Thursday, March 31, 2011

Why this green supports today's Delhi Autorickshaw strike

Strike day: don't travel by auto today!
Autos are not perfectly green, but they are better than many other forms of transportation--efforts to unduly burden them are wrong-headed and unfair
Because of the Delhi autorickshaw strike today, I had to take two buses to get to work. Sure I saved some money--and my green quotient was higher, but instead of 30 minutes, my commute took an hour and twenty. You might think I'd be annoyed, but I'm not. I support the strike, and wouldn't travel by auto at any price today. Autorickshaws may not be the greenest vehicle on the road, but they are far less damaging than private cars, in part because they are smaller and more efficient, and in part because they are a necessary part of many peoples' bus and metro journeys. Efforts to unnecessarily burden autos and their drivers are wrongheaded and unfair.

Just so we're clear: of course I know Delhi auto walas can be annoying and often refuse to go by the meter--or even to go at all, depending on where you want to go. But this strike is about something else: the government's attempt to make autowala's pay to have GPS devices installed in their vehicles. The cost? Rs.15,000 per auto, per year. In addition, the government wants to raise other annual fees about Rs. 7,000. All in all, autowalas are looking at having to come up with another Rs. 22,000 a year. And if the GPS is stolen? One autowala said to me, "I'd die." 

Now the government wants you to believe that autowalas agreed to this when they got the rate hike last year, and that they "have had ample time to save for the installation of the GPS. It should not be difficult monetarily for them to deposit the fee and install the instrument." At least that's what one official told reporters last month.

But the idea that a fellow making the income earned by most autowalas can easily come up with Rs. 22,000 is ridiculous. And the idea that last year's rate hike was too high is also silly. Inflation in all sectors is rampant, and people need more to live on. Who complained earlier this month when it was announced that corporate salaries were rising at record levels in India? The increased earnings of autowalas went to all kinds of things.  In the last year, the guy I travel with regularly had to pay for an operation for his mother, tuition for his daughter, an engine overhaul on his vehicle, registration and insurance, and food, of course, which we all know is getting more expensive all the time. His wife told him that in order to come up with the extra money demanded by the government, they'd have to set aside another Rs. 100 per day. They'd either have to make drastic cuts in their household budget, or or he'd have to drive longer each day.

It's interesting isn't it, that a neo-liberal government that regularly subsidises corporations in a variety of ways wants working class autowalas to pay for their own GPS installation--essentially, to pay to regulate themselves! Also interesting is the rumour that is going around among autowalas: if the unions can come up with enough money--say a crore or ten, then an important minister might be willing to reconsider this scheme.  I'm not saying that this is true--but the fact that it's out there says something about the lack of faith so many of us have in our leaders.

The autorickshaw union leaders are saying that Shelia Dikshit would like to make Delhi into London or Paris. I've been saying that for more than a year. In fact a year ago, I argued that Dikshit's attempt to phase out autos in Delhi was motivated in part by her desire to make this into a World Class City. Smt. Dikshit doesn't like autos. Autos are are not as green as buses or the metro, but they are not as bad as private vehicles for a variety of reasons.  We need to stop attacking these guys. Support the strike--go by bus or metro--or better still, walk!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Green Weekend Out:Roots Cafe and the Rajiv Gandhi Renewable Energy Park

The daytime weather is nice in Delhi these days, but it won't be for long. So before things really heat up, why not take a green outing with the family? A few weeks back, we headed out to Roots cafe in the Rajiv Gandhi Renewable Energy Park, Gurgaon--and we had a great time.

I confess, I normally avoid Gurgaon.  For one thing, I don't like giant malls, and for another, I don't like traffic. But the metro makes the traffic a non-issue, and the Cafe Roots is not a giant mall. Just hop on the Yellow line and head to the IFFCO Chowk stop.  It's something like 30 minutes from Hauz Khaz station, and it's an interesting ride: once the metro comes above ground, you get all kinds of interesting views out there. 

To get to the Rajiv Gandhi Renewable Energy Park (RGREP) from IFFCO Chowk, head out the door, past the auto stand and turn right (west). It's a 5-10 minute walk. You can see where you are going from this aerial map, or ask they guy in this food stand:

He'll tell you to keep walking and pretty soon you'll come to the RGREP.  It's run by Haryana Renewable Energy Development Authority (HAREDA), and it's goal is to spread awareness about sustainable development. Does it work as a government agency? I have no idea whatsoever, but you can do some research by reading their annual report, or checking out their website.  It may be a complete waste of money, or it may be wonderful.

My goal was to find out if the kids would have fun in the park, and if Roots Cafe was any good. And the answer to both of those questions was a resounding yes.

I once wrote a post about how my kids like to imagine crazy ways to get electricity from playground equipment. This park actually takes those kind of ideas off the drawing board and makes them real...sort of. The slide above was supposed to generate enough electricity to make a light light up, but it wasn't working the day we went.

However, this crazy spinning machine did light up lights and make cool noises when kids ran in it. A little bit like something you might find in an enormous green hamster cage. The kids and I concluded that it probably won't be revolutionizing the power grid anytime soon, but it was pretty cool, nonetheless.

There were plenty of other things to talk with kids about...
Like solar arrays and solar water heaters. There was even a solar powered battery car you could rent, but the Batti kids are skeptical about any form of private motor vehicle and they didn't feel the car was worth the Rs. 20 or whatever was being charged.

While the kids played, Mrs. Batti and I sipped some tea at Roots.

Roots--'a cafe in the park' has a lot going for it. No AC, for one thing, which is necessary in a green cafe. Of course it will get warm in the summer months, when most of us stay inside during the hot hours. But those of us who have learned to live 'AC Free' in Delhi know that shade, moving air, and a little good old fashioned sweat are really all you need to be comfortable on most days--and this cafe has all of those things. 

The food we ordered was good.  Roots does not qualify as one of our Best Dhabas in Delhi, but I liked the fact that it's menu included reasonably priced items. For example, the masala chai was excellent and a generous sized cup sold for Rs. 20, just a few rupees more than the metro fare it took to get there. Roots is a private cafe, with a contract to run in a quasi-governmental space; it is not a revolutionary green organisation. Still, one gets the feeling that it is run by good people. Someone told me that the owner travels only by metro now, and that didn't surprise me.

So if you need something to do on a weekend and are sick of Cafe Coffee Day and all that noise, why not jump on the Yellow line and go check out Roots? I don't think you'll be disappointed.  For more information, you can check out their Facebook group. And if you go on Sunday, you might be able to find some good organic produce at the farmer's market.
For more interesting places to eat, check out out Best Dhaba in Delhi series.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Earth Hour 2011: good intentions or greenwash?

Earth Hour: Lights on or lights off?
Today is the last Saturday in March, so this evening at 8:30 pm, people all over the world will turn off their lights for an hour to raise awareness about a variety of green issues.  Of course many good-hearted greens will use the time to think sincerely about what else they might do to be earth friendly, or they will use Earth Hour as a chance to educate their friends, family and neighbors about the massive environmental problems we all face. On the other hand, many political, entertainment and business leaders will use Earth Hour as a low-cost opportunity to prove they are 'green,' when in fact they actively pursue earth-unfriendly policies and/or lifestyles during the rest of the year. For those people, Earth Hour really is just a way to cloak themselves or their companies with a thick coat of greenwash.

That's one reason why Delhi environmental activist Nagraj Adve leaves his lights on in silent protest during Earth Hour. Adve's Earth Hour guest post here last year resulted in a few angry emails, but it clearly touched a nerve: it was re-run in all kinds of places and ended up in the Green Light Dhaba's all-time top-ten most-read list.

Whatever you feel about Earth Hour, do read Adve's post--it will make you think, whether you agree with him or not. And while you are thinking about light consumption, take a look at "Earth at Night" to find out which countries send the most light into space. (There's a lot of light coming from India, but not when you consider the population here; roughly 400 million Indians don't have access to electricity; for them, every hour is Earth Hour.)  

I've put together a list of our best posts on greenwash.  We're not against symbols here at the dhaba; hey, we just ran a World Water Day Special last week. But symbolic actions are intended to make us think. And Earth Hour is a great time to think about the dangers of greenwash. So read a few of won't be disappointed, and it probably won't even take you a full hour.

The Best of the Dhaba: Greenwash
 False advertising:  Priyanka Chopra: do we really need role models like this?
 Tell it like it is...   A phrase I hate: brand ambassador
 Annoying little things: Top 5 Commonwealth Games Pet Peeves
 Antidote:  The Story of Electronics: best known cure for the 'green paper fetish'
 Hard to believe: Flyovers reduce emissions and other examples of Delhi greenwash 
 Should've been:  Breaking News: Leak Reveals Chief Minister Dikshit is Planning Major Green Policy Shifts

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Nuclear crisis in Japan: more lessons

Japan's problems continued with another quake hitting this week.
I know I wrote about the nuclear disaster in Japan last week, and I know many of you are ready to move on to the next 'big story', whether that be Wikileaks-comes-to-India or the war in Libya.  Still I think it's important for us to revisit what's going on in Japan because it is so easy to learn the wrong lessons from it. And I promise to be quick and not too technical.

First, most of us have learned or been reminded of the fact that nuclear power is not safe. The guy cutting my hair said so this weekend, as did at least two auto walas.  Most people see that if things could go this wrong in a Japanese nuclear plant, there is a good chance they could go wrong here also. I remind people that anyone who followed the incident last year when radioactive trash ended up in a west Delhi scrap market knows that Indian authorities are simply not capable of monitoring the nuclear industry effectively (yes, I said that last week, but it bears saying again)

But the problem with the automated--and correct--'nuclear is dangerous' response is that the other major sources of energy--coal and oil--are also dangerous. VERY dangerous. Does anyone remember that spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year? Deadly and environmentally destructive. Oil is getting more dangerous to extract because it is getting harder to find. If we keep using oil like we are, we are bound to have more big spills in environmentally sensitive places, because much of the world's remaining oil is in environmentally sensitive places.  Simple, really. And coal, well coal is also very, very dangerous. In fact, George Monbiot over at the Guardian argues convincingly that for a variety of reasons coal kills far more people every year than nuclear energy. (Of course there are the climate-change related deaths, but coal plants also release more radiation than nuclear plants--assuming the nuclear plants don't melt down.)

The only way out of this mess is for us to drastically reduce consumption of both energy and things. That's going to be painful, but it's got to happen. Except it won't--not with the political leadership we have. The western world seems happy to blame India and China for oil scarcity, even though they've historically consumed most of it. And Indian politicians are quick to use the fact that we have a lot of poor people to excuse the over-consumption of our super-elite. Not a pretty picture.

Oh yes, one more thing. When we talk about green building, the events in Japan remind us that responsible construction--whether it be low-income housing or high-end malls--must be earthquake-safe. As I said last week, far, far more people die from badly built buildings than from nuclear meltdowns. And the solution to that problem is not as expensive as we think--especially considering what we have to lose through inaction. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

World Water Day Special: Green Poetry by Sumana Roy


You hear its hinges now, 
peeling the silence 
on purple-grey evenings.
Creaks are earned, 
like grey hair, 
an old adage laid bare.

Even rivers lose girth. 
Knuckles and veins 
rise like Lazarus
to a snot-green birth. 

Every river has its tales.
Here there’s a dearth
for this is now a city's river, 
the river of eyeglasses
and a thousand calling bells.

Where are the stories of baits, 
of tamed knots and fishermen's nets?

Stories come
from crevices of curses, 
from foliage of fear,
from rotting juices 
of abandoned babies, 
leaking into a sap of slums 
that line the river's skin 
like hair on a woman's chin.

In this city where shops shut 
their eyelids early,
the river wears laziness. 
It flows like mourning.
The crematorium washes 
its hands off the dead. 
'Stock-keeping is a river's 
responsibility,' it said.

Two legs of bridges on its chest, 
like Kali’s on her husband's, at rest. 

Season is the river's pre-partum depression, 
Evening is a vapour opening like her yawn.

On evenings when the sky's a white lie,
I see ambulances, 
red lights gasping, shrieking– 
the river's in hospital, waiting to die. 

Fish moved inside its body once, 
like kites in a windy sky.
Now a black crow alights 
on its neon-flaked skin. 
It pecks 
and claws 
and caws,
flies to a new surname,
wearing a dead fin. 

It’s the time of disease, 
of waiting for belatedness, 
of giant wheels of smoke.
The riverits spools 
of uncoiled weed tapes– 
becomes a recording studio.
It records the firewood's
crackle, the priest's chants.

Life becomes a sign
the river a map’s thin line.

And school children
on their way home
change its name and sing:
Maha-ganda, Maha-ganda
Hope you are fine!"

*This is as much Saikat Chakraborty’s poem as it is mine, or the river Mahananda’s. 

Sumana Roy lives in Siliguri, a small town in Bengal. The river Mahananda, that gave a rhythm to childhoods like hers once, now runs feebly through her town. She hopes to travel upstream to the river’s home some day. 

You can read more green poetry, including another river poem by Sumana Roy, on our Voices page. And why not check out last year's World Water Day Special on Delhi's Nallahs.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Wikileaks and the 'cash for votes' scam: three simple reasons for the UPA to resign

The other day, The Hindu printed excerpts from leaked US diplomatic cables which report 'aide to Congress leader Satish Sharma showed a U.S. Embassy employee “two chests containing cash” he said was part of a bigger fund of Rs. 50 crore to Rs. 60 crore that the party had assembled to purchase the support of MPs.' The US is also implicated in this, but let's leave this for another day.

Congress's initial response was to point out that 'the Government elected is accountable to the 15th Lok Sabha and not the 14th Lok Sabha,' which is technically true but obviously ignores the point that the elections would certainly had been different had Congress gone into them after losing a no-confidence vote. Voters like winners. Then, when the first response didn't work, Manmohan Singh, our 'clean' PM, came out and said, all this was simply untrue.

Sorry, it's not working. Sure, maybe this would not stand up in court. Who cares? Politicians are accountable first to voters, not to judges. And no voter in his or her right mind doubts that there is something rotten very rotten in the current government. Not after all we've seen with the CWG, 2-G scams. Here are three simple reasons our PM needs to do the needful and step down--for our good and his.

1. Trust: The PM is claiming the charges are based on, " “speculative, unverified and unverifiable" communication. Maybe so. But does anyone doubt they are true, given the behavior of this government over the past few years? Nobody! The US government may lie in public, but why would they lie in private communications? By the way, the US ambassador at the time is not denying these reports.

2. Their own future: If the UPA holds on in the face of these allegations--given what we already have seen in the 2G and CWG scandals--how will they ever hold any other government accountable for corruption? This argument works for friends who fear the alternative to a UPA government. Yes, a BJP government would raise many problems. But if the UPA resigns now on principal and cleans house, it might be in a better position to win. And in the long run, do you really want to give a green light for corruption to any future governments? Letting the UPA II continue at this point really amounts to throwing up our hands and saying, 'we'll live with corruption.' 

3. Democracy--not oligarchy: It should be abundantly clear that the UPA got the go-ahead on the civil nuclear deal  only by directly subverting democracy, a terrifying thought given what we are seeing in Japan this week. We cannot forget: politicians are accountable first to voters, not to foreign countries or huge corporations.

When the UPA 'got away' with the initial 'cash for votes' scandal after the 2008  'nuclear no-confidence vote', it seems they learned the wrong lesson; it seems they learned corruption pays. Once they understood that, the 2G scam, the CWG fiasco, must have been just too tempting. 

It's time this government learned some new lessons: corruption may pay, but it pays the wrong people. And in the end, it's a risky business.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

What India can learn from Japan's natural and nuclear disasters

Nuclear power plants are not as safe as we think--but that may be the least of our worries

As the earthquake-tsunami in Japan threatens to transform itself from a natural disaster into a nuclear one, many people are asking themselves what this all means for those of us in India. I think we can draw two simple lessons.

1. Nuclear power is obviously not as safe as we've been told. I know you are reading reassuring reports in the media designed to keep us from worrying about nuclear safety. But anyone who followed the incident last year when radioactive trash ended up in a west Delhi scrap market knows the authorities are simply not capable of monitoring the nuclear industry effectively. If you consider all the problems we have with toxics generally, this won't really come as a surprise, but sometimes we need to be reminded of the obvious. Calls for increased monitoring are wonderful, but the watchdogs simply don't have the resources to make those calls meaningful. 

The Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP) is right to call for a moratorium on  nuclear power plant construction, as is Avaaz, which is opposing the Jaitapur nu clear plant with this petition. Anyone who wants more info can also read what Kafila has on the subject.

2. Earthquake-safe housing may be even more urgent than the nuclear power plant issue. I don't want to take away attention from the nuclear issue. But let's not forget that most people die in earthquakes because they are crushed by unsafe buildings. Japan's quake would have been much, much deadlier had they not had relatively safe housing. We, on the other hand, do not have relatively safe housing: fatal building collapses due to heavy rains are far too common in Delhi and other major Indian cities. 

Given that, and given the damage caused by many recent earthquakes, one can hardly imagine the devastation that could result if a major earthquake hit a large Indian city. Consider two recent quakes, neither of which triggered a monsoon, and both of which were much, much smaller than the one that hit Japan last week.  The 2001 quake in Gujarat, killed about 20,000 people; the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir, killed nearly 80,000. If you add "Delhi" or some other big city to that idea, you won't sleep well tonight.

Inexpensive earthquake safe housing is not beyond our reach.  In fact, it is a necessity.  Need I say more?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The centre's answer to food inflation? Eat less!

Bhonk, Bhonk! Living large in GK II
Life is like a room full of mirrors; if you're not careful,  you can end up seeing things backwards!

A year or so ago, a pair of scientists from New Zealand claimed that having a pet dog is actually worse for the environment than having an SUV. Apparently, it's not a joke--dogs are carnivores and eat a lot of meat. Meat takes a lot of land to raise, which means forests are cut, which means more greenhouse gases in the air--and less land for vegetarian food crops. The fall in food supplies that results means higher prices, as any first year student of economics knows. I'm not saying, as plasticgraduate did, that we should eat our pets. But maybe we should think twice before getting new ones.

Or maybe we could solve the food inflation problem by asking poor people to eat less food.

Before you think I've gone off the deep end, consider that the centre is blaming food inflation on increased consumption by poor people. That's a strange way of framing the problem, but it does leave rich people and their pets--both here and abroad--off the hook. Which is probably why George W. Bush said something similar back in 2008

On a strangely similar note, US president Obama recently blamed high oil prices on increased consumption in India and China, which may be half true, but obviously ignores who's historically consumed--and who continues to consume--most of the world's oil.

Arguing that poor people or poor countries are responsible for tight supply when they begin to consume more food or oil is a little like looking at the world through a mirror; it makes sense when you are combing your hair, but it can lead to problems when you are attempting tasks that require higher order thinking--like reading the newspaper or pondering the world's many problems.  And we'll never be able to lower food inflation--or solve the oil supply problem--by blaming poor people.

When it comes right down to it, this all reminds us of something we'd do well not to forget: sometimes our perspective really does matter; sometimes we can come to conclusions that seem perfectly reasonable--demonstrably true, even-- by looking at a problem from exactly the wrong point of view. It's time we stop putting up with this kind of backward logic, and look at the problems facing us straight on.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Solidarity Alert: NREGA activist murdered--show your outrage!

On March 2,  National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) activist Niyamat Ansari was murdered in Jharkhand. From what I am reading, it seems likely this murder involved a group comprised of Maoists and corrupt contractors. Whoever it was, the police need to take it seriously. For more information, there are details at the Action for Employment Guarantee website, which is worth visiting in any case. And here's a link to The Hindu's editorial on the subject.  

NREGA has enormous potential, but is deeply flawed, in part because of widespread corruption, in part  because it is underfunded. Barring a serious commitment on the part of the centre to enforce and expand NREGA, it falls to local activists to make this plan work at all. We cannot allow activists to be harassed and killed without, at the very least, a show of outrage. If you'd like to make your voice heard, here's one suggestion that came in a mail from a friend of a friend who is involved in this work:
Many of you know that a friend and NREGA activist, Niyamat Ansari was brutally murdered on 2 March, 2011. You can find details about Niyamat's work and his murder here. This includes videos of him, media coverage, statements of protest against his murder, etc. 
Several people have asked how they can help. Among other things that we are pursuing (e.g., compensation for his family, their safety, Bhukhan's safety), we feel that keeping up the pressure on the SP (Latehar) to arrest those named in the FIR is very important. Only one of the eight people named in this FIR has been arrested so far. It seems that the police is even aware of their whereabouts. The names of those in the FIR are: Shankar Dubey, Vijay Dubey, Purshottam Prashad, Vashisht Tiwari, Prem Chand Singh, Devas Singh, Arun Singh and Sudershan. Arun Singh has been arrested. Shankar Dubey is believed to be the ring-leader.

One of the ways in which one could keep the pressure up is to send an sms to the SP Latehar demanding the immediate arrest of these people. I am writing to request you to send him an sms and to ask others to send a message too. His number is 94317 06262.

You could word the message as you like. E.g.,

"We demand the immediate arrest of Shankar Dubey and others named in Niyamat's murder" or
"Arrest Shankar Dubey and others named in Niyamat's murder immediately",

or anything else you think is appropriate.
You could consider "signing" these messages, esp if you are sending it from outside of India, so that the SP knows that he is being closely and widely.
So why not send that SMS? It can't hurt.  If you live outside of India, you'll have to add a 91, I think. 

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Confession of a Concerned Citizen by Kabir Arora

For me Lonavala Young Activist Meeting was a point where my private dilemmas became public. Whom do you call Activist? Why do you want to name yourself as an activist? By using the term “activism” we are somewhere mainstreaming the idea of concerned citizenry in a separate profession. I’m personally very much uncomfortable with the creation of a new profession “where one serves the underprivileged or deprived class”.

Background of how I joined the cult: The Batla House encounter and post scenario in Jamia founded the human rights movement in the institution. An institution founded by the prophets of non-violence was not only attacked with bullets but with divisive politics which was more harming. University was called a terrorist breeding ground! Every Jamia student became a concerned citizen. Before the encounter I was doing things here and there on environmental issues. Encounter changed my outlook and belief. In Center for Science Environment we were taught to question but in my life, for the first time I questioned the inhuman act committed by the state on the name of saving the nation.

With all the concerns, there are individual aspirations of having an active life with comfortable
surroundings. I’m not sure whether they will be able to go together. The set of principles I’ve chosen for myself- make me think a lot. Both of the ideas are very contradictory to each other. At times I’ve to destabilize myself so that I can just ponder over the deeds committed.

The lifestyle which is expected from an “activist” is not there as a part of my daily life. I’m also an individual who has minute desires and needs. May not be able to reach the limit of survival but
adaptability is still there. Instances in life make me not to question that. I do belong to privileged middle class but that doesn’t stop me from aligning with the oppressed ones. In a way even I’m oppressed. Systems, structures, society, state all have defined the limits, beliefs and desires. There is a strong aspiration to decondition myself from all of them, and try to figure out a path which is my own. I’m naming it my own rebellion. A rebellion which is searching for alternative ways of surviving and grooming; which is sustainable in nature. Not harming the surroundings and living beings. How is there going to be a mass transit to those alternatives? I’m carrying no answer for it. My struggle is not only outside, there is a tussle going on inside. I do have political conscience; how to manifest it without becoming a part of mainstream party? I’m clueless about it.

When I move out of my nutshell see a lot of pessimism in my surroundings, inspirations-stories of struggle, victories which are humble –small keeps me moving, push me towards optimism.

Woh Subah Kabhi To Aayegi! Us Subah Ki Talash Mein Rangon Ka Ik Indradhanush Le Chale Hamara Kafila…
Kabir Arora is an environmental activist and Gandhi Fellow.  To read more by Kabir, see the the links at the bottom of this post.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

For men only? International Women's Day issue

I woke up this morning and heard it was International Women's Day; within minutes of leaving the flat, I was reminded of how much there is that is still wrong with the way women are treated in the world.  Take that urinal on the right there--like many public toilets in Delhi, it wouldn't do a woman or girl much good--it's clearly made for men only. That causes all kinds of problems for women, especially in urban areas where going 'out in the open' is more and more difficult. And there is a lot of evidence to suggest that lack of toilets in schools is a major contributor to female illiteracy.  Something needs to change, and as greens we need to be aware of the complex ways in which the issues we care about--water and sanitation in this case--are often influenced by things like gender, class and caste.

We environmentalists also care about transportation, and here the news is not all bad. Last Saturday, I saw a female conductor on a DTC bus, which is a good sign for women commuters-- and for women workers, who are seeing more opportunities for different kinds of jobs. And the ladies compartment of the Delhi Metro is making travel for women all over the city more pleasant.

Here are a few links for the day; if you have more,  do share them in the comments:
  Fight back: Blank Noise
  Unfair: Why Women Should Not Hold On
  Unfair: "Napkin"
  Reading: Known Turf

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Hard times ahead? Fertilizer, famine and the future of our farms

Is the sun setting on the "green revolution"?
In which I explain what my father-in-law and Karl Marx forgot to tell us about the source of wealth and food...

Last week The Hindu ran two pieces which, when taken together, serve to remind us how very vulnerable our whole system of food production is to forces beyond our control. First, Raghuvansh Prasad Singh takes on the whole issue of fertilizer subsidy, explaining that our reliance on chemical fertilizers is really a reliance on foreign petrochemical companies and fertilizer producers:
There have been concerns raised by several policy experts and others that the fertilizer policy of the country is only helping to move out the Indian tax payers' money to foreign petroleum companies and fertilizer producers. It is to be noted here that fertilizer production is highly dependent on fossil fuels, and that most fertilizers are imported.
Even more interesting, is the whole question of what the farmers think about soil degradation. What farmers know--and don't know--about that topic is striking. Here's Singh again:
In the mad rush to balance the chemical fertilizer kitty with global prices, policy makers are forgetting a huge problem that is staring us in the face — the deteriorating soil in the country and the resultant threat to food security. However farmers are aware of the crisis, but are helpless in the absence of support systems from the government. A recent Greenpeace India report, “Of Soils, Subsidies and Survival,” based on social audits conducted in five Indian States, has revealed that 96 per cent out of the 1,000 farmers surveyed were of the opinion that the use of chemical fertilisers led to soil degradation but they continue to use them as there was no other option. Ninety-four per cent of the surveyed farmers believed that only organic fertilisers can maintain soil health. However, only one per cent of the farmers received any kind of support for production and the use of organic fertilisers. Ninety-eight per cent of the surveyed farmers were ready to use organic fertilisers if they are subsidised and made easily available...Further, only 34 per cent of them knew that chemical fertilisers are subsidised. Of those who knew, only seven per cent knew that a new subsidy system (NBS) was introduced by the government for chemical fertilizers. Even at the subsidised rate, 94 per cent of them thought that chemical fertilisers are unaffordable and not economical.
Later in the week, Andrew Simms gave us "Our addiction to oil is draining every drop." Simms reminds of two sobering facts: first, most of our economy depends on cheap fossil fuel, and second, we are running out of that cheap fossil fuel. Here's a taste:
We all became, and remain, hooked on its convenience. Today's energy supplies provide the equivalent of the work of 22 billion slaves, according to former oil industry man Colin Campbell. But now the wave of oil looks set to leave us high and dry. At well over $100 per barrel, prices are climbing again to the level last reached in 2008. Since then, however, the tone of commentary has changed.
That comment about slavery, by the way, reminded me of my university days, when many of my red friends were fond of announcing, "labour creates all wealth, comrade!" Come to think of it, I think I even announced that a few times. Today, I don't really feel up to a full discussion of c+L=W or other aspects of the Labour Theory of Value... or the opening paragraph of Marx's Critique of the Gotha Progamme...or even my father-in-law's take on all that in an Indian context: FARMS+ the Labour of Farmers=Wealth. 

Anyway, if I really did go and try to write a full on critique of Marxist economics, I'm sure someone from SARAI would take me to task for lack of intellectual rigour and the rest of you would stop reading. 

But permit me this much at least: wealth cannot be generated and food cannot be grown over the long run if it is not done so sustainably. And our current systems of industrial and agricultural production depend on us using fossil fuels (which is really ancient solar energy) and what is left of the organic content of the soil (which is more recent solar energy) in a way that is unsustainable. See, that's the thing neither Marx, nor my father-in-law ever completely got their large minds around.

And if that was too confusing, I think these three simple statements may be a bit more clear:
1) Over-farmed Indian soil increasingly requires fertilizer in order to give food.
2) Fertilizer requires a lot of fossil fuel to produce.
3) Oil supplies are falling and prices are rising--in the short and long term.

Add those up, and you can see we are in trouble, even without taking into account falling water tables and climate change. The problems are easy to understand, but the solutions are much more complex. And the price of failure is high indeed: lacking a real solution to these problems, the best we can hope for is that hunger will continue to stalk the land; at worse, we will see famine and the widespread breakdown of social order. 
For more on food, check out our Food Security page. Also, Mira Kamdar's series in Slate: On the front lines of the global food crisis.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Can you tell me what we building here?

I'd just like to know, because something in this picture just doesn't look right.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Priyanka Chopra: do we really need role models like this?

When you think about it, Priyanka Chopra  gains from her association with green causes than the greens she says she's supporting

I have a drawer filled with newspaper clippings that frustrate me. I write about some, and some end up in the kabadi--there's just not enough time to do justice to all the outrageous things going on in the world these days.  I was sorting out those clippings the other day when I found this lovely piece in The Hindu about NDTV's "green ambassador," Priyanka Chopra. On behalf of NDTV and Toyota, Chopra was giving out cash awards and certificates to motivate green activists. This from the article:
Ms. Chopra said ever since she became a green ambassador, a number of netizens were actively following what she wrote and said.  “It feels great to be part of the campaign. For the past two years, Greenathon has been doing amazing things to protect our environment; it brought light to 150 villages. When we, as actors, get acknowledged with an award for our acting skills, then it motivates us to put our best foot forward. Similarly, when we would honour unsung heroes who are contributing in their own special way to make our plant environment-friendly it would encourage them to do more.”
I won't complain about anyone giving cash money to green activists, though I'm not convinced it will do much good. Cash money to fund green research, or subsidies to help farmers grow food more sustainably, would make more sense. Or maybe scholarships for students who have demonstrated an interest in green issues or technology. Most of us green activists do what we do because we understand that being green is in all of our long term interest; we don't need cash prizes to convince us.

What's more, if we environmentalists ever start relying on car companies or TV stations to provide the motivation or funding for our movement, then that will be a sad day indeed. TV stations and car companies are not the kind of organizations we can rely to support anything more than superficial change--they have too much riding on the current system. Obviously.

At least this tacky hanky is reusable...
As for Ms. Chopra, well she has a pretty face, she claims she pays her taxes, and my kids loved the Krish, so I don't feel I should be too hard on her. After all, the article in The Hindu that I quoted above also says she is against killing tigers. In fact, she's even against litter:
[Ms. Chopra] said the film fraternity in Mumbai had also become environment-conscious. Earlier, film crew used to litter the sets with plastic mugs and napkins but now they dumped it in a big bag that went for recycling...“This is a cause that is close to my heart. My colleagues with whom I hang out also share my concern for doing our bit to save our planet from ecological degradation. 
But when all is said and done, being against tiger killing and litter does not qualify one to be a 'green ambassador.' And I say that not only because I hate the phrase 'brand ambassador.'  
The problem is that even while she is being called a 'green ambassador', Priyanka Chopra is serving as the poster girl for unsustainable overconsumption. It's not just Samsung and Levis--Indian Express has called Ms. Chopra the "'Face' of a million products," stating that she represents, "practically every second FMCG [Fast Moving Consumer Goods] product!" 

But Ms. Chopra is not just advertising overconsumption; she is practicing it! In the wake of the recent income tax raids on her flats, she was quoted in the Times of India as saying:
Also, it was said that I have ten flats. These are all accounted for flats and I am very proud that I bought these from my hard-earned money. I am very proud that I started so young and that at my age, I can afford so much with my hard work. And it's all accounted for – all my homes, five of which I am currently living in...
I could go on, but I don't think it's necessary. The green movement doesn't need role models like Priyanka Chopra. But it's not surprising she feels like she needs us. After all, it takes a lot of greenwash to cover 10 flats!