Plastic Roads

This year India was the host for the celebration of the World Environment Day (WED). The theme of the WED was Beat Plastic Pollution.

Ministry of Environment & Forests & Climate Change (MoEFCC) was in charge. The WED celebrations were held all over the country and a 4-day conclave was held in the Vigyan Bhavan in Delhi with an exhibition.

I bumped into the Mr. Nitin Gadkari, Union Minister for Road Transport & Highways during a lunch at the India International Centre. The Minister greeted me and asked “ Dr Modak, how come in Delhi?”.

I told the Minister that I was there to speak at a panel discussion organized by MoEFCC on WED.  I also told him that I have to congratulate the MoEFCC for effectively spending 350 million Indian Rs on WED in just 4 days! What a splendid performance of spending” I said.

Of course, to Mr. Gadkari, such an expenditure was peanuts compared to the billions of Rs that his Ministry is spending on surface transport, essentially building roads. In October 2017, the Indian government announced an investment of 6.9 trillion rupees ($11 billion) to build 83,677km of roads over the next five years.

So, the Minister just smirked on my appreciation of MoEFCC.

He then said in a hushed tone. “Well Dr Modak, MoEFCC only talks. But my ministry delivers. Do you know that the real mover and shaker in addressing the plastic menace in India is the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways? This years WED on plastic should have been celebrated by my Ministry and not by MoEFCC”

I was surprised. All I knew was building good roads was necessary for the ruling party but if built without sensitivity and responsibility then the roads could adversely impact environment and the people.

So, I asked “Minister Sir, What is the connection between roads and plastic?”

“Dr Modak, we use plastic waste in the bitumen while making roads. In 2002, a technology was developed by Rajagopalan Vasudevan, a chemistry professor at Thiagarajan College of Engineering in the southern city of Madurai. It uses finely-shredded plastic waste that is added to heated bitumen”

I later learnt that plastic waste in asphalting can include anything from sweet wrappers to shopping bags except Poly Vinyl Chloride (PVC). The mix reduces the quantity of bitumen required by 10 per cent. Further, the Plastic roads were found to be stronger and maintenance-free. These roads could last about three times compared to the conventional road structures.  “All good” I said to myself “Then we should generate more plastic waste to reap all these benefits”.

In November 2015, the Indian government made it mandatory to use waste plastic in building most highways. According to this directive, road developers have to use waste plastic along with hot mixes for constructing bitumen roads within 50 km of periphery of any city that has a population of over 500,000. However, in recently released guidelines for developers, when waste plastic is not available, then the developer has to seek the road transport & highways ministry’s approval for constructing only bitumen roads.

“But Dr Modak, we insist on the use of plastic waste in making roads” said the Minister.

According to a report from World Economic Forum the length of Indian roads using plastic waste now runs for more than 100,000km across 11 States across India. Isn’t that impressive? Indian Road Congress has come up with guidelines on use of waste plastic in hot bitumen mixes

Minister said that using recycled plastic to build roads not only curbs plastic pollution but also creates jobs. The waste pickers collect the plastic litter. This plastic is shredded in machines which are subsidised by the Government. The waste pickers that mostly consist women sell the shredded plastic to the road builders. Tamil Nadu was the first State in India to actively develop a cottage industry around shredded plastic.

“Thus, job creation for waste pickers and business to small entrepreneurs is an added benefit of building plastic roads – You know very well – generating employment is the current focus of our Prime Minister”  Mr Gadkari said. He was absolutely right.

I thought of checking the “downside” of plastic roads. I understood the concern about PVC. Thermal degradation of PVC results in the emissions of harmful gases (like hydrochloride acid). Unfortunately, PVC is virtually indistinguishable from other plastics. Further, heating PP, PS or PE plastics is also not that safe. Studies reveal that heating PP, PE and PS releases moderate to highly toxic emissions consisting  carbon monoxide, acrolein, formic acid, acetone, formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, toluene and ethylbenzene. Workers engaged in road-laying are particularly at risk from these emissions. But in Prof Vasudevan’s technology,  shredded plastic is melted with low heat to avoid such emissions.

However there could be unforeseen risks. If the plastic roads get old or are poorly built, then such roads can “leak” plastic fragments into the soil and eventually into waterways as a result of photodegradation. The plastic fragments break down when exposed to environmental factors such as light and heat. These minute (less than 5 mm) plastic particles are called as microplastics.

Remember, that plastics are not merely molecules of carbon and hydrogen. To convert them into daily-use products, chemical additives are added to give them flexibility (softeners and plasticisers), to delay degradation due to heat or sunlight (stabilisers and anti-oxidants), to give them colour, to make them fire proof (flame retardants), to give them body (fillers). The toxicity of most of these chemicals is not known. But the few chemicals that have been studied – like phthalates – a category of chemicals used as softeners, or brominated flame retardants are highly toxic. They can cause birth defects and cancer, and hormonal problems particularly for women. Because they persist in the environment and can build up in the food chain, even seemingly insignificant amounts in the environment can grow to deadly levels in our bodies or in the food we eat. So, the microplastic is certainly not that innocent.

In the past few years, scientists have found microplastics in our soil, tap water (even bottled water), food and even in the air we breathe. And there’s growing concern about the potential health risks they pose to humans, animals and the fish. Burying plastic in roads may not be therefore a solution over long run. Plastic in roads is merely hiding and perhaps ready to escape as microplastic at some stage of the life cycle. But if at all this happens then we don’t know when. Ignorance on this potent risk can be a bliss.  We certainly need more long term and/or field simulated research studies.

But then what is the alternative? Doing nothing could however be more harmful.

One possibility could be to develop plastic-wood (saw dust) composites for the railway sleepers. I was aware of the railway sleepers recently made by Advanced Plastic Recycling in Adelaide, Australia using HDPE and the saw dust. This option may be pursued as the scale of application is big  and there is no issue regarding release of micro-plastic.

Of course the priority should be to reduce plastic waste at the source in the first place, but I wasn’t sure how effective would our bans on plastic be to reduce manufacturing and consumption of plastic and will there be a behavior change.

I said “Thank you Sir and goodbye” to the Minister.

As a kind gesture, Minister asked his Senior Adviser to reach me to the lobby.

While in the elevator, the Adviser was telling me  “Dr Modak, we are happy that China has come up with “Sword policy” to refuse entry of recyclables – that includes a huge waste stream of plastic. Perhaps, this plastic waste may get diverted to India (legally or illegally) and it will help us build more plastic roads that will cheaper, more effective and last longer ”

I hardly heard him. I was lost in my own thoughts on this apparent plastic paradox.


Every day, nearly 4,000 shipping containers full of recyclables leave US ports bound for China. China sends to the US toys, clothes and electronics, In return, some of America’s largest exports to China are paper, plastic and aluminium. From January 1 of this year China is enforcing its new “National Sword” policy, that is considered as the “Green Fence”. It bans 24 types of solid waste, including various plastics and unsorted mixed papers, and sets a much tougher standard for contamination levels. China is essentially saying that the country would no longer serve as the world’s trash dump. The ban will undoubtedly hurt recycling operators in China that rely on the import of raw materials such as recyclable waste. But it appears that delivering a cleaner China is perhaps paramount to the politicians of the Communist Party.  What is going to be India’s take? Do you think India too should “Green Fence” and pull out its Sword?


Cover image sourced from https://hindi.news18.com/news/madhya-pradesh/indore/indore-to-have-plastic-roads-676142.html


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Pollution and Psychology

Have you come across the field of environmental psychology?

When Professor asked me this question, I was a bit unsure to answer. I knew that interest in environmental psychology exists and several books and research papers have already been written. There are also university based academic programs that let you earn a degree in this subject.

In India however, I had not come across a discussion on this important subject and had not seen professionals engaged in this arena.

Environmental psychology is a field of psychology that deals with the study of effects of environment or surroundings on humans. The study focuses on the human reactions to environments, to gain insight on how change in environment can manipulate people’s feelings, thoughts and possibly actions. The field defines the term environment broadly, encompassing natural environments, social settings as well as built environments. Environmental psychology is an interdisciplinary field.

Every day we are affected in some way by the environments we live, work and recreate. For example, some surroundings may make us feel secure while other may make us feel nervous. Our exposure to the digital data, infographics, videos on the subject of environmental pollution influences our psychology and hence our reactions.

The frequently published Air Quality Indices (AQI) across Indian cities scare many. But compared to the talk on air pollution, we discuss little about the noise pollution. Today, India operates 500 automated noise monitoring stations that record noise on 24×7 basis. This continuous noise data is not shared with the public. So, we are perhaps less sensitive about the status and impact of noise pollution. Due to our festivities and an affinity to make noise, an average Indian seems to be indifferent to the decibels of noise exposed.

On our perception of solid waste, campaigns under Swatch Bharat Abhiyan have made a difference. Increasing fines for not segregating the waste at source and discouraging littering has made us at least conscious about the mounting problem of the waste we generate. We have started hating plastic and are now thinking about the challenge of electronic waste and its disposal. But the issues are not limited to pollution.

I remember Prof Ikeda, one of my Japanese friends, specializing in urban behavior, came to “experience”  crowding in Mumbai. We stood outside the Victoria Terminus Station at 9 am to see the crowd pouring out. Ikeda was comparing this crowd with Tokyo. He was impressed. When we interviewed a few people, we realized that people travelling in the crowded trains were under significant stress. The fist-fight to get inside the compartment, building tenacity to stand and breath till you reach the destination and then applying all the skills and energy to get out at the desired destination was a nightmare to many. Under these situations, when people reached office, their behavior was loaded with anger and frustration  –  but can we blame them?

I must recommend you a book on “Emotive Cartography” edited by Christian Nold.  This book is a collection of essays from artists, psychogeographers, designers, cultural researchers, futurologists and neuroscientists, brought together to explore the political, social and cultural implications of visualizing people’s intimate biometric data and emotions using technology. Case studies are given of different cities of the world showing the map of emotions. The maps are fascinating. Think about the emotion maps of mega cities like Mumbai, Delhi and compare them with medium size cities like Bhopal, Nagpur. Sure they will be different.

But the purpose of an environmental psychologist is not just make people aware of the problem, or understand their emotions towards the environment, but find how to alter a person’s perception, bring in a behavioral change and find ways how a more pleasant environment can be created for everyone. So, we do need trained environmental psychologists.

“But do you think an environmental psychologist will get a job in India?” I asked Professor. Even the techies in environmental science and engineering are not getting employment today and if they get one, they are poorly paid.

Professor lit his cigar

“Well Dr Modak, I agree but I expect that in the course of few years, environmental psychology will be a rather coveted career”

He seemed confident.

He took a deep puff and explained

We need to “expose” the people to the “information” surrounding us so that they understand the invisible or out of sight. For example, we cannot feel radiation arising from the mobile phones and transmission towers but realize the gravity of the issue only when it is too late. We can see smog, especially from a distance, or while the aircraft lands in the city; but  we cannot see the particulate matter. Other problems, such as scraps of plastic floating in the oceans or inside the animals that ingested are visible in principle, but they are “outside” our “normal” view. Visiting a beach that is littered with plastic will make us get disgusted and hence take on action.  Many suggest the public could potentially become motivated if powerful images were carried on everyday products, similar to that already being used on cigarette packaging. But does a chain smoker of cigarettes give up smoking because of these horrific images and warnings? An environmental psychologist will tell.

Second challenge is cognition. We need to explain the causes to impairment to health – one of them being environmental pollution. People may find it difficult to connect pollution with health-related outcomes such as illness especially when pollution is an omnipresent feature of the background. We need well conducted surveys and analyses of data to establish potential cause-effect relationship. Still the cognition could be difficult and debatable. Environmental benefit of unleaded petrol or phasing out to CNG is not easy to understand. We understand the economics more easily. So, an environmental psychologist will tell us how to overcome this challenge.

Finally, we need to help people discover that role can be played as an individual. Some people may understand the perceptual, cognitive, and interventional issues, but simply don’t care. Here it is necessary to link pollution to core values. People often revolt against pollution when the issue is moralized. Moralization, in turn, enables the generation and enforcement of norms, laws, and punishments, as well as rewards. An environmental psychologist will need to take us back to our core values, reminding us of the traditions, beliefs and culture to become more sensitive and responsible towards environment.

The field of environmental psychology is thus committed to the development of a discipline that is both value oriented and problem oriented using the science of human nature.

I was more than convinced with Professors explanation.

Since India now boasts of 14 most air polluted cities out of the top 15 across the world, I asked Professor about what role the subject of environmental psychology can play.

“Oh, Dr Modak, Haven’t you come across the new research that links air pollution to higher levels of crime and other unethical acts? This research was just published in 2018″ Professor said while extinguishing his cigar.

Evidence of a link between pollution and crime has been growing for several years. Findings published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science indicates that exposure to air pollution, either physically or mentally, is linked with unethical behaviour such as crime and cheating. The experimental findings suggest that this association may be due, at least in part, to increased anxiety. This association was held even after the researchers accounted for other potential factors.

To establish a direct, causal link between the experience of air pollution and unethical behaviour, the researchers conducted a series of experiments in China, United States and India. The results showed that participants who thought about living in a polluted area cheated more often than did those who thought about living in a clean area. The authors conclude that air pollution not only corrupts people’s health, but also can contaminate their morality.

I was simply aghast with this finding.

Clearly, controlling air pollution in Indian cities should be our first priority – at least on this ground!


Cover image sourced from https://blogs.haverford.edu/haverblog/2016/04/11/cool-classes-environmental-psychology-and-conservation/


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In Just a Minute

Professor and I decided to meet in our usual Café for our weekly chat session. We decided to meet at 10 30 am to avoid the office rush.

But still, I was late by a few minutes. Professor was already at the table in the patio. He waved at me.

We ordered for the usual Ethiopian coffee with some ginger biscuits.

Professor looked into his watch and said

“Dr Modak, you are late by five minutes. Do you know what happens to the world in a minute? Have you ever thought about it?

I said, “Professor, nothing much happens in a minute and it takes years to bring in a change. Over the years, I have learnt to be patient when it comes to time. Time changes but not the world”

Professor did not like my attitude. May be I sounded philosophical. He lit his cigar.

“Do you know that every minute  more than 2,000 tons of garbage is generated on this earth? And more than 70,000 tons of carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere as a by-product of burning fossil fuels.

In 60 seconds, the world will consume more than 5  million kgs of food. However, during that same minute, the world will also waste about 2  million kgs of food.

UPS in the US alone will deliver 11,319 packages and generate heaps of packaging waste”

I was astonished with such staggering statistics.

“You must have referred to some crazy and sadist antidevelopment NGO I guess. These numbers are not verified and could be fake or just a wild imagination. You must look at the Vikas (development) perspective too. Lot good happens to the world. We must be positive”

I continued to make my point.

“ I am sure in India under the Swatch Bharat Abhiyan more than 35 toilets are built every hour and our Honourable Union Transport Minister Mr Nitin Gadkari is constructing nearly 1.75 kms of road every hour. I can reel more of such numbers as the India’s national elections will come by”

“Oh Dr Modak, every minute is of concern to the sustainability of this planet. You don’t realize. Around 960 million tons of water is evaporated from the surface of the Earth every minute and 2,040 trees are cut down in the rainforest.

“Now it does sound scary Professor” I said this while opening a bottle of mineral water.

“You mentioned about Vikas and Vikas, but do you know that disparity is growing between the rich and the poor by every minute. Bill Gates will make $15,000 in a minute and in the meanwhile, a Nike factory worker in Vietnam will make only 1/10 of a penny.

Companies like Apple make more than 70,000 USD every minute and following closely behind Apple is Samsung, who makes close to $55,000 per minute.”

Professor was right.

I thought how much money Mukesh Ambani must be making in a minute as compared to a worker living in Mumbai’s slums. A friend of mine from Ministry of Health had told me that about 250 babies will be born around the world every minute,  and of those 250, 113 will be born into poverty and 15 will have birth defects.

My mobile phone beeped indicating that a new email had “arrived” in my mail-box. Today Internet has become a part (or shall I say a major part) of human lives. A lot happens in just one minute on the internet. Our virtual life is clearly dominating the real. I feel that instead of a punishment of life imprisonment, the best punishment could be LWI meaning sentencing a Life Without Internet. The LWI will be real torture to the convicted.

Sourced from http://www.visualcapitalist.com/happens-internet-minute-2017/

I thought more about what’s happening to me in a minute.

I realized that blood will circulate through my entire vascular system three times in one minute. Every 60 seconds, I will blink 15 to 20 times. And a hummingbird will flap its wings 4,000 times! There is so much happening then in just a minute!

What if we think about an hour? Wow, every hour will show much more staggering statistics. Studies in Australia have shown that every hour of TV watching shortens life by 22 minutes and every hour, sadly, one student commits suicide in India.

Professor tapped my hand when he saw me lost in the thoughts.

“Your coffee is getting cold Dr Modak. You have already wasted one full minute! Were you meditating?”

I thought I probably was.

No wonder he saw me “doing nothing”. But sometimes doing nothing may also bring good to this world. Do you think it will? I got confused.

I decided to approach Lord Vishnu for his practical advice on this dilemma and refer to his narration  in the Bhagwat Gita. I am sure there must be answers.


Cover image sourced from https://www.kraftvollegebete.de/category/schutzgebete/


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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