When Fears Don’t Govern Decisions in Life

Professor was going to interview a young woman in the early thirties as his Executive Assistant (EA). He sent me her CV on email to take a look and called me in the morning.

“Dr Modak, why don’t you join us at the usual coffee shop. Meeting Tanya (that was her name) should be interesting.”

I could not refuse Professors request. But honestly the CV was so compelling that I had to meet this woman.

Tanya was a globe trotter. Born in the family of people working with the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) her schooling took place in various parts of the world – mainly in the Middle East and North African region. She did her graduation in liberal arts from Williams College in the Massachusetts. Williams College has three academic branches – languages and the arts, social sciences, and science and mathematics. Tanya opted for Science and Mathematics. Williams is known for its small class sizes, with a student-teacher ratio of 7-to-1. In 2016, Williams was rated as the best national liberal arts school in the US.

After graduating from Williams, Tanya worked as UN Peace Volunteer in Cambodia for a year.  Later she moved to Hongkong to work with a Travel agency for 2 years for organizing tours to China. She learned Chinese in this process. She lost her job as she couldn’t get along with her Chinese boss. She sounded pretty bitter about this.

Tanya’s brother worked in London. He found a job for her as a Manager in Sainsbury (a Supermarket having a chain across UK). At Sainsbury, she was a part of the Green Procurement team and that is where she got introduced to working for the environment. Her job in London was on contract, so she returned to India (Uttarakhand) to look for the next steps in her career. She came across Professors advertisement for an Executive Assistant and when she saw his profile, she decided to apply and take a shot.

I was observing her as she narrated us her story.  I could see a “carefree confidence” on her face. She was all cool to say what was on top of her mind and looked an easy-going person. Her hobbies were painting and playing keyboards and She was a fan of Wilheim Kempff – legendary German pianist who I greatly admire.

Professor heard Tanya’s story and lighted his cigar. He then spoke about his expectations.

His expectations ranged from making a good coffee (not just in taste but also ensuring an aroma), doing a Google search for references, editing (polishing) his drafts, preparing presentations, attending with him meetings (that involved travel) and prepare minutes, do all the follow ups, take the phone calls, fix the appointments and remind.  Tanya said yes to everything that was said or expected. Professor however did not seem to be convinced – “Remember it’s a technical job really – not a job of an office secretary”. He said this to her in a thick voice.

He continued

“Your career has been so chequered Tanya. I really don’t see any clear focus. I was actually looking for someone who has gone through some formal training in environmental policy and management. But I still called you for a chat as a close friend recommended you”

Tanya looked a bit disappointed

I thought of butting in now. I asked Tanya “What would you like to do or become over a long term? What’s your career plan?”

“Yes, Dr Modak, I do have plans. But these plans keep changing as I get to travel, read more and get more experience. I thought working with Professor will help me to cut across various perspectives of environmental management and importantly life. I may then decide what will I do with rest of my life”

When she said about what will she do with her life –  I remembered the famous book by Po Bronson What Should I Do with My Life?

In his book, Po Bronson tells the inspirational true stories of people who have found the most meaningful answers to this great question. With humor, empathy, and insight, Bronson writes about remarkable individuals who have overcome fear and confusion to find a larger truth about their lives and, in doing so, have been transformed.

Sometimes we let our fears govern our decisions; rather than challenging the validity of those fears, we accept the boundaries set by those fears, and end up confining our search in life to a narrow range of possibilities. Its like someone looking for his car keys under the streetlight because he’s afraid of the dark. We mix for example education with vocation to earn. These two could be different. I remember one of my IIT mates running a restaurant in Pune after his PhD in geotechnical engineering.

To build his book, Bronson spent two years interviewing more than 900 people and out of the 900 narratives, 56 lives were chosen.

The inspirational success stories of Po Bronson include woman in Tech PR company who decided to become a landscape gardener; an English diplomat who spent six months in hospital and became a School teacher; a corporate lawyer who changed his life to become a long-haul trucker. I saw that Tanya too was experimenting and that was nothing wrong to me.

I saw Tanya in Po Bronson’s category. I was sure that she knew how to overcome fears to be different; and look and go beyond the obvious choices. For her, making a choice of the career, was not just a matter of finding the right puzzle piece to match her skills; She wanted to grow as a person first. Few think this way. But let us face it – not all can take this “luxury”

We ended our conversation and Tanya left the coffee shop. Professor opened his folder and flashed me a CV of another woman. This woman was Masters from Michigan University in Environment, MBA from Stanford and had interned with the World Bank. “I am taking this one Dr Modak – see how focussed and competent she is”. He said this while extinguishing his cigar. So interviewing Tanya was just a ritual that had to be done and the choice was already made.

A month later, I was chatting with my wife and narrated our encounter with Tanya and told her story.

“Oh, you should have offered this girl a position of Executive Assistant with you right away! Your Professor friend is simply orthodox. Tanya would have been a perfect EA for you – given your temperament. This girl would make your otherwise drab life to something worth living. Go and find if she is still free” My wife nudged and coaxed me.

Just yesterday, I sent an email to Tanya to check out her availability to work with me as an EA. I hope she is still free and interested.


Getting a supporting, vibrant and risk taking Executive Assistant is so important when you want to live life differently. For the past three decades, I am looking for such an EA but  have never found one!

If you know someone like Tanya, then please let me know. I am still looking. My expectations for the EA are similar to the one stated by the Professor except for an addition that there must be some discussion on music during the day!

And do read the classic What Should I Do with My Life? by Po Bronson

Image sourced from www.thegeekanthropologist.com


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Dear Mrs. Bharucha

My wife asked me to start attending Parent Teacher Association (PTA) meetings at the Bombay Scottish School. “Please show some involvement” she said angrily “ How do you expect me to attend every time?”. I thought she was right.

I decided to go for the slot allocated for PTA every fortnight. I was keen to know about what the teachers thought about my daughter Devika. Devika was studying in 8th grade then. She hated mathematics and I did not blame her. She was however good at the subjects of art and literature. You have to be good at something no matter what.

The PTA meeting was scheduled on Fridays and my slot was at 3 pm. At this slot, parents having their children above 7th grade were entertained.

I did not want to be late for the first PTA encounter so I reached well before 3 pm. It was 2 45 pm when I entered the gate. And this was the first time I met with Mrs. Bharucha.

Mrs. Bharucha was a very dignified woman in early sixties. You wouldn’t miss her as she had a great complexion, a grace and a kind face.  She was at the gate with an umbrella and looked a bit lost and worried.

She stopped me “Mr.… sorry to bother you. Could you please let me make a call from your mobile? My mobile phone is dead and I need to call my driver for picking me up”

“Of course,”, I said to this gallant lady and handed over my mobile. “Could you please dial this number for me? I don’t know how to use your mobile phone”. She said apologetically.

I dialed the number and handed over the phone to Mrs. Bharucha. I saw her face irritated first, but then I saw her smile. She said “OK, Babu (presumably drivers name), finish your chai first and then come – but don’t take too long – I will be waiting for you inside the gate”

Then she returned my phone and thanked me profusely.

When I told her that I was at the school to attend PTA meeting for my daughter, Mrs. Bharucha explained to me that she too was there to attend PTA meeting for her granddaughter Shirin.

We walked towards a tree in the school’s courtyard as there was some time for Babu to come. I introduced myself and told her about Devika.

“I am glad that you and your wife are taking the PTA meetings seriously. Few parents do. My son Hirji and daughter-in-law Kermeene have never found time to attend these meetings. So, I have taken the responsibility. I don’t blame them though – life is too busy for them and the 2 pm slot is not simply working” said Mrs. Bharucha. I could see that while she was complaining, she was appreciating their difficulty –I could also sense that she was extremely attached to her granddaughter Shirin.

“Shirin studies in the 5th standard” Mrs. Bharucha said while returning to the gate to locate her driver Babu. She showed me her picture. Shirin looked so innocent and beautiful.

I did not see Mrs. Bharucha when I went for the second PTA meeting. Maybe she left before I reached the school -I thought.

The third time therefore I reached the school early and there she was – standing at the gate with her umbrella.

“Hello Dr Modak – how are you and how is your daughter Devika doing”. I realized that Mrs. Bharucha had a sharp memory and real good manners.

Well, all OK Mrs. Bharucha I said

“I may need your help Dr Modak. Mrs. Bharucha said. “Shirin has been asked to do an environmental project –on waste segregation and composting. I see you are a medical doctor, but do you have a friend who works in the environmental field and who can help me out?”

I smiled and explained to Mrs. Bharucha that I was not a medical doctor and incidentally worked in the environmental field.

“Oh then, you are an angel, Dr Modak”. Mrs. Bharucha said in a voice with tremor. “Would you mind giving me some literature, pictures and brochures that Shirin could build on? Shirin is so passionate about environment.

And I said it will be my pleasure.

This is how our interactions began. I used to come 15 to 20 minutes early before every PTA and meet Mrs. Bharucha for a brief chat under the tree. Each time I used to listen to a new story about Shirin.

“Dr Modak Shirin is now into a competition to write an essay on Ozone Hole – Help me please”;

“Shirin is taking part in the green warriors group in our society. This group is chasing residents to replace candescent lamps with CFLs and LEDs. Need some material from you Doc”

Mrs. Bharucha used to demand my help and I used to happily provide her with materials whatever I could.

I also realized that there is so much to do to help school children to understand the good and bad news on environment – with nice infographics in local languages, audio visual clips, interactive web sites, stock of posters and stickers and so on. We do have agencies in India like the Centre for Environmental Education, C P Ramaswamy Iyer Foundation, Centre for Science and Environment etc. – but we need many more.   I thought I should do just this work on a mission mode now instead of generating consultancy reports that are not read and various recommendations that  I make that are never paid heed to.

I was therefore very keen to see Shirin one day.

“You certainly will” said Mrs. Bharucha. “In fact, I am asking Hirji and Kermeene to invite you, your wife Kiran and daughter Devika for a dinner at our home in Parsi Colony. I will prepare Dhansak (a Parsi dish)– Shirin loves my style of cooking”

Oddly and strangely enough I did not see Mrs. Bharucha for the next two PTA meetings. I was wondering whether anything was wrong. I was not comfortable and decided to find out.

So, after my PTA was done, I went to the Principals office. I knew the Principal otherwise through some social connections.

When I narrated my encounter with Mrs. Bharucha, and that I wanted to know whether everything was alright, I saw the Principal’s face solemn and quiet.

“Well Dr Modak, Mrs. Bharucha passed away two weeks ago. She suffered a massive cardiac arrest”

“Oh”, I was stunned. I remembered every conversation with her, the good chats we had and her tremendous love and affection towards Shirin. And of course, Shirin’s passion for the environment.

“It must be a shock to Shirin and a great loss to her Son Hirji and daughter in law Kermeene” I said to the Principal.

Now it was the Principal’s turn to be shocked.

“Dr Modak, didn’t you know that Hirji, Kermeene and Shirin met with a fatal car accident on way to Mahabaleswar some five years ago. Mrs. Bharucha suffered a brain hemorrhage and never believed that such a tragic loss happened. She started coming to the school to attend PTA meetings for Shirin and on consultation with her doctors, we let her come so that she stayed blissfully unaware in her own world. We knew that the reality will be so savage that she won’t be able to bear”

When I stepped out of Principal’s office and reached the gate, a little Parsi girl came running. She  almost banged on me

“Very sorry uncle” she said. She was wearing a green cap that had a slogan “Green Warrior”

Was she Shirin? Or was the Principal lying? Or was I hallucinating?

I asked my wife to take over attending the next PTA meetings


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A Minimum Environmental Care Size for an Industry  

(click on the Figure to enlarge)

Industrial production is important to meet our needs and generate employment. To ensure that the industrial production is economically feasible, the industry must operate above a Minimum Efficient Scale (MES).

MES can be computed by equating average cost  with marginal cost . The rationale behind this is that if an industry were to produce a small number of units, its average cost per output would be high because the bulk of the costs would come from fixed costs. But if the industry produces more units, then the average cost incurred per unit will be lower as the fixed costs are spread over a larger number of units.In such a case, the marginal cost is below the average cost, pulling the latter down. An efficient scale of production is reached when the average cost is at its minimum and therefore the same as the marginal cost. If we exceed the MES, then the marginal costs may increase due to pressures on product distribution (logistics), additional labor oversight and need for tapping more resources that are not locally available.

I was reading on the concept of MES. I told my Professor Friend that Government of India should make a toolkit for all the entrepreneurs to guide on choosing the right MES for their business focusing on the priority manufacturing areas.

“Well, you have a point Dr Modak” said the Professor lighting his cigar. “ Perhaps we should train the lenders (bankers) and investors on this subject so that they do not finance industries that are way off from the MES. This could help reduce the Non Performing Assets (NPAs) as well – Professor winked.

Professor took a deep puff, walked to the window and turned back to me and asked “You mentioned about the Minimum Efficient Scale or MES, but do you think there could be a concept of Minimum Environmental Care Size (MECS) for the polluting industries? The MECS must accommodate the costs of environmental pollution control that have often no economic return”

I liked the term Minimum Environmental Care Size.

Professor continued

“Dr Modak, many industries don’t do well because they arrive at MES without considering or sometimes not adequately internalizing the costs that they must incur on environmental pollution control. When they approach the Pollution Control Board (PCB) for a consent, they are stipulated several conditions on permissible pollution discharge. Compliance to these conditions often upsets the overall profitability of their operations. Consequently, many industries receive closure orders from the PCBs and judiciary directives due to non-compliance. The case often gets a political overtone as a closure means loss of employment. So, the industry is “allowed” to operate while not in compliance and the environment continues to deteriorate”

I thought the Professor was right. Why should we let these industries to come up at less than MECS in the first place”? I thought of including Department of Industry and Department of Environment in Professors training program (By the way, have you ever seen these two departments talking to each other? – but thats another story)

Could MECS be generally be higher than a conventional MES?

Professor smiled when I asked this question. He walked to the white board in his room and drew Figure as below. The Figure was complex but self-explanatory.

(click on the Figure to enlarge)

“This is just one scenario” – Professor said. “There would a number of variations based on the context”

I noted the following points

  • Many times, industries that operate on the MES are unable to do an environmentally sound or responsible business. Perhaps scales higher than MES allow use of more resource minimal and efficient technologies. A minimum environmental care size or MECS may therefore be higher than a conventional MES.
  • At this scale, the costs/output would be lower and hence even if the costs of investments may be higher, the overall economic returns will be impressive.
  • Besides, the MECS will exhibit higher resilience to the volatility of the markets. (I thought this perspective is interesting and requires a good case study)

While agreeing to my observations, Professor further elaborated

“Dr Modak, apart from the economic objectives, we need to ensure that products we produce have least life cycle impacts and the waste streams we generate in the “overall system” (i.e. covering extraction, processing, transportation etc.) are reused, recycled and recovered (3Rs) to the extent possible. Only the residues that are left need to be treated and disposed in a secured manner. All these costs and benefits must be included in the computation of MECS. In all above, we need to ensure that resource are minimally extracted, used at high efficiency and the 3Rs are followed to the letter and spirit”

I said “Professor, Indeed both scale and technology will play a significant role in arriving at the MECS. Of course, there are other equally important variables such as the location (where resources are extracted and processed) and the demand on the products (especially the green products) from the market”

An analysis of the cost of production break down between a large forest based pulp mill in India with chemical recovery and an agrobased small mill without chemical recovery has shown that the chemical cost alone is 30% of the total cost of production against a figure of 21% for forest based mills. A decade ago, Indian machinery manufacturing companies have shown that, when the mills reach a level of 100 TPD Black liquor solids, it is viable to set up a chemical recovery plant. Today, this threshold could be lower.

Pulp mills of small sizes (20-30 TPD capacity) cannot afford a chemical recovery unit and they would continue to discharge harmful chemicals into the environment. As the society and the State cannot allow continuation of discharge of polluted effluent, either the industry will have to close down or find out alternative methods production to stop pollution or take production to higher scale. This is often not possible due to shortage of finance.

(Do read, though dated, a very interesting report on above)

When I cited this example on MECS and the challenge of financing, Professor got up and responded while extinguishing his Cigar.

“Dr Modak, in such cases, one may conceive a central or common chemical recovery for a number of pulp mills, where Black liquor of individual mills can be collected and processed in a Central Recovery Plant. The white cooking liquor produced in the Central Chemical recovery plant can be transported to the individual mills for their use. Again, the Central chemical recovery unit shall be of a capacity which is technically desirable and is viable financially.

In order to make this concept implementable, one must identify a cluster of pulp mills suitably located within an economic zone. The cluster can harbor at least 6-8 mills. The economic zone can be of a radius of 60-75 Km. The Centralized Recovery unit can either be an independent unit or an integrated unit with one of large mills in the cluster.

There are advantages and disadvantages of setting up an independent central recovery plant. A recovery plant, independent of the pulp mills, and non-integrated with any pulp mill, must have its own infrastructural facilities, such as water supply, steam and power supply, workshop and laboratory in addition to its own Management. The Management which would control the functioning of the central recovery, is independent of the pulp and paper mill operation. Its function is to procure black liquor free of cost from the mills and in return sell the white (cooking) liquor to them at the market price. It must generate its own steam and power required to run the various sections of the Recovery unit.  The extra power can be sold to the State Electricity grid system.

Professor walked back to the white board and drew a New Figure as below.

(click on the Figure to enlarge)

“Look at Points B and C carefully. The MECS with support of a common resource recovery center and a common end of pipe solution will be lower than the MECS for a larger industry. The Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) under a cooperative agreement can still do business sustainably on a smaller production scale. What you need is a proper industrial planning, right institutional set up and an interested technology provider/investor for a joint venture” He said

I could see potential of this concept for chrome recovery in tannery clusters, metal recovery in the cluster of electroplating industries and spent acid recovery in chemical industries. There will be several such examples I thought that we could use to develop guidelines for key polluting  SMEs.

“So Dr Modak, what we need is to deepen the concept of MECS and guide the industries, lenders & investors, PCBs, Industry and Environment departments. There is so much to do”

Professor left the room for a meeting

Indeed, we want to see more of Make in India but on a scale that will ensure environmentally and socially sound production – I decided to bring this topic to the attention of MoEFCC and Central PCB when next in Delhi. On a second thought, I thought that it should be the job of the Niti Ayog (India’s earlier Planning Commission). They are the Gurus and can bring in a change at national level.

Friends, whats your take?


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How do you set a Question Paper? – Musing on the Teachers Day

September 5 is known as the Teachers Day in India. Teacher’s Day is marked in honor of Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, who was born on September 5, 1888.

Dr Radhakrishnan was India’s first vice president and second president. He was a great scholar, philosopher and recipient of the prestigious Bharat Ratna . Since 1962 – the year he became president – India has commemorated Dr Radhakrishnan’s birth anniversary by paying tribute to its teachers and gurus on this day.  On this day, all “students” pay respects to their teachers who have  guided and shaped their lives.

I went to see my Professor friend on the morning of September 5.

When he opened the door and let me in, I touched his feet seeking his blessings. “Oh, Dr Modak, why this?” He exclaimed. He was clearly embarrassed.

When I told him about the Teachers day, he said “Well, I never formally taught you in the class – but maybe I gave you some “insights” while having coffee – but essentially another point of view”. He smiled while lighting his cigar

“Well Professor, these conversations have indeed been quite some teaching to me” I said with all the gratitude.

We then spoke about our teaching experiences and shared anecdotes of some of the inspiring teachers and outstanding students.

“A Teacher should know not just what to teach, or how to teach but how to assess the students. Assessment is often the key”. Said the Professor

“You are absolutely right Professor” I responded. “Often assessments are not well designed and are conducted rather poorly.”

“Tell me Dr Modak, why do we conduct an assessment at all?” Professor asked me taking a deep puff.

I thought this was a rather too basic question to ask.

But I put forth several reasons as below.

  1. To know the understanding of the student
  2. To judge his/her ability to apply what is understood
  3. To allow comparison, instill competition and reward those who excel
  4. To help focus on students that are laggards and may need more help
  5. To get a feedback on how effective your teaching has been

Professor listened to me carefully and agreed to all the above. He then got up and patted on my back and said softly “You missed one more reason Dr Modak”

6. To give students a confidence

I was surprised. I had never thought of this 6th reason for the assessment. I remembered Professors in IIT Bombay where I studied.

We had some Professors who used to set real tough question papers to gain a kind of “reputation”. They were called – as “homos” – as most students used to get “screwed” during the assessment.

Some Professors used to set very lengthy questions where the speed of thinking as well as writing mattered. These professors used to smile when most of us used to beg for extra time. The answer books used to have 4 to 5 supplements!

Some Professors used to give us an Open Book examination where we could bring our books and “cog” sheets. The “solutions” to the questions in the paper were however never found in the books.

Some Professors used to go even one step ahead. They used to allow us to take the question paper to the hostel and take help from our seniors if we wished. A weekend used to be given to come back with the answer books. But, the questions asked were so difficult and different – perhaps coming from the “outer space” and so we used to urge the Professor to set a standard, conventional and time bound question paper.

Professor was amused when I narrated such stories. He said “Well Dr Modak, setting a good question paper is not a matter of acrobatics, it’s also not for displaying your superiority or satisfy your ego and establish an identity. The question paper must be balance of the six objectives we talked about”

So, Professor, what is the “science” of question paper setting? I could not hesitate but ask.

Professor lit the second cigar. “Here are the first principles of setting a question paper Dr Modak – all examples applicable to students studying environment”

  • If you group the students in three categories i.e. top notch, medium and below average, then reserve 100 marks as follows. Top notch 30, medium 30 and below average 40. The questions for each category must be designed differently
  • For the below average case, put 20 marks on the “objective” questions (like TRUE/FALSE but with WHY? ask for match making, correcting a flow chart or filling gaps in the flow chart can be another example– e.g. in industrial manufacturing flow sheet, wastewater treatment process etc.). Keep remaining 20 marks for questions that ask for half page to one page write up or explanation but asking for EXAMPLES. Give multiple options to choose the topic here.
  • For the medium lot, reserve 15 marks for some computational work oriented to problem solving. The problem should however require a need to make ASSUMPTIONS. So, don’t provide complete set of data. Keep the remaining 15 marks for a comprehension type of question where you give a page of text to read and ask questions where there are no easy answers e.g. what should be preferred choice of disinfecting wastewaters prior to discharge or is GMO the solution to address the problem of word’s food security?
  • And for the top-notch students, you need to be rather creative and little out of the box. These questions should ideally check deeper understanding of the student e.g. asking for a causal loop diagram of Food-Water-Land nexus with impact of climate change. Another example could be to state an issue and ask the student to develop a strategic approach with institutional and financial considerations. (Professor did not elaborate here. I could sense he did not want to reveal his “tool box” for assessing the top-notch students)

When Professor saw me taking notes, he paused. “Well Dr Modak, you don’t have to follow my “rules”. After all, remember setting a question paper is both science and art”.

I was thinking how many Professors think of this science and art of question paper setting? How much time and importance do Professor give to this important aspect of “teaching”?

I thought this was a new learning and realization for me on Teachers day.

While reaching me at the door, Professor whispered “Well, we just talked about structuring the question paper – Dr Modak but there is also a science in sequencing/ordering or mixing the questions – we never pose the questions in the hierarchy of below average, medium and top-notch students. The “finale” is a carefully designed “ladder” with well laid “traps” – giving a student an experience of an uneven ride! Only the bright ones do page reading of the question paper and decide the sequence in answering!

I felt rather lucky that I did not formally take a course with Professor and appear for his exam.

“Professor, could we take a project of compiling some of the best crafted question papers/assignments in the subject environmental management?  Teachers of today need to know” I said while walking down the staircase.


In 1984, I went through a 5-day rigorous training at IIT Kanpur in India on how to set question paper for the famous IIT’s Joint Entrance Examination. It was a memorable experience. To my knowledge, this kind of training did not happen later. Pity.


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My Professor Friend opens his office in a Medical Poly-Clinique

My General Practioner (GP) Doctor K K Jain just retired. He used to see me right from my childhood days. When I would tell him about my health problem, he would smile and pat on my back and say, “Don’t you worry – I will take good care of you”.

His compounder (a species that does not exist anymore) would prepare few sachets for me with 3 to 4 colorful tablets in each. I would take them from the counter by paying a princely sum of Rs 100. The 100 Rs included Doctors fees as well as the medicines that would last for 3 to 4 days and perfectly cure me from the ailment.

Today when I fall sick, I go to a specialist. If my throat goes soar then I see some ENT specialist and if a back pain hits me then I queue up to an Orthopedic. I must wait in the clinic for a long time (as taking appointment is meaningless). In the early days, old issues of Film fair used to be kept in the waiting room for a read. That used to be entertaining. Now I see magazines on Mutual Fund investments instead! Time have changed.

When a specialist sees you, you don’t know what fees are going to be charged. The bill is always a surprise. It’s a shocker but you don’t higgle haggle and simply pay what is told. You never take 3 quotations – a practice you are used to as an engineering consultant. You don’t go for L1 as well.  Sometimes you pay the doctor the amount demanded and in some cases, a drab receptionist siting outside collects the fees from you. Everything is in cash contrary to the directive of the PM. I like this consulting business of specialist’s doctors.

Other day my Professor Friend dropped by to my office at Bandra Kurla Complex (BKC). Anirban Ghosh, Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) of Mahindra was to see me for a chat. Professor offered to wait outside. “Oh, there is nothing confidential Professor, Do stay inside” I said.

Anirban and his colleague Naresh Patil came in. After exchanging pleasantries, I asked Anirban purpose of his visit. “Oh, nothing actually. Haven’t seen you for a while. Just wanted to touch base. But now that I am here, I would just like to pick on your brains”

We got into an hour-long discussion. Naresh briefed me about the recent sustainability initiatives that Mahindra has taken. Anirban explained the challenges. I gave a number of suggestions and innovative ideas that Mahindra could consider. Naresh took meticulous notes. Professor did not say a word. He was listening to our conversations – watching Anirban’s hawk face disguised in a friendly smile and my sheer (uncalled for)  enthusiasm.

When Anirban and Naresh left, I asked for another round of coffee for Professor.

“Is this how you spend most of your day Dr Modak”. Professor asked this question while lighting his cigar.

Well, good question Professor. I never analyzed how I spend my day. But like Anirban, people drop by to “pick my brains”. Yesterday, Suman Mazumdar, CSO of JSW was here and last week was Bastian Mohrmann from 2030WRG of International Finance Corporation (IFC).

I am sure you must be enjoying these conversations Dr Modak. Professor asked me while getting up and lifting his umbrella. He sounded a bit sarcastic.

“Yes Professor” I said.

“Well, I see that you are no businessman Dr Modak. No wonder staff at your consulting office complain about low salaries. All these “friends” are essentially taking good advantage of your enthusiasm to help. They are stealing ideas from you (because they are terribly short of these), develop projects accordingly for their consultants and finally grab the credit for innovation. They are never going to sole source you, because you could be expensive and sometimes (unnecessarily) forthright. Have you got any consulting work from these well-known business houses – ever at all? You are behaving like your good old GP Dr KK Jain” Professor said this when we reached my office front door.

He then turned to the elevators and whispered while passing me his new visiting card “Why don’t you come to my new consulting office in Lower Parel and learn what I do. Reach at sharp 11 am”.

The address on the visiting card was “Shubhankar Medical Poly-Clinic”. I felt both curious and surprised. How come Professor practices in the medical poly-clinique? I said to myself.

I discovered that Professor was the only engineering or management consultant in the “Shubhankar Medical Poly-Clinique”. The board outside his cabin carried his name with a long string of qualifications and memberships with some UN decorations. He was named as “Sustainability and Lifestyles Specialist”. All other cabins were occupied by well-known medical practioners, such as Dr Rajesh Rajani on Cardiology, Dr A Almeida on Nephrology, Dr N F Shah on Endocrinology etc. There was an attendant and a receptionist in the foyer where patients were waiting. Those waiting for Professor’s appointment were reading the BCCI’s newsletter “Sustainability Quotient (SQ) (I was glad to see that at least few are reading the SQ. I have been editing SQ for past 5 years with no feedback at all!)

Professor made me sit inside his Cabin like his assistant. “Record the conversations Dr Modak and make notes of the key points” Professor said.

Savyasachi from Asian Paints walked in. What’s your problem Savyasachi? Professor asked while sending someone a SMS from his mobile (Rule # 1 Professor said – show that you are NOT interested and busy with mundane things. Don’t give importance to the patient”. He gave me a list of rules to follow like you get from a dietatian)

“Sir, thank you so much for your time. Asian Paints is thinking of expanding one of our plants to meet the growing demand from the Export market. Wanted to get your advice on a speedy environmental clearance of course at least cost and least processing time. I have brought with me the compliance records and most recent sustainability report”

Well, we need to start from scratch Savyasachi – I don’t trust these kinds of reports you Corporates produce. I can get them just like that and by the dozens” Professor growled. After a brief questioning, he put on his spectacles, opened his writing pad and wrote a “prescription” like how Dr Rajesh Rajani, the Cardiologist would write

  • Fresh Base Line Survey 1 -0 –0 (1-0-0 implied only one season study and not Morning, Afternoon, Night as medical doctors and the patients normally understood)
  • Air quality modelling study (using AERMOD) This study sounded more like a MRI
  • Socio-cultural profiling (sounded like a Lipid profile)

He then wrote down several more “tests” that Asian Paints had to do before meeting him next time. He also handed over to Savyasachi a standard list of EIA ToRs. This was just like a visual on standard set of exercises an Orthopedic recommends – irrespective of the “type of patient” – I thought.

While Savyasachi got up from his Chair thanking him, professor told him where such tests should be done. “Get the baseline from Aditya Environmental Services as they know MPCB pretty well. Air quality modelling should be done at IIT Delhi and social-cultural profiling from Tata Institute of Social Sciences. (This sounded like asking to go to Dr Avinash Phadke’s SRL Diagnostic Lab for the Path tests). My secretary outside will provide you the contact details. Pay fees to her and in cash”

The session with Savyasachi lasted for only 5 min. While exiting Savyasachi paid Rs 10,000 to the receptionist as Professors fees. My mouth gaped (I did quick calculation – I was losing at least 1 million Rs a month due to my generosity. I did not even add the commission I could get from Ulhas Joglekar of Aditya Environmental Services!)

“Nothing should be free – after all this is business – you don’t let them to pick your brains just like that “Professor said while punching papers of my notes in Asian Paints “case file”.

He then rang the bell to get the next patient in.

Mr. Anirban Ghosh from Mahindra walked in with wads of papers

What a surprise! – both of us exclaimed!I

 


It is a rumor that Mr. Hardik Shah, Private Secretary to the Hon Union Environmental Minister, is taking out a Government Order (GO) that all high specialist environmental consultants will  open their offices (or cliniques) in Medical Poly-clinique for their business sustainability. Apparently, Polluter pays is the governing principle.

This will stop the L1 practice of choosing environmental consultants and environmental specialists will be treated at par with speciality medical doctors. The industry will pay for advice.

I will soon be locating  my consulting office in a nearby Medical Poly-Clinique. I expect to raise salaries of my staff soon.

Let us get some respect to our “life saving” profession.


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Communicating Sustainability

 

Spreading the message of sustainability has always been a challenging task. It is important that we all understand the importance of sustainable lifestyles and “walk the talk” by transforming our way of living. But is that so easy? Its easier said than done.

While the businesses have started to understand the advantage of sustainability; the situation is quite different when it comes to other key stakeholders such as Government, Investors and the Communities. In most cases, there is a lack of understanding and sometimes just apathy.

Government employees say that Sustainability is not in their Job Description or they are not paid for. Investors keep asking for evidence that shows Sustainability is Material and the people, especially in Mumbai, feel that they don’t have enough time to even think about Sustainability. Most of the time people spend in Mumbai is in the traffic jams or on the mobile phones.

How can we make people understand Sustainability and make them Sustainability Literate?

The Chief Minister (CM) of the Government of Maharashtra decided to call for a meeting of key political leaders, top media persons, business tycoons, academia and the environmental NGOs at his residence on a Friday evening.

Prime Minister (PM) dispatched Mr. Amit Shah, BJP Party President, to be present as he thought that raising Sustainability Literacy could be a new election strategy. He was wrongly briefed by his office that the meeting focused on political sustainability as the concept of environmental sustainability was not known to the PMO. Knowing that Mr. Amit Shah is attending this meeting, Mr. Nitish Kumar, CM of Bihar and Mr. Suresh Prabhu, the Union Railway Minister also decided to attend.

The CM gave opening remarks. He was to the point and crisp as usual. He summed up saying that the State Government is in debt and there are no financial resources available. But, this was known to everybody. Sustainability was however important for his Party. He asked Piyush Pande of Ogilvy and Mather (O&M) to present the approach and a budget.

Piyush Pande circulated a 2-page note that showed an indicative budget of 1000 million Rs over the next 6 months. Items included inserts and debates on main TV channels that have high TRF rating, Hoardings/Neon signs at locations where we see major traffic jams, Videos that may be shown after the National Anthem in the movie theaters etc.  There was also a budget provided for use of modern platforms such as Facebook. A sizable budget was provided for Mobile Apps that would track sustainable lifestyle etc. Based on the performance of the sustainable lifestyle, discounts were to be provided on shopping on amazon!

Marathi, Hindi and English were considered as the principal languages for communication (One of the attendees however suggested that the languages should be Gujarati, Sindhi and Punjabi as those who speak these languages are perhaps the most consumptive and wasteful – badly requiring Sustainability Literacy).

Piyush showed some rough artworks, visuals, mocks etc. that entertained the audience. O&M was to take the lead for the entire campaign for a modest fee of 200 million Rs.

After Piyush Pande’s presentation, there was silence as the challenge was how to raise the sum of 1000 million Rs. in a short time. The CM took the lead. He appealed to all the Corporate Honchos that they should contribute 5% of their CSR budgets for communicating sustainability. Mr. Ratan Tata, Kumarmangalam Birla and Anand Mahindra readily agreed to this proposition as they were expecting that 5% may be levied on the turnovers as is generally done while mopping the election funds. They felt a bit relieved. But given the herculean task of reaching 120+ million stubborn population of the State of Maharashtra, the CSR budgets alone were not going to be sufficient.

Mr. Deepak Parikh (often misunderstood for his wise suggestions) proposed that additional funds could be raised by adding 1% to the recently introduced GST. The items to target could include luxury cars (SUVs), food in four stars and “plus” restaurants, air conditioners, cosmetics, cigarettes and liquor. “This will not only lead to generation of funds but influence frugal living” He said. Prominent environmentalists like Bittu Sahgal, Debi Goenka and Kunti Oza supported this suggestion. (“I already have ACs fitted in all my rooms” Kunti whispered)

“We should cut down the costs somehow” said Dr. Ajit Ranade, Chief Economist of the Aditya Birla Group. “Let us start with a pilot in Mumbai first before attempting the entire State of Maharashtra“ He opined. (Piloting is a “strategic approach” to cut down the costs. It also helps to kill the project later as per most eminent economists).

“But then the pilot will have to be in Nagpur and not Mumbai” said the CM. “I am only interested in Vidarbha”. He looked very firm.

“Why don’t you do both Mumbai and Nagpur as pilots. Keep both the options” said Mr. Nitish Kumar, CM of Bihar. “Typical of Nitish” thought the CM “He always wants to keep 2 options”

Piyush Pande suggested that the costs could be further reduced by using channel like Republic instead of Times Now. He clarified that no offences were made to Arnab Goswami in making such a suggestion. Fortunately, Arnab was not present in the meeting. Else he would surely asked the question “Nation wants to know – why?”

“Why don’t you print messages on Sustainability on the reverse side of the Railway tickets. This will hit millions of people commuting in Mumbai”. Said Mr. Suresh Prabhu, originally a Mumbaikar and now the Union Railway Minister. He misses Mumbai.

“Great – this will also help educate the Railway ticket checkers on Sustainability. They are behind the scene but are equally important” added Actor Alia Bhatt. All present realized that Alia could certainly see “beyond”.

Piyush Pande then presented some sample designs of the hoardings. CM did not approve any of them as the hoardings did not carry PM’s picture. The CM was absolutely right – how can you communicate Sustainability without portraying leadership of the PM. Mr. Pande accepted his mistake.

There were numerous other suggestions like mandating Sustainability in all religious festivals and in the conduct of public meetings. Suggestions were also made to provide catchy slogans to the Truck drivers. They could be asked to replace the irrelevant and popular slogans like “Horn OK Please” or “Buri Nazarwale Tera Muh Kala” that you often see them on the rear. Dr. Sanjay Deshmukh, VC of Mumbai University suggested a compulsory on-line Sustainability Literacy test. His suggestion was summarily rejected. “I don’t want any delays and further mess up” said the CM

Mr. Amit Shah was keeping quiet all this time. “Any suggestions Sir?” The CM asked as he was getting ready to sum up the meeting

“Well, I have only one suggestion for Mr. Pande. Use saffron color to the maximum extent possible in communicating sustainability” He said this while switching off his secret miniature camcorder that was gifted to him by none other than Mr. Vladimir Putin.


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The Black Hole of Capacity Building at Pollution Control Boards in India

For several, especially the polluters, Pollution Control Board (PCB) is an important institution. PCBs grant or renew consents to pollute, demand and accept payments for the Cess and carry out monitoring to check the compliance. No wonder, the atmosphere at a PCB is sometimes like a Police Station. You are not sure about the justice!

The Member Secretary (MS) is the Chief Administrator of PCB while the Chairman gives strategic direction. Both MS and Chairman are difficult to meet, not just because they are extremely busy but because they often belong to the IFS/IAS category. Once you belong to this category, then you have to keep people waiting outside the room and say “no” after a long wait.

I have been however quite fortunate in working with the PCBs. My first interaction was with Mr. B V Rotkar, MS at the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) in 1978. I met him in his office at the Grant Road that was dimly lit. Later, in 1979, I met Dr Niloy Chaudhari, Chairman of Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) at CPCB’s very first office at the Shahajahan road in New Delhi. That office was like a barrack. I made propositions to both Mr. Rotkar and Dr Chaudhari on modelling water quality for preparing rational river water quality management plans. They gave me patient hearing, showed interest and promised support (which they actually did). These were technical discussions that are rare today at the PCBs.

I became a retainer consultant to CPCB for 4 years from 1984 and started visiting Delhi every month for 3 to 4 days. The office was at Nehru Place with Roopa and Sona (shops selling samosa, paneer dishes and sweets) at the ground floor. I used to frequent there with my CPCB colleagues and bump into some of the activists from Centre for Science and Environment.

I did not have precise terms of reference for work so I used to be working with Dr Niloy Choudhari on a variety of areas. His vision, depth of the subject and way of conducting and summing up the meetings was phenomenal. I got groomed in this process. Oh, the Chairman of the PCB matters.

I was connected to almost all the key officers of CPCB. I used to stay at the Guest house of CPCB at Alaknanda housing complex across Chittaranjan Park. Those were really memorable days as after the day’s work, dinners used to be with colleagues at CPCB. Dr Sudhir and Usha Ghosh were the regular hosts (Usha was Statistical Offer then and was my key contact). I used to be with the Baruahs (who later moved to Vadodara regional office) and S P Chakraborty (who later became MS of CPCB) for dinners as well. We used to talk about the politics and the problems but building capacities of PCBs was always a central topic of discussions.

While at the Guesthouse, I used to be with other CPCB consultants like Prof Mukherjee of Center for Man and Environment from Kolkata and bump into some of the senior Regional Officers of CPCB such as Dr R N Bhattacharya (RNB). I remember I used to scare RNB by telling weird ghost stories at night and Prof Mukherji used to have a good laugh at my “stories”. Prof Mukherjee introduced me the importance of creating maps and the “infographics”. He created several maps for CPCB, especially for Ganga. Today, PCBs seldom make such maps. I strongly believe that map making builds capacities, improves understanding and builds teams.

Helmut Krist was one of the first GTZ consultants to CPCB. We gelled very well – along with Dr Sudhir and Usha Ghosh. I was keen that CPCB embarks the era of computerization. There was however some resistance at CPCB on use of computers. On my insistence, Krist found money to purchase the first Personal Computer (PC).

I wrote the database management software for the CPCB using this machine. The coding was done in dBASE III+/Clipper (following Simpson’s book) and Mita Bhattacharya (who is still with CPCB) helped me along with Usha Ghosh. I wrote codes for managing water quality, air quality and industrial pollution data. I also wrote codes for computation of Cess (that unfortunately got the most priority!). These codes on testing were provided to all key State PCBs and a week-long training was conducted in New Delhi. The computer era at PCBs thus begun. My major contention was to bring in discipline in data collection and organization of data rather than just the computer application. Unfortunately, few understood (even today) this hidden objective and the benefit.

Later, the National Informatics Center (NIC) took over to develop several “modules” in the style of Management Information System (MIS). The modules were installed in several State PCBs for the interest of harmonization. Today, after nearly 30 years, only some PCBs are actually using these systems to their advantage.  Gujarat and Maharashtra PCBs are the lead examples where the systems are in active use. Unfortunately, the focus still continues to be computation and recovery of Cess.

I found training programmes as a great platform to connect with the PCBs. In 1987, the Ganga Project Directorate sponsored a project with me on water quality modelling – keeping a focus on application of these models for river Ganga. After the field establishment of these models (called as STREAM-I and STREAM-II), I conducted 10 training programs for the staff of PCBs and trained nearly 200 scientists and engineers over 2 years. Many of these “students” later rose to the level of Chief Engineers/Scientists and even MS in various State PCBs. These connections helped me to continue my interactions with PCBs – one way or other. Of course, what was “taught” was quickly forgotten!  The friendship however continued!!

In 1991, the Industrial Pollution Control (IPC) project was launched by the Ministry of Environment & Forests with the support of the World Bank. Strengthening of the capacities of the State PCBs and CPCB was one of the project components. The IPC project was followed by the Industrial Pollution Prevention (IPP) and later by the project on Environmental Management Capacity Building (EMCB). Strengthening involved upgrdation of the laboratories, installation of computer systems and applications based on GIS and training of staff in India as well as overseas. These projects lasted over 10 years till 2001. I worked with the World Bank as a Consultant for IPC, IPP and EMCB in this entire duration. I was closely involved in the capacity building component. Indeed, these efforts transformed the PCBs “for a while” but as the MS’s changed, seniors retired and the World Bank support ended, the situation returned to the same dismal state.

In 2004, another project called Capacity Building for Industrial Pollution Management Project (CBIPM) was taken up by MoEF and the World Bank for capacity building focusing on rehabilitation of the contaminated lands. I was involved in the project formulation of CBIPM. The capacity building under CBIPM improved the laboratories further but could hardly create a dent due to poor project management. These four World Bank assisted projects “spent” nearly 150 million USD on capacity building of the State PCBs and CPCB over nearly 30 years.

There were efforts made through bi-lateral assistance too. Examples are the Environmental Training Institute (ETI) at Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board and ETI at the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (that was later transformed into Environmental Management and Pollution Research Institute – EMPRI) that received Danish (DANIDA) Support. Then there was Environmental Protection & Training Research Institute – EPTRI) an off shoot of Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board that received support from SIDA. GIZ (earlier GTZ) provided assistance to modernize the laboratories at various State PCBs. NORAD provided such assistance to the Orissa Pollution Control Board. In fact, I was called to design a Centre for EIA in Bhubaneshwar that never materialized. NORAD and SIDA provided some assistance to the Rajasthan PCB and Madhya Pradesh PCB as well. AusAID assisted the Andhra Pradesh PCB by taking nearly 100 staff members to Australia for training. I would estimate that another 150 million USD were spent by the bi-lateral development agencies for capacity building of the PCBs.

Despite these efforts, do you think the capacity of PCBs has improved? It seems that capacity building at PCBs was like a black hole – you send beams of light that get simply swallowed and nothing comes back!

There have been efforts made for different institutional design and arrangements to circumvent the challenges on capacity building. The West Bengal PCB partnered with IMC to establish Environmental Management Centre to serve as a facilitator. The Maharashtra PCB signed MoU with YashDa as a twinning partner for capacity building.  The Tamil Nadu PCB has initiated Technology Demonstration Centre with IIT Madras for demonstrating best available technologies. A financial support of Rs 50 million has been provided. The Rajasthan PCB has embarked a program on promoting entrepreneurship in the waste sector under State’s Start up Policy. Most of  these efforts have however not been successful.

Few years ago, Andhra Pradesh PCB (APPCB) prepared a blue print for Environmental Compliance Assistance Centre (ECAC) – structured in the form of a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV). This SPV was intended to provide services to improve compliance and competitiveness of the SMEs – keeping an arms distance from the regulator. My company Environmental Management Centre,  prepared this blue print for APPCB after a painstaking process but as soon as the blue print got finalized the State of Andhra split!

Today, PCBs perhaps do not have a single case to show that because of the actions, the pollution load has been contained or reduced. The environment continues to deteriorate. The staff at the PCBs has remained incompetent and is inadequate while the responsibilities have increased. The heads of the institution are mostly the administrators who are not familiar with the domain. They change seats frequently. The courts are intervening and interfere. More importantly there seems to be no interest in the staff for learning and catching up with the new paradigms on environmental management. Mr. T N Seshan, Ex-Secretary, MoEF had once said that PCBs should be closed. The TSR Subramanium report has made recommendations on demolishing PCBs and restructuring the environmental governance. The Supreme Court of India has already given directions.

The situation is no different in other countries. I can say this having worked closely with regulators in Egypt, Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, Mauritius, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Vietnam for the past 20 years. The black hole of capacity building of environmental regulators continues.

I was not surprised when Mr. Trump announced that he would close or shut down the US Environmental Protection Agency. Well, he may have other reasons but he could just be right.

But let us look at solutions and take an optimistic outlook. What can be done?

Some say (like commented by Sajid Hussain below) that we must bring in the component of training in the career progression of the PCB staff. Some believe that twinning with an academic institution should be the way. Some argue that dont limit capacity building only to PCBs but address the core eco-system i.e. consultants, environmental monitoring agencies etc. from the private sector. Having a resident expert to provide hands on training is also considered another idea (this was attempted by GTZ). Instituting induction program at the “base of the pyramid” (as suggested by Dr Singhal in his comment) and leadership program at senior and top levels (suggested by Prof Pratim Biswas) could be an effective strategy of bottom-up and top-down approach.

May be a combination of all could work. Financial resource is no more a constraint.

I would be very interested to listen to your point of view. Let us hope that the magic of capacity building works and PCBs become the lighthouses and not black holes.


(cover image sourced from http://rmc.org/what-we-do/capacity-building/)


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