Dinner at the Masala Craft and Bade Miya

Last week, I decided to call my friends over a dinner at the Taj in Mumbai to celebrate by two years of extended life after the Angioplasty.

The Taj Mahal Palace & Taj Mahal Tower are a striking blend of nostalgic elegance, rich history and modern facilities.

Masala Kraft is the specialty Indian restaurant at the Taj Mahal Palace. The cuisine uses ground spices and traditional recipes with a blend of culinary innovations. Masala Kraft features an array of menus including the Masala Mumbai Tiffin.

I booked a large table where we could accommodate 8 of my Page 3 friends. Everyone arrived in time, well dressed and perfumed.

“Good choice of the restaurant”, my friend who lives on the Nepean sea road said, placing the napkin on the lap

Friend from the Italian Consulate asked for a wine list. After some discussions with the waiter (sounded in Italian) she ordered a bottle of Barbera. This versatile wine of Italian origin but now widely produced in California is not as popular as Merlot. But it contains very high levels of resveratrol and offers similar health benefits, according to a comparative study. The grapes used seem to contain very high quantities of another phenolic antioxidant called trans-piceatannol.

“I am ordering red Barbera, in case you are tempted to. Research does suggest that red wine could help in blocking the formation of fat cells. This is because of the presence of compounds called Flavonoids in red wine, which inhibit the oxidation of LDL (Low-density lipoprotein) otherwise known as bad cholesterol. Flavonoids are plant compounds called polyphenolic antioxidants that come from the seeds and skin of grapes. But I would not recommend as the evidence on the benefit of red wine to the heart is not still conclusive and the debate is ongoing”. She asked the waiter not to place wine glass on my table. “Have a ganne ka ras (sugarcane juice) instead”. She sounded a bit apologetic.

“Come on – not for Dr Modak, my Dr friend from Jaslok Hospital said. “His HbA1C level is already at 7.5 and he needs to stop eating anything with sugar”.

The term HbA1c refers to glycated hemoglobin. By measuring glycated hemoglobin (HbA1c), clinicians are able to get an overall picture of what our average blood sugar levels have been over a period of weeks/months. For people with diabetes, like me, this is important as the higher the HbA1c, the greater the risk of developing diabetes-related complications. To be good, you should be close to 6.

“Let us examine the Menu” said my doctor friend putting on the glasses on as if he is reading a pathology report. He turned the pages of the Menu and hit straight on the Healthy menu page. “For you, I will recommend one of the mains from here” He said. I looked at the Healthy menu and thought that these mains were not interesting.

“Well, I am going to start with Kombadichi Kadi (a rustic chicken curry with coconut). My cholesterol is good – so no worries”  said the Pathologist.

I felt envious but realized that all my friends were seriously taking care of my health. They sounded really concerned.

I said” Let me then order the Masala Mumbai Tiffin – Veg version. It looks tempting”

“Oh No, Dr Modak, that’s not good for you. The tiffin starts with Farasan(made out of chickpea flour – fried and crispy) and ends with Shrikhand (fermented reduced milk with sugar)! Terrible for you given your health condition” Said my friend who is regular at the Mumbai Marathons. “Instead I will recommend that you take a soup like Tomato and Santre ka Shorba (Tomato soup with Orange) that is healthy and will fill your stomach. For me, I am asking for Laknavi Seekh (coarse lamb mince skewered kababs from Lucknow)”

My mouth was watering when he spoke about the kababs. I took a deep breath and sighed.

“This kind of soup is no good for you Dr” said my friend from Times Now in a tone that as if it was a breaking news. These folks put a lot of salt (unknowingly) and that can upset your salt balance. Its OK for people like us – but certainly not for you. I wouldn’t recommend”. I could see that he probably had a bad experience of having such soups in the past.

“Ok then why don’t I hit straight to the main and ask for Lasooni Palak (spinach tampered with garlic) with a combination of two phulkas (puffed Indian bread with home ground wheat)” I fought back.

“Good choice, garlic is good for the heart and Palak contains iron and helps in raising the hemoglobin” My friend who runs a Yoga clinic at the Lokhandwala complex said.

“Well, in that case I will ask you to eat only Lassoni Palak without any phulka. Wheat contains gluten and that’s not good for you” said my friend who just arrived from the United States after a long stay of 30 years. “We are sharing a Masala Craft Paraat Pulao with Jheenga (curry layered with aromatic basmati rice with prawns)” He said this in an American accent and looked at his wife who readily nodded. I felt jealous

“Perhaps it may good if you have just have two pieces of Nachni Phulka (puffed Indian bread made with red millet) with matki dahi (yogurt in a clay pot). The person who least spoke all this time now said. I think he retired from Indian Administrative Service (IAS). These folks generally speak the last or have the last word.

“I won’t recommend this option Dr Modak, this means you will only have 600 calories. Not good given your total recommended intake of 1800 . You must not starve”. My friend who was regular at the Gold Gym on Linking Road retorted.  “Well in my case I am going to order hot Gulab Jamun Yogurt (dumplings of reduced milk soaked and baked with sweetened yogurt). By the way, I work out over 2 hours every day”

Wow, I realized that all my friends were going to have a great time at the Masala Craft (at my cost) and me, the host, was going to be starved.

To end this ping pong of advices, I asked for Kashmiri Khahwa tea (a blend of green tea leaves with saffron strands with cinnamon barks and a cardamom pod), saying that I actually have an upset stomach. This led to some more discussion.

“You can have two full cups Dr. Its very healthy” My friend with Italian embassy said in a comforting tone while sipping the red Barbera.

When we ended our dinner, I said good bye, thank you and good night to all my friends. When I was sure that everybody had left, I walked to Bade Miya behind the Taj that serves delicious street food. After reading some adverse Trip Advisor reports on the poor hygiene in company of stray dogs, I had avoided visiting this otherwise famous place. But today, I was desperate.

Mohmed Gaus, the co-owner greeted me “Dr Modak, long time no see! We thought we lost you!!”. He yelled at the boy and said “Please get our esteemed guest, a plate of Seekh Kebabs, Butter Chicken and two Roomali Rotis – the usual”

“It’s not unhealthy for me I suppose?” I asked Mohmed.

He smiled and said “So far you enjoy eating Dr Modak. Life is too short to live”

Was he right?

I though of asking my well-wishers when we would meet next

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Robots with Green Artificial Intelligence

Professor asked me to attend the inauguration of Wadhwani AI, India’s first research institute dedicated to developing Artificial Intelligence (AI) solutions for the social good. Wadhwani AI will focus on researching ways to harness the power of AI to solve deep rooted problems in healthcare, education, agriculture, and infrastructure to accelerate social development.

“What about environmental management and sustainability?” I whispered to the Professor. Professor didn’t pay much attention to my whisper as he was busy listening to the opening remarks from the PM.

The PM said “Wadhwani AI is a prime example of how the public sector and the private sector can come together with good intentions to build a world-class institute, aimed at benefiting the poor”

I couldn’t disagree with PM’s emphasis on the Poor. Benefiting poor was rarely the focus of research in AI. I also realized that the PM was using technology like AI for positioning him (and his party) in the forthcoming elections. Very clever.

Founded by Indian-American tech entrepreneurs Dr. Romesh Wadhwani and Sunil Wadhwani, the institute will be led by AI pioneer and founding MD of Microsoft Research India, Dr. P. Anandan. “We will apply AI in all key domains such as education, public health, agriculture, infrastructure and financial inclusion. These efforts will bring innovative solutions that achieve large-scale positive social impact. We hope this will transform how AI research is conducted and applied to help” Dr Romesh Wadhwani spoke after the inauguration by the PM.

On our way back, Professor said that we should stop by the office of the Pollution Control Board (PCB) near Sion. “We will say hello to the Member Secretary and you would see some of the little work I have done” He said. I protested saying that the coffee at the PCB is no good, but Professor didn’t pay any heed.

When we stepped in the office of the PCB, we saw in the reception four machines that were blinking and making “gurrr… gurr…” sounds resembling robots. In front of these machines, folks from industries had queued asking for the Consents to Establish (CoE). Each person was getting interrogated by the “robot” using arficial intelligence.

One man wearing a black suit and red tie was asked to indicate the location of the proposed manufacturing plant on the map of Maharashtra. He pointed his finger. Next,  details about the manufacturing activity, scale, usage of raw materials, products and processing technology were asked.  Aftter receiving few such details, “gurr… gurr” became “GURR… GURR” (I mean louder) for a little while (looked like some “thinking” was going on) and the robot displayed on the screen results of information processing. The screen displayed that “CoE was approved but with following conditions…..” . A technical guidance was offered on how to embed environmental and social considerations in every activity. A list of useful contacts of “approved” environmental consultants, monitoring agencies etc was sent on email including pointers to potential investors/sponsors.”  The robot ended the “transaction” (similar to a ATM) saying “Thank you for visiting Us and best wishes for your endeavours” in a humanoid voice but in American accent as the Robot found out that the person in black suit and red tie was educated in the United States of America.  I found the entire transaction to be intelligent, responsible and customer friendly.

“Well Dr Modak, this is not as simple as you may perhaps think. A lot has gone behind the “GURR… GURR”. Professor said.

“We have essentially emulated the Consent Evaluation Committee of the PCB by tapping knowledge and experience of a top team of multidisciplinary experts and using data-based decision-making process. The Consent Evaluation Committee is now abolished. The AI based algorithms planted in the robots ensure that the decisions are made on objective basis, considering future sustainability of the region and paying attention to the interest of poor and vulnerable. The problems of present human based committees are well-known to you Dr Modak” Professor said

“You mean, poor knowledge in taking decisions, political interest, inconsistent and impractical recommendations?” I spoke like reading bullet points on a PowerPoint slide. Professor smiled.

“Well even much more happens here. After the transaction is over, the robot will update the database and maps and re-establish the available carrying capacity for next decision making and send emails to local representatives in the project area that a project of this kind has been given a consent to establish”

I was extremely impressed with this feature of immediate upkeep and adaptation as well as transparency with the stakeholders. Wow! I said to myself. India is truly reforming,

Member Secretary was not in the office. He was on a vacation as most of the decision making was now done by the Robots. So, we headed towards our usual coffee shop that served the Ethiopian coffee. We took seats in the veranda on the cane chairs and Professor lighted his cigar.

In the next half hour of his discourse, I learnt that the Professor had developed, and installed AI based Robots in all situations wherever “committees” were used to come up with so called “collective decisions” on the subject of environmental management and sustainability.

“Today, the way we constitute and operate our environmental committees is no good. Abolishing them and replacing with robots with “green intelligence” will address the issues we face.” Professor said this summarily.

“Why dont we train the members of the existing committees?” I made a suggestion.

“Well Dr Modak, most committee members feel that they are the best experts so how can you dare to train them? But in reality they cannot be salvaged by any amount of training. This is where AI comes in for the interest of social good” Said the Professor

I thought Professor was absolutely right. But I also realized that abolishing these (useless and ineffective) committees would certainly need a political support.

“And the lacunae are not just limited to the Government sector. For instance, I have provided all the major corporates in India to use my machines as a “substitute” to their CSR committees as a Pilot. My experience is that the CSR committees at most corporates are skewed and come up with basket of arbitrary projects without a strategy to innovate and achieve region-wide sustained impact. Besides, very few corporates factor what’s been already done by the Government and remain in sync with other CSR players in the region, mainly because of competition. The AI algorithms we have developed provide much rounded decisions on CSR projects with guidance to ensure both effectiveness and long-term sustainability of the proposed interventions”

“This is very nice Professor – but what about the Investment Committees (IC) at the Bankers?” I asked. “Of course, we are addressing this need as we want ICs to be sensitive to the sustainability perspectives of the proposed investments. I am working on AI algorithms that will look at environmental and social dimensions and monetize both risks and opportunities during credit appraisals. Bankers in India are most insensitive, blind folded and do not have trained staff in this arena. So, the robots will help. The foreign direct investments will increase”.

Professor extinguished his cigar, hinting that the discussion was now over. He whispered. “ Dr Modak, I have been entrusted a very secretive project to develop a Sustainability MicroChip (SMC) that can be planted in the human brain. This chip will ensure that all the thought processes will factor sustainability both in perception,  decision making and evaluation. We will program this chip and provide the SMC implant at no cost under newly proposed Health Insurance scheme. The chip will get updated daily via a massive cloud server”. I was shocked with this radical idea. Truly transformational and simply unbelievable – I said to myself

“But Professor, this SMC needs to be piloted and tested carefully” I couldn’t resist asking.

“Well Dr Modak, not to worry. Our PM has himself volunteered for the pilot” Professor said

I then become confident that the PM will certainly win the next election!

Cognitive technology, enabled by artificial intelligence is uniquely adapted to helping with sustainability challenges. See https://www.greenbiz.com/article/4-ways-ai-helps-business-protect-environment where you would see examples on Better conservation of natural resources, Earlier pollution detection, Accelerating sustainable options, Proactive environmental regulation compliance and Learning from nature’s ecosystems. I would like that students from computer science and environmental management work together to explore these areas.

Cover image sourced from http://www.humanengineers.com/hr_library/from-robotic-process-automation-rpa-to-artificial-intelligence-ai-the-intelligent-automation-journey/

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Sustainability and the Goods & Services Tax

In India, the newly introduced Goods and Services Tax (GST) has led to quite some stress to the manufacturers and service providers and more importantly to the consumers belonging to middle income and poor class of the society. Most are not happy with GST today.

The basic idea to introduce GST was to remove the multiple tax system that was a part of Central and State government and to provide uniform tax system throughout the country. The GST tax model is divided into different tax slabs ranging from 0% to 28%. There are four slabs (5%, 12%, 18%, and 28%) and an additional ‘sin tax’ of 40% that is to be implemented on rare occasions.

When GST was implemented it was claimed that it would bring great changes in the Indian economy in the market and increase country’s GDP to 7%. The reality over a short span was however not to this expectation as the economy was already in shambles due to the demonetization. Despite all the shortcomings, the GST model was hoped to be a grand success over long run if it was planned considering the welfare of poor people and of course to protect the environment and our natural resources.

My Professor friend therefore felt that the GST should have been structured based on sustainability considerations. In his logic, goods and services that have negative environmental and social impact should be slapped with higher tax slab and those goods and services that help in improving the sustainability should be promoted with lower slab rate.

Professor told the PMO that Government needs to completely restructure the tax slabs based on sustainability considerations. So, he was called to Delhi for a discussion.

Professor was preparing his note and a speech in his study when I went to see him. He looked at me and said “Dr Modak, I was about to call you. I wanted someone to peer my note and give comments before I fly out to New Delhi. What I am proposing in the new GST regime is something simply revolutionary”. With this remark, he passed me his note and lighted a cigar.

I browsed the note and looked at the whiteboard in his room. It had several keywords and diagrams – all written in a haphazard manner – and in some places almost illegible. However, the scribbling on the whiteboard and a choked ashtray on the desk did show that Professor was brainstorming.

The word MIPS had taken a central position on the white board and was written in red.

What’s MIPs Professor? I asked. “Hope it is not Million Instructions Per Second?” I remembered conversations with my friends from computer science and engineering regarding MIPS.

“Oh, come on, I thought you knew this term Dr Modak.” Professor looked disappointed. He then explained

“The abbreviation MIPS stands for Material Input Per Service unit. MIPS is an elementary measure to estimate the resources demanded by a product or service. In the computation of MIPS, the whole life-cycle from cradle to cradle (extraction, production, use, waste/recycling) is considered like a rucksack. Recycling reflects the extent of the use of secondary materials. MIPS can be applied in all cases where the environmental implications of products, processes and services need to be assessed and compared”.

I remembered then the MIPS. Of course, I knew about this term.

MIPS as a concept is so much talked about in Europe over last two decades. The Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy introduced Material Intensity Analysis (MAIA), based on the MIPS concept, way back in in 1998.

MIPS considers abiotic and biotic materials, water, air, and earth movement in agriculture and silviculture. See http://wupperinst.org/uploads/tx_wupperinst/MIT_2013.pdf for more explanation. Of course, MIPS has its limitations (as it captures Inputs and not impacts and risks fully) but researchers over the last two decades have worked hard and improved the scope and computational methodology of MIPS.

Visit https://wupperinst.org/uploads/tx_wupperinst/MIT_2014.pdf to view the latest list of materials where MIPS is computed and applicable regions. MIPs is expressed in kg/kg.

If you follow this table, then you would see that aluminium will attract much more GST (say 4th slab) as compared to Steel (that could be placed in the 2nd slab). Electricity produced by a wind farm will be in the lowest tax slab of GST and all forms of plastic will be placed in the 3rd tax slab. So were the propositions from the Professor to the FM.

I thought of using MIPS to fix tax slabs under GST was a novel idea to drive consumption towards sustainability, but I had several questions to ask.

“But Professor, this would mean that we will need to first develop MIPS database for India. We cannot use Wuppertal database or for that matter the publicly available Eco Invent or databases provided by commercial software such a Gabbi.

Developing MIPS for India (even for select materials/products/services) could well be a national project involving IITs, Schools of Economics, Institutions researching on Natural Resources Management etc. This work will take at least 3 years to conclude to arrive at numbers that are reasonable and acceptable”

I had my doubts whether the India such a MIPS project was going to be feasible.

Professor nodded.

“I agree with you Dr Modak, but we don’t have that much time. Unsustainability is ticking. Remember that the tax slabs that we will use will follow a band or a range so even 100% error around MIPS computation will not cause any major concern. So, I don’t mind a quick (and dirty) first cut. We must begin somewhere.

By linking GST with MIPS we will raise awareness of Indian citizens about choosing materials and products on the ground of sustainability. The citizens will be more responsible. To save the GST, people will prefer materials and products with low MIPS. India’s Gross Ecological Product (GEP) will thus increase;  and so the GDP and importantly sustainably”

I thought the Professor was right. He really was a visionary.

I realized that if implemented, India would be the first country in the world that will show a “sustainability basis” in its taxation.

I wasn’t sure however the FM and the PM will agree with the Professor as perhaps a sustainability led GST may plough a lower tax collection. Wont it then conflict with the very objective of GST and that of the FM!

I wished all the best to the Professor as he extinguished his cigar and called taxi to the airport. I erased the white board that featured MIPS and kept my mouth shut. I didn’t want to discourage him.

Suggested reading on MIPS Concept, Methodology and Applications

Calculating MIPS 2.0 Mathieu Saurat  and Michael Ritthoff

The MIPS Concept (Material Input Per Unit of Service): A Measure for an Ecological Economy Martha Fani Cahyandito

Calculating MIPS – Resource Productivity of Products and Services Michael Ritthoff Holger Rohn Christa Liedtke Wuppertel Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy


Cover image sourced from http://www.sdgdatalabs.org/2017/06/14/gst-boon-or-bane-to-sustainable-development-goals/

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Night-walk in the Streets of Prague

Years ago, I was in Prague to attend a UN conference. As I arrived, I fell in love with the city. I chose to stay at hotel Black Elephant that was a few minutes’ walk from the Old Town Quarter.

Old Town Square is a historic place. It is located between Wenceslas Square and the Charles Bridge where people take romantic walks at night.

A friend had recommended me hotel Black Elephant. Black Elephant, also known as Hotel Cerny slon, is located in the narrow street Tynska. It was built in accordance with historical archives of Prague in the years 1330 – 1340 in a gothic style. A unique roof truss of the building was preserved in an original form. It is one of the oldest hotel in Prague and perhaps in the whole Czech Republic. The building is listed on the UNESCO heritage list. The hotel boasts of Bar Bandol that was set up in the cellar with pebbled walls around. In this hotel the history literally “talks to you”.

The Black Elephant Hotel

The Reception

Some of the UN delegates had also booked the Black Elephant. One of them was my good friend Anna. Anna was a Slovakian and worked as a consultant on a project sponsored by UNIDO. I was pleased to see her at the reception as I was checking in.  Anna was dressed in a smart lamb wool sweater with her Slovakian ID hanging out in a brass chain.

The Slovak identity card is issued to citizens of the Slovak Republic aged 15 and older. A Slovak ID card can be used for travel in all member states of the European Union and the Schengen Area as well as several other European countries. Most Slovakian’s those days used to sport the ID in a chain put around the neck, especially while in the Czech Republic.

“Hi Prasad, great to see you again” Anna said. “Hey, we are having a reception at the Municipal House followed by a concert at the Smetana Hall”. Smetana hall is a celebrated concert venue in Prague.

“Do check with me after the program is over as we all are planning to take a nightly walk on the streets of Prague on our way back”

I was really excited to know about this plan. Walking on the streets of Prague at night is perhaps most romantic thing to do. I proposed to Anna that we will walk from the Municipal Hall, watching the illuminated old quarters and then end up dining at a nice place”

Oh, sounds good” said Anna. She suggested White Horse restaurant that was close the Old Town Square. “That’s the best place in Prague to be”. I had been to White Horse before and endorsed Anna’s suggestion.

White Horse restaurant is a hidden gem. Tucked away in a cellar downstairs, it is a cozy, beautifully decorated restaurant. From the street you could think you would be sitting in a rather uninviting seating area at front. But we you go downstairs to the cellar restaurant, you realize that it is beautiful and romantic place to eat. The cellar has live jazz or blues bands entertaining the diners. I remembered that it has a good selection of vegetarian foods was available as well.


The White Horse Restaurent and the Cellar place 

The meeting over the day was good. We met lots of old friends, one of them was Brian from the United States. Brian was a Professor at North Dakota University. A very jovial person that he was, Brian captured everybody’s attention and charmed Anna with his stories.  “Keep a few stories in reserve when we will walk at night” Anna chided him.

The concert ended by 9 pm. We started walking from the Municipal Hall on the pebbled streets of Prague. The streets had aroma of perfumes, the youth around was full of love and passion, the breeze was chilly, but the hearts were warm. We walked through the crowds, pushing people sometimes and making our way. Anna was leading us in the beginning giving us the “street sense”. Brian was in the mood of humor – making interesting remarks on each one of us and cracking jokes. I could see that Anna was simply adoring his pranks. We used to see both sometimes trailing behind and getting into conversations that we all wanted to hear! I don’t think Anna had met Brian before.

We must have walked just about 2 km and cleared much of the crowed portion of the streets.

Suddenly, Anna stopped. I saw her face panicked.

She looked extremely worried and concerned. “I think I lost by Slovak ID, either it got slipped or someone wacked it in the crowd”. I saw the brass chain in her neck was empty.

We knew that losing the ID card in Czech Republic could be a nightmare for a Slovakian. The immediate thing to be done was reporting to the City Police Station 1 at the Old Town.

We got into a discussion – some said that we should walk back and check if the ID had slipped on the streets. This idea was dismissed. Few said that it was most likely that the ID was stolen. Many from Slovakia who stayed in the Czech Republic always looked for IDs that could be forged to enter Slovakia.

“Well friends, I must go and report to the Police for the lost ID card. The Police Station is not far away from the hotel” Anna had decided.

“Prasad, you know White Horse restaurant so lead everyone there. I have done a booking already. There is a piano jazz tonight. I will join there as I finish the formalities at the Police Station. It may take some time” Anna sounded practical.

Brian volunteered to accompany Anna. I really liked his friendly gesture.  I was relieved that there was someone to accompany Anna.

We were at restaurant White Horse in the next 10 minutes. Our tables in the cellar were pre-booked. The piano-man was in action and was rolling out great jazz. We kept seats for Anna and Brian. We hoped that they will sort out the complain part soon and join us.

We ended the dinner by 11 30 pm but none of them showed up. We were worried. Some said that they must have got real fatigued and hence retired to their respective rooms.  Like Anna, Brian also stayed at the Black Elephant.

I had an early morning flight from Prague to Zurich for way home. I checked out at the reception and went to the breakfast area for a hot black coffee to fight the chill outside. Airport taxi was about to come. On the table, I saw Anna sitting.

Hi Prasad, let me get some breakfast she said. As she walked towards the buffet table, I saw lying on the top of the table her brass chain with her Slovakian ID.

“Oh, looks like she found it. May be someone returned her ID to the police station where she had gone to register the complaint – I must ask” I said to myself

“Madam, your room number please?” The girl serving the coffee asked Anna. Anna showed her the metal key that was on the table that had the room number engraved in the old style. The girl noted the room no. But she returned to our table once again.

“Madam, I think you showed me the wrong key. This key belongs to the room of Mr. Brian Crawford”. The girl said in an apologetic tone.

The situation was then clear to me.

Did Anna really lose her Slovak ID?  And was something planned during the nightly walk on the streets of Prague?

Dear readers – I leave to you to decide.

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India’s (Green?) Union Budget

“The 2018 budget of Government of India has been silent on environment and climate change”

I gave my initial reaction to my Professor friend. We were sitting in his study having a masala chai and samosas for a change.

Professor heard me but didn’t react immediately as he was on the phone – (perhaps with the FM?). I knew that Professor was close to the FM and he must have had a hand in shaping the 2018 budget. I was therefore surprised that despite his proximity and influence on the FM, there was not much green in the budget that we all wanted to see.

I had a reason to expect this time a Green Union Budget. We know that economic indicators alone are no longer representative of the growth. How long can we continue to cheat? While India may claim a growth rate of 7 to 8%, its true GDP growth could be just about 5% due to poor management of our natural assets and payment to be made for the liabilities (e.g. contaminated lands) we have created. India is ranked today third from the bottom on the Environmental Performance Index, lower than nations such as Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

The Economic Survey has projected loss of up to 25% in farm income highlighting the risks posed to due to climate change. Unfortunately, there has been no change in the allocations under the Climate Change Action Plan or the National CC Adaptation Fund. Its strange that at the same time, the government is expecting to double farmers’ income by 2022. And there is no place in the budget on the Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) as communicated in COP 21 in Paris.

Poor air quality in New Delhi has drawn international attention. The situation is however no different across most Indian cities.  The Government has been steadily “diluting” the environmental governance. For instance, the old emission norms for thermal plants are allowed to continue for the next five years. Provisions like Environmental Supplement Plan (ESP) have legitimized non-compliance. Several conditions have been relaxed while obtaining Environmental Clearance (EC). Two crucial economic instruments – the National Clean Energy and Environment Fund (reportedly over Rs 56,700 crore) and the Water Cess — have already been dissolved for the sake of accommodating the concerns of the States on GST.

Professor had put the phone down. He looked at my agitated face and smiled. He said “You haven’t really understood the budget Dr Modak. There is a lot of green there – but you need a lens if you want to see. Let me explain”. He lit his cigar.

“The Centre has announced a ₹1.4 lakh-crore scheme for promoting decentralized solar power production of up to 28,250 MW to help farmers. We will spend ₹48,000 crore on the ten-year scheme called Kisan Urja Suraksha evam Utthaan Mahaabhiyan or KUSUM. KUSUM would provide extra income to farmers, by giving them an option to sell additional power to the grid through solar power projects set up on their barren lands. Farmers will thus be empowered and become entrepreneurs.

Now see the environmental perspective. KUSUM will de-dieselise the energy sector as also the DISCOMS. India had about 30 million farm pumps that include 10 million pumps running on diesel. Just think about the massive reduction in the GHG emissions. As solar pumps will operate for only 8 hours, excess withdrawal of the groundwater will be curbed and thus the groundwater table will improve and provide water security to farmers”

I thought the Professor was right. You need to think more to understand the green perspective and massive implication of KUSUM to the environment, empowerment and social development.

“What about the Operation Greens?” I asked Professor.

“I told FM to build Operations Greens in line with the Operation Flood and allocate 500 crores. But to me Operations Green is a climate adaptation strategy” Professor said.

“Operation Greens aims to promote farmer producers’ organisations, agri-logistics, processing facilities and professional management. Operation Greens will work to increase demand in the economy. As many as 470 Agriculture Promotion Market Committee promoted markets will now be connected to the e-nam platform while the government will help in development of 22,000 agricultural markets.

The Operation aims to aid farmers and help control and limit the erratic fluctuations in the prices of commodities like onions, potatoes and tomatoes. Operation Greens has a price fixation scheme that aims to ensure farmers are given the right price for their produce. The Minimum Support Price (MSP) regulation has a key role to play here. The announcement to set MSP of all kharif crops at 1.5 times the cost of production will increase the farmers’ income. In addition, the Budget’s rural sops such as MNREGA allocation being increased from Rs 38,500 crore to 48,000 crore, the coverage of ‘Fasal Bima Yojna‘ being increased from 30 per cent to 40 per cent etc, will definitely serve to address climate change related risks. Operations Greens is thus essentially an adaptation strategy to address the risks of climate change and make our agriculture sector climate resilient.”

“Oh, how clever of the FM” I thought. I was sure that our MoEFCC must have crafted this strategy in partnership with the Niti Ayog. No wonder the Ministry was christened as MoEF and Climate Change.

Professor continued. “Yes, we sacrificed the National Clean Energy and Environment Fund to accommodate disadvantage to the State on account of GST, but we have now set up a special scheme to address air pollution in Delhi- NCR region. You are aware, due to burning of paddy fields after harvesting by farmers mainly from north India, the resultant smoke gets carried by winds to Delhi and beyond, adding to the existing Suspended Particulate Matter (SPM) and other noxious substances that affect the lungs.

To combat this problem, a special scheme will be executed with Delhi government and adjoining states where steps will be taken to subsidize the machinery required for management of crop residue. Instead of heavy penalties for burning agricultural waste, we are providing incentives to the farmers to make them more productive, albeit limited to the NCR.  And remember Dr Modak, I don’t need to explain that stopping burning of crop residues in this innovative manner will greatly reduce emissions of GHG.

Professor had another example to cite

“In an effort to make the villages open defecation free and improving the lives of villagers, the FM has announced the launch of the Gobar Dhan scheme. The Gobar Dhan scheme will manage and convert cattle dung and solid waste in farms to compost, biogas and bio-CNG. Understand the massive reduction in GHG emissions expected due to this project through waste utilization, fossil fuel substitution while promoting clean energy. We are confident that we will be able to achieve targets set in the INDC just by implementing the Gobar Dhan scheme.

I was now impressed. I wished that FM had spoken about these environmental benefits explicitly and silenced the environmental NGOs and critiques.

But I still had questions to ask.

“What about the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Professor? There is no mention on the SDGs in the Union Budget.”

Professor was perhaps expecting my question

“You would notice in the budget that the government had identified 115 districts taking various indices of development into consideration, aiming at improving the quality of life in these districts by investing in social services like health, education, nutrition, skill up-gradation, financial inclusion and infrastructure like irrigation, rural electrification, potable drinking water and access to toilets at an accelerated pace and in a time bound manner. All these indicators can be mapped to the 17 SDGs. These 115 districts are expected to become models of sustainable development and help track the progress towards SDGs”

I liked this pilot approach of working with 115 districts out of the 600+ that we have and test progress towards the SDGs.

Professor extinguished his cigar.

“Sorry, Dr Modak, I have to now rush to the North block. FM has called. He wants me to rewrite his Budget speech – now in Green script – giving all the environmental implications of the economic measures he is proposing.  He feels this communication is needed to make people understand that this Government is deeply concerned about environment and sustainable development. I had warned him before, but he did not get my point then”

Now I understood why the FM quoted Swami Vivekananda in his budget speech and had said, “You merge yourself in the void and disappear and let a new India arise.” What a deep and loaded quote!

On my way home however, I realized that I wasn’t fully convinced. I wasn’t very comfortable about Professors impressive green interpretation of the budget. Was the green interpreted budget going to be a usual marketing green-wash, full of voids, less of substance and not a true commitment.

Well, I leave to you to decide. Professor could well be right! And a new India may arise!!

You may like to create an assignment for graduate students to study India’s Union Budget and rewrite its “green version” with application of some metrics. Students may examine to what extent the budget reflects (of course “untentionaly”) the INDC and the SDGs and do a discussion.

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Do you remember me?

You keep meeting people in life. You remember some people, but most you forget. Few have elephantine memory and they remember the names. I am envious about these people as they make their acquaintances comfortable when they meet after a gap.

When I am asked “Do you remember me?”, I get embarrassed. I do my best to place the person, but often fail or make a wrong guess, especially when it comes to the name. Many don’t like this weakness of mine. They expect that I remember. And there is nothing wrong to expect this at the least.

I remember I went for a meeting at the UNEP office in Geneva. As I entered the foyer, a woman in the early forty’s ran towards me, hugged me and exclaimed “Prasad, you never told me that you will be coming? You have been absconding for quite a while, we must catch up”

I couldn’t just place this woman. I knew I met her before – as the face looked familiar – but I couldn’t recall her name and the context we last met.

The woman continued.

“Well Prasad, you must be rushing for your meeting. So, I am letting you go now. I will pick you up from the hotel at sharp 7 pm and we will then head for a good dinner”

Given her kind gesture, I thought it was not appropriate for me to tell her that I don’t remember your name. It would be so impolite I thought.

The woman asked my hotel’s name. I said ibis. “Oh, Ibis at Palexpo” Woman said. “Last time you were at Jade Manotel on Rue Rothschild. See you at 7 pm”. The woman disappeared through an elevator.

The woman was absolutely right. I did stay at Jade Manotel the last time I visited Geneva. This time Jade was full, and I could only get a room at the Ibis.

So, this woman certainly knew me before. And that’s why her face looked familiar! But then who was she?

As I sat down in the meeting room, I did my best to remember her name. But shit, I just couldn’t place her. I couldn’t concentrate in the meeting.

The woman looked Caucasian. Was she Gene? Gene worked with the division of economics and last year I had an assignment with the division. No not Gene, I said, as Woman’s accent was meditarian. Oh, then it could be Laila from Cairo? I seriously considered this possibility. Laila worked on Gender. She loved Indian food and we used to lunch together. I used to give Laila  tips to appreciate the Indian food. But I dismissed this possibility too, as if she was Laila, then she wouldn’t have hugged me. Laila was kind of “conservative” person. I gave up.

I was ready at the hotel lobby at 7 pm. I was a bit nervous as I did not know my “host”.  The woman zipped in with a Beetle that was stark red.

“Come on in Prasad”, she yelled

We drove on the streets of Geneva.

“We are heading towards Leopard Lounge & Bar”. Woman said this while changing the gears. “A trio of musicians are playing today. I don’t remember the name of the band director. I have booked a table”

Leopold Lounge and Bar in Geneva

I had heard about this lovely jazz bar before and always wanted to go. When we entered, I enjoyed the quiet, dark and elegant lounge and reminiscent of a bygone era.

We sat together. I didn’t know what to say and so I started “some” conversation. I talked about the weather (how chilly it is), traffic (how it has increased over last few years) etc. The woman added that cost of living is going up especially for leasing apartment in Geneva. These conversations sounded hollow and meaningless to me (and certainly to this charming woman). I was trying my best to place her– my brain was spinning and working hard at a high stress level.

While the woman was giving me a patient hearing, she seemed to be a bit amused though. I could sense that. That made me uncomfortable.

Suddenly, I got a bright idea.

I said “You know I sent an email to you that I am coming to Geneva and the email got bounced. Maybe I typed an incorrect email id. Would you have by any chance have your name card on you. I better take one so that this mess doesn’t happen next time”

“Oh Prasad, no problem” She opened her large purse and pulled out a box of her visiting cards: Here you are” She gave me her name card.

I looked at the card. It said Nara Sullivan, Basel Secretariat

Oh, it was Nara then!!

I had met Nara during my last visit to UNEP that was some three years ago. I was in Geneva for a whole week then and we had got along famously well because of her love for Jazz music. We did two parties at that time and each time after the party  Nara had pulled me out to places near to the Geneva Lake to listen to the Jazz.  We did exchange a few emails after that, but our correspondence soon faded away. Thats the sad part of our work life.

I now got the context. Of course I knew Nara and should have recognized her. It took me a while to gather myself.

I gulped a glass of soda water –  picked up the flyer on the Jazz performers of the night that was lying on our table.

The cover page carried a picture of Trio Band Pilgrim.

I said to the woman (who was no stranger to me now) “Nara, it will be great to listen to Christoph Irniger. Thanks for picking up this place. Christoph is a well-known saxophone Jazz player and director of the Trio Band Pilgrim. I think he studied at Zurich University of the Arts Music Pedagogy and at the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences. He is considered to be one of the top young Sax player in the Switzerland”

Nara smiled.

“You are now on your track Prasad. For the past half hour, I was wondering why were you wasting time talking about the weather, traffic and me speaking about rents of the apartments in Geneva. That was not you. At least as I remember”

Nara was right.

She sounded relived.

“Prasad, now let me ask for a bottle of Chardonnay” Nara said this while tapping on my head.

Christoph Irniger’s Trio Pilgrim Band was about to start. And I was now ready for better conversations.

Cover image sourced from


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Is it worth recycling?

It was a Sunday morning.  We were sitting in my Professor friends study. I was enjoying my coffee.

Professor lit his cigar and said “Dr Modak, I feel that today benefits of waste recycling are simply overrated. We should stop much of the kind of recycling we do and I mean it”

I was shocked to hear Professor’s views. I did not understand why he was so much critical about recycling. I decided to protest.

I said “Professor. Recycling has many benefits. Firstly, it conserves natural resources as extraction of virgin materials is reduced. Further, recycling diverts waste that is to be sent to incinerators and landfill. Landfills take up valuable space and emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas; and although incinerators are not as polluting as they once were, they still produce noxious emissions. Unless you segregate waste at source you cannot do effective recycling. So, segregation of waste at source and recycling must go hand in hand”

Professor smiled. He said. “You have not updated enough Dr Modak. What you are saying is a rhetoric and well said in the national and international seminars”

“In the western world, recycling was introduced through the kerbside programmes that asked people to put paper, glass and cans into separate bins. In India, we are asking this to happen at the household level following three bins approach as per the Municipal Waste (Management & Handling) Rules. But we both know that this is simply not happening. It is frustrating to see that the waste-picker mixes your carefully segregated bins into one big bin and dumps the mixed waste into the collection vehicle every day”

I couldn’t disagree.  Most citizens have been complaining about this dichotomy and hence don’t feel like segregating waste at source.

Professor continued.

“The trend now is back again to the co-mingled or “single stream” collection. The switch towards single-stream collection is being driven by emergence of new separation technologies that can identify and sort the various materials with little or no human intervention”

I thought that good waste segregation and recycling was everybody’s moral responsibility.

Professor added “San Francisco, which changed from multi bin to single-stream collection a few years ago, now boasts a recycling rate of 69%—one of the highest in America. Systems like TiTech—more than 1,000 of which are now installed worldwide—are able to sort numerous types of paper, plastic or combinations thereof up to 98% accuracy. The Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) are now set up with business models between the private sector with the local bodies.”

It was hard for me to believe that the mindset of the local governments in the west was slowly moving towards single stream collection and in India we are pressing for three bin-based waste segregation and collection system!

Professor was reading out from a handout. It said that notable benefits of single stream recycling were increased recycling rates, lesser requirement of space to store collection containers and reduced costs of hauling as separate pickups for different recycling streams were avoided.

However, I had three major concerns – one about the safety of the waste-pickers when they segregate the “single streams” as these would be contaminated. Second was about the safety of “waste processors” who process the waste to extract materials or make secondary products. My third concern was about the quality and safety of the recycled products. The recycled products while boasting their “greenness” and “creating green jobs” did not assure the quality and safety and hence were putting the consumers at risk.

Professor heard me alright but summed up saying that battle was between quality, reality (that nobody wants to segregate) and the convenience. For India at this point in time, single stream collection seems the most practical solution. I pointed out however, that we do not currently have indigenous machinery that can do this “magic of separation”.

Well, I have asked PMO to put this as a priority item in the Make in India program, said Professor.

I thought that we need to educate the citizens on the consumption itself and guide them to make “green choices” i.e. avoiding use of products to the extent possible that use harmful chemicals and non-biodegradable materials in the first instance. This will ensure “circularity”. The production patterns should be influenced by responsible consumption. The manufacturers will need to extend their involvement beyond the factory gates and across the life cycle.

When I expressed my view on this dual responsibility, Professor said that under pressure from environmental groups, such as the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, computer-makers have established rules to ensure that their products are recycled in a responsible way. Hewlett-Packard has been a leader in this and even operates its own recycling factories in California and Tennessee. Dell, which was once criticized for using prison labor to recycle its machines, now takes back its old computers for no charge. And Apple is executing plans to eliminate the use of toxic substances in its products.

Oddly, these very companies and other product makers in India are rather silent when it comes to the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). Reports by Toxic Link on EPR on E-waste show the double standards. The Government and Environmental NGOs need to “arm twist” these companies.

The solution therefore, according to economists, activists and many in the design community, is to get smarter about both the design and disposal of materials, and shift responsibility away from local governments and into the hands of manufacturers. Products as well as packaging need to be designed with recycling in mind. Waste generation should be considered as a design flaw. Remedying this problem may require a complete rethinking of industrial manufacturing. This may sound like wishful thinking. The key question is can we design the product to make recycling easier?

Professor had more to say.

“Dr Modak, it is also important to understand recycling everything is not good. Economics of recycling is volatile, complex and contextual subject, You cannot generalize”

He said that the secondary materials market of recyclables is hard to control and speculate. The waste supply (in both quantity and characteristics) is highly variable and unless you stock, you cannot ensure getting decent economic returns from recycling business. To top, in countries like India, you have to manage with the informal sector that is not easy. This situation discourages the investors to deploy smart technologies of separation and processing – especially on extraction.

Further, not all recycled materials are created equal. Each material has a unique value, determined by the rarity of the virgin resource and the price the recycled material fetches on the commodity market. The recycling process for each also requires a different amount of water and energy and comes with a unique (and sometimes hefty) carbon footprint. All of this suggests it makes more sense to recycle only select materials than others from an economic and environmental standpoint.

Professor made this important point and ended the conversation by passing a study made by Kinnaman and his colleagues of 2014 called Socially optimal recycling rate: Evidence from Japan.

In this paper, using Japan as his test case Kinnaman evaluates the cost of recycling each material and the energy and emissions involved in recycling. Benefits are also assessed including simply feeling good about doing something for environment. He and his colleagues come to a controversial conclusion that an optimal recycling rate in most countries would probably be around 10 percent of the used goods.

To get the most benefit with the least cost, Kinnaman argues that we should be recycling more of some goods and less — or even none — of others. The composition of 10% should contain primarily aluminum, other metals and some forms of paper, notably cardboard and other source[s] of fiber. He wrote in a follow-up piece that “Optimal recycling rates for these materials may be near 100% while optimal rates of recycling plastic and glass might be zero.” I would add to his list the electronic goods.

Although several disagreed with Kinnaman’s 10% conclusion, his point that we need to be selective about what we recycle —resonated well with environmentalists and waste management experts alike.

I thought Kinnaman had an important point to make. He was asking two basic questions about recycling: Is it good for the environment? And does it make economic sense? The answers need a good study. But again, you can ask – isn’t recycling a moral responsibility? Or aren’t these computations reflecting our short term thinking?

I wonder whether we have conducted such studies on recycling practices in India. I thought of asking Professor to float a research project in partnership with Kinnaman and his colleagues. Indeed we need to revisit recycling to know its worth!

Cover image sourced from http://fortworthtexas.gov/kfwb/school-green-teams/

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