The Interview




The Chairman of the newly constituted National Environmental Protection Authority (NEPA) in India was finally appointed. The selection process was rigorous. Every top expert and administrator of repute in the country had applied. Besides there were several applications from overseas.

A high level committee was appointed consisting of Group of Ministers. Further, the PM took personal interest when it came to shot-listing. The Chairman’s post was considered to be very important as his/her decisions will either “make or break” India’s journey towards economic development and/or sustainability.

The process of search and selection of the NEPA Chairman made a big breaking news on the media. Arnab Goswami held two episodes on consecutive Saturdays as an exception on Times Now.

Nation wants to know..he said (and this he said many times). And this time indeed, all wanted to know who the Chairman will be.

Apparently, my Professor friend had some hand when the final choice was made. He had never met the Gentleman in person but was instrumental in recommending his CV, personally to the PM. That mattered.

When I called on Professor to understand what went behind the scene, he was rushing out with a video gun. ” I have to reach Chairman’s house in the next 20 minutes for an interview”. He said. “ This is his first interview. Apparently he is strict time stickler, and so I would not like to be late even by a minute.”

“Why don’t you come along. You handle this video part so that I can focus more on the questions in the interview.”  I could see him pretty uncomfortable and clumsy in handling the videography equipment.  So I readily agreed.  Besides, it was a great opportunity to me.

We reached the apartment complex well in time. “Fourth floor and on the left” Professor said and we reached the door that had no name plate. “Looks like this guy does not like to show off or remain discrete” Professor said. There were 7 waste bins in the corridor outside the door, representing colors of a rainbow. “Wow” I said – this Chairman seems deep into waste segregation. Good show. His education in Japan reflects”. Professor knew Chairman’s CV by heart.

We rang the bell and the door was opened presumably by a servant who ushered us in to the drawing room. “Aap Jara Joote Nikaliye” (kindly remove shoes) he said this politely and we removed our shoes and then seated on the sofa. “Saab ooper naha rahe hai” (My boss is taking shower upstairs) he said. “Abhi ayenge” (He wiil be with you shortly). We said fine.

I started to look around the drawing room. The first thing to notice was a huge painting on the wall that depicted a thick forest with a road cutting across. “Interesting” Professor said. “Gives me an impression that the Chairman will follow a balanced approach to the protection of forests and infrastructure development. See how lush the forest is”. I wasn’t convinced with Professors interpretation however. I thought that when the Chairman will take over NEPA, the next version of this painting will be a concretized road with forest trimmed down on both sides. We have so many such examples to cite in India of “before” and “after”. But I didn’t want to be that pessimistic.


(Painting on the Wall)


(Probable next version of the painting)

In the meanwhile, Professor was investigating the room further to get Chairman’s mind. He spotted a packaging box dumped in the balcony that carried a sticker “Solar Cooker”. “Look at that”, “The Chairman is actually practicing use of renewable energy at home. – even I don’t use these devices though I so much preach about”. I wholeheartedly agreed. We see more people today who don’t walk the talk – especially in the sustainability space.  I went to the loo and found that the water faucets were fourth generation water efficient.

In the while, Professor took a stroll around the drawing room and returned to the sofa with more excitement. He whispered – This is a real Green Home. Curtains are Oeko-Tex certified; Wall paints are low VOC, Furniture is Green Guard certified and the carpet is made from waste fibers. “How did you find all this Professor and so quickly?” I was simply astonished. The Professor smiled and pointed me to a certificate that was placed on the Bar that said “This house is Green as it has …….”.

“This guy when he takes over as Chairman, India is going to change. All homes will be directed to go green” Professor said.

I walked towards the Bar to take a close look at the certificate. Indeed this was true. I was tempted to open the bar to expect to see locally produced organic wines. But I resisted.

Our later inspections in the room led to more inspirational findings like motion detector based lighting system, indoor pollution absorbing plants and a vermicomposting unit with enzymes working in the balcony. “It will simply be a revolution if this Chairman runs NEPA”. I said “Firstly we will shift our narrow focus of managing only the emissions and residues to management of resources. He will promote sustainable consumption and production”.

“For years we are used to frame only residue oriented pollution control related legislation – Professor said lighting his cigar “We should look at what New Zealand did years ago by passing Resource Management Act. In New Zealand, you need to take consent to use resource and not consent to pollute as in India.

“You did a great job of finding this Chairman for NEPA – Professor” I said this with full of respect towards my Professor friend. “Sustainability will now be on sunrise”

As we were exchanging our impressions, and warmly so, a tall and bald Gentleman descended from the staircase. He was wearing a cotton Tee shirt (must be an organic I thought).  He looked at both of us with a question mark on his face. “Yes please?”

Professor introduced himself and me and said that this was an appointment taken to interview him as the newly inducted Chairman of NEPA. I opened the videography equipment case.

“Oh, not again” The Gentleman said in a weary tone. “The person you are looking for lives on the opposite side of this floor. I am in Flat 4A and he is in 4B. My door name plate is gone for repairs for the last two days and you are perhaps the third person to make this mistake!!”

Both of us were shocked, dazed and embarrassed

As we were putting on our shoes to reach the other side of the corridor, the Gentleman said “Not only do we stay opposite, but we have completely different views – we are neighbors but just 1800 apart”

I thought I should better tell the Professor now to stop his bad habit of speculations. And certainly not to make recommendations to the PM solely based on CV. I wish the Gentleman applied for the Post.

(This blog post draws inspiration from W.S. Maugham’s  short story “The Poet”. Its a great read. See   and enjoy

Cover image is sourced from

Students may like to visit to read Resources Management Act in New Zealand and compare with legislation in India)

Changing Lifestyles in Air Polluted Cities


I wanted to refill petrol in my car so I drove to my usual petrol pump located at Turner road in Bandra. The lane to the petrol pump was choked and it was after more than 15 minutes of ‘car crawl’ that I finally managed to reach the pump. When I asked Abdul, my usual pump mechanic, he pointed me to a billboard that red – “Buy 40 liters of petrol and get 2
Portable Oxygen Cylinders Free”. Apparently this “hot deal” was the reason for the rush. “Oxygen cylinders for what?”, I asked and the guy ahead of me in the queue said “to save you from air pollution” in a matter-of-fact tone. I didn’t quite like the idea of marketing emissions (i.e. petrol) with oxygen!

I was visualizing the city of Mumbai looking like a planet with no atmosphere and people carrying oxygen cylinders like astronauts. I was simply horrified at the thought.

“Are we exaggerating this issue of air pollution in Indian cities?” I called on my Professor friend in anguish. “Given the contaminated food we eat and the polluted water we drink, air pollution that we breathe in should not be a big deal. We know how to survive or otherwise. We better worry about the high incidence of lifestyle disorders like diabetes. We should offer sugar-free candies at the petrol pumps instead of oxygen cylinders. These candies should be sponsored with the CSR budgets of Parley or Cadbury”

My Professor friend was busy taking a close look at one of the N-95 masks that was produced by a Chinese company for marketing in Mumbai. This company was planning to manufacture some 1 million masks a month for Mumbai, to start with. The mask carried a certification “Proven Effective in Beijing”. The Professor turned to me and said, “Look at these masks – they filter almost all the PM2.5 matter in the air and cost only Rs. 5! Next time you go the shopping mall, you will be asked – do you want to buy a carry bag or a mask?”

“Wearing masks will help in many ways – he said. It will reduce the incidence of H1N1 and the future H2N2 series. And since it will be difficult to know who is behind the mask – masks will reduce the incidents of eve teasing by ogling men at bus stops – That could be an immense social benefit – something not easily understood and appreciated”

“But what about disposal of the 1 million used masks” I ventured to argue with the Professor. We will need to dedicate a special landfill site for getting rid of used masks. Besides the city will look like a place infested by dacoits like in the movie ‘Sholay’. The Professor was in no mood to listen.

“We have to think out of the box for reducing air pollution first” he said. The 100 smart cities program of the Prime Minister is hoping to achieve, for instance, optimization of traffic signals based on real-time measurement of air pollution. When the air quality index at a traffic junction goes high, you will be asked to change your route and will be
guided accordingly to reach your destination”

I was wondering how hard it will then be to drive from my office in Nariman point to home on Carter road, if such an intelligent air pollution sensitive system was put in place. I would perhaps be ‘circling’ the whole town for over two hours to help reduce air pollution at a traffic signal but emitting an extra ton of air pollutants in the process. Not such a smart an idea I thought.

Professor had more ideas to share. “I have recommended to the Secretary, Transport to introduce a rule whereby vehicles ending with odd number plates will be allowed on the road for Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and those with even number plates on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Sundays will be for cars with number plates ending in zero. This will greatly reduce the road traffic and hence the air emissions. Public transport will be encouraged”

“People will use fake number plates, Professor and have duplicate plate numbers” I said with a smirk.

Professor ignored my pessimistic view.

“Display boards will be set up at all major traffic junctions in the city to make people aware of the average air quality they breathe. Mobile apps will be developed so that you can browse the air quality trends and also get some forecasts. If the forecast shows that high levels of air pollution are expected, then the public may decide to stay indoors.” I wasn’t much in the favor of this option as people would stay home watching TV shows giving an excuse of outdoor air pollution.

The Professor then moved the focus to emission monitoring and control. “Directions will be given  to industries to monitor emissions from stack online. The emission data will be pooled through the server of the Pollution Control Board. Initially we will measure the Particulate Matter (PM) and provide a star rating. Industry with PM emissions well below the prescribed standard for instance will get a 5-star rating” Impressive Professor – I said.

“Hold on – the big game is much more than just emission monitoring and rating”. Professor said this with a mysterious smile.

The star ratings will be displayed real time at the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE). This will greatly influence the psyche of the stock traders. More stocks will be bought of companies with 5-star ratings and companies with one star rating will simply be dumped – independent of their financial performance.

(I started visualizing that air pollution sensitive and committed stock trader of BSE …)


“I am conducting a series of training programs for stock traders in Gujarati (PMO likes that) to explain air pollution, its seriousness, stock traders’ responsibility and the environmental and economic implications. You should give a couple of lectures in my course, my friend”

I was even more impressed even though my Gujarati was no good …

“The Indian insurance industry has already initiated discussions on re-fixing premiums based on an Air Quality Index (AQI). Lower is the AQI (implying higher level of air pollution), higher will be the premium,” Professor explained. That’s another economic implication.

But why don’t you think more radically, Professor? All this discussion is happening  because we are perhaps monitoring and reporting air quality from wrong locations in  the cities. Many of the stations that are operated are next to streets under direct influence of traffic emissions and not reflecting the ambient levels where the prescribed standards are strictly applicable. City of Pune for instance was declared as highly polluted because the reporting was done from a kerbside monitoring station and ambient air quality standards were compared! The air quality levels ‘improved’, the moment the station was shifted.

“Oh – for a change you are talking sense,” The Professor said taking a deep puff from his cigar. He looked outside the window at a grey sky. “Let me come up with a national site audit program right away for re-siting of monitoring stations to be done on an immediate basis. Relocating stations at correct and representative places will indeed lead to lower level of air pollution and the problem will be solved bang at the source!!”

I left Professor’s office with the N-95 mask that the Chinese company had left behind on his desk.

Cover image sourced from


The Union Minister of Environment & Forests in India has announced a national Air Quality Index (AQI). The AQI will reflect eight major pollutants that impact respiratory health. AQI will be reported first in cities with populations exceeding one million and in the next five years AQI will be gradually mandated to the rest of the country. Details on the proposed AQI could be found in

Do visit This website is supported by a team located in Beijing. Much of the data on this website is driven by the real time data monitored at the US consulates.

You may like to visit to see real time AQ reporting in some of the Indian cities. US Embassies report AQI as per US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) in Delhi displays AQ using IMD’s own AQI that is different from that of the U.S. EPA as well as from the proposed national AQI.  The State Pollution Control Boards provide data in raw format (concentrations) and currently do not follow any AQI. I guess in the period of next six months, the reporting will happen through the proposed national AQI. The US Consulates should then ideally report results in Indian AQI to avoid confusion.  So should be done by the IMD in Delhi.

Speaking about consulates, in India a number of countries have now issued guidelines for their diplomats on how they can protect themselves from air pollution. Countries like US, Germany and Japan have reduced the tenure of their diplomats in Delhi from three years to two years. Further, concerned over high pollution level in the capital, European Union has directed its diplomats here to soon install air purifiers in their offices and residences.

Greenpeace provides a very telling infographics on effects of PM2.5 and how to use N95 masks. See A joint study by universities of Chicago, Yale and Harvard found that half of India’s population may be losing up to three years’ lifespan because of poor air quality.

Beijing has put in place a time-bound action plan with health advisory and a four-level alarm system which includes closing of schools, factories and cutting down the number of cars on the roads depending on pollution levels. Indian metros such as Delhi or Mumbai have no such plan. See


Travelling Professors


I started working in Mauritius as a Consultant in 1998. I did some work on modelling of air emissions from Valentina Industrial Estate then.

In 2000, I got an opportunity to teach few sessions on Cleaner Production to Executive students at University of Mauritius (UoM). The classes used to start at 4 00 pm in the afternoon and end by 6 00 pm. After the sessions were done, I used to be dropped by the University car to my favorite hotel Vilas Caroline that was on the beach of flic and flac.


Vilas Caroline did special things for me. Mrs Narain, the manager, used to set up for me on the beach an easy chair with a library shelf and a lamp. The library shelf had books that I used to carry from Mumbai to read. I would then settle during sunset with a blend of Mauritian rum and coke and read books that I never found time otherwise. The sound of waves in the background used to be so touching – that made the book reading inspiring and sometimes thoughtful. A chef would walk in at around 8 pm to take the order for dinner. Mrs Narain never presented me a menu – she used to say – we will cook what you want! What a luxury and understanding!

One of the evenings as I stepped out of the class and reached the car parking area, I saw that there was an elderly couple already siting in “my car”. I paused – thinking some “mistake” and started looking around for another car. The man from the car waived and stepped out. He said “It’s your car my friend. I am Professor Allen and this is my wife Joe. We both teach like you at the University. Today our car has been taken to the Garage for servicing. So can we take a ride in your car to our hotel? We live in a motel close to Vilas Caroline”.  He was wearing a beach hat and had a friendly face. We shook hands. I said “No problems” and took front seat next to the driver.

“So Professors Allen and Joe- what do you do at UoM?” I started the conversation. Joe was quick to respond. “I teach economics. I am French. Allen is British. Don’t you make this out from his accent? Allen teaches applied mathematics”. In few minutes, I learnt that Allen and Joe have been regulars at UoM for the past 5 years and teach graduate students modules that span over 3 weeks. These modules fit into the academic requirements of UoM.

“Do you teach only at UoM?” I asked. Allen explained that they teach at a number of universities across the world. “We have selected 6 locations and teach when the weather is the best and there are festivities around that we can enjoy. So, in January; we teach at Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore; in March we are at University of Aachen in Germany; then in May in Mauritius followed by teaching at Stanford University in July. We then move to Tokyo University in October. November teaching is at Asian Institute of Management in Manila”



This was fascinating. “What about June-August?” I was curious to know.

“We also do some teaching on a cruise. We did this on Queen Elizabeth 2 initially but now we do such sessions on Alaska Cruise liners. These cruise teaching sessions are in July-August” Allen explained.

Are people interested to learn on a cruise?

Joe had an interesting explanation. “We normally pick up a corporate house and teach their top teams through case studies how economics and applied mathematics could be used for better business planning and analyses- pedagogy used in these sessions is very innovative and is really our brand. We don’t overload.. We work in an informal setup. In company of nature, people tend to learn more effectively.”


Allen added “Our son and daughter join the cruise with spouses. My son-in-law is a Green Chef and he does some fine cooking for the participants depending on his moods; daughter is a Yoga freak and so she takes on some Yoga sessions. Our son works for a newspaper and does a travelogue. His wife is a photographer and both of them usually produce a creative at the end of the journey. Basically, we have fun as a family and it is like having an annual get together – fully sponsored!! And we make new friends”

Very neat I said. I felt real envious about the life of these travelling professors. I decided that that should be my plan too. Finding six universities shouldn’t be too hard.

“But what about preparation of teaching materials Professors- that must be some work for you”. Professor Allen smiled “Oh, don’t leak this secret to others but let me tell you. The last assignment in our courses is to update our slide decks! The students work rock hard to ensure that all slides are updated with latest statistics, case studies added/verified and a pen drive is created for us as a submission with most updated resources from the web. We move to the next destination with this output”.  That was something smart!

The Professors got off. I reached Vilas Caroline. Mrs Narain was at the reception “How come late today Dr Modak? She asked. “Oh nothing, met some new friends” I said. “Please could you get me two shots of rum and coke? I need to introspect my life a bit more today”

(cover image sourced from

Teaching Environmental Management Differently



The subject of Environmental management is both exciting and challenging to teach.

Blending real world experiences in environmental management education is necessary. But it’s often an art as much a science.  Further, you need to complement teaching with discussions and innovative assignments to brew the subject. It has to be a well-designed and executed strategy.

It’s hard to get faculty who could “blend” and “brew” theory with practice. I am writing this post today to make some suggestions and offer ideas.

The world is changing rapidly. Understanding of the environmental science is continuously evolving.

And environmental education needs to reflect on these changes. We may therefore need to teach environmental management differently than what we did some 30 years ago.

And we need to recognize here the power of multi-media, web collaborative, search engines and increasingly smart mobile devices.

Don’t teach in Silos – Emphasize holistic and integrated approach

Earlier, environmental management was taught through topics generally placed in silos. Topics were typical – like air pollution control, wastewater collection, treatment and disposal, solid waste management.

Faculty specialized in each of the silos and did a great job teaching the details. But students rarely got an integrated understanding.  The very interdisciplinary nature of the subject of environmental management requires a “rounded” and “integrated” approach. Details are now available – plentiful and in a variety of forms.

Take for instance, teaching the “subject” of effluent management in an industry. Conventionally, one would teach sub-topics such as sources of effluent generation, effluent characteristics, applicable effluent standards, technology options, economics, case studies etc.  Taking on todays and future perspectives, you may like to ”expand” the sub-topics and bring in a more systems or integrated understanding to the effluent management problem. This may need touching on topics such as air pollution (e.g. due to release of VOCs from aeration tanks), energy optimization, water use reduction, substitution of hazardous substances, elimination of hazardous processes, health & safety of workers at the effluent treatment plant. A feature of resource recovery may help the effluent treatment plant to turn into a profit centre.

To emphasize the importance of such an integrated understanding, I prepared a one slide presentation pasted below showing changing system boundaries.


Teach not by Topics but through Events and Issues

Introducing basics as well as applied aspects can best be done through posing issues. The issues could be structured on tiers such as local, regional, national and global.

Table below provides a sample list of issues picked up from diverse areas that a Professor could build on. Students may be taught how to dissect the issue, carry out research to deepen the understanding, express opinions and share views. A well sequenced stack of issues then becomes the body of the curriculum on environmental management leading to an issue based lecture series


Local Regional National Global
Was CNG substitution the right decision to tackle Delhi’s air pollution? Why do we worry about the protection of Western Ghats Ecosystem? Is Ganga Action Plan the right model to address India’s River Water Quality Management Problem? How can strategy of producing Low Carbon Goods and Services help India to meet its voluntary commitments to GHG emission reduction and be competitive in the market?

Blend and Brew the learnings through innovative assignments

Information in the environmental domain is dynamic over time. Data, Hypothesis, Evidences, Convictions and Learnings keep on changing as we go along. Research must be a key ingredient of the assignments. A Professor will need to devise class assignments and group work accordingly.

Students may be asked to undertake specific literature review (e.g. state of the art), conduct interviews of some leading and inspiring personalities (for understanding trends and perspectives) and carry out field work (where you show students the interface with “practice”).

The assignments in the subject of “water management” on the issue of arsenic contamination could be

  • Prepare a State of Art review of treatment of Arsenic in groundwater
  • Do a Skype interview with Prof Prosun Bhattacharya of KTH in Sweden on his work on Arsenic Removal
  • Visit the ARUBA arsenic removal plant implemented by Dr Ashok Gadgil of Berkeley and prepare a field note

In a class of 30 students, such blended assignments could be given on 15 topics (two students working together). A two day seminar/roundtable event will help the class to understand the “dynamics” of 30 key issues on water. I would place at least 30% of the class engagement on research based teaching and assignments.  In the evaluation of the assignments, I would highly recommend a Peer Assessment approach that involves both students and the externals.

Use Flipped Classrooms to promote Active Learning

The traditional pattern of teaching has been to give students the task of reading textbooks and work on problem, while listening to lectures and taking tests in class. In flip teaching, the students first study the topic by themselves, typically using video lessons prepared by the Professor or third parties. In class, students apply the knowledge by solving problems or discussing issues and doing practical work (assignments).

So a Professor will video record presentations for instance on modelling fate of pollutants and point key resources (publications and software tools). The students are expected to go through this material prior coming to the classroom. The details are thus left outside the classroom. In the class, the Professor fields the questions, clarifies the doubts and presents some landmark application of models which have led to important decision making.

In flip method, the Professor thus tutors the students when they become stuck, rather than imparting the initial lesson in person. Further, students can also help each other, a process that benefits both the advanced and less advanced learners.

Flip teaching promotes active learning. Research shows that active learning improves students’ understanding and retention of information and can be very effective in developing higher order cognitive skills such as problem solving and critical thinking. The essence of the flipped classroom is to shift from passive to active learning where the learning process is more visible, reflexive, collaborative and engages students in critical thinking. Active learning is extremely critical for building understanding and skills on environmental management.

Envelop your course, set up collaborative – crossing geographical boundaries

The subject of environmental management is highly contextual. Ecosystems we live and manage have a spatial specificity which we simply cannot ignore.   To understand the mosaic, we need global, regional and national perspectives. Knowing about how crisis on water is addressed in the African continent and in the Middle East is important for a student studying in Tamil Nadu in India. Environmental education must therefore operate on a “spatial collaborative”.

Management of environment involves diverse stakeholders both in terms of scale (local, regional, national and global) and characteristics (business, community, government). It is essentially a people oriented, nature (resource) based political science.

We will need to use the web platforms cleverly to achieve this objective.  A Professor should therefore envelop the course with a web collaborative by inviting colleagues from other academic institutions and practice representing different geographies to contribute to the course. These invited experts could play role as content contributors, peers/mentors to students.   There are several web based collaborative tools available today – many of these are free.

I am personally very keen that we work together to discuss some of these ideas- may be through workshops – and build capacity of Professors in environmental management. Do write to me if anyone interested to chip in and help.

Image sourced from