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

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

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