Saturday, November 28, 2009

Guest Post: What will we tell our children?

For Children's Day, we assigned homework: write a letter to a child about the state of the environment.  We said we'd give extra credit to those who sent us a copy so we could run it here at the Green Light Dhaba.  We got our first submission last week from the Plasticgraduate, a wise ass blogger from the USA who's a regular at the Dhaba.  If you haven't checked out his blog, you should.  You might start with his post on dogs.

And if you've been meaning to send us a letter, but just never got around to it, it's not too late; go ahead and mail it to


Dear PlasticSon,

People will tell you many bad things about our family and plastics. It is our cross to bear.

Plastics has made our family a fortune in the high three figures. However, people will blame it for myriad environmental problems. Pseudo-scientific journals like Scientifc American will state that 270 million metric tons produced annually is the cause of much suffering and irreparable environmental damage. Worst of all, they will challenge your manhood by telling you that BPA in plastics causes erectile dysfunction.

But there is always something you can do.

Do you remember our survival trips in the back country when I left you on the mountain top with nothing but a canteen and a compass? You never left a trace in the wild. You always left your campsite cleaner than you found it.

Approach life the same way: leave no trace. Leave the world better than you found it. If somebody else makes a mess - and they will - just pick up their crap. Recycle, Reuse, or - better yet, don't buy it in the first place.

How can you accomplish this? Figure it out. In the far off land of India, according to that liberal rag, the New York Times, they are making roads out of plastic bags. Other people make art from trash. There's always something you can do.

Finally, If you decide to have children, teach them how to care for the earth. This knowledge is one of the most important gifts you can give.

your plasticdad

Friday, November 27, 2009

Hot Water Bottles: Indian Green--Cheap and Best

The mercury is finally falling these days in Delhi, reminding us of the fact that when large blocks of cement get cold, it isn't easy to warm them up!  The problem with that, of course, is that most of us live in housing that consists of large blocks of cement.   Yes, the afternoon sun is still wonderful, but the nights are chilly, there is no doubt of that.   So what to do?  
Running a space heater nonstop is both expensive and environmentally unfriendly.  (Actually, some environmentalists say we can run the heat nonstop and sustainably--we just need to colonize someplace like Africa or Rajasthan and build huge solar power or wind  plants first--but I'm not convinced.) 

Here at the Dhaba, we believe that some high-tech stuff is great, but when in doubt, low-tech is probably a safer bet. For example, everyone loves to love CFL light bulbs, but it's even more sustainable to turn off the lights you aren't using!

So today, I offer a simple, time-tested solution for some of your heating problems: the good old hot water bottle.  Hot water containers have been around for hundreds of years--before we had modern rubber, people used wood or metal or ceramic containers!  Now most people in rich countries don't use hot water bottles any more, but we in the "developing world" still do.  Why?  Because they are cheap, efficient, and wonderfully comfortable. On those cold Delhi nights, nothing beats a blanket, a book and a hot water bottle!

For those of you living abroad who settle only for things of the highest quality and fashion, I recommend FashionHot water bottles.  You can get a Minky Swirls Plushy  bottle for only $27.97!  The bottles we get in Delhi aren't nearly so fancy, but they are less than one sixth the price of a Minky! Another example of Indian Green--Cheap and Best!

Oh yes, if you have really strong lungs, some people say that in a pinch you can use hot water bottles to liven up your child's birthday party.  I'm not sure I believe it, but this video does look convincing! Still, I do not endorse this idea--best to just buy the balloons, if you ask me!


On an entirely more serious note, December 3 is the 25th anniversary of the Bhopal/Union Carbide-Dow disaster.  We'll have more up next week about this.  For now, here are some links you should follow:

Lots of information; a good place to give money: 
25th Anniversary Day of Action worldwide events from Students for Bhopal.
Students for Bhopal explain how to Dump Your Dow!
I'm a Bhopali--bloggers bring the attention back to December 3, 1984

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Back to the Future? Why the MCD's ban on horse-drawn tongas in the Walled City may be less practical than it seems

Last week, the MCD announced that horse or mule-drawn tongas would be soon be banned from the streets of Old Delhi. The Council says the move is aimed at reducing both "cruelty to animals" and traffic congestion.  According to The Hindu, BJP Councilor Vijender Gupta summed up the motivation for the policy thus:
These animals are subjected to cruelty by their owners and made to work for long hours in extreme conditions without proper food or water. Moreover, there is no space or demand for these slow-moving, animal-driven vehicles in the city in today’s age and time.
Perhaps the MCD really is concerned about the welfare of some 230 Old Delhi horses and mules, but I, for one, am skeptical about this, given the conditions under which Delhi's 2.6 lakh street dogs live.  Not to mention the lakhs of human beings who go without basic amenities, such as toilets, that the MCD is charged with providing to residents of urban villages, resettlement colonies, regularised unauthorised colonies, slum/squatter settlements, etc.    

To me it seems clear that the real issue driving this move is not a fondness for horses, but a love of cars. Traffic in Old Delhi is a mess, and tongas make a convenient scapegoat. 

Be that as it may, one has to wonder whether Councilor Gupta is right when he says there is "no space or demand for these slow-moving, animal-driven vehicles in the city in today's age and time."

What's interesting, of course, is that if there really were no demand for tongas, then there would have been no need to ban them, because they wouldn't actually be out there plying the roads.  In fact, there is a demand for animal-powered vehicles, in the Walled City and beyond.   If you look in the right places, you will find more working animals than you might think. And they wouldn't be there if somebody wasn't making a living off of them.

Of course, Mr. Gupta is correct that there is not the "space" there once was for animals in the city.  Animal-powered transportation is banned from main roads during most of the daylight hours. Though there are always exceptions.

There's a dhaba along the brand new BRT that saves stacks of stale rotis for the elephants that happen by every so often.  An elephant can eat a lot of stale rotis. 

Because urban villages like Shahpur Jat, Kotla, and Chirag Dilli were here before they were swallowed up by Delhi, some aspects of life in those areas are not regulated like they are in the rest of the city.  In these places, many kinds of animals are still welcome.  If they were not earning their keep, it is unlikely that they would persist in such numbers.

During the early morning hours, you will still find animal-powered vehicles hauling vegetables and other goods throughout Delhi.

It is true that in "today's age and time," animals have been increasingly pushed to the margins of Delhi: the urban villages, the early morning or late night hours, the less trafficked roads.  In much of the country, however, things are different.  In Soil, not Oil, Vandana Shiva writes:
In India, there are 84 million draft animals, of  which 72 percent are oxen.  They plow two-thirds of the land and provide two-thirds of the rural transportation. There are more than 10 million animal-drawn vehicles in rural India.
If you get outside of Delhi, you will see this, of course. Though you will also hear that more and more the tractor and the truck are replacing the ox and the camel. 

In the long run, however, it's not at all clear if these changes will be sustainable; after all, tractors and trucks require diesel. Whatever we think about climate change, fossil fuels are almost certain to become much more expensive over time.  (If you want a well-reasoned, understandable explanation of why this will happen, trying reading this post on the various kinds of "peak oil" by geologist Suvrat Kher.). 

Vandana Shiva celebrates the fact that when the Cubans stopped getting cheap oil after the breakdown of the Soviet Union, they started breeding oxen to replace tractors.   We should be clear that the Cubans were not acting out of environmental ideology, but necessity.  It is also clear, from what I've read, that their experience was not at all smooth.  But after some very difficult years, they were able to get per capita food production close to where it had been when they were using much more energy-intensive farming methods.  And they avoided famine, which is certainly a good thing.  Do we have a plan for what we will do if the price of fossil fuels jumps drastically?   

Perhaps Cuba's experience is something we need to study. Given that something like 25% of our GDP, 60% of our employment, and nearly all of that stuff we call food depends on the agricultural sector, maybe we should be thinking about how to make it less, rather than more, dependent on oil.  The same goes for transportation, of course--remember that your grocery bill goes up when diesel prices rise partly because it costs more to get things to market.

It is conceivable that if oil prices continue to rise, as most experts expect them to,  animal-powered vehicles may once again become economically attractive, even necessary, right here in Delhi.  It may not be long before the MCD finds it has made a mistake: maybe it was the cars we should have been phasing out, not the tongas.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Saturday Special

The Saturday Special is coming out on Sunday this week, IST, but it's still Saturday somewhere in the world.  If you're new to the Green Light Dhaba, welcome! On the weekends, we usually just serve snacks; scroll down, or explore the left side of this page to read from our main menus.   If you like what you see, don't forget: subscriptions are free, so there's no need to miss a single issue.  Why not grab a feed or follow us?

This is the last call for the homework I gave last week: write a letter to a child and send it here; I'll post it on the Dhaba sometime in the next week or so. Details at the end of this post.

Snacks Menu

Learn about the Delhi Bus Rapid Transit System. An old post from Space Bar, looks at buses in a totally different way. 

Bhagwad on an economist who says poor people should die first.  On a related matter, if you've ever applauded economists like Nicholas Stern who analyze whether global warming is "worth it," you should understand something more about their assumptions.  Read this  for a hard look at the question. It's not a pretty picture.

Space Bar sent me this link about a mega project being considered in Europe.  Is this the answer we've all been waiting for, or is it the biggest land grab since the Scramble for Africa?  Or maybe we are just too fixated with technology?

Last but not least: Nicolas Cage buys way to much stuff!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Farmers, Buses, Bookaroo: Three things that make Delhi a World Class City

OK, yesterday, was bad news Thursday--and I hope you all fired off letters to the CM like I did!   At the end of yesterday's post, I promised to give you one reason why I think Delhi is a World Class City.  And do you know what? I'm going to give you three!  How's that for a bargain?

1.  Farmers.  Last night as the auto I was in shot by Jantar Mantar, I saw the tail end of a huge mobilization of farmers who came to Delhi for the opening day of Parliament.  They were protesting sugar cane pricing, among other things.  It was a moving site. We don't see many farmers in Delhi, and sometimes it is easy to forget that there is nothing we depend on more than the millions of men and women who grow the food we eat every day.  Without them, there would be no city, World Class or no!

2.  Buses.  Last night, I caught one of the DTC's new AC buses home from CP at rush hour.  The trip took a little longer than a three wheeler would have taken, but even with the recent rate hike, it cost less than a third as much. Hey, I know there are plenty of problems with Delhi buses. (If you doubt that, just google "killer buses".  I did, and 8 of the fist 10 terms that came up were talking about our fair city.)   In addition to being dangerous, our buses are often over-crowded and uncomfortable, especially for women passengers.  But this presentation makes it clear that we need more, not fewer buses.  Bus ridership is actually declining in Delhi, but buses still carry more than 40 percent of our traffic, and they take up almost no room on the road compared to cars and two wheelers.   Imagine what the roads would be without them. Buses are part of what make Delhi a great city; more buses will make us even better.

3.  Bookaroo.   I've written at length about the weaknesses in our schools and argued that one of our problems is that our children are not asked to read enough. Reading is part of how children learn how to think, and today's children will need to do some very creative thinking to solve the problems we are leaving them.  Well, if you agree with that, and if you have a child, you really should not miss Delhi's one and only Children's Literary Festival, Bookaroo, November 28-29 at Sanskriti Anand Gram.  Like many things in Delhi, it's completely free.

Last year's festival was absolutely fantastic; I'm sure it will be this year, as well.  There are amazing authors coming, like Subhadra Sen Gupta, who we reviewed briefly at the end of this post.  Others include Anushka Ravi Shankar (Moin and the Monster), Andrew Cope (Spy Dog) and Sampurna Chatterji (The Fried Frog and Other Funny, Freaky, Feisty Poems).  Don't miss it. 

Most of the sessions do not require registration; just show up.  There are a few that do require registration; you can do that via email.  I was going to list a few "green picks."  But the two sessions I was going to recommend are two of the only ones where registration is already closed.  Too bad, but there is still great stuff going on. For more information, go here.

So there you have it folks: farmers, buses, and Bookaroo!  Three things that make Delhi a World Class City!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Trouble on the Yamuna: the hidden costs of unauthorized construction

Some days it's easy to throw up your hands in frustration!   This week, The Hindu reported that widespread unauthorized construction is underway on the banks of theYamuna in Jaitpur.  The area in question is supposed to be a "green zone".  Moreover, the Delhi High Court has banned construction up to 300 meters of the Yamuna, and a Sub-Divisional Magistrate has already issued several restraining orders this year on construction in Jaitpur village. But authorities are not paying attention.

How do developers get away with such blatant flouting of the law?  According to a source quoted by The Hindu, it's as simple as this:
  1.  Buy land cheap from a farmer.
  2.  Pay Rs. 5 lakh to the police.
  3.  Build a five story building.
  4.  Sell the building for a pretty penny.
Sometimes we forget that, as common as it is in Delhi these days, paying money to a police officer or government official over and above his or her salary is nearly always called something other than a tip!

Of course, building on the Yamuna is bad for a number of reasons other than the corruption that makes it possible.  First, there is the fact that we are cutting into farmland, which we need for food production. And let's not forget that unauthorized construction on and near the river bed invariably means that more untreated sewage and waste will end up in what is already a very sick river.

Then there is safety: the Yamuna flood plain is called a flood plain because it is a plain where floods happen; it is also less stable when it comes to earthquakes.  Of course there is also the fairness issue: development in this area apparently got under way right around the time that the government was clearing jhuggi clusters from the banks of the Yamuna;  why is it that big developers are allowed to build while poor people are forcibly removed?

For what it's worth, I fired off a letter to Chief Minister Dikshit.  It wasn't easy, as her publicly listed email was incorrect; it had an extra full stop in it.  After a lot of trial and error, I prevailed--I think!   Why don't you send a letter too?  You have permission to copy as much of mine as you like; I doubt they actually read them, but somebody has got to be keeping some kind of tally. In any case, sometimes a few letters can go a long way toward solving a "small" issue like this.  And if you are not from Delhi--that will really get Smt. Dikshit's attention!  Corruption, pollution, disregard for environmental laws--is this what makes Delhi a World Class City?

Here's the email address:  And here's what I wrote:

Honorable Smt. Dikshit:

I was reading The Hindu last night and saw it reported that the Delhi police are taking money from developers in return for permission to build unauthorized constructions on the bank of the Yamuna in and around Jaitpur! This construction is continuing in spite of restraining orders from the Sub-Divisional Magistrate.  This is unsafe, as you know, as the Yamuna is prone to flood.  It is also bad for our environment.  For more information, you can read the article on-line yourself here:

How can Delhi be seen as a World Class City if we allow this kind of thing to occur?  I also find it ironic and sadly telling that these constructions began, according to The Hindu, right around the time that your government was clearing jhuggi clusters from the banks of the Yamuna.  Why is it that big developers are allowed to build while poor people are forcibly removed?

I trust you will address this at the earliest.

Yours humbly,

Hari Batti

I promise something more cheerful tomorrow. In fact, tomorrow, I will report on one of the many reasons why Delhi is, in my most humble opinion, a World Class City!  Now go fire off that letter to the CM!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Hari Batti--Agony Uncle: Free advice at the Dhaba today!

Dear Mr. Batti,

Since I lost my husband a decade ago, I have continued to share the family home with my husband's brother's family. What used to be one flat has been divided into two, although there is only one electrical meter and one water meter. We have always paid equal shares of all utility bills and repairs.

I am not concerned about water bill as it is not very large. But the electricity bill is another matter.  I use very little, especially now that my daughter is married.  In fact, I spend several nights a week at my parents' home.  Even so, I have to pay as much as Rs. 4000 per month during the summer, as they are running the AC day and night!

There are issues around the title of the house which make it difficult to have an official meter installed.  My electrician suggested we install a private meter to monitor who uses what electricity, but my brother-in-law said this would be too expensive.  What should I do?

Mrs. K.

Dear Mrs. K,

First, please feel free to call me Hari!  Second, I need to be clear: I am neither an electrician nor a lawyer, so you will get no reliable technical advice from me.  And as far as family politics go, I'll assume you've already tried to find a reasonable and respected relative to intervene, and that for some reason that has not solved the problem.

Let's see, now. I'm all for sharing. And a little bit of flexibility goes a long way in life. But you are being taken advantage of, plain and simple.Your situation reminds me of my friend who's flat mates, both of whom had AC's in their rooms, expected her to pay one third of the very large electricity bill, even though she relied on a fan only.  Or of the fellow in the group who makes a habit of drinking glass after glass of imported whiskey, and then tosses down 150 rupees and slips out before the bill arrives saying, "Here's my share...sorry, I've got to be run!"  Makes you want to scream.

Expecting people who consume much less to subsidize people who consume much more is a bad idea when it comes to most things in life--including electricity and alcohol.  Not only that, forcing you to pay half of the bill when you use much less than half the electricity violates an environmental principal that applies in most any situation, including both international and intra-family negotiations: the polluter must pay!

So you know you are right, but what should you do?  That's more complex.  Your brother-in-law is not resisting the meter because it's too expensive; he knows it will mean he has to pay more. Your approach depends on his attitude and how hard you are willing to fight.

If it were me, I would start by trying something simple.  Say something like, "I do not spend much time at home, as you know, and I use the AC very little.  I feel my share of the bill should be rupees 1250 per month.  Do you agree to that?"  If you have an old bill from a time when you stayed alone in the house (perhaps they went out of town), you could use this as the basis for coming up with a figure that reflects your actual usage.  Another option is to divide the bill on a per person basis (there is only one of you, so your share should be less).  This approach is straightforward, but it would not reflect the time you spend at your parents' house.

In any case, the most important thing is to come up with a proposal that is simple (for the sake of your brother-in-law) and reasonably fair (for your own sake).  Then propose it to your brother-in-law and his wife.  Make sure you ask this question: "Do you agree to this?"  This approach, by the way, worked for my friend and her AC using flatmates, who turned out to be reasonable, after all; sometimes we just need to ask for what is fair. 

If you do not get the desired response, then you have a choice.  You can live with an unfair situation; we all have to do that at times.  Or you can say, "I am disappointed. I no longer want to over-pay  for electricity.  I will look into having a meter installed and if it is possible, then I will have the work done. I hope you will be fair and help me pay for any necessary electrical work, but I plan to have it done, regardless."

Then you must do the needful: have a meter installed, if possible, and then pay only what it says you owe. Things may be tense for a time.  But you are already tense, now, aren't you?

Good luck!

If you've got a question you need some green advice on, send it our way!  We might even answer it.  And for all you readers out there who like to procrastinate, it's not too late to turn in your Children's Day homework!  Just write a letter to a child telling what you will do for climate change. Send it to me at, and I'll publish it--or put it on your blog and I'll link to it next week.  Send me a picture or two and I'll make it look nice.  Details at the bottom of this post.

Now I'd like to believe that some of you are just being bashful, that you've already done the work, but you are too shy to turn it in for extra credit.  And there will be no sore knuckles, no squatting or grabbing of ears, no tight slaps of any kind hear at the Dhaba!  In fact, we won't even rely on guilt or shame--though it is tempting, I'll admit!  But do consider turning in a letter, pretty please!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Don't Worry Be Happy: Jairam Ramesh, Thabo Mbeki, and the Problem with Sketchy Science

Yes we are working on Sunday here at the Dhaba, so you know it's something important.  Before we get to the main course, please don't forget to turn in your homework for our Children's Day Challenge! Write a letter to a child about what you will do to stop climate change and you can be published right here at the Green Light Dhaba!  Details at the bottom of this post. I'd love to hear from you by sometime next weekend.

A few weeks back, Environment minister Jairam Ramesh sent a confidential letter to the PM arguing that India should radically change it's position on climate change.  He said we should abandon our longstanding support of the G-77 group of developing nations and instead adopt important aspects of the US negotiating position. When the letter was leaked, voices from all over the political spectrum cried foul, and Congress quickly distanced itself from the idea.   

Though reasonable people have argued that Ramesh was just being pragmatic, here at the Dhaba, we didn't agree.  We argued that the problem was that his position appeared to be motivated not by a concern over climate change but by a desire to curry favor with the West in return for a permanent seat on the UN security council.  In other words it was more about power than the environment.

Mr. Ramesh appears to be at it again.  Last week, he released a report by Dr. VK Raina that questions the role of climate change in the retreat of the Himalayan glaciers.  Dr. Raina goes so far as to say, "None of our glaciers under monitoring are recording abnormal retreat."

Other scientists, including Rajendra Pachauri, one of the PM's advisers on climate change, rubbished the report, calling it "unscientific" "unsubstantiated" and "self-contradictory".  The Indian Youth Climate Network Blog ran this piece by Devinder Sharma attacking the science and motivations behind the report.

The problem with Dr. Raina's report is not that it flies in the face of most of the science we have up until now; new research sometime does that, and that is how we move forward. The problem is not even that the report appears to contain serious flaws; although these failings could be the result of politically motivated researchers, even good scientists make mistakes. That's why it's so important for research to be transparent and open.  

The problem is that this report was released by the government without first being widely reviewed by independent experts. That's the kind of thing you do when you care more about your political agenda than you do about the truth.  By officially releasing it, the government gives this research, and the questionable science behind it, a credibility and gravity that it does not deserve.  If you don't believe that, take a look at this headline!  (Note who it says is "challenging the global view on Himalayan glaciers.")

We can hope that Mr. Ramesh is just stirring the pot for the sake of...stirring the pot.  Or maybe his political philoshophy can be summed up by the title to Bobby McFerrin's famous song.  But from where I sit, the signs don't look encouraging. His letter to the PM last month--and his response to it in the press--was worrisome.  Now he is promoting sketchy science and a scientist who tells us things are not so bad after all.  Taken together, his actions appear to be consistent with an agenda that prioritizes power and short-sighted development over a commitment to long-term sustainability.

Let's be very clear: politically motivated efforts to twist or deny well-researched scientific ideas can do real harm. The affects of AIDS denialism are well documented.  For example, Thabo Mbeki did not believe that HIV caused AIDS--and he acted on those believes in spite of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  As a result, while he was President of South Africa, his government did not respond to that epidemic with appropriate public health measures.  According to research by Harvard University, this cost over 300,000 lives.

We see the cost of climate change denial in the failure of the US to act forcefully on this issue.   Certainly, the job of environmentalists in the US is not made easier by the fact that many people there no longer believe the earth is warming, because short-term weather statistics are being manipulated for political reasons. Similarly, the Himalayan Glaciar report released by Mr. Ramesh will make it more difficult to convince people here of the urgent need for action on climate change.

Denial is so compelling, because so many people have a vested interest in business as usual.  As a result, powerful people will continue to do their best to convince you that we don't need to worry.  Environmentalists need to be open to ideas that challenge our assumptions.  But we don't need politicians who encourage us to foolishly stick our heads in the sand.  We need leaders who respect real science and rigorous debate--and who will have the bravery to take action, even when doing so goes against their own short term interests.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Children's Day Special: How will we explain what we've done?

We've been serving up a lot of serious stuff at the Green Light Dhaba lately, so I was planning something light for today's menu--funny even. Then my kids reminded me that Saturday November 14 is Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru's birthday, which means, of course, in India we will all be celebrating Children's Day. So in preparation for that day, I am offering--no assigning--a Children's Day Special.  (Children, of course, are exempt from all written work on Children's Day at the Dhaba!)

Please beware: this post includes very little text, but it does include the following:
  1. Instruction: two short videos to watch.
  2. Classwork: a question to consider and respond to (I won't cut marks for spelling).
  3. Homework: an assignment to do with a child between now and Children's Day. (Late work accepted, but I may cut marks for that).
However, all who submit their homework in a reasonable amount of time will receive a special e-surprise.  

First, you have to watch the videos below.  In all, this should take fewer than seven minutes.  Both videos respond to roughly the same idea: if we don't take serious action on climate change soon, there is a reasonable chance that we--or more likely our children--may suffer very serious consequences.  (If you really want more information about what that might look like, try this link or this one.) Note: both videos are aimed at a Western audience, but I think they are worth seeing.

As you watch these videos, ask yourself which approach you find more effective and why?  

For classwork,  write a short comment explaining your answer to this question below.

(Homework will follow at the end of this post).

The first video is an advertisement from "Moms Against Climate Change."

The second video is a "Bloggingheads" interview with author David W. Orr on the New York Times website.  You can see it here.

For your homework project, you have a choice.

Pandit Nehru was famous for the letters he wrote to his daughter when she was young.  (You can see one of them here.)  To honour this tradition, one of your choices is to write a letter to a child explaining what you will do to help stop climate change.  If you are a parent, you may address your own child or children.  If you are not a parent, you can address a child you know or imagine.  Do not try to write like Nehru; you will fail. Write like yourself and you cannot fail. (No marks will be cut for spelling or grammar). Discuss your letter with the child to whom it is addressed, if possible.

Alternatively, you may instead meet with your child and discuss what you will do together for climate change.  Then make a list of these things and post it on the kitchen cabinet or somewhere like that.

To receive your e-surprise, send a copy of your letter or your list to; I'll run it here at the Dhaba sometime soon. If you decide to run your letter or list on your own blog, send me the link and I'll share it with others.

I will send a special e-prize for all who complete their homework in a reasonable amount of time.

Please raise your hand or post a comment if you have any questions...
Now get to work!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Poverty isn't Contagious (and why we should support a genetically modified government)

We all know most governments feel compelled to take action when the public feels threatened.  That's why the US invaded Afghanistan and Iraq after the September 11 attacks.  Maybe we can be grateful that India's responses tend to be less drastic, though we've rattled our share of sabers and set up our share of questionable encounters over the years.

But what if the threat were not a terrorist attack, but a disease?

Last week, the Times of India reported that 100 people in Pune have now died from H1N1; this week, we learned that the all-India death toll has reached 500.  H1N1 is scary stuff, of course, which is why we see signs of it everywhere: face masks, stories in the media, notices from the schools our children attend, etc.   Not surprisingly, government officials at all levels have felt the need to do something.  This is why, over the past few months, schools, colleges, and even shopping malls have been ordered to close at times, even if this strategy has questionable benefits.  

But imagine we were faced with a much, much bigger threat.  Imagine more than 50 Indians began dying, not every day, but every hour, from a sickness which was largely preventable.   Imagine most of those dying were children.  What would we do then?  Cancel school?  Shut down the airports? Call for the resignation of high-level government officials?

In fact, as many of you may have guessed, more than 50 people are dying each hour in India--from diarrhea--and we hear precious little about it. The exact hourly rate, 52, adds up to 1250 deaths a day and more than four lakh deaths per year, 386,000 of which are children.  

Of course, diarrhea is not just an Indian problem; it kills 1.5 million children world wide. It even kills some people in rich countries -- but not very many.  This is because over the last century, the introduction of clean drinking water and improved sanitation and nutrition has drastically reduced this problem in the developed world.  Among developing countries, there has been progress, but these efforts have largely stagnated since 2000. India, for it's part, is doing better than Afghanistan but much, much worse than China. The story and numbers, by the way, is very similar when it comes to TB,  which is also mostly treatable, given proper medical care.

How can we sleep at night with this constant carnage going on? When I started writing this post, I did some research on why it is that people tend to worry about some things that happen very rarely--like plane crashes, terrorist attacks, or deaths from H1N1--while we ignore other things that happen much more frequently--like deaths from TB or diarrhea.  I learned that there are several major theories of risk perception and that no one theory perfectly explains the irrational ways in which people perceive risks

Except you and I know that there is nothing at all irrational about the way the media, the government, and most of middle and upper middle class India ignores TB and diarrhea, while we go on wringing (and hopefully washing) our hands over H1N1. This behavior is perfectly rational, because diarrhea is not, for the most part, killing residents of posh colonies in South Delhi or South Mumbai--it's not even killing middle class urban Indians, most of whom have access to clean water, decent health care, and adequate sanitation and nutrition.  It's killing poor people, and people who live far from doctors.   And, as most of us know, poverty is not contagious!

So until diarrhea and TB mutate into sicknesses that threaten the people who matter most in this country, progress in the fight against them will be slow.  Unless, of course, the government itself mutates--into one that puts common people at the forefront of more than just slogans. That's the kind of genetic engineering even a good green could get behind!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Saturday Special

I'm avoiding the computer this weekend! But I'm setting up Blogger to lay out a nice spread snacks for you at the Dhaba.

Weekend Menu

Bhagwad on Animal Torture and why he's giving up meat.

Annie Zaidi on money and the press; and Tea-Stall Politics.

Plasticgraduate on dogs.

Is there any point in trying to fight off industrial collapse? (Discussion at the

It Too Late to Prevent Catastrophic Climate Change? (Latest science doesn't look good).

Attention People of Earth: Is this about colonialism? Exploitation of natural resources? Or just a huge spaceship full of friendly aliens who appreciate good...gravel?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Questioning the Commonwealth Games: Are we missing something in our rush to make Delhi a "World Class City?"

President Patil received the Queen's Baton at Buckingham Palace last week, setting off the official countdown to the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

For years, the good people of Delhi been hearing about these Games and how they are making ours a World Class City. Certainly, they come with a World Class Price Tag: these will be the most expensive Commonwealth Games ever; the total cost, including infrastructure related to the games, will come to 1.6 billion US dollars! The Games have been so expensive because they have been used to justify any number of projects: airport modernization; slum demolition; flyover and metro construction; new sporting venues; and much, much more.

The Games have met with loads of criticism at every step, for all sorts of reasons; this
is Delhi after all, what do you expect? I'm not going to give you hyperlinks for all that, but if there is a doubt in your mind, try googling Commonwealth Games 2010 criticism; I did, and I got more than 24,000 links. Maybe it sounds worse than it is. A lot of these are stories about officials saying the games are fine in spite what everyone is saying! Which is reassuring, right?

Who really knows? Not us. The Games could be grand, they could be a mess. I, for one, am not hoping for failure. And I completely support the politeness classes being given to over 5,000 autowallas. Now if they could just improve the manners of the other four million drivers on Delhi's roads, it might really be worth $1.6 billion--and then some!

But sometimes late at ni
ght, I find myself thinking thoughts that are not so...positive. I find myself wondering: if we could do it all over again, would we really want to host these Games?

I love Delhi, and I think it is a World Class City, I really do. (I promise I'll explain why some other time!) But I don't think Delhi is a WCC because of it has modern airports, crowded flyovers, or even because I once heard a man from England actually say our Metro is better than the London Underground!

These things are impressive, and every city needs infrastructure that works. But there are other types of infrastructure that are getting less attention than they might otherwise get if we weren't so focused on fun and games. Let's look for one minute at two things many people would say are at least as important as stadiums, airports, flyovers, and metros: water and schools.

Did you know that something like 45 percent of the Delhi's population is not connected to the sewage system? Just look at the Yamuna after it passes out of Delhi. That doesn't just affect wild life, of course; most cases of diarrehea are caused by drinking water contamination. Is it any wonder that diarrhea causes over twelve hundred deaths a day in India? (And we worry about H1N1!) Before we agree to another mega sports event, why not provide every Indian with clean drinking water and a sanitary toilet.

Or look at education. In spite of what I said earlier this week about our schools, Ind
ia's made real improvements over the years when it comes to literacy. But we've got a long ways to go. Until we bring Bihar a lot closer to Kerala on this graph, then maybe we need to think twice about spending $1.6 billion on what are, when all is said and done, just games. You know what they say: studies before play!

I know there are a host of arguments about why the Games are good. Some of them even makes sense; I'd love to hear what you think.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

What's wrong with our schools and why environmentalists should care

I walked into a south Delhi market this summer and saw the sign on the right. The 16 year old girl selling me my Airtel recharge coupon told me that she would happily make a rain water harvesting project for my children. The price? Five hundred rupees, including all materials. (She'd do the balance of their holiday homework for another 500 rupees). Apparently most ninth standard students in Delhi are assigned a rainwater harvesting project at some point during the year, and this girl knew an opportunity when she saw one; business was good, she said.

I was pleased to hear that so many Delhi schools are teaching about rain water harvesting systems. I was sorry to hear that many students are buying their way out of the assignment, though I suppose this should have come as no surprise; there are many shops in Delhi offering essentially the same services.

This, along with the half-yearly exams my own children suffered through in September, has got me thinking about the state of our schools. And the truth is, I think they are in a very sorry state.

The exam system is part of it: students are rewarded for regurgitating content, not for their ability to solve challenging problems or to express new ideas. But the exams are only part of the problem. I'm no expert, but let me give you just a few examples of what's wrong with schools today--and why those who care about the environment and justice should be worried.

Reading: When was the last time your child read a real book in school, or was asked to read a book at home? Mine almost never are. Instead, they mug up stories from a thin reader that they mostly read before the first week of class is over. Why does this matter? Reading is a form of thinking, and you can't read or think well without a lot of practice. The more you read, the more ideas you are exposed to. Most of us learn to read well in spite of what happens in school, not because of it. The funny thing is, this doesn't halve to be painful: research suggests that "pleasure reading" is not only fun--it's good for us!

Writing: When my child was in fifth, he was told he needed to improve in three very important writing genres: application for leave; telegraph writing; and notice writing. When I asked his teacher why these genres were important for 11 year olds to master, I was told, "Ah, but they need to learn them for the tenth boards." I smiled and nodded. What else could I do? But the truth is, if our children spend five years learning how to write a proper telegraph, then we are in deep trouble, indeed. We need to teach children to write things that actually matter to them, because that's what good writers do. (Future employers, relax: if you ask a good writer to write a notice or a telegraph in real life, she will figure out how to do it properly in no time.)

Maths: Our students spend an extraordinary amount of time learning how to solve problems that involve very large numbers. This looks impressive, but requires very little thought: once you learn the "right way" to solve such a sum, you just plug in the numbers. Pity the child who tries to find an original path to a solution. And since we spend so much time teaching computation, there is very little time left to teach children other important things like how to read graphs and interpret data. Yet without a strong foundation in statistics, children will never grow up to be adults capable of understanding what is really happening in the world of science, politics and the economy. In fact, a poor grounding in statistics is partly why so many people actually believe we are entering into a period of global cooling, in spite of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Holiday Homework: Many schools assign homework over the summer holidays. This often involves "projects" like the rainwater harvesting project I mentioned earlier. The problem is that even here, the emphasis is on how the product looks, more than it is on the thinking that went into it. Hence, parents (or enterprising 16 year olds) end up doing much of the work involved in these projects. And students too often learn nothing but the value of neat presentation.

My son's school once invited parents to a display of summer holiday projects on the subject of "our environment". Students stood next to their projects and recited mini-speeches upon request. For example: "Sir, this is a hut next to a river. You see there is no sewer so the river becomes polluted. We must keep our rivers clean. Thank YOU!" When I asked this student what was to be done to clean the river, short of moving the hut, I got a blank stare. This kind of thing happened time and again.

We are living in a world that will present our children with enormous environmental, political and economic challenges. Climate change, water shortages, failing farms, and, yes, polluted rivers; these and many other problems threaten to make an already difficult situation much, much worse. Memorizing huge amount of information without thinking about it, doing things for show only, buying their way out of difficult assignments--none of this will prepare our children for the world we are leaving them.

So what are we to do? In the long run, we need to advocate for a system of education that values learning over marks on exams. Democracy cannot function well if people of all classes are not taught to read, write and think effectively, so it goes without saying that efforts to reform education should not be limited to schools for wealthy children.

This is not the place for detailed proposals, but let me make three brief suggestions. First, let's not rely on the idea that providing a computer to all villages will solve the equality problem. A few books, a free lunch and a well trained, caring teacher who shows up every day are worth more than a dozen computers. Second, we should support efforts to decrease testing in general. And we should advocate for exams that measure learning rather than short term memory. Finally, all children should be given opportunities to write about things that matter to them. If we give them opportunities to share the resulting stories, essays and poems with an audience that consists of more than their teacher, that is even better.

None of these ideas are new. And some of them would be easier to implement than you might think. But realistically speaking, real educational reform is not going to happen quickly, so if you've got children, you've got your work cut out for you. In may ways, I think it makes sense to start with reading. First, read to your children; then later read with them, and finally and always show them you also are a reader.

Of course it also makes sense to advocate for change within your child's school and within the larger system of education. But being an advocate is a big job, and you may feel unprepared, as I often do. To address this, you can explore the net. There's a really thoughtful discussion about the alternative schools here, though I wish there was more in it about Delhi schools.

For the big picture, try reading Mindfields, "the journal about ideas and alternative education."
I've read a few issues and I like what I see. They seem to be asking the right questions and moving the discussion forward in healthy ways. They aren't trying to sell you on one particular school, but they are strong advocates for the kind of alternatives we need. And they give examples of schools that are doing wonderful things. Mindfields says it is a magazine that "is invested in education for its true purpose: educating children as opposed to building empires." To me, that sounds like a pretty good place to start.