Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Dhaba Dos and Don'ts

Before I started the Dhaba, I sought the advice of a few bloggers I like.  Most said roughly the same thing: write well; post regularly; be patient.  In addition to this, one said that she’d found it helpful to stop every so often and write about the blog itself.  Somebody else said, “don’t forget to take a break once in a while.”  So that’s what I’m doing this week: writing a short post about the Dhaba; and taking a little time off to enjoy the monsoon and take care of other sorts of business.

Here at the Green Light Dhaba, we do our best to serve up fresh green thinking two—and usually three times a week.  Of course, the word green means a lot of things to a lot of people.  The shade of green we like here at the Dhaba looks good on things that are sustainable and fair.  Here's a little more about what we do and don't think!

We don’t think we have all the answers.
We don’t write things down without thinking about them first.  
We do expect to make mistakes.

We don’t like toxic things, like corruption and poisonous substances.

We do like technology and new ideas--sometimes.  But we think low-tech is often the best kind of greentech.

We don’t like development that puts flyovers and stadiums in front of housing and clean water.

We do think symbolism matters.
We don’t like greenwash.

We do fear climate change.  
We don’t think denial  is a way to solve problems.

We don’t believe in development strategies that depend on the overconsumption of a few and the hunger of millions.
We do think healthy farms matters more than moon shots.

We are not perfect.  
We don’t expect you to be perfect.
We do believe it is important for all of us to try to do better.

We do believe many big problems have simple solutions.
We understand that simple is not the same as easy.
We don’t believe most big problems have easy solutions.  
We do believe our children need to learn how to think critically or they will never figure out how to solve difficult problems simply.

We don’t believe endless growth is possible on a finite planet.  
We do believe many of us will have to learn to do with less if everyone is going to have enough.
We believe in essays and poetry.  
We don’t run ads.  

We write to figure things out, to change minds, to be read.

We believe many voices matter more than one voice.

We don’t believe one voice matters much, but it might matter some.

How do you think we're doing?

If you are a regular, why not contribute some writing or photos?  To get an idea of what we’re looking for, take a look at this post.

If you are new, you can see what this long list means in practice by checking out the stand-alone pages at the top bar of the Dhaba.  If you like what you see, why
not grab a free feed or follow us?

And if you are on Facebook do consider following us via Networked Blogs. It doesn’t cost anything.  And for what little it may be worth, we’re only a few followers away from reaching the top 50 blogs in “environment.”  

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Solidarity Alert: Urgent Appeal from Bhopal Protesters

The news is not good on the Bhopal front.  Apparently, the Group of Ministers continues to disappoint.  A thousand Bhopalis are coming to Delhi on 26 July to press their case.  Of course, if they win their demands, we all win a safer, less poisonous future. 

In the name of the Commonwealth Games, the government has banned protesters from sleeping at Jantar Mantar.  (Sorry, but when it comes to a choice between Freedom of Expression and the Commonwealth Games, what did you really expect?) Because of this sad state of affairs, urgent support is needed.  There is a facebook group here.  For more about background about Bhopal and other poisonous issues, go here.

For information about what you can do right now, I'm reproducing the email from protest leaders below.  Do help if you can.
Dear Friends,

It has been a disappointing few weeks for Bhopalis, with the Group of Ministers (GoM) recommendations after the July 7th 2010 verdict failing to address basic injustices faced by the people of Bhopal.  As you know, the Bhopal campaign made every effort to communicate the concerns of Bhopalis with the GoM in the years leading up to the 7th of July. Today, the gas disaster is still killing, injuring and maiming the unborn, even as the media and government debate the future of the people of Bhopal, 26 years after the gas leak.

You, as Friends of Bhopalis, have seen us through the last 26 years of struggle, through Padyatras and the setting up of the Commission, petitions, letter writing, marching, dharnas, and so much more. Today is another very important stage in this struggle for justice. We are writing for your active support at a time when 20,000 people continue to drink poisoned water, thousands of gas victims who were promised jobs remain jobless; medical treatment for the indigent victims remains elusive; the site and its surroundings are polluted, and the culprit – Dow Chemical –freely does business in India. To add to the injuries faced by victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy, we no longer have legal permission to camp on the pavement at Jantar Mantar, because of the Commonwealth Games. Without this public space, and with the disappointing list of recommendations from the GoM, we need your support more than ever! 

1000 Bhopalis will come to Delhi on the 26th of July, to demand that the State (parliament in session) take notice of them. Bhopalis will remain in Delhi until their demands are met. Your support as always would be very crucial for us. 

How Can you Help?

Support in Cash or Kind:

We need your contribution towards the expenses for food, transport and protest material. You may also support us by sharing your resources like sound systems, photocopying/printing/faxing facility.

Most importantly, since we’re not allowed to camp at Jantar Mantar anymore, we are looking for large spaces for the Bhopalis to rest in–rooms, halls etc that are close to JM, have a roof to protect from the rain, and toilet facilities close by. Do let us know if you have tents or tirpaals that you can share with Bhopalis to cover them from the (lovely and wet!) monsoons.

Please send in your donations through a Cheque payable to ‘The Other Media’ and courier it to us at: Rachna Dhingra, C/o ICJB, 44 Sant Kanwar Ram Nagar
Berasia Road, Bhopal, MP 462001

It will be great if you could also inform us through email/call if you send a cheque.

Volunteer:  As you know, being in a new city is not easy for anyone. We are looking for volunteers between the 26th of July and end of August to help take care of Bhopalis in Delhi. Volunteers will be required to stay for either a morning or evening shift. Tasks will include: taking Bhopalis to the doctor if necessary, making photo copies and phonecalls, making posters and placards and generally being on call!

---- Performers: Again, to keep the protests interesting and also keep the mood high at Dharna site, we would appreciate support from all kinds of musicians and artists who can and would like to join in solidarity at Jantar Mantar, play music, dance, sing, paint, juggle, breathe fire, etc.

----Crisis Support: Act as a Guarantor in case Bhopalis are arrested and need bail.

Solidarity Actions: Do organise solidarity actions in your city during the course of our protest in Delhi. Each action by you goes a long way in inspiring us.

So do join us in any way possible, stand in solidarity with the people of Bhopal, and contribute your time and energy towards justice! 

Please do not hesitate in clarifying any issue with us. And contact either of us to confirm your support and contribution.

Looking forward to your emails and calls!

Shalini (sh.shalini@gmail.com/99 589 24 989)

Kaveri (kaveri.rajaraman@gmail.com/ 9958789298)

(PS: Share this call for support with all your contact lists and networks)

Fist Photo: bruckerrlb

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Fixing Things: Low-Tech, Green Tech

There are many people who believe the answers to the world's problems require high-tech, greentech solutions.  I have nothing against high tech. I am typing this post on a computer, after all.  But I don't kid myself; this computer is not "green".   For one thing, a simple google search uses a lot more energy than you might imagine.  And this computer will eventually contribute to the 500% increase in e-waste from old computers over 2007 levels that India will likely see by 2020.  Much of that waste is poison, by the way.   Of course it's not just e-waste; though India has very high uses of recycling, we still produce a lot of trash, and that problem is not going to be solved by Waste to Energy plants, no matter how "green" they purport t be.

It gets worse.  If you stop and think about it, you realize the "health" of the world economy, as it is presently organized, requires continued production and consumption even before it requires disposal.  Endless production requires endless amounts of energy and mining. Unfortunately, we don't live on planet with endless resources.

To put it simply, there is no way that current consumption patterns can be sustainable, greentech or not! Those of us who use things like computers will have to use them a lot less.  People who go by car will have to learn how to take the bus.  In addition to high tech, we will have to rely on low tech solutions. Like fixing things! 

All the items in the photo to the right could easily have been thrown away.  But because I live in Delhi, they were fixed.  The shoes have been stitched up in many ways, inside and out, and they still look good, thanks to the skill of my local mochi.  The water bottle's lid broke and I was able to find a replacement in the market.  The school bag's zipper has been replaced at least once.  The handle of the low quality pot has been fixed or replaced at least twice in the past five years.

When we fix something, we reduce energy use, mining, pollution and waste.  In India, because labour is cheap, having things fixed almost always saves money as well.  But in many places, it is cheaper to throw away a broken product than it is to fix it.  World wide, need to stop subsidizing the production disposal of stuff that is made for the dump; in fact, we need to make sure that companies and consumers pay the full cost of most consumer products, from the mine to the dump; subsidies should be reserved for sustainable things, like public transportation--and for things like food that we all need.

Most of India lives sustainably, of course.  But a small group of industrialists and hyper consumers are getting the lion's share of government support, as P. Sainath makes clear here. It's time we give help to those who need it most--that, by the way, is another way we can fix things!

For other low-tech, greentech ideas, including our Best Dhabas in Delhi series, look here.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Photo Essay: On the Delhi BRT

Delhi's Bus Rapid Transit System (BRT) has been running for just over two years now, connecting the 14.5 km corridor between Ambedkar Nagar and Delhi Gate. To see how the controversial project is faring, I spent some time on the BRT during the past few weeks, traveling by bus, foot, auto and cycle, mostly between Chirag Dilli and Moolchand.

From the very start, the BRT was declared a failure by much of the media.  Even today, news outlets and middle class citizen's groups regularly highlight the BRT's problems.  To be fair, traffic on the BRT is horrible, and it seems obvious that better planning could have--and perhaps even now could--address that more effectively. Maybe the new "intelligent" signals will help. Maybe they won't.   From the start, many people questioned whether it made sense to reserve the middle lanes for buses, especially given that it was impossible to widen the road without destroying trees.  In fact, many trees were lost in the construction of the BRT.  But in the end, its width was limited when residents of the posh colonies that border it successfully opposed even more tree cutting. Here is one of the many places where trees limited the width of the road:

In other places, trees were saved without impacting traffic.
And elsewhere, carelessness resulted in trees being damaged needlessly.

But it is not really fair to blame trees for the problems on the BRT corridor.  There is simply an enormous number of vehicles, both on the BRT and on the Outer Ring Road, which the BRT intersects.  The intersection at the Chirag Dilli flyover was difficult even before the BRT construction began; it is worse now--and it is likely to get even worse as more people buy private cars. So how has the BRT  survived such persistent problems?  Perhaps the answer lies in pictures like this:

Even mid-day traffic can be difficult on the BRT--for private vehicles.  But the bus lane that you see there in the foreground, is empty, which makes bus travel much faster on the BRT than anywhere else in the city. Interestingly enough, the BRT actually seems to have more support than you'd think from people who don't ride buses. But bus riders are its biggest backers--and why not? The BRT moves buses quickly.  And since about 60% of Delhi commuters travel by bus, it's not hard to see why the BRT is still going strong.

On the BRT, you have several options in buses.  The red AC bus, pictured here, starts at Rs. 15 per ticket, and offers the chance of some room to breathe, even during rush hour.

For a ticket that starts at Rs. 5, you can travel non-AC, either in one of the new, modern, green DTC buses or in an old Blueline bus.  Beware: at rush hour, most of these buses are tightly packed! There are many seats reserved for women, and women seem to be enforcing this rule effectively.  (Late at night, the story is different; many buses carry only one or two women out of 40-50 passengers.)

A large part of what makes commutes by bus difficult is the time spent waiting; changing buses takes even more time.  Buses also have to make many stops, of course, and then they have to rejoin traffic.  But the BRT partly compensates for all that, by giving buses those two center lanes.  I found that no matter when I traveled, direct trips on the BRT took about the same time--and sometimes even a little less--than a comparable trip by autorickshaw.

Waiting for the bus is rarely fun, but the BRT bus stops are a step up from what you get in most of Delhi.

For one thing, buses tend to stop at BRT stops, which means you have less of a need to run out into traffic and jump onto rolling Bluelines!

For a while, it looked like the police would refuse to enforce the BRT bus lanes, but that seems to have changed.  You will find an occasional  motorcyclist  pushing his luck, or even a car, but this is rare.  VIP vehicles bearing red lights, on the other hand, do not seem to worry about police--or the example they are setting, for that matter. They frequently travel by bus lane, even when there is no reason to do so.  It looked like there was a party going on in this VIP car a few months back.

Of course the BRT is not just for buses and private vehicles; it's also for cycles. Along the corridor, there are places where you can rent a cycle. It costs only Rs. 10 for four hours. The cycle rental stands are a private-public partnership, and they are a very good idea.
I'll write about this more later.  But for now let me say that business is slow, in part because you cannot take a cycle from one stand and return it to another.  As a result, these cycles can be used for recreation and for visiting friends in the neighborhood, but they won't help you get to work.  That is too bad, because I found it quite easy to cover the distance from Chirag Dilli to Moolchand by cycle in about 10 minutes, which is faster than bus or autorickshaw, if you include the wait time.  The same was true for the return trip. Rent-a-cycles could be a valuable part of the BRT system if only this project were taken a bit more seriously.

More significantly, the BRT boasts dedicated lanes for cycle traffic--something that seems almost unimaginable in Delhi, where "might makes right" is one of the unwritten--but best-understood--rules of the road, and cycles are relegated to place very near the bottom of the transportation heap. The cycle paths were a wonderful idea; and when traffic is flowing smoothly on the corridor, they provide welcome relief to those pedaling cycles and cycle rickshaws.(My 10 year old son shot this sequence during the last week of his summer holidays.)

But when traffic is really bad, many motor bikes find the cycle lanes a little too tempting.

Then a few more join the crowd, which begins to make it difficult on the cyclists.

Before you know it, things get completely out of hand.The BRT security guards are outnumbered and overpowered; they have too little authority; the police are nowhere to be seen. (Mrs. Batti once gave quite a tongue lashing to a fellow on a motorbike who was literally trying to drive through, or over, a security guard attempting to enforce the cycle lane rules. After some tamasha, biker gave in, but he never admitted he was wrong.) 


Having seen these pictures, you should have no trouble believing the results of the traffic survey my son and I recently conducted.  We counted the northbound vehicles on the BRT cycle path for 10 minutes during peak traffic one day during the last week in June.  We counted 84 cycles, which translates into a rate of of about 500 cycles per hour.  We counted 251 motorized two wheelers, which translates to rate of over 1500 per hour! (We also saw three autorickshaws, and a car blocked half the cycle lane for 5 minutes, significantly slowing the flow of both cycles and motor bikes.)  

This SUV, approaching in the cycle lane, arrived just after we completed our sample:

Motorcyclists have a tough time of it in Delhi roads, of course.  But they don't belong in the cycle lane.  I can tell you from personal experience that having a pack of two wheelers overtaking your cycle on a narrow lane is...unnerving, to say the least. The police need to take this more seriously, but having conceded as much ground as they already have to the motor bikes, one wonders how easy it would be to re-take the cycle lane for cyclists. It's a big problem, and I don't see it getting fixed soon. Still, you have to admit the cycle lane is probably better than the alternative.

That may not look so bad now, but wait until the light changes and those vehicles start moving.  Not a lot of fun, I can tell you that! Delhi roads are difficult for cyclists, where ever you go. And cycles are probably the most sustainable form of transportation, other than walking!

If you want to lean more about the BRT, you can check out the Delhi Integrated Multi-Modal Transit System Ltd, which is is "a Joint Venture Company set up with equal equity of the Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi (GNCTD) and Infrastructure Development Finance Company (IDFC)."  In addition to having a really long name, the DIMMTS has a website with some very interesting publications and presentations about the BRT and public transportation generally. (Students wanting to write an essay about issues related to public transportation would find these resources useful.)

Better still, why not take a cycle or bus ride and see what you think!

Happy riding!

If you like what you've seen here, check out our photo essay page!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Dhaba's Commonwealth Games Page Up

We're taking the weekend off here at the Dhaba.  But last week, we did one thing we like quite a bit.  We put our best Commonwealth Games material all in one place. It's right here on our CWG page.  If you are looking for an alternative take on the Commonwealth Games, this is the place to go.  In addition to seven of our best CWG essays, you'll find a few of the links we think are most important from other places.  We'll add to it as we go, so send us stuff and well put it up!

As the Games approach, the media is beginning to look at the issue more critically.  Last week, we pointed out that large international sporting events do not always pay off for their host countries.  Yesterday, I saw two print media articles that made the same point.  It's good to see this discussion.  It's not really a question about whether the Games will fail or not as an entertainment event. But it's important that we see learn something from the.Games as an investment/development strategy.  Cheer leading will not get us to that understanding. Being critical might.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Best Dhabas in Delhi: Little Dragon, Defense Colony Market

Today, we continue our Best Dhaba in Delhi series with a look at a Defense Colony market institution: Little Dragon.  Though not a dhaba in the traditional sense, this Chinese food cart has been doing business the low-tech, greentech way for more than a decade. 

I came to know about the Little Dragon from my favourite local autowallah, who swears by it.  "Always fresh,always good--cheap and best!" were his words. I've eaten there or done takeaway at least a dozen times.

Little Dragon has a lot going for it environmentally.  They serve a crowd of people daily on reusable plastic plates, and they send out deliveries within a three kilometer radius by cycle.  There is minimal energy used; there is no AC, and food is cooked over a simple gas stove.

Also, on the positive side, the menu offers extensive choices, ranging from soups to spring rolls; prices range from Rs. 30 to Rs. 75 and the portions are generous.  A full plate of Veg. Chowmein (Rs. 35) or Egg Chowmein (Rs. 40) will usually feed two, though you might order a bit extra if you are feeding growing boys. My kids love the food, and I like it also. And it's never made me sick, which is more than I can say about another place I shall not mention in that market! If you live in or near Defense Colony, you can even order by phone: 011-64536491.

On the downside, the Little Dragon has no seating. More importantly, if you have finer taste than my kids, you may be disappointed: "too much oil, too much salt," declared Mrs. Batti the first time we ate there.  And she's probably right.  Remember that autowallah who recommended it?  He just found out he's got high blood pressure.  What did the doctor say?  LESS OIL! LESS SALT!  (And a handful of pills.)

If you don't have high blood pressure and you are looking for a reasonably priced, reasonably good, environmentally friendly meal in the Defense Colony area, the Little Dragon may be the place for you!  

For more reviews of some of Delhi's best food carts, tea stalls, dhabas, and dives, check out our Best Dhabas in Delhi series.  And if you'd like to contribute a guest review, drop us a line!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Commonwealth Games 2010: History Rhyming?

Missed deadlines continue to plague Commonwealth Games projects, and late rains are threatening to cause problems as well.  With fewer than 90 days to go before the opening ceremony, organisers say there is nothing to worry about, but nobody completely believes that.  From where I sit, it seems hard to imagine that everything promised will get finished on time.  On the other hand, I think most of the essential stuff will be ready, because the government has invested too much in these Games to see them really fall apart.  

But what about the big picture?  Nobody seriously believes we invested tens of thousands of crores over the last 5 years just to hold a "big, fat 14-day-long Delhi party."  Our leaders have made more impressive-sounding promises than that: infrastructure improvements, tourism, and prestige, to name a few. Yes, the CWG will make us a "World Class City." And the cost?  It's always been assumed that the benefits would outweigh the massive expenditures.  Perhaps Suresh Kalmadi, chairman of the Commonwealth Games Organising Committee, expressed this idea most clearly in February, when he told the Hindustan Times that the Games wouldn’t cost the government a penny: "The country will not incur any expenses. The money taken from the government is a loan, not a grant and will be returned. Our revenue from TV rights has doubled."  

As it turns out, according to the BBC, it seems unlikely that the CWG will meet the government's revenue expectations. But who knows, maybe they will pay other, less direct, dividends. After all, everyone knows there is never any shortage of countries offering to host the Olympic Games; there must be something to the idea that international sporting extravaganzas pay off.  

I decided to do some digging to find out how all this works. I found that the economics of international sporting events are seldom as simple as our politicians would have us believe.  In fact, the issues are so complex, that very few people take the time to analyze the numbers.  I did find one Candadian masters student in economics who used the lens of the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games to look at this issue. After 61 pages of detailed analysis and graphs, he concluded, "the expected overall net benefit of hosting an Olympic Games is substantially negative."  Looking back at the Vancouver Games, most non-economist commentators skipped the graphs, but conceded that the cost-benefit ratio was very difficult to figure. Vancouver’s first-term mayor, Gregor Robertson, put it this way: “Ultimately it will be years before you get a full sense of the balance sheet."

In fact, what I found after reading a lot of articles, was that most big international sports events are not clear cut winners or losers.  Yes, many, many contractors make buckets--even suitcases--of money.  Yes,
infrastructure gets built that might not have gotten built otherwise.  But sacrifices have to be made, as well; important things lose funding, because money is diverted to Games-related projects. It's economics and politics, just like everything else: there is a give and take.  While I have argued that the CWG have served as an excuse to prioritize things like transportation and tourism over clean water and housing, one cannot deny the games have created a lot of jobs, albeit criminally low-paid ones.  And I'm a fan of the Delhi Metro.  That, at least, is something to say thanks for.  But I'm sorry to say, there is no magic I know of that will insure the long term success of the CWG 2010.

Politicians don't want to tell you that, and they never have.  Not only are the long term benefits of mega-sporting events often hard to find, but sometimes, these events actually fail in very big and obvious ways.  Back in 1970, Montreal Mayor Mayor Jean Drapeau confidently declared that "the Olympics can no more have a deficit than a man can have a baby." Those remarks reminded me a bit of Suresh Kalmadi promising the CWG won't cost the government a penny.
Like Mark Twain, I don't believe history repeats itself, but sometimes it rhymes.  Let's hope Delhi 2010 doesn't rhyme with Montreal 1976, because in spite of Mayor Drapeau's promise to the contrary, the 1976 Olympics turned out to be a financial disaster for that city!  It took decades for Montreal to pay off the billion dollar debt it incurred preparing for those games.

A bit closer to home, we can also hope that Delhi 2010 doesn't rhyme with Athens 2004, because a lot of people are beginning to think that the current financial meltdown in Greece was, in part, a result of the huge debt Greece ran up in preparation for those Olympics.

Look, India's economy is bigger than Greece's and almost as big as Canada's, at least in nominal terms. We can probably absorb the cost of the CWG without a financial meltdown!  But we've also got a few problems that Greece and Canada have never had.  Like more than 800 million citizens living on Rs. 20 a day.  Like 1250 people dying from diarrhea-related illness each day.  Like 2,00,000 farmers desperate enough to kill themselves since 1997.

These Games were a gamble; let's hope they pay off.  But next time, I'd suggest we play our cards a little more cautiously.  Let's bet on things we know we need.  Things like food security, housing, and water.  If we really want to go out on a limb, let's bet on something that will deliver long-term payoffs, like schools that will teach our children to read and to think before they go gamble money that they don't have on fun and Games!

For more of what we've got to say about the CWG, check out our new CWG page.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Worldwide BP Protest Day: Virtual Laugh-In (New Delhi)

I spent a LOT of time earlier this week explaining in a somewhat uncharacteristically serious tone the reasons I don't like the Indian government's plan to cut fuel subsidies and decontrol the price of petrol. Still I don't want to give you the impression that I'm fan of Big Oil!  I just don't like schemes that result in massive transfers of wealth from poor people to rich people.

In fact, I'd decided to make my feelings about Big Oil clear by unilaterally declaring this past Thursday, "Make-Fun-of-BP Day." Then, just before I hit the Publish Post button, I learned that today, Saturday, July 10 had already been declared, "Worldwide BP Protest Day!" Not wanting to go against the grain needlessly, I moved my post to be part of the action, as it were.

So today at the Dhaba, we are hosting a virtual New Delhi Laugh-In Against BP, as part of the Worldwide BP Protest Day!  If you are looking for a real world event, sorry I don't know of any in South Asia yet, but there is a list of events here.

To prepare for the Laugh-In, my kids and I did some internet research into the BP situation.  And we found there are a lot of people making very funny videos about BP.  I've always enjoyed making fun of bad guys, so today I'm linking you to the funniest BP videos that we could find.

If these videos don't get you laughing, I don't know what will!:
Here is my 10 year old's favorite: this explains where BP gets it's best ideas.

Here is another very funny video that is getting millions of hits: BP Spills Coffee. Tip:Amruta Patil

Here are some BP commercial spoofs that made us laugh out loud at least once:

If you don't like videos, here are the entrants in a contest Greenpeace held to redesign BP's logos.

And you really want a serious analysis of what BP means in an Indian contex, read this post:

Finally, for the record, here is what the real Tony Hayward looks like in action

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Help Wanted: The Dhaba is Hiring

Before we start, two quick action alerts:
First, please sign this on-line petition against an environmentally damaging project in Orissa.
Also, petitions by  Greenpeace and others have led to public consultation on the dangerous Nuclear Liability Bill.  Now Greenpeace is sending an open letter to the Parliamentary Standing Committee in charge of changing the Bill. Please sign this open letter today itself, as the Committee needs to hear from you by this Friday (tomorrow).
For the last 10 months, we've been posting fresh green stuff from Delhi every Tuesday, every Thursday, and most Saturdays.  That, my friends, adds up to a lot of essays, a lot of photos, a lot of links.

We don't have nearly as many readers as India Today or Outlook. But it's a good bet that we have more interesting readers than either of them.  Business is good, and word is spreading; our stuff gets passed around and reposted all the time.  Just this week, a piece we ran in February is being highlighted at asia! MagazineOne of our posts about schools ran in the 1st Quarter 2010 issue of Mindfields.   We've got a lot more good stuff prepped and ready to go.  Still, we think variety is one of the things that makes life interesting, so we'd like to run more writing from more people!  We won't pay any money.  You are unlikely to become much more famous than you already are. But you will get to say something interesting to interesting people.

We don't have a well-articulated editorial policy and we don't follow a particular political line. We are working for a sustainable, just future.  What that means, and how we get there, is an open question.  We are not looking for cookie-cutter pieces designed primarily to sell products or bring traffic to a business, though we are happy to run original stories about green businesses.  Here are some more specific ideas:

Guest Posts: If you like to write, and you care about an environmental issue deeply, why not send us something?  You can see examples of what others have done on our Voices Page.

Photo Essays: If a picture's worth a thousand words, just think of the value of a photo essay! We don't do nearly enough with nature here as we should.  And there's no reason the Dhaba has to be so Delhi-centric. All you need are a few photos that suggest an idea. The words are optional.  For an example of some of the photo essays we've run so far, look here.  But there are many other forms and formats for this kind of post. In fact, you might experiment with a "single shot" approach, like the column Ravi Agarwal has had in First City for years.

Best Dhabas in Delhi Series: Is there a food cart, tea stall, dhaba or dive that you just love?  Why not send us a photo and a guest review.  Low-tech is greentech and dhabas are always more environmentally friendly than 5 Star restaurants.  We've just got one review up here so far, but more are coming.  Help us add to the list!

Reviews: If reading books is your thing, why not push yourself a bit further and actually write a green book review?  If you like films, why not write a film review?  Or art! Writing about something nearly always results in you learning more than you would have otherwise. Here are the reviews we've run so far at the Dhaba.

Interviews:  Why not interview a green activist or leader you know or admire?  It's not as difficult as you think, if you do it electronically.  Just write up a list of questions and shoot off the email.  Ask them for a photo to make it look nice!  I love the interviews we've run so far.  Help us get more!

Other Stuff: You may have a completely different idea.  Try us! You could also send us a link to a great video, or a letter to Hari Batti, Agony Uncle.

You can contact us by writing haribatti123@gmail.com.  We look forward to hearing from you!

Monday, July 5, 2010

A Green Defense of Oil Subsidies: thoughts on the Bharat Bandh

There are few things more complicated than fuel price policy, which is mostly why I've avoided writing about it up until now. But few things are as important in the day-to-day lives of most people.  Fuel helps move us and the goods we need.  It powers the stoves that cook our food.  Farmers need fuel for their tractors, and much of  the fertilizers and pesticides used in modern agriculture are made through energy-intensive processes--processes that require fuel.   It is all very well and good to say we should move toward methods of agriculture that require less fossil fuel.  We should do that, but that shift will take time and a political commitment that doesn't seem to exist at the moment.  In the meantime, it is easy to see that fuel price hikes affect the entire economy from food prices to auto fares.

I wish I could say I've got the answers to the problem of rising fuel prices all figured out and ready to serve up in an easily digestible form.  I don't, but the Bharat Bandh, which aimed to shut down as much of the country as possible in protest of fuel price hikes and the decontrol of petrol prices, left me feeling compelled to take a stand: I support the stated goals of the bandh as far as they go--but I don't think they go nearly far enough.

As much as I hate to say this, in order to understand this issue, you have to understand a few simple things about how fuel prices work in India. I'll promise to make this as painless as possible, if you promise not to click the back button. 

First, about 70% of our oil is imported, so that oil is purchased at prices set by the international market.  Then, various government bodies levy a variety of taxes, which all add up to a large share of the final price charged for fuel in the domestic market.     However, the government has always sought to cushion the economy from the ups and downs of the international market by controlling domestic oil prices and by partly subsidising state oil firms for the losses they incur when international market prices are higher than the government-mandated domestic prices.  So the government gains by taxing oil; but it also loses to the extent that it has to subsidize the losses of state run oil companies for the money they lose due to domestic price controls.

The government has decontrolled the price of petrol because it no longer wants to pay these subsidies--and it's only a matter of time before it tries to decontrol the price of diesel as well. I think these moves, on the whole, are a bad idea. 

Now many of you may ask, why should we subsidize oil, of all things?  Haven't you always said that we should make people pay the full cost of the products they consume? Doesn't subsidized oil lead to more unsustainable use of cars and other problems?

Let me be clear; I think that, as a rule, public subsidies should be designed to help move us toward a move sustainable future--or to help insure access to basic rights, such as food or education. While it is true that cuts in oil subsidies may solve some problems, in the long run, unless they are accompanied by a comprehensive, justice-based program of sustainable development, these cuts will simply result in a massive transfer of wealth upward. That's because a good bit of those subsidies benefit poor people in this country, either directly or indirectly.  Given that fuel is already heavily taxed, I don't think price controls designed to help keep food and cooking costs low are unreasonable--in fact, in the current context, I think they are necessary. In a country where more than 800 million people live on less than Rs. 20 per day, policies that lead to food inflation are not just mean spirited, they are murderous.

Let's put this subsidy issue in proper context.  The current budget offers direct cuts in income tax for the upper middle class and rich, while it's spending on poverty reduction, social services and educaton remains largely stagnant.   And of course, as P. Sainath pointed out in his speech at IIC last week, the government continues to grant massive giveaways to the wealthy in this country through tax write offs and other subsidies. (If you missed the speech, you can read this or this as consolation.)  

Given that the government is drastically increasing the support it gives to the richest in this country, it seems hard to believe that the removal of oil subsidies is motivated solely by a desire to lower the fiscal deficit; rather it is motivated by a desire to cut subsidies to poor people in order to pay for subsidies already promised to rich people. The market is just a useful smokescreen. My, that sounds a bit extreme, doesn't it?  Sorry, but extreme policies tend to sound... extreme, when demystified.

Having said that, there is a lot that is very, very wrong with our current energy policy, and these things need to be fixed.  

Most obviously, a good deal of the current fuel subsidies do not do what they should be doing. Diesel fuel is taxed at a much lower rate than petrol, because it is used extensively in transportation and agriculture; lower diesel prices, we are told, are necessary to keep down food inflation.  Fair enough.  But in reality, a good deal of diesel goes into private cars. In fact, according to the CSE, the government's own Kirit Parikh panel conceded that "cars use up 15 per cent of the total diesel in the country – compared to 12 per cent by buses and agriculture, 10 per cent by industry, and 6 per cent by the railways."  The explosion of private diesel cars in Delhi and elsewhere has been driven by the low price of diesel fuel. This has nothing to do with food; but it has a great deal to do with the rise in pollution we are seeing.

A comprehensive fuel policy needs to figure a way around this.  In an ideal world, we would have a tax and subsidy structure that supported sustainable uses of fuel over unsustainable ones. Public transportation would be expanded and ticket prices kept low for all.  Fuel for shared taxis and three wheelers would be kept low, especially in areas where buses and trains are not available or adequate. 

Fuel for tractors, trucks and freight trains would be inexpensive, but animal powered farming and transportation would also be encouraged where practical. And we'd encourage local food production whenever possible: why subsidize the transportation of Punjabi rice to Kerala, if the same money could encourage southern farmers to plant more rice? All private cars would pay full price at the petrol pump since they pollute the most and take up the most room on our roads, per person. And diesel for private cars would be more, not less, expensive, since it causes more pollution. 

The problem is that we don't live in an ideal world, and so efforts to price the same fuels differently depending on how they are used invite fraud and corruption.  For example, if these policies were implemented, farmers all over the country would be tempted to resell their subsidized diesel to corrupt middlemen who would resell it for use in private cars. 

So what kind of fuel policies might a practical government implement if it wanted to be both environmentally friendly and fair?  After a lot of thought, two general approaches suggest themselves:

Approach I: Maintain fuel subsidies, but...
First, there are a host of things the government could do to encourage a more sustainable economy within a framework of fuel subsidies. We could start by encouraging good things directly. For example, public transportation could be further expanded and subsidized. Delhi buses are too crowded, and most Indian cities lack any viable system of public transportation at all.  There's a lot of room for growth in this sector! 

We could also do things to discourage unsustainable behavior. If we can't figure out how to tax private cars adequately at the pump (especially those that use super-polluting diesel fuel), then we could do other things to make them more expensive--increased fees at the point of purchase, parking taxes, etc. I'm not an expert here, but you can read this piece from CSE for a taste of how this might work in one context.

And there is a lot of good we could do simply by not investing public money in stupid places. As P. Sainath rightly said last week, it is pointless to subsidize "sunset industries" like automobiles. I'd add "World Class" airports to that list, by the way.  Mark my words, within a decade, rising oil prices--subsidized or not--are going to make the public money we've spent on encouraging the manufacture and use of cars and airplanes look silly, if not criminal!

 Approach II: Cut fuel subsidies, but...
There is another road, of course.  The government could cut fuel subsidies, while at the same time vastly expanding the support it gives to the people who actually need it. I'm not going to go into a lot of details here, because the list is long;  a few examples will have to do.  Instead of trying to keep food inflation down by subsidizing oil prices, the government could do things that would reduce hunger directly.  A universal public food distribution system would not be nearly as expensive as many people assume and it's favoured by some very bright people.  In transportation, many of the measures mentioned above, would work, with or without subsidies.  Expanding access to work under the NREGA--and increasing the wages offered under that scheme--would help, as would increasing the access of small farmers to credit at reasonable rates.

Those who complain that subsidies distort markets and should be done away with either fail to see--or fail to admit--that all economies and societies rely on some kind of subsidies.  India is no exception.  The only question is, who subsidizes who?  The problem with the current cuts in fuel subsidies is simple: at root, they are all about getting poor people to pay for subsidies to wealthy people and wealthy companies.  From where I sit, that just doesn't add up!