Its Right to Repair

When we think of circularity of material flows, we need to understand “outer” and “inner circle” approaches.

The “outer circle” approach creats a closed loop of materials through recycling. In the case of electronic goods, this means recovering of precious metals lodged in our gadgets, something only feasible with a sophisticated technology, requiring a scale and where large companies profit.

The “inner circle” approach is essentially following route of repair, refurbishing and remanufacturing. It is the inner circle approach where we transform our living from the single-use and throw away culture. When we follow inner circle approach, it helps us to save money, conserve our resources, generate employment and come up with innovations. We extend product’s life cycle through reuse. The inner circle is people centric, it is for citizens and supports small companies.

Unfortunately, the inner circle approach to material circulation does not find much space in both public and scientific discussions. We speak more about recycling or the outer circle approach to achieve circularity. We need both – but former should get a preference.

Repair is restoration of a broken, damaged, or failed device, equipment, part, or property to an acceptable operating or usable condition. Repair can involve replacement. Refurbishing is refinishing and sanitization (beyond repair) to serve the original function with better aesthetics. Repaired and refurbished products, although in good condition, may not be comparable with new or remanufactured products. In remanufacturing, the product is resold with performance and specifications comparable to new products.

How do we know if the repaired, refurbished or remanufactured product is good? Can we certify? The “Remade In Italy” label certifies the use of recycled material / reuse in products. The release of the Remade In Italy ® certification is subject to a verification process by a third-party body (and therefore independent) for the certification of both management and product systems. The Remade in Italy ® label highlights the environmental values ​​of the material / product and is characterized by the assignment of a class, based on the percentage of recycled / reused material present.

I may be wrong, but we don’t have such a certification scheme in India and perhaps in several countries in the world.

Remanufactured or refurbished products can help companies compete at a lower price with cheaper or lower quality competitors, without reducing quality, due to the resource savings realised, allowing firms to secure greater market share. Economic incentives and disincentives as well as enforcement of legislation on Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) play an important role to move the inner circle.

Recent interest on repair, refurbishing and remanufacturing has led to establishment of reverse logistic chains, i.e. collection and transport systems. Several off the shelf or plugin type technology platforms have evolved such as 12return that help create reverse supply chains from consumers to service providers, operated by “aggregators”.

The repair culture did not have much root in the developed economies due to high costs of labour. Realizing the importance of its promotion however, countries in the European Union (EU) have come up with incentives. In Sweden, a tax-refund scheme operates that on the labour segment of household repair bills for white goods and electronics. On similar lines, in Austria, there is a proposal to make repair cheaper by reimbursement of 50% of the labour costs of repair. In France, there are differentiated EPR scheme fees depending on how easily you can dismantle a product for repair, on the availability of spare parts or on whether the information/instructions on how to repair a product are available. These fees are lowered for producers who inform consumers how long spare parts will be available for the product on purchase.

In the United States (US), eighteen States have proposed “Right to Repair” legislation. The Right to Repair bill will make easier for people to repair their broken electronic equipment—like cell phones, computers, appliances, cameras, and even tractors. The legislation would require manufacturers to release repair information to the public and sell spare parts to owners and independent repair shops. It is going to be however a bumpy ride as giants like Apple and Microsoft are gearing up to oppose this legislation in at least one State.

But how do we scale up and build capacities? Restart Project – a London-based social enterprise – encourages and empowers people to use their electronics longer in order to save money and reduce waste. Restart helps people learn to repair their own electronics in community events (parties) and in workplaces and speak publicly about repair and product resilience. Today, Restart is working with 54 people in 10 countries who are planning on replicating and adapting the Restart model.

Conceived as a way to help people reduce waste, social entrepreneur Martine Postma organized the first Repair Café in October 2009 in Amsterdam. Its success prompted her to start the Repair Café Foundation in 2011. Since then, this non-profit organization has helped local groups start their own Repair Cafés. Today, there are more than 1,400 such cafés in 33 countries, from the US to Japan. According to the foundation’s 2016 annual report, repairing prevented about 250,000kg of waste from heading to landfills.

Repair Cafe

Antara Mukherji, co-founded Repair Café Bengaluru in November 2015 with Purna Sarkar. Since its inception, Repair Café Bengaluru has organized 19 workshops where adults pay a programme fee and learn how to repair household things ranging from an iron to an induction top. The organization says it has repaired more than 700 products and saved about 1,300kg of waste from ending up in landfills.

But in India, across the country, there are repair shops that can fix anything and everything. In Delhi’s Nizamuddin Basti area, Javed Husain Khan repairs and sells old Swiss watches, from Favre-Leuba to Rolex; Nehru Place in Delhi thrives on the economics of repair; brothers Muhammad Moinuddin and Muhammad Mujeebuddin claim their 80-year-old shop in Chatta Bazaar Road in Hyderabad’s Old City is the ultimate repair destination for vintage radios, record players and cassette decks—the list goes on. Chor Bazars or Thieves market are hubs of innovation when it comes to repair, refurbish and remanufacturing.

The skill of repairing, refurbishing and remanufacturing is dying slowly. Repairing is often considered as a vocation for the uneducated/underprivileged or a mere hobby.  In large cities, you would not see repairwalas going from street to street, offering to fix broken items. We now have web-based repair services – but these companies need to quantify, record and communicate the environmental and social benefits, Enterprises in the developed countries know very well how to do so and hence get cited in the international news, conferences and the like! We need a research group in India to take on such a project.

I spoke to my Professor friend about the importance of inner circle approach especially the repair, refurbish and remanufacturing. “There is too much emphasis or hype on recycling alone and most think that circular economy means recycling” I said.

Professor was busy repairing his bicycle. He looked up to me and said “You are right Dr Modak, repair for reuse is the right thing to do. And we need product designs that are repair friendly. We should frame  incentives and disincentives. We also need recycled product standards, smart reverse logistics and schemes on skill building. The inner circle will then operate on a scale it deserves and will resonate well with the outer circle approaches”

I couldn’t disagree.

Professor continued while handling a spanner and fixing a bolt “But to me Dr Modak, our engineering curriculums must include a course on repair, refurbish and remanufacturing with a workshop. It will help the students to look for alternatives, think out of the box and innovate”. We should leverage on India’s Make in India, Zero defect and Skill India programs.

He then smiled and said “Don’t you know that repairing with your own hands reduces the risk of Alzheimer? –I spend half of my Sunday every week repairing something or other. It sharpens my brain and improves my reflexes”

I thought that Professor was absolutely “Right”. That was yet another benefit in the asking for “Right to Repair”!


Cover image sourced from https://www.keeprite.com/en/us/buying-guide/repair-or-replace/


Useful reading

Promoting Remanufacturing, Refurbishment, Repair, and Direct Reuse

Indian examples with text sourced from

Year-End Special: Repair economy 2.0 by Gayatri Jayaraman and Year-End Special: The ministry of broken things

I will highly recommend that you see these references


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Mumbai – Worlds First Truly Sustainable City

[This is my last post of 2017. A very happy and healthy new year for all my blog readers and followers]


I woke up in the morning of the New Year.

I decided to go for a walk around the Shivaji Park. At the entrance of the Park, I saw an electronic display of the Air Quality Index (AQI). The AQI was less than 100. The message that was scrolling below was “Good Morning – Its Safe to Go for a Walk”

I was delighted. “Oh, things are improving” I said to myself.

When I returned home, I saw my neighbor washing his car in the porch. “Hi Dr Modak, enjoyed your walk?”   He beamed. I nodded. I noticed that he was washing his car using the water collected from the rainwater harvesting tank.

I saw my neighbor opposite. He was working on the composting unit that was recently installed in the housing society. It looked like that waste segregation at the households was really happening and the compost produced was used for gardening. He waved at me. His face was glowing with expression of sustainability.

“Oh, people have become so conscious” I said to myself.

I got ready. My driver had arrived. As we drove to the Bandra Kurla Complex where my office is located, I saw less traffic on the street. The headline in the Newspaper was “Mumbaikars shifting to public transport. Many commuters now prefer AC Railway coaches instead of driving their own cars”

“Oh, something that we always wanted to” I said to myself.

When I got down at my office, I saw four of my colleagues getting out of a taxi. One of the them smiled at me and said that they have decided to go for car pooling every day to cut down emissions, reduce consumption of fuel and in addition save costs. Plus, they chatted on current topics during the journey and updated each other. This was overwhelming.

When I reached my desk, my secretary walked in with an “offer envelop”. “Dr Modak, you have an offer to go for an electric car with a 30% discount on down-payment”. I asked what happens to my present car. “Your old car will be bought at a handsome price and then taken to “Auto-Recycling” unit to extract all the reusable components and important resources like metal, plastic etc.”  She read out from the flyer. This was a rather tempting offer for a “phase out”, both from economic, social and environmental point of view. “Connect me to the dealer please” I asked my secretary.

“This is circular economy in action” I said to myself.

I went to the conference room for the morning meeting. I didn’t see the usual plastic drinking water bottles. These bottles were replaced by reusable mugs that carried filtered and disinfected water from a common unit. I was impressed.

My colleague from HR told us that soon water will be served directly as is from the taps. The Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) is about to step up the treatment at the Bhandup Water Treatment Plant, arrest leakages and eliminate cross contamination of water during transmission and distribution. Idea was to ensure that water we get at the taps is as good as mineral water as MCGMs responsibility. Clearly, the domestic water purifier industry was going to be in trouble”

“Wow, this upstream thinking of MCGM deserves a big applause” I said to myself.

In the afternoon, we had a meeting at the Secretariat, where the Ministers and the powerful bureaucrats sit. The building was under renovation. The Board outside stated that the building is in transition to green.  It will run on solar energy, have water efficient plumbing fixtures, more natural ventilation to reduce consumption of energy due to air conditioners and practice greywater recycling etc. The Government had put a directive that all State-owned buildings will become green and no new housing and infrastructure development will be permitted unless it is green.

“Oh, something that we always wanted to see” I said to myself “Government must demonstrate commitment at its end first and then preach to others”

The meeting at the Secretariat was to discuss policy on telecommuting – where people will work from home for one day a week. Mumbai was considered as a pilot. The Secretary said that this will help reduce congestion on the street and so the emissions. It will also help improve the work life balance. The Minister thought that the latter will be a political advantage.

“This is simply revolutionary – better than the odd-even strategy tried in Delhi” I said to myself. I was always longing to see some afternoon TV shows that I couldn’t due to all 5 working days.

My wife had asked me to go a supermarket and buy some stuff for the house. So, I went to a food mall at the Phoenix High Street.

When I entered the Food Mall, an escort accompanied me to guide in shopping. She was a dietician and nutrition expert. We spoke. This won’t cost you any extra – its our complementary service” She said.

“We stock only organic and eco-labelled food Dr Modak. No oily, frozen or curated stuff. Nothing based on GMOs. I will help you chose the food that is best for you” She smiled with dimples. She packed my goods in a cloth bag that was made from fabric waste and stitched by underprivileged women (that’s what was written on the bag). “No plastic bag Dr Modak” She said apologetically,

When I came out of the food mall with this “healthy” experience, I saw that the chains like McDonalds, KFC etc. had completely changed their menu and no more junk food was available. The outlets like barista and Café Coffee Day were replaced by Mini-Gyms, Yoga Centers and Meditation rooms. The caffeine in the air was missing.

“Oh, this is unbelievable. People have become so concerned about food they eat and have realized the importance of workouts and meditation. This city is changing its culture” I said to myself.

When returning home, I saw several other innovations.  For instance, booths for collecting used electronics such as junk mobile phones and used household batteries were seen outside the movie theaters. These booths were sponsored by electronic giants like Samsung, Apple, Panasonic, Nippon and Sony. The electronic waste thus collected was sent for refurbishing and remanufacturing and discount coupons were issued as a token of appreciation.

“The business organizations in this city seems to be on a sustainability mission” I said to myself.

We were crossing the Dadar Railway station by then. I saw a huge crowd inside and outside the railway station. The crowd was rising, heaving and swaying like you see in a political rally.

We were stuck for a while in negotiating with the traffic jam. I asked a gentleman on the street the reason. This gentleman turned out to be “breaking news communicator” to the news channel Times Now.

He said “Well, these people are leaving the Mumbai city. They are simply unable to adjust with all the good things happening around. They prefer to rather settle somewhere else where they can lead a normal life that they are used to. We expect to lose at least 30% of people in 2018 in such an out-migration and many more may move out”

“That’s terrible. Don’t we want Mumbai to be the first sustainable city in the world? We have to work on convincing these people and introduce the benefits of sustainable living” I said – this time aloud and not to myself

The man from Times Now gave me a mischievous smile

“Well, don’t you think the city will be sustainable by itself when such people will choose to leave?”

I thought “He was quite right”. This time I said this to myself


Photo credit:

http://www.rediff.com/getahead/report/travel-come-fall-in-love-with-mumbai/20170331.htm


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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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