A Sad Story of a Droplet

A droplet got formed on one of the dark clouds some 10000 ft high in the sky. The droplet wished to visit earth and be useful to the humans and ecosystems that were thirsty for water.

It approached Lord Varuna who rules the world of oceans to seek his blessings and advice.

“Oh, descend following the winds and glide into one of the water reservoirs next to the great city of Mumbai in India. You will experience an interesting journey” smiled Lord Varuna.

The droplet followed the advice and landed into one the large reservoirs next to Mumbai.

At first, it shuddered for a while, to get rid of the dirt it had picked up while descending.

“Too much pollution by the particulates here” the droplet said.

We know that the city skies are clad with a blanket of haze most of the times, especially in winter. Particle accumulation in the air column is nothing uncommon or extraordinary.  Satellite based data and information on direct solar radiation can give a good assessment of the status of the “lid” of particles over a city. Ångström turbidity coefficient ( β) and Linke turbidity factor ( TL) are some of the parameters used for such an assessment. Particulate lids over Indian cities have not been studied.

It would be great such assessments are carried out in addition to collecting data from ground-based particulate monitoring stations. These assessments when done over time (detecting the change) can be very revealing.

Mumbai in a Haze

But let us not talk about particulate pollution here and continue with our story.

The droplet swum around and met several other droplets to know more about the life in the reservoir. Few droplets said that there was a lot of silt at the bottom, with very low oxygen to breath warning not to sink down. Some droplets couldn’t stand the warm temperature on the surface and eventually evaporated.  So, the droplet decided to stay in the middle like most of us do in our lives for survival.

Jumping out of the reservoir over the spillway was a great fun and in the process the droplet got oxygenated. Didn’t know that this oxygen was going to be a savior later.

Few kilometers downstream, the droplet met with some strangers. These strange droplets contained species such as ammonia. In the process of hustle bustle and mingling (like we see happening in Mumbai local trains), some of the ammonia molecules got inside the droplet. The droplet wasn’t comfortable with this uninvited guest. Conversations with other equally affected droplets explained the source as discharge of untreated sewage and even industrial effluents.

Why don’t these humans take care of the sewage and industrial effluents to avoid contamination of rivers by ammonia? The droplet said.

It seems levels of ammonia in Indian rivers have been on the rise. Locations such as Wazirpur in Yamuna have been flashed in the media for high ammonia concentrations. But ammonia is not the only issue – Another droplet who had more experience said so.

As the droplet moved further downstream, it saw floating plastic bags, oil patches, foam and fecal matter, hugging the banks. And it was appalling to see people taking religious dips in such waters.

“What is happening to the so-called river cleaning projects?” The droplet was almost screaming. “Oh, keep shut or speak in a deep voice” a senior droplet said, “Our PM should not come to know that you are speaking the truth. Elections in India are not far away”.

The droplet sailed further downstream now staying in the mid-section of the river to avoid pollution from the banks. The same strategy of the middle-path was followed.

A water works was seen few kilometers further. The droplet decided to get into the intake well – as journey along the river was certainly risky.

“Good decision” said a neighboring droplet “you will get cleansed here and get an opportunity to meet the humans and their engineered infrastructure”

The droplet got into the waterworks with the baggage of ammonia molecule.

Here, there were many chambers the droplet had to navigate. In one chamber, the droplet was made to float to let the heavy particulate matter settle with help of molecules of alum. Then there was a filter bed that the droplet had to penetrate to get rid of the finer particles. However, the ammonia molecule stayed and did not leave the droplet in these particulate removal processes.

Finally, at the end there was a chamber that looked like the one in concentration camps of the second world war. It had the process of chlorination and the droplet was suffocated with chlorine molecules. Here the ammonia molecule got transformed into a new species – chloramine. The droplet thought this may improve the situation. But a fellow droplet educated saying that the situation was contrary.

When water with high levels of ammonia is treated in a plant which uses chlorination to treat water, there is a chemical reaction which forms chloramine. Chloramine has various short and long term health impacts, which is why water polluted with ammonia should not be subjected to chlorination. According to Chloramine.org, people with liver or kidney disease and those with hereditary urea cycle disorders are at increased risk from the consumption of chlorinated water. In India we have not done research enough on the impact of such “derivatives”.

But let us continue with our story.

The droplet left the water works and entered the public water distribution system, now carrying with it the unwanted and not desirable chloromine.

The journey in the water distribution pipes wasn’t very pleasant either as similar to the river banks, the droplet experienced other contaminants entering the water pipe, now of the microorganisms category. The source in some occasions was sewage as the sewer pipes were laid close to the water pipes and there were leakages and cross overs.

The droplet was pumped into a water tank at the basement of a housing complex. The tank wasn’t well cleaned and had a lot of slime. The droplet was by then accustomed to the scene of contamination and was feeling no shame. Indeed, there was a huge difference between the current state and the “purity” that the droplet had when left the dark cloud that was 10,000 ft high.

When the droplet arrived at a 10th floor house of the housing complex, it was pushed to a water purifier that mimicked the water works, the droplet had earlier gone through. Here the processes were filtration, a bed of activated carbon and a radiation by UV light. That was more torture but the droplet felt cleaner and better. Some chloromine was removed and microorganisms who were jumping around were put to rest.

There was a fundamental question however.

Why don’t the humans take care of the pollution in the river systems and protect the pipes carrying treated water in the first place so that there is no need to “re-treat” the water when it reaches home? Mumbai’s 20 million population will surely have 2 million house water filters that are installed because water delivered is not safe. So much material and energy consumption and a challenge to dispose the used filter material, spent activated carbon etc.! The droplet wondered.

But we continue with our story.

The droplet was now in a jug on the table where a dinner was about to commence. The head of the house poured water from the jug into a glass to drink. The droplet was right there.

The head of the house however noticed that the glass wasn’t clean. There seemed to be some dirt floating on the top.

“Oh, must change the glass” he said and walked across to empty the glass in the washbasin.

The droplet was disappointed – after all the trouble taken to reach the house, it was sent to the drain!  the fate of this droplet was just like the lives of many of us – “unutilized” , “underutilized” or “unnoticed”

The droplet continued the journey  through the maze of sewer network, facing contamination once again, passing through a sewage treatment works for partial purification and then landing  into the oceans that were equally dirty and full of micro-plastics. This was really the dark side of the  water cycle.

Having understood the “ultimate truth”, the droplet decided to meditate on the surface of the ocean. It resigned to the fate of being evaporated. It was like going to the heavenly abode as most of us opt to do when we are frustrated in our lives.

The clouds at 10,000 ft high were waiting for the droplet to return.

Lord Varuna smiled.


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Facebook’s World of the Departed

Have you ever clicked on the tab More that appears along with other tabs such as Timeline, About etc. on the home page of your Facebook?

I did that yesterday and was astonished to see a new submenu under “Groups” called “The Departed”. This sub-menu was blinking as if to invite you to click. We see that this is often done when anything new is introduced to attract attention.

I clicked on this new option.

The “system” took a wee longer and my home page got refreshed with a new scheme of colors. A message then popped up “Welcome to the Facebook’s World of the Departed – Do you want to Login?”

I typed “Y”

And I was in for a surprise.

There was a major change in my homepage. The list of friends I now saw included all my deceased dear ones, whom I missed, loved and respected. I knew that their Facebook pages were still “open” and accessible and now these pages were “dead” and obviously with no “activity”.

But under the new option, these pages were active. These close friends of mine were maintaining their social network even in the “other side” of the world, sending messages to each other, flagging the likes and and posting photos of the future as they could see. I guess these folks could see the future much more clearly as they were not confused like us. We, the living, keep thinking too much about our present and the past and little about the future! That creates a haze.

I got a message from a friend from IIT Bombay who studied with me. We lost him recently due to a massive heart attack.

“Hey Prasad, what happened to you boss? When did you join us?”

“Not yet there my friend, but I am somewhere on my way to see you soon” I responded to him.

I explained to him the new option Facebook has created to access the faces of the departed and socialize.

“Oh, I now understand. So, looks like Facebook finally implemented it. Last month Mark Zuckerberg took an opinion poll and most of us voted for this innovation. It gets boring sometimes and most here miss old friends like you” My friend said.

“The addiction to social networking continues to stay even if you are dead” I said in humor. My friend sent me a smiley

I saw my friend’s collection of photographs of the future. He, being an air pollution specialist, had a collection of photographs of cities – how they would look in the future given the severity of air pollution.

Well, we all know that so much is being talked about urban air pollution, and so much being measured and reported but so little is being done regarding ground level action. I saw in my friends photographs that in most cities, people were moving in masks, skies were grey and gloomy and dedicated hospitals were set up for pulmonary diseases. This worried me.

“Bye my friend – see you again” I closed our conversation with all the sadness.

I browsed my new list of “friends” and saw one of my mentors and an inspiring personality in the field of water quality management. We lost this great personality rather prematurely.

I messaged him

“Good to see you Dr Modak after quite a while” He was delighted to connect with me.

We then “spoke” at length about the problem of river pollution in India. “With no intersection of policies and institutions between river quantity and quality – our style of “problem solving” has remain piecemeal with hardly any ground level improvement” He said

He was absolutely right – we have no single example to demonstrate that we could actually improve water quality in our rivers. What a shame!

He showed me a photograph of an empty stretch of a river (here used to be a river! He used the emotion of a sad face) and showed me more such depressing photographs ending with a river that looked more of a dump site of the solid wastes!

I continued chatting more with several of my dear friends, my mentors and guides in my life. Some of them sounded a bit positive and recommended several simple to implement steps –What finally amounted was better understanding and commitment of our political leadership and the behavioral change in people (of all sorts). Both tasks difficult to achieve.

I thought Prime Minister Narendra Modi gives some of us an hour’s time (I know I am asking a lot) and calls his Ministers and Top bureaucrats to listen to us. Given the political acrobatics, global challenges and terrorism spreading like wild fire, I am aware that there isn’t much time to spare for the PM but doesn’t environment matter? Environment  does matter when we think of the future.

I logged off from the Facebook. I wanted to speak to my Professor Friend on this uncanny experience. “He should be told as I know he will never click on the More option to connect with the departed” I said to myself.

Professor laughed at me and said that he cannot just believe it! “You are hallucinating Dr Modak – and surely Mark Zuckerberg cannot do this. I would have believed if you had said InfoSys – as InfoSys is now known to change its face to the World, lately” He put his phone down

But in minutes I received his call back “Well, Dr Modak, you really succeeded in fooling me… I did visit my Facebook page and looked for the menu option “The Departed” under More. This option is simply not there!! A remarkable story teller you are Dr Modak” He laughed and put the phone down saying “Good night (means don’t bother me again!)

I was disappointed. How can this be possible?

I accessed my home page on the Facebook again. But the Professor was right. There was no such option called “The Departed”.  Probably Mark Zuckerberg had put up a Beta version – just for a while.

Why don’t you give a try… Never know it could work for you and you may actually hit on this option.

Cover Photo from http://www.adorocinema.com/noticias/filmes/noticia-108089/?page=4

Facebook has a provision called Special Request for Deceased Person’s Account at https://www.facebook.com/help/contact/228813257197480

Worth to know but rather copious to follow

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Muhammad “bin” Tughlaq advises Naidu on Bins and Waste Segregation


The Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) Management and Handling Rules in India prescribe waste segregation at the source under Section 4 that describes Duties of Waste Generator. The directions are as follows

  • segregate and store the waste generated in three separate streams namely bio-degradable or wet waste, non bio-degradable or dry waste and domestic hazardous wastes in suitable bins and handover segregated wastes to waste collectors as per the direction by the urban local body from time to time;
  • wrap securely the used sanitary waste as and when generated in a newspaper or suitable biodegradable wrapping material and place the same in the domestic bin meant for non bio-degradable waste or dry waste;
  • store separately construction and demolition waste in his own premises, as and when generated and shall dispose off as per these rules; and
  • store separately horticulture waste and garden waste in his premises and dispose of the same as may be prescribed by urban local body from time to time.

People are required to follow implementation of these Rules by putting the household waste in three different bins. Two additional bins may be put on premises or at community level for construction and demolition waste and horticulture waste.  In reality, very few follow this directive. People are generating more and more waste and not following the rules of segregation at source, Mixed waste makes  reuse and recycling of waste both difficult and uneconomical. Littering continues to be an eyesore in the streets and the railway stations.

Muppavarapu Venkaiah Naidu, the Union Minister of Urban Development, Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation and Information & Broadcasting called for a high-level meeting to address this challenge. He extended me an invitation as an Observer. The focus of the meeting was bins at the household level. Naidu in his opening remarks said that poor segregation of waste at the source was the real culprit for the slow progress on the Swatch Bharat Abhiyan (SBA). The Abhiyan wasn’t doing that well as compared to the “hype” it had created.

After Naidu’s opening remarks, the meeting opened up for suggestions and discussions.

“We are asking for waste segregation only in 3 bins while world has moved to 4 and 5 bins and in some cases even more number of bins are practiced – like in Japan. We must ask for at least 5 bins” One of the leading bin manufactures from Andhra Pradesh said.

Naidu asked “Does anyone know about the statistics on the number of bins in various countries?”

“Yes Sir”, a Woman wearing expensive spectacles with a chain, a khadi saree and diamonds in the ears said. “We just compiled such information”. She cited the reference and reported the following

There are many countries, like Poland, Belgium, Serbia, Bulgaria, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Norway, the Philippines, Egypt and Latvia, that are using recycling bins at home. Some countries like Brazil, Russia, New Zealand, Indonesia and Argentina (La-Plata) have a 2-bin facility for dry and wet waste, whereas Moldova and Malaysia prefer 3 recycling bins for paper, plastic and glass. Some countries, like Portugal, the Czech Republic, Finland and Spain are using 4 or 5 bins at home for segregation of recycling waste for paper, plastic, metal, glass, compostable and e-waste.

“Oh, separate bin for E-waste?” Naidu exclaimed. His PA immediately noted.

I tried to butt in

“Minister Sir, in India we don’t throw away paper and glass. Newspaper and magazines go to the Raddiwala and glass bottles to the Batliwali. We store used electronics in the house and look for the first opportunity to trade. Too many bins will clutter the already narrow passages in the building. It will only help the building cats to go to the right bin (i.e. organic/wet/biodegradable) for their brunch

Minister Naidu did not like my intervention. “We must follow what’s happening in other countries. We cannot be lagging behind. If others are using 5 waste bins, then we should go for 6 bins”

“The issue is not number of bins but the interest in segregation. There is an attitudinal barrier. We must undertake a survey across different income groups and religions in the metro as well as tier – 2 cities to find out why people don’t want to segregate the waste. That’s the million-dollar question.” A Professor from Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) quipped.

“Good point”, Naidu said and immediately sanctioned a research grant of 1 million to TISS to conduct such a survey.

“The crux of the problem is that we are following the conventional and drab bin designs. These designs are not attractive to compel the use of the bin” A consultant cum professor from National Institute of Design (NID) said this in a rather somber voice. He had just returned from a summer school held on waste management infrastructure in Amsterdam.

He expanded his point further. “Why cannot be make the bin design say “child friendly”?. He said this while circulating pictures of bins that were shaped like a Donald Duck. “Kinds of today are the major waste generators. These kids will love to use such bins and segregate the waste. And look at this “trunk” design of the bin for storing the horticulture waste. This bin when placed in the garden is going to catch attention of the morning walkers (who often litter)”



Naidu was very pleased to see this “out of the bin (Oops box!) thinking. “Please send me a proposal on a pilot project on innovative bin designs and the SBA will be happy to fund”, The NID expert was happy.

There were some smart looking firangs in the roundtable. One of them had just flown in from Chicago and seemed to be in a Jet Lag.

“Minister, how about the smart bins? We can offer you such bins that will well fit in your smart city program” He saw that most members had a bit dumb expression on their faces. “Can I show a few slides?” He had a portable LCD projector. I thought he was smart.

His very first slide had the following header line “Revolutionizing how Smart Cities and Responsible Recyclers manage their collection operations using unique container intelligence”. This header line impressed everybody

The smart bin solution he proposed was essentially at the premise or community level. The benefits were “Know the fill-level of your containers always, send optimized routes directly to the vehicle drivers, Cut the collection service costs by up to 50% and reduce the city’s carbon footprint” All this  looked very impressive.


A Smart Waste Collection System

Well, one of the senior Municipal Commissioners said “This looks interesting – but remember that first the waste has to reach the smart bins and in a segregated form, then the vehicle drivers need to understand and follow the routing “system”. The tough part is the integration of traffic related data with the waste collection system. All these ideas and propositions are difficult to achieve on the ground”

“Oh, Come on Commissioner”, Naidu growled. “We must start somewhere. We must look into the future. Let us have a pilot on this in Delhi where we can take our international visitors to show case. Visit Chicago and see the application by yourself, ask all the questions and get convinced”

The Commissioner agreed to the pilot proposal when the Minister said that he could visit Chicago. His son was studying in Illinois.

A retired Finance Secretary (FS) was attending the meeting. He being an IAS spoke at the end. Many of your know that a typical IAS summarizes, steals all the good points and articulates them as if they are his/her own. In his clever summary speech, the Ex-FS highlighted need to provide financial incentives and disincentives. “Reward people if they segregate waste in bins – and when they do so regularly and correctly. Tax them when otherwise. I am sure that the money collected on penalties will far exceed the budgets set to provide incentives. So no additional Government borrowing or budgeting will be required”. Everybody just listened as this has been said by many several times before.

In the evening, Naidu met PM Modi and reported the outcomes of the high-level meeting. PM wasn’t very happy with the discussions. “We must get in touch Muhammad bin Tughlaq. I recently consulted him on demonetization of Rs 500/1000 notes.”

I thought PM wanted Tughlaq because his name contained the term “bin” that was important for waste segregation. But well, that could be just a coincidence and not the real reason.

Muhammad Bin Tughlaq has been a man of controversies and crisis. He experimented to shift his capital from Delhi to Daulatabad that was disastrous decision which cost millions of tankas and thousands of lives. The decisions had misfired.

In the context of the recent demonetization move in India PM Modi is described by the Opposition as the “modern day Tughlaq”. It is said that Tughlak rule spread out from Delhi to Daulatabad, while Modi rule spread out from delhi to Daulat(money)bad(black)! (see comment by Bhaskar Mukadam)

Bin Tughalaq was living in disguise in the old part of Delhi in one of the abandoned forts. When I accompanied Naidu to meet him, he asked us all the relevant questions regarding waste characteristics of today, the MSW Management & handling Rules and the challenge of waste segregation. After a patient hearing to both of us, he looked outside the window for a while and gazed.

“Well Minister Naidu and Dr Modak, I have a question and suggestion. Why do you need to segregate the waste at source? This is never going to happen in India. Even if citizens segregate waste, the waste collection people often remix the segregated waste at community level defeating the entire initiative, and frustrating the segregators. So, let the waste stay mixed”

“Instead of promoting or investing in the six bins that you propose, I will recommend that you invest in waste sorting and shredding machines. These machines will separate the waste streams efficiently and provide opportunity for both recycling and volume reduction. Insist that every housing society must have a waste sorting cum shredding machine at their premises and operate a waste collection system on this basis. This will open up a new industry and business segment. Besides, people will not be inconvenienced to figure out which waste goes where and make mistakes and waste their time. The SBA should come up with an aggressive financing scheme to make the installation of waste sorting/shredding machines possible and viable”

I though this time Bin Tughlak was right.  He looked much more realistic and smarter!

Don’t be surprised that the NDA Government will come up with a yet another Bin Tughalaq recommendation. Never know this time it could just work!!

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India’s True GDP


I was sitting at the terrace of my billionaire friend at his 101st floor apartment in Mumbai. It was a Sunday morning. He had called me and my Professor Friend for a breakfast.

Did I ever tell you about this billionaire friend of mine? He had wealth more than Tata, Birla, Jindal and Mahindra all put together. His daily receipts of cash across his various offices in the World were more than the annual income disclosed in India’s recent income tax amnesty scheme  – embarrassing Hon Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. He was always looked with great respect by all the ruling Governments and those interested to rule. A man so rich, influential but at the same time so simple and discrete. Such people of invisible power could only be found on 101st floor.

He had just returned from Delhi after a secret and a high level meeting with the PM.  The meeting was presided by the PM himself with Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, Union Environment Minister, Mrs Nirmala Sitharaman, Minister of State for the Ministry of Commerce & Industry, as well as a Minister of State for Finance and Mr. Anil Madhav Dave, Minister of Environment & Forests & Climate Change (MoEFCC). The topic was remediation and rehabilitation of contaminated lands in India. Mr. Piyush Goel, Union Minister of Power had also joined the meeting – a bit late though.

Mr. Prakash Javdekar, then Minister of State for MoEFCC had informed the Lok Sabha (India’s Parliament) in 2015 on the status and action on remediation of contaminated sites.  PM wanted to take stock of the situation and accelerate the program prior to the national elections.

Javdekar had said

“MoEFCC operates two programmes for rehabilitation of abandoned contaminated sites and dumps cross the country.  One is a project for rehabilitation of 12 contaminated areas in eight States having multiple sites is being implemented through Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) at the cost of Rs 8050 million. Forty per cent of the funding will come from National Clean Energy Fund (NCEF) while the remaining 60 per cent are contributions are the contributions State Governments. The eight States where the project is being implemented are Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Rajasthan and Gujarat. The project activities include assessment of contamination, preparation & implementation of remediation plans for each of the selected sites, and monitoring of 50 pre-selected contaminated sites. In the implementation phase, consultants have been selected for preparation of detailed project reports for remediation of 8 sites. The initial grant of Rs.100 million to CPCB is being put to use in preparation of Detailed Project Reports.

In addition, an Externally Aided Project from World Bank for Capacity Building for Industrial Pollution Management (CBIPM) is being implemented with three objectives namely, preparation of National Plan for Rehabilitation of Polluted Sites (NPRPS) which includes institutional and methodological framework for rehabilitation of highly polluted abandoned sites; capacity building of State Government agencies for remediation: and actual remediation of 4 pilot sites in States of West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana with 15% cost sharing by State Governments. The project outlay is Rs.3390.26 million”

“CPCB is today a practically dead organization The CBIMB has always been a slow-starter – fraught with challenges on procurement” Professor said this while lighting his Cigar. Most of the “champions” at the MoEFCC, CPCB and key States have either retired or transferred. NPRPS is not yet out and has been more of an academic exercise with clips from Google searches. The website of CBIMP as last updated is of 2011. I don’t know why these “impotent” projects are even getting mentioned today. It’s simply a hogwash”

I thought the Professor was right. I was involved in the early formulation of CBIMP in 2002 with World Bank and had repeated warned the World Bank and MoEF that this program was simply not going to “sell”. There was no national policy on remediation and rehabilitation – There was absence of of risk based standards and technical guidelines and no thought given on the estimation of costs of “legacy pollution” and the potential involvement of the private sector. Although the importance of the above enabling framework was recognized to an extent in the Project Appraisal Document (PAD) of the World Bank, the general apathy at the MoEFCC (something not surprising), poor acceptance and understanding at the State Pollution Control Boards (SPCBs) of this project with maze of procurement and bureaucratic hurdles – brought the project to significant delays.

The Professor continued. “And I really don’t see why the Government is proposing to use the National Clean Energy Fund. So illogical isn’t it?”

My billionaire friend agreed.

Through Finance Bill 2010-11 a corpus called National Clean Energy Fund (NCEF) was created out of cess on coal produced / imported (“polluter pays” principle) for the purposes of financing and promoting clean energy initiatives, funding research in the area of clean energy or for any other purpose relating thereto. An Inter-Ministerial Group (IMG) chaired by Finance Secretary approves the projects/schemes eligible for financing under the NCEF. These projects include innovative schemes like Green Energy Corridor for boosting up the transmission sector, Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission (JNNSM)’s installation of solar photovoltaic (SPV) lights and small capacity lights, installation of SPV water pumping systems, SPV Power Plants, Grid Connected Rooftop SPV Power Plants, pilot project to assess wind power potential etc.

In 2012, NCEF was permitted to be used to finance TSDFs for hazardous waste (not for remediation as such). Minister Goyal wasn’t quite happy with such arbitrary allocations and “fitment” of TSDF and remediation component under clean energy.

Apparently, Union Minister of Commerce Mrs Sitharaman offered that she could insert in Schedule 7 of the CSR directive under the Company’s Act that industry’s expenditure on remediation of contaminated lands will be permitted as CSR spent. “I will discuss this possibility with IICA” she said

“Well, this is certainly not acceptable” I said “On one side you allow industries to recklessly pollute our lands and then allow the expenditure for clean up or remediate as a CSR”

My billionaire friend was listening. He nodded to our observations.

After the briefing and discussions, PM had requested him to put some 100 billion Rs. as a “private sector involvement”, set an example to industries and help the Government. No CSR and no NCEF – he said emphatically. And we are not interested in the World Bank unlike Jayaram Ramesh. Bank just wants to “experiment” their half-baked ideas from Harvard and MIT on countries like us.

He came directly to the point.

I asked my billionaire friend about his response. He had said “Sir, billions here and there is no problem for me. I will send my accountant to Mr. Jaitleys office and you may advise how you want to have this money to be delivered. From Zurich or via Mauritius or in the form of carefully packed gold bars that I stock in Dubai or in form of real estate on the Pacific Islands that you can sell and give you cash from drug mafia. Sorry, I have stopped using the Nationalized Banks for fund transfer after the tightening of screws done by Raghuram, earlier RBI Governor.  My only request will be not use my money for UP and Punjab elections. In return, please allow me to “sell” the decontaminated lands for brownfield development in the real estate market. This is how I will recover my “investments”

Mr. Jaitley was not however very comfortable with my billionaire friends options. “I will have to look into very carefully” he said. But the real scale of the problem of contaminated lands was worrying him. The actual number of contaminated lands will be far more than the one officially reported he guessed – like cases reported on dengue fever in Delhi. The 2013 report of Blacksmith Institute had already shown presence of 41 prominent contaminated sites in India

He then whispered to the PM. “The National Green Tribunal (NGT) is  already breathing down our neck slapping orders for “compensation”. How the NGT arrives at these costs is debatable, but the news headlines are screaming on this issue already.

The problem is serious PM said but Arun – you seem to be too much perturbed

“Well Sir, I was about to show trend of India’s GDP over past 5 years and next 5 years of likely projection. I now realize that I will have to lower the figure by at least 1.5% to reflect the costs to be incurred to remediate and rehabilitate the contaminated lands. That will the India’s true GDP”

Jaitley is right – Professor said while getting up and extinguishing his cigar. It could even be 2% if you looked at economic impacts (health and natural resources) of hundreds of city landfills or rather dumps that are leaching and emitting pollutants every day.

“So is the Government going to borrow money from you” I asked a stupid question in closing that my billionaire friend did not answer – as if he never heard. Have some corn flakes imported for you from Australia he said instead.

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Nostradamus, me and Pennylane Coffee Place in New York



I was attending the Sustainable Development Summit that was held in New York just last week between September 25-27. My Professor friend had organized my participation as his assistant. He was very busy in helping the Indian delegation and lobbying with other Member States regarding Terrorism (Well, how can you separate sustainability today from terrorism? Our Honorable Union Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj knows)

Of course Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was the principal agenda, but the other agenda included climate change. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had convened a special “High-Level Event on Entry into Force of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change” on 21 September as a follow up to the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The high-level event of the Summit provided an opportunity to countries to publicly commit to joining the Paris Agreement before the end of 2016. On the advice of the Professor, the Indian Government ratified and made commitment. The hope was, we as Nations United, accelerate the growth of clean energy and help achieve the SDGs to strengthen international stability and security, save lives and improve human well-being.

The event also included “Third International Conference on Financing for Development”. UN Secretary General appealed for more involvement of the private sector in the “business of sustainability” to help achieve the Future We Want.

When the Summit ended on September 27, I suggested Professor that we go out to some nice restaurant for dinner. I was sick of eating at the 10th floor food café every day, standing in long queues for the food that was “diplomatic” (i.e. without spice) and subsidized in both price as well as quality.

Professor was however desperate for a good coffee. “Let us do a coffee at Pennylane first” He said.

Pennylane is perhaps one of the best coffee shops in New York just a couple of minutes walk from the UN building. The Coffee beans they use are stumptown and of very high quality. Apart from the great variety of coffees, the interesting part of Pennylane is the chalk board outside – where people write “quotes of the day”.  The quote of that day was “It’s the Future We Don’t Want. Have a Great Coffee Today!” I thought the writer must be one of the frustrated delegates attending the UN Summit.


The Chalk Board outside Pennylane Coffee 

We asked for the latte or “flat white” where milk is perfectly steamed to the right temperature (with latte art to top it off). We ordered bitter cookies to go along. We couldn’t get chairs near the window (to get some sunlight) and so started looking for a table under the large lamp shades. All tables were occupied but we found one table where one Old Man was sitting with a long beard and a cap.


The Latte 



Table under Large Lamp Shades

“Can we join?” Professor asked. The Old Man nodded.

Professor lighted his cigar. He started updating me on the global politics of sustainability. The hidden agenda and of course India’s interest. “I really don’t know what’s in our future” he said at the end rather solemnly. “All talk my friend”. I could sense a deep frustration in Professors voice.

“But I am taking up the task of modelling of the world and India with sophisticated tools and databases now – Modelling could be an answer to shape our future” He said this with some conviction.

The Professor went to the loo.

The Old Man on the table was listening.

I looked at him again.  Soon I realized that the Old Man looked like Michel de Nostredame (aka Nostradamus) who was a 16th-century French philosopher. Nostredame had predicted many tragic events throughout history, including the Assassinations of the Kennedy brothers, the rise of Hitler, the defeat of Napoleon, and also the unfortunate 9/11 terrorist acts. Nostradamus studied astrology and various “occult” sciences and used those to predict the future.  We don’t have many seers these days who can really predict the future.

In his writings, Nostradamus mentioned unusual weather patterns and natural cataclysms / disasters that will intensify further than they already have. He described the events as where ‘Water shall be seen to rise as the ground is seen to fall underneath’. Today, we are already seeing snow in the springtime in many parts of the world. Year 2015 also saw the most frigid temperatures ever.

I couldn’t resist asking a stupid question “Are you by any chance Mr. Nostradamus?”

The Old Man smiled “Yes, that’s me!”

“Oh” I did not know what to say to something so impossible. I must be hallucinating.

“Well, I come here occasionally – I love the coffee here and the conversations on the Tables – especially the UN type” The Old Man said.

We started talking. I asked him about his predictions for 2016.

He said that many explosions will occur around the Middle East area and planes will be falling from the sky. The Middle East has already seen drastic changes and civil unrest for the past 4 years. The Arab region has intensified civil wars in over 10 countries, including in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Somalia, Libya and Syria. Petrol and Oil in the Gulf States in the Middle East will be on fire.

Before coming to Pennylane Coffee, Nostradamus had visited Baba Vanga. Baba was from Bulgaria, blind and died in 1996. Baba had predicted that global warming would become a mainstream issue back in the 1950’s. She had said “cold regions will become warm … and volcanoes will awaken”.

“All this will come true” said the Old Man (or Nostradamus?) while getting up. “So, there is no point my friend to discuss the SDGs. The future is different and rather bleak and something you cannot control”. I could see the confidence on his face when he made these statements. “He could well be right and so Baba Vanga” I said to myself.

The Old Man walked outside quietly.

Professor just returned from the loo and before I could tell him about my encounter with Nostradamus, he opened his laptop. “Oh, I must show you something that will simply amaze you. I have with me now a World Model that provides a scientific window to our future. This model has been developed by the Millennium Institute. Its earlier model called Threshold 21 is now Integrated Sustainable Development Goals. I have downloaded Version 1.2 of this model called as Integrated Sustainable Development Goals planning model (iSDG). The iSDG is a comprehensive simulation tool that generates country-specific development scenarios to show the implications of policy on a country’s progress towards the SDGs. It covers all the 17 Goals, and facilitates a better understanding of the interconnections of the goals and targets, in order to develop synergetic strategies to achieve them. The model’s structure can also be expanded to support the analysis of other country-specific development issues beyond the SDGs” He sounded so excited.

But after talking to Nostradamus, I was not impressed and in fact was quite skeptical and even dismal.

“I have another proposition Professor” I said this while sipping the last bit of Latte.

“Why not we establish a school of Environmental Astrology in India. That may be better than the iSDG you have. This school may provide more reliable predictions on future we dont want”

Professor stared at me. He saw me serious. He ordered for another round of Latte.


For more information and to download the beta version of iSDG, visit www.isdgs.org. Have fun

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Who’s Safeguard Anyway?


(Cover image sourced from http://mart21.ru/components/com_virtuemart/shop_image/product/5saf.jpg)

It’s clear that the world needs development banks both to scale up the level of investment  and to give developing countries better representation in the world of development finance. Yet these new banks need to play another role: championing sustainability as they usher in more development. Will this really happen?

The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) was proposed by China in 2013 and was  launched at a ceremony in Beijing in October 2014. AIIB was to be fully established by the end of 2015.

AIIB is considered by some as a rival to the IMF, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB), which are regarded as dominated by developed countries
like the United States. The United Nations has dubbed the launch of AIIB as ‘scaling up financing for sustainable development’ for the concern of Global Economic Governance.

As of April 15, 2015, almost all Asian countries and most major countries outside Asia had joined the AIIB, except the US, Japan (which dominated the ADB) and Canada. China is a major contributor to AIIB followed by India and Russia.

It was late in the night in Mumbai. There were sixty people in the banquet room of the  legendary Taj Mahal Hotel having a buffet dinner. Out of the sixty, fifty seven were Ministers of the member countries who represented the newly-formed Asian Investment  Infrastructure Bank (AIIB)

The meeting was chaired by the two Premiers – of course, of China and of India. (China  holds nearly 29% of the stake in AIIB and India enjoys around 9%)

The sixtieth person in the room was my Professor Friend who had recently assumed the  position of the Advisor to AIIB on Environment and Social Safeguards (ESS). He was
sitting next the two Premiers.

I was also around, but was not officially included in the list for obvious reasons. I was  asked to be disguised as a waiter and serve a blend of Chinese and Indian (means Gujarati) food. Fortunately, the members of the AIIB were cooperative and tolerant of such a terrible cuisine combination.

Strict instructions were issued to ensure that there was no American presence inside and  outside of the Taj property. All American tourists in the Taj Mahal hotel were evacuated and sent to hotels in Kabul at discounted rates. This was because Americans were not supporting AIIB and, in particular, the World Bank Group had considered AIIB as a threat.

To sabotage AIIB, I was told, the World Bank had instigated a host of international NGOs to ask AIIB questions on their Environmental and Social safeguards. A special capacity building program for NGOs was launched to this effect, under the Technical Assistance of some Trust Funds. I was told that these funds generally dump money and don’t look at the outcomes.

In an interview to the Wall Street Journal, the President of the World Bank had said that AIIB will be diluting the ESS while funding trillions of dollars of infrastructure projects. This will cause unevenness across development financing institutions of the World and pose risks to the very sustainability of the planet. He sounded concerned.

The management of AIIB strongly disagreed with the President’s statement.

My Professor friend had completed a research investigation and had found that it was in fact the World Bank (WB) that was systematically diluting the ESS over the past two decades. The new draft ESS of the World Bank was a glaring example of how one can make a clever blend of dilution and complexity a maze of ambiguous procedures and of passing the buck when it came to the accountability.

A Chinese version of the Professor’s report was intentionally leaked. This led to a fierce global discussion and arguments on AIIB vs. WB safeguards. Several people undertook lessons in Mandarin just to read and understand Professor’s findings and participate in the debates. The percent of population ‘able to read and speak Chinese’ was in fact expected to increase over the next three months. I was really impressed with Chinese Premier’s strategy. I suggested to my Professor friend that India should also leak this report in the national language Gujarati, Oops! Hindi.

While the dinner was getting served at the round tables, the Premiers opened the meeting. The Chinese Premier introduced the purpose of the meeting and Indian Premier welcomed the members of AIIB. Discussion on AIIB’s environmental and social safeguards was the  focus. My Professor friend presented his investigative report on what’s happening on ESS across institutions like the WB, Asian Development Bank, European Investment Bank, JICA, and KfW etc. It appeared that most of these institutions were (happily) following the WB ESS. WB was the ‘big daddy’.

The first question came from the representative from Russia while he was having Chinese  soup with a dash of Methi. “How do we handle Environmental activist organizations? We want to do what we want to do. But then how do we ensure that these activist organizations remain quiet?”

The Indian Premiere smiled and said “Look, it’s easy. First put all the environmental activist organizations under the scanner of Ministry of Home Affairs. Get their books of accounts checked by the Enforcement Directorate. More than 80% of such organizations would have flouted the rules under Foreign Exchange Regulations Act (FERA) one way or other. Issue notices and freeze their accounts/funds transfer. Once done, no activist organization will raise a voice against what AIIB will do. We have already done this in India and this step has removed all the barriers to the investment flows in India’s infrastructure sector. There is now a queue of international investors. There are no public protests anymore! In fact the other day, leaders of Indian media approached me in despair that there were no more stories to tell about people protesting infrastructure projects even if the projects posed risks to our natural reserves. Media is now asking me for alternate news bytes. I am helping them by exposing some of our own scams and scandals! But that’s another story”.

Member from Russia got convinced.

“How about the process of public consultation and conducting of analyses of alternatives  etc.” The member from Brazil said while sampling Undhiyo. I served another portion of  Undhiyo to the Member to show my appreciation for the pointed question he asked. I also placed a glass of Lassi on his table because I knew he did not know the impact of the spice in Undhiyo.

My Professor friend interjected:

“AIIB will mostly support refinancing of the projects. In refinancing, most of the water  has already flown under the bridge. The project is already halfway so most of the steps of  ESS cannot be executed. There is no public consultation to be done nor are project  alternatives to be explored and evaluated. We will still say that public consultation and alternatives are hallmarks of AIIB’s Environmental and Social Safeguards – but when situations are beyond control and when the interest of the development of the country is to be looked at, we will abide by what is proposed and getting implemented. For the sake of completeness, however, we will conduct an Environmental and Social Due Diligence (ESDD) and if gaps are found we will provide Technical Assistance (TA) to address them and will encourage the borrower to comply”

Wow! I was impressed. This was a great example of avoidance and passing the buck.

“And remember”, the member from Netherlands said, “Let us all continue to focus more  on project preparation (i.e. application of ESS to create documentation) and less on the supervision (i.e. implementation of ESS). We should follow the World Bank here. The WB and most of the development financing institutions spend 70% of the resources in getting project approvals and use 30% or even less sometimes, to check whether ESS is actually implemented in letter and spirit. I like this style as it shows the rigor at the superficial level, provides green jobs to all the (brown) environmental and social consultants and creates employment with hefty pensions to all the Bank staff. We must keep producing smart documents, upload them on our website (anyway hardly anyone reads them) and create records so that we can defend ourselves should anyone question us – of course if at all”

I found this approach really strategic. I decided to add a scoop of chocolate ice cream with Chinese wheatgrass on the gentleman’s plate.

The question & answer session continued further and several bright ideas emerged on AIIB’s comprehensive ESS. My Professor friend was taking meticulous notes. Meet me tomorrow to write down the minutes, he whispered to me while gobbling a piece of crunchy Chinese chicken rolled in amsul sauce.

As the meeting was about to end (and so was the food), the member from Mongolia asked a question.

“How about application of ESS to the Treasury department of AIIB? Will there be any restriction or guidance on where our own Treasury will invest? In order to multiply our own money for infrastructure investments, we will need to put our money in funds of funds that will provide at least 20% of returns and AAA rating. I reckon that investing in funds of funds that may, in turn, invest in mines will be good as the mines today are giving great profits. But will mines be in the exclusion list of AIIB’s investments?”

“What about the environmental and social mess the mines create – how can AIIB invest in  mines?” I was about to ask this question but realizing that I was supposed to be in disguise, simply zipped my mouth.

The Chinese Premiere smiled like Buddha

“Oh, no worries, we will apply the principle of exclusion selectively to the Treasury department. We will keep the money in the funds of funds and won’t go too much downstream to investigate where money will actually be invested. So the downstream projects could well be mines. And my friend – don’t ask this question again”

He then turned to the Professor “Get me details on where does the Treasury of the World Bank, IFC, KfW etc. invest – which sectors, which fund of funds and markets are their favorites and to what extent do they apply Environmental and Social safeguards for their own investment operations. Let us copy their style in toto. We will have to stay consistent. After all, we have to take care of our own safeguards”

Well, this is just a satire and not the real story!

I would recommend that you visit http://www.wri.org/blog/2015/04/asia%E2%80%99s-investment-bank-new-chapter-sustainable-development

This page poses a number of critical questions to the ESS of Development Financing Institutions and these questions are worth pondering over.

You may also like to read letter to the World Bank by US Senate


How to get Speedy Environmental Clearance?


Making a presentation at the Environmental Clearance (EC) Committee is often an ordeal. A lot depends on the moods and whims of the Committee Members. The fate of the project i.e. Go or No Go depends on the presentation made by the Consultant hired by the Project Proponent.

A considerable time is spent on the preparation of the presentation. Often rehearsals are made and advice is sought from the past Committee members. The consultant brings along a dozen team members representing various domains of expertise ranging from air pollution to economics, biodiversity, gender and social inclusion. An expert is also brought along, who represents ‘nobody or nothing’ i.e. understands or knows only the project politics. This expert watches and does not generally speak and follows up after the meeting. Despite such heavy preparations, many of the outcomes of the meeting are unpredictable. Getting an EC is just a probability.

I was told that some Project Proponents go to temples, pray and make promises to the  Gods with a hope that the Mortal Gods of the EC Committees are kind enough to accord the EC. A temple next to the Ministry of Environment and Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has a special counter called Tatkal EC. Those interested, pay a donation of Rs
100,000 to help get the EC on priority. If you pay Rs 500,000 then prayers are made in a more elevated manner, requesting the Gods that EC be issued with least conditions. Cheques/drafts and credit cards are accepted and official receipts are issued. It is a transparent process.

Behind the building where EC Committee meets, there is a small lane where good-luck charms are sold. Legend has it that a project proponent wore a stone of Guru (Jupiter)
and the most vocal member of the Committee suddenly developed a sore throat and could not ask a single question! Getting the EC was then a cake walk.

There are also Swamis who bless the project proponent for the success of EC. They conduct a ritual that includes chanting of mantras for “SRK” (Not Shah Rukh Khan but the planets Shani- Rahu & Ketu). You need however a prior appointment. These Swamis charge a success fee of 0.001% of the project cost and the money is to be paid in cash. Advance payment is required and a refund is provided in case EC is not granted.

There are mixed opinions on which strategy is more effective, i.e. temple offerings, wearing of stones or following the Swamis. A PhD student at IIT is doing a research project focussed on this by conducting interviews and applying some psycho-spiritual models that are based on game theory.

I thought of discussing this interesting facet of EC in India with  Professor friend. As usual he was busy. “All these strategies to obtain EC are rubbish. You need a scientific approach and proper training. Come to the Little Theatre at Lodhi Road at 6 pm in the evening to witness how I address this challenge”. I had always liked to eat the mini samosas sold in the foyer of the Little Theatre, so I carried six samosas for me and the Professor in a paper bag and entered the Theatre.

Professor was right on the stage wearing the gown of the ‘Play Director’. He was in action  and didn’t notice me coming in. On the stage, there was a long table with 6 people sitting  with grim faces, representing the Environmental Clearance Committee. In the front (like a darbar) there were 11 people (poor souls) who represented the Project Proponent. There  was an LCD projector in the middle. Some slides were being projected by the Project consultant. This guy had a trembling voice, and his posture was very apologetic. The project was about the construction of a township for 40000 people on a hill.

One of the committee members who was wearing thick spectacles spoke. “All this is fine, but have you carried out climate proofing of the township? I was hoping to see the application of SimChimp software to estimate floods that may happen in 2040. It is important to know whether your stormwater system has factored-in such extreme events that may happen in the future. You should see my recent publication in Current Science stressing the importance of climate proofing in EIA”.

Before, the project consultant could answer, a member from the College of Architecture intervened, “The entire project proposal has missed the point on sustainability. Your township must be zero energy, zero waste and zero water. You have to come up with a plan that ensures the township does not draw a drop of water from outside, recovers all the  waste and requires no additional source of energy. The project should become a model to others. I would like my students to get involved in this project to reshape/redesign”.

Then a man wearing a sling bag and a Gandhi topi spoke in a deep voice “Have you considered what will happen to the tribals on the hill? I don’t believe the number of people
you have quoted as displaced is true. You are simply providing wrong data. All the project-affected people need to be compensated for and provided employment. There should also be benefit-sharing out of your profits. This was the latest recommendation from the World Bank during the meeting in Washington DC that I attended. My NGO will be very interested to work as a monitoring and evaluation agency.”

The members spoke one after another and the project consultant was doing his best to defend the project – sometimes requesting members of his expert team to chip in. Heated discussion ensued, with the committee members becoming abrasive. One member suggested that given the sensitivity of the project location, the project proponent should carry out a one-year baseline study with remotely sensed imageries at 0.5 meter  resolution. Another member wanted an amphibian survey – “we would like to have this  data for research purpose,” he said. “This may not be relevant but there are no publications on this topic and it will be good to know.”

At this point the project proponent lost his temper.

“Cut! Cut!” My Professor friend stopped the conversation. “You cannot lose your temper Sir! Have patience and be philosophical”

“Cut! Cut!” My Professor friend stopped the conversation. “You cannot lose your temper  Sir! Have patience and be philosophical” The mock drill was over. The stage was now ‘converted’ into a classroom. The EC committee members, who were the ‘actors’ before, took ‘ordinary seats’. The professor trained the project proponent and his consultant on  how to make PowerPoint slides, explaining minute details such as slide template, font color and size and then how to speak, where to pause and how to speak blatant lies with an innocent face, where to bow down even if the question asked was stupid or irrelevant,  where to praise the review committee member and where to make tall promises etc. This session was also theatrical as the Professor enacted a few sessions himself. This made the training very real and effective.

As we came out of the Little Theatre, the Professor said, “Such training helps. The success rate is really high and almost all the project proponents who have gone through my  training have received speedy Environmental Clearances. All are happy”.

“You must publicize this training programme Professor – it’s an important national  service that you are offering,” I said as I finished the leftover samosa. “Oh, I will never do that,” said the professor. “I don’t want this to become a business or a profession. I am  sure the NABET of Quality Control Association of India will then come up with another category of accreditation called ‘EIA Theatre Directors’. Theatre personalities like  Naseeruddin Shah, Paresh Rawal, Alyque Padamsee, with very little environmental training, will then take over and conventional EIA consultants will have little role to play in getting the Environmental Clearance.”

Cover image sourced from https://blog.compete.com