Moody Rating and the Scheme of Half-Time  

This post introduces an innovative scheme called Half-Time that is rumored to be launched on the eve of the New Year in the interest of sustainability in India. Here is the “story”.


I went to see my Professor who was advising a company managing Mutual Funds on the Green Bonds. We chatted about the impact of Moody’s recent upgrading of rating to India to Baa2 from Baa3.

Professor’s view was that this upgrading was long overdue.

“These international rating bodies have been unfair to appreciate the progress made by India” He said.

While serving a special black coffee, he showed me a report on his desk from Dual Citizen, a US-based data consultancy. This report was 2016 edition of the Global Green Economy Index (GGEI). The report ranked 80 countries on both how green they are perceived to be, and how well they (actually) perform.

Professor said that on perception, India was not bad and was ranked 19 out of the 80 countries that were researched (Note that India was on rank 16 in 2014). Germany was on the top of this list. On the performance side however where Sweden was on the top, India’s rank was 68 (it was on rank 49 in 2014). This rank was really low and of grave concern. Clearly there was a contradiction between “talk” and the “walk”.

He quoted a paragraph from the report

According to the IMF World Economic Outlook, India, Bangladesh and Senegal should realize GDP growth between 6-8% in 2016. Yet in a trend that has been observed in previous editions, these countries perform poorly on the new GGEI, raising the question of what kind of growth these nations are realizing and how sustainable it is.

I couldn’t disagree with this observation.

Professor closed his door of his cabin, walked closer to me and whispered “Dr Modak, do you know that Moody’s are thinking of expanding their rating systems to factor the GGEI?  If this happens, then we will certainly be downgraded, and our reputation and investments flows will be hit. Moody’s are expected to come up with this modified rating system in 2019. It is rumored that Jayaram Ramesh of the Congress Party is helping Moody in this intellectual exercise”

I was shocked with this “secret” news.

Professor paused. He took a large gulp of the coffee and then said, “I have therefore advised our PM to implement a novel scheme called the “Half-Time”. This scheme will be PM’s third and final wave of reforms before the national elections”

“What is the scheme Professor?” I was very curious

In several team-based sports, matches are played in two halves. Half-time is the name given to the interval between the two halves of the match.  What I have proposed to the PM is to direct the citizens to live life in two halves – one half for the usual or allotted work and other half devoted to put sustainability in practice.

“This transformational reform (essentially a directive) will be vigorously implemented across India. It will reduce the contradictions between the perception ranking and ranking based on actual practice or implementation. We will achieve all colors of the economy – i.e. green, blue and purple.  A pilot phase of this Scheme has been already commissioned in Mumbai. Based on the pilot experience, our PM will announce the Scheme across the country, on the eve of the New Year.

“But what is this Scheme about?” I wanted to know the details.

Professor lighted his cigar.

“Sustainability is so much talked about that most of us just keep talking. Sustainability has become a “talking subject”. All generally advise what others should do by making presentations in the seminars or while writing recommendations for the Committees. Many criticize on channels like Times Now, Mirror Now etc. that nothing is happening on the ground. Few win awards for their performance – typically bestowed by CIIs and FICCIs – and become the heroes. But these companies or institutions are like small islands in the Pacific Ocean”

I thought the Professor was right.

“So I told the PM that budget for implementation is not the constraint. The real challenge is how to get time and commitment from people or their involvement. Today its tough to get time to do something concrete on sustainability as it is not described in the job description. Besides sustainability is a pretty nebulous concept”

“Take case of a middle class Mumbaikar. On an average a Mumbaikar travels 1.5 hours each way to reach the office and get back home. Mumbaikars are tired and frustrated in the journey and also in the office as they breath poor air quality (indoors as well as outdoors), watch heaps of garbage and flies around, drink overly chlorinated water at the taps and cope up with a sad and uninspiring boss.  They eat vegetables that are rich in pesticides and cook meat that has high levels of steroids. All they can do is criticize the civic bodies and their administration, builders, automobile makers, politicians, NGOs and the like. Media loves this jinx by hosting shows on their TV channels on the “pollution menace” or as a breaking news on the poor quality of life. Nothing changes on the ground. Of course we have the rules, regulations, fines….”  Professor stopped as there was no point to elaborate.

I thought the Professor was right once again.

“In the Half-Time scheme, people in Mumbai will work for only half time in their offices. The rest of the half-time will be devoted to some concrete sustainability oriented action. For the Government employees, the scheme will not lead to additional financial burden as most government employees anyways work Half-Time. Instead of chitchatting, sending what’s app messages, stitching a sweater or doing side business (like real estate) etc. and wasting time, they will step out and do some meaningful work for their neighborhood and society. This should be more interesting to them”

“But what about the private sector? Who will pay for the Half-Time?” I thought I asked a tough question

But Professor was easy.

“Companies who are obligated to spend 2% of the Profits on CSR will be allowed to divert their budget for sponsoring the half-time of the staff. In the initial phase, we will apply the scheme only to companies that need to be CSR compliant. To maintain their targets, these companies will need to double the employment who will work during the remaining half-time. Remember that generation of employment has been one of PM’s promises while campaigning for the election. So this will fit well”

I thought this strategy was superb.

“We will amend the Schedule 7 on CSR under the Company’s Act accordingly and make this Half-Time expenditure eligible. In this way, the CSR budget will be better spent and the staff working on sustainability related actions will bring in the desired change. We will thus see actual improvements on the ground instead of just the talks. The staff will also get good exposure to problem solving and identify new business opportunities for themselves and for the companies”

“Professor, can you give me some examples from your pilot? I asked

“Well, the Income Tax officers working at the BKC office have taken up beach cleaning in Bandra and Dadar (West). Clerks working in Mantralaya (Secretariat) at Nariman Point are conducting literacy campaigns for the children of fishermen in Colaba. Officers from Reliance in Andheri have adopted five streets in Versoa to plant and take care of the indigenous trees, track the birds (excluding crows and the pigeons of course). Software engineers at Tata Consulting Services are writing Mobile Apps to guide the citizens, especially children on green living. And through all these efforts, we are already witnessing a significant improvement”

I was impressed.

“But Dr Modak, there are exceptions of course. Half-Time Scheme for instance is not applicable to essential services such as fire department, hospitals, water supply & solid waste management department etc. Half-Time scheme is also not applicable to our defense forces. There are several such caveats” Professor said this in a cautionary tone.

He looked into the watch and noticed that was nearing 1 pm. “Well Dr Modak, I better leave as I must grab my lunch quickly and join the team on my Half-Time project”. He extinguished the cigar.

“What’s your Half-Time Project Professor?” I asked

“Well, we are holding series of convincing sessions with the senior politicians in the Municipal Corporation (both ruling and in opposition) to approve the pipeline of projects needed for the sustainability and safety of this city. These sessions are held at the Taj because these politicians are not interested to meet at cheaper hotels”

“Professor, hope your Half-Time efforts will help in clearing the critical pending proposals such as widening of the railway Foot Over Bridges (FOBs)” I said

Professor said “Yes Dr Modak, but we are targeting for fast clearance of mega projects such as the Trans-Harbor Link, Coastal Road project etc. Compared to these mega projects, the FOBs are rather minuscular and less impacting. Let the present system handle the FOBs. Our Half-Time work of continuous persuasion of politicians if successful will propel thousands of crores of investments”

Professor left for the Taj.

I realized that these investments were certainly important to maintain or improve the Moody rating.

I kept wondering however whether these projects will really bring sustainability to this city.

But perhaps that was not the point.


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So where do you take your sabbatical?

[As usual this is a “story” and not anything real]

I had booked a seat for a concert at the National Center for Performing Arts (NCPA). The NCPA in Mumbai is India’s premier cultural institution. Inaugurated in 1969, it was the first multi-venue, multi-genre cultural centre in South Asia. The concert I was to attend was by the legendary music director Zubin Mehta.

Zubin Mehta’s list of awards and honors is extensive and includes the “Nikisch-Ring” bequeathed to him by Karl Böhm.  Even at the age of 80, Zubin Mehta continues to support the discovery and furtherance of musical talents all over the world. He is the co-chairman of the Mehli Mehta Music Foundation in Bombay where more than 200 children are educated in Western Classical Music.

The great Zubin Mehta

I was a bit late for the concert and hence was worried whether I would be let in.

As I pushed the door, the door-keeper stopped me and asked me to show the ticket. With a tiny pencil torch in his hand, the door-keeper noted my row and seat number. While ushering me to my seat, he whispered “Dr Modak, the show has just commenced. If you were a bit more late, then I would not have let you in”

I sat down. And just then the great 80-year-old “Bombay Boy” Zubin Mehta walked on the stage. The two-hour programme was to feature compositions by Dvorak, Beethoven and Ravel.

But I kept wondering how the door-keeper recognized me. And his voice sounded a bit familiar.

After the first break, I thought of having a coffee in the lounge and look for some familiar faces. And there was film and ad personality Gerson Da Cunha, age 87 (who studied in the same school of Zubin), Feroza Chavda, a regular to NCPA and a music lover from Kemps Corner, Shyam Benegal – the famous film director and a 14-year-old Behram Hathi, who is a violin student at the Mehli Mehta Music Foundation. Most were engaged in discussions in soft voices about Zubin and the composition he rendered of Dvorak in the first half.

As I was getting back in the auditorium, I saw the door-keeper once again – guiding the people.

I took a good look, and I suddenly realized that the door-keeper was none but my Professor friend. No wonder why the voice sounded familiar.  He looked a bit different as he was dressed in a uniform that had the NCPA emblem.

“What are doing here Professor? And how come you are on this job?” I pulled him on a side.

“Well, I am on a sabbatical Dr Modak. I will be working here as a door-keeper for the next 2 months. I just joined NCPA two weeks ago”. Professor said.

“But Professor, most take sabbaticals at the universities. They teach a bit, do research and publish or write a book. But I never came across anyone opting for position of a doorkeeper during sabbatical.  And I am surprised how your application was approved? And how did the NCPA accept you?” I asked


Sabbatical  (i.e. Sabbath, literally a “ceasing”) is a rest from work, or a break, often lasting from two months to a year. In recent times, “sabbatical” has come to mean any extended absence in the career of an individual in order to achieve something. In the modern sense, one takes sabbatical typically to fulfill some goal, e.g., writing a book or travelling extensively for research. Some universities and other institutional employers of scientists, physicians, and academics offer the opportunity to qualify for paid sabbatical as an employee benefit, called sabbatical leave.


“Oh, Dr Modak, “standard” sabbaticals do not excite me. How I managed this sabbatical is best known to the directors of IIT and NCPA and let us leave at that. My past 2 weeks of work here have been exciting. I could attend for instance the Artie’s Festival. Started in 2008, it is celebrating its 20th edition. And well, Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic are like a love affair to me”

Professor asked me to stay after the concert as he was busy attending to the door.

When we were driving back, Professor explained his philosophy. “In my sabbatical so far, I learnt that it is not just the main conductor that you should focus– but also look at other key artists who are supporting the overall outcome. Remember the violinist, Pinchas Zukerman who often played with Zubin? I wish I could attend their joint concerts”. Professor said.

” Outcomes of sustainability initiatives are often like a well construed piece of art. Sustainability initiatives recalibrate with our traditions & the culture. They are supported with foundations of science. Since the outcome is often a behavior change – you need to give credit to the entire Team and especially to those who participate” Professor said while dropping me home. I thought he was absolutely right. There was lot to learn in connecting sustainability outcomes with the concerts of Zubin and Yanni and the like. Sustainability should resonate like a concert.

I remembered Mary Simpson, the great Violinist in Yanni’s concerts and especially her enthralling violin piece in “Felitsa” (Don’t miss watching the clip below). Indeed, musicians like Mary and Pinchas are as important as the principal conductors.

Mary Simpson – with her charming smile

The legendary Pinchas Zukerman

The next day when we met at our usual coffee shop, Professor told me that many years ago he did a sabbatical as a Liftman at the Navsari building in Fort, Mumbai.

Located at DN Road, Fort, in Mumbai, the Navsari Building was bought over from the Tata’s in 1928 by the Kotak family of industrialists. The Navsari Building houses one of the oldest lifts in the city today. This wood paneled elevator is operated manually using a crankshaft. The building is one of the few in the city where its heritage is preserved. Professor spoke to the Kotak family and picked up a sabbatical for 2 months. The old liftman was given a paid holiday after he gave a week’s training to the Professor on how to operate the lift and stop precisely on each floor without any “hiccups”.

Navsari Building

Professor told me that those two months were memorable as he “met” with great personalities ranging from Banking to Bollywood. There wasn’t much opportunity for conversations but a lot for observing people – especially how they behaved in the lift.  He could also see a change on the face and behavior of people before getting inside the lift and while getting out. This change used to make him think about the people they must have met and the outcomes/decisions of the meetings.

The elevator in Navsari Building

Some of the celebrities who used the lift included Shah Rukh Khan, Sachin Tendulkar and Bal Thackeray who used to go at the fourth floor for appointments with Banaji Eye – an eye specialist. And of course, there were people from the ICICI Bank working on the second floor who were rather formal and had grim faces. Many people, especially children,  used to come to just to see and experience the lift. Professor used to take the children in the afternoons to the fourth floor and back and the building management was quite OK with this gesture.

Professor explained that this sabbatical taught him patience and a philosophy that what goes up, eventually comes down, but to rise again. “One can get excitement even in the so called routine nature of the job – but if you know how to” Professor said while extinguishing his cigar. I thought the Professor was right once again.

“Well what is after the NCPA sabbatical?” I asked.

Sometime in May 2017, I plan to work with Shuaib at the Air Cool saloon. Professor said. Shuaib will train me in the first 2 weeks on some of the basics.

This nearly 60-year-old hair saloon has now reopened on the Vir Nariman Road in Mumbai, a short 5-minute walk from its former location and retains the classic vibe of the original salon. The imposing metal barber chairs are still there (re-upholstered in red) and so are all the old staff, wearing white short sleeve shirts with “Air Cool” embroidered on the hems. There is a wall of old barber tools, too — scissors, razors and shaving brushes hung up in glass frames. Apparently, many celebrities including ministers have been customers of Air Cool for years.

The Air Cool Saloon

“So, what’s your take there Professor?” I asked

“Well Dr Modak, when you are doing hair or trimming a beard or doing a neat shave, you can converse with your customer. It’s a rather intimate situation where what you say or advice gets heard. You can give your views on what the PM Modi should do or why Hrutik Roshan should not continue his fight with Kangana or why the stampede happened on the Elphinstone bridge.  And your customer responds – sometimes patiently and sometimes in an animated manner – depending on the service you render”

“Knowing you Professor I am sure you will converse with your customer on sustainability” When I said this, Professor laughed.

Few months later, in June 2017 and on the World Environment Day, I saw news on the TV channels that Environment Minister of Maharashtra has come up with a State Level Sustainability Action Plan – integrating with Climate Change. I was simply impressed with such a pleasant accident.

But when I saw Minister’s interview taken by Mirror Now, I realized that he looked a bit different. It seemed that he had just taken a good haircut.

I suspect he did his haircut at the Air Cool Saloon while my Professor friend was on sabbatical!


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This “story” has been constructed with some text and images based on articles from

Hindustan Times
http://www.hindustantimes.com/mumbai/from-zubin-mehta-with-a-timeless-signature-in-mumbai/story-yJPsdt2Iy1ww2kMpY4QsHJ.html

Architectural Digest India
https://www.architecturaldigest.in/content/a-walk-through-heritage-mumbai-this-navroze/

GQ India
https://www.gqindia.com/content/mumbais-air-cool-still-old-school-gq-india/#old-school-remains-on-trend-at-the-air-cool-salon-at-churchgate

 

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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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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