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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Common Environmental Infrastructure  – Its Evolution and Future

 

“Environmental infrastructure” is a general term that refers to infrastructure facilities as well as public services that are essential for protection, conservation and enhancement of the environment. Environmental infrastructure reduces risks to the humans and ecosystems and improves quality of life.

Environmental infrastructure that is developed for the common interests of a targeted group of users is referred to as “Common Environment Infrastructure” (CEI).

Urban infrastructure such as water supply; sewage collection and treatment; collection, treatment and disposal of solid wastes and provision of public toilets are examples of Urban CEI. This infrastructure is built using resources from the Urban Local Bodies (ULBs), State or Central Government in the form of grants or schemes or more recently partnering with the private sector. The public that is benefited through CEI is charged through tariffs and taxes. The charges are often subsidized and are differential (e.g. different for domestic, commercial and industrial uses)

There are CEIs for the industries as well. Common Effluent Treatment Plants (CETPs)  are examples of CEI for industrial clusters/estates.

The concept of CETPs emerged from a workshop led by Professor Niloy Choudhari, then Chairman of the Central Pollution Control Board in 1977 held in Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh, India. CETPs were conceived to help Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) to connect their effluents to a central effluent treatment plant and contribute financially to its construction and operation.

The proceedings of this workshop provide the concept and rationale for CETPs. I still hold a copy of the proceedings. Only few will have this copy. The CETP and its operationalization is India’s contribution to the World. Countries like Vietnam, Thailand, China, Brazil etc. adopted CETPs, much based on India’s experience.

In 1987, i.e. 10 years later after Prof Choudhari’s  workshop, a group of seven entrepreneurs owning and operating small and medium chemical and pharma industries came forward to promote Jeedimetla Effluent Treatment Limited (JETL). A CETPs was set up on the outskirts of Hyderabad following “Polluter to Pay Principle”. The treatment facility was commissioned in April, 1989 at cost of Rs. 4.6 million to treat 350 m3/day of effluent using Activated Sludge Process.

Today there are nearly 200 CETPs operating in India. In their promotion, following aspects were considered

  1. Institutional – To establish CETP, a company had to be formed under the Companies Act by the interested polluters for parties. SMEs had to be the major stakeholders or the beneficiaries, especially if subsidies were to be enjoyed.
  2. Financial – The CETPs were subsidized by the State (initially by the State Government and later in some cases by the State Pollution Control Boards (SPCBs) and also by the Center (using initially the Central Loan Scheme and later through a grant from Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF) using the IDA funds from the World Bank (under the projects Industrial Pollution Control (IPC) and Industrial Pollution Prevention (IPP). The early financial structuring for capital contribution was as follows.

25% State subsidy, 25% Central subsidy (both provided as reimbursement), 20% Equity from the participating industries and 30% Loan (provided by Industrial Development Bank of India (IDBI) through IBRD money made available by the World Bank.

Now the financial structuring is different. The contributions are 25% Central subsidy, 25% by the State and 50% by the member industries. For CETPs involving primary / secondary / tertiary treatment, central financial assistance would be to the tune of 50% of maximum Rs.15 million / MLD capacity, subject to a ceiling of Rs. 150 million  per CETP. For CETPs involving primary / secondary / tertiary treatment and Zero Liquid Discharge (ZLD) treatment, financial assistance would be provided by GOI to the tune of 50% of maximum Rs. 45 million / MLD capacity, subject to a ceiling of Central assistance of Rs. 200 million  per CETP.

  1. Technical – The design of the CETPs had to be vetted to enjoy the subsidy. This was done by the National Environmental Engineering and Research Institute (NEERI). MoEF specified the effluent standards.

Figure 1: Typical Institutional Framework for CETP as CEI

I spent around 8 years on CETPs as a Consultant to the World Bank under IPC and IPP projects. In this period, I had opportunities to interact with SPCBs, MoEF, Private sector and Industry Associations.

Each CETP company had their own method of sharing the 20% equity. Further, they used their own formula for computing the charges to be paid (to meet the operational costs) including repayment of the loan. The formula for charging typically considered effluent flow and effluent characteristics such Chemical Oxygen Demand (COD). In addition, each polluter was required to do certain minimum pre-treatment (e.g. neutralization). Additional costs included costs of managing effluent conveyance e.g. through a piped underground network or fleet of tankers.

Although essential, CETPs require today the Environmental Clearance (EC). MoEF has produced elaborate guidelines for this purpose.  EC for CETPs takes substantial time. Unfortunately, no one considers the “cost of delayed action” on the environment in the interim period i.e. in the absence of CETP!

There is a lot of unevenness across CETP companies today. There is no “national regulator” who controls and provides rationale for equity contributions (addressing the procedures for late entry and early exits) and importantly the basis of charging schemes. There is also no mechanism of “trading effluent loads” to encourage the effluent load reduction. Industries who reduce effluent load to the CETPs are generally discouraged as this leads to reduction in the revenue to the CETP.    I will highly recommend that readers to this post refer to the presentations made at a national conference in New Delhi on CETPs in 2014. I wish there was an active association of CETP companies at the national level to continue such dialogues.

There have been several reports on the performance evaluation of the CETPs by Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), agencies like NEERI and Environmental NGOs. All these studies by different institutions indicate a high degree of non-compliance. Dealing with non-compliance of CETP could mean en-mass closure – that can have ramifications on the production and employment in the member industries. I had recommended that CETPs should be given operational subsidies over 5 years based on performance rather than one time capital grants. This recommendation was well received but not followed.

Some of the reasons for non-compliance at CETPs include lack of proper pre-treatment, extreme variability in the flow and composition of the influents, poor treatment design and operation and deficits in the cash flow due to inadequate collection of effluent charges. Many believe that the root cause of the problem is however lack of ownership.  When infrastructure is common, there is hiding of the identity. So, who cares? You simply pass the buck or blame each other.  Its more of an attitudinal or cultural issue – isn’t it? You badly need an iconic leader and a facilitator who motivates the CETP members and get them committed for the COMMON CAUSE. We do have such good stories to tell.

Today the CETP concept is expanded to address collective management of other residues e.g. hazardous waste and biomedical waste. CEIs that will manage E-waste will soon follow. CEI for management and recycling of Construction & Demolition (C&D) wastes are already established in Delhi. My organization Environmental Management Centre LLP recently drafted national guidelines for establishing CEI for C&D waste for GIZ.

CETPs are however gradually evolving to more sophisticated reuse and recovery systems (refer to Figure 2) and not just limit to compliance. CETPs are now being recognized as part of a more holistic treatment-recovery-reuse solution comprising of add-ons such a By-Product Recovery Facility (e.g. common chromium recovery in CETPs for tanneries, common solvent recoveries and common heat & power units), a water recycling facility (like operated at CETPs in Tirupur in India). CETPs are often expanded to include a Hazardous Waste Treatment, Storage and Disposal Facility that can have a potential of recovery and recycling. It is important that any future funding of CETPs follows this holistic treatment-recovery-reuse solution, rather than restricting only to compliance. The Zero Liquid Discharge (ZLD) directive from SPCBs has been a driver in this direction. Sure, there will be motivation for Compliance, moment there are reverse operations (like water recycling) and clear financial returns.  

 

Figure 2: Gradual Evolution of CETPs from Standalone to More Sophisticated Reuse and Recovery Systems

As CEIs will spread to address specific waste streams like plastic, waste oil and metal scrap; there will be transformation of the informal sector. This sector that has major linkages will play a vital role if skilled and supported by micro-finance schemes and mentoring provided by the formal sector.  Waste to Energy is already a major CEI across the world.

Experience has shown that CEIs work best through PPP with lead taken by the private sector operator.  In such cases, Government provides concession or guarantees and does not invest. We should soon see more such CEIs in India. Example are Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) located in the industrial estates that are bided out. These MRFs essentially become gateway of Circular Economy by ensuring least leakage of material and energy flows outside the boundaries of the industrial estate. I wish the Industrial Development Corporations build MRF for every Industrial Estate as a part of the CEI apart from CETPs.  

I spoke top my Professor Friend about the evolution and future of CEI in India.  I also expressed my displeasure on the poor leadership of MoEF&CC in this sector and its lack of vision.

Professor lit his cigar and smiled at me. “Dr Modak, I agree with your concerns but you are still thinking conventionally”. He said

Haven’t you thought of CEI in the form of Common Environmental Monitoring Systems invested by private sector in cities and industrial areas? How about commonly designed and operated Environmental Information Centers that help in raising awareness, assist in decision making and help conduct scrutiny or independent evaluation? Disaster Management Centers around Industrial Estates is another example that can be considered as CEI.

I thought Professor was right. So much innovation is possible and experiences to share!

I realized we badly need a brainstorming on this subject at the national level. We must look into the Future of CEIs. Perhaps Mr. Hardik Shah, PS to the Hon Minister should consider holding such a meeting. He comes from the State of Gujarat that has maximum number of CETPs and Common Hazardous Waste Treatment & Disposal Facilities in the country,

You know my views now but I do hope Mr Hardik Shah is reading my blogs!


Cover image sourced from http://shreyanswater.tradeindia.com/common-effluent-treatment-plant-1252361.html


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Nights at the Ayurvedagram and the Ultimate Truth

[This is my 50th post  after the publication of my two books of blogs. I thought of celebrating the 50th post by writing on a topic that is little different. This post was written after a long and strange dream at the Ayurvedagram.]

I decided to spend two weeks in Ayurvedagram near Bangalore to address several of my health concerns. Most of my health problems were due to sheer negligence, lack of understanding and low priority given to my body and mind. But never too late, I thought. Ayurvedic therapy had worked for me in the past. I gave a long list of my problems to Dr Manmohan, the Chief Medical Officer. Dr Manmohan chalked out an elaborate plan for me for the required “correction” and “prevention”. I am sure coming up with such a plan was challenging to him.

I was tired of the multiple ailments however and wished that I could get another body for a change so that I could continue my work. But I knew that this would require some Godly intervention. So, when I was woken up at night by Lord Vishnu in Ayurvedagram, I was rather delighted.

Lord Vishnu heard my story patiently with a smile. He said “Dr Modak, you are still not understanding the Ultimate Truth and hence are worried about your health issues and thinking about the world of work.. Once you understand the truth, everything will be different and you will live differently”

I asked Lord how can I understand what you are saying.

“Well Dr Modak, I will have to “free” you for a while to experience. Come with me” said the Lord.

I soon realized that I had left my body. It was like a breeze as I was perhaps blessed. I was  floating in an astral form that had no more pains and the ailments. Lord Vishnu took my hand and navigated me.

We left the campus of Ayurvedagram, rose on the skyline of the Bangalore city, and gradually reached above the Indian peninsula where I could see both Arabian sea and Bay of Bengal. That was a fascinating view and it humbled me.

“We will go even further Dr Modak. We will exit the Earth shortly and move towards the Universe”. Lord Vishnu said.  His face had a different glow.

To me it was going to be a magic carpet ride and with none other than the Creator and Protector of the Universe. I considered myself  to be very fortunate.

In few minutes, we had left the Earth. The journey beyond was new and exciting to me.  After crossing several planets, we stopped.

“Now close your eyes Dr Modak” Lord Vishnu said. “You will soon realize the Ultimate Truth without me saying anything”

I closed my eyes.

I saw that nothing was existing contrary to what I believed. There was no earth and no planets.. and no mountains and the seas and no people. There was only light that encompassed the universe. There was a deep humming sound (Omkar – that is the primeval sound) giving vibrations. It looked like an everlasting or chirantan Brahmic universe with all the emptiness. And  yet it seemed complete.

And this universe was me.

Was that the Ultimate Truth?

I was in a trans.

After a while, Lord Vishnu asked me to open my eyes. I did not want to but I simply obeyed.

Lord Vishnu had taken by then his mighty form stretching the universe. I looked at his Viraat Swaroop or Vishvarupa. And I understood that I was Him too! We were not different.

Vishvarupa


Vishvarupa is considered the supreme form of Lord Vishnu, where the whole universe is described as contained in Him.


Lord Vishnu then assumed his humanoid form like before and navigated me back to the Earth and to the Ayurvedagram. We did not speak a word in this journey.  There was no need.

When Lord Vishnu put me back to my body, I realized that there was nothing much to worry or discuss about the ailments I was facing. There was nothing to fear as fear appeared irrelevant. Would you agree?

I realized that all I had to do was to put my body and mind to the best use I could – till I have.  Helping someone was logical as the one suffering was me and rejoicing in someone’s happiness was a joy – again to me.  I saw all the boundaries one perceives to be blurring.

But the realization of the Ultimate Truth put me to another difficult question. Knowing that nothing is real, should you be in the state of sthitaprajna?


The sthitaprajna is a free soul, ever steady in knowledge of Self. A sthitaprajna is also known as a jivanmukta, or one who is truly free while still living.

Though engaged in actions, being free from ego and free from motive, the sthitaprajna is not a doer of actions. Though having a physical body, the sthitaprajna is merely a dweller within the body and is unidentified with it.

The wisdom of the sthitaprajna is wisdom of a cosmic oneness. Ever established in the state of yoga, the sthitaprajna remains in constant union with God and, at the same time, is the ideal exemplar of karma-yoga, demonstrating steady wisdom through every action.


Attaining the state of sthitaprajna is perhaps ideal but certainly not easy. It is something that is to be realized and not learnt.

I thought of asking guidance from the Lord on how to accomplish this difficult task when and if he visits me again in the nights at the Ayurdevagram. Having exposed me to the Ultimate Truth, I thought He should enlighten me how to be in such a state.

I had several questions to ask.

If you have the answers, then please let me know. I would love to get your insight and guidance.

Was being with Lord Vishnu at the Ayurvedagram – a dream? Or was it a reality?

I leave it to you to decide.


Text on sthitaprajna taken from https://indiaspirituality.blogspot.in/2010/05/qualities-of-sthitaprajna.html


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The Story of Environmental Information Centre in India

It was June 1999. The Chambers at Taj Mansingh in New Delhi was booked for an important meeting. Those present included Mr. K Roypaul, Additional Secretary of Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF), Dr Dilip Biswas, Chairman, Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), Dr Subramanium, Director at MoEF, Richard Ackerman, Sector Director Environment, The World Bank; Hari Sankaran and Mahesh Babu from IL&FS Ltd. It was a small group and I was the presenter. Topic was Environmental Information Centre (EIC). The meeting began at 7 pm in the evening.

For many years, I was stressing the need to establish a national centre on Environmental Information. I saw its need for providing quality data in a comprehensive and timely manner to project proponents and consultants for conducting Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA). The regulators could use the Environmental Information Centre (EIC) to verify the baseline information provided and carry out regional and cumulative impact assessments to come up with recommendations on environmentally sound planning and development. EIC could mosaic the secondary data from key sources including remote sensed imageries and host this data and its interpretation on a WebGIS platform for the interest of all stakeholders including environmental NGOs and communities.  To ensure populating of the primary and current information, the data structures of the EIA reports could be standardized with mandatary data (and maps) uploads. EIC could also do the job of State Environmental Assessment and Reporting.  The ENVIS Centres of MoEF could be “connected” to the EIC to bring in and update thematic information on environment.

I was convinced that the EIC cannot happen solely with the Government. EIC had to be conceived as a Public Private Partnership (PPP). For promoting and operating EIC, private sector was needed and Government’s support was required to hook the data residing with various key ministries and departments and bring recognition. The attendees at the Chambers in Taj Mansingh therefore included Government  (Ministry and CPCB) and private sector with domain expertise and experience on PPP (IL&FS Ltd).  I was keen to involve academia as well such as Centre for Studies in Resources Engineering (CSRE) at IIT Bombay.

When EIC was presented and discussed, the World Bank was working with Ministry of Environment & Forests on the Environmental Management Capacity Building (EMCB) project. I made a plea to the World Bank and MoEF to use resources available in EMCB project to establish EIC in India. Richard Ackerman from the World Bank was present in the meeting for this purpose.

I had a very interesting position in this memorable meeting. I was a “friend” to MoEF, a consultant cum “insider” to the CPCB, and a consultant to The World Bank and IL&FS. I was thus the point of “intersection”. The discussions were therefore very cordial, full of ideas and support. Perhaps it was the best situation for me to make EIC happen.

And EIC happened. It got support of around 1 million USD from the EMCB Project and was installed as a pilot project with IL&FS Ecosmart Ltd.  States of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat were chosen as the focal States for EIC to provide the service. Arc GIS was chosen as the platform. Nearly 30 “layers” of key information were prepared for the three focus States. To understand the “demand” and “supply” as well as commercials, several workshops were held. These workshops led to better understanding on the scope of the services of EIC.

IL&FS Ecosmart started “marketing” the services of EIC and several project proponents and consultants started placing orders for accessing information (as one stop shop) needed to conduct EIAs. Review committees at the MoEF used EIC service for verification of the information stated in the EIA report. The World Bank utilized EIC’s service for its projects, especially for screening and scoping. I was hoping that EIC will now escalate further to cover other States and provides service pan India as an independent institution.

The idea was to move EIC as a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) after piloting for two years at IL&FS Ecosmart. SPV structure was necessary to make the operations autonomous and allow functioning like an independent business organization. Unfortunately, EIC as SPV did not happen. IL&FS Ecosmart could operate EIC only as a project. There were severe limitations as EMCB project got over. Mr. Roypaul had left MoEF by then and so also Dr Biswas at CPCB. The new team (especially Secretaries and Joint Secretaries) had reservations on the SPV concept.  The SPV concept for “servicing information” was perhaps too new or rather early at that time. After 2 years of pilot operation, EIC was shut down. I would squarely blame the MoEF and its bureaucracy for the closure or death of the EIC.

[ Last year the TSR Subramanium report stressed a dire need to set up EIC and to many it sounded as a new idea. Today, I understand that MoEFCC is envisaging a massive 5-year project in this direction with the help of National Informatics Centre (NIC). But I wonder whether such a fully Government owned and supply-driven model will ever work]

I remember I visited State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) in Beijing for the World Bank in 2002. I mentioned about the concept of EIC and its benefits to the Director of SEPA. He was very attentive in listening to me. He called some four senior officials of SEPA immediately and engaged with discussions to get more insight. In the next mission I did to Beijing, I was told that EIC was established in China. It runs as a Government project today and not as a PPP – a structure that I would have ideally preferred. It lacks therefore the innovation element that is essential when you work with dynamic, diverse and BIG environmental data.  The Centre however delivers the data to the stakeholders and supports the EIA process. The Chinese implement, once convinced and not just talk.

Today several countries operate EIC. Most EICs are Government driven and some are Government owned but operated/managed by Private Sector or by Extensions of Universities. The latter seem to work better and are more efficient and effective. EIC in India must look at such hybrids.

My company, Environmental Management Centre LLP, operates a “mini EIC” that provides customized environmental information service to our clients. This service is getting popular. The key is not to provide just the raw data but provide insightful interpretation after application of data analytics as well as modeling. Examples of such applications are change detection to see impact of thermal plumes over time in the coastal areas, district level mapping of water stress that is based on water availability, quality and uncertainty due to climate change and  mapping of diversity indices of birds and bats around the wind farms etc. Operation of this “mini-EIC” helps my team to understand the dynamics of environmental data and importantly its role in decision making.

There have been however considerable improvements in data repositories and sharing of environmental information in India. Right to Information Act has perhaps been one key factor for the “push”.   The websites of regulators like Maharashtra Pollution Cntrol Board now provide considerable information with spatial visualization and the website of National Green Tribunal is rich with regular updates. Bhuvan database is another example that provides map based information. We will soon see dash boards in  smart cities based on real time data – that may contain important environmental information.

I still hope that EIC at national level on an overarching basis happens. Given the developments in IT and operations of several thematic and geographically distributed databases across institutions, its structure will have to be quite different than what I conceived in 1999. It may be in the form of a Mega-Portal sewing several databases for an organized access but with “intelligence”. Creation of indicators will be an important element of the analytics apart from “change detection”. I wish that we book Chambers at the Taj Mansingh once again for a discussion on EIC in this new context.

But if this meeting happens, I will certainly miss the team that was present in the Taj Chambers in 1999. Those encouraging and enriching discussions and the vision expressed on EIC will never be forgotten.


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Will you Marry Me?

All those who fall in love – either speak or listen to this asking “Will you marry me?”

Many believe that to say “Will you marry me?” requires a great courage. You are also at the risk of receiving a negative response. And if the answer is negative, then there is a greater risk and a pain if you further asked “Why? or “Why not?”. One should never make that stupid mistake.

If the answer is Yes, then many are dumb founded and don’t know what next to do. Few smart ones, insert a ring in the partner’s finger or some bold ones give a long hug and plant a deep kiss. This moment is cherished throughout the life irrespective of the regrets later!

I came across five seemingly straight forward steps in proposing a marriage.

Step 1: Make sure that you’re both ready for marriage. Before you take the plunge, you should know if you’re really ready to be together for the long haul of life. …(I know its hard many times to be “that sure”. But you need to be an optimist).

Step 2: Pick the right ring,  before you propose…. (This Step is as real practical. Note that this will be some investment)

Step 3: Pick the right time. …(don’t ask when your partner is in some stress and when he/she cannot be receptive or attentive to what you say)

Step 4: Pick the perfect location. ...(a deserted beautiful beach? a romantic top terrace of a hotel overlooking city at night? Or in a plane flying at 35000 ft when the sign of fasten seat belts off? – you need to be imaginative here)

Step 5: Ask the right way.(with all the passion, grace and love; in a voice that is thicker than usual, holding the hand in a firm grip when you speak)

It seems that if you follow these 5 steps, and rightly so, then you would probably hear the answer Yes, see a loving and assuring smile messaging an unspoken response as YES.

Many however follow the usual style of communication like sending flowers with a (surprise) note, post a love letter with a box of chocolates, get help from friends who sing in choir “Will you marry him/her?” with a brass band or a drum line in the background.  Alabama’s (a music group) song “Will you marry me?” and a solo by John Berry are often played.

All these tricks are interesting but not exciting.

There are web pages that present a compilation on different ways to propose a marriage. See the 58 tips on so called romantic ways to propose and 100 such ideas

But I find that these resources and tips are rather drab, conventional and not that innovative. So I started asking my friends how they did it.

My friend Bill working in an investment firm in New York was in love with a colleague. They used to partner in many assignments.

Opposite their office was a McDonald outlet where they used to take a bite because of the bizzare work pressures. A branch of American Express Bank was next to the McDonalds. Bill asked  his girlfriend  while crossing the street “how about opening a joint account in Amex”. The message was subtle (a bit fit for professionals in the financial world!) but the proposition of the joint account set the ball rolling! They eventually married.

One of my Thai friends Veerawan was courting with a boyfriend for quite a while with no progress on asking “Will you marry me?”. One day, Veerawan was lunching with Surasak (name of her boyfriend). She pulled out a pocket book from her purse that is used as a guide for naming newborns. Veerawan asked “Sura, what name should we choose if we get the boy first?” Sura chose one quitely – as if they were already married!! There was no need to ask “Will you marry me?”

But story by good friend Aron from Manila is interesting. Tes (his girl-friend) and Aron were close friends in the college. They used to go out with friends on the weekends for music. Both loved to read books and later have a conversation about them. Alan used to paint and was pretty good at portraits.

One of their favorites place to meet was the Books and Border Café located on the Tomas Morato Street in Diliman Quezon. The Café held a stock of 650 books and served great coffees.

Aron and Tes would pick up an interesting book, read the book for a while, sit quietly in the Café on the bean bags and then after an hour or so sit on the table and order a coffee. They would exchange the books and discuss their reading experiences. This would generally happen on the weekdays as the Café was less crowded giving them more peace and privacy.

Book and Border Cafe in Manila

Aron was in love with Tes and wanted to propose marriage, but their closeness and friendship became a barrier to express his love.

The book shelves of the Border café had unique book markers. You could write your name on the book markers, so the next time you visit the Café, you could pick up the book that is not yet finished and reach the place to continue reading instantly. Most popular books boasted several book marks, and you could see names of people who are reading the book “along” with you. That was quite interesting.

The book markers

Aron picked up a book, wrote on the book marker his name and then wrote in capital letters “Will you marry me Tes?”. Tes was engrossed reading another book.

When they sat on the table for conversations, Aron passed on his book to Tes and started to talk about it. “It’s a great story of life of a painter like me”. He said.

Tes was turning the pages of the book as he spoke. “Read the section that I book marked – that may interest you. The story has a twist at the end” said Aron while browsing through the pages of Tes’s book. He avoided looking at her.

Tes reached the book marker. And the communication happened …. She closed the book, gave a warm smile to Aron and softly said “I don’t need to read the rest of the book now” The story was clear and over. That was the twist!

Aron and Tess married in the Church within a month. The Owner of the Books and Border was warmly invited.

I asked my Professor friend where did he propose to his late wife. “In Samover Café at the Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai”. He said while lighting his cigar. “It was just past 8 pm. The main door got closed for the day. I paid 10 Rs tip  to the waiter to let us stay. He told us that we could  leave from the back door after 10 minutes that had an automatic latch. We were the only couple in the Café. Everything happened in those 10 minutes –  We did not speak. But our eyes did. When we stepped out of Samover, we knew that we were to get married”

Cafe Samover in Mumbai

Professor was perhaps lost in the memories as he sat quiet.

I thought that the Professor was right. His wife who was a famous artist and a noble soul, deserved place only like Samover for that unspoken “Will you marry me?”.

Professor had chosen the right place and the right time.

Unfortunately today, Samover is closed.


Started by Usha Khanna in 1964, Cafe Samovar in Jehangir Art Gallery was an icon of Mumbai’s cultural landscape and for decades. It served as a haven for the city’s creative minds across the arts. This cafe was a theater for dramatic performances, a meeting place for executives, especially lawyers, young lovers and the students.


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