Category: Environment

The India Experience……..continues…….


I spent the past few days in Chennai, the Capital of Tamil Nadu, visiting relatives and finishing off some personal work which was waiting for my visit for the past 4 months.

Every time I visit India, my perception of the environment has kept going up – I mean, increasingly positive. The improvements that I see all around should have come about couple of decades ago, keeping in tune with global enhancement to living conditions. But India faltered on its way to economic growth, led by ineffective leaders who were always subject to political pressures and vagaries, and who made decisions not always keeping the welfare of the country at heart.

However, notwithstanding the huge delays which have cost dearly, finally things are shaping up. I am not going to be positive about most things, however. In a very large country like India, it is very tough and almost impossible to get every section of the society aligned with economic growth imperatives and the sacrifices that are sometimes necessary to achieve equitable growth for all. There are people who are always against the central government and its initiatives. There are state governments not ruled by the same party which rules in the centre (federal). There are religious factions, there are minorities and then there is the “silent” majority who do not care about anything.

With all these challenges, India is moving fast forward, which is a rather surprising development over the past year or so. It will take considerable time, but it is not inconceivable for India to reach a 9 to 10% GDP growth rate, and a per capita income of USD 3,000 in the next 5 years, which should lift the size of the GDP to more than twice what it is today. It is also entirely possible (given the trajectory and assuming minimal disruptions) to achieve a per capita income of USD 5,000 in about 10 years’ time, which would be roughly three times the size of the economy today.

Well, good to read. On the ground, things move slowly however. Corrupt practices continue, albeit with reduced intensity. I pick up feedback from cab and auto rickshaw drivers, who are rather articulate and voluble when it comes to criticizing everything around us. I also collect inputs from folks that I meet, because invariably the talk turns towards the ineffectiveness of state governments and economic growth, etc.,

One thing which worries me is that what you hear about the English capability of Indians is actually not true. Most people are more comfortable in their mother tongue or in Hindi, the de facto national language which 70% of India speaks and understands. When I called a central government agency in New Delhi which is responsible for the national bio-metric ID cards, and chose the option to receive instructions in English and to speak with someone in English, I could not get the right person despite multiple attempts. I was able to get only Hindi speakers, who were baffled that I could not converse in Hindi, and struggled to understand what I was trying to say. It was incorrigible that the senior management of that agency has not addressed the issue, as everything in Central Government in New Delhi (and elsewhere in the country) is supposed to deal with all parts of the country, not just with Hindi speakers. Further, I tested the basic English language of OLA and UBER drivers in Chennai, and they consistently demonstrated lack of grasp of basic English communication.

So, what are we talking?!!!

It is not adequate for just the IT workers and Financial Industry workers to speak English. India needs to do something urgently to rapidly enhance English literacy. The most popular language in China today is English! Is it surprising? No. China has repeatedly demonstrated that if it sets its mind and heart to achieving something, it will achieve that, come no matter what. India does not follow this tenacity in thinking to achieve and then achieving the target with heart and mind.

Another parameter that I use to measure improvement is the ability of the economy to maintain capital assets to ensure maximum utilization and productivity of the asset. India has repeatedly failed to maintain its assets. Simple examples include MIG fighter jets (“flying coffins” as these are called), roads, power plants, water supply, railway stations and rail tracks, airports (improving finally), and infrastructure in general. Faulty lifts (elevators) and escalators abound. Attention to detail is completely lacking. Maintenance discipline which is an essential and critical component of economic productivity does not exist. How then can India compete with China?

In a large metro city like Chennai, with a population of 8M (50% more than Singapore), the upkeep of public facilities and roads are found to be seriously in disarray. I dread the upcoming monsoon season when the number of potholes in roads will multiply rapidly. It is apparent that public money is not being spent wisely in the interest of the public. Many arterial roads do not have pavements, or have pavements which are occupied by hawkers. The city municipal corporation does not seem to be taking strict action on violators. All legislators are afraid of voter backlash, but they view the voters in pockets. The silent majority goes without a say.

I can go on and on, but the key point that I observed is that people are optimistic and the general economic environment is improving (notwithstanding President Trump).

I hope that one day, not in the too distant future, at least some Indian cities will reach the status of global cities which attract talent from around the world.

The Indian story continues……….

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

13th August 2017

 

 

Anti-Climate


President Donald Trump again made history this week.

He withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement, which was signed by 195 countries, including the U.S. It was a signature achievement of President Obama, working closely with other world leaders. The U.S. became a leader in effecting positive climate change under the auspices of this historic climate agreement, in close cooperation with countries such as Germany, France, China and India.

Now, the biggest Carbon emitter of the world is leaving this agreement.

President Trump stated that the agreement was unfair to Americans. He promised to walk out of the agreement during his campaign, and he has done so, without so much as consultation with energy academics and the industry.

Good. Now the global climate leadership shifts to who else, but China. Increasingly, China is finding itself in leadership roles due to the vacuum created by the U.S. and it is happily grabbing the same with glee. Why not? Europe is looking for replacing the U.S. with China, and it is already happening this week, with the visit of the Chinese Premier to Germany.

President Trump needs to realize that he does not need to keep all his campaign promises. He is now President of the U.S. and the U.S. has a global obligation not to walk out of agreements that it has signed on. This is notwithstanding the fact that the Paris agreement is non-binding. Once signed, it should stay signed on for ever.

Climate change is for real, and if the global temperatures rise by 2 degrees there will be disaster. I am wondering how come the vaunted U.S. academics in the field of energy and environment did not make serious attempts to influence the thinking of the U.S. government and President Trump on this most critical challenge confronting the planet.

In any case, now that the damage is done, what next?

The world will go on, now with only 194 countries supporting the climate agreement. Who are the three dissenters? Nicaragua, Syria and the U.S. Does the U.S. want to be in this glorious company of nations? President Trump needs to think more carefully about making such critical decisions for the welfare of his own country. It is a wrong and completely misinformed decision.

I am sure that the decision will be reversed. If not by President Trump, by the very next President.

Coal is out of fashion in the environment conscious world. Citizens want clean energy. They want clean air and clean water. Fossil fuels is not the way to go. It should be nuclear energy, solar energy, wind energy, et al………the world is changing, old habits are dying, new habits are taking root with the young demographics……….how can anyone refute this positive momentum coursing throughout the world?

When China and India signed on to this agreement after arduous negotiations, the world heaved a sigh of relief. The most difficult country was India which did not wish to sacrifice economic growth and jobs for the sake of signing the climate agreement. Compromises were made and finally India signed on and the world celebrated, and now the U.S. which applied so much pressure on India to sign, has exited the agreement.

What kind of message does this U.S. action send to India, China and the rest of the world?

Let us hope no other nation exits the agreement.

Climate change is for real.

It will affect the future of our planet earth irretrievably.

If we do not take much needed actions today and strictly control carbon emissions.

So, let us all execute what our respective nation has committed to honour via this agreement.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

03 June 2017

Windsor Nature Park Trek


By now, my readers and friends know that I like to take very long walks (exceeding 14 KMs on the average every day of the week) and trek around the national parks of Singapore. I do not like the hot sun on my skin (which is the usual pattern of weather in Singapore), so I tend to go for my trek early in the morning. However, that does not always work as it is pretty dark in the parks and I am usually forced to stick to the roads in the park/reservoir areas, till the daylight streams in. Usually, I try to finish my walk or trek by 8:30 AM at the latest (during the weekends and public holidays). When my wife joins me for the trek, we start slightly later at around 6:30 AM or even later sometimes, and we return home by 9:30 AM or so. Every weekend day is different, and I enjoy the walking experience more than anything else. Of course, I am interested in the “Fitbit” metrics, and have written about it in my previous blog posts.

While MacRitchie Reservoir and Labrador Park remain my favourites, I also tend to explore anything new which crops up in Singapore. Recently, the National Parks Board of Singapore opened the Windsor Nature Park in Upper Thomson area, which is the sixth nature park in Singapore. I am always amazed how much of greenery exists in Singapore, one of the most urbanized cities of the world. It is the result of conscious decisions made to retain trees and greenery which provide oxygen for the concrete jungle in which we all live.

Further details of the Windsor Nature Park can be found in the official announcement linked below with due acknowledgement to National Parks Board of Singapore, so that the readers of my blog can benefit: NParks opens Windsor Nature Park, Singapore’s sixth nature park, and announces plans for a new Rifle Range Nature Park

My wife and I wanted to go to the Tree-top Walk and it took us more than 2.5 KMs of intense walking through Windsor Park to get there. The other way to get to the Tree-top Walk is via the MacRitchie Reservoir Park with which we are intimately familiar. We thoroughly enjoyed the walk, though when we reached the Tree-top Walk it was just 8:00 AM, and we found out that the Walk opens only at 8:30 AM on weekends and public holidays. Thankfully, the operator of the Walk arrived 15 minutes early, and our wait did not go beyond 20 minutes or so. While the Walk as usual is a great one at a height of more than 25 metres, with lots of things to see on either side of the Walkway, it is not conducive to enjoyment when there are many people pushing you to move ahead. I do not understand the point of rushing through the Walk which offers a lot to be enjoyed by visitors. But then, this is Singapore where people are always in a hurry. We had to move fast forward without so much as getting time to take selfies. For folks who have not visited, this is one of the best experiences in Singapore with an excellent connection to nature. Go at less crowded times like late mornings or early afternoons and enjoy the walk, relishing it slowly.

Overall, we walked close to 7 KMs through Windor Park (to and fro), and enjoyed every bit of it. I realized the value of trekking shoes – my Merrel shoes worked hard during the trek! While ordinary sports shoes might be adequate, it does serve you well to have anti-slip, ankle-protecting trekking shoes with strong grip on the gravel.

I am strongly recommending that you take a trek through the new Windsor Nature Park with its multiple trails, new boardwalks, water streams all over the place, and interesting flora and fauna. Focus on the pleasure of walking through it all, and you will realize how much we have missed all through our lives! Yes, in the past, I never did all this kind of stuff, and my senses were not up to the mark of hearing sounds or smelling fragrances in almost a forest kind of environment. This Park is almost like a forest in a city area with condominiums and houses all around, with a golf club (Singapore Island Country Club) adjoining it, and yet you will get a feel of nature with no intervention capable of disrupting the experience.

Enjoy it while you can. Have a great weekend!

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

13th May 2017

Gurus not exempt from Law


Spiritual Gurus have long been a bane of many religions around the world.

Their (largely) negative impact has been felt severely in India for a very long time.

Some gurus have positive impact overall. One of them is Jaggi Vasudev, the other is Sri Sri Ravi Shankar who runs the famous Art of Living (AOL) Foundation. There are thousands of others, but my simple view has always been that there is no need for an intermediary between God and I, or God and anyone else for that matter. Unfortunately, Hinduism, one of the most enduring religions of the world with over 800M followers, encourages the adoption of gurus to facilitate a communication with God. I do not agree with such a philosophy, though there are other major religions which follow similar philosophies, putting man over man. Humans look for a guide to help them navigate the world, and it is not at all a surprise that a Pope arises to guide Catholics, for example. The plethora of gurus in India does not follow any systematic approach, they crop up anywhere and everywhere where the gullible would fall at their feet and worship them. There are thousands of “magical” episodes when these human gurus have generated simply impossible manoeuvres which continue to fascinate their followers.

However, none of these “humans” are above the law of the land.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, his Art of Living Foundation, and his spokesman accuse the government and the National Green Tribunal (NGT) for giving permission to conduct the World Culture Festival in March 2016, which has completely destroyed the river bed of the Yamuna River which most Hindus consider as a holy river. Sri Sri is a charismatic guru, who is close to powerful politicians and the wealthy folks of India, and so it would be interesting if the expert committee’s findings would indeed find their way to justice in the current dispute between the government/NGT and Sri Sri/AOL. I don’t think it was appropriate for Sri Sri to accuse the NGT and the government for having granted permission to him for conducting the Festival.

Where is accountability and humility on the part of the famed Sri Sri?

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and his AOL are not exempt from the law of the land, and have to abide by the rules and regulations. Being close to God does not exempt him from the rule of law. It would be interesting to see how his ardent followers react to the findings of the expert committee.

It is clear that spiritual gurus cannot run a government, a court or the environment. They should focus on God, not make Hinduism a circus philosophy. It is always good to hear some of the lectures of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, but the wisdom of his speeches does not make him God. He is after all, an ordinary man, like all of us. If he commits a mistake, he has to pay for it. There cannot be an excuse. If a fine is levied (as it has been), then his organization has to pay it. Damage done to the Yamuna riverbed will take 10 years to fix, as per the expert committee. Who caused the damage? Not the government, nor the NGT. They merely granted permission, may be misguided, may be under some sort of pressure. But Art of Living Foundation and Sri Sri are entirely responsible for what happened. Who can contest this assertion?

Again unfortunately, most of us are emotional, and wish to kick folks who do not conform to whatever is the general trend of belief or philosophy, in this case of Sri Sri. If there is a variation to that thinking, then the people who think differently would be termed as traitors to the cause. Nothing can be farther from the truth.

Time to think on environment, time to think about Yamuna River, which has recently been designated as a “legal person” by the courts of India.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar should apologize, desist from repeating such extravaganza, and indeed pay the INR 5 Crores fine. We should all respect the law.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

22nd April 2017

Hygiene and Health


I debated about how I should name this blog post. Should it have been “Toilets, Hygiene and Health”? Or, should it just be “The Indian Toilet Situation”?

There was a recent case in South India (Tamil Nadu State) when a girl child aged 9 years died due to kidney troubles caused by holding off nature’s call for whole days at school. The school spared only 10 minutes for recess between classes and they had just 10 toilets for some 400 students. Girls are disadvantaged when there is not enough time to cater to nature’s call (as do boys but at least they have urinals though no one knows their situation). When the concerned girl complained of pains, doctors diagnosed problems with her kidneys.

Such situations are not uncommon in India where public toilets are in very short supply. The most disheartening thing is that young boys and girls in schools who are the future generation, suffer in a most humiliating manner when they cannot even get access or time to fulfil their most pressing need from a physiological point of view. Government and school administrations should be embarrassed.

Despite the call of the current Indian Prime Minister to build more toilets, there has been no perceptible improvement on the ground. India operates on a federal structure which means that it is not necessary that a State Government should heed the call of the Central Government. The only way is persuasion or defeating the ruling party at the next hustings.

It is time for the people who pay taxes to demand proper hygiene and toilet infrastructure services from the government and public schools and public office buildings. It is the government which has to serve the needs of the people, rather than the other way around. The argument that there are not enough receipts against needed expenses won’t fly as the budgeting process is flawed if it cannot cater to the fundamental needs of the citizens.

According to Centre for Water Resources & Management, India, only 47% of India’s population have access to toilet facilities. And only 36% of these toilets have septic tanks. Given that there are a number of toilet innovations from a variety of private companies in India, it is imperative for the government to buy and install these toilet facilities according to a set formula for population access in both rural and urban areas. While the government now collects a cess related to this program, it is difficult to see the results.

Enter the private corporations of India. Even if the top 50 listed companies of India direct 50% of their CSR budgets towards toilet building (which the government can match Rupee for Rupee), India’s toilet problem can be solved in flat 12 months. Eco and Bio toilets are available today at prices ranging from INR 18,000 to INR 30,000 and the prices will come down if demand is established.

I do not know what we are waiting for. But I do know that children, their personal hygiene and health are getting affected every day in schools, and we have to do something very urgently on a war-footing to solve this problem. Many of us have some discretionary monies available for charity, why don’t we contribute to this magnanimous purpose instead of other kinds of donations? It is proven that if the donor can see and feel the result of his/her donation, he or she will contribute more and continuously.

Time to change the toilet situation in India. Let us follow Prime Minister Modi’s vision but not the slow-moving government machinery. Let us leverage India’s phenomenal private enterprise to solve this problem.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

28th August 2016

Hazy Singapore


The air quality in Singapore has been worsening over the past few days, and today entered the unhealthy range, with a PSI index of 122 – 145 as reported by the National Environment Agency.

The hazy conditions are the result of the forest fires in Sumatra, Indonesia. This has been an annual phenomenon and both Malaysia and Singapore have been at the receiving end of the fires sending plumes of particles across the sea, aided by the wind. While the Indonesian Government has been mounting big efforts to put out the fires this time, the result is yet to be seen.

The haze puts off lot of usual activities like taking a walk in the morning (it was not possible today due to the very bad air quality levels), or even going out to shop. My family decided to stay completely indoors today, and I am sure most people would have done the same. This is not good for business to be sure. Of course, one can argue that once you get into a mall it would be fine, but nevertheless the exposure to haze is unwelcome. All the more critical to avoid haze if one has some medical conditions, or breathing problems. Surely the haze is no good for very young kids and old people.

This phenomenon of haze demonstrates that when it comes to certain matters (like air in this case), the receiving countries have no influence whatsoever over the country pushing the air towards them. It is the weather pattern which helps the particles move towards us. And, it is a bad thing. But, what control can one have, despite being more prosperous as a nation ? Such things are inherently uncontrollable, unless there is a total ban on causes which lead to these forest fires.

Three major economies are involved – Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore – and even then, the cooperation which needs to be demonstrated as ASEAN members is not seen in full force. What are the specific set of actions that the countries affected will need to take to avoid this problem recurring every year ? What is the consensus ? Are there technological solutions ? What are the political solutions ? Why are businesses in Indonesia which are involved in these fires not in a position to stop the fires ? How can countries help each other ?

We have some answers to the above questions, but not all. It is time to find a permanent solution to the haze problem, sooner than later.

Such atmospheric weather conditions are no good for the people, and no good for the business environment. Immediate tangible actions are required by the concerned governments.

Who would have thought that haze is a yearly recurring thing in Singapore ?

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

13th September 2015

The Haze


I did not anticipate this problem.

Haze shrouded Singapore as a result of forest fires in Sumatra island of Indonesia. Indiscriminate fires caused by deliberate burning of trees in the Sumatra forests resulted in a heavy shroud of mist like clouds attacking Singapore vigorously over the past few days.

Yesterday the PSI Index of pollution crossed 400, indicating a worse than hazardous situation, and the Government of Singapore was probably contemplating a general shutdown. But the haze situation improved over the past 24 hours, and at 3 PM Singapore time on 22nd June Saturday, the average 3-hour PSI reading was 122, which was a huge improvement from where we were yesterday. In fact, when I look out from my apartment, I can see clearly far into the open. Yesterday I could not even see the MRT station which is located just 200 metres away !

The Indonesian Government has to act aggressively to contain the fires as economic activities will grind to a halt and the price will be too high for a small country like Singapore. Malaysia has not raised any vocal objection even though the southern part of Malaysia (closer to Singapore) has also been affected seriously by the haze.

This goes to show that what one country does or does not do within its borders can impact its neighbours adversely, and such a situation should come under the purview of International Law. The ASEAN situation and partnerships are such that it would be almost impossible to take a neighbouring country to international court or arbitration. That kind of approach will just not work given the pre-existing ties.

The alternative which has been tried in the past is economic contribution and specialized support to contain the fires. While that approach worked in the past, now Indonesia is slightly richer and growing faster, so it would not take kindly to a “donation” mindset.

So, at the end of the day it is all about dialogue and negotiation to settle the matter.

In the meanwhile, we are all looking for N95 masks to avoid getting into breathing troubles ! And, the pity is that no pharmacy is having stock to supply !! I have personally checked at four different places and they don’t have any stock.

Welcome to the haze and be at the mercy of the forests !

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan
22nd June 2013