Jun 072013

My column in today’s Lokmat looked at documentaries and environmental awareness

Environmental Docus

It is clear to most people that the world weather patterns are changing–and human activity is one of the contributory factors to pollution, global warming and climate change. In the last two decades, there has been greater public awareness than ever before on nature, its diversity, human impact on nature, and use and conservation of Natural Resources. A number of feature films, documentaries and TV shows have been made to increase environmental awareness and create an appreciation about nature and its diversity. Here is a list of themes and films that are must-watch to gain a greater appreciation of the world around us.

Appreciating the Natural World: A great documentary series as a starting point is David Attenborough’s Life on Earth. The series travels across the globe to look at the evolution and growth of life on earth. A companion series to this The Living Planet is also a must-watch. Together, they tell you the diversity of life forms and the need to conserve. Other films that create an immense love for other inhabitants of the planet (apart from humans) is the Oscar Award Winning March of the Penguins, The Truth about Tigers—made by Shekar Dattatri, which looks at the magnificent cat, how it is in danger of disappearing, and finally what we can do to save it.

Dams: In the debate between those who take absolute positions on Environment and Development, there is nothing more polarising than the Dam–a wall that impedes the natural flow of water, diverts rivers, and changes lives. It impacts the world around it both in positive and negative ways. There have been many films made on this issue. Here are some that are definitely worth seeing. Anant Patwardhan’s A Narmada Diary made in 1997–discusses some of the more human aspects. It tells the story of people to be displaced by the coming of the Dam. Damocracy is another good documentary in this space that looks at the issue of dams and its impact on the environment worldwide.

Food: How we grow food that we eat, and what is the impact of this on the environment is another important issue that is worth considering. There have been a number of documentaries on this topic in the last 5 years. Food Inc–looks at the corporatization of the food chain and tells us how it impacts us as consumers. Poison on our Platter, made by Mahesh Bhatt & Ajay Kanchan, looks at the impact of chemical fertilizers in the food chain, and how it is poisoning us slowly. Bitter Seeds is a film that looks at the impact of companies like Monsanto on the marginal farmer, and relates it to a spike in farmer suicides.

Water: Without water none of us will last too long. Yet, for many on earth access to clean drinking water has become an issue. With an increasing trend towards privatisation of water, there are water riots in many parts of the world. There are some great documentaries in this space. One must watch film is Flow–for the love of water that looks at the issues regarding water, and some of the possible solutions. Another great documentary is Blue Gold–World Water Wars that looks at how clean fresh water is getting more and more scarce, and carterlised. It also asks if future wars will be fought for water.

Corporatisation: Mahatma Gandhi once said that “The world has enough for everyone”s need, but not enough for everyone”s greed”. The view that a Corporate entity is focused on profit maximisation to the exclusion of everything else, and that this has adverse effects on the environment, is a running theme in many documentaries on the environment. One film that looks at this in great detail, and provides capitalist solutions to the problem is The Corporation. While the focus of the film is not exclusively environmental, it covers a number of aspects that impact the world around us. Also worth watching is The Story of Bottled Water.
The environment is too important to be left to government. It concerns all of us, and our descendants. You too can highlight issues regarding the environment in your area–it could be the way garbage is dumped, to a hill that has disappeared, to a lake that has been polluted. The technology is available – all that it requires is your commitment.

Apr 042013

From today, the DNA column has a name – Depth of Focus. It is an old fashioned photography & film term – the point the photographer wants most focus on. Today, i look at water

Dune, by Frank Herbert, is one of the most fascinating science fiction books of all time. Set in a galaxy far away, it combines themes of religion, metaphysics, space travel, feudal behaviour, and a messiah who will lead a proud, yet exiled, race to greatness. At the core of the story is the desert planet Arrakis. Inhabitants of the planet, nomads called Fremen, live in caves which offer them protection from the elements. The Freman wears body armour called the Stillsuit. It not just prevents them from being harmed by the hostile ecosystem, but also allows them to recycle every little bit of water given out by the body. The idea was that water was so rare on that world, wasting it was unthinkable. Although Arrakis is a fictitious planet, and the Fremen a fictitious race, their issues of water and water conservation are very real.
As the world’s population increases, as demands for a better life grow, the pressure on the world’s water resources are increasing. Many parts of the world face an acute shortage of water. According to the UN, 700 million people in 43 countries suffer from water scarcity. In a 2010 report, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies predicted that in two decades, it won’t be terrorism or war that would change the equation in the Middle East — it would be acute scarcity of water.
India has a water crisis looming. Large swathes of western and central India are water scarce regions. With the current drought in parts of Maharashtra, there are areas that have not received water for weeks. About 4,000 villages in Saurashtra are in the same situation. Migration from rural to urban India has begun. There is nothing more desperate than leaving one’s home to search for one of the most fundamental requirements of life — water. And there is nothing more shameful for a country than coming to a situation where its people cannot access water, not because of poor rainfall or dried up rivers but because of greed, corruption, and lack of policy.
India is home to around 18% of the world’s population that lives in approximately 2.6% (China is 6%) of the total land mass of the earth, with a population density of 350 people per square kilometre. There is a tremendous pressure on all resources, none more so than that which sustains life itself — water. According to the Ministry of Water Resources, India has just 4% of the world’s renewable water resources. In 1951, there was a per capita availability of 5177 cubic metres of water; in 2001 that figure reduced to 1820 m3, and in 2011 that had dropped to 1545 m3. Unless someone figures out a way of making water in a laboratory, or a cost efficient way of desalinating large amounts of sea water, without disturbing the marine eco system, there is a disaster just around the corner, and there seems to be no urgency to tackle it. There is going to be, sooner or later, a massive shortage of water.
If water cannot be ‘created’ then people and policies have to be geared to save, conserve, recycle and optimise water utilisation. This cannot be achieved unless all parts of the system work in tandem: citizens, industry, and government.
At the level of the household it is changes in lifestyle. Use a bucket of water rather than showering, shut the tap while brushing teeth, check for leakages and plug them; shut all taps tightly. While the water saved by an individual might not be much, practised across millions, it does make a difference. More importantly, it becomes part of a conservation mind-set. Equally important is building societies and housing associations investing in rain water harvesting. Even if the space is too little for them to build tanks that store this water and use it later, it is a worthwhile exercise, because it recharges the rapidly-decreasing ground water levels. It is also important that citizens and the media become more politically aware and keep an eye on proposed projects, so that delays and corruption are discovered and dealt with before it becomes a crisis.
A second option that needs to be looked at, on a priority basis, is recycling of water, by both households and industry. This is a process where sewage water is treated and purified and put to use again. While it may not be used for drinking or bathing, it can definitely be used for cleaning, irrigation, and keeping parks, golf courses and IPL pitches green. This would especially be useful in urban localities where there is a tremendous concentration of population, and the disparity between the water-rich and the water-poor is stark. In a predominantly agrarian country, water recycling can also ease the pressure on rapid ground water depletion.
The third is to look at incentivizing farmers in water scarce areas from growing water intensive crops such as sugar cane and cotton. Just as the EU and the US pay farmers not to produce, India may want to look at subsidizing the move away from water intensive cash crops to crops that do not need so much water. It should come as no surprise that the bulk of farmer suicides are from water scarce regions that are growing water intensive crops.
Also, maybe it is time that the powers that be revive the National River Linking project that has been on the backburner for the last decade or so. It is estimated that this would generate around 175 trillion litres of water. Not to mention other benefits.
Finally, we need to get the next generation, who are going to live with the consequences of our consumption, to think out of the box and come up with solutions. For it is they who will inherit this water-scarce world.

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 :)