gm

gm

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Originally from Mumbai, I'm studying towards my Doctorate in Genetics at Michigan State University, USA. Project Brahma is an attempt by me and my friends to create a resource for conserving the myriad aspects of the idea that is India.

Home page: http://www.projectbrahma.org

Posts by gm

Ganga Maiyya or world’s largest open sewer?

Buffaloes bathing in world’s largest open sewer

I read an obnoxious article on Tehelka.com recently on the River Ganga (Ganges). The investigative report found that Ganga today is more polluted than when the Ganga Action Plan was launched in 1985 to, ironically, reduce the level of pollution in the river. Just how polluted is the river?

  • Near Haridwar, coliform bacteria, which cause diseases like gastroenteritis and diarrhoea, are present at a concentration of 5500 mpn/100ml. The permissible levels are 50mpn for drinking, 500mpn for bathing and 5000mpn for agriculture. Such high concentations are because the 12 municipal towns located on Ganga’s banks from Gangotri to Haridwar release around 90 million litres of sewage, urine and faeces into the river every day.
  • Near Kanpur, the river turns toxic due to industrial sewage disposal. Despite repeated awareness campaigns against tanneries, they release about 40 million litres of effluents/day of which only 9 million litres is treated. These effluents contain chromium at a concentration of 248 mg/litre, when the WHO limit for drinking water is 0.05 mg/litre, a shocking 5000X higher concentration!! Chromium toxicity can cause a wide range of problems, from allergic reactions and dermatitis to cancer and dementia.
  • Near Varanasi, around 300 tonnes of half-burnt carcasses, corpses and ashes are thrown into the river each year. Coliform bacteria are present at 2 lakh mpn/100ml. Of the three sewage treatment plants, two are not operational.
  • Near Patna and Kolkata, the situation is the same – extremely high amount of coliform bacteria, huge volumes of industrial effluents and skyrocketing concentrations of toxic compounds!

The Gangetic Dolphin, the vehicle of Goddess Ganga – both of whom we have managed to kill in the last 50 years

This is a shame, and we all know it. This seems even more bizarre in the context of the current leadership in Uttar Pradesh – Akhilesh Yadav, the state’s Chief Minister, studied Civil Engineering and Environmental Engineering! What is the use of these degrees if, even after almost being the KING of the state, one cannot hasten the process of purification of the most sacred river in the country! Alas, the political parties in the state can spend millions of dollars building statues and parks but not for developing a robust system to curb the pollution of Ganga. (Note: The Ganga Action Plan, conceptualized in 1985 as “the largest single attempt to clean up a polluted river anywhere in the world.” has been termed a colossal failure, despite spending Rs.10 billion up until 2000)

What are the implications of Ganga’s pollution? Here are a few facts:

  • The Gangetic basin is the most heavily populated basin in the world, supplying water to 400 million people!
  • Ganga provides water to 40% of India’s population in 11 states. This water is used for everything – cooking, drinking, washing clothes, agriculture, bathing…everything!
  • A study found that 66% of the families near Varanasi were affected by diseases like cholera, dysentery, Hepatitis-A, Typhoid etc.
  • The pollution has threatened more than 140 fish species, 90 amphibian species and the Gangetic River Dolphin. The latter dolphin species, which is considered the vehicle of Goddess Ganga, is almost extinct.

Hindus believe that bathing in Ganga will wash away all your sins. “Ganga consumes all your sins and still remains pure…that is why it is divine”, they say. I would suggest forcing numb-nuts who make such arguments drink the water of Ganga for a week. Such capital punishments should also be meted out to owners of industries which release effluents in the river. Without a few strong, well-publicized cases of repugnant action, we will never be able to bring Ganga back from the dead. No amount of awareness campaigns will work. Ganga has soaked our sins for the past four thousand years, however, we have effectively managed to KILL IT in the past fifty years alone!

Global warming is real, skeptics seem to agree. What next?

A new study funded by the Koch group seems to have come to the conclusion that global warming is real and is caused by human activities. The Koch Industries, owned by the Koch family, has annual revenues of $100 billion and has a broad product base, comprising from oil and gas to fertilizers and paper pulp. Almost all of these products are dependent on exploitation of natural resources and hence, it is quite natural that the Koch family was one of the biggest supporters of anti-climate action in the US. Since 1997, the Koch family has spent over $100 million lobbying against climate-change actions in Washington and supporting the agenda of other fossil-fuel companies. But this study, funded in part by the Koch group and with two strong climate-change skeptic scientists in the team of seven lead investigators, seems to have landed a bombshell in Koch group’s business interests.

Richard Muller, the founder and scientific director of Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project made the following statement in a recent NY Times post:

CALL me a converted skeptic. Three years ago I identified problems in previous climate studies that, in my mind, threw doubt on the very existence of global warming. Last year, following an intensive research effort involving a dozen scientists, I concluded that global warming was real and that the prior estimates of the rate of warming were correct. I’m now going a step further: Humans are almost entirely the cause.

What does this mean for the politics of global warming? Surveys indicate that less than half of the US citizens think global warming is due to human activities (In India, less than half KNOW what global warming is). Will this study help bring some of those skeptics on board? Or will it be politics as usual again? In his NY Times post, Muller also says:

Hurricane Katrina cannot be attributed to global warming. The number of hurricanes hitting the United States has been going down, not up; likewise for intense tornadoes. Polar bears aren’t dying from receding ice, and the Himalayan glaciers aren’t going to melt by 2035. And it’s possible that we are currently no warmer than we were a thousand years ago, during the “Medieval Warm Period” or “Medieval Optimum,” an interval of warm conditions known from historical records and indirect evidence like tree rings. And the recent warm spell in the United States happens to be more than offset by cooling elsewhere in the world, so its link to “global” warming is weaker than tenuous.

Will the political skeptics harp on this statement rather than the science? Obama has followed an “all of the above” approach for energy in the US. He’s opened up offshore drilling and expanded shale gas explorations, leading to a significant stability in oil prices in the US despite Libya and Syria and collapsing of the European economy. He’s also invested in several clean energy projects. However, US still ranks second in terms of global CO2 emissions and releases ~17 tons CO2/person/year, compared to 6.2 tons in China, 1.7 tons in India, 9 tons in Japan and Germany, 8 tons in UK and 5 tons in France. There is an enormous scope for improvement in the US which the second term of Obama should address on a war footing!

 

 

 

Scientific awareness in India

A fellow Redditor recently posted this video which made me laugh a little and weep a lot

This by no means is a scientific survey but it does follow expectations. There have been very few assessments of science literacy in India, but a notable one in 2004 found that India lagged behind the US in almost all basic scientific questions asked. The survey also found that 65% of the respondents get their science-related information from television and only ~10% read about it in newspaper/books/magazines (Internet was not ubiquitously available back in 2004). This trend is different from that in the US – where people get their science dose from magazines and books. Not surprisingly, most people prefer entertainment, sports, politics and news while only 2% of the people preferred/actively sought out science-related information. Very few people know about existence of science fairs, scientific research institutes, planetariums etc. in their communities.

People like Arvind Gupta (http://www.arvindguptatoys.com/) who make scientific and educational toys and help increase children’s interest in science are direly needed (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Sadly, the study points out that at middle-school level, just 22% of the students preferred going into science-related fields. This proportion dropped down to 13% at 11th and 12th standard. This drop corresponds to an equivalent increase in students wanting to pursue commerce and arts. The 11th and 12th standard students say that the primary reason for them not pursuing science is that “they are just not interested”. When asked why they were not interested, they said it was because “they didnt feel motivated enough” or “they didn’t understand the matter being taught”

Not surprisingly, in an international test of assessment of school children’s reading, math and science skills, India ranked 73rd out of 74 countries (74th was Kyrgyzstan). On an average, 8th standard students in India (TN and HP participated, but results can be generalized I think) were comparable to 3rd standard students in Korea in terms of their math skills. Even the best of our students (top 5% of all tested students) were 100 points behind an average child in Singapore and 250 points behind the best of all students tested. On an average, 40 points correspond to one grade (one standard of school years). This means our best students are almost eight standards behind the best students in the world!!! (More about PISA here: Arvind’s World)

All of these indicators suggest that we need to go a long, long way to increase scientific awareness in India. Most people are not interested in science. If this is the attitude, our country can have little innovation.

However, there is a glimmer of hope. Almost 80% of Indians feel that science is really important, it is critical for human progress and that we need to invest more in science. More educated a person, the more likely is he to say that science is important. We need to take advantage of this fact and make sure that our young citizens are being inculcated with scientific values and principles right from their early school years!

 

India’s energy choices and their environmental impacts – Part 3

Seven steps to energy stability

Read Part1 here

Read Part2 here

Over the last two weeks (see Part 1 and Part 2 of this series), I reviewed various sources of energy which form the backbone of India’s energy policy. However, what remains to be discussed is where do we go from here? Our country has millions and millions of poor. While cutting back on energy use to stem India’s environmental degradation, we also have to think about lifting these millions out of poverty, providing the children of India a better life with better opportunities. How do we balance economic development with environmental conservation? In this part, I will lay out salient features that, I think, should be an integral part of India’s energy policy.

 

Slums like this in Mumbai have little access to electricity. People survive and run their businesses with stolen electricity, frequently in connivance with officials. (Source:Wikimedia Commons)

1) We need to increase access to energy

Out of the 1.6 billion people in India, 400 million have little or no access to electricity. How can we educate people, teach them computers, provide them good health and good food, make them better-informed citizens without electricity? We need to get out of the medieval age and fast. The 21st century is no place for laggards. India’s energy requirements are supposed to double by 2035. I feel that without (atleast a few) visionary and honest people in state and central power boards, this is a very tall order to achieve. The fact that the Ministry of Power and the Ministry of Coal ends up being embroiled in so major corruption cases (Adarsh scam/Coal mining scam) does not give much confidence.

2) Reducing transmission losses and power thefts

According to Central Vigilance Commission, as high as 50% of the generated power never reaches the customers, due to theft and transmission losses. Shockingly, 30% of the loss occurs as theft in connivance with Electricity Board employees. Central and State governments have tried various measures – from using smart meters to awareness campaigns to increasing degree of punishment. But thieves rarely get caught. One solution to this conundrum is massively privatizing the electricity sector (currently at 21% of total capacity). Experience suggests that privatization of utilities (eg: telephone) significantly reduces corruption in that sector. In addition, technological innovations like Smart Meters can help alleviate the theft of electricity.

3) Reducing reliance on fossil fuels

This goes without saying. NGOs all over the world are campaigning governments to go green but in India, the voice is quite subdued. India contributes 4% of world’s CO2 emissions and is the world’s THIRD LARGEST emitter. In March 2010, India’s energy mix consisted of 53% coal, 23% hydroelectricity, 11% natural gas, 3% nuclear, and 10% renewable-energy sources. India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change aimed to bring up the renewables to 15% by 2020, however, that is too low.  We need to satisfy at least a quarter of our energy needs through renewable sources. Government subsidies and private sector investments are needed in the renewables sector if we are to make a mark in this market around the world. Nuclear energy is a good option but needs to be used with great care, especially given our cultural history of “Chalta hai” attitude, bribery of pollution control board officials and lax implementation of punishments.

 

Energy research and innovation is crucial to energy independence. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

4) More money for R&D

India spends abysmally low on research on energy efficiency and alternative energy sources. US, for example, spent an average of $3.6 billion on energy research between 1993 and 2006. That’s just federal money. Hundreds of private enterprises likely will have added a few more billions to that amount.  On the other hand, India’s budgetary allocation for ENTIRE higher education in its 2002-2007 five year plan was around $800 million!!!

It is unlikely that India will match this amount in the near future, but the government as well as the private enterprises in India should be spending more on focused research on biofuels, increasing fuel economy, making our coal plants cleaner, making our nuclear plants safer, solar energy and wind energy. Almost all of the innovations in these fields come from the perceived leaders – US, China, Japan, Germany, France, UK.

5) Local energy to reduce costs and transmission losses

The Gujarat government initiated an excellent project for tapping solar energy – they put solar panels on the Narmada river canal. Not only does that provide solar energy to the farms nearby thereby reducing transmission losses, but it also prevents loss of 90 lakh litre of water from the canal due to evaporation annually. Similarly, asking buildings to harvest rainwater, mandatory installation of solar panels, using biogas for heating/cooking should be encouraged through active policy making.

6) Learn from experiences of states

It is important to realize that the Central Government can only do so much. Experiences in Gujarat and Tamil Nadu have shown that efforts of each state in this field can serve as a learning experience for other states. Gujarat’s expertise in Solar and TN’s expertise in wind can be transferred to other states. Plus, each state is different in geographical and socioeconomic aspects. Kerala, West Bengal and the north-eastern states, for example, can afford to focus on hydro-electricity. MP, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan need to focus on solar and wind. Nuclear power is dangerous in Gujarat, which lies on the intersection of two tectonic plates, however, can be effectively implemented where probability of earthquakes and density of people are low.

7) A collaborative effort between government, private sector and common man

In Pune, many new buildings come with installed solar panels. If we mass market such panels (as well as mass produce instead of importing from China), we can get the cost of solar significantly down. At the same time, big companies like ONGC, Reliance, Adani must be made to spend more on alternative, non-polluting energy. Offsetting carbon is just one way to alleviate problems created due to pollution. These companies need to make their installations greener and need to contribute more towards bringing down our energy costs through non-polluting means. Programs like Centre for Science and Environment’s Green Rating Program should be implemented with more gusto. These companies should also be made to contribute more towards conservation of our forest-lands.

Once the government efforts are aided by the private sector as well as the common man, India can effectively move towards forgetting the days of load shedding and burgeoning energy deficits. We will be superbly positioned to satisfy our energy needs as well as take care of our environment. Let’s hope such a day comes soon!!

Do you have any more suggestions? Let us hear them in the comments!!

Read Part1 here

Read Part2 here

 

Donate a school kit to a needy child!

The School Kit Donation Drive is an interesting and innovative initiative by the people at Seva Sahayog, an NGO based in Mumbai and Pune. Many NGOs are small in size and do not have sufficient manpower or experience in fundraising. However, they do really important work, which, if it becomes more well-known, can surely attract funding from big donors. Seva Sahayog works towards connecting such smaller NGOs to corporate institutions of similar interests. Beneficiaries of Seva Sahayog’s activities include NGOs like Bhatke Vimukta Vikas Pratishthan, which is working for development of nomadic tribes in interior Maharashtra and Chaitanya Mahila Mandal, which is working for bettering the lives of sex workers in Pune.

One of Seva Sahayog’s biggest initiative is the School Kit Donation Drive. In India, almost 300 million people live on <$1/day. The density of the poor is higher in bigger cities due to the massive amount of poor, migrant labor, much of which lives in slums and poorly managed neighborhoods. Children who live in such neighborhoods rarely get access to education. One of the frequent complaints is that, despite all the government subsidies, education is too expensive. Buying uniforms, buying school books, investing time towards studies, lack of a quiet place for studying are all barriers that children from slums face. It is not surprising then, that the drop out rate in primary schools in India is 20%. 1 in 5 children just cannot afford even primary level education!

There are several NGOs working towards tacking these problems. For example, Swaroop Wardinee is an NGO based in Pune working towards identifying talent in slums. There are NGOs based in Mumbai working towards educating children who live on railway platforms and bus stations. Astitva Pratishthan, for example, runs educational programs for children of laborers who work in Sugarcane plantations in Marathwada district of Maharashtra.

Since 2008, Seva Sahayog started this initiative of distribution of school kits to children targeted by such institutions. Each school kit includes a school bag, some notebooks, a geometry compass and a drawing book. Volunteers of Seva Sahayog approach various corporate bodies as well as collect donations from individuals. Only 250 rupees can give one needy child a school kit and ensure his education for one more year. In 2011, more than 25,000 school kits were donated to children in Mumbai and Pune.

All of you reading this post have been fortunate enough to be educated. We understand the value of education and its importance not only in our own personal development but also in the development of our country. I hope you will click the link below and donate as much as you can towards making this initiative successful and helping it reach out to more children.

Please click here for donation details.

 

 

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