My life, your life

12.04.2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First visit to KEM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Air quality on day of Janta Curfew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AQI on 22.03.2020, day of Janta curfew

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

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

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

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

How serious is the problem of air pollution for Mumbai?

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

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

But GRAP is not enough.

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

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

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

Essential services?

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

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

Article in Time of India, December 2014

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

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

Now on cars

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

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

CAA and NRC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mindful by the Coast

~ Mindful by the Coast ~

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

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

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

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

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

But why keep it simple?

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.

India 2019-47

All Indians but especially Hindus have shown themselves incredibly incompetent of governing themselves in the pre and post independence years. And governing would cover a much broader arena than just elections, politics and forming of governments. Democracy would be another discussion all together.

Till 2047 India will be occupied in an action reaction seesaw. The Gandhi-Nehru fragment from 1947 to 1992 till the Babri Masjid demolition and post that from 1992 – 2047 (more like 2012-47) the Hindutva forces, which would use the action (good excuses) of the Gandhi-Nehru fragment to justify their reaction.

It was full Hindu control in the first phase (its Hindus who made vote banks of Muslims and massacred Sikhs in 1984) and it will be full Hindu (Brahmin-Bania) control in the second phase.

And so we can give Modi a third term and potentially one more post 2030. That alone can make Hindus fully appreciate how bad their report card will show up then (post 2030).

By 2047 the demographic dividend would have begun to end and the demographic load will start to show. Most of those who are 20 in 2020 would be in middle age by then and have lived a life with sub-standard opportunities and a sub-standard quality of life. Environmentally the landscape will be a wasteland and ruins.

Grin(or be dead pan) and bear would still be the national motto. The middle and upward classes would be invested and insured in the West (non-Hindu governed), while still glorifying the motherland and carrying out their petty and egoistic experiments.

Those who had to play their games would have done so and gone or be going, having lived very satisfied lives playing their petty games and making themselves sufficiently or enormously rich in the process. In keeping with tradition their sanskars and family values will not be up for discussion.

Plastics Ban

I have had a contrarian stance (and very public) on the Plastics Ban announced by the Government of Maharashtra since November 2017 – when the first announcements of an upcoming ban were made – that the ban is an impractical and stupid idea, which will fail and that it plays only to the gallery, with elections in mind and possibly a bundle of other motives, some of them being ulterior.

In an otherwise wide spread response of elation and hope I was the only one to publicly stand out with my contrarian views, many a time being viewed as cynical or negative and not giving an opportunity for positive developments to take place. Those who were positive should not hold a grudge now when I say that it takes more than positive thinking to make ideas work. And if the fundamentals are wrong no amount of positive thinking can ever help. 

Like I say going for a ban in the current state of SWM in Maharashtra is like attempting a Phd even before clearing kindergarden. A number of urban local bodies cannot even be considered born when it comes to their grasp of the most basic of laws of the land and how to apply them. And we could see it well in Mumbai itself with silly and stop gap measures abounding but no serious engagement. 

For those without a background, I have had a deep engagement with the subject over a long time in Mumbai having worked on the ground and with government through two decades. That engagement provides deeper insight into what works and what doesn’t. It would be good to apply energy on what works rather than on optics, which certainly does not work as much it gives excellent short term returns to a number of stakeholders, not just the politicians.

Below the introductory commentary to this post I am collating all the instances of speaking with the print and electronic media and speaking out my firm and direct criticism of the ban and a few times in panel with the Minister himself who was so enthusiastically championing the ban.

We saw elation in a number of quarters about the ban. A lot of it clearly from people who are part of the political coterie and obliged to halo everything that their party/government does irrespective of (and without any concern for outcome or the environmental consequences) the merits.

Yet others were naive, others plain lazy and wanting to see some good come (and relief for their souls tired of only hearing bad news on the environmental front) without much application of mind. And then those who would like to just go with the flow and be on good terms with the establishment; and that really is such a huge segment in India to almost be the whole.

And the media treading very cautiously. Giving space for somebody like me but also trying to show the government in a positive light as trying to do some good. And if at all then not making any critical remarks on its own, always having someone like me to do the hard hitting.

All in all within less than a year of the formal government notification of the ban, the ban has fallen flat on the more simplistic and visible of its aims – the complete stop on use of the lowly plastic carry bag. Firstly the nomenclature itself was much faulty, was it a plastic carry bag ban or a plastic ban?

Whatever be the case, this another instance of the plastic ban failing is a sad commentary on the state of affairs of environmental governance in Mumbai/Maharashtra. But not very surprising. At a time when we need to be urgent and sincere towards such a serious issue we still have time to be frivolous like this.

In the same year and time as the ban, I came up with the idea of Safai Bank of India, nurtured it within Mumbai Sustainability Centre and the program has firmly established itself in a short duration as a powerful and effective means to handle the waste emerging from millions of biscuit and snack packets sold in multi-layered packaging. This is also in keeping with the laws which enforce Extended Producer Responsibility.  There are no incubation facilities for individuals and ideas which deliver.

As a society we remain unable to provide adequate support to innovation and sincere leadership (there is abundance of insincerity) and will keep meandering the way we do till the same happens.

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2nd July DNA –

Speak up Mumbai – Plastic predicament: Is govt rolling back its tough stand?

My views shared at the end of the link here

 

31st March, 2018

DNA

   

 

 

Indian Express

16th March 2018

Views highlighted below

Maharashtra plastic ban2 16-Mar-2018 IE (2).jpg

DNA

 

 

Mid-Day

Speaking on India Today with Rajdeep Sardesai

(After 14th minute) Here

 

Times Property – 23.06.2018

I speak on how taxation by the government can be a better tool, increasing the price and impacting downstream use.

Times Property 23.06 Plastics

2018-07-11_030045

The first remarks came in November 2017, a few months before the official communication for the ban in March 2018

Total ban on plastic bags in Maharashtra impractical, say environmentalists

Response to ToI story on GMLR

Hi Clara,

Writing with respect to your 17th May story on GMLR. “Green Clearance is no longer needed for SGNP tunnel: BMC

I would like to highlight that the current alignment with tunnels was my proposal and not the original plan by MCGM in 2014 when work first started under SVR Srinivas. Left to the MCGM proposal and alignment of 2014 GMLR would have been ready by now passing through the current Aarey Road. If the tunnel is coming up it is only because some of us disrupted the original alignment and I pushed strongly for the tunnel.

It would be a generally accepted principle that in any newspaper story all important facts pertaining to a matter should be covered and due credit should be provided to those who have played an integral role.

I would like to highlight the following facts for your information and consideration.

1) In July 2014 Aarey Road was handed over for upkeep and jurisdiction from PWD to MCGM. The condition of the road was pathetic and it was one of the major civic issues. The road was till then tolled and yet the road was in a bad condition.

Please have a look at the story below, which clearly highlights the issue and also MCGM plans for GMLR through this road.

https://mumbaimirror.indiatimes.com/mumbai/civic/BMC-to-take-over-Aarey-Colony-road-and-make-it-toll-free/articleshow/40144071.cms?prtpage=1

GMLR as per this alignment in 2014 would be along Aarey Road till Powai and then move northwards along Bhandup pumping station road axis to come to Mulund. In the process 2000 trees were to be cut. There was no alarm from anybody in the city then except Manish Gadia and myself.

 

2) I highlighted the inefficiency of such an alignment in my blog posts and media comments then. My first blog post on the same was on 28th August, 2014

https://rishiaggarwaal.wordpress.com/2014/08/28/gmlr/

Two days after the blog post I sent the first email to Mr. Srinivas on the matter seeking a meeting with him.

Through engaging Srinivas then I single handedly brought a stop to MCGM plans to start the work on widening of Aarey road for GMLR purposes. Manish Gadia was actively involved in the pressure but the initiative to bear down heavily on Srinivas was mostly mine.

We invited a few others, notably Sunjoy Monga and Anand Pendharkar to join in the efforts but there was no participation from either of them right till the end when we tasted success. Not even a congratulatory message.

Copies of the originating email and one later one from Manish Gadia for your perusal

30th August 2014

Recipients list of email on 30th Aug, 2014

Alarm email by Manish Gadia on 6th November 2014

 

3) In November of 2014, the local ward office had clear orders to start cutting trees post Diwali to make way for GMLR preparations. We were continuously in touch with the Assistant Commissioner at P(South) Office and the staff. During the clean-up drive kept at Aarey on 2nd November 2014 I even confronted Ravindra Waikar strongly at the Aarey Garden when he shouted back at me.

On November 11, 2014 we finally got a meeting with Srinivas on the matter. He rejected the tunnel idea (too costly according to him) then suggesting that he will consider an elevated option where neither the road will be widened nor trees cut. I was not sure how this would be possible but we agreed to such a plan as a means to buy time and avert the imminent cutting of trees which was beginning soon.

The tunnel was my most favoured option even then. Though I came for a lot of criticism in the nature community.

Letter submitted on 11th November, 2014 as part of the final meeting

4) The tunnel proposal as described in your article was written by me to MCGM citing all the advantages now ascribed to MCGM. Ranjeet Jadhav of Mid-Day even covered the matter prominently in a full page feature. Please have a look at image below of the article. My views have been covered in great detail. It came to my mind then that Mr. Padikkal and others had also suggested a tunnel option a few years ago, with one arm from the Kandivali end.

Mid-Day article from 27th November, 2014

5) Save Aarey movement was not such a big global name then but it became big because of all these big interventions of 2014 and 2015. Many who are now the face of the movement played no role in many of these developments. The early successes led to the subsequent demise of the movement because there was a rush by all and sundry to be the face of the movement.

In 2014 there was hardly any participation from people forget noisy rhetoric like now. Had there been no opposition from a few of us GMLR would have easily gone ahead on Aarey Road with 2000 trees being cut. With abundant knowledge of the alignment coming up there was no opposition from the large number of members who make up Aarey walkers Club (mostly businessmen who don’t want to mess with the establishment in anyways and would have been at ease with seeing the trees being cut). Nor from Bittu Sahgal or Anish Andheria or Anand Pendharkar or Vanashakti/Stalin (who were still to open their Aarey account)

I love (not like) Aramco

I hardly read papers now. Whatever little news I follow is through what Google throws on its phone feeds. And then once in a while when I do read papers it is with shock and awe. And then sometimes it can lead to a lot of my time being taken away from urgent tasks to write notes like these. A waste. Nothing changes in this characterless country. The only take away? Never read the papers in the morning. At least not when you have a long to do list.

Two news pieces combined wonderfully in the past 2-3 days. I could see some headlines on the new Aramco investment of $44 billion investment in an Indian (or is it a Republic of Konkan) refinery. I think this was the first article I read.

$44 Billion?! Now where did they get that kind of money from? Somehow the money must have gone in to now come out? Here my vices and addictions have made me a pauper who can only sustain his dream projects on small donations from friends and there they have $44 billions! Now I should also learn to make that kind of money.

The interesting part was about how oil at $ 50 a barrel and oil at $ 80 a barrel makes a difference for Saudi Arabia and helps them support financing for some internal agendas. Every business and cause needs funds to sustain itself. And Indians sustain the Saudi business and cause(s) very well. They wholeheartedly subscribe. They love Aramco.

And then I saw this news item while going for this novelty called a newspaper at breakfast today. I had come from travels after a while and sitting for breakfast at home thought of also glancing through the papers. Saw this particular headline on page two, almost choked, went through a spin of thoughts and folded the paper to keep it aside to have my breakfast peacefully. Enough anguish, enough material to write this note. No need to even read the article.

trim 2

The headline was just regurgitating a similar headline from May 2015. Maybe there had been some new development (no) but the ground situation has been exactly the same, maybe even worse. I had even been invited to write a damn article on the development then in the Mumbai Mirror. Thinking that it will make a difference. It even started on the cover page not a sidey page 2 bottom.

I could speak at length about the joke that the Bombay HC is and bring in a dozen other pronouncements by it as case studies but why waste more time?

Walking for me is just not an activity, it is poetry, it is medicine, it is sustainability as a cause, it can be a topic for fiscal implications and most certainly a topic for how the transport planning of our cities should be carried out.

In 2012 I made an attempt to give shape to Walking Project as an advocacy movement, which will accelerate the development of pedestrian friendly roads in Indian cities. I had just come out of a showdown at my job at World Resources Institute where I got into a bad fight with the people who had taken control of a walkability improvement project I had developed with a lot of passion and fondness and were ruining it. The organisation itself is an elegant waste of money. Elegant is the word to note, not waste. As long as elegance is there waste is fine.

Since May 2015 (when I wrote the article on walkability as a fundamental right) and now when I read the article today, Indians have put billions of dollars into the pockets of Saudis and for Walking Project I have raised just about Rs. 100,000 from 5-6 odd individuals. And so the Saudi’s now are in a position to apportion a part of the money they have collected from Indians themselves and make an investment in a refinery of theirs. And here I sit fretting and fuming and wasting more time after reading a news article.

Much patriotic Indians (Mumbaikaars) have shown no support for a home grown initiative, which could at least endeavour to stop the flow of some of those dollars. I still sit on plans of a model road in each of the 24 wards, Andheri Kurla Road, E Moses Road, Senapati bapat Road and so on. Not to mention that in my mind I have plans all mapped out for important roads and junctions in 10 other cities I have visited since 2012.

There is a facebook group with 700 odd people. No activity takes place on the group now because I have decided not to engage people who cannot show character to contribute even 100 rupees a year. And they on their own do not have what it takes to show initiative and dare.

Two years back a think-highly-of-itself (which doesn’t) Rotary Club invited me to speak, two members got impressed with Walking Project and promised Rs. 25,000 each and that’s about it. No news after that. Another member suggested he could help with big sponsorship support but only for a co-founder tag. Ok sure. Self before Service.

The more character and intellectually challenged folks ofcourse do keep asking how any support for an advocacy movement will bring any immediate difference to their own experience of walking. It is like a quid pro quo. I pay the Saudi’s an xyz amount for every litre of fuel and that allows me to with much pomp and show drive around my luxury sedan. If I give you 10,000 rupees what is it that you have to show for the road outside my office? Nothing? Well you get nothing then. Please do not waste my time. I LIKE the activity you are doing. You can have my LIKE, the money is for the Saudi’s.  

While Indians have been luxuriously funding the Saudi business and cause(s), they – or the few I manage to reach through social media and personal interactions – are truly lousy at supporting any of my businesses and causes. Only a handful show the character and temerity to rise above.

My business does not prey on human weaknesses, it requires a certain character on part of the consumer. And that is where lies its shortfall. Weakness is aplenty in the people of India today, character too little. #sanskari

Yes a lot of this use of fossil fuels and outflow of money is needed to sustain the living paradigm we have adopted but a great deal of it is also waste. While we might question the paradigm and there may be differences of opinion on philosophical grounds there is no disagreement that the paradigm can be made a whole lot more energy efficient.  And it can be made energy efficient by only supporting those who will work on that agenda. Not by chanting Hanuman Chalisa.

Walking and cycling friendly cities, ecological waste management, would be so much more energy efficient and prevent millions of litres of diesel being used in the first place but some of us are left to doing pilots and giving quotes to newspapers while the big boys sign billion dollar contracts.

It is easier for a fossil fuel powered model of the world to be sustained because it can be funded. Dry up the funding and the Arabs would be like me and others in the ilk. Issuing requests for donations to sustain their enterprise and ideas.

Some side thoughts towards the end. The Arabs have learnt a lot from the Americans over the decades. After being fooled and used wholesale by the Americans they now have learnt to use the same tricks successfully to become (more) powerful. Everybody learns from the wonderful Americans. I am a product of American thought and action, though of the kind which does not find popular flavour. And so the Arabs have now started deploying the learning on gullible doormat nations like India who can be fooled and used any amount.

From money taken from the Indians they will not be able to create jobs for the same Indians and create a new loyal bureaucracy of people who have always loved to come out of the woodwork and serve up any new colonial master as long as they can get status and some money for lifestyle.

Buddhiheen tanu jaani ke pawan kumar….