Saturday, October 31, 2009

Saturday Special: Star Power, Trash, Poetry, and the Usual Leftovers

Some of you may have heard the rumor, started on Facebook, I think, that I've been hanging out with the likes of Ranbir Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra, Saif Ali Khan, and Rahul Gandhi. Unfortunately, this is simply not true. At least not yet; I mean, who knows what the future might hold?

You see we were all featured in the October 16th issue of Yuva ("the magazine for young India"). And I've been getting missed calls from a few unknown numbers lately, so who knows...(if that's you Saif, don't hang up so fast, yaar; my balance is low, otherwise, I'd call you back for sure!)

Seriously, though, Yuva has been around for many, many years, but it is looking glossier and hipper than ever. I'm there because Supriya Nair, who writes a regular column on blogging for Yuva, saw the Green Light Dhaba and decided to interview me. I was very excited of course, but I played it cool, I think. We talked about the Green Light Dhaba, the Indian Youth Climate Network's website, and why inflation is an environmental issue.

Here's an excerpt from Supriya Nair's introduction to the interview:

I'm always looking for strong, eloquent voices in the political blogosphere and its outlying areas. And HB's mix of 'environmentalism, economics and outrage every Tuesday and Thursday' hit the spot for a number of reasons. I see a fair bit of eco-consciousness among people of my generation and younger, but their concerns and projects haven't translated into a space on the Internet yet. And while political anger always finds its way online in sporadic bursts of emotion, the entrance of a balanced, structured (there's something so reassuring about 'every Tuesday and Thursday') new voice editorialising issues issues that we're all deeply interested in seemed like an event to celebrate.

That's enough to make any green light turn red! If you want to read the actual interview, you'll have to run out and buy a copy of Yuva soon. (It's the one with Ranbir Kapoor on the cover; I'm pretty sure I was a close second for that honour, but I'm not bothered, because I'm not in this for the fame. And Ranbir
is looking very, very sharp in that suit!)

OK, don't leave before checking out the links below.

Snacks Menu

More Trash and Junk

  • Midway: What does trash do to Albatross chicks who live on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean? These photos will make your jaw drop. I know I ran it last week, but I'm putting it up again, because you have to see it!
  • "Wonderland" of junk over at The Plum Tree: Legend says that if you know how to build a truck, you can get all the parts required to build it in the shops on Bangalore's Siddiah road. Go and see.
From here and there

Leftovers:the Best of the Dhaba, Reheated

Just Last Week:

What's Hot:

Funnier than the Rest:

How the World Works, Simply:

If that's not enough for you, you can check out our posts on King Fisher beer, Shashi Tharoor, ceiling fans, and a whole lot of other stuff over at!

We hope to see you back here next week.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Floating Poison: The Platinum II is only a small part of a very dirty problem

On Tuesday, we looked at the trouble with imported trash. We argued that importing recyclable stuff like paper (or even rubber gloves and condoms) is not the problem it is often made out to be. But we don’t need to import everyday trash disguised as recyclable paper; we’ve got plenty of junk filling our landfills already. And we certainly don’t need e-waste, which is full of deadly poison.

Unfortunately, India doesn’t just import shiploads of trash; we import the ships themselves, once they become trash. Shipbreaking has been in the news lately, thanks to Tehlka and others, who have reported that a toxic, and possibly damaged, ship is awaiting permission to be broken at Alang, Gujarat.

The Platinum II is an American cruise liner loaded with unusually large amounts of toxic chemicals and asbestos. Its name was changed recently, apparently to avoid scrutiny; the original owners have already run afoul of the American authorities for trying to illegally export PCP's. Even by the dirty standards of a dirty industry, this ship is a bad deal. The authorities know about it; the only question is whether they will do the needful and send this floating bucket of poison back where it belongs. In fact, This week, IBN reports that the government's "expert team" has given the ship a clean chit, though no action has been taken by the environmental ministry as of this writing.

The case of
The Platinum II looks fairly straightforward: Environmental Minister Jairam Ramesh should send it back to the US, where they have shipyards equipped to handle this kind of thing.

But what about the industry as a whole? Shipbreaking is nothing new, of course. For as long as there have been ships to scrap, people have been salvaging what they could from them. Until a few decades ago, ships were typically scrapped where they were built. In the 1970’s, Western shipyards began sending this work to Korea and Taiwan. By the 1980’s, even those countries had had enough, so the industry started coming our way.

This happened because shipbreaking is such a dirty business that almost no one is willing to do it. To take apart a ship safely often costs much more than the value of the scrap metal recovered. Currently, most shipbreaking is done right here in South Asia because Pakistan, Bangladesh and India do not strictly enforce environmental laws, and we have a supply of workers desperate enough to take apart poisonous ships with minimal equipment. (There are some amazing photos of here if you have a moment to look. Those interested in learning more can check out the NGO Platform on Shipbreaking. You can also read this Pulitzer Prize winning series from 1998 or this article, by William Langewiesche which originally appeared in the August, 2000 issue of the
Atlantic Monthly.)

Short of ending international trade (which may happen sooner than we think, but which is not the subject of this post), there is really no way to avoid doing the dirty work of taking old ships apart. We can't dump them at sea (well, actually we can, but this is extraordinarily bad for marine life.) Besides, old ships do contain a lot of metal that we need to recycle. This does does not mean shipbreakers should be free to operate in a way that unnecessarily poisons our land or our people. For one thing, the practice of driving old ships up onto the beach and cutting them apart by hand is a disaster for the environment and the people doing the work. It should be stopped.

That obvious, but a lot of people go to long lengths to explain why it is OK to poison our land and our people--and otherwise reasonable Westerners sometimes find these arguments convincing. For example, in the Atlantic Monthly article cited above, William Langewiesche quotes one shipbreaking businessman as saying, "The question I want to ask the environmentalists is if you should want to die first of starvation or pollution." This argument seems compelling at first glance, and Langewiesche gives it some credence. But at it's core, it is rotten.

Would we say yes to the heroin trade if it generated a few jobs? What about child prostitution? Industries that are poison need to be cleaned up-- or if that's not possible-- banned from our shores. It's that simple. And let's not kid ourselves; shipbreaking and trash disposal may be risky from a business point of view, but these businesses are not charities: like all businesses, their job is to make money. If they cannot make money safely from breaking ships, they need to invest their money elsewhere. That's where environmental regulation and enforcement can help companies do the right thing.

When you really get down to it, this is such a problem because of our hunger for cheap stuff. The shipping industry runs on such slim margins because world wide shipping rates are very low. Import-export companies demand this. Shipping companies need to sell their old ships for scrap to whoever will buy them, or they risk going under themselves. The poorly regulated market's solution to this has been a disaster; in the end, poor workers and our beaches subsidize cheap imports, the world over.

Some kind of international solution is required. Perhaps more regulation is the answer. Perhaps a "shipbreaking duty" should be levied on all goods shipped from one country to another, with the proceeds going to build green shipbreaking yards. We know how to do this, it's just a matter of finding the needed political will and money.

Governments hesitate to solve this problem, because a real solution would almost mean that consumers in New York, South Delhi, and everywhere in between would see the cost of our imported goods rise. That would take some getting used to, but in the end, it would encourage local production and more environmentally sustainable consumption patterns. Besides, it's the right thing to do. How can we ask working people in Gujarat to take apart ships loaded with poison so we can save a few bucks at the mall?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Trouble with Trash (It's not the imported condoms we should be worrying about)

This week, we are talking trash about trash!

Today, we'll look at Indian companies' growing appetite for imported trash, and the problems this hunger causes.
Some credit for all this trash talk goes to the October 24th issue of Tehelka, where you will find a pair of interesting articles on the subject. We'll save the story about toxic ships for Thursday; today we'll start with Tehelka's "exclusive": "Dumped--Why do we buy the world's trash?" Unfortunately, this article seems so hell bent on finding "an angle that will sell" that it ends up doing a sloppy job of covering a very important story.

The magazine
opens with the scandalous-sounding idea that one Indian company is importing used condoms of all things. Apparently, there is good money to be made in turning surgical gloves into PVC doors and other rubber products. But a South Indian company called Excel has allegedly discovered that you can do much the same thing using recycled condoms. Excel has run afoul of local authorities for not properly reporting these imports. Tehelka's sources suggest this has been going on for some time; Excel is known locally as "the company that deals in used condoms." Tehelka quotes a local source as saying, "you find them [condoms] strewn all over their premises. The stench is unbearable."

This sounds disgusting. But, in fact, it is highly unlikely that Excel's imported condoms were
used in the way implied by this article; it is much more likely that they were simply rejected in the manufacturing process because they were flawed. You see, unlike surgical gloves, which hospitals world-wide collect for disposal (and potentially for recycling), no one anywhere has a separate section in their recycling bins for "used condoms." In fact, according to this American expert, most people either throw their used condoms in their neighborhood park for little kids to find, or (if they have any sense of decency at all) simply wrap them in a tissue and throw them in the trash, making it almost certain they will end up in a landfill, not in a load of recycling bound for India or China.

In fact, for the past two years, recycled condoms have been the subject of at least one urban legend circulating on the web. It's even been picked up by some news outlets who don't check their facts well (careful,
Tehelka, or this could be you!) According to this legend, Chinese factories are turning used condoms into hair bands. Some reports even cite a "local dermatologist" who claims you claim you can get AIDS from wearing these hairbands. This sounds scary, except for the fact that you cannot even get AIDS from sitting on a western style toilet seat, much less from contact with a condom that has been shipped around the world and reprocessed into a hairband! Month-old, used condoms are disgusting, but your daughter would not get a sexually transmitted disease by wearing hair products made from them.

In any case, as I argued above, it is highly unlikely that anyone is collecting used condoms for recycling. Companies are almost certainly buying rejected (faulty but sanitary) condoms in bulk from condom companies who practice good quality control; in fact, there is probably a similar story behind the surgical gloves. Yes, these rejected gloves and condoms are most likely being reprocessed into many things, including hairbands and door frame parts. The urban legend-busters over here agree with me, by the way, and if that, along with your common sense, doesn't convince you, I'm not sure what will. Oh, and by the way, anyone who has spent anytime on a rubber farm knows that raw latex has an aroma that is unpleasant to the untrained nose; processed latex has an odour as well. Tehelka's local source is not lying when s/he says the condoms stink, but that doesn't mean they've been used.

Cracking down on a few loads of mis-declared condoms may be sexy, but it's not getting at the real problem. After spending far too much time trying to make a story about trash...trashy,
Tehelka gets around to making some important points about the real problem: in their quest for short term profits, Indian businesses are importing way too much trash from abroad. In addition to condoms and rubber gloves, shipping containers currently being detained by local authorities in Tamil Nadu contain a lot of other nasty stuff, including oil cans and metal waste soaked in oil. What's more, this material is being imported by companies ill equipped to deal with it safely. Now that's something to get upset about!

Tehelka goes on to report that India imports a huge amount of "waste paper"--16.8 lakh tonnes in 2005-2006 alone. Recycling paper products from the West has both advantages and disadvantages. Unfortunately, it seems, much of this "waste paper" is also mis-declared: it is just trash, plain and simple-- and it gets buried in our landfills and dumped on our farmlands. That's another thing to get upset about.

To make matters worse, government officials recently granted permission for a recycling plant that could handle up to 8,000 metric tonnes of imported e-waste.

E-waste contains small amounts of valuable substances, such as gold and platinum, so it is full of profit potential, as long as you don't have to follow strict environmental and safety standards. It is also very, very toxic; it contains lots of things like lead and arsenic that will poison people today and for years to come if not handled properly. Recycling and dumping e-waste is very difficult to do safely, which is why rich countries like to send it to poor countries where pesky things like environmental and health protections typically don't cause so much of a bother.

Today, I'm not going to make an argument about whether or not we should import recyclable paper or even recyclable gloves and condoms; that's a more complex question than it might seem. The activists that Tehelka talked to are probably right that companies are using their ability to import recyclable material as a cover for importing trash--which can be quite lucrative. On the other hand, done correctly, recycling generally does more good than harm. Should we put an end to that industry because we can't figure out how to pass and enforce laws to regulate it? I'm not so sure.

But we do need to understand that that
the trash that ends up in a landfill is almost always a dirty business, and we have no business importing it. It takes up farmland, it pollutes ground water, and in some cases it leaves poisons that will have long term affects on future generations. In the case of imported e-waste, the trace amounts of precious metals that might be recovered from it do not justify the cases of cancer and birth defects that it will surely cause. Let the West recycle their own used computers; we have plenty of our own deal with.

Perhaps the most compelling reason for the government to strictly ban the importation of trash is that we already have plenty waste of our own, and
we don't do a very good job of dealing with it safely. I'm not even going to give you a hyper link for this one, it's so obvious. How often do you see kudawallas wearing gloves and other safety equipment? What about the workers who clean blocked sewers and drains--sometimes by hand? Would you let your child swim in, much less drink from, your local river? What do you imagine happens to the mercury contained in the millions of florescent lights we use each year?

Is there any reason to believe we will do a better job with someone else's waste than we do with our own?

If all this talk about trash is makes you a little sick, good! We should be grateful that
Tehelka is covering the story at all. Too bad they buried it beneath a pile of relatively harmless condoms.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Saturday Special: Snacks and Leftovers

Welcome to the Green Light Dhaba. For those of you who are new, we are Delhi's only "virtual dhaba." We talk about the environment and the economy, and we try not to make interesting things boring!

If you like what you see, please consider becoming a regular reader. There are a couple of ways to do that: you can "subscribe" to our feed; or you can follow us using Google Friends Connect or Networked Blogs. As we like to say, subscriptions are free--which is a mighty good price, even for a dhaba! Links to all those things are over there on the left and down just a bit.

On Saturday's we serve snacks and leftovers. In the snacks section, you'll find short bits and links that we think you will like. If you have ideas for material we could use in this section, please do let us know. Much of what you see in the snacks menu comes directly from readers like you! This week the menu is short, but I promise it won't disappoint.

In the leftover section, we have the best of the
Green Light Dhaba, for those of you who might not have seen it all.

In case you missed it in Thursday's post, today (Saturday) is International Day of Climate Action. For events in India, go here. For events elsewhere in the world, go here! It's very important to send a strong message on this issue.

Snacks Menu

Trash and More Trash

Next week, we will look at the trouble with other people's trash, including used condoms and ships that are ready for the scrap yard. Here's a sneak preview at some links related to that story.
  • Midway: What does trash do to Albatross chicks who live on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean? These photos will make your jaw drop.
  • End of the Line: A photo essay on the shipbreaking industry in Bangladesh. From Foreign Policy.
  • Dumped: Tehelka takes a look at our hunger for other people's trash.
  • False Identity: Tehelka tells the story behind a huge tub of poison floating off our coast.

Leftovers:the Best of the Dhaba, Reheated

Just Last Week:
What's Hot:
Funnier than the Rest:
How the World Works, Simply:
If that's not enough for you, you can check out our posts on King Fisher beer, Shashi Tharoor, ceiling fans, and a whole lot of other stuff over at!

We hope to see you back here next week.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Delhi Malls: Green Light on the Road; also International Day of Climate Action

Welcome to the Green Light Dhaba. For those of you who are new, we are Delhi's only "virtual dhaba." We've been serving up thinking about the environment, economics and justice three times a week since we opened 5 weeks ago. If you like what you see, please consider becoming a regular reader. There are a couple of ways to do that: you can "subscribe" to our feed; or you can follow us using Google Friends Connect or Networked Blogs. In any case, subscriptions are free--which is a mighty good price, even for a dhaba! Links to all those things are over there on the left and down just a bit. If you have any questions, let me know and I'll go looking for answers; I'm new to all this, myself.

The Green Light Dhaba Goes on the Road

In the weeks leading up to Diwali, the kids and I did some research into Delhi malls. We found out a lot of interesting facts--like how much the woman selling the high-end designer handbags earns, and how much product she sells on a good day.

But I agreed to give the resulting post to Bhagwad, who is a regular here the dhaba. I like his blog, and I think you might also.

So if you want to learn all kinds of fascinating things about Delhi malls, including which mall has a Riot Control Vehicle permanently parked outside its gates; how much you will pay for a deck of cards in a crocodile leather case; and what one 9 year old has to say about Delhi's current urban development practices, then you have to go here! I hope you do follow that link; I don't think you will be disappointed.

Activism Alert
If you are concerned about Uranium Mining, the Nuclear Alliance of Anti-Nuclear Movements has an on-line petition up here. It calls on the President of India and others to limit new Uranium mining in India.

October 24 is International Day of Climate Action. Now is a good time to send a strong message to the leaders of the world that something needs to be done, fast. To find an event in India, try this link. It will take you to the Indian Youth Climate Network, which is doing a lot of great things. To find actions elsewhere in the world, go here, to

Remember, it's always good to call ahead. This weekend, the family and I headed out to one of the Stand Up and Take Action events in Delhi. But I had written down the wrong contact phone number, so instead of standing up against poverty, we ended up on Sir Syed Road between Batla House and Zakir Nagar, wandering aimlessling against poverty! In case you did not hear our voices that day, Mr. PM, here they are again: Garibi Hatao!

(And we didn't mean "begin to work on poverty, just as soon as we complete the Commonwealth Games Projects!")

OK, that's it for today. Don't forget to check out my guest post on mega malls here! It's got original pictures and everything!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

No About Face on Climate Negotiations; Yes to Indian Green--Cheap and Best

Environment minister Jairam Ramesh's letter to the PM arguing that India should abandon it's longstanding support of the G-77 group of developing nations and instead support the US position in climate change boggles the mind. Not surprisingly, the Congress Party leadership is distancing itself from this idea, but this does not mean it won't become policy.

Why would India be willing to give up a leadership role among developing countries on this issue? Why would we give up our claim to money and technology as compensation for the damage the West has done to our environment and people? Is it because the extreme weather events, such as the flooding and drought we have seen this year, have convinced our political leadership that there is an urgent need to get something done to prevent worse disasters from happening, even if doing so involves agreeing to enormous self-sacrifice? If only it were that simple, that noble.

The answer is a lot less flattering: our leadership thinks that by being sweet to the Americans at all times, we will get special treatment from Uncle Sam. Right now, Mr. Ramesh is thinking about that coveted permanent seat on the UN Security Council. The Times of India reports that this is just one of the "advantages" India hopes to get by changing it's stance. If past practice is any indicator, other advantages include weapons and nuclear technology.

Remember back in 2008, when the PM told American President GW Bush,"We deeply love you"? We all squirmed a little, regardless of where we were on the political spectrum. The thing is, we all know that Bush only agreed to the deal because he wanted to sell us a lot of American nuclear technology.

we argued earlier that, on balance, our nuclear weapons program is ill-conceived, however well-tested our bombs may be. We have also explained why we should pay less attention to high tech weapons and more attention to real issues of national security. Moreover, we are skeptical about nuclear power as a solution for our environmental problems--and we'll remain skeptical until we can figure out how to dispose of less toxic waste adequately (like CFL light bulbs, which contain mercury and should be recycled, not dumped.)

Certainly, India deserves a permanent seat on the UN Security council and all the respect that entails. But we will never gain that respect by constantly acting as America's lap dog.

Mr. Ramesh should be scolded and our climate negotiators should be given a clear mandate: of course, we are prepared to act ourselves in a sustainable way, because our futur
e depends on it; we expect help from the rich countries because they caused the problem in the first place; we expect the wealthy countries will do their share to make real change so as not to make a bad situation worse. These are not things that should be open to compromise. If we have to wait another year for a good agreement, then we'll have to wait. But a bad agreement will do no good at all.

Instead of looking to impress the Americans with our concessions, we should launch a surprise attack on them where they least expect it-- through new business initiative: Indian Green--Cheap and Best. I think we can all agree that it would be wonderful if we could sell some technology back to the Americans for a change. That's where the
Indian Green-- Cheap and Best campaign comes in. Yes, there are some things that we do better than anyone. We introduced this campaign a few weeks back with a piece on the humble ceiling fan. Now, let's look at evaporative cooling.

Water Coolers
Water coolers (also known "swamp coolers", "desert coolers" or just "evaporative coolers") are the first thing that comes to mind when we think of evaporative cooling. They use the power of evaporating water to give amazing comfort during the hot, dry months. Of course, if you live in a place where the humidity is high all the time, they won't work very well. But if you live anywhere with dry heat (think Delhi from April-June), then the water cooler will work wonders for you! Here in Delhi, even those people with AC in their house typically use the water cooler until the pre-monsoon humidity sets in.

Coolers are popular because they use 80 percent less electricity than an AC. Back when my family used an AC, we consumed 600-750 units (kwh) of electricity each month between April and August. Since we replaced our AC's with fans and water coolers three years ago, we have consumed an average of 300 units during those months. Now that's savings you can take to the bank! Of course during the wet months, a cooler is basically just a big fan, and we sweat a lot. (There will be no false advertising here at the dhaba.) But in Delhi, coolers work wonderfully well in April and May.

Coolers have another advantage from an environmental point of view: they contain no environmentally harmful gases.
Here you will find a wealth of information on this kind of cooling, including some very impressive mathematical equations relating to relative humidity! Please don't ask me to explain those in the comments, because I just can't do it.

I do know that water coolers are based on technology that is thousands of years old, and the Americans have used them for over a hundred years, especially in the Southwest. However, coolers are not widely used in many other parts of the US that could benefit from them. The same is true for Europe. As the earth warms, this market will increase!

While we are on the topic of evaporative cooling, it would be wrong to forget the humble matka. Because the clay is porous, matka's use the power of evaporation to cool your water without refrigeration, which means less opening and shutting of the fridge door. Also they are not lined with unhealthy plastic, and they look nice, too!

There is money to be made here. Water coolers and matkas: just two more examples of Indian Green--Cheap and Best!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Saturday Special: Snacks and Leftovers

Happy Diwali and welcome to The Green Light Dhaba, Delhi's only "virtual dhaba." We serve up fresh thinking on the environment, the economy, and justice every Tuesday and Thursday.

On Saturday's we serve
snacks and leftovers. In the snacks section, you'll find short bits and links that we just weren't able to work into the main menu over the past week. If you have ideas for material we could use in this section, please do let us know. Much of what you see in the snacks menu comes directly from readers like you! In the leftover section, we have the best of the Green Light Dhaba, for those of you who might not have seen it all.

Snacks Menu

Environmentally friendly Diwali

  • Celebrate an environmentally Safe Diwali: tips here.
  • The life and times of an Indian homemaker: post and a long reader discussion on Diwali and animals.
  • Live Mint told us last week how to part with a lakh or more for Diwali gifts that nobody with any taste wants. Ok, that may be unfair, but there is some really ugly stuff there: how about a Barbie Boom Box for your child? Only Rs. 4,199.
  • Someone at Live Mint must have felt guilty, for selling us all those Barby Boom Boxes, they ran a story about some really rich people who give to charity and other good causes at Diwali. (Arjun Sharma, the man featured in this story, is the director of this environmentally friendly place, by the way; does he really want you to stop shopping at Diwali?) To be fair, the print edition today has some great stories about organizations that really do good work. Start by reading this story about a girl from Deepalaya school.

Arts, Culture and Blogging
  • Best Blog Action Post: Bloggers all over the world wrote posts about climate change. Mostly I was underwhelmed, though I confess I only read a dozen or so. Many were full of "feel good"...feelings about making a difference and such. Word Junkie, on the other hand, put up a really detailed climate change wishlist. Then a day later, she followed it up with this piece on Genetically Modified Food and the Green Revolution. If she keeps this up, I'm just going to post links to her blog instead of writing three times a week!

Leftovers:the Best of the Dhaba, Reheated

Just Last Week:
What's Hot:
Funnier than the Rest:
How the World Works, Simply:
If that's not enough for you, you can check out our posts on King Fisher beer, Shashi Tharoor, ceiling fans, and a whole lot of other stuff over at!

We hope to see you back here next week.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Pedal Power: a Photo Essay

I got the idea for this photo essay while I was out snapping pictures to illustrate some of the ideas in Nagraj Adve's guest lecture, which we ran Tuesday. (I should warn you, dear reader, I am not a photographer or an artist of any kind. So a photo essay by me is really just some pictures which are bound to be full of the artistic equivalent of spelling errors and bad handwriting. But Diwali is rapidly approaching, and I somehow thought this would be easier than an old fashioned word essay.) As you may recall, Adve argues that India's low per capita carbon emissions mask an ugly reality: extremely poor people do not emit much carbon, "no matter how hard they might try." (Rest assured, our super-rich are doing their level best to compensate by consuming at or above western levels.)

Delhi presents many opportunities for photos that make Adve's point: men pedaling cycle rickshaws in the same frame as luxury vehicles; families sleeping on the footpaths outside high-end malls, etc.

For this essay, I decided to focus on human-powered cycle machines; in other words, cycles, cycle rickshaws, anything that runs when people turn pedals. Cycles are one of the most efficient machines around, and they are used all over the world, in rich countries and poor: cycle commuters, cycle messengers, police on cycles. In India, if we look, we will see human-powered cycle machines everywhere doing all sorts of things.

Unfortunately, in Delhi, few groups of people get less respect than cyclists. That is probably because in the minds of many who drive in this city, pedals=poverty. Ride a cycle on a main road, in rush hour traffic, anywhere in the city, and you will immediately understand this fact. Of course it goes without saying that operators of human-powered cycle machines are poorly paid. Given this reality, these photos can and should be read as an indictment of a system that is not working as it should work.

But what of the work itself? The more I looked, the more I began to see how wonderful these machines are; how extraordinary their operators are. The fact that we move so many people and goods with cycle technology is one of the reasons we have such low emissions--in spite of our mega-malls and super-sized vehicles. So these photos can also be read as a celebration of these green machines and the workers who operate them.

Of course it would be wrong to idealize this work: it is often brutal; and why should the excess of the rich be compensated by the sweat of the poor? Certainly, much of this work should be mechanized. To that end,
efforts to build motor-assisted, solar-powered rickshaws make a good deal of sense, though many of these efforts are still at the symbolic stage.

In the meantime, to ignore the contribution made by these people and the machines they ride to our economy and environment is likewise wrong. As I worked with these photos, I had to wonder: in a just, sustainable world, what role would human-powered machines play? What would need to happen to make cycles and cycle machines safe for workers, commuters, and those who just want a healthy way to relax?
These are some of the questions I've been thinking of. You may have answers--or more questions.

As I put this post together, I found myself humming the refrain from this song. Why not take a minute to listen to it--or try Green Day's version, which is part of the campaign against violence in Darfur. (If you want a tamer song to hum, you can try this, but I wouldn't recommend it.) Whatever you do, have a wonderful, safe Diwali-- and go easy on the atom bombs!

PS. I just found out that October 15 is Blog Action Day. I'm supposed to write a post about climate change today. I think this post counts. If you want to take part in blog action day, you can go here.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Elite Extravaganza: Guest Lecture by Nagraj Adve

If you live in Delhi, or anywhere in India for that matter, you can't miss the fact that some of us consume a lot more than others. And I'm not just talking about people who turn off their CFL light bulbs when they leave the room versus people who run their old fashioned lights all night long! I'm talking about people who live in places like the Taj Mahel Hotel versus people who live in places like the foothpath behind the Taj Mahel Hotel.

In The World is not Fair and the GDP is Stupid: economics for 9 year olds, we took a short look at issues related to consumption and inequality. Today's guest lecture by activist-scholar Nagraj Adve takes this discussion a step further. Adve's piece is not written for 9 year olds; it's a provocative look at one of India's dirty little secrets: the low per capita consumption figures that our government likes to boast about mask a shameful reality. Adve argues that until we confront that reality, we won't be able to make real progress on this issue.

Elite Extravaganza

By Nagraj Adve

Much is made of the fact – most of all by the Indian government – that ‘India’s’ average per capita emissions, roughly 1.3 to 1.4 tonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent a year, are lower than the global average, and considerably lower than that of the US or Europe. But the fact is, there is no ‘India’; the government is merely hiding behind the poor. The report by the Committee on Conditions of Work and Promotion of Livelihoods in the Unorganized Sector revealed that a jaw-dropping 836 million people in India consume less than INR 20 a day, of which 444 million ‘marginally poor’ people consume less than INR 15.

Needless to say, at INR 15-20 a day one cannot contribute much to global warming, however hard one might try. In a tragic irony, such people are contributing nothing to the problem but are already its victims: poor women suffering the consequences of drought that has plagued parts of Bundelkhand since the mid-1990s, Kui Adivasis in Orissa who have lost their cattle and kharif crop, small-scale and marginal farmers and agricultural labourers who are increasingly being affected by erratic rainfall over the last 15 years, and the like.

It is the country’s abysmal poverty that drags down ‘India’s’ average emissions, and hides the fact that the elites – whose wealth or access to it will cushion global warming’s impacts on them – contribute a lot more. Workshops on calculating one’s carbon footprint being conducted by Soumya Dutta, scientist and activist, show that even an average middle-class person in Delhi emits over four tonnes of CO2 every year – two times what is acceptable given Earth’s absorption capacity. He calculates that those taking a car emit over 11 times as much as those who travel by bus over the same distance. A train traveller from Delhi to Bombay, say, emits 30 kg of CO2; someone flying between those two cities emits 180 kg.

The Earth’s oceans, forests, soils, rocks, etc currently absorb roughly 15 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide every year, a slowly declining figure. Meanwhile, we are pumping into the atmosphere about 35 billion tonnes each year, 29 Gt from burning fossil fuels and another six from deforestation and land-use changes. As such, if we wish not to worsen future warming, the world needs to urgently halt the excess 20 billion tonnes of CO2 it is emitting each year, to say nothing of other greenhouse gases. Although this figure of 15 billion tonnes includes oceanic absorption that is several times the natural long-term rate of the carbon cycle – worsening ocean acidification and consequent harm to marine species, and humans in the medium term – let us accept it, for our current purposes, at face value. If one were to then divide this figure by the world’s population, it would imply that each person on this planet is entitled to emit some two tonnes of CO2 a year.

Consumption derives not merely from what one earns, but also from that to which one has access. Practically every upper-middle-class family in India now has one member living abroad, and regularly burns up what George Monbiot in Heat refers to as “love miles”. Every parent from Delhi who visits an offspring in the US emits 2,740 kg of CO2 flying back and forth – more than a year’s acceptable emissions. And the very rich in India, whose lifestyles the visual media and Page 3 writers regularly laud, have emission rates that easily approach European or US levels.

Externalising impacts

Many of the high-income, high-emission lifestyles exploded in India during the 1990s, catalysed by policy directives in the interests of large capital. For instance, cheap flights, easily financed cars, air-conditioned malls, high-income jobs in private banks and other multinational companies – these were hardly accidental developments. Simultaneously, the near-zero employment growth that took place through the 1990s, the longer working hours and faster work by factory workers even when employment grew this decade, the increasing contractualisation of work, stagnating real wages, the fall in agricultural incomes and the agrarian crises – all of these only accentuated the enormous disparities in incomes and consumption. Though the Indian government’s submission to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in August 2009 states that “each human being has an equal right to the common atmospheric resource,” central and state governments undermine this principle internally in practice. After all, the actual consequences of their policies are disparate incomes and consumption, differential energy access and use, and vastly unequal carbon emissions.

There is no doubt that industrialized countries bear an overwhelming responsibility for historical emissions, which is germane because about a quarter of carbon-dioxide emissions stays in the air for hundreds of years. But nationalist responses (based on the low averages argument) to what India’s stance should be at the upcoming summit Copenhagen miss the essential fact that class and industrial capitalism are central to understanding – and tackling – global warming. This is a systemic problem: it is revealing that CO2 levels in the atmosphere, which had inched up by merely 20 parts per million (ppm) over the 8,000 years prior to the Industrial Revolution, have shot up by 110 ppm since, much of this in the past fifty years. People are correct to point fingers at China, now the world’s largest emitter. But most simultaneously ignore the obvious fact that this took place because so much of world manufacturing has shifted to China, driven by capital’s inherent drive for cheap input costs of energy and labour power, and for profits, by externalising environmental costs.

Those many who view global warming purely in terms of nation states have not defined the problem correctly. As such, it is hardly surprising that little progress has been made in climate negotiations for 15 years. Little of significance – given the scale and urgency of the problem – will also emerge from Copenhagen, since each major nation state is merely jockeying for atmospheric space, sections of industry are hoping to make money from carbon offsets, and small island nations watch desperately but helplessly.

However, certain things follow if we are to focus on the huge disparities in carbon emissions and the systemic nature of the problem. The only way we can bring world emissions to levels the Earth can absorb is by urgently enforcing reduced emissions by the elite, whether in India or abroad. Reduced elite consumption enlarges the space for higher emissions by the poor and future generations. But given the job losses, due to falling consumption in the developed world during the ongoing economic crisis, experienced by migrant workers in towns such as Surat and Moradabad, we need to think through the question of consumption and employment. A starting point in our context would be making agriculture viable, since 650 million people are dependent on it. Linked to this would be an industrialisation strategy that highlights people’s basic needs and eschews production for wasteful consumption by elites.

Unfortunately, we are not going to be able to force the issue fast enough to prevent dangerous levels of warming. Whether we are able to or not, due to the lag in the oceans warming up, a further warming of 0.6 degrees Celsius is automatically built in, beyond the 0.8 degree average warming we are currently experiencing. James Hansen, one of the world’s foremost climatologists, has pointed to even further warming in the pipeline due to additional slow feedbacks. Basically, much worse impacts today seem unavoidable. As such, in addition to the struggle for a more just and sustainable development trajectory, we need to identify current impacts better, anticipate future impacts, and prepare for them in advance. Not doing so will have huge implications for the lives and livelihoods of millions of poor, in Southasia and beyond.

Nagraj Adve is an activist with Delhi Platform, a non-funded organization active on issues linked to global warming. Contact him at: