup call or maybe just another toss in the hat with hardly a… “meh”?

graphic from thehindu.com

Well, all reports come with their spin. Take #1: Excreta in India’s rivers is nothing new and for multiple reasons this scientific fact does not seem to phase many people. I’ve personally interviewed many people and especially in conservative communities along the Ganges River. People readily embrace the science as well as drink the water. One boatman told me, “When I’m thirsty I just push away the garbage and take a drink.” This may seem like a shock to some people, but it’s not out of the ordinary for people to rebel against environmental science. Look at Americans and climate change.

Take #2: 42% of malnutrition is probably lower than before; it’s just that politicians are now making a case of it. In fact the EPI shows that India is improving in areas such as environmental health, though presently it is still not up to acceptable standards. The EPI report confirms a correlation between increased EPI and level of development. This may be due to improved health overall of people in developed nations. And in developing nations like India, though air pollution can reach up to atrocious levels, it is access to advanced medicines and treatment that keep the population alive.

Take #3: About milk… same thing… nothing new. Before this report came out, I saw a milkman come to my building, take a hose from my building’s faucet, stick it into his large metal milk container and fill it up half way full, effectively diluting his milk to a full container. This was all in broad daylight. Nothing new. Bihar which had 100% adulteration called the report false, while Delhi emphasized the fact that their milk was adulterated but not necessarily harmful. I don’t know what to do -- either laugh or cry.

And now to the final blow #4 about the EPI report: My final, sad and pessimistic conclusion is that it’s going to result in… “meh”, meaning not much public or even political outcry. I mean, is it a surprise? And even if it is, what can you do about it? (Note the attitude.)

And so I ask, “What’s all this mess about anyway? Why are we here?” Is it the corruption and useless politians? Is it neo-colonialism from America? Is it the World Bank? Is it over population? Is it the perceptual disconnect between scientific and religious understandings? Is it a poverty mentality of hopelessness? Is it just the growing pains of development we all need to go through? Is it all of the above?

Who knows? Who actually knows? No one, really. I mean, organizations throw billions in multiple directions and still (1) foul rivers, (2) malnutrition, (3) unsafe food and (4) toxic air. Still maybe it’s not an issue of things getting worse. Actually it may be just that all that we hear is the bad stuff. This leads me to think about Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize winner. Somehow she saw the nexus between land, water, food and the poor and put herself in the middle of that storm and calmed it down. I have doubts that she was a perfect messiah, but one thing that I can’t say about her -- she never said, “Meh.” And for that, I salute her.




Also see the life of Wangari Maathai in this video: Featured Video: Wangari Maathai

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Mother Nuclear? :: India and Sustainable Energy


(Source: ndtv.com)
Last July, South Korea signed a nuclear deal with India. For me, this deal encapsulates so many issues I’m concerned about. Living in India, I see that the energy issue is huge in terms of sustainable development for this country and the poor to middle class communities of this nation.

Just since morning today, the power has turned off for hours at a time. I was helping a friend with his user settings on his computer and the lights went out. I told him, “Sorry yaar, I’m not sure what’s going to happen when the lights come on. You may not be able to find your files!” What’s the use of the emerging IT India if there’s no electricity to run computers?

Some of the lower middle class business families depend on electricity for income. At times a whole freezer’s worth of ice-cream is gone. Even poorer than them are the ice-cream men who go around with carts, selling 10 to 50 cent ice-creams. If they don’t charge up their ice-cream stall all night, then no income for the day.

The UN has declared this year (2012) as the Year of Sustainable Energy For All. So my question is: Is nuclear the right solution as a sustainable energy source to develop the poor and middle class of this nation?

In the 1990s in college I wrote a paper on the relationship between nuclear weapons and public health. At that time, it seemed like nuclear power was case closed for environmentalists. Greenpeace still vehemently opposes it.

I slept on it for some time and only woke up to it again during the Obama presidential debate when this seemingly environmentally-friendly presidential candidate came out pro-nuclear with roaring applause on TV. So what, I thought, is nuclear now environmentally friendly?

Apparently environmentalists are divided. Prominent environmentalists do not agree on the cost-benefits of nuclear. Some say nuclear is even more eco-friendly than wind and solar. God forbid! While some highlight that the potential of nuclear disaster via meltdown, weapons proliferation, fuel and waste transport, etc. etc. etc. is too risky, leading to mass amounts of death and destruction… plus not being very eco-friendly. (Very insightful TED Debate.)



What the question boils down to for me is: Is nuclear energy good for India environmentally, socially and economically? These three areas are the circle trinity of sustainable development, and where these three merge is the lovely (and seemingly imaginative) epicenter of the perfect development scenario. So does nuclear power end up in that sweet jelly donut center for India? Or to be more culturally appropriate: Does it land in the center of its spicy samosa?

Well, what I haven’t really highlighted yet is the “social” aspect of it. What do the people want? At present, the largest nuclear power plant in the world is planned to be built in India in a village called Jaitapur. Do the people want this nuclear plant in their backyard? No way. And after the Japan nuclear crisis, the outcry has gotten even louder. About 1 in 4 Indians oppose nuclear power; however this is still less than the global average of 1 in 3 after the Japan incident.

The village still has many concerns. After the gas leak tragedy in Bhopal which released neurotoxic gases into poor communities, many years in waiting the victims were compensated with pittance. A victim told me, “People shouted that the gas was coming! I suddenly fell down and it was like I couldn’t control myself.” Truth be told, the government is not known for its ability to regulate and manage high risk industries, let alone an ability to properly compensate victims of such tragedies. And this is what the people are afraid of. And one more thing, this new world’s largest nuclear plant is set to be built in a Zone 4 high damage risk earthquake zone. Does that sound safe to you? (Photos of the village: http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2011/04/12/business/energy-environment/NUKE.html)

So let’s break it down. Can nuclear power be considered sustainable energy for India? Economically… I think so. Environmentally… the environmental jury is still out. Socially, hmm… sounds like no one wants a potential nuclear bomb in their backyard. Plus, particularly in hydroelectric dams, many times the local people do not benefit from the electricity produced from these things. It all goes to big cities or even exported to richer nations. So they get all the pollution with little to no benefit of energy.

As I was concluding this blog, I looked at a website about saving the Ganges from dams and at the bottom a comment caught my eye which was directed to those trying to stop dam building: “You are the real enemies of this country. You won't let the nation progress. (Avaneesh Kaushik)”

And here we are, the perfect tension between development and sustainability. One side saying (as the top of the dam website says): “Save India! Save Ganga! Save Heritage!” The other side saying: “Save India! Build Dams! Save Progress!” (as Kaushik implies on the bottom of the website). So is “sustainable development” feasible?

Maybe we aren’t using the right models to think about development and sustainability. Maybe we’re not asking the right questions. I mean, should we even be requiring so much energy in the first place? Or am I asking an even more insurmountable question?

Note: Nuclear power will grow despite Japan disaster...  Australia, Austria, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, Portugal, Israel, Malaysia, New Zealand, and Norway oppose nuclear power while Germany and Switzerland are phasing out nuclear power. US, France, Japan, Germany, Russia and S Korea put out the most nuclear power. India is in the top 15 countries for nuclear power output, more than China.