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.

Mar 072011

My column in today’s DNA :

on why  the land acquisition policy is short sighted.

Last week in Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh – villagers braved bullets to protest against the acquisition of land for a Power Plant. Some Died. This is not the first time we have been reading about farmer outrage at land acquisition. In the last few years farmers have been taking up cudgels against the forcible buying of their land for developmental projects. And, these protests don’t seem to be restricted to a particular state. There was, of course,  the famous Singur protest against the Nano plant. But, this was not the exception. There have been protests in Mangalore (Karnataka), in Bairamangalam (Tamil Nadu), Nandigram (West Bengal) in Pen Panvel (Maharashtra), in Jhajar (Haryana) and most recently in Jaitapur (Maharashtra). Farmers across the nation seem to be up in arms against any form of industrialisation.


On the face of it, it seems like a tussle between those who want development and those who want to continue with their traditional way of life. But, dig deeper and there is a common thread that links all these. These are fertile agricultural lands, in densely populated areas,  being acquired at ‘throw away’ prices and handed over to large companies to develop – either as factories or SEZ’s or Power Plants.

Is this development required? Definitely. India needs employment, power and hubs where it can produce goods and services in a planned manner. But, should it be set in densely populated agricultural lands – that is the crore rupee question.

The rest of the column can be read here.


Sep 282010

The last fortnight has seen some heavy debate on the Kashmir issue. What can the Government do, what should the hardliners do, what should the moderates do, what should anyone and everyone do …. I have not been following this on TV but in the world of social networks – blogs, twitter, FB and the like …. everyone has a view, and on occasion they have two. In all this, I noticed just one thread in common – it is always about what others can do ….

The last time I checked, the valley of Ladakh was a part of the Indian State of Jammu & Kashmir – the same state about which there have been furious, and sometimes, angry discussions. Yet, there is nary a flutter of conversation about this picturesque valley which was inundated by floods – caused by a cloud burst – in August. Thousands have been left homeless. And winter sets in by next month end. When I say winter, I mean around minus 20 degrees Celsius.

As part of the Joy of Giving Week, and the India Giving Challenge – I am supporting a NGO called SEEDS that is building homes for Citizens of India, residing in Ladakh.

I had blogged earlier this month about why I was supporting them. This time around,  I will write about what they are doing in Ladakh. SEEDS India (Sustainable Environment & Ecological Development Group) and LEDeG (Ladakh Ecological Development Group) are working together to build housing in Ladakh using environment-friendly and energy efficient materials. The design is based on the traditional Ladakhi house, adding new disaster resistant features for future safety

The houses have large south facing windows to provide solar gain. Additionally the design of the homes have incorporated certain disaster resistant features including:

  • Seismic bands – that would ensure that the house will survive an earthquake
  • Double wall insulation with saw dust for thermal comfort – so that people inside don’t freeze to death
  • Roofing and flooring has a layer of sawdust for insulation – likewise
  • Mud bricks with a proportion of 7% cement in soil, which can be procured locally for strength and water resistance – local materials are usually the best to deal with local situations

Given the issues that the rest of the state is facing, there is a severe shortage of labour in Ladakh. Yet, a band of volunteers is making sure that as many people, as possible will be housed by the time winter sets in.

Ajay Prakash Yadav, an architect from Delhi and Dorjee, a local driver  preparing mud blocks from the block making machine. On an average day a Block Making Machine can make 1100 blocks of ‘brick’ that is used in construction of the homes.

SEEDS Finance Manager, Bittu and Abhishek, a volunteer from Bihar helping in block production. One machine requires six people including preparing the mix, block making and stacking. The blocks are stacked and cured for fourteen days before using it for construction.

If you want to help, in any way – money, time, labour – all of the above – talk to SEEDS. There are other NGO’s working in this area – but, this is the only one that I know personally and will vouch for.

you can find a copy of SEEDS LEDeG  strategy note here
If you want to volunteer , Call Saurabh, in SEEDS, at : + 91-9310789198
SEEDS FB group here

If you want to donate :

Give India Page for Seeds India or you can do so directly at the

Seeds India Website

The best way to sort out the Kashmir issue is to make sure that people in that state feel like citizens. And, the best way to do that is to ensure that you are a part of their lives. Ladakh is not just a place to visit for a nice photoshoot or a great holiday – it is a part of this country – and its residents need help.

As my business partner SR put it on a FB appeal – if you ever thought of visiting Leh/Ladakh or have been there – open up your wallets and donate :)

Oct 042009

Irena Salina’s film “Flow – For the Love of Water ” aka “Flow – How did a handful of corporations steal our water” is a well made documentary that looks at the issues regarding clean portable (drinkable) water to the world’s population at large.

The film’s narrative weaves together myriad issues including providing water to all; the corporations involved in bottling and selling water, issues regarding privatisation of water; the World Bank as a provider of loans to build dams, and finally the hope in terms of activism that ensures that water is available for all.


I often tell my students that documentaries are not news – and they don’t have to even keep up the pretense of being unbiased. Documentaries are a POV – and the point of view presented here is that Water belongs to all of us – and we cannot let a few corporations take over this natural resource and exploit it.

The film looks at the issues surrounding water, in both the developed & the developing world. It also looks at indigenous, innovative solutions for the affordable provision of water to large numbers of people (decentralization is one of the solutions)

The ray of hope in this film is provided through the bits in India – where men and women of extraordinary courage and conviction have made sure that rights are not trampled over. Be it Vandana Shiva, Medha Patkar, Rajendra Singh , Shripad Dharmadhikary , or activism in places like Plachimada against Coke – what you see are a people – who are willing to take on the power elite and win.

The depressing part of this film comes from the USA – where the system conspires to trample over the rights of individuals. Be it in terms of pesticides that are banned elsewhere and available in the US or in the form of battles against depletion of ground water by large corporations – the citizen loses.

There is a lovely line in the film that encapsulates much of what has gone wrong with ‘centralised’ development over the last 75 years :

“the world bank knows to spend a billion dollars in one place, it doesn’t know how to spend a 1000 $ in a million places “

I liked the film. It was well researched, well shot and well put together. The interviews were crisp – No one rambled for too long and the flow was gripping . There is only one problem that I had with the film – that too many issues being crammed together in the two hours. As a result a) there is an information overload; and b) more seriously, everything ends up looking like a grand conspiracy theory to keep people away from clean drinking water. While that might be the case, it doesn’t do too much good to hit the audience on the head with it ! Let them figure it out themselves.

But, the film is definitely a good view – worth the two hours that you will spend on it