EIA 2020

The impression I get with the protests over the proposed amendments to the Environmental Impact Assessment 2006 rules is that everything was going so very well for a decade or so, we had built up a great environmental governance framework since the last modification in 2006, projects were being vetted properly, EIA studies were top notch and were able to filter out harmful projects and mitigate where required, industry could not longer go unchallenged and was on a tight and proper leash and then suddenly in 2020 came this effort to dilute the EIA and all peace has been disturbed in paradise.

The reality is otherwise. Whether you keep the EIA process exactly as it is or allow the dilution to go through one way or the other the projects have been going through and the damage happening. The other way of looking at it is that the environmental movement and community have really become so ineffective and incidental over a period of time that the dilution was inevitable.

Why is it that over the past decade when EIA has been reduced to a joke we have not seen similar effort to raise concern? Have we gone through every EIA and EC provided since 2006 and are sure that the EIA process was the best?

Have amendments to the EIA 2006 been kept track of? If through the years amendments were taking place which were anyways removing teeth from the EIA then should those not be challenged at each instance? I have hardly seen any such nationwide uproar. I would like to believe that we are in changed times.

There was much uproar at the time the amendments to EIA were introduced in 2006. A few of the same names which we see today could be seen writing back then also. Curiously with the same energy levels. I also wrote an article then. What happened? My focus has all along been Think Global, Act Local and I can say with conviction that there is zero improvement in the ability to bring outcomes on any environmental issue in Mumbai Metropolitan Region. Should people from this region who are part of the current noise and protests not be spending some time going over half a dozen MMR specific issues and understand where they stand and what has been their participation there? Understandably a lot of the current noise might be from 20 year olds and historic baggage cannot apply to them (the learnings should). But is this the best avenue for them to apply their energy?

In the picture the dumping ground at Diva – you can see the smoke – situated on top of mangroves, surrounded by illegal housing again on mangroves. These are the estuarine areas of Ulhas River. This is one of my favourite mangroves areas in the Mumbai region and I have helplessly seen it being sliced and diced through urban pressures. What is the EIA of the dumping grounds in Mumbai region? Where if their EC? These are the questions to be engaged by those who go after EIA 2020.

Then comes the complaint from the industry and business that a number of environmental rules and guidelines are needless red tape and just a part of the corruption endemic in the process of procuring permissions. It is equally the business of the environmental community to be concerned about this aspect whether those complaints are genuine or stale rhetoric. If environmental regulations can be sidestepped with graft and there is no oversight then the damage is not as much to ease of doing business as much as to our commitment to safeguard the environment.

To me what it says is that there will be much hue and cry to achieve a positive environmental outcome through a legislation or rules or a PIL (an easy way out and a great intellectual exercise) but once it is achieved then the same community stops activity and involvement about how that rule or legislation or order is performing. That is left to the same bureaucracy which is otherwise reviled. Those short term bursts of energy with glitz are appealing but then come the daily chores. EIA 2006 or EIA 2020 (if it goes ahead with the modifications or does not) the reality will not change. Fixing that reality is the real environmental battle which no one wants to take on.

Every metro city has some form of eco housing guidelines for more than a decade now, somewhere waste management is a focus, else rainwater harvesting or grey water treatment or solar rooftop. Housing projects get passed after ticking all the check boxes. There are no numbers available but it is anybody’s guess that less than 5 percent of housing complexes having anything to show on the ground after completion. What is the recurring environmental impact of the solid and liquid waste being discharged from thousands of such complexes around the country? EIA has happened for some of the projects. Hear the struggles of solution providers and innovators who thought that with rising eco consciousness green entrepreneurship opportunities will open up and they could provide themselves a stable financial existence while doing something they are passionate about.

The state of any of our institutions is so third grade, forget the environmental ones. Everything runs on mai baap culture rather than with strong, courageous individuals willing to stand upright for what they believe is right and uphold rules.

Look at our democracy. I would say the real environmental issue is how in spite of the hue and cry over MLAs deflecting political parties and subsequent introduction of an anti-deflection law, we till today have a robust system in place for trading of MLAs? At the most fundamental link in the chain trust is broken. A political system which runs with some basic modicum of integrity and accountability is not available and we vainly discuss issues like amendments to EIA.

Outside a number of crematoria in Mumbai there can be a set of people who are professional mourners. The moment a dead body come for cremation they are either paid by the dead persons close ones to mourn or start mourning on their own as a means of getting something. Remove the payment part but the environmental scene and community in the country seems like those mourners to me. Every few weeks a new issues arrives and unfailingly the digital mourning starts.

There is desperation evident in fights like EIA 2020; every environmental matter currently in the country. That desperation creates more noise and heat than any worthwhile outcome. I would say stop being desperate. Let the situation slip out of hand completely. Lets do away with fig leaves. Let everybody introspect and revisit the state of environmental spirit and movements before we decide to pick fights. Let everybody figure out what they are doing about environmental or fundamental administrative issues at the cellular level – their immediate 1-10 kms radius.

In numbers I don’t think all the petitions and emails against EIA will come to even 1 crore (10 million). How does that show for a nation of 130 crores? The important topic in June was the suicide of Sushant Singh Rajput and China.

India-China crisis 2020

June 2020 has been dominated by the standoff on the India-China border in Ladakh, Galwan valley. Apparently 20 Indian soldiers have been killed in unarmed hand combat with Chinese soldiers.

A wave of jingoism has taken over the country, which is of the usual kind and not surprising. Those who created the conflict to elicit this kind of response can be happy and feel successful.

It remains to be seen how many successful apps emerge from India subsequent to the ban on 59 Chinese apps.

It remains to be seen how much India is able to reduce its trade deficit with China and ramp up its manufacturing abilities. Anand Mahindra has thrown a challenge in his tweet.

The damage that India inflicts on itself by not paying attention to its demographic dividend and not serving them to develop their full potential is far more than even if 200 soldiers were to perish in border combat. Or even more. There is no comparison for that damage. Its horror will be fully realised 20 years down the line. This post is a timestamp for that realisation.

Over past 40 years when India was self inflicting wounds and had no strategic sense of where it wants to go, lacking in self confidence, indifferent to its enormous strengths and chasing all that is Maya, China has been building itself brick by brick systematically with a clear idea of what it wants to be.

Response to Snehal Fernandes tweet. Opp. Inorbit (once upon) mangroves

I just came across this tweet accidentally

https://twitter.com/SnehalFerns/status/1255562325219631104

and since it is a matter I was closely associated with I am correcting the facts, which have not been correctly presented by Snehal and giving additional background information.

The response, thought I am keeping short is longer than a few tweets and so I am carrying it here for her and others reference.

———–

Hi Snehal, I just came across this tweet.

NONE of those mangroves were saved. The underlying issue which destroyed the mangroves set-in in 2002 and has gone unaddressed since. Separately it is a fight over land between two very powerful parties and nobody in Bollywood gets into these messy affairs. They have careers and families. Environmentalists have love and fresh air. The star power created a temporary hype and public and media love that more than nuance and outcome.

I saw the mangroves healthy and tall till 2001 and then gone in a quick move. We had quite a few successes then but this was not one. And by “We” I mean an absolute handful and basically Pravin Choudhary and myself. Nobody cared then and it was a different era.

By the time Irfan came into the picture the original mangroves were gone for more than two years. The immediate trigger was earth filling and a possible loss of view if a building came in front.

Irfan was active for barely a month in 2004-2005. Also Ashish Vidyarthi and a few others from Yug Dharma. Sutapa was longer. I tried to make her understand the need for funds to carry out the real drudge work which brings outcome. I have emails with Sutapa and others in the neighbourhood informing them of the larger issues and asking for support to carry out the course of action developed by me at MSI, which was very clear and effective.

Complete lack of resources and a burn out being faced my me could have been addressed if we had hired a few people and had an office etc. These were all very rich people.

I had co-founded MSI Mangrove Society of India (Mumbai Chapter) in 2002 and was solo leading the efforts through from 2003 till 2009 and then a bit longer before giving up completely. Almost all mangrove complaints in the Mumbai region would land on my phone after I had a cell phone in 2003.

I remember Nadia Menezes very well from 2004. Indian Express carried a long series on different mangrove pockets in Mumbai then and she had covered quite a few and would regularly be in touch. I might have a few clippings from then.

Plastics – Hero or villain

Join me for this discussion created by my good friend Karan Thakkar, Founder of The Recycling Company. Use the link – https://www.townscript.com/e/sustainability-20-in-times-of-covid19-322001

We look forward to broaching a number of important aspects beginning with hero or villain!

For those who may have followed my views between 2017-19, I vociferously opposed the plastics ban idea, emanating first from the Government of Maharashtra, then the Government of India.

Both the times there was self-righteous drama around the announcements as if this is the best that needs to be done.

This blog post captures most of the views I shared with media then – https://rishiaggarwaal.in/2019/03/08/plastics-ban/

Saving Lokhandwala Lake

2019-20 brings me to to the 20th anniversary of my first big environmental intervention when I got active to challenge and then successfully prevent the illegal reclamation of the 8 acre Lokhandwala Lake between 1999-2000. I saved the lake then and also named it so.

Set among the mangroves behind Lokhandwala Complex in Andheri (W), Mumbai the lake is an artificial lake formed due to the reclamation’s carried out in the 1970s or earlier to create the Versova Sewage Treatment Lagoon and the large electricity substation. A large area between the two divergent approach roads for these infrastructure projects saw access to the adjacent estuary being cut of and as a result of which the mangroves died and the depression became filled with monsoon water and became a lake.

On 7th August, 1999 I was about a month away from the 24th birthday and preparing reluctantly and with some drag for management entrance exams due in December 1999. I was then staying in the first lane of Lokhandwala Complex since five years and would intermittently visit the back road, which is now unrecognizable from what it was then. It was the before everything era. Before mobile phones, before internet as we see it now, before an explosion of cars, before a lot of the real estate, which now define its new identity. Before a time when I could take any photos of the situation and efforts then.

Unrecognizable today, the back road was very popular with morning and evening walkers even then. If anything the walking experience was better. The two roads leading to the electrical substation and the Versova Sewage Lagoon broke out in divergent Y forks from the back road and provided continuous long walking lengths completely free from any motorised transport, having the mangroves on one side and the lake – sandwiched in between – on the other. It was quiet like cannot be imagined now and with copious amounts of clean air, with greenery and a large selection of birds at hand to hear and enjoy for the bird brained.

The road leading towards the (then not operational) sewage lagoon was the hands down favourite. At times during the ‘peak hours’ it could look very much like the present highways during peak hour. In the preceding decade and a half Lokhandwala Complex had exploded in population and had somewhat become a poster boy for the unplanned urbanization in post independence Mumbai and also a metaphor for a concrete jungle. People escaped to this natural oasis juxtaposed next to the concrete jungle. Since the sewage lagoon was under construction there was no functional gate or restriction and people could walk right up to the lagoons and beyond touch the creek. Though a majority stuck till the gate.

The road leading to the Sewage lagoon now.
The road leading to the sewage lagoon. This picture is from January, 2017. The road is now being concretised. All the vegetation on the left is what came up on the reclaimed portion. The lake used to touch the road edge where the low mounds of mud can be seen. It is difficult to imagine now that used to be choc a block fill with walkers before 2002.

In September 2001 the municipal corporation opened a transit garbage collection facility adjacent to the Sewage Lagoon and since then the road has been overtaken by a continuous stream of garbage compactors coming and going. All through the 1990’s this road would be crowded with a stream of morning and evening walkers and day time picnickers and couples.

On 7th August, 1999 in the evening when I visited the Lake, there was no one walking on the road leading to the sewage lagoon – the popular option. Everybody had take to the sub-station road. The road leading to the sewage lagoon was unrecognizable. I was not a regular walker and so much have come after a month or so.

The road had become almost double the size, the vegetation which lined the lake was all gone and replaced by a filling of fresh earth and garbage. The junction had a stench of garbage which became stronger as one walked towards the road to the lagoon. Garbage trucks were dumping their fill on the edge of the lake and pushing it inside. That’s why people had completely stopped using that section.

I was left furious seeing the sight and walked straight towards the trucks which were emptying the garbage. I confronted a young man who must have been only a few years elder to me and questioned him. He was a friendly person and introduced himself as Deepak and was a mukadam with the municipal corporation.

I don’t remember the details of the conversation now but he was clear that the dumping could not stop since he had instructions from his seniors to cover up the lake. There was no way I was listening to all this and so began the efforts which would last over the next six months to ensure that the dumping was completely stopped and did not resume. We could not excavate what was already dumped and had to contend with a new edge for the lake.

Among the first things I did was to go back to my newly bought computer and design A3 size posters with messages to save the lake and invite the walkers to join in the efforts. I would carry it on a floppy disk to Krishna Communication on the main road, take a printout which would be stuck on a card board with which I then stood at the corner between the two roads.

Simultaneously I called up Mr. P K Patel who then stayed in the second lane in Guru Kripa building (now sold his flat and moved out of Mumbai). We were new friends. He must have been about double my age then and we had bonded well over a bird watching trip organised by BNHS in the first week of November 1998. The wader watch would be a popular program of BNHS then in the mudflat of Malad Creek. In that particular walk we had entered into a dense patch of mangroves opposite Millat Nagar which is adjacent to Lokhandwala Complex. That visit is a very long separate story of what would two years later become a highlight of my activism career.

Mr. Patel is a nature lover but not inclined towards activism. He was an RSS Pracharak in his primary public leaning and one of the more active ones in Lokhandwala Complex. Over the coming decade he would become a willing accomplice and partner in all my efforts to save the lake as well as the large swathes of mangroves. Among the first suggestions from him was to approach the actor Mr. Parikshit Sahni who was a regular walker on the back road. Mr. Patel had some acquaintance with him and was of the opinion that he would join the efforts. Much as he had mentioned Mr. Sahni (Parikshitji since then) would take a keen interest. He was a regular walker and he too had changed his direction. I remember we first met him in the morning just a few meters before the sub-station gate.

In those first few weeks, I had stood before the trucks, invited others to join, made life a bit difficult for the dumpers, which slowed down but did not cease. Simultaneously I made my first visit to a ward office in Mumbai; this was the K(W) ward office under which Andheri (West) was one of the areas. The administrative head for the ward would then be called the Ward Officer (now Assistant Municipal Commissioner) and it was Mr. Amar Dubey then.

Mr. Dubey was not much cooperative and I was left with the feeling that this was being coordinated from within the municipal office itself. I realised we will have only increase the agitation on the site.

I now don’t have a day by day and week breakup of the events but in the next few weeks sometime we visited Amar Dubey as a bigger delegation and asked Mr. Sahni to join us. And that of course had a big effect. Mr. Dubey was a changed person and willing to more easily accommodate Mr. Sahni and humour him and give assurances. The administration does love when somebody from the entertainment world drops by into their very worldly existence.

Not everything that Mr. Dubey would assure was followed through on the ground. Over the course it became my and Mr. Patel’s routine to maintain a hawks eye on the situation. I took the lead and making sure that there was a continuous visible presence (and deterrence to the dumpers) from our side on the ground.

I think it was during this period of action is also that Mr. Patel introduced me to the late Mr. S P Gupta, who was also a resident of second lane in Montana building. He was a fire brand senior citizen, a born activist with communist leanings(I think a card carrying member of CPI), who had retired from very senior positions in the Income Tax departments. He was originally a Delhi resident but maybe due to his last posting in Mumbai or the estranged relationship with his family or both he was settled in Mumbai.

A highly sensitive person with public welfare and good governance at heart he had been closely following, commenting and more importantly acting on all the irregularities around the Development Plan and DCRs in Lokhandwala Complex. At least in the second and much bigger innings from 2001-02 and there on I remember very close interaction with him and my first learning of all the intricacies of making changes to land use in the Development Plan, the actors in this collusion, how massive profits are reaped or inducements provided for the same and how the public interest at large gets harmed through the deficiencies in essential public services required to serve a certain density of population.

I could write separately at length on his work and its a general tragedy of Indian existence that there is no interest or audience or support for recording history. Its a timeless nation and society, which has its own wisdom maybe and understands something more than I do – everything goes into the dustbin of history, whose contents have no value for those in the ‘present’.

In a longer separate note for a book, which has not come through till now I have shared in detail my angst and disgust about the upper middle class and elite that come to dominate the Lokhandwala Complex (and it could be the same for pan city or country) and their sheer selfishness and refusal to be involved with public matters.

These are the people who had the luxury of regular walks in the evening or mornings because they were fully supported through their wealth to be able to do so. When their main walking route started seeing reclamation, they effortlessly shifted their walking to another route – no reaction, no stress. I was not even a regular walker and yet when I landed there for a walk after a good many weeks I was devastated enough to move into action immediately. I wont even get into writing here the terrible times we were going through as a family then.

By the time I reacted the lake had been pushed in by 15 feet with no reaction from the regular walkers. I can imagine that 100s of trucks of debris and garbage must have been dumped right in front of their eyes. I think if I had not intervened then the whole lake would have been covered setting a good foundation for illegal slums and commercial establishments like garages etc.

If anything the Maslow’s pyramid, which I would see so celebrated and dished out through the 90’s (as the answer for when environmental issues will finally get addressed) should have set in? This was then, in 1999, now is different but now is not necessarily any better, just more pretense and posturing and great digital marketing tools at hand.

This episode also laid the foundation for my idea to create a local NGO called Lokhandwala Complex Environmental Action Group, which would get functional in the next big involvement in 2001 and then registered by 2004. All of these involvements and more would define my work over the coming decade and create a prominent public image on Mumbai’s then environmental leadership and action landscape. I brought together a lot of like minded people during that decade, convened regular meetings at the back road or in the gardens and created a lot of engagement with local police and other authorities.

There was a time in the first decade when I would be an eager guide (beside one of the watchmen) to all and sundry, happily taking them for a tour of the lake and showing its various features, how and where the dumping started and how we prevented and saved the lake.Before I progressively withdrew post 2012 and then 2015-16 and feel unrecognizable from what I was 20 years ago.

I hardly visit the lake once in a year now and cannot get myself to be involved as effortlessly as I once would. There are others who have joined now but none so keenly and with the same spirit in my opinion.

I had thought of organising a talk or function on 2nd February, 2020 on occasion of World Wetlands Day but these just remain thoughts.

My life, your life

12.04.2020

I presume the lock down in Mumbai/India is because we as a people care for life and would not like to see people dying or incapacitated. Logically speaking, shouldn’t that concern extend to many other areas of the city’s day to day functioning where thousands of lives are lost annually? But is that so?

The lock down perplexes me as someone who has spent a lifetime being involved with numerous environmental, civic and governance issues. At the heart of those efforts have been arguments, which invite concern and need for urgent action towards the life and well being of the citizens of Mumbai. Resolving any of those issues would not require anything as severe as the lock down and many more lives would be saved on an ongoing basis.

What explains this imbalance in approach? I will take one such issue to elaborate on. There could easily be a dozen such case studies, from housing conditions, to quality of air, safety in transport, flooding, tuberculosis and more.

In any given year in the past three decades a minimum of 2000 people have died every year in what is called as the lifeline of Mumbai – the Mumbai Suburban Railway System (MSRS) – that is 2000 people dead every year for 30 years. The total comes to 60,000 people dead. A jaw dropping number by any scale of comparison – a genocide as some would describe. Then there are those who have been grievously injured but not died, and from that subset there must be people who would be better off dead than living.

A significant number die because they just happen to fall off from trains which are packed beyond imagination during peak hour. One moment they are holding on to the grab pole or any other part of the train which they can lay their hand on, next moment they have fallen off from a speeding train resulting in immediate death or grievous injury. In some cases, someone’s head has smashed against the signal poles because they are part of the dangerous bulge out. Others died because in the Mumbai that has grown post-independence the Indian administrators for long did not bother to provide adequate infrastructure for the crossing of railway tracks.

I took up an investigation into those deaths in a detailed manner exactly a decade back as Research Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai. That concluded in co-authoring the report Killer Tracks with Dhaval Desai and Deepa Dinesh.

The lock down happened in a matter of a week or ten days of calculation and the concern arising during that duration. And it is seen as the absolutely right thing to do if we are to avoid thousands of deaths. We have done what has never ever happened before in the history of the city, not during World War II, not during the Spanish flu and not even post the Babri Masjid riots though we are close. We have locked down the city for 21 days and may extend it for a few more weeks, all in the interest of saving lives. A city which is the hub of economic activity, the business hub of the country, overnight seeing its functioning being pulverised.

The Prime Minister and many Chief Ministers and bureaucrats are being lauded as guardians of the health and life of citizens. What explains the differences in concern shown by these guardians? Why such a swift response in case of one danger to life and why no resolution even 30 years into the ‘genocide’ on the railway system and many other such issues of concern?

The same offices of Prime Minister and Chief Ministers and bureaucrats and institutions oversee both the issues and have so for decades. In many cases it is the same individuals who have also held influence and only grown in power – the current Maharashtra Chief Minister being only one such example.

I believe it is the democratic nature of the virus – that the virus goes after the most entitled and the most marginalised equally – which has got India worried and locked up and not a value system which has concern for life at its foundation. The ruling elite in India rarely face the consequences that India suffers as a result of their villainy, ineptitude and selfishness. Invocations and stories about karma and justice populate Indian daily discourse and imagination but none of which sees proof in real life just like the case with most Indian laws.

In a rare occasion the ruling elite are faced with no small threat and have acted swiftly. And again, to their considerable advantage while transferring the disadvantage and hardship to the marginalised or those who may be elite but not ruling. Without the lock down the virus could well be taking a toll of the ruling elite. That elite does not face threat by falling off trains or dying in the corridors of public hospitals for want of ICU beds or from tuberculosis as a result of living in inhuman dwellings or as pedestrians crossing roads or railway tracks. Now they have built a new moat for themselves.

Had the virus been something which would have spared them and left only the vulnerable sections affected and dealing with the overwhelmed public health system chances are we would not have been locked down. There would have been hue and cry and a lot of posturing and politics but no lock down. Life would have continued in the corridors of power and elsewhere while televisions showed heart rendering footage and the usual howling and shouting. It is because we the people can suddenly become transmitters of this virus, which can then hurt them that Covid 19 has become a problem worth attending to.

In case of the MSRS deaths there has been 30 years to plan the cities land use and transportation systems in a way that the train system does not see such dangerous crowding levels; people may be inconvenienced and face crowds but will not die while undertaking a daily commute critical to earn their livelihood. All of the knowledge is available and ready for use. That same elite has given grandiose illusions of making the city into a Singapore first and then a Shanghai.

30 years is a long period of time. It is also a period of time from teenage onwards when I have had my deep engagement with numerous civic and environmental issues of the city of Mumbai, which has been the only city I have stayed in, all my adult life. I have seen the evolution of new institutions and policy instruments, partnerships and budgets and five Chief Ministers of Maharashtra pass by during the duration. I have through various permutations and combinations, been part of numerous advocacy efforts to save those lives.

To be correct the system has seen an order of magnitude of improvements during this decade. It is almost unrecognizable from what it was in the last century. And yet the deaths continue. I will not even touch upon the stress levels and the usual user experience benchmarks.

Rapid economic growth through the 90s and 00s and consequent dynamic and rapid changes in housing along a number of new and existing nodes has meant that as capacity increases it has mostly helped ease legacy pressure but has then faced additional pressure from new commuters being added. The same government framework, which has successfully locked down the city is also the one, which decides on this dynamic nature of the city; where additional housing should develop, how it can be affordable, where offices should develop, transport policy, how much people should commute and whether to show concern and compassion for life in taking these decisions or not.

The ruling elite have in this case chosen to enrich themselves in the past three decades at the cost of the welfare of the citizens whose votes and taxes provide them with the power and heft. Instead of judiciously using the land stock in the city the same has become a playground for the most brazen of desperadoes who have carved out and leveraged that land for unimaginable bounties. The 10th century attacks on Indian temples from Central Asian horse mounted raiders has a very evocative touch and feel relatability to any Indian and I can invoke that as an example. This same political and business class has behaved in no less brutal and violent a manner in looting the citizens of Mumbai from what was rightfully theirs and left death, bloodshed, misery in trail with an added insult of intimidation for any protest or efforts to counter their butchery.

And this is the same ruling elite, which over the same past three decades has supported and liberally funded the Ram Mandir campaign. A ruling elite, which cannot provide the right kind of governance will plunder one city and go build a temple in another city, which is nowhere even close on the aspiration list of the same elite for their leisure and business and partying trips and translocation if need be.

This framework – the ruling elite – has in its power to shape the public health system (in Mumbai or elsewhere) which currently is a metaphor for the word third class. It is the lack of such a public health system, which has been a big deciding factor in the lock down checklist. The ruling elite does not have to suffer the consequences of this broken-down public health system.

Now for the irony. Those killed in the Mumbai Suburban Railway System are all in the prime of their age, the demographic dividend of which we (again “we”? Or is it the Indian elite propaganda machinery?) are proud as a brahmastra in the race for global dominion and economic opportunities. They are earning members of their families, are consumers, paying EMIs or repatriating funds to dependents in their villages. In comparison those most vulnerable to the COVID 2019 virus are the elderly and those with weak immune systems or severe comorbidity – existing patients suffering from diabetes, heart disease or cancer. Not exactly the most productive elements of the society. And while we should show compassion for the elderly and the ailing but then why is our balance of favour so skewed?

I could speak at length about many other issues which I have been involved with where sanctity of life is central to the arguments and where we have only been losing to this kleptocracy and brutal ruling elite. I could flag two issues – the brutal relocation of the poor and marginalized through government rehabilitation schemes in Mankhurd and Mahul. Living hells which have introduced the residents to life threatening exposure to tuberculosis and chemical pollution.

In Mumbai, at the least the lock down should help save the number of lives that are lost to the MSRS annually, at best it would be equal to the decadal number of 20,000. 20,000 lives saved after pulverising other aspects of life. People will argue that if there was no lock down then the casualty would be too large to explain for. Maybe one lakh people dead, maybe two lakhs. We do not have that many hospital beds or ventilators to handle the backlash. I would say please wake up. Please direct that energy towards making your MPs and institutions accountable.

[Co-author of the report Killer Tracks by ORF Mumbai 2015, Member of Committee formed the same year by then Minister of Railways Mr. Suresh Prabhu.
Long association with transport and governance improvements in Mumbai as an activist and campaigner.
Founder and Director of Mumbai Sustainability Center]

First visit to KEM

Amidst the slowdown, I am reminded of my first visit to KEM Hospital – one of the oldest and largest public hospitals in Mumbai run by the municipal corporation. A senior friend had developed serious complications and had to be admitted to the ICU section. The photos below are from December 2018.

There are talks currently of supporting the government, to not be critical, that no government could handle such a situation, that citizens are not doing their bit, that the poor and uneducated should follow rules.

The below commentary is for the well fed citizenry making this commentary. I am not interested in bring critical of Modi or of the government. I have better things to do than waste my time with them. But this is just to provide perspective for those who are saying that the government cannot do anything in such situations. The time to add more ICU beds and ventilators and testing capacity is during non-epidemic times when the temple is the priority.

The conditions in the ICU section were heart rendering. To imagine that the doctors go through this every single day left me sympathising.

There were a total of 15 (yes 15) ICU beds and there was a steady stream of patients pouring in. It was about 9pm that we had reached and in a poorly lit corridor I could see patients being stabilised on the floor of the corridor, on beds, in arms. Through influence of his family members my friend was able to jump the queue and be provided with a bed but not without final mile challenges in that corridor.

Poor families crowded the corridor, everyone of them shouting out for doctors to attend to their family member, at times pulling at a doctor who was already attending to someone else, leading to heated exchanges and security having to step in.

I could realise that some of those brought in would possibly be taking their last breath on the floor of the corridor awaiting help.

In the reception a large portrait of the founder of Shiv Sena the Late Bal Thackeray and his wife adorned. The political party he founded, Shiv Sena has been in control of the Mumbai municipal corporation since 1995 and under whom this public hospital comes. They and other Hindu right wing party BJP have been in coalition since till only recently.

Outside the hospital were political banners where more pressing were attended to – the Shiv Sena putting the BJP on the mat over the Ram Mandir issue and posturing that they were not hungry for power but deeply felt for an early construction of the temple over their coalition with the BJP.

That coalition had till then been in the saddle for three years at the State government level and 20 years in the municipal corporation running the KEM Hospital. And they could not bring the ICU bed tally to a respectable 100 also. Pehle Mandir, phir sarkar. First temple, then government. ICU beds and adequate ventilators would be way bottom in the list.

Inside patients gasped, doctors overstretched. Overstretched seems mild to describe. I am not sure how they could they be having the frame of mind to make an accurate diagnosis and then administer the right course of action. But miraculously they were. During my short visit (Over following 2-3 days) I could see happy recovering patients in the ICU section including my friend.

The hygiene levels were alarming and a health crisis on their own. Toilet facilities inadequate and repulsive.

The ICU bed equipment had paan spit at the bottom. Though air conditioned, I was not sure of the air quality.

After a few days my friend was shifted to the general ward. That was another experience all together.

The architecture and campuses and the very idea of having so much space in a central part of the city devoted for an essential public service makes me happy.

The highlight of the general ward really was one of the toilets. I could just take the photo from the outside for this particular toilet. Inside on the left the condition of the toilet was beyond nauseating. It just left me without any sensation.

I am used to take photos of garbage and bad sanitary conditions but I have never seen anything like that. It was like somebody had taken a spray gun and filled its container with excreta and just sprayed the whole toilet finely with the shit. The shit was all over. People must have come in a state of diarrhea or desperation and just shat on previous piles of shit and whenever they could make place. This was a government toilet facility of a government running Swachh Bharat Abhiyan.

Air quality on day of Janta Curfew

The biggest impact of the Janta Curfew in my opinion may be in demonstrating to the average Mumbaikar and policy makers and media the efficacy of forcibly shutting down the city (read cars on roads) on days of severe air pollution.

In a television debate a month back on ET Now, which was in response to an exceptionally bad AQI over a few days in Mumbai I had raised a number of important points along with the other panelists. One of the most important was at the end asking for a Graded Response Action Plan being rolled out ASAP to counter such events.

At 12:20 I comment on the terrible coast road project.

17:15 onwards on whether Metro will solve the problem and about Climate Change

What is GRAP? It is a series of decisions to be taken based on the severity of the AQI. Read this article from Delhi where this measure has been first initiated.

In context of Mumbai the first such response would be a radical curtailment of vehicles on the roads on days of bad AQI, thus effectively calling for a partial or total shutdown. This would not hurt the economy as much as it would be made out to be and would not halt the movement of trains and buses. The bottom of the pyramid which has been most impacted during the corona crisis would be least affected in this case since they anyways do not use cars. Those affected would be individuals who only travel by cars and that segment can sit home and relax as they are doing now. And not be impacted financially in anyways.

Why should it require a virus to understand such a point?

Janta curfew adds to the evidence that the economy and the people are so much better off with severe curbs on private vehicles, which are a few peoples convenience and everyone’s (including those few) inconvenience.

Bad AQI in Mumbai is invariably the result of atmospheric conditions. The sum total of emissions spewed out by the 2.5 million odd vehicles on Mumbai’s roads remains a constant on any given day. Whether the emissions will result in bad AQI is a function of temperature, wind, humidity and other such factors.

Beyond the complex details, there are days when the atmospheric conditions support the flushing out of these toxic emissions and there are other days when the atmospheric conditions do not support the flushing out and instead allow the emissions to accumulate over the city thus exposing the whole population to a very deadly cocktail of pollutants.

It is for days like this that a Graded Response Action Plan needs to roll out as per a pre-decided drill which is known to every citizen and agreed upon. The foremost of these measures would be a radical curb on private motorized transport, the number one cause of emissions in the city. What is my data source for this claim? How do I validate? A day like Janta Curfew helps make the point without having to be burdened with counter arguments asking one to validate claims. The same city that sees unsatisfactory to poor range most times saw crisp air quality. The only difference was no vehicles on the roads. I can pull in a lot of data from existing studies but the idea is to keep it simple and common sense.

AQI on 22.03.2020, day of Janta curfew

Atmospheric scientists know with a fair deal of accuracy in advance about days when the conditions will not be viable for a flushing out. It is the role of the policy makers lead by the Mayor and the Municipal Commissioner, which needs to make advance announcement of days when there would be severe curbs on movement of cars on the roads.

https://www.windy.com/-Embed-widget-on-page/widgets?19.119,72.924,11

If impact on the economy is a fear then those days which coincide with a Sunday or close about can easily be considered. There are easily 10 days during the winter when the severity is enough to classify the impact as a severe health risk. A GRAP determined forced shutdown would make a radical difference on those 10 days and give enormous relief to vulnerable segments.

And we do not need much resources to control cars on the roads. Singapore and London have done it all with the considerable support from Indian IT companies. You need ERP gantries on all important junctions and every car which crossed those on the red listed days would be charged Rs. 1000 per crossing or something like that. There are enough in the city for whom that is loose change and instead of that loose change going to alcohol companies and lifestyle it will be made available for a dedicated transport fund which would invest in public transport and overcoming deficits.

How serious is the problem of air pollution for Mumbai?

That question should not need an answer. Other panelists Bhagwan Kesbhat and Vivek Chattopadhyay very well explained but the answer has been available for more than two decades. I am reminded of the Vinay Mohan Lal Committee more than two decades back and the number of measures taken and suggested. Since then a huge growth in vehicles, increased size of the city and an enormous increase in the number of kilometers traveled per day has wiped out and over ridden any gains.

Poor air quality impacts everybody and is a clear and present danger at all times unlike corona situation which is a once in a while passing storm. I have been calling the panic around corona a tamasha. If public health really was of concern then the public and the authorities acting on their behalf would have been doing so much more on real issues which matter. The mortality from poor air quality or more importantly DALY is far more serious an issue.

But GRAP is not enough.

The overall thinking and planning carried out by the government institutions which govern the city makes a difference. MMRDA and MCGM are the two cash rich city bodies which do two things, make policy and spend money. In both these aspects they have taken the worst kind of decisions over the past two decades. Decisions which have only lead to more motorised transport and result in poor AQI, which in turn necessitates GRAP. These are issues which have been discussed threadbare by numerous planners, policy makers and activists over the years. Everyone of them has warned of the consequences of the misdirected thinking of those who govern. Whether the decline of support to the public bus service or investments in projects like the coastal road or absence of UMTA and parking policy and much more.

At moments like the corona virus the Municipal Commissioner is seen and portrayed as a hero by the media. Any questioning at such a point would be (and would be seen as) inappropriate. But I don’t see any such discussions in non-crisis which holds decision makers accountable. Who will analyse the decisions taken over the past two decades? Bureaucrats and Mayors are unapproachable and consider themselves above panelists who appear and contribute for discussions.

The public on its part is a herd by now with little knowledge and inclination. The average educated elite persons political discourse, its vocabulary and syllabus is so limited as to make it impossible to engage them on such issues. They can only bang utensils (or be critical of such measures) and clap for the services of those who address the symptoms and are clueless about those who go after the underlying malaise. And they hold their views with fervour and self-righteousness. The political and administrative class couldn’t be happier.

Essential services?

People only understand post facto measures as essential. Doctors and nurses attending to patients. I would argue that the work I and my limited ilk does is far more essential and important but it goes poorly appreciated and rewarded. A lung physician at a top hospital in the city will rake in crores as income dealing with the problem and have properties and investments but as an activist dealing with preventing the problem I can never be sure of being able to pay myself a stable salary or run my small NGO or salaries of staff, far less own multiple properties as investments.

In 2015 I had written a blog called Equal Budgets for Equal Streets, which was then carried as an article in Times of India, Mumbai Edition. The article was in the context of the Equal Streets event (for which I was one of the early contributor and organiser)

Article in Time of India, December 2014

Urban transport policy has been an integral part of my efforts as an activist over the same past two decades. But that is not the only area of involvement intricately linked with air quality. My successful efforts at saving large tracts of mangrove forests beginning from my immediate neighborhood in the beginning of the last decade was pivoted on the argument of better air quality and flood mitigation.

Then there is the issue of solid waste management. The city has been following a ruinous model of pick and dump soaked in corruption and malpractices. The garbage burns on the dumps and millions of litres of diesel is burnt annually to transport all that waste. Again enormous contributions by some of us but the same Municipal Commissioners (office not individual) who are seen as heroes in such crises take all the wrong decisions and insidiously and invisibly cause slow damage over a decade.

Now on cars

Cars are drawing away the essential vitality of our urban areas. Any arguments to curb their use are seen as anti-development and Luddite in India. All while the world is moving ahead. Instead of designing a next generation of cities we are neither here nor there. Cars are private goods whose profits go to a few while the negative effects are borne by everyone. Those negative effects need to be priced just like one would fine spitting or urinating in public. Road space is a public space owned by everyone and anyone who uses more of it should more for it. Parking policy is scoffed at but people cannot be taking up public space without paying for it. Similarly cars in motion are causing congestion and air pollution and need to be fined for it. In the past few days BEST – the public bus service has seen a rapid improvement in its turnaround time because there is less traffic. If a bus can turn around in 30 mins rather than 60 mins it can do two rounds and transport twice the number of people. We need more people transported per hour not cars.

Cars and air pollution are bigger dangers than corona virus. Hope the Prime Minister and the Chief Minister will be looking into this post the corona storm.

CAA and NRC

The BJP A team has a very accurate profile of who it sees as its adversaries. It is aware of what triggers off this set of people and institutions, sends them into a tailspin of emotions and drains their energy. And it has a ready rack of public issues to let loose every few months to agitate its adversaries and keep them stressed. Public issues in India have been reduced to the drama between these two sides. And real issues and those engaged with them are loosing out. These two entities should get a room and leave the rest of us in peace.

CAA does not have anything much objectionable. Providing relief to distressed Hindu families in the region should not or cannot invite critique. Should Rohingya’s or Bangladeshi Muslims also be extended a similar privilege? I think no. Does that qualify as bigotry? I think no. There are genuine issues around Muslim immigrants and those cannot be overlooked in the pursuit of some unreal appearance of being egalitarian and universal brotherhood. Creating a controversy around CAA could lead to a loss of credibility for those who agitate.

As far as NRC goes there is little chance that any government will be able to implement it for such a large country. Logistics apart, more fundamentally what is this fear that this will be an instrument for disenfranchising Indian Muslims from their citizenship? How is that even going to be possible? Why keep falling for the same formula ridden bait? Indian Muslims (and these very atypical members of an urban intelligentsia) have some serious inward looking to do and should spend the current times as a wonderful once in a lifetime opportunity to carry out internal reform rather than needlessly suffer the current dispensation.

There can surely be no argument against creating a citizens registry from the point of view of identifying illegal immigrants. I am happy to have a boundary less world but till that happens lets just live within the rules.

And before we have love for illegal immigrants lets give some thought on how immigrants willing to work for low wages can distort the labour market and create not so much love for the millions who are unemployed or poorly paid already. I am not sure what the process is for allowing immigration of highly qualified individuals from the region and potential job creators. But surely we are not seeing many of them come over. And in a situation to choose between employing an Indian and a Bangladeshi Muslim what should one do?

Is all this a build up a Nazi Germany kind of an era? Look what they have done in a Kashmir? Who knows, but I do know that you need some amount of discipline and homogeneity in your populace to achieve the same. Indians are notoriously undisciplined and unreliable. Look at how they nod when asked for a yes or no. The world struggles with deciphering the response. They may say yes and then go no or say no and go yes. Not like the Germans who will stand in a straight line when ordered. Here no body gives a shit about the other. Everyone has a direct link with Krishna.

The protests against CAA and NRC have only helped BJP further in its plans. Since 2014 they have enjoyed creating the caricature of dumb, bungling and bumbling liberals who are just an inflated bag of emotions with little intelligence. The hashtags #libtards and #sickular captures those profiles well. The current protests provide fodder to those hashtags. Not having protested would have had the opposite effect and ended up stressing out the BJP A team.

These protests do not even demonstrate that democracy is alive and kicking in India and the protesters represent an active and alert citizenry ready to step in whenever democracy is under threat. People are clueless about half a dozen serious issues to agitate about or supporting those struggling with those issues. Guided by media headlines and social media (all carefully calibrated by the BJP team) they are sheep shepherded for slaughter.

I remember how disinterested I was when the India Against Corruption movement saw participation in large numbers. Disbelief was my dominant emotion, that people could be so stupid as to believe that corruption could be tackled with such campaigns and by instituting a Jan Lokpal. I blogged about it then here. Much later it got evident that the IAC protests were funded by BJP as a pre – 2014 campaign plan to weaken the Congress.

It is the same team which has run many a similar campaign since then which draws the crowds either with them or against them but at all times as putty in their hands. They know how to have their cake and eat it to and that makes me envious.

Mindful by the Coast

~ Mindful by the Coast ~

Its only when you have stepped far out of the city that you realise what a beautiful planet it is and what we are doing to it. To see a wide expanse of sea like you otherwise wouldn’t. A skyline which is not a thick layer of smog generated from millions of vehicles burning fuel. To actually get a sense of what that entity called the atmosphere really is, that which is so discussed now.

It gets dark and quieter soon. The cell network is bad. You can’t get on to social media. Just nothing to do but be with yourself. Better are the urban trappings, which do not give you a moment with Self. How long can you enjoy the clean air and stillness or your own company? Or the village lanes and the lush greenery. What do you do with these poor villagers? They make for poor company compared to your echo chamber. Back in the city the cell phone is handy; get onto Facebook and pass away time rather than look it in the face. Or meetings and errands and a sense of feeling important.

Thoughts dwell on the self. Just who is this self? Is he the forearm or the fingers or his chin? Or the toe thumb or the bloated stomach or that which is experiencing the breeze. Or is it the skull? The stillness makes the incessant chatter inside feel like a noisy factory. Many parts moving and clanging. You wonder why so, what is need, what is the output?

And even here you have not escaped the city. The coastline is dotted with massive cement plants, power plants, ports, all servicing the needs of the cities. I feel glad of not having earned much in my life and consequently not able to afford/consume that much cement, power and steel.

Life is simple when you live off the land. Just what do I need? Where am I going? How would I like to feel when my short time here is over? What will I take with myself? What will I leave behind?

But why keep it simple?