Proposed new solid waste management rules – comments

The Ministry of Environment and Forests has come up with draft Municipal Solid Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2013. The rules will overrule the existing rules which were framed in 2000 here. The Ministry has given a period of 60 days (from 29.08.2013) for public to respond with their views and suggestions.

It is important that everybody concerned with the issue of a clean city to engage with this process. The issue is not just one of a clean city but the philosophy towards waste management and the processes that will be followed. A number of activists have been carrying out efforts over the years without broad based public involvement. Please do consider organising programs around this issue where some of the members involved with the issue for long would love to come and speak.

The rules seem to have been put together in a hurry with incorporating the learnings from a number of developments since the 2000 Rules.

The proposed rules have a number of flaws, which I am highlighting below.

  1. The Ministry must share what necessitated the need for a new set of rules. Whether a note on the same is prepared and should share the same.
  2. The rules lack commentary on the serious constraints involved with developing new landfill sites. Competing demands for land are now stronger than they were when the rules were last formed in 2000. Land is needed to housing, infrastructure, farming and recreation and hence needs to be low in the priority of solid waste management.
  3. The rules do not adequately stress on the need for municipal corporations to go beyond the call of duty in sensitizing the citizens about not mixing wet and dry waste at source and hence minimising the need for centralised collection and transport of waste and landfill requirements.
    1. If in MSW 2000 this need was felt and appreciated adequately the developments since then have only increased the importance of reducing as much waste at source as possible. MSW 2013 Rules need to in fact start getting stringent about not accepting any mixed waste at source and levying fines for the same.
    2. The Rules should adequately acknowledge the services provided by rag pickers, the significant self-employment generated as a result and the need for municipal corporations to formally recognize the contribution by them.
    3. The Ministry should be abundantly aware that a lot of the requirements expected in the MSW 2000 Rules have been violated with gross impunity.
  4. The Rules should comment that due to the following important considerations there will be a strong focus on the minimisation of transport of waste over long distance. The transport of waste over long distance leads to
    1.  Use of fossil fuels which leads to release of GHG emissions which leads to long term environmental damage. India has a National Acton Plan on Climate Change and is a participant in global talks on mitigating climate change. The municipal waste management rules need to clearly be compliant with these efforts in letter and spirit.
    2. Air pollution from emissions which lead to immediate health impacts to the residents of the city.
    3. Loss of foreign exchange and hence economically harms the country. This is important in years like 2013, when we are facing a crisis.
    4. Expenditure on expensive machinery and
    5. Overall puts a strain on the municipal budget of the respective city.
  5. MSW 2013 Rules need to give very explicit guidance/instructions to the municipal corporations for engaging substantially in activities towards creating awareness about segregation of garbage and all other measures to treat biodegradable waste at source through various means. This creating of awareness will be through (and not limited to) advertisements in papers, television, schools, colleges, cinema halls, funding civil society organisations for road shows and all other means.
  6. MSW Rules 2013 should stress on very high standards of financial reporting about the complete costs involved in waste management.
  7. MSW Rules 2013 should stress on detailed disclosure on all the kinds of waste being generated in the city.
  8. MSW Rules 2013 do not adequately address the issue of electronic waste. Electronic waste generation is now huge in India and significant amount like batteries etc. are being disposed in the normal stream of waste disposal. The municipal corporations have to cover the whole gamut of awareness creation, strict segregation at source and final disposal in detail and with seriousness.
  9. MSW Rules 2013 need to be explicit and stringent on the need to strictly control the distribution of plastic carry bags in various kinds of shopping, a very large proportion of which end up in the garbage stream and are posing very serious environmental challenges. In Mumbai, all waterways like nullahs, creeks and the sea are choked with such plastic bags. During monsoons the sea throws all the plastic and other refuse out and makes a complete mess of the beaches.

The Waste to Energy part has been added new and one wonders whether that is the sole purpose of the new set of rules.

Passing through Koparkhairane station

Today – 2nd August 2013 – was my first visit to Koparkhairane. This map link will be useful for reference http://goo.gl/maps/cM5Cn
 
In January it was my first visit to Rabale. It was a long standing desire to visit these new nodes developing in the Mumbai region and to see the quality of basic infrastructure, the look and feel and the facilities being put in place.
 
I was there on an invitation from Jagdeep Desai, (friend, fellow activist and Director of Lokmanya Tilak Institute of Architecture and Design Studies) to attend a meeting with the DCP (Traffic) Navi Mumbai at the college to discuss some quick solutions to the pervasive problem of potholes and solving traffic congestion in some chronic spots. So in that sense a note of caution was already announced. 
 
I was joined with my friend Abhijit Mehta who joined only because I promised no public transport. We arrived by cab but I went bad on my word in the return and have presumably lost a friend now. The temptation to see and experience Kopairkhairne station got the better of me.
 
We entered through Vashi Bridge and joined the road which passes through Vashi Sector 29 and my immediate observation was how unremarkable the area looked. The road and the immediate surroundings had a very small town feel with little of dynamism or energy you experience in Mumbai. There really doesn’t seem to be much of a soul. Ugly un-noticeable buildings, streets which do not call out with either a calm beauty to them or a throbbing buzz of human activity.
 
The edges of the road are a favourite observation for me and after a few meters of riding into the ‘town’ I was left disinterested. There seemed nothing ‘Navi’ about this part of Navi Mumbai. Footpaths was what I was eagerly looking for hoping that some of the new sectors would not have gone the old ways and used the opportunity of a greenfield to do a good job. Thorough disappointment. Presumably these are not the most glamorous parts of Navi Mumbai but somehow I felt that clearly these areas could do better and anyways there has to be no qualifying criteria for basic infrastructure.
 
Good quality affordable housing and neighbourhoods have been in a a shortage in Mumbai and these areas present the best opportunity to create viable alternatives, especially with transport linkages now having improved significantly. 
 
The meeting went well. The DCP is a very nice cordial person with no air to himself – out to get the work done and do what his post calls for him to do. And go beyond since it is not often that top officials meet outside their offices.
 
Post meeting like I said earlier I bit into temptation. A professor from another College in Navi Mumbai had brought his vehicle and offered to drop at the station since he was passing that way. Abhijit was hoping till then that I will listen to the voice of reason eventually.
 
 
Koparkhairane Station
 
We approached the station from the side of Shivaji Patil Udyan opposite which is the college.
 
The Shivaji Patil Udyan was a picture of complete disinterest – more like a development plan formality. The road is an arterial one and it was of the same disappointing width which to me is now symptomatic of the thinking of planners in Mumbai post independence and especially the ones of the past 3-4 decades. One saw wider roads being built before independence and in an era where there was  hardly any traffic and here we have ‘Navi’ Mumbai which was supposed to be learning and building over Mumbai going about bending backwards.
 
The road doesn’t inspire confidence to run a good bus system, parking becomes a problem with the kind of width it has and let us not even talk about pedestrians. Why cant it be just standard to have two meter footpaths on either side on all arterial roads?
 
The first glimpse of Koparkhairane station itself was disheartening and sad. The colours were a sickening combination of light brown, faded grey painted ages ago and the faded painting taken over by the dampness of the monsoon. For me it was almost a field study trip but I can imagine the effect on Abhijit who was part expecting to see such sights, had no intentions of  studying the station, was promised company back in a cab ride and was now left to see this ugly precinct. 
 
The station has three entrances on the west side from where we were approaching. Each entrance has an almost 5 meter path for vehicles to enter and footpaths on both the sides. The first entrance turned out to be a large depression which was brimming with water from the rains, to the extent that even the bottom of the pool was not visible, thus doing away with the need to guess whether we could walk from this entrance.
 
We moved ahead to the next entrance, here too the same inviting pool of water but manageable. Straight ahead we could see  a building with a subway and a few people passing that way suggesting that this was an entrance. There were ticket windows here but not functioning. The place looked like a run down derelict building. A few people were sitting on stairs in front of the window whom we asked about tickets and they showed a path going along the boundary of the building further ahead to what would have been the third entrance on our road route.
 
Thank fully there was an all weather covered path through which we walked in the rain. The condition of the landscape around made me draw comparison to disused godown areas in Reay Road. At the third entrance we saw a long line of commuters – only one ticket window was functioning. There were some new smart card machines and I used one to get a ticket – had the same not been there I would have definitely chosen a cab ride back over the long line for tickets. This is also where I parted ways with Abhijit who had enough of the station and had no intention of going into the dark wet subway which  takes commuters to the platforms.
 
The subway did not give a feeling of being unsafe at 4:30 but I could imagine how it would start feeling post 7pm. The whole station precinct itself would look substantially more uninviting and dangerous in the evening hours. The quality of construction overall is good but it all seems to be left as it is in a hurry after a certain stage and after that there has been no body to look after it. 
 
The complete lack of any activity other than people standing in the ticket line, a few having grouped for their chats and those who were either entering or exiting the station was another noticeable feature. One is used to seeing a newspaper stand, a canteen, PCO booth, maybe a general store. But the station had none, only a ghostly and abandoned feel. Even police presence was not to be seen. 
 
Interestingly in office I am involved with applying principles of place making to improve the conditions of August Kranti Maidan and Azad Maidan. When I see Koparkhairane I realise that this is where the principles of placemaking are needed the most. Even the basics are wanting here – is it too much to expect good lighting, not seeing cobwebs hanging from the station ceilings and walls, signage and a few snack spots?
 
The completely covered stations of Navi Mumbai are a big relief from the stations of Mumbai which can be very inconvenient to use in the rains. The platforms were dry and there was no need to congregate at dry spots or open the umbrella. The train came in a few minutes – 4:27 to Thane and I was off soon.
 
I dont know who governs the station precincts, whether CIDCO or Central Railway, which operates the train services. The station besides carrying its name carried no feature suggesting any authority which was responsible for its upkeep and operation. Something as important as the railways station and its precinct could even be the responsibility of the municipal corporation. The railways can run the trains and everything else about the stations be handled by the municipal corporation. It is anyways a common complaint of the Railways that they do not make enough revenue due to the very affordable fares that they provide. The citizens using the stations are tax payers to the municipal corporation and it should be expected that the corporation do this much for them.
 
There is so much more that can be done in integrating the city bus service, para transit, cycling and walking with the station precinct. At Rabale in January it was my observation that coming out of the Station on the Thane Belapur Road side, one has to cross the road to go on the other side. The subway within the station could easily have been extended under the road to avoid conflict between vehicles speeding at 60kmph and users of the station. I wonder what the situation must be on the other side of Kopairkhairne.
 
Urbanisation in MMR
 
Yes Kopairkhairne may have been a village till recent but nothing says that a village has to go through a learning curve where you do all the wrong things first, suffer for a few decades, then through some process (if it happens or be doomed to forever be stuck in that early disastrous phase of your learning curve) go through a renewal and at the end of the 21st century enjoy something which was being enjoyed even at the end of the 20th century by a lot of Mumbai. There has to be a sense of urgency about doing the right aspects of urban planning in the MMR region.
 
Railway Stations are such an important component of the lives of the citizens of Mumbai that they should be the focus of a lot of effort from all the wings of the government, elected or administrative. The maintenance and efforts to continuously make stations and station areas cheerful, lively, utilitarian and safe can be such a creative and satisfying exercise. And it should be made a professionally rewarding one as well to be able to attract the best of talent to lend their efforts and time to the process.
 
Millions of people are passing through these stations every day. It may not be possible to give them inspiring and convenient neighbourhoods, it may be difficult to improve every kilometer of road or provide a great walking environment all throughout. The MMR Region is almost 5000 sq kms. Navi Mumbai is 150 sq kms, Mumbai 437 sqkms (or so some say). The stations themselves including the influence areas must be under a sqkm each and it is the sum total of these areas where the urban planning efforts need to be seen proportionately more.
 
If we are to have a glorious vision for the Mumbai Metropolitan Region I think the condition of railway stations and their continuous improvement in terms of aesthetics and facilities really has to be at the top of the list. The conditions here will  be an indicator of how much is really being done for improving the city and the level to which politicians are in touch with those who elect them. 
 
Political and social will (and effort)
 
I really dont know why Ganesh Naik and the other politicians who have been ruling over this area for more than 2 decades have not felt the need for improvement. But nothing is lost and the situation can easily be turned around in one municipal corporation term. I had the pleasure of meeting Sanjeev Naik the 30 year old young Mayor of Navi Mumbai a few months ago while I was the moderator for a session and he was the Chief Guest and he inspired hope and trust. It is upto the civil society of Navi Mumbai and also Mumbai to engage with him and I feel hopeful that such an interaction can pave the way for some change.
 
Mumbai Metropolitan Region can be the best laboratory for urban planning and practice in India if we who pass through its portals now in this second decade choose to keep our inhibitions, fears and doubts aside and spring headlong into practice.
 
We hear of these big UN and World Bank studies and quotes, charts and graphics on how we are a rapidly urbanising world, we hear of the McKinsey Report on 50 percent of India being urbanised by 2030 (which is real close) and how it is these metropolitan regions which will be the big contributors to GDP and we see annual conferences and seminars. Much noise and little conversion on the ground. It is time we started holding charette’s and workshops at the railways stations and get hands on with a desirable form of urbanism in at least a few aspects. We could urgently do with an MMR Committee (or even an informal working group to start with) solely devoted to bringing all the railway stations in MMR up to date on facilities and basic comforts. Why cant parts of the Mall experience be recreated at the railways stations? 
 
And this is not a trivial aspect – a Marine Drive maybe receives more attention than the state of our railway stations. Mass transit is one of those pillars of urbanisation without which most other activity will collapse.
 
I will reach this note to elected representatives, officials, architects, planners and civil society members as an appeal to look into the conditions of the railway stations and hope to build momentum.
 
Things I would know
  1. Who were the planners in CIDCO or Urban Development Department who decided on the current width and configuration of the Regency Road? Names of the officials, the Secretary and the Minster then.
  2. Which year was the plan made for Koparkhairane and which year did the execution start?
  3. What existed before the city in the current format?
Would appreciate any and all information in this regard.
 
Interestingly the public transport route I took will soon be history. The Metro first line will resume within a year and next year the same journey will require me to go Koparkhairane-Thane on suburban rail, Thane-Ghatkopar on suburban rail, Ghatkopar-Indian Oil(Andheri) Metro and then a bus or rickshaw home. The unnecessary travel to Dadar and then backtracking to Andheri and suffering Andheri station will be done away with. A full time saving of 30 minutes.
 

Beyond outrage on rape

The recent rape case in Delhi has created a national outrage. As much as I thought I will stick to the enormous work on my table and not ‘distract’, I find myself putting down a few quick thoughts. Almost everybody is discussing it and I saw a teary eyed Jaya Bachhan, giving her two bits about where the solution lay. She could stop associating with a lousy political party for starts. There are loud demands for a death sentence for rapists, chemical castration, no bail and faster prosecution.

All of this is good but it is important to remind some points to a lot of those who are agitated about the rape and are active on social media and other forums. A lot of these people are other wise silent and can be seen on the same social social media engaging in the most banal of conversations and never active on any matters regarding public policy governing any of our important social issues. It is important that these people – a number of them teenagers and youth – realise the larger social context, which could be shaping why people like the accused Ram Singh and his accomplices engage in the kind of brutality they did.

The rapes cannot be looked at in isolation of other pertinent social issues and indeed do not happen in isolation of these issues.

When the poor get thrown out of the city and dumped into areas outside the city, which have poor connectivity to areas where people have their livelihoods, in homes and neighbourhoods which are poorly planned and cramped, how many get alarmed? I am not saying it is only the poor which engage in rapes and socially undesirable behaviour, but the tendency to be brazen and have a nothing to loose attitude can certainly be developed in this section when they find the rest of the society and especially the elite and the educated not concerned about policies which impact their very existence. Delhi has followed the motto of – Remove the poor not poverty – to the hilt in the past decade.

When did the social elite who are now discussing this rape, question the kind of horrible conditions in which a large majority of the lower socio-economic bracket live in? When did the same elite discuss humane and affordable housing for those who do not earn as much? Read the conditions of Ravidas Camp and that should cause outrage. Why in 6 decades of Independence are we not able to provide decent housing, which provides spaces and privacy to our people? While the rich and investors invest in multiple penthouses even as they live in only one. The poor cramped conditions, the bad ventilation and absence of sewage facilities in the dwelling units for a large segment of the population does not outrage a lot of these people who have the best of material comforts.

How many in Mumbai have been vocal on the conditions in slums like Bandra(E) and Kherwadi, Dharavi, Malwani and the other slum areas in Malad. How many challenge the brazenness with which politicians have made poor people and affordable housing for them into such a convenient and fail proof mechanism for staying in political power?

A lot of these petty and major criminals find convenient shelter in these slums and find patronage by politicians and business to take care of inconvenient matters.

It was well established in the 90’s that there are is strong correlation between air pollution and criminal tendencies and activities. When did people come out in support of better air quality legislation?

Everybody hate’s hawkers on busy arterial roads, around schools and colleges, railway stations, bus stops and almost everywhere else. Those who speak for them continuously are pointing out about how they help in keeping streets safe and how it would be counter productive to keep evicting them as some would definitely take to crime to make two ends meet. I hardly find any new person getting involved in the discussion in the past decade beyond the usual.

Should not the pretty and very fashionable girls (and guys) – and very dumb at times as well – in St. Xaviers and Mithibai and other elite colleges in Mumbai be finding time for such discussions and activities rather than the usual very happening get togethers, parties, Calvin Klein perfumes, LV bags and exotic holidays and the like? What about bullshit shows like MTV Roadies on TV? When did we last show outrage on the way impoliteness and being rude and demeaning to women is celebrated and encouraged on these shows?

When did we discuss better counselling facilities for those who are going through trauma, stress or disturbances in mental condition?

A lot of criminals and rapists have become fearless because the political system itself is made up of criminals. When did members of our middle class pull up their local councillors?

The time to get angry and thinking is when a female President of the country pardons sentences of heinous criminals involved in murder and rape. The issue to get interested in – and which media should – investigate is what lives these people lead after their pardon?

When NGOs and civic activists keep public talks and events how many of these mango people ever turn up?

It has been my constant grouse that a lot of the educated elite have abundant time and money for IPL and malls and movies at multiplex and many other banal activities which they like to justify as well earned and relevant but have absolutely no time be involved with the transport policy, housing policy, solid waste management policy, budget of the municipal corporation, state of the health and education system, oversight on political representatives and a host of other big and small issues.

When did you last see those in candle light marches and street marches after the recent rape coming out and question their elected representatives on various policy matters or make a donation to an NGO which is doing it? Almost never.

Let us stop living in a false sense of superiority over our civilisations past glory. Incidents like the recent rape should be a call for action for those who are only worshipping Devi’s and organise Durga Pooja and Mata ki Chowki and visit Vaishneodevi and a thousand other rituals which have lost all meaning in the light of the poor respect – almost institutionalised – we have for women in the country. Somebody just recently donated 3kg gold at Tirupati and was till 3 months back informing the world on social media about how he was partying and enjoying the company of bikini clad women while his employees were not paid salaries and were finding it difficult to make two ends meet. Time to junk these practices and start getting involved with governance and policy. Stop doing religious rituals and start participating with civic activists.

The sooner social, civic and environmental issues stop becoming something with which only activists and advocacy groups are involved  and become an area where the mainstream regularly participates the sooner we will have a solution to the kind of rapes which keep happening in Dehi.

CWG

A friend coming from abroad after long got into discussing how embarrassed he was with the CWG shame. I had to cut him in between showing my absolute disinterest in discussing the matter and wasting my blood.

I would have thought that the CWG shame and embarrassment would have brought sections of civil society, youth, ‘well wishers’ etc. of the country on to the streets – there would have been riots and an indication of that elusive change. There would have been some public display of the disgust.

But Incredible India and its wonderful people never fail to surprise. I am also becoming an observer now. Not worth it to expend efforts for such a comfortable lot of people. I would have done something in more idealistic and foolish times.

The Haiti curse

This note is in context of understanding how black holes of the failure of human intelligence and spirit like Haiti exist and then also get rocked by one natural disaster after the other.

I am copying below one small chapter from a book which I have found very thought provoking and enlightening and to which I was introduced by Mr. Raj, an alternate health practitioner who primarily works at correcting imbalances in spiritual energy. A close family friend had introduced him to us to work on my fathers terminal cancer in 2007.

He was aware of my work in environmental issues and gifted me his copy of “The Last hours of Ancient Sunlight” by Thom Hartmann.

This  chapter copied below relates to Columbus’ oppression and havoc on the current islands of Haiti as  he landed there first.  Even as I was following the earthquake and then read this article http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/22/opinion/22danner.html?pagewanted=1

I was reminded of my having read the chapter below from “Last Hours…” and how there could be a strong possible connection between what happened there 500 years ago and the sustained misery that the country finds itself in. Some comments are after the passage below. The thoughts are in the context of all places where we carry out cultural and environmental genocide even today.

This chapter will always be soul stirring and special to me because I read it first as I was on my first trip to the United States on June 1st 2007. Till then I had been aware of the Spanish savagery in the Americas but had never read a graphic detailed note on the savagery of the discoverer himself. Two decades of awe, fascination and a general inspiration about the spirit of discovery collapsed within an hour and ironically just as I was about to enter the country itself.

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Glimpsing a Possible Future in Haiti and Other Hot Spots

The future is made of the same stuff as the present. – Simone Weil (1909-1943)

Christopher Columbus not only opened the door to a New World, but also set an example for us all. – George Bush, 1989 speech

If you fly over the country of Haiti on the island of Hispaniola, the island on which Columbus landed, it looks like somebody took a blowtorch and burned away anything green. Even the ocean around the port capital of Port au Prince is choked for miles with the brown of human sewage and eroded topsoil. From the air, it looks like a lava flow spilling out into the sea.

The history of this small island is, in many ways, a microcosm for whats happening in the whole world. (emphasis is mine)

When Columbus first landed on Hispaniola in 1492, virtually the entire island was covered by lush forest. The Taino “Indians” who lived there had an apparently idyllic life prior to Columbus, from the reports left to us by literate members of the Columbus’ crew such as Miguel Cuneo.

When Columbus and his crew arrived on their second visit to Hispaniola, however, they took captive about two thousand local villagers who had come to greet them. Cuneo wrote: “When our ships…were to leave for Spain, we gathered…one thousand six hundred male and female persons of those Indians, and of these we embarked in our ships on February 17, 1495 …For those who remained, we let it be known [to the Spaniards who manned the islands fort] in the vicinity that anyone who wanted to take some of them could do so, to the amount desired, which was done.”

Cuneo further notes that he himself took a beautiful teenage Carib girl as his personal slave, a gift from Columbus himself, but that when he attempted to have sex with her, she “resisted with all her strength.” So, in his words, he “thrashed her mercilessly and raped her.”

While Columbus once referred to the Taino Indians as cannibals, there was then and today still is no evidence of this: it was apparently a story made up by Columbus-which is to this day still taught in some US Schools – to help justify his slaughter and enslavement of these people. He wrote to the Spanish monarchs in 1493: “It is possible, with the name of the Holy Trinity, to sell all the slaves which it is possible to sell…Here there are so many of these slaves, and also brazilwood, that although they are living things they are as good as gold…”

Columbus and his men also used the Taino as sex slaves: it was a common reward for Columbus’ men for him to present them with local women to rape. As he began exporting Taino as slaves to other parts of the world, the sex-slave trade became an important part of the business, as Columbus wrote to a friend in 1500: ” A hundred castelanoes [a Spanish coin] are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and it is very general that there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls, those from nine to ten [years old] are now in demand.”*

* Letter of Columbus quoted in Eric Williams’ Documents of West Indian History (Port – of – Spain, Trinidad: PNM 1963), and Peter Martyr, De Orbe Novo (1516)

However the Taino turned out not to be particularly good workers in the plantations that the Spaniards and later the French established on Hispaniola: they resented their lands and children being taken, and attempted to fight back against the invaders. Since the Taino were obviously standing in the way of Spain’s progress, Columbus sought to impose discipline on them. For even a minor offense and Indian’s nose or ear was cut off, so he could go back to his village to impress the people with the brutality the Spanish were capable of. Columbus attacked them with dogs, skewered them on poles from anus to mouth, and shot them. Eventually, life for the Taino became so unbearable that. as Pedro de Cordoba wrote to King Ferdinand in a 1517 letter, ” As a result of the sufferings and hard labor they endured, the Indians chose and have chosen suicide. Occasionally a hundred have committed mass suicide. The women, exhausted by labor, have shunned conception and childbirth… Many, when pregnant, have taken something to abort and have aborted. Others after delivery have killed their children with their own hands, so as to not leave them in such oppressive slavery.”

Eventually, Columbus, and later his brother Bartholomew Columbus who left in charge of the island, simply resorted to wiping out the Taino altogether. Prior to Columbus’ arrival, most scholars place the population of Haiti/Hispaniola at around 3 million people. By 1496, it was down to 1,100,000, according to a census done by Bartholomew Columbus. By 1516, the indigenous population was 12,000, and, according to Las Casas (who was there) by 1542 fewer than 200 natives were alive. By 1555, every single one was dead. (today not a single Taino is alive: their culture, people, and genes have vanished from the planet.)

As the transported population of slaves from Africa grew in Haiti, people began cutting the forests to create farmland and to use the trees as firewood for cooking and boiling water. As a result, today trees cover less than one percent of Haiti. The denuded land, exposed to rainfall and runoff sped up by the slope of the country’s hills, has been so thoroughly eroded that it has mixed with sewage and carried the stain a full four miles out to sea from Port Au Prince. Millions of people are crowded into the cities, where they provide a ready pool of ultra-cheap labor for multinational corporations, as well as cheap domestic help and inexpensive child and adult prostitutes for the European and American managers of those corporate interests and the occasional tourist.

The legacy of Columbus is that life in Haiti is more than poor: it is desperate. As much as 16 hours a day are spent by the average country-dweller in search of food or firewood, and an equal amount of time is spent by city dwellers in search of money or edible garbage. Diseases ranging from cholera or AIDS run rampant through the overcrowded population.

While Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, it is not unique. The Dominican Republic, which shares the island, is moving in the same direction, as is much of the rest of Central and South America.”

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Some thoughts –

1) The Spanish must be beyond competition the most savage and ruthless set of people to inhabit the planet. And it is interesting how the images of savagery that occupy the popular thought are ones either of Africans in dark rainforests or maybe Oriental. In the South and Central American context also I have always been sickened with the kind of brutality with which the Spanish took control of the land and decimated people and cultures which existed there since millenia. And in popular discourse and in documentary programs the general flavour given for all the killing and pillage is one of adventure and heroism.

2) It is quite possible that in going the Taino must have left a curse that whosoever inhabits the land after them would never ever be happy and that is pretty evident in the history of that land. It is incredibly saddening to read the line which describes the people as living idyllic self-sustained lifestyles on a lush land who came to greet Columbus as a show of good will and curiosity towards visitors and then got wiped out in one century (3 million of them gone).

My wonder is that will the curse come to the Spanish at some time? It is ironical that the Africans who themselves underwent significant misery and still do at the hands of the White and Spanish in particular are the ones who bear the brunt now.

3) Will places like Orissa face the same fate one day? In the next two decades to fill the insatiable demand of educated and upwardly mobile people for metals and minerals almost all the forests and tribal people there will be destroyed – leading to a Haiti kind of imagery when flying from above. Forests which are held sacred by tribal communities as the abode of gods will be scooped out awith gaint excavators and the people themselves sent to tin and cement barracks –  will the deeply disturbed spirits of the gods and the people end up leading to sustained misery in Orissa?

Food price rise paid for bills of LS 2009 elections?

It is quite plausible that the Lok Sabha 2009 elections may have been partly or largely funded through the subsequent food grain price rise that we have seen. The LS 2009 elections were by far the costliest elections with the stakes being really high and the Congress having spared no efforts in winning.

Lok Sabha polls to cost more than US presidential elections

Contesting and winning elections is not an easy job. You need thousands of vehicles, manpower, food for the workers, banners and other promotional material, full time teams of strategists and so much more. The LS 2009 elections cost Rs. 10,000 crores. How do parties get this kind of money to spend? What was the spend per party and what different accounts? Do we have a detailed breakup of the accounts? Who are the official big donors? Even if we get to know the big donors there is a gigantic list of business interests who spend on the parties in cash and how does one account for that?

Even with the donors are people doing it for love of the political party? What is the pound of flesh being extracted if any? Could there be a policy of mutual favours and payments in kind?

One mutual favour policy could have been to receive funds for all the expenses during Mar-April 2009 and then repay with interest during May -Dec2009 by allowing for a sustained rice in prices of food grains. The mechanics of the same could have been an arrangement with the big traders of food grains about funding the various costs of contesting LS 2009 in response to which the political parties would take suitable measures to ensure that the food grain prices hover significantly high for some time once the government is formed. This is a perfect system and an arrangement with which business interests are most familiar and comfortable with. This is also like having a gigantic election IPO in which the millions of stakeholders make payments for keeping the organisation – democracy in this case – running.

While I will be reading further and forming my opinion something intuitively tells me that my hypothesis is correct.

The big traders would be the kind who deal in bulk wheat, rice, sugar etc. – the kinds who deal in million tonnes. There is no point raising money from small traders, the logistics of collection become very high and anyways with the big traders ultimately you are dealing with a few gate keepers through whom ultimately the food grains have to ultimately flow. And maybe the small traders will help at the local levels but for the big ticket spending for centralised campaigns and organized money distribution to purchase media and votes it is the big traders who come into play.

Imagine a cartel of 100 (or 1000) traders decides to extend 500 crores to a political party or parties in cash. The maths being that if you can offload 10 million tonnes of a combination of food per month at even Rs. 200 more per tonne for five months then you have recovered Rs. 1000 crores. Not very difficult? Entirely doable. A lot of reasons can be used to justify the rise, media can be managed to confuse people by flooding with a host of different reasons leaving people disinterested in applying their mind. Droughts, easy credit, difficult credit, dysfunctional distributions systems and what not. The poor will bring down their consumption, the rich will stay at the same level, but in the end the same amount would be consumed fetching a higher return.

This may seem a conspiracy theory but in the kind of democracy India is with very poor public debate on important matters and an enormous capacity in the common man to experience considerable hardships over decades without questioning the lack of simple interventions which can solve the problems, makes India a fertile ground for all kind of manipulators. The common man are the planktons, which help millions of a particular species of manipulators to breed on whom in turn a few thousand master shark-hunter-politico-business-interest kinds thrive.

A healthy democracy would have a debate on such issues for days to end. There would be multiple opinions, a huge amount of data and analysts.

This need not have been a sole job of Sharad Pawar but instead be cutting across party lines for the amount of benefits that such an exercise would yield. Even then one has to give it to him that a lone Sharad Pawar possesses the brilliance and capability to swing this kind of an activity single-handedly. A large number of politicians themselves are involved in the food grains trade.

The poor progress we have made as a society to discuss the funding of elections and party expenses is quite embarrassingly characteristic of the great democracy some of us would like to believe we are.

The need of the hour is to collect a number of data sets which will help understand whether this hypothesis is correct or incorrect. The media was mostly sold out but there need to be some independent academics and researchers of repute who need to put together the following:

1) What has been the quantum of extra money spent by the public as a result of the price rise. Thus supposing Mumbai consumes a 1000 kilograms of sugar per month at the rate of Rs. 25 / kg and the rate goes up to Rs. 40 / kg the differential outflow is Rs. 15,000 more than what would have been Rs. 25,000/-. This is just an example, we need to have all the figures on an all India basis and then be able to find the amount of money that has additionally flown out of the pocket of citizens.

2) Who are the key big entities, companies and individuals who trade in food grains in large quantities? What are their linkages with key politicians? What kind of relationships  in terms of positions in companies, consultative contracts etc. are held between such entities and politicians?

3) A detailed breakup of all the election expenses leading to the 10,000 crore figure.

Maybe we have been funding elections like this all along. Maybe this is the Indian-Way. In which case there needs to be an analysis of such phenomenon across elections. Any which way I would like to know whether I am paying for the bills of keeping our great democracy going? There are no free lunches right?

Stupidity flu

Enough cannot be said about the gaps in the so called superior intelligence of the human species but once in a while it becomes important to speak out.

Stupidity flu is what affects people when they feed themselves on an excessive diet of stupid serials and movies and fads and junk food and stupid fashion and conversation and meaningless activities. Stupidity flu is also caused by an almost complete deprivation of the brain from anything intelligent.

I think millions if not billions today are suffering from the stupidity flu without the slightest of indication about how the flu has reduced their lives to such a state that they would much rather die to the swine flu.

People suffering from stupidity flu can appear very modern and chic and sensible but on closer inspection clearly appear like those chickens in the mass breeding farms, slightly cute, indistinguishable and not somebody whose company you can keep for long. I could speak at length about the people who are responsible for this and the intentions and the effects but that can be later.

Those suffering from SF find that the flu reduces their brains to brittle, powdery, fragile stuff, which just cannot handle the slightest of pressure caused by application of mind to more challenging, intelligent and  pertinent(whats that, did you say?) matters. They cannot participate in public policy dialogues and social movements which form the fundamental basis for things like a good public health policy.

Even as some of us have been wondering about what to do about the outrageous rip off on the public pocket in terms of the 4000 crore Deonar proposal, millions affected by stupidity flu will not be able to understand the issue, much less do something about it.

There are thousands of instances where public health is being jeopardised and needs to be worked upon but nothing is done. So many more loose productivity and even die of these afflictions. Go to any public urinal outside any of the railway stations – outrageous is how conditions have existed since as long as our glorious culture. Did those conditions ever receive so much TV hours?

Then I was in the Highest of Courts today and saw the debate on the Deonar proposal and realised that the court was not spared from the flu either.

Rakhi ka Swayamvar, Sach ka Samna karo, some jungle stuff and god knows how much more…on tv, billboards everywhere. (And a huge amount of it exists in English also) It has all been getting on my nerves. Are millions watching this stuff?

But there is a solution to everything. Stupidity flu is curable and people can return to great health. If you feel you have the slightest of symptoms of stuidity flu and would like to be cured do get in touch – only professional consultation!

Thoughts on the Bandra Worli Sealink

Even as there has been a lot of drama, adulation, sense of pride and hype over the opening of the Bandra Worli Sea Link, I have found myself going through a confusing set of emotions, all of which have been tossing around in my salad bowl of a mind.

Yes I certainly feel proud of the link. At all such instances I get reminded of a childhood essay I wrote long back in 1986 for which I received a proud second prize. The essay was about my ambition to become an engineer and make awe inspiring symbols of civil engineering like the  Sears Towers and Expressways like they are found in the US and the Europe and Japan. Machines, buildings, civil engineering processes fascinated me as much as nature if not more since childhood.

Some where along the way the more normative side in me overtook the scientific and I gradually started paying more attention to the problems which were difficult to be solved by engineering.

And in the sea link it was again the normative which has been over riding the engineering interest in how much of concrete was poured and how many times the steel cables can circle the earth. Is this how things ought to be?

I use the public transport in Mumbai quite frequently and even more now in the hype surrounding the sealink I found myself noticing that every bus stop that I passed in a journey from my house near home in Oshiwara to Juhu had a huge puddle of muddy water in front of it. So people would be standing in their bus stop and when the bus came those who were getting out and those who were trying to get in were jostling with each other and negotiating the puddle of muddy water as well.

At each bus stop my mind went through a violent commentary of abuses and remarks on society and the state of things even as my outward self refused to look away and kept gazing lifelessly into the chaos at each stop – a sadistic enjoyment even, thrusting a hot iron rod somewhere near my eyes but not within and enjoying the pain. School children, women in sarees, old men all went through enormous difficulty. Some of the more agile youth took it as a nice acrobatic challenge being able to leap from the dry patch directly into the bus. This is where our sports prowess stops – we dont long jump longer than this.

And then my mind started having images of the kind of banners and newspaper advertisement I would like to see in the papers this week. Would somebody calculate the number of such puddles of water in the city? There must be a good million I suppose?

Can we have a full page advertisement which proudly proclaims that our city has

1,00,7512 puddles in front of bus stops in the city,

1,33,214 instances of missing manholes in other wise normal footpaths because of which people still prefer to travel on the road,

23,732 instances where footpaths have been dug up for some utility work and have been such since more than two weeks,

34,237 instances of hawkers completely having taken over footpaths.

Why cant we feel proud of these numbers? Aren’t these also significant achievements of the great Indian intelligence that we like to tom-tom about from here to New York and beyond?

Then the banners –

Cant solve small puddles of water

Will become world class city (Bombay First and CAG )

Cant solve small puddles of water

Will feel proud of Sealink (this is aimed at the hordes which decided to take the first ride)

Cant solve small puddles of water

Will rush to name sealink after Veer Savarkar (yes this is to the Shiv Sena)

* I dont have the money but sponsors for the banners are welcome – if I cant do a turnkey job of putting up a bridge from scratch, atleast I can take up this contract. Maybe I can monetise the eyeballs also with some kind of an infra red toll machine which tracks the eye balls.

Another of the salad bowl image was a hallucination of an alternate to the opening ceremony. I imagined a scenario, where each of the senior leaders present for the opening ceremony were similarly taking pride in being photographed with Sonia-ji in front of the biggest puddle in the city contest. A nice polygon of muddy water, whose depth one would hesitate to test with ones own feet.

Before that there would have been a mad scramble with all the leaders having pulled Madam in different directions. Madam-Madam see my puddle..please-please..madam..this is not fair, you are spending too much time admiring Kripashankarji’s puddle..please see mine also..then some leader deciding to splash in his puddle like I would have done in the same sixth standard I wrote the essay in..all in joy with a glee..splashing muddy water on his spotless white kurta pyjama and those around him..Madam..smiling elegantly teeth to teeth..so happy with the work of her boy…another leader who had a chottu puddle would decide to pose with another leader with a big one and get pushed away with a “get your own puddle” line.

And then there would be a red ribbon the size of the diameter of the big award winning puddle to cut which all the dignitaries would wade half way through and after cutting the ribbon everybody would do an impromptu filmi jig! Madam the lead heroine and all the others the hero’s trying to woo her. They anyway have all those filmi’s under their belt.

And then I started thinking of the hordes which rushed for the first day first show and some of whose adulation for the link was covered in the papers. These would mostly also be the people who are most unconcerned about any dialogue at comprehensive transport and traffic management in the city. The types who will enrich the sealink makers with their 50 rupees, but not the numerous poor NGOs and initiatives – a number of which I have been part of – where cutting edge thinking about a holistic solution to the city keeps leading a still born existence for lack of nutrition.

I found myself cursing them with a full realisation that in the times we live in the curse would eventually rebound on me leading to more misery to my existence.

And then the mustard. Sharad Pawar did what should land him the top three if not the top position in the Maratha Hall of Shame. In the midst of the enormous allegations of corruption and impropriety I have always had a considerable amount of awe and admiration about the ease with which the man juggles agriculture and cricket and enormous influence of land politics and god alone knows how many other interests. He disappointed so much with his – Madam madam lets name the bridge after Rajiv-ji thing. I could imagine myself part of a heist, which whisks him away only to send him overboard mid-way of the link.

Of course he will have the last laugh. A decade or two down the line we will have his daughter as the Speaker of the house – much like Jagjeevan Ram’s daughter got rewarded. The Congress are good to sycophants.

The Shiv Sena would do better at aiming to name the bridge after one of their Standing Committee Chairmans in the past few terms who has made the most money. I would most certainly second such a proposal. Their bogey of doing good for the Marathi manoos and Marathi asmita is all too jaded now. Veer Savarkar could do best without them.

Feeling proud of the bridge between Sweden and Denmark or the ones in China or the Golden Gate bridge comes not out of the bridges themselves but simultaneously for cities and administrations which have a manic fascination for improving each and every small and big aspect of their cities and lives of the commonest of people, not just 50 buck toll payers.

Feeling proud comes when you are proud of being a city which is good to millions of its pedestrians, not so ruthlessly indifferent and cruel. Not so heavily skewed in favour of only those who will travel in air conditioned vehicles.

Out here bridge innaugarations and pride over them become and extension of the cheap, ostentatious, me too existense of what seems a cursed land.

Obama’s Cairo speech and the road ahead for India

I had the opportunity (25th June) to listen to the historic full speech of Barrack Obama on 4th June at the Cairo University. Follow the speech here.

The hearing followed by a discussion was kept at the American Center with a panel lead by Sadaf Aboli the President of NSUI-Mumbai and Mohammed Wajehuddin, Special Correspondent with the Times of India and moderated by Elizabeth Kauffman the Director of the American Center.

The speech by all means is a path breaking one, one which will in times to come serve as a good reminder should memory fail us about the good efforts started by this speech and there be moments of great tension in which all we can think of is applying swords to our throats.

It is only in America I think that such a quick turnaround is possible from a regime just a year ago whose ethos was so contrary to the one being pursued today. Many other parts of the world silently suffer totalitarian indifferent regimes even in so called democratic setups without being able to do much. India can be a prime example in my mind. Whether the complete lies of the Congress about a secular agenda and do gooder of the Muslims or the Shiv Sena’s blatantly to the contrary claims of having done any good for the Marathi manoos or Hindu religion (they cannot defend themselves against fellow Marathi breakaways, forget saving from the Muslims)

During the discussion session I had the following to share:

1) one of the key elements in my opinion was centered around one sentence ” But I am convinced that in order to move forward, we must say openly to each other the things we hold in our hearts and that too often are said only behind closed doors.” It touched upon something which has become characteristic in the Indian context. When did the general public or even organised groups and institutions speak their mind about what they feel about a particular situation or a party.

Yes the speech was historic and inspiring but more than that I see it as a long to-do list and more importantly I see it of relevance in the Indian context.

The binding thread through the speech was sincerity. It is sincerity which builds trust and which enables to be able to engage in mutual activities which heal wounds inflicted over years. And what I had to share with the group present somewhere was guided with my concern with the lack of sincerity in the Indian context about the deep communal divide which still exists within the Muslim and Hindu communities.

2) I shared with Sadaf Aboli my distrust of the so called secular agenda the Congress has followed in the past six decades which in my opinion is clearly psuedo secular and has very unabashedly and shamelessly worked at using the Muslims as a votebank with little regard for uplifting their conditions.

I shared the incidence of the fire at Behrampada as indicative. These are the very pockets, which bring the Congress to power recurringly time after time after time. And the kind of mind bogglingly bad conditions these people live in. One almost gets the impression that they do so out of an enormous love for living such. Because if things had to be improved then between Priya Dutt and Baba Siddique (not to forget the ‘very concerned’ humanitarian Sunil Dutt) and half a dozen other Muslim leaders that they have things would have improved 2 decades back.

http://www.dnaindia.com/mumbai/report_behrampada-toll-now-5-two-more-bodies-found_1266953

http://firozeshakir.blogspot.com/search/label/muslims%20love%20killing%20muslims

It is being able to address these kind of issues which were required before teh Cairo speech and after nothwithstanding whether you were inspired or not.

And I feel more than having academic debates about the semantics and the content of the speech, it is important to use the speech as a good springboard to jump into action whereever it is needed. And the speech was not just about restoring the divide between the American and the Muslim world. In the Indian context there is a lot of work which remains to be done even inspite of the Muslim community being an integral part of the country.

20 kms of highway per day

I watchethe India Tonight show on CNBC where Karan Thapar spoke to (promoted) Kamal Nath, the new Minsiter for Roads and Highways. The show was a cleverly planned sequence of questions aimed at potraying the new Minister as dynamic and in a good light. This MO of asking just the right questions and putting words into the mouth has become a too mundane strategy by now.

But besides that Kamal Nath mentioned that he would like to see the rate of highway creation go up from 2-3 kms per day to 20kms per day during his term leading to the addition of a ‘whooping’ (Karan said it many times over) 30,000 kms of highways during his five year term.

All through the show Karan had no mention of the beginning of the highway program during the NDA government or the fact that it was during that government that the real changes began and which are still the benchmark considering the poor preformance during the previous UPA term.

Also Karan did not have any studied reports to corroborate some of the claims he was making. Much as he is a intelligent person and I consider him so it is pretty clear that such shows are pre-scripted and even the most intelligent of people cannot come about for a new show every night prepared with all the information on a topic within less than 24 hours.

Its time the old school boys network stopped licking each other and got down to taking their role of leading the country seriously.