COVID19: Few Endanger Many

Ever since the “Janata curfew”, was announced by the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, on March 22, 2020 and then a 21-day lockdown from March 24, a peculiar phenomenon is visible across the country. Despite assurances by the authorities and the administration, access to local stores and affluence among many to buy stuff, a section of the middle class is behaving worse than the genuinely deprived and underprivileged souls.
I witnessed a rush to buy things that weren’t needed on the night of March 21, then on March 23 and then a day before the hotspots were sealed for three to four days.
On the first occasion I saw an interesting phenomenon that the so-called well educated crowding the grocery stores and jostling to out smart the other to pretty much buy whatever they could lay their hands on. Surprisingly, the grocery store owner had to put his foot down by asking everyone out make a line that adhered to social distancing, wear a mask and made a rule that no more than 4 people will enter the store at a time. But then those who entered first started piling up and wasting time and had to be told to hurry up so that the others could buy things too.
The purchase pattern also showed up some interesting facts. Basics such as rice, pulses, atta, oil and ghee were lying on the shelf, what had flown off it were junk items like maggi, other noodles, biscuits, bhujias, chips, cookies, cakes.
This pattern was repeated again within 48 hours when the 21-day lockdown was announced. This time people stuffed their bags with the basics. The grocery store owner kept telling the people he would remain open through the lockdown period, there was no need to panic, but no one listened and soon a large majority had to return empty handed.
Within two days of the lockdown every system was in place to provide for every daily needs. It included milkman coming to your society gate. A vegetable vendor started parking himself with fresh vegetables for five to eight hours daily. Grocery stores were functional and were sufficiently well stocked. They were lying empty for most of the time till the state government announced a list of areas that would be sealed for four days. Again there was pandemonium that wasn’t induced by a pandemic but unexplained panic.
It seemed like the end of the world scene, people clamouring for whatever they could lay their hands on. They disregarded the social distancing norms, most of them didn’t wear any mask and crowded the stores, vegetable vendor and some even brought their children with them.
It was thought that seventeen days into the lockdown would have drilled some sense into the people that they are one of the most fortunate ones who have so much around them to comfortably park themselves in their homes. But no! Disregarding their good fortune or taking it for granted they kept pushing their luck while jeopardising the others.
Thrice in a space of 17 days people indulged in panic buying despite proven availability of goods around them. For the first time it was the seller who was discouraging them not to buy or crowd him.
Panic buying was accompanied by insolent demands, “do you have pizza toppings? My child can’t have the normal lunch you know,” “Do you have Dunhill cigarettes?” “But you used to keep it, why can’t you bring it for me. I’ll pay.” “Do you have cup cakes?” then there was a person who was whispering conspiratorially with the chemist. Later the chemist told me in a sheepish tone that our man was insisting that he get a very specific brand of condom, others won’t do.
This sense of entitlement and complete disregard for your own and others’ safety makes you feel how hollow is the standard blabbering of the economists, policymakers and the chatterati circuit in general that says, “literacy and economic empowerment will bring in a kind of improved human resource and better citizens.”
If this is the way the well off, well placed and well cared for are behaving then we can’t grudge those who are really suffering in these times of crisis.
The mindless crowding thrice during the last 21 days not only in a particular well-off sector in NOIDA but in every part of the country is what will play out in the coming days in the form of COVID19 spread.
One can say people will pay for their avarice. But the sad part is many will pay for the avarice of the few. That’s unfair.
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Climate Change: Time to Catch Them Young

The newly-elected Delhi State Government of the Aam Admi Party (AAP) retained Manish Sisodia as the education minister for the next five years. In his earlier stint, Mr Sisodia has done some remarkable experiments with education by allotting close to 26 percent of the state GDP (Gross Domestic Product) for it.
This time around he has announced a Desh Bhakti (patriotism) course that would be introduced in the state education’s curriculum. It’s a good start to teach the importance of nationhood to students at an early and impressionable age.
However, now that the new government is in the saddle for the next five years it’s time to look at the larger and long term picture.
Climate change is a threat that’s creeping at a very fast pace. Extreme weather events are increasing, summers are getting hotter and winters more severe. Rains are now erratic and though the average rainfall remains more or less the same, the distribution and the number of rainfall days have become less.
Residents of Delhi may say why should they worry about climate change? At least they are not directly suffering its ill effects as people in remote farmlands or hills or sea coasts are. But that’s a false sense of security. Rising temperatures and increased summer spells will increase the electricity load and the use of water in Delhi. While the state government can buy more electricity, it would be hard-pressed to provide water for the thirsty millions. Similarly, extended summers will also increase the incidence of water and vector-borne diseases increasing the disease burden of not only the state but individual families too.
In such a scenario, it would be a great idea to teach the young about the imminent threat of climate change and what personal habits they should cultivate to become responsible citizens and consumers.
Keeping this threat in view the Delhi Government should along with Desh Bhakti introduce a course in climate change awareness for the students, right from the kindergarten to primary schools and up till class 10th.
AS these students will be introduced to the concepts of climate change and sustainable development, they would grow up to be an aware citizen who is equipped to make informed choices. This way the school will prepare the climate aware citizens for whom a sustainable lifestyle will not be a fad but a way of life. The choices made by these future residents would automatically align them and thus the entire society with the sustainable development goals (SDGs).

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The Hong Kong I saw 15 years ago

I had specially taken the window seat on Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong in late January 2005. All through the turbulent flight I was excited about the landing in Hong Kong’s iconic Kai Tak airport that was situated bang in the middle of the Kowloon Bay area. I had seen a 1990s video commercial of Cathay Pacific where the airplane negotiates skyscrapers almost kissing them before landing on the world’s most dangerous commercial airport of that time.
But to my utter dismay our flight landed on an airstrip in pitch darkness. I kept thinking there was some mistake but the flight had landed and the commander’s voice on public address system declared in no uncertain terms we were at Hong Kong International Airport at Lantau, the largest island in Hong Kong. I kept wondering where were those high rises? Did they vanish? Or was there a blackout in the glowing island?
I was part of a group of journalists who were invited by the Hong Kong Tourism Board (HKTB). It was 10 pm when we came out and as our cab moved away from the airport complex it passed through a pitch-dark area. This was not the image I had in my mind. My guide told me, that the Kai Tak airport of my dream was shut down seven years ago in 1998. I was crestfallen. My wish to experience such a hair-raising landing would forever remain just a wish.
However, after half an hour of driving in the dark, our cab entered the port area. Passing through the sea of light, lighting up the world’s busiest container port (at that time), I was dazzled by the scale and number of ships docked in the yard. From then on the fabled Hong Kong City started unfolding one frame at a time.
The city is located at the end of a hilly peninsula that merges with sea. As such it offers Hong Kong hills, rivulets, small patch of flat lands, islands and of course, sea.
The image of Hong Kong that appears in the mind of people anywhere in the world is primarily the handiwork of lifestyle, as it unfolds, in Hong Kong Island and Kowloon district opposite to it. Over the years as the population grew Hong Kong spread across the Kowloon peninsula in what is now called the new territory and adjoining Lantau Island.
As we arrived at a time which was very close to the Chinese New Year, the local shops, markets and temples were decked up in red and gold coloured Chinese lanterns. Our guide, an officer with the HKTB, designed our tour in a way where we could experience the life of an ordinary Hong Konger. For the next three days we would crisscross between the Hong Kong, Kowloon and Lantau depending on how much time we took at one site.
We began our tour, the next day, from Man Mo and Fung Yin Seen temples. Inside Hong Kong’s oldest temple, Man Mo, I could sea a Buddha statue and rectangular concrete tub filled with sand where people would put their incense stick. I had never seen such huge incense sticks in my life. They were about a foot long with red coloured incense material wrapped around them. The smoke emanating from them didn’t have the kind of strong fragrance that we Indians are used to.
Actually I didn’t feel any fragrance at all yet the guide insisted it had fragrance. My personal favourite was Fung Yin Seen temple with its bright red-orange coloured gates and beautiful paintings.
After the temple circuit we headed straight to Victoria Peak or The Peak, the highest point in Hong Kong for a breathtaking view of the city spread below. Looking down on a cluster of skyscrapers, packed like sardines, from the commanding heights is an experience you will cherish for the rest of your life. No other city in the world can match Hong Kong’s skyscraper density, not even Manhattan, New York. There is a legendary red coloured tram and enthusiasts who have time can explore its rich history.
From the heights of Victoria Peak we dived straight into the skyscraper District of Hong Kong Island for a tet-e-tet with a Feng Shui expert. She explained Hong Kong’s perfect location as per Feng Shui principles where it had hills to offer backrest and vast sea to spread its interest far and wide. She told us it was Feng Shui that resulted in city’s phenomenal growth.
The rest of the day was spent on walking around International Commerce Centre (the tallest building in Hong Kong), Two International Finance Centres, Central Plaza, Bank of China Towers and HSBC Tower. Strolling around Hong Kong’s financial power centres was an experience in itself. The visible wealth, high levels of energy, cutting edge technology and latest infrastructure made me feel as if the place was Manhattan on steroids.
By evening our guide had brought us at Victoria Harbour to witness one of the most spectacular evening events called symphony of lights. As the night falls all the high rises in Hong Kong Island and Kowloon act as screen where a dazzling light and sound show is performed. We were told that on the Chinese New Year Day there is a special pyrotechnic show for which the Chinese are known worldwide.
With our first day spent well, we were ready for more. The next day when our guide arrived he asked me to accompany him to a restaurant close to our hotel. It was an unassuming little place where he ordered tea and bread toast for me. When the tea arrived I was pleasantly surprised that it was the same milk and sugar tea we have in India. The guide smiled at me and said, “Yesterday while you bravely had our Chinese tea, I could sense you were missing your own concoction. So I thought let me spare you the torture at least in the morning.” I couldn’t have asked for more. I was dying for a good cup of desi tea. The first sip and I was in for another surprise. I had never had such perfect milk and sugar tea ever. For the next three days this became my favourite morning jaunt.
After breakfast we left for Lantau Island via ferry. Lantau Island is relatively laidback as compared to Hong Kong and Kowloon and the New Territory but has a lot to offer including dolphin watching and excursions in the wild. The place is known for giant Buddha Statue, Po Lin Monastery, Ngong Ping Piazza and Tai O fishing village. Among all the three I was most fascinated by the Tai O fishing village. It’s one of the last reminders of Hong Kong’s signature water villages, during most parts of the 20th century, built on stilts and made famous by James Clavell’s novel The Noble House. They have steadily declined in the face of advancing modernity.
On our way back, the guide took us back to the Victoria Peak for a view of the city skyline in the evening. It was equally beautiful if not more than what we saw in the morning the previous day.
From Victoria peak we descended to SoHo and Lan Kwai Fong two of the most important nightlife hot spots on the Hong Kong side. Lined with restaurants, bars, nightclubs, they were buzzing with life sans hooligans.
While evenings as a rule should be reserved for merry making there was another aspect of Hong Kong that we needed to discover. It was a market that comes up after the regular market shops close down. Temple Street Market is one such “fly-by-night’ market. I saw pleasantly surprised to see people haggling, shopkeepers talking to each other, laughing and realized most of the people in most of the places are almost the same.
Our third morning started with a Tai Chi class at the Tsim Sha Sui Promenade, an important landmark on the harbour that offers a vast open space and many museums close-by.
Tai Chi lessons were followed by a visit to Hong Kong’s Disney Land and Ocean Park. For those Asians who can’t visit the US, Hong Kong Disney Land offers a chance to experience the original one. Among all the attractions the rollercoaster built on the edge of a cliff actually offers a cliff hanging experience. That’s something even the original Disney doesn’t offer.
While on our return our guide took us to Stanley Market in Hong Kong Island. This part of the city resembles like a complete English corner. From here we were taken to Repulse Bay, one of the most upmarket residential areas in Hong Kong and finally we ended up at Knutsford Terrace, the nightlife hub in Kowloon. Three days passed by in a jiffy. I realized though Hong Kong may have been a British outpost once but when I visited it looked like a global city with distinct Chinese imprint of gold, jade green and red. People spoke English with equal ease as they spoke Cantonese (A variation of Mandarin). They were cosmopolitan yet retained fierce pride in their Chinese roots.
As I headed back to the airport, I knew I couldn’t do, visit and experience many things that Hong Kong offers. I missed scaling many buildings that offered panoramic view of the city for free. I couldn’t visit the Hong Kong Derby, museums and many other temples. I missed tasting cuisines prepared in fine restaurants but drew solace that there is always a next time.
But that proverbial next time has eluded me for the last fifteen years. As unsettling news from Hong Kong pour in I am reminded of the bespectacled and passionate Feng Shui expert who told me that the principles of the ancient system have ensured Hong Kong will grow and prosper till eternity. My skeptical mind wanted to tell her, nothing in human life and their creation lasts till eternity but didn’t have the heart to puncture her child like enthusiasm. Even today I sincerely hope her belief trumps my realism.

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Five things I learned in Istanbul

Legend has it that a young boy in Isfahan, Iran, a small but important city on the old Silk Route, used to fight with every caravan traveller, passing through the city, when they mentioned the mosque in Kustuntuniya (Constantinople or modern-day Istanbul) was the largest in the world. He would insist that his local mosque was the biggest. Years later he got a chance to visit Istanbul and was initially over-awed to see the grandeur of the mosque and then felt embarrassed at his own stupidity.
The puerile insistence of a teenager, centuries ago, can be dismissed as obvious ignorance due to lack of exposure. However, there are many, even today, who under-estimate the mystique of this historical city, straddling two continents, that remained the seat of power for 15 centuries for two of the world’s greatest empires, Byzantine (Eastern Roman Empire) and the mighty Ottomans.
Even this humble writer was guilty of the same delusions before visiting the city. Recently I got the chance to visit the fabled city that not only corrected my perceptions but also taught me five important lessons.
Enduring Mystique
Walking extensively throughout the city soaking in the scenery, architecture, people, their cuisines and mood I, as an outsider, couldn’t sense the huzun (melancholy) that is all-pervasive according to Istanbul’s most famous resident Orhan Pamuk. The writer in his memoirs, Istanbul, rues the fact that modernity has gobbled up the beautiful town and its soul in which he was born and brought up. He says today what is left of the old grand city are some legends, gossips, a resigned hurt for being relegated to ordinariness and a false sense of pride in long lost glory.
But as a tourist, I found that the city and her residents retain enough richness to captivate the outsider. Their vibrant history, their enduring melancholy, and sizzling gossips have assumed a life of their own, lending a magical gravitas to whatever they do and whatever they possess.
Take the case of Topkapi Palace, there is a strong but unconfirmed story, that when an Ottoman king decided on his heir, he would call all his sons to the palace and a day before the coronation he would call for the son who would become the king while every other claimant would be killed a night before in cold blood. This was done to scuttle any future rivalry to gain the throne. Similarly, stories of fire destroying historically important buildings, their reconstruction, slave bazaars where beauty was sold with equal vigour as brawn, whets the appetite of the visitor to see these monuments.
It helps that the monuments have been preserved well especially the living monuments like the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar. Built in 1455/56 they are one of the oldest functional covered shopping malls in the world. While walking through the piece of living history, I remembered being over-awed when I saw a shopping mall in the US for the first time fifteen years ago and thought what awe this bazaar must have generated among the people five centuries ago when they entered Istanbul after a long journey through sea or land. Nothing would have prepared them for this experience.
Istanbul taught me that history is still the most potent generator of mystique and an effective calling card for marketers to attract hordes of visitors.

Bohemian Streak
A stroll on Istiklal Street, near Taksim Square, during late evening and night, brings you face to face with Istanbul’s nightlife. It’s very different from the American nightlife built around pubs. It’s not that Istanbul doesn’t have a pub culture but it has more to offer than just pubs. The kehvaghars or coffee shops are no more in vogue as in the Middle Ages, yet restaurants, sweets corners, ice-cream parlours are everywhere. But it’s a small group of singers that perform at every nook and corner of the street that makes the place tick. People make groups around these performers, they clap, dance, sing with them, make videos and in the end pay a little money and move on.
During my visit, one day I saw a family of four women, mother, and two daughters and a granddaughter in a pram, were walking by and a drum player was performing. The young daughter, among the four, who was in her early twenties carrying the pram with a baby, just stopped and broke into a fine performance of belly dance. After dancing for fifteen minutes she carried on again with her family. The abandon and ease with which she did what she wanted to were striking. I realised that a vibrant nightlife where people can enjoy being themselves with their families without the fear of stalkers and violent groups is an absolute necessity for any city to assume the mantle of a global tourist hub.
Connected City
Istanbul is an amazingly well-connected city. Its public transport is world class and every corner of the city that has any historical or tourist value can be easily reached by either tram, bus or metro or all the three.
The buses are regular, so is tram and metro. Trams have lent a lot of grace and romance to the city. It has also brought ease as metro has in Delhi.
Despite the language being a barrier to the efficiency of public transport makes the city highly accessible and even a new traveller can be on his or her own.
Prosperity Matters
At the end of the First World War when the old Ottoman Empire finally crumbled, Turkey was termed as “the sick man of Europe” for its poor and crumbling economy. However, today it’s a first world country and it shows. Higher per capita income reflects in taxi drivers being well dressed and keeping their cars in spic and span condition. Small eatery owners maintain high standards of hygiene, wearing better clothes and offer good quality services. The fact that you can be a concierge and even then live a decent life, inspires a sense of pride in what one does and that add quality to their work.
This doesn’t mean Istanbul is free from poor quarters or petty crimes. They have it in plenty but a better social index and upkeep gives even an ordinary Istanbulu a sense of dignity, a sense of being which is rooted in their history, it reflects in their work culture, in their conduct and in their sense of self.
This in turns helps create an overall impression of well being and quality that enhances a tourist’s Istanbul experience.
Overkill is always counter-productive
Over the last one and a half decades, the new government in Turkey has embarked on a mosque building spree. The conservative government has its own compulsions but it has resulted in an unintended consequence. All the mosques in Istanbul are a derivative of Hagia Sofia or are its exact replica.
The old sketches show that if you stood at the European side of Istanbul at a place called Karakoy ferry front, you would witness the spires on the skyline of the old town belonging to Hagia Sofia, Blue Mosque or Sultan Ahmet and Sulemania Mosque. But now if you stand at the same spot you witness seven mosques from one end to the other all replicas of the original.
If even the smallest modern prayer houses follow the architectural design of an iconic monument then it diminishes the importance of the original. The visitor would be saturated with the replicas all around her and the excitement to see the original would be severely dampened by the time she reaches the original one.
It’s important to retain a degree of exclusivity or at least a cap needs to be in place about how much is too much. Overkill of replicas has a tendency towards the law of diminishing returns and they rob the original of its basic grandeur a bit.

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In the Land of Abstract Landscapes

Taking off from the heat and dust of the Indo-Gangetic plains and flying for almost half an hour over snow-capped mountains, it was now time for the plane to wriggle through the barren, bare and brown mountain range to land in the broad valley.
Ladakh is one of the most photographed areas of the world. People, especially travellers from the 19th century onwards have written tomes in its praise and I wanted to have something new that I could offer to my folks back home in Delhi and to my readers in general.
So all along I was thinking, what new I can do as a photographer or a traveller to make my trip a memorable one?
The nearly 10 kilometre wide, majestic valley separates two of the most formidable mountain ranges of the Himalayas the Ladakh and the Zanskar. This is where Leh, the Capital of Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council is situated.
Named after a famed Buddhist Lama, Kushok Bakula Rinpoche, the airport is actually the property of the air force and thus a bare and functional facility. It was bare when I first visited in 1999 and it’s bare even now save for some more seats in the lounge area, few television screens, and two kiosks to sell snacks.
Twenty years ago Leh seemed like centuries away from the hustle of modernity. Internet and mobiles were non-existent and even telephone, television, electricity were a preserve of the well-heeled. Visitors and tourists were few and mostly foreigners.
However, in almost two decades the city or rather town has grown and prosperity is visible. The main market which used to be a row of small ill-equipped shops now had rows of well-stocked large shops and showrooms. Even the road was reworked to make it pedestrian friendly with a string of eateries, restaurants and bakeries. People were wearing better clothes. There was an explosion of mobile phones. Electricity had arrived and even when the tourist season hadn’t begun in right earnest all the parking lots were choked with cars of every size and status.
Two decades ago in the evening, the Leh town would be engulfed with the stench of diesel and kerosene as all the light and heating was done through diesel gensets (generator sets) and kerosene bukharis (a local innovation to provide warmth during the winters). Now in some parts electricity through hydropower was available. Similarly, the small shops that sold turquoise blue stones and other small but enchanting local stuff were now selling dry fruits and Kashmiri shawls and carpets which are rich and expensive.
Even the old houses are disappearing with alarming speed thanks to the new found prosperity among the current generation. The younger ones are more articulate and business savvy. Exposure to television and the internet has also made them aware of the new fashion so they are more or less as cosmopolitan in their appearance (if not mentally) as any in the big city.
My itinerary included a visit to Lamayuru Monastery and Pangong Lake as well as places in and around Leh like Hemis and Thiksey Monasteries. After two days of acclimatisation, I headed towards Lamayuru Monastery.
The moment we left Leh the landscape around us emerged in all its glory. Though telephone and electricity lines were now disturbing the pristine look, the grandeur and magnificence of the landscape were every bit as overpowering as it was when I first visited the land.
I had started very early to witness a phenomenon at a site which is very time specific. The site is the confluence of Indus and Zanskar rivers 30 kilometres from Leh at a village called Nimoo. During my earlier visit, I saw it in the afternoon. It looked like any other confluence in the mountains – grey water of two rivers meeting in a brown-grey rocky terrain.
At that time my driver told me that I should have come in the morning before 9 or clock to witness the magic. I didn’t heed to his suggestion then but this time around I wanted to know, what was the “magic” he was talking about?
On our way, we had to stop at a local shrine called Patthar Sahib. It’s a shrine dedicated to Guru Nanak Dev Ji Maharaj, the founder of Sikhism. Legend has it that Guru Nanak was meditating at this place and a demon threw a rock on him. However, as the rock touched him it turned into wax.
When you visit the shrine you can see for yourself the rock which has contours and depth that looks like a mold in which a person sitting in a lotus position can fit in perfectly. The entire area is managed by the army and every convoy and local vehicle stops there to pay homage. The small gurudwara also offers kada Prasad (wheat flour halwa) and langar (lunch).
Another interesting site is the magnetic hill just before the confluence of Indus-Zanskar. Our driver stopped the car and switched off the ignition and lo and behold it was moving towards the hill on its own. I was told by a senior military officer that no airplane flies over the mountain. It is believed that it would be sucked into the hill and crash.
While I was stunned by the experience I was itching to reach the confluence site to look for the “magic”. I didn’t have to wait long. In a short time, we were there. As the sun rays were falling at forty-five degrees angle over the river water, I saw azure blue sky, the greenish grey water of Indus and turquoise blue water of Zanskar. It was no more an ordinary confluence. I stood there transfixed. It was “magic”.
Lamayuru Monastery is situated close to a unique landscape called moonscape. It’s a mud feature situated over rocky terrain. It really looks like a slice out of Moon. One of the oldest monasteries in the region, Lamayuru and the village around it has grown in size over a period of time. Education, electricity, mobile phones have made kids confident and they kept talking to us in English asking where we were from? What was our name?
Ladakh and especially Leh and its surrounding areas are dotted with Gompas or monasteries. Hemis, Thikse, Diksit, Chemdey are some of the important ones. These monasteries have similar architecture and location.
As most of the valleys in both Ladakh and Zanskar range are wide and slightly round and surprisingly have a standalone hillock somewhere at the centre, all the monasteries locate themselves on such hillocks. This makes them tower over other human settlements and make for a perfect picture. However, soon you realise the sameness of the pattern and feel exhausted and disinclined to click them.
But Hemis and Thikse are slightly different. Hemis, for almost a thousand years, was so well camouflaged from the public that it’s hidden from the visitor’s gaze even till the last turn. Legend has it that the armies of Genghis Khan remained unaware of its presence during their entire stay in the region. Over the years expanding quarters and the urge to be visible from a distance have led to many constructions that now give away its location.
Thiksey monastery, on the other hand, looks like a scale model or miniature of Potala Palace in Lhasa.
Apart from monasteries during my stay, I learned a few Ladakhi terms. Tso meant lake, Tse meant village and Thang meant open pastures. Dakh meant thousand which means Ladakh is a land of thousand passes.
I had to pass one such “La”, Chang-La pass to visit and see the famed Pangong Tso (Lake). Standing at close to 18000 feet above sea level at the Changla Pass with bright sunlight and temperature at minus 6-degree centigrade I ran the risk of having sunburn and frostbite at the same time.
Apart from military settlements, not many villages were visible on our way towards the lake. Road and telephone lines were the only reminders that the land has been breached by civilisation. However, the scene at Pangong Lake was very different. We could see tourists, tourist huts, tents and the telltale signs of garbage left behind by the earlier wave of tourists from the last season.
Ever since a Hindi movie “Three Idiots” featured the lake for its climax scene in 2009, it has become a hot destination among the new crop of tourists. The yellow colour scooter that was used by Kareena Kapoor (the heroine of the movie) has been kept there for the tourists to sit and get clicked.
On an average 4000 vehicles arrive at Pangong during the peak season between May to July. At that time the locals earn Rs 50 from everyone who wishes to be clicked sitting on the scooter. An army officer stationed there told me with a smile that there are close to 5 such scooters of the same make and colour and each one claims that this is the original one used in the film.
This is the time when even the vast expanse of serenity seems a little under stress from humanity and its cacophony.
The main attraction of watching the lake’s different shades of blue colour was missing as in April it was still under a thin layer of ice. Only at the banks did the snow receded enough to give a glimpse of magnificent blue that so typical of lakes in this area.
It was time to return and while sitting at the airport looking at the photographs I had clicked, I stopped at the photo of Indus-Zanskar confluence and I got the answer to my original question that kept nagging me when I was landing in Leh — what new perspective I will get from my travel? Will it be worth the effort?
I realised that two decades ago when I first saw the confluence, I forgot about it as it seemed so ordinary. This time around the same spot offered an almost surreal experience. And that’s the beauty of Ladakh. The same landscapes during the day and over the seasons offer unique perspectives.
Two elements – sun and shade – paint the grey and brown terrain and blue sky to create endless possibilities of breathtaking beauty.
It’s a land that will keep throwing up ever new frames for an artist, painter, photographer and anyone with even a strand of aesthetic appreciation in him or her. But it will never reveal itself completely to anyone keeping its magic and its mystical qualities intact.
Like an accomplished seductress, it will eternally enchant, entice and captivate the flippant and the devout seekers alike. Each patron will return with their bagful of stories, experiences and images feeling a special bond with the mystical land.

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SDG: Concentrating on Goal 11 can be a game changer

There is an old adage in Hindi language that roughly translates as “master one, master all”. Nowhere has it seemed more applicable than in the context of Sustainable Development Goals.
Off the 17 goals accepted and propagated by the United Nations in 2015, goal number 11 (sustainable cities and communities) is the one that can be the vehicle to achieve all the other goals. This goal encompasses all other goals and if you meet the targets of this one you will automatically achieve all.
The goal says that we need to make our cities and the communities that live within that space sustainable. For this it talks about making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe and resilient.
Cities as Magnets of Opportunity and Doom
Cities are both magnets of opportunities and graveyards of failed aspirations. This is one of the reasons the number of mega cities (cities that have a population of 10 million or more) have been continuously rising since 1990. Thirty years ago there were just 10 mega cities but today their numbers have risen to 28.
The rise has been uneven and mostly concentrated in Asia and Africa. Cities like Lagos, Cairo, Delhi, Mumbai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Chengdu, and Jakarta have witnessed two kinds of migrations from their respective hinterlands. People with aspirations and desperation have both migrated to the cities in search of a better life.
Both have had mixed results. Those who landed in big cities trying to run away from abject poverty in rural areas on an average fared better as they at least got food to eat and a place to live, no matter how decrepit the conditions were.
However, the story of aspirational migration is lot more colourful. There are many rags to riches stories followed by a long list of shattered dreams and broken wills.
For India, the city of Mumbai is the fabled lamp, which if rubbed right can turn any aspiring Sindbaad into an overnight success. Many film stars, businessmen, social entrepreneurs; sportspersons are a testimony to this magical quality of the city.
However, there are countless stories of equal failures running into hundreds of thousands. While most of the failures accept their fate and bow down to the diktats of time, there are handful who refuse to submit and turn to a way of life that’s detrimental, not only to them but to the society in general.
It is visible in the form of tough neighbourhoods, which is a stark reality of almost every big and medium sized town around the world.
Cauldron of Competition
This is because in the last thirty years the pace of urbanisation in Asia and Africa has been unparalleled in the history of humans both in size and scope. The cities that were built to house small number of people are now home to populations that rival small countries. For example the population in Delhi is equal to that of Australia.
In 1951 Delhi’s population was just five hundred thousand and it’s consumption of electricity was close to 100 megawatts (MW) daily. Today the population stands close to 24 million and peak summer demand for daily electricity last year was nearly 7000 MW which is poised to go up to 7400 MW this year.
Similarly, Dhaka was again a small sleepy town of five hundred thousand inhabitants in 1965. Today the same city is bursting at its seams with a population load of 15 million people.
With the possible exceptions of China, South Korea and Japan most of the urbanisation in Asia and Africa has been haphazard, piecemeal and organic. It kept growing without any clear directions from the central, state or local governments.
So today, most of these urban centres are choking as their meagre infrastructure and hopelessly limited resources are being overwhelmed by a mass of humanity, they never thought would access it.
In such a scenario the rich and the poor, the educated and the illiterate, traditionally urban and newly arrived rural people, talented and stupid, skilled and unskilled all compete for a pie that is forever shrinking.
This leads to the rise of privileged groups with tightly guarded accesses, band of marauders, identity groups that act as pressure groups against the ruling elites. It also leads to pockets of wealth within gated and manicured enclaves (Victoria Island, Lagos or Lutyens Delhi) amidst sea of poverty in sprawling shantytowns (Favelas in Rio or Dharavi in Mumbai).
Competition, like everything, is good in right doses. A constant state of heightened competition bordering on hostility and occasionally sliding into anarchy is never good for the overall social and financial health of a city. It robs the megacity of its innate genius, forces it to underperform and condemns it to punch much below its weight.
Take the case of Delhi and its adjoining suburbs that make the National Capital Region (NCR). Its annual Gross Domestic Product is close $150. A population of 25 million in NCR produces $150 billion while in Shanghai a population of 26.3 million produces a GDP of $440 billion.
Melting Pot of Opportunity
History has been a testimony to the fact that access to good quality free primary and secondary education, a far sighted skill enhancement programme, affordable housing, good quality affordable healthcare and impartial and non-discriminatory law and order agency are keys to unlocking the true potential of a mega city.
Beijing and Shanghai have done it in the 21st century as have Seoul and Tokyo in the third quarter of the 20th century.
Humanity’s march towards becoming an urban species is now irreversible. By 2050 a total of 6.5 billion people will be living in urban areas. Right now the number of urban dwellers is 3.5 billion globally. Among them, 828 million or close to one third of them live in slums.
To re-orient the newly emerged megacities in Asia and Africa from cauldrons of competition to melting pots of opportunities, the cities need to become more equitable and develop an egalitarian ethos. Those in the leadership positions in these continents and countries should know, letting cities emerge in an organic way is a strategy fraught with danger. This strategy turns a city into a jungle.
Organic growth works on the principles of natural selection where might is right and the fittest or the toughest and not necessarily the best survives. It leaves many groups of people permanently disadvantaged and creates enclave within the city domain where they are finally dumped, condemned and forgotten. Movement from these disadvantaged areas to a decent living becomes an uphill task where only exceptionally heroic efforts see some success.
US crown jewels of success, cities like New York or Chicago, have these kinds of enclaves which have created wide chasm between the haves and have-nots. They are a reminder that leaving everything to organic growth theory can create permanent fault lines.
In a country like India, which is already dealing with caste, class, region and religious divides, the policymakers and administrators would do well to guide cities in a way that they emerge as melting pots of opportunities consuming all fault lines.

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SDG: Prescription to End Hunger Needs Rethink

The status of hunger around the world can be gauged from the reports released by the United Nations’ Food and agriculture Organisation (FAO). According to its report more than 800 million people around the world qualify as under-nourished.
Not surprisingly almost all of them are found in Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Latin America. In other parts of the world too there are pockets even in developed countries where malnutrition exists but it is less than five percent of the total population.
Hidden Hunger
Malnutrition leads to stunting (too short for their age), wasting (too thin for their height) and low weight to age ratio among young children. Among women the pregnant and lactating women often suffer from lack of nutrition. But apart from these two categories there is a lot of hidden hunger.
Even in Emerging Economies the urban middle class is suffering from malnutrition out of bad habit or ignorance or both.
All the discourse related to ending hunger revolves around increasing the basic calories per person per day. But increasing calories per day isn’t the whole story. A person can have a burger and a cola and can stuff calories in access of 2500 which is technically the baseline need to survive. Yet are they consuming nutrition, the answer is no. This is also the reason that even among the relatively well off Indian middle class we find anaemic women as a rampant phenomenon.
This is the reason India, while bringing millions out of poverty and expanding its middle class is still in the “serious’ zone when it comes to malnutrition and under nutrition in FAO reports. According to Global Hunger Report 2016, 28.5 percent of India’s population is facing some sort of hunger in the form of undernourishment that is leading to stunting, wasting and increased child mortality. As compared to India, China has been able to reduce this number to just 7 percent.
SDG and Prescription
Sustainable Development goal number 2 says that we should end hunger, achieve food security, improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.
To achieve these four goals it proposes to, end hunger and ensure access by all people, in particular the poor and people in vulnerable situations, including infants, to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round by 2030. It also calls for end to all forms of malnutrition among children, women and elderly.
It wants to achieve this goal by doubling agricultural productivity and income of small scale food producers, particularly women, indigenous people, farmers, pastoralists and fishers. The goal intends to preserve genetic diversity of seeds, cultivated plants, farmed and domesticated animals and their related wild species. It also wants to ensure sustainable food production systems and practices that increase productivity and production.
The Challenge
From a distance it all looks good, however, the devil lies in the details. The goal says that productivity in the agricultural sector needs to be increased. In itself it’s not a bad idea till the time you realise that India with far lower per acre productivity than China still manages to produce record levels of grain production. It’s theoretically enough to feed all the citizens of India and still leave a little surplus for the rainy day.
Even on global level the present world grain and other production is enough to feed all the seven billion souls residing on the planet. The problem is not of lack of food it’s about distribution. It’s artificial scarcity that needs to be addressed first. And there-in lie the rub.
Most of the food surplus is concentrated in global north and hunger in global south. The movement of food from the North to South needs international agreements based on the principles of fair play, humanity and equity.
This is a tall ask when agricultural produce is a contentious issue in World Trade Organisation (WTO) and billions of dollars are to be won or lost in its import and export.
Even if we leave aside the global politics, within the national boundaries the movement of food grains are restricted due to various cartels and the wastage is visible all around. Agricultural produce is wasted either in transit or at the food table.
Secondly, the insistence of increasing production has been misconstrued by many governments as a license to mindlessly increase the total cultivable land in their country jeopardising their forest land, mangroves, water bodies etc.
This expansion of agricultural land will be in direct conflict with the other part of the goal number 2 that talks about sustainable agricultural practices and maintaining the genetic diversity of seeds, animals and plants.
This is because in the rush to meet the hunger targets and tick off all the boxes the governments will race to first meet the calorie intake target. For this purpose they would go for high yield varieties of grain and higher milk producing cattle varieties which are foreign to their own geographies. For example India has extensively used high yielding rice and wheat varieties that put extreme pressure on scarce water resources and at the cost of diversity in both the grains. Similarly Jersey cows from US are preferred by milk producers than the local varieties that produce lesser, though high quality, milk.
Even if the productivity per acre logic is applied these high yielding varieties will win over more traditional varieties. This is because bringing agricultural scientists, genetic engineers, bio-engineers, micro-biologists to the farm land is an exercise that most of the governments in global South are ill-equipped to undertake. They don’t have the scientific infrastructure to undertake this transition. While countries like India have the scientific wherewithal but lack financial abilities to undertake a nationwide mission of such gigantic proportions.
The vision of promoting and protecting women and small, marginal and family size farmers is all good but in reality the problem they face is very basic. Their farm size is totally uneconomic and there is no way that they can be made sustainable in the long run.
The Way Forward
First and foremost a one size fits all calorie count can’t work globally. People living in colder climates need more calories to keep themselves warm. So a new calorie index should be created which can be applied according to nations to begin with and within nations if they have huge geographical diversity than regional calorie index should also be put in place.
Secondly every country’s traditional food plate should be taken into account and based on their food preferences, availability and food cycle (seasonal variations, like in India traditionally in winters people ate more of gram and ragi based chapattis and til in winters).
This will help the local governments, policy makers, health professionals and farmers to use the right kind of grain species, which is indigenous. This way they would be able to save their genetic diversity by employing it for clear economic gains.
A nationwide communication campaign should be launched in every country facing hunger and malnutrition in mission mode. The communication campaign should be aimed at creating a mass awareness about saving food items, eating right and eating moderately among every individual. It should actually turn into an evangelical movement.
The government should overhaul its procurement policy, invest in large scale development of cold chains and secure transportation of food and food related items. It should also institute rating systems of various food whole sale markets on their waste reduction abilities.
Large scale kitchens at schools, religious places, hotels, hospitals should also be rewarded for instituting or developing innovative waste reduction methods. Subsidies and financial incentives should be offered to other institutions that replicate it.
Last but not the least to stop perverse incentive of moving from undernourishment from malnutrition to undernourishment due to eating high calorie junk food, it’s important to heavily tax packed food and junk food industry.
The above mentioned actions can be subsidized by using the resources earned from higher taxation of these junk food behemoths.

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SDG: Ending Poverty In All Forms Is Doable

In the mythical story of Lord Krishna and his school mate Sudama, the latter, forced by his extreme poverty, seeks his friend’s help to alleviate it. The story says that while he was leaving his wife gave him three fistful of rice as a token of gift to his friend, the lord of the universe. That was the only surplus she had which could be presented as gift. The poverty stricken Brahmin makes a long solitary journey to the lord’s palace in distant seaside city of Dwarka. Upon his arrival he finds it difficult to get into his court and after a bit of jostling he is finally able to send his message across. The moment lord hears about his friend’s arrival, it’s like a magic wand has finally been wielded, lord is ecstatic to meet his long lost friend and though Sudama doesn’t ask for anything, the perceptive king understands his reason of arrival and Sudama’s days of misery are over.
In real life things are not that easy. Not everyone finds a benevolent friend or has the good fortune of meeting the lord almighty. However, this story holds a small but poignant lesson for the present day governments. Eradicating poverty needs an ecosystem where Sudama’s life threatening journey (A bold personal initiative based on courage and belief in the justness of the system) is rewarded by a very receptive and responsive king (Efficient and effective government). It takes two to tango, concerted efforts for a generation or two, mostly by the governments of the day in the form of clear-cut policies and impartial, just and strict implementation.
Eradicating the Evil
The United Nations in its list of 17 Sustainable Development Goals has kept “eradicating poverty in all forms for all people everywhere”, right at the top signifying its urgency and priority. It’s a no brainer that poverty is the ultimate curse for humanity. Indian philosophers have said that poverty is a soul corroding experience as it compels people to undertake actions which otherwise they would abhor to do. Selling child out of desperation, selling their body for a meal or resorting to crimes like murder and arson can all be triggered by poverty. Apart from such crimes poverty also has a corrosive effect on the quality of human capital that faces such hardships. Stunting, wasting, cognitive problems and sheer lack of access to natural, social and governmental resources perpetuate a cycle that leads downward spiral into doom.
To arrest this colossal loss of human capital due to poverty, the United Nation in the year 2000 proposed to end extreme poverty and hunger from the planet in their eight Millennium Development Goals. The timeframe set for the national governments around the world was 15 years. At that time 36 percent of the global population was surviving on $1.25 or less. In a span of one and a half decades that followed, the number of people living in extreme poverty facing hunger came down to 10 percent. The maximum improvements in absolute numbers were witnessed in the two most populous nations in the world – India and China.
Together both the countries have been working to eradicate poverty from early 1990s a decade earlier than the Millennium Development Goals were formally launched. However, the MDGs gave a significant fillip to their initiatives and by 2015 when the deadline for the MDGs arrived China was able to uplift an astounding 470 million people out of poverty and India was able to lift close to 270 million people from the same trap.
Today on an average 44 Indians come out of poverty every minute according to Brookings Institute’s Future Development blog.
People may say, the progress still leaves many millions reeling under poverty and it’s true. But what’s also true is that at no point in the history of humans the poverty eradication rate was as astoundingly fast as it has been between the years 2005 and 2015.
There is always a gap between the target and achievement, vision and reality. Visions always act as sign posts or goal posts and most of the times the governments don’t achieve them but wherever they reach is almost always better position than the one where they began.
However, even after phenomenal success by government standards in eradicating poverty in societies, there are 736 million or 10 percent of the global population living below poverty line around the world. Along with and including these people 1.3 billion humans live in multi-dimensional poverty and 80 percent of them are living in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
This necessitated the formulation of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with ending all forms of poverty for everyone everywhere by 2030.
Devil Lies in details
Visions by definition are lofty and short on specifics. Targets, on the other hand, are deliberately kept steep to egg on the workers or an organisation to push the boundaries of their professional competence and comfort. SDGs are no different.
However, unlike a typical vision document it actually has two very specific goals. Among other things it calls for reducing at least by half all forms of poverty among men, women and children within a 15 year deadline.
Yet terms like implement “nationally appropriate” social protection systems and measures for all, including floors, and by 2030 achieve “substantial coverage” of the poor and the vulnerable. It also talks about creating “sound” policy frameworks to achieve these goals.

Words like appropriate, substantial and sound are at best vague. The primary need for a successful implementation demands that there should be a target with a clear cut goal, a time frame, and a measureable yardstick.

The goal is clear in terms of deadline which is the year 2030. So whatever needs to be achieved should be done in the 15 years starting from 2015. It also says that the reduction should at least be able to bring down the number by half from the current 736 million.

Clarity on these two issues is a great place to begin with. However, it is at the stage of monitoring and measurement that some clarity is needed. For example, there should be complete clarity and acceptance on the definition of multi-dimensional poverty?

Secondly the definition of poverty in dollar terms also needs revision. In the year 2000 it was $1.25 now it is $1.90. But what needs to be taken into consideration is the inflation rate during the last 18 years and how relevant this number is in today’s terms. Otherwise there is a danger of governments resorting to statistical jugglery leaving millions still in the clutches of poverty.
Tackling the Hydra Headed Monster
Multi-dimensional poverty includes among other things, child and maternal health, access to nutritious food, education, health and natural resources to realise individual potential.
Examples from India and China show that China took the route of improving farm productivity, increased urbanisation, skill development and promotion of export oriented economy. While India worked on social indicators by launching focussed national and state level interventions.
Since 2005 India has seen two different governments and both of them have worked towards poverty alleviation with sustained good results. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government under the stewardship of Manmohan Singh introduced schemes like the minimum employment guarantee scheme (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme- MGNREGS). Earlier in 1995 midday meal scheme was launched by another Congress Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao to increase the number of enrolment in schools.
The present National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government under Narendra Modi has launched health insurance for poor, while tightening the delivery mechanism in low cost housing, skill development, loan disbursement for small scale entrepreneurs and providing gas connection for poor families etc.
The use of bio-metric identity data and linking it with bank accounts and mobile phone has helped the present government to add speed, efficiency and effectiveness of delivery mechanism of every scheme.
Effects of these measures have resulted in reduced leakage of resources. Their better deployment is evident in the statistics that suggests every minute 44 Indians are moving out of poverty and by 2030 only three percent of the Indians would be facing poverty of some sorts.
Concerted actions by India and China show that even though the challenge is huge, strong willed governments, extensive use of technology and policy adjustments based on real time feedback from the ground can finally help humanity get rid of the age old curse of poverty.

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Weather Forecasting: Near-casting to Win Perception Battle

How often you have found yourself, smirking while listening or reading to weather forecasts. More often than not, isn’t it? And the general lament is why can’t the met guys get it right? Then there are some who take the opportunity to tell the world, “Oh when I was in Britain they predicted the weather an hour in advance and it was so accurate you could plan your day according to it”. The people listening to them almost always have that “wow-am-I-impressed?” look on their faces.
However, a little deeper understanding of weather forecast will tell you the fault lies not in the science or the technical and intellectual capability of our scientists but in our approach towards communication. Let’s see how?
Gathering Inputs: The Backbone of Weather Forecast
Let’s begin with how the climate and weather data is collected. Earlier we had synoptic observatories. It meant that there was one observatory within 250 square kilometres. Then the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) decided to gather even more granular data by moving to meso-scale (intermediate) observatories which meant an observatory every 50 kilometre radius. Coupled with the infrastructure on the ground a string of new satellites offered a lot of information that was not available earlier. Traditionally coastal areas were more prone to extreme weather events like cyclones and heavy rains. So as a priority the IMD set up a chain of radars along the coast where almost every inch is now under the watchful eyes of the radar network put up by the department. Satellites offer the initial information of a gathering storm or a cyclone from 600 to 700 kilometres away in the Ocean and the moment it’s 300 kilometres away from the coasts the radars take over to amp its trajectory – Its movements, speed and direction. Then the information is fed into pre-existing models at the IMD office and the predictions are made.
This is one of the reasons that the number of deaths in cyclones has drastically reduced over the years. While the 1999 cyclone in Orissa took a toll of 10000 the toll during cyclone Ockhi that devastated a large part of eastern coasts in India in 2017 was at 245. Given the density of population and the little time there was to evacuate the entire population to safer places it was a huge improvement in pre-emptive safety measures initiated due to timely prediction.
As the times are changing so are the challenges. Now climate variability and climate change both have far reaching impacts on our resources. Himalayas are one geographical feature that may suffer due to extreme climate change. As Himalayas are home to all our perennial rivers, glaciers and ice-caps they need to be studied in depth. The problem is, mountains are very different from the planes and the coasts. While the latter have flat surfaces offering a congruity of air and temperature spread the former has a very complex environment due to its special geography.
In the mountains temperature will vary at the foothill or in the valley, at the middle of the mountain and then at the top where the airflow is absolutely unencumbered. It also depends on which side of the mountain you are measuring the temperature. The windward side and the leeward side will have vastly different readings. As the Himalayas have extreme variations in alleviation within districts and blocks and also in just a 100 kilometre width (as the crow flies) it is impossible to decide how many observatories are enough to gather information from every nook and corner of the mountain range and is it possible to establish that many observatories. Take the case of Dehradun district in Uttarakhand, you have the city of Rishikesh which is 372 metres above sea level, while the same district has Chakrata which is at 2118 metres above mean sea level. With this kind of variation even a meso-scale saturation of observatories may not give an accurate picture of the entire weather pattern.
Forecast protocols
Weather forecasting from the shortest term called now-casting to seasonal forecasts. Now-casting is an American term where the forecasts are made for a few hours ranging from half an hour to three hours. Then comes the short range forecasts that have a time horizon of 48 hours. This is followed by medium range forecast which is applicable for five to seven days. Extended rain forecast is for four weeks and this is followed by seasonal and long range forecast (three months or more).
Typically seasonal, long range predictions involve a larger geography and thousands of inputs from all around the world. It is here that mostly all the world meteorological departments bite the dust. They are on the ball sometimes while missing the mark by a wide margin in other cases. Take the case of extreme winter we are experiencing right now. Almost all the met departments around the world predicted last year that this winters will be a tame affair in the northern hemisphere. But as we saw they all ended up having egg on their face because none could anticipate polar vortex letting loose its icy slice.
Similarly, the larger the geographical area, the more the chances of predictions going awry. Take the case of Delhi. Many times met department predicts rain and people sitting in Mayur Vihar or in Dwarka or in Noida see no rains at all. But within the met department their forecast is completely right as there was rain in Connaught place. The logic is if the forecast comes true within a fifty kilometre radius it would be deemed as correct.
The problem here is that Delhi has expanded exponentially over the last 100 years when the first observatories were set up. From a small city with a population of five lakhs it has grown to a metropolis of close 20 million people. The area has expanded too from few kilometres of dense settlements to even and dense spread across 60 kilometres or more. However, the perceptions haven’t changed and the people in the entire NCR (National Capital Region) think they are part of Delhi and if there is no rain in their part of the city or sub-city the prediction is futile.
While the long range forecasts over a large geographical areas are the most difficult to predict, the easiest one is now-casting. This forecasting system is based on information gathered from radar and has to take into account variables which are far more localised and easy to factor in. The weather forecast for the next few hours is very useful in deciding whether you should saddle yourself with an umbrella, organise an outdoor party, have a cricket or tennis match or organise a political meet.
This is where the US and British weather departments score over the Indian Met department. Over the years they have built up a system where the now-casting information is disseminated through radio, television, sms and mobile app. IMD too has the same ability to predict single day forecast with equal accuracy but the outreach to the people is not as comprehensive.
A sms service has been initiated but a lot more can be done. The mobile phone companies can be asked to preset their handsets launched in India to IMD’s day forecasts app displayed on their screen as a default setting, similarly TV’s can run the scroll as was successfully experimented by the regional weather department in Dehradun. Radio FM stations, websites can also chip with information dissemination.
So in future during drawing room conversations if someone berates our long term weather forecasts, know that we are as good as the others. And when the same people wax eloquent about the real time forecasts in the US and Britain, rueing its absence here, know that this is a communication outreach issue not an indictment of scientific abilities of our weathermen.

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“Tsunami of e-waste” can be a multi-billion dollar opportunity

Too much of a good thing is also bad, it is said. In terms of rising number of gadgets and resultant e-waste around us, the above refrain surely makes a lot of sense. The question that may beg an answer is what is e-waste in the first place? The term e-waste is referred to electronic waste. It’s an umbrella term, which incorporates pretty much everything that has a plug, a microprocessor and runs on electricity or battery. They include smartphones, analog mobile phones, calculators, cameras, microwaves ovens, refrigerators, transistor, TVs, wi-fi modems, personal computers, laptops, monitors, air conditioners and many others.
Over the last 25 years these connected devices have brought tremendous ease in our lives as their numbers have grown. The strategy of “saturation-penetration” has resulted in a society that is hyper connected, generating gigabytes of information, leading to ever more powerful gadgets that increase the scope and depth of connectivity in our daily lives. However, this positive feedback loop has also resulted in an unintended consequence of piling mass of waste, which sadly isn’t virtual but actual and takes up a lot of space and poses extreme health hazards too.
“Tsunami of waste”
Till a few years ago electronic waste wasn’t considered worth enough to be categorized as a separate waste segment but within eight short years they have come to overwhelm the civilization from individual homes to landfills.
In 2014 the total e-waste generated globally stood at 41 million metric tons while this year it was 48.5 million metric tons, a jump of 19.8 percent. If the global acquisition rate of smart devices continues than according to the UN report (Global e-Waste Monitor 2018) we would be overwhelmed by a “Tsunami of e-waste” producing 120 million metric tons of e-waste annually by 2050. The Times of India in its info-graphics (dated January 26-01-2019) says that the total amount of e-waste in 2018 alone was equivalent of 125000 jumbo jets. These many jets haven’t been produced as yet. So the seemingly small gadgets in our homes have a much larger environmental impact than we credit them for. While every country, at least a small digitally active section of the society in every country, is guilty of generating their share of e-waste, there is no price for guessing who are the usual suspects here. Mostly the highly developed and consequently the most connected and digitally hyperactive societies of North America, Western Europe, Japan and South Korea are the ones generating more than fare share of e-waste. They dump this uncomfortable cargo on to countries like Egypt, Brazil, Ghana and Eastern Europe. Countries like China and India are unique as they are generating their own huge pile of e-waste as well as receiving it from the developed destinations.
A big unknown
Till today policy makers around the world have not been able to evolve an international consensus or a national plan to effectively deal with e-waste. There are many entrepreneurs and some geeks who have created patented technologies and processes to deal with the problem but mostly the politicians and policymakers as well as large manufacturers of these items world over are either groping in the dark or acting like ostrich, hoping the problem will somehow vanish.
As such today 80 percent of the e-waste either lies in our houses, or sold as scrap, which is a very poor substitute of professional recycling or is thrown into landfill.
So if we go back to our jumbo jet analogy, today waste amounting to a total of 100000 jumbo jets is thrown into landfill every year or 800 laptops every second.
A pile of opportunity
The seemingly daunting and gloomy picture presented by the growing pile of e-waste also hides a billion dollar opportunity for recycling and circular economy. The same UN report says that the present e-waste is worth $62 billion annually, if right protocols are applied by the companies and local as well as national governments.
It is because this waste is phenomenally rich in many metals some of them rare like indium and palladium. They also contain gold, copper, iron and nickel along with ceramic, silicon, industrial plastic etc.
If at 48 million metric tons the global value of e-waste stands at $62 billion than by 2050 when the e-waste generation would be at 120 million metric tons the value would be a $ 180 billion at current price. Even today $62 billion is more than the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of 123 nations.
So clearly this is the business opportunity that needs to be harnessed with right amount of will and consistency. New out of the box systems need to be in place. Right now small-scale companies around the world are working in the field of recycling e-waste by extracting various minerals and other materials from the discarded products and selling them to companies up the manufacturing chain.
But this is only the tip of the iceberg. The present lot doesn’t have the ambition or the ability to handle the gigantic task at hand.
A more comprehensive plan is the need of the hour and a “cradle to cradle” design approach embedded in product manufacturing will have deeper and far reaching consequences than the present “cradle-to-grave” approach. The large manufacturers will have to install their own facilities for recycling and would also need to invest in their product design to minimize waste as much as possible at the source itself. The product should also be designed in a manner that it’s easy to dis-assemble it and send every last nut and bolt into various recycling units.
In the new approach the companies can enter into an agreement with the consumers for a time frame ranging from 3 to five and up to 10 years depending upon the product. Under the agreement the company will buyback the product and offer a decent discount to the consumer who comes back with the old product in reasonably good condition that natural deterioration due to daily use offers. This product will go to their recycling plants.
This way the company will have a steady flow of raw material or at least a large part of it and captive consumer base while the consumer will get new and energy and resource efficient products at a competitive price at right intervals.
It can be a win-win situation for both. However, if the companies indulge in profit maximization by offering only nominal discounts and jack up prices of new products under the garb of inflation and proprietary royalty, people would rather use their old stuff longer than they should and will have no motivation to trade off the older equipment. In time it would increase the pressure on landfill, increase the cost of material acquisition of the companies and would lead to bad press in an age of environmentally aware world (read press and the NGOs).
So to save the company and the consumer, both should sit down and evolve a future strategy of product design, delivery and consumer engagement so that both can ride the “tsunami of e-waste” rather than being swept by it.

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