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.

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.

Ganpati Bappa Morya and Mumbai monsoon mayhem – points further to television debates today

I was not inclined to join the ET Now debate at 9pm but eventually did. Below is the link

Some points I can now elaborate on, which is not possible in a 30 minute slot.

Point 1

Sujay Kantawala’s, suggestion that citizen experts and community workers be on various government panels is way too long overdue. I would say that to supplement that, what we need more importantly is for citizens to participate in their local politics, their elected representatives need to be petitioned, the ward annual budgets and works need to be supervised and taken interest in. None of that happens. For decades now I have been left holding to alone and applying one of my favourite words “Eternal vigilance is the price we pay for freedom” No such fascination among peers and fellow citizens. This requires wisdom on which I have elaborated in Point 2.

All of this was well piloted since the time AGNI came into existence 20 years ago but with the advent of social media and the digital age, face to face connect has disappeared or taken a backseat compared to what people do on Facebook.

Another point to add is that some of us who have been at this city improvement path for a very long time have been let down by the very citizens and society in whose interest we speak. By now there should have been support from the public for me and so many others to be in politics and have some leverage in the decision making process rather than just spout wisdom on television debates.

I entered politics a decade back contesting the Lok Sabha 2009 election but left it at that seeing the amount of energy and effort and the inability to raise financial resources to support this endeavour through honest means. Other city residents could have stepped in to provide necessary support for an office, staff, travel and the usual. But nothing. You cannot have the kind of ridiculous bad quality elected representatives that we have and expect to “deserve” anything better.

Point 2

For this point I will be unpopular but has to be said. The city does not show a fraction of the enthusiasm for civic affairs and those who champion for them that it shows for the Ganesh Utsav. It is an insight which really sustains the current state of affairs.

People will purchase a new lifeless idol every year and fall in love with it and get cute and cuddly and prayer to it but will not have an iota of interest in a living city and some of us living beings who are working at keeping and improving life in that city. It got tiring long back, now I feel exhausted. A prisoner of my own device.

Over 20 years of my close involvement with Mumbai issues I have seen people pray to that lifeless idol and get rewarded with Green Cards and lifestyle and move to enjoy more well managed and aesthetic cities and I have spent the better years of my life and still do (though much less now) on its issues. Essential India to understand. #beinghindu

If there was indeed wisdom spouting from Ganpati then that wisdom would have seen his devotees learning from the 2005 floods and many more such events and move to better and better management. If there was wisdom we would not have seen such a terribly insecure and guarded Devendra Fadnavis (after a full majority) but a more confident and courageous CM convening people across party and support lines to come together in making Mumbai a well managed city.

People do not have a Ganpati Utsav in a London or a Singapore and Shanghai and Paris and possibly that’s why those cities are wiser in their management. And it is the Ganpati devotees who go all out to enjoy and devour these cities. They pray that they get wealth or jobs, which will take them away from the drab aesthetics and bad management of this city (and many more in this country) to greener pastures in the Christian world of Europe and America.

For me this is a god who does not deliver well on any of those promised qualities that are suggested and is a failure. The Brahmins need to take note and correct the defects in their product. Yes he works wonders at the individual level and has rewarded handsomely the very political class and terribly selfish middle class over the past 30-40 years of my life and observing the whole game but then that is the same political class in partnership with the the none so wise middle class, which has made the city what it is.

Wisdom would have meant that there would be a clear realisation that Metro and coast road will not solve traffic congestion. But it seems it is this very god who has removed all the obstacles to unwise and folly ridden projects with not so honest intentions, which are disguised in not so intelligent positions.

I am happy being me and the celebration class is happy being them and it seems the twain shall never meet.

Point 3

I already answered to Shaina’s point about coast road and Metro but to add to it I must say that this government has been disappointing for its levels of insecurity and pettiness. The time really is to collaborate but this has been a government in a huddle not wanting to let in anybody it is uncomfortable with.

In no single coming together of people is there complete agreement, there are fights in families, disagreements in office projects but through all of this people realise that the only way to achieve anything is through collaboration. And so I would like to invite her for a discussion off panel discussions, to put heads together to work on numerous avenues available where there is no clash in positions.

Through a tweet I am marking the post to Tamanna Inamdar, Senior Editor at ET Now and the host, Sujay Kantawala and Shaina NC.

How do we end this corruption?

#IndiaAgainstCorruption           #demonitization-will-end-corruption!

Below pictures capture the open loot and waste of public money that is being carried out across Mumbai in brazen public view. Footpath after footpath is seeing this.

The current type of paver blocks in perfectly usable condition are being removed and the new square kind are being put. A footpath which could have easily lasted for five more years is pulled apart.

More than the functioning of the BMC it is an insight into the poor capability of citizens even after so many years at being able to intervene in the simplest of public issues.

Not just waste of public money this is a waste of precious natural resources. If not those in the India Against Corruption side then those who fight for the environment and sand mining and forests etc. should have been moved by the sight of what is going on and done something. People move across the city with a smooth glazed vision.

It is easier to talk about big scams because then you have to only speak and do nothing. Or talk about big issues like the Shivaji statue because then you are flowing with the flow and part of the latest fad and talking point.

I used to scoff at those who participated in IAC in Mumbai, the idea of Jan Lokpal Bill, the naive enthusiasm around Anna Hazare. I would then challenge people to look into just MCGM and apply their energies there than the national level. The movement was another instance of flowing with the latest fad. Few of the people who participated have any self ability to address any issue (hyperlocal) or provide their energy and resource for anything which is not a national talking point.

Now the fad is demonetization will knock the wind out of corruption. Sure. Whats happening on the footpaths is plain blatant corruption in front of naked eyes, not hidden away. Whether the paver blocks or the grills, a whole racket within BMC is siphoning of public money through these expenditures, from politicians to officials and of course the contractor is only the medium who gets his commission for doing all the dirty work.

How will demonetization knock the wind of this corruption?

Let BJP leaders beginning from the PM and CM (since there is much agreement there that demonetization is the solution to corruption) swear on the Gita (Mein Gita ki saugandh kha kar…) or on an idol of Ram or on the shivling that none in the ranks of BJP has benefitted from these fake and shabby contracts?

Lets plan sustainable mobility for Mahatma Mandir, Gandhinagar

I was a delegate at the Urban Mobility India 2016 Conference organised by the Institute of Urban Transport at Mahatma Mandir Convention and Exhibition Centre at Gandhi Nagar. The theme this year was Planning Mobility for City’s Sustainability.

Several participants could not help but realise how the way the Mahatma Mandir convention centre is planned is itself not consistent with the theme of the conference. The Mahatma had said “be the change you wish to see in the world”. It will be good if the organisers of the conference will heed to those words and immediately undertake steps to plan for sustainable mobility for the complex and thus practice what they preach.

It will help safeguard the sanctity of giving themes to any conference and also help show genuine appreciation for Mahatma Gandhi beyond the usual accolades. Let Mahatma Mandir demonstrate highest standards of sustainability.

gandhinagar

The convention centre is massive spread over 35 acres and can hold programs attracting a few hundred to a few thousands. A number of programs attract delegates from outside Gandhinagar and Ahmedabad who require accommodation in hotels.  The immediate vicinity of the convention centre has no good quality accommodation forcing delegates to stay 3-20 kms away. This calls for long trip lengths, substantial time in transport, use of motorised means of transport and additional costs as well.

Sustainable Transport is the key theme for urban mobility. The principles of sustainable transport have been very well captured in a framework of steps to be taken – Avoid Shift Improve.

Image result for Avoid Shift
Source: http://www.energypedia.info

It is important to appreciate the need to avoid trips in the first place. If a trip does not take place or a much shorter length trip takes place then the following happens.

  • Number of people in a system whether on the road, in metro or in bus reduces, thus reducing crowding and congestion
  • If trip length is reduced then a number of people can shift to modes like walking and cycling. A 1-3km length is very favourable for walking and cycling compared with a 10km or more length.

How we use a given land area determines whether people are left with no choice but to take long trips or can conveniently do work with short trips.

The carbon footprint of holding an event at Mahatma Mandir is captured in terms of the sum total of fossil fuel based energy used by the various processes and participants. This consists of the electricity used for lighting and air conditioning the various halls and meeting areas, which uses electricity which is generated from burning coal. The other big component of use is the transport used by people who have to travel to the venue.

There are trips which are avoidable and those which are unavoidable. For those staying in Ahmedabad itself if they have to travel 20 kms one way to reach Mahatma Mandir then there is no way they can avoid the trip. But if there is a delegation of 20 people coming from 10 different cities of the country then it does not matter to them if they are staying 20 kms away, 7 kms away or 1 km away. Anybody would like to stay close to avoid long journey times and costs.

Now in the case of Mahatma Mandir there is no accommodation close to the venue itself. There is a five start hotel 3.5 kms away. Some of us stayed at a budget hotel 7.5 kms away. Every morning we would book three cabs and four people to one cab. A round trip would be about 15 kms – a litre or maybe half of fuel per cab per round trip. There is a corresponding amount of emissions per litre of fuel burnt.

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Providing good quality accommodation in a 500 meter – 3 kilometer vicinity of Mahatma Mandir with corresponding vibrant street life, entertainment and leisure facilities will ensure that:

  1. The carbon footprint of the events organised at Mahatma Mandir goes down.
  2. There is reduced congestion on the roads leading to Mahatma Mandir
  3. The delegates save time and money
  4. Delegates get to walk and cycle to Mahatma Mandir thus enabling zero emissions in their trips besides providing exercise and leisure. The neighbourhood streets of Mahatma Mandir which are otherwise desolate will also see life. They are not cycle friendly currently due to high speeding cars.
  5. The proximity of delegates staying close by would enable more opportunity for meeting already known industry colleagues from different parts of the country and make new contacts and friends within the industry.
  6. Possibility of organising informal side events, meetings, presentations would increase. Delegates could potentially hold these meetings in their hotels or specific facilities which could be provided as part of the plan.

Mahatma Mandir and Gandhinagar in general has the scope still to provide for high quality accommodation in various budget categories close to the venue of Mahatma Mandir since there are a number of empty plots.  With additional steps being taken a vibrant neighbourhood could be created around the complex making it great for off work hours as well. Great street food, art and culture. The complex and the buildings can become architecture and sustainability delights.

An analysis of the land use around Mahatma Mandir reveals that there are some plots which are completely empty as of now. One such is Sector 13D (shown in image below), which is about ten acres in size. It can be developed along the lines of a Khan Market, New Delhi with a lot of place for eating out and staying besides space for cultural activities as well. It will be good to have some scope for alcohol as well, which is a sore point in Gujarat for out of state visitors.

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Khan Market is less than 5 acres and can pack in so much. At 10 acres Sector 13 D could do a lot more. Some elements from the Khan Market typology can be used. A grid of walkable streets would be a great feature.

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From Sector 13 D the various entrances of the Mahatma Mandir range from 100-1000 meters at the maximum. The median would be 500 meters. This is completely walkable or there can be small electric buses and cycles for people to choose from. There seems to be some land around Gandhinagar Railway Station and Sector 11 as well.

The following individuals and organisations should be immediately tasked with creating a time bound plan to ensure enough hotel capacity and a vibrant neighbourhood in the immediate 1-2km vicinity of Mahatma Mandir:

  1. Institute of Urban Transport (the organisers of Urban Mobility India). There are numerous urban planners employed with the institute itself. The MOUD is the patron body and should directly look into this. I will become a member of IUT soon and would like to drive this as a member as well.
  2. CEPT – there are numerous departments within CEPT which should have already looked into this already but should do so now. Prof. Sivanand Swamy now is Director of Excellence in Urban Transport and the proposal outlined above confirms to excellence.
  3. There is a group called Sustainable Urban Mobility India Network, of which I became a recent member and on whose organisation (and support from Shakti Foundation) I attended the Conference. It will be good for the Network to engage in this as well.
  4. There are so many urban designers and urban planners friends and would be good to see them take this up as well.

Swacch Bharat – Can we have Work Area Management?

See the two pictures below

First picture from March 2012 in Hong Kong. The truck below is coming out of a major construction site in Kowloon.

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When the trucks leave the construction site they are squeaky clean leaving no trail of dust back on the road.

Now look at the truck below. June 23rd 2016 just before the monsoon started.

Site: Under construction Gundecha School by Gundecha Builders. Next to Mega Mall, Andheri/Jogeshwari (West), Mumbai

The truck comes out of this gate

And leaves a trail of mud on an otherwise clean road

The effect lasts for almost 500 metres. See the three towers come closer.

    

And then there is this man who is then employed to clean up. This is how we do it in India. There was always somebody to pick up our shit. The corporate offices of developers are plush.

How do they do it in Hong Kong? All trucks coming out of a construction sites have their tyres and under parts thoroughly cleaned with powerful hose jet spraying. The trucks only leave the premises when there is no loose mud left anywhere on the tyres. Go back to the very first picture and see the condition of the tyres. They are cleaner than the road.

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All construction trucks leaving the site are thoroughly hosed to remove all mud and dust.

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And that is how the roads a dust free and a pleasure to walk

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Not like this

I have highlighted the issue in past entries as well and for about a decade now. Dust management, mud management, material management, noise management, labour safety management.

I have stopped criticising the Swacch Bharat Abhiyan or the Smart Cities program because both have their fundamentals wrong and are not worth discussing. Addressing issues like work area management is what makes our surroundings clean and our cities smart.

This is an issue to be taken up by MCHI and CREDAI. This is the least Corporate Social Responsibility that large developers can show. And the municipal corporation needs to have some sense of forming and enforcing appropriate rules rather than doing stupid photo ops with celebrities and brooms.

Airport Pre-paid cabs and the Taxi aggregators

Last weeks two pre-paid taxi rides from two big airports brought out starkly some concerns and questions about regulating the taxi sector, which seems to have become so important with the emergence of taxi aggregators.

In the first ride, I got off New Delhi airport Terminal 1 D at 1:15 am in the night and with my phone battery discharged was forced to stop by the pre-paid taxi window. For  Rs. 250 I was handed a green and pink slip for a trip to a hotel close by. I was asked to show the slip to an attendant close by who after some confusion about which vehicle I should get into pointed me in the direction of a ram shackle Maruti Omni, which turned out to be non AC and then I also noticed another passenger get into the same car as well from the other door.

That particular night was a crazy one with inclement weather at Delhi having completely thrown off gear flight schedules. The other passenger seemed equally tired and without much application of mind we both adjusted, more so because it was a 10  min ride. The driver was a cocky one, who seemed to know both the hotels and was confident that you could name any hotel in Delhi and he could reach us there. It was one racy high speed drive in a ramshackle vehicle.

So two people paid Rs.250 to receive the drop service of an individual taxi but were accommodated into one ramshackle one. This is as per regulation?

The second incidence was at Mumbai Domestic Airport. I came out late night. Saw a large line at the Meru counter. There was another newly opened counter of some Sai Travels, which offered a rate of Rs. 750 for the cab, which obviously was atrociously high on any benchmark. Any fare regulation here?

I could see an Uber cab far away on the app and no Ola cab. I decided to go for the pre-paid cab. For Rs. 350 I was again handed a receipt with a vehicle number I was to board. On coming to the location where the cool cabs are parked I was told that the taxi allotted to me had left and was asked by one of the drivers to inform the security person there who in turn went back to the counter and got another booking. There was some issue with that booking as well but then another of the drivers who had been noticing this back and forth asked me to come along and ushered me into his vehicle. It was a cool cab, Santro, with greasy upholstery and some of the fixtures on the door panel broken.

What began was a very risky high speed ride which left me with a feeling of having leapt of a cliff. The driver was leaning over the steering wheel as if that would contribute additional acceleration to the vehicle beyond what he was getting by putting his foot on the pedal. In the beginning of the drive after joining the highway he opened the door at high speed to empty his paan and tobacco full mouth. Immediately after that he edged out another vehicle in high speed, who abused him while passing by. I remained quiet at this point.

On another instance on the high way he dangerously manoeuvred a scooter driver who showered him with another set of abuses. At this point I had to indicate to him that I was in absolutely no hurry and so what exactly was the point in driving so unsafe. He replied that I might not be in a hurry but he clearly was. In an aggregator cab I would have given such a driver a single star and in the comments section reported him affecting future rides that he would get. But here there was no redress.

At a time when we discuss road safety in this country the rash driving of both the pre-paid drivers I engaged would have qualified for serious action. But it is instances like these which place poor faith in India’s ability to make any difference to the situation.

The pre-paid cabs at the airports and the cool cabs in Mumbai are run by a nexus of various government officials, not limited to just officials from the Transport Department, political lackeys and the usual mix. The drivers have no fear from the police or the laws about being involved in an accident or breaking traffic rules because who will police the police? They know they will be rescued by the framework under which they operate.

Which brings us to the essential question about what really is the regulation we want in the taxi sector and to what end? Bangalore has just banned Uber.

At all airports aggregator cabs are treated as pariahs even when it is the first choice increasingly for most users of the airports. Why is it that pre-paid taxis which are not the first choice is provided premium positioning at the airports? Are they in any ways safeguarding consumer/commuter interest better than aggregator cabs? Are the transport departments safeguarding commuter interests here?

Yes the basic argument will keep cropping up – that the aggregators are out to kill the competition with their deep discounting and once there is no competition left they will hike the rates. So how does that justify a closed nexus of who knows whom operating pre-paid taxi’s at all Indian airports? How are their rates determined and what are the service level standards? Is observing some archaic clause of Motor Vehicles Act all that is to regulating taxi services? Are the same authorities which are breathing down aggregators as interested in regulating pre-paid taxis and many other facets of the taxi trade or transport governance for that matter? Is regulating the aggregators at the airports all about protecting the business model of pre-paid taxis?

 

Mumbai Metro – Citiflo integration

The image below appeared in Times of India on 23rd March, 2016

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There will be difficulties in the success of the partnership between Mumbai Metro and bus aggregator Citiflo. The same obsacles which plague BEST buses and rickshaws will also affect the Citiflo operations leading to financial stress. No doubt Citiflo must have done its calculations but the moot point to observe in the information provided in image above is that a distance of 5kms is proposed to be covered in 30-40 mins i.e a speed of 10kmph or less. This is the same problem affecting BEST buses, they cannot turn around fast enough are spending most of their time idling in traffic, which is what the Citiflo buses will also do. Of course the passengers will be sitting in air-conditioned comfort, while still wasting as much of their time.

The objective has to be to make sure that a distance of 5 kms is covered in less than 15mins and the solution is to create new road(s) to access the hinterland consisting of Chandivali and Powai and to reduce load on the ridiculously overloaded Saki Vihar Road.

The low rise slum pockets which carpet between Saki Naka station and Subhash Nagar/Asalpha Station need to be the focus of attention and have indeed been so. Last year in September some of us were invited to view this presentation which had Asalpha as a case study.

The image below will help highlight the situation. Three placemarks to focus on – Asalpha Metro Station, Nahar Amrut Shakti Colony and the commercial complex called Boomerang. The straight red line between Asalpha and Nahar measures 800 meters. That is all that the distance is, which normally would get covered in 5 mins. But currently Nahar Complex has to be approaced via Saki Vihar Road and Saki Naka Station, doubling the distance and the time taken during peak hour congestion can easily be 20-30 mins.

All that is needed is a straight road to be developed from Asalpha Metro Station to Nahar Amrut Shakti. Beyond this there are existing roads connecting to Chandivali and Powai. The road should have a minimum of 15 feet wide footpaths on both sides, thus enabling those staying in Nahar Complex to just walk to Asalpha Station.

Even streamlining the existing Kherani Road can offer immediate relief. Kherani Road during peak hours is a sad sight to see and speaks volumes of the neglect of urban planning and the complete lack of compasion and vision within the city to offer the most simplest of solutions to its citizens.

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A close up image

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None of this is unsurmountble, even as the dense cluster of slums may look intimidating. With the right planners and adminstrators 2-3  years maximum. In a better governed city this would have been made mandatory on Nahar Developers to create such a road before undertaking any construction on their site.

But such kind of thinking and work draws no interest from anybody but the planners and those who are into advocacy. Companies like Mumbai Metro and Citiflo have their immediate balance sheets to look into and the commuters whose problems they (and activists) are trying to solve are plugged into FM Radio or playing video games on the phones. Most of them do not even read such news reports.

Why the Bombay HC order banning construction is stupid

The Bombay High Court has again passed some kind of an order prohibiting the municipal corporation from giving permissions for construction of any new building because of its inability to handle the waste crisis being faced by Mumbai. The media will be reluctant to capture my thoughts in quotes but I do have the freedom (hopefully and the tolerance of the Judges) to say it on my own blog post that the court order is totally stupid. It might have been passed with some other purpose in mind but not for solving the waste issue.

There is no relationship between additional construction and the current waste management crisis. Managed well, even if the garbage generated doubles there would still be no need for the current type of dumping grounds and only a fraction of land required for a single scientific land fill. To re iterate, if today Mumbai is generating 10,000 tonnes of waste and we have a crisis, then handled my way ( yes I will say my way) Mumbai can generate 20,000 tonnes of waste per day and I will assure closure of Deonar by 2020 and lush green parks and playgrounds on the same site by 2030. Let the buildings keep coming up and generating more waste. Open challenge to the Bombay HC and MCGM.

If I can show you ten buildings which are not sending any waste to Deonar today then I can very easily (with resources which are all being charred by MCGM currently) make 100,000 buildings also not send any waste to Deonar or any other dump. That is the key aspect, which makes the current order look so stupid.

If there is a ONE BIG co-relation it is between the failure of the Bombay HC in carrying out contempt proceedings for non-compliance of grand orders passed on waste management issues in the past 15 years by its own self. Something tells me that it would be expecting too much for the Judges or the Court to be doing that. If only the Judges who have passed this order, studied orders passed by their predecessors over the past 10-15 years – and more notably those by Justice Chandrachud and decided to initiate contempt proceedings against all the IAS officers who have handled or currently handle the relevant departments then it would have made more impact.

Just when did we last see the Court prosecute any senior official or politicians for any of its PIL orders in the past? PILs have become a joke. Only blind worshiping bhakts of the judicial system have faith in PILs because their blind belief enables them to not stray their looks and look at the reality.

Fine non-complying buildings Rs. 3000 for every instance of non-segregation back to back and the most stubborn and wealthy of buildings will end up complying. If MCGM is incapable, incompetent or insincere in implementing MSW 2000 then let them say so, let the Court take cognizance of it and lets talk ahead. But lets not waste time with these kind of stupid orders. Have a look at this public advertisement by MCGM in 2001 here

Materials below for those who might have missed them before or those whose eyes only keep glazing over all the evidence.

What a zero waste building looks like at this link

Suggestions to the MCGM for SWM in DP 2014 at this video