Jun 272013

My column in today’s DNA
Nature’s fury. Human blunder. Himalayan tsunami. These are just some of the hyperbolic terms used to describe the cloudburst, flash floods and the subsequent devastation that has wracked Uttarakhand over the last week or so. But, this is neither the first disaster to hit India in the last few decades, nor will it be the last.
Asia, in general, and South Asia in particular, is often called the “supermarket of disasters” because almost everything that can go wrong with nature goes wrong here — even without the presence of human beings. Earthquakes, landslides, cloud bursts, famine and volcanoes are all par for the course. Add dense population, the need to meet the aspirations of this population, negotiable integrity, a ‘who-has-seen-tomorrow’ nonchalance, and government ineptitude and you have a disaster just waiting to happen.

The Boxing Day Tsunami, also called the Indian Ocean Tsunami that hit Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and parts of India saw almost 2.25 lakh deaths across the region, countless injured and billions of dollars of loss in terms of property and infrastructure. In terms of loss of life, it has been the single biggest disaster of this century. Cyclone Nargis, the worst natural disaster in Burma, led to almost 140,000 lives being lost. The more recent tsunami that hit Japan saw loss of not just life and property, but an additional risk caused by a nuclear reactor being impacted by nature’s fury. In recent years, Mount Merapi in Indonesia blew its top causing death and destruction with flaming lava. And these are barely the tip of the disaster iceberg.
In May, the United Nations released a report that had estimated the cost incurred due to disasters to around US $2.5 trillion, at least 50 per cent higher than earlier estimates. Scientists expect earth to be hit by more hazards in the years to come — some caused by earth itself changing, others by changes brought about by human beings and our desire to harness nature. When a natural hazard becomes a disaster, we count the loss in terms of life, limb, property and infrastructure. But, there is a cost that is not counted — that is the cost borne by populations and that cost is development. The loss of buildings is quantifiable — for example, a school is washed away, and it will cost RsX to rebuild. How do you quantify the loss in education to all the children who live in that area? Similarly, the loss of a factory is quantifiable as is the loss in livelihood. But how do you measure the loss in self-respect and self-esteem — a wage earner who suddenly becomes dependent on handouts.
Given the fact that we live in a world that is dangerous — even before humans start wars or riots — there are two ways of dealing with natural hazards and their aftermath. The first is the current mode, which is wait for a disaster to happen and then rush in with resources and aid. In the past 60 years this has been the main method of dealing with disasters — aid agencies and governments pour millions into rescue and rehabilitation. However, this method is reactive, and while rehabilitation occurs, there is no way that lives and livelihood and lost development can be recovered. Also, given that natural disasters are striking more frequently, there is an onset of “donor fatigue” — a slowdown of public response posts a disaster that impacts the poorest of the poor the most. From the donors point of view: How many times do you help people in the same region rebuild, especially given that they fall prey to the same mistakes?
The second is a mode that says that the world is a dangerous place; let’s learn to mitigate these dangers through policy-making, planning, publicising and participation. The aim of this mode is to make communities resilient so that they can overcome the effects of the disaster by themselves, with minimal impact on life, livelihood and quality of living. The aim here is to make Disaster Risk Reduction a part of everyday policy — from building of roads, to the construction of homes; from encouraging kitchen gardens to putting in place community shelters. The idea is spend a little more now, and tomorrow when disaster strikes you don’t have to spend billions. The idea is, when a natural hazard occurs, it does not become a disaster, and loss to life and property is minimal.
No government on earth can prevent a cloud burst, nor can they prevent flash floods or tsunamis or their impact on the world at large. What governments can do, however, is to mitigate the effects of the disaster through careful planning of all aspects of development in a region, by keeping in mind the fact that it is prone to a certain type of natural hazard. This does not mean one puts development on the back burner. It is, however, possible to undertake sensible development — where you factor in the environmental hazards. To give an example, Japan lies in one of the most earthquake prone regions of the world. The great earthquake of 1923 killed almost 150,000 people. Since then there have been a number of earthquakes, yet the casualty figures are minimal. That is because the Japanese have internalised that they live in a dangerous part of the world, and disaster-risk reduction is part of their national ethos. Every construction is earthquake proof. And, Japan has some of the tallest buildings of any nation.
India lurches from disaster to disaster and relief to relief. And, this really is going to do no one any good unless long-term disaster preparedness becomes part of the national ethos. Not just the government, but every single citizen. It is in the way development is planned, buildings are constructed, people are trained, and citizens are prepared. Else, all we can do is mourn our dead, count our losses and pray for the survivors.

Jun 232013

I have known and worked with the people at SEEDS India for almost 6 years. i have worked with them in documenting the post Tsunami response and was awed by their focus on making communities impacted by disasters self sufficient. They work exclusively in the area of disaster mitigation and rehabilitation. do read their appeal and see if you can help.


Heavy and non-stop rainfall has caused irreversible damage in the state of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. The worst flood affected districts are Uttarkashi, Chamoli, Rudraprayag, Pithorgarh in Uttarakhand and Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh. Roads and essential infrastructure (bridges and health centres) have suffered extensive damage. There is an urgent need for humanitarian assistance to the local communities.

More than 70,000 people are still missing. Local families have lost everything they owned (houses, livestock, assets) .Our team and partner organizations are assessing the situations and supporting basic needs on the ground. The ground realities are expected to get worse in the coming days with lack of clean water, medical aid, shelter and food shortages.

SEEDS is responding to the shelter needs of affected people in Chamoli and the first batch of tents is being dispatched. It plans to restore houses for at least 200 families.
You can also contribute by Cheque /Draft drawn in favour of “SEEDS”
SEEDS, 15/A Institutional Area, R.K Puram,
Sector IV, New Delhi-110022
Tel: +91-11-26174272

For further information, please contact:
Mr. Yezdani Rahman
Co-coordinator-Humanitarian Assistance
E-mail: rahman@seedsindia.org
Phone: +91-9650747952

– See more at: http://seedsindia.org/uttarakhand_flood.html#sthash.yt0e32nl.dpuf


About Seeds India

SEEDS, founded in 1994, is a humanitarian organisation that has been active in all major relief and rehabilitation initiatives since the 2001 Gujarat Earthquake. Over the years, our team has reached out to families affected by earthquakes, floods and cyclones; restored schools and hospitals. SEEDS continue to advocate for and work with communities across Asia to build a safer and sustainable world.

SEEDS is the first Indian Agency to be certified by the “Humanitarian Accountability Partnership” – the global commitment to meeting the highest standards of accountability and quality management in humanitarian response. It is a signatory to the Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent.

Jan 282013

“It is a fact that most of the corrupt come from the OBC and the scheduled castes and no increasingly, scheduled tribes and as long as this is the case the Indian Republic will survive”
– Ashish Nandy

I have been told i am wrong in railing against this statement (ranting would be more appropriate) – but i truly find it abhorrent. To call it irresponsible would be wrong, it would imply that the statement was correct, but someone should have held their silence for ‘political correctness’. At a very basic level it is sans data. Even if you looked at the data that comes out of the GoI, where are the positions of power. And, if there are no positions of power – what corruption are you talking about – chai pani  ?


Secy Addl. Secy Joint Secy Director
Total No. of officers 149 108 477 590
No. of SCs 2 31 17
% age of SCs 1.85 6.49 2.88
No. of STs 4 2 15 7
% age of STs 2.68 1.85 3.14 1.18

( The number of officers presently working as Secretary, Additional  Secretary, Joint Secretary and Director level posts, in the Government of India and the number of SC and ST officers on these posts and their percentage, as  on 14.3.2011, as per the information available. As regards the number of OBC officers, it is stated that data regarding OBC status of the officers was not being obtained at the time of appointment of officers prior to 1994 and is therefore not available.)

And, if you are talking about elected representatives being corrupt – what are they taking money for and from whom and to what end? corruption requires two parties – who is the other party – which caste ?

if you or I had made the ‘nuanced’ argument correlating caste & corruption, would we be out of line ? When Raj T says that a certain linguistic minority is responsible for crime, he is insulting. when Dr.Nandy says that SC, ST, OBC’s are primarily responsible for corruption – it is a nuanced argument. and this is the argument I made to my mother (who was trolling me on this post from the other room) – if a Noam Chomsky made a statement like this on African Americans & crime and said that it will save the American republic – he would have lost tenure.  I am still reeling at the defense put out on this statement.
I have heard statements like this in ‘polite’ drawing room conversations. “they’ are corrupt, ‘they’ are unruly, ‘they’ don’t follow the law, ‘they break the system, until ‘they’ came into the system, the system was good etc, etc. It is also in these conversations, I hear, questions on universal franchise – is it a bad idea. whether ‘they’ should vote – afte rall ‘they’ don’t pay taxes.

Statements like this, are bad news. In a rapidly changing India, in an aspirational India – targeting 70%+ of the population and labeling them as being corrupt. the very thought of it makes me angry. And, from someone whom i respected, whose works i have studied and whose books adorn my bookshelf- it is also more than anger, it is heart breaking.

This is almost in the same space as saying women who wear short clothes have a higher probability of being raped .. or something equally inane… and then justifying it by saying that it is a great equalizer …we would call out anyone who said that, and call people who defended that statement as regressive.
Yes, free speech is important, and i will defend Mr.Nandy’s right to free speech – but, i also have the right to say he has got it wrong.

Jan 032013

kho kho

What is development ? it is security to be who you are….
school girls playing kho kho in the area between the school and the temple. Sanaswadi, Shiroor, Pune District Maharashtra

school girls2

Girls in School, look at the smiles – you can’t buy these smiles. These smiles come from confidence, freedom and being wanted.

Everytime i feel depressed, i try and get back to basics – to one of these schools, far removed from the hustle, bustle and cynicism of everyday city life.
Is it perfect? No. Nothing is… but, is change taking place … perceptibly so.

Jul 092012

My column in today’s DNA


Way back in 1964, media theorist and technological determinist Marshall McLuhan stated, “The medium is the message”, a line that has been quoted extensively. McLuhan’s work looked at the impact of communication and communications technology on culture. The most famous example that McLuhan used to explain his theory was the ordinary light bulb. He explained it by saying that the light bulb is pure information. It is a medium without a message. “Whether the light is used for brain surgery or night baseball is a matter of indifference. It could be argued that these activities are in some way the ‘content’ of the electric light, since they could not exist without the electric light. This fact merely underlines the fact that ‘the medium is the message’,” he argued.
The presence of the light bulb, ie, the presence of electricity, changes the world as we know it. It enables a whole host of activities that were not even thought of when there was no electricity. To appreciate this better, we need to imagine a world without electricity: all work done in daylight hours because there is no power to light bulbs; no fans, no computers, no heavy industries; jobs restricted to agrarian, manufacturing to basics. Services — such as banking, insurance, health care — would be restricted to the elite, education would be the purview of a few. A world without electricity is a world that is deeply unequal in nature, a world in which people are mainly restricted to traditional professions; a world that existed 100 years ago.
Electricity is more than the delivery of energy. Its very presence changes the way in which we live, work, and do business. Its availability liberates people from feudal social structures. It is hardly surprising that nations and societies whose citizens have access to energy on a continuous basis are far more egalitarian than nations and societies that don’t. The lack of electricity is associated with societies and regions with deprivation, poverty, feudalism, crimes against women, and social unrest.
The presence of electricity, on the other hand, is empowering people and opens up choice and opportunity in the way they conduct their lives. A country or a state that looks for energy security for its people is one that cares about the well-being of its citizens. On the other hand, a country or a state that does not prioritise energy access for all is failing miserably in its duties by its citizens.
It is estimated that 1.5 billion people across the world, or almost a fifth of its population, have absolutely no access to electricity. Over 400 million people have never experienced electricity. When the sun sets, their world goes dark, and stays that way till the sun rises again.
However, the demand for electricity has to be balanced with methods of generating it in a manner that is cost effective and sustainable. In the last two decades, the world has been slowly looking at renewable energy — solar, wind, tidal waves, energy sources that are replenished by nature — as a method of ensuring energy security for the vast majority of its citizens.
A Modern Day Landscape
This year, 2012, has been declared by the UN General Assembly as the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All. Governments, private enterprise and NGOs such as Greenpeace are working at the grassroots to help bring electricity off the main grids, purely at the local level. Called the Smart Energy Access strategy, it allows the transition “from rural electrification to universal electrification by making use of the versatility of micro grids. That is, its functionality as an off-grid system, the ability to incorporate multiple generation sources, adapt to demand growth, and to be integrated with the central grid, while retaining the ability to separate and operate as an island grid if needed.”

Large power plants are vital to power heavy industry and large-scale growth. Dhule, for example, is the home for the world’s largest consolidated solar power project, Jaitapur for the largest nuclear plant. Neither will be ready this year, or even the next. Both will take time. Providing electricity through a central grid may be the ideal method of doing so, but in a world of growing aspirations it may be impossible to get people to wait so long.
Development is not possible without energy. And sustainable development is not possible without sustainable energy. India needs to empower its people by providing energy access to all — cheap, clean energy that powers homes, businesses, and schools. An energy policy that puts the household at its core and builds up from the needs of the household may be the way ahead.