Thursday, June 16, 2011


For nearly two years, I've been writing on the environment, economics and outrage every week, at least twice a week. At first it was a struggle to find new topics, but now I think I could write a post a day, if I had the time--once you get started, you realize 'green' touches every aspect of our lives.

I've had a wonderful time and I've learned a lot about what there is to worry about, and a little about what we might do to improve the bad situation we have inherited and made. But now other obligations, commitments and interests are calling. It's time for me to take a break, a sabbatical, a chutti.

Though I won't be cooking up any essays at the dhaba for a while, I will open the place up for guest chefs. The Green Light Dhaba is a pretty good blog machine, and it has consistent readership. If you have something green and interesting that you want to share, look here for what we are interested in and how to contact us. 

And if you are new here and want to learn more about green issues in India in particular, take some time to look through the pages at the top of the dhaba. We've published close to 250 posts and and many more links to other information and resources.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Remembering Shanno Khatun and the need for non-violent schools

I've taken the past couple of weeks off to visit my Mrs. Batti's side of the family and to think about the future of the Dhaba. During that time, all kinds of corruption and abuse of power have been in the news-- a telecom minister stealing phone lines for his brother's business, a religious figure threatening to train thousands of 'nationalist' (read: RSS) youth in how to beat up the police , and of course the police tear gassing thousands of peaceful protesters. Where to start? I'm not even going to try.  Instead, I'm going to write about a story that wasn't in the news these past few weeks. 

Two years have passed since eleven year old Shanno Khatun died in an MCD school after allegedly being abused by her teacher. A month or two back, a blogger I respect suggested I write about the case, and the fact that it seemed to be going no place fast. I agreed, but found it hard to know where to start. 

For those who don't recall the details of the story, here's an excerpt from 2009 article in the Times of India:
Shanno was allegedly made to stand out in the sun for more than an hour after she failed to recite the English alphabets properly. The teacher had allegedly made her squat like a hen and put bricks on her shoulders. The girl had started vomiting and was rushed to a hospital, where she slipped into a coma and died two days later. 
Here's something from a piece in Time:
[Shanno's father, Ayub Khan] gets emotional as he describes Shanno's last hours. "She kept on asking for water but the teacher ignored her," Ayub describes what he says as his daughter's suffering. Her two sisters, Saima and Sehnaz, say that Shanno pleaded with the teacher that she would learn her alphabet properly after lunch, but was ignored. (The parents of several other children at the same school say their children describe the incident in similar terms.) Shanno's sisters Saima and Sehnaz then ran to get their mother. "We thought our sister was dead," Saima said. When their mother arrived, she found Shanno lying on the ground, Khan says, and by the time Shanno was taken home she had slipped into a coma. He breaks down while relating Shanno's last words to her mother: "I never want to go to school again." Shanno died the next day, on April 17. 
Shanno's teacher denied any wrong doing.  In July, 2009, the police found that Shanno died of epilepsy, though there was a dissenting opinion given by the Delhi Commission for the Protection of Child Rights.  Shanno's parents have denied she even had epilepsy. Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy is something that very rarely happens in childhood; it is typically something adults with severe epilepsy worry about. Children, on the other hand, are more vulnerable than adults to heat stroke, especially in the kind of weather we find during April in Delhi. . 

In May, the Delhi High Court finally took up the matter, demanding, among other things, that the Delhi government and MCD explain why corporal punishment is widespread, in spite of it being banned. Where it will go from here, I don't know. I'm neither a legal expert nor a doctor. I do hope justice is done in this case, because to deny justice to the weakest among us sends a powerfully toxic message. 

But I also hope a larger point is not lost in the heat generated by this case. Corporal punishment in schools is not bad only because it can be, on rare occasions, deadly. It's bad because in almost every case, it undermines learning. 

A year after Shanno's teacher was cleared, Outlook ran this piece by an MCD school teacher who argued that, "a slap or two doesn't hurt." It is a defense of corporal punishment, but you can tell it is written by someone who is conflicted about the issue, because there is frustration and ambivalence throughout:
...the children who come to study here are from an economic strata where the parents double up as domestic help or daily-wage labourers. And they have only one desire—to make their children literate...We occasionally have to slap them so that they can understand the importance of coming to school on time. It is for their welfare that we have to resort to such disciplinary measures, otherwise they won’t study at all. I know slapping is not a solution, but how else do you ensure some discipline in their lives?
The job of the MCD teacher, the job of our schools in general, is extraordinarily difficult.  But this teacher is right about one thing: slapping is not a solution. If we are only able to motivate children to come to school on time by slapping them, then I suggest we agree to let them come late until teachers, parents, and community members can collectively think of an approach that does not require violence.

I know many of us can point to an effective teacher who resorted to the occasional slap. But in almost every case, I would guess that the teacher was actually effective for reasons other than violence. Knowledge, and the desire and ability to think, are simply not things we can beat into children. Respect nurtures learning and thinking; fear spoils it. 

No slapping allowed!
How to make our schools truly effective will take a lot of thinking and a lot of discussion--and probably a lot more resources. It will be worth the effort, because the environmental crisis looming in India--falling water tables-rising fuel prices-deteriorating farmland-changing climate and extreme weather--could easily lead to widespread famine and social breakdown if we do not see some very impressive problem solving over the next few generations. 

We need to train a generation of students--in all our our schools--who know how to think well and understand the problems we all face. It won't be easy. But making real the courts' ban on violence in our schools is a good place to start.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

More lessons from the Commonwealth Games

Locking up Suresh Kalmadi may be satisfying, but it doesn't fix what was wrong with the CWG

Former Commonwealth Game Head Suresh Kalmadi has spent a lot of time in jail lately.. It's tempting to think that justice is finally being done. And maybe it is--to a degree. After all, corruption was one of the things that we all complained about during the CWG.  It's good to see some kind of action being taken, even if it is after the fact.

But before we revise our thinking about the CWG to something like 'all's well that ends well,'  we should take a walk through CP. It's a mess because the work wasn't properly done  and now those streets need to be dug up so the job can be finished.  

CP reminds us that the corruption we saw during the CWG was not just about expensive rolls of toilet paper; it was about infrastructure that wasn't built right. Most of those problems won't surface for years.

Take a walk along your local nallah, drink unfiltered DJB water for a week, or visit your local government school, and you'll be reminded that the CWG was also about missed opportunities. We have a lot of new flyovers and stadiums in Delhi. But millions of Delhi residents still don't get reliable, safe drinking water. We may be covering a few more drains, but the water running through them and into the Yamuna is still poisonous. We can't enforce child labour laws effectively, and middle class residents continue to avoid sending their children to government schools. 

Fixing our water delivery system, cleaning our river, taking care of our children properly would all take crores and crores of rupees--some things just cost money. We chose not to do those things so that we could have a World Class Sporting Event. In and of itself, that choice was not literally corrupt, but it was unethical, and it will cost us dearly in the long run. Let's hope we don't make the same mistake again.

For more on this, read our CWG page.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The (not so) surprising truth about what motivates us

Why do we do the things we do? Corporate ideologists tell us we are motivated by money and the stuff it buys. And too often we believe them. That's why we have green ambassadors like Priyanka Chopra giving out cash prizes to motivate green activists. 

The problem with the corporate understanding of the world is that it leads us down an unsustainable road. We'll eat up our land and the people who live on it, until there is nothing left. What happens then is ugly--and probably violent. At her book launch last Friday, Arundhati Roy argued that since since the Indian state and corporations have no other countries to colonize, they have turned inward and made colonies out of the interior--it's a form of self-cannibalism. And in some cases, violence is met with violence. It's not a new argument, but she makes it in a compelling manner. By the way, P. Sainath understands this question from a different angle, but he sees a similar dynamic.

That's all very depressing, but it leaves us to wonder: is there any hope? Is there a way the world could change which does require the barrel of a gun to impose it? When it comes to the ground realities we face, I just don't know. And this short essay is not going to try to get into speculation about how change might or might not happen. I'll just say that I take it for granted that any change will require a massive movement of people and a rejection of the idea that people are motivated primarily by the drive to get money and stuff. (It will also, by the way, require the rejection of the idea--historically favoured by some on the left--that people are motivated by being told what to do!)

I've always believed that once people have achieved enough to insure their survival, that other factors come into play. I think people do things because we care about power, autonomy, and the good feeling we get when we master something. I think we do things because love and belonging feel good--that's where duty comes in, by the way. I think we do things because we like to have fun. Sure, new things are fun to have--and having new stuff may make us feel powerful. But there have always been sustainable ways to feel powerful, loved or to have fun in the world; people were basically the same social animals we are today before we had a hyper-consumer culture, and we can go back to that way of being more easily than we think. 

It turns out I'm not the only one who think this. There are even some corporate types who have realized that if they want to motivate people, money is not necessarily the best way. This animated video does not really get into the way a sustainable world might look. But it does explain why people might well enjoy living in one. Do watch it. It will give you something to think about.

Video from KarmaTube

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Really Stupid Greenwash: Budweiser's grow a beard, save water campaign

We use 1,500 gallons of water  to make 
one 32 gallon barrel of beer!
The American beer company Anheuser-Busch, makers of Budweiser, is urging American men to grow a beard between now and World Environmental Day on June 5. According to Budweiser, the average American man uses 5 gallons (almost 20 litres) of water each time he shaves. They estimate that their 'grow a beard campaign' can save a million gallons of water.

I first heard of this campaign as an advertisement on Onion News Network. A husky American guy was out fishing in a motor powered boat, urging men to stop shaving. I thought it was a joke, but it's not--you can read about it here.  You can pledge your support on the Budweiser facebook page.

This is the worst kind of green wash, because it makes people believe they are doing something, when they are not. Sure we need to save water. And yes, shaving does require water. But so do a lot of things in life that we do every day. Why not stop doing them? 

When he heard of this campaign, my 11 year old sun suggested that American men give up bathing and washing their clothes from now until June 5. That would be smelly, but it would certainly save more water than not shaving. Alternatively, since it takes a huge amount of water to grow and process food, American men could give up eating potato chips for the next few weeks--that would be healthier--and I'll bet it would save a lot of water. Really committed men could simply go on a three week fast. (Sorry, but you'll die if you actually stop drinking water, so I don't recommend that, though it would save a lot of water...). 

The problem is that real change--the kind of change the planet needs--will require more than feel good symbolic steps. We need to change the way we live--every day. Shave, if you want, but don't use 19 litres of water when you do it--simply turn off the tap between strokes. Take a bucket bath. Use the water you rinse your clothes with to wash the next load--that kind of thing. 

Even more important, we need to make some big changes in things that we don't often think about when we think about water. Like the food we eat. Long grain rice, for example, uses much, much more water than traditional millets. Actually, wheat uses a lot of water also. Far more water is used by food production than by toilets and bathing. And then you have our modern consumer society. Those blue jeans you are wearing? They took 6800 litres to make; an automobile takes nearly 1,50,000 litres to produce! (Figures at Treehugger; use this site to convert gallons to litres).

The purveyors of greenwash don't want you to change the things that matter, because that would mean you might consume less. They know many people around the world are profoundly worried about the way things are going. They want to help ease our minds; otherwise we might use our minds to figure out a new way to live.

By the way: the makers of Budweiser beer know that a 32 gallon barrel of beer takes 1,500 gallons of water to make (see that Treehugger link for the details). In other words, if you give up one 330 ml Budweiser, so save 15 litres of water--or just about 4 gallons, which is almost as much as you'll save by not shaving. And if you forgo a big 650 ml bottle of beer, well, you've practically saved the world!