Baby and the Bathwater

Regulators have done what they do best. Regulated. Without taking any responsibility for the creation of the problem they are trying to solve.

The Supreme Court has upheld the decision of the Environmental Pollution – Prevention and Control – Authority (EPCA) to ban diesel generators in and around Delhi, including Gurgaon.

Makes complete sense, does it not?

After all, people, fools that they are, have been increasingly resorting to buying and using diesel generators to run everything starting from lights and fans gradually progressing to increasingly heavier power-consuming gadgets like geysers, TVs and air-conditioners because they have had a regular, assured supply of grid power throughout their lives. Fools that they are, they have generated the means to, when possible, make investments in equipment like diesel generators, to provide for themselves and their dependents, a more comfortable life, at least to the extent a reliable supply of electricity can provide. In Gurgaon, a condominium without a captive diesel generating capacity is like an oxymoron, a self-contradicting phrase. Such an animal does not exist.

To be fair to them, the regulators have been fair in their failure. They have failed to provide an assured supply of power to households just as efficiently as they have failed to provide assured power to industrial establishments and to shops and establishments. The only place they seem to have failed in failing is in providing assured power to themselves. Chief Ministerial houses, Legislative Assembly buildings, and other Institutions serving the common man, for example, are often a beacon of brightness in a sea of darkness during power failures, at least in the minute or two it takes for standard diesel gensets to kick in.

It is not that we have not made progress. Far from it. During my growing up years in a small town in the northern part of India, circa seventies, there were power failures as well. However, during those days, and we probably have to blame our lack of development for the situation, they were often planned and predicted well in advance. For example, the Department of Electricity would announce that our area would have a power cut from 7 AM to 10 AM every day for the next three months.

What did that mean?

It meant that there was a power cut between 7 AM and 10 AM. And, for the rest of the time, electric supply would be uninterrupted, barring the occasional thunderstorm that brought down electric poles or uprooted trees that fell on overhead wires. Even then, we could call a number provided by the department who would be patient and provide an indication of when we could expect power supply to resume. Before Call Centres were invented.

And the elders would hold out promise of a ‘bright’ future, with uninterrupted power supply just around the corner, with the commissioning of projects like the Bhakra Nangal dam for producing hydroelectricity. That has turned out to be an endless curve with nary a corner in sight.

But we have made progress, as I alluded earlier, and it is there for all to see. Today, no such information is available. Power supply can be switched off at any time, at least in Gurgaon, many times a day, in keeping with the vision of successive governments to keep the populace on a high level of alert for any eventuality. Like an earthquake, or tsunami, or war, that can strike unannounced and requires immediate response, a power outage can strike any time and requires immediate response. What better preparation for an earthquake, tsunami or war? In the event a sudden power outage happens in Tokyo or Chicago or Frankfurt, who are the people who are the calmest and seem equipped to handle the situation? The Indians who grew up in India. Try it out.

Of course it needs to be done in a hurry. Since successive governments could not provide an assured supply of electricity over half a century, since they failed to see the rising usage of diesel powered generators over half a century, the common man needs to ensure he is equipped to handle the situation in fifteen days.

The same order also requires the RWAs (Resident Welfare Associations) to provide electric heaters to security staff. Which they can presumably run on the fresh air that will be available as a result of the Order.

“We want no electricity outages in these locations,” Ms. Sunita Narain, the well-known environment activist and a member of the EPCA, has demanded. Of course, as a power-positive society that has been repeatedly throwing away excess power, that should not be a problem to implement. Nobody had asked for it, it seems.

But wait. What about the economy, silly? Has anyone thought about the impact this will have on the GDP? Caused by people no longer buying and running a gadget that they should never have needed to buy and run. It will need to be a brave person who will give Ms. Nirmala Sitharaman, our Finance Minister, the bad news.

But what is a government to do? People want clean air, don’t they? Well, they asked for it.

Every Breath You Take

It was too good to be true.

I stepped out onto my balcony and opened my lungs. I could finally breathe.

The air quality had improved.

Future generations, coming after we have fully developed our society, may find it hard to believe. But it was true for us. The air quality improved and finally became very poor. From unfit for human consumption just a day earlier.

It came like a breath of fresh air. Or at least like a breath of very poor quality fresh air.

I breathed deeply. I was afraid it may not last and wanted to drink enough to last me till the next opportunity. Who knows how many of us would live to see the next occurrence.

And, like all good things, or at least very poor quality good things, it vanished almost as soon as it had come.

The Indian Meteorological Department has blamed the once-again unfit for human consumption air to the stagnant air that was a result of a depression in the Bay of Bengal that normally results in gale-force winds. The stagnant air apparently led to the particulate matter hanging in the air above us not being blown away to hang in the air above people in other locations, and be replaced by other particulate matter hanging in the air above people in other locations blown in to hang in the air above us.

As episodes of the depression in the Bay of Bengal and stagnant air happen several times every year, we did not expect it to happen and enervate the atmospheric conditions in Gurgaon. We would not have known in the monsoon season that preceded winter, that winter conditions will set-in in October and create challenges of atmospheric pollution because they have been happening every year and getting worse year after year. And if we did not know in monsoon that winter conditions will set-in in October and create challenges of atmospheric pollution, how could we have known it in the summer months which come even before the monsoon months. Every year. And we know that one can only try to manage something that one knows, or at least knows of.

Senior leaders have expressed surprise at the presence of the Bay of Bengal in the Bay of Bengal and believe it is a conspiracy hatched by the previous government. Despite them ruling the country for a good part of the post-independence period, the Bay of Bengal is still in the Bay of Bengal, they indignantly say. Expect a global tender to be floated to move the Bay of Bengal from its current position in the east of the South Indian peninsula, they have announced, in an oblique reference to the soon-to-be-granted mining and exploration rights that are highly regarded for their unique ability to convert any environment to an utter wasteland.

But tackling pollution is not something that can be left to the central government alone. Stepping up to the plate, despite being constrained by not knowing that winter will set-in in winter and bring with it challenges of atmospheric pollution, the municipal authorities in Gurgaon have announced a slew of measures, mainly the building of several under and over passes under and over existing roads to make sure more vehicles can ply on the same ground surface area. In fact, the good work begun by them several years back, like that of cutting down hundreds of mature trees on the road leading from HUDA City Centre Metro Station to Signature Towers, on which our housing society lies, to make it possible for an underpass to be built so that more vehicles can travel on the road, is beginning to bear fruit. The spanking new underpass is now operational, blowing clean dust and clean exhaust fumes from fast moving vehicles, and not stale dust and stale exhaust fumes from idling vehicles before the underpass opened, directly onto our building in greater quantities than ever before, helping me realise my closely guarded Hollywood fantasies. I sometimes picture myself as Tom Cruise in “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” hanging outside Burj Khalifa in Dubai like Spiderman, right in the path of an approaching, freshly-brewed sandstorm.

Giant air purifiers that were installed with great fanfare at busy intersections during last year’s handling of the annual crisis, and were the greatest invention since sliced bread, were such a resounding success that nothing has been heard about them ever since. Or perhaps the new under and over passes to accommodate more concurrent vehicles ate up their space as well. Does it matter? After all, only taxpayer money was spent. To become Revenue on someone’s Income statement.

The forested Aravalli hills that abut Gurgaon are being proactively prepared to tackle the pollution menace by being urbanised for their own good. Once they are gone they will not be affected by increasing levels of pollution, is the sound logic heard in offices that matter.

Plans have been finalised to place restrictions on using motorised vehicles on roads which will enable the government to encourage people to buy more cars and keep them parked on public property. Even a motorcycle rally to raise awareness about the pollution menace has been announced, demonstrating once again that there is no problem big enough that cannot be addressed by making bold announcements.

But we cannot sit on our laurels just as yet.

A few days back Chennai topped the worst air quality charts in the country. Despite having the disadvantage of being on the coast and day after day, year after year, seeing atmospheric pollution, created with the hard work and contribution of so many people over years, being blown away by the sea breeze every morning and evening. And it has repeatedly done so. Topped the charts that is.

There is work to be done. And miles to go. Preferably participating in a rally to save the environment while driving a fuel-guzzling motorcycle on an underpass, for making space for which mature trees were cut down, to an office complex built on space earlier occupied by the forested Aravalli Hills.

Panic grips Delhi as monsoon rains lower pollution levels

It was a scene straight out of a Hollywood horror movie. But without an American hero on hand to save the world.

The Great Rush

The Great Rush

There was shoving and jostling and pushing to catch the next train leaving town. Those who could afford to, packed their cars and fled.

The reasonably timely and plentiful rains in and around Delhi have washed away the atmospheric pollution, and with it the last vestige of normalcy, leaving hapless residents gasping for breath in an environment they are not familiar with, clean air.

An earthquake of 8+ magnitude on the Richter scale could not have caused such panic. Signs of distress are visible all around.

Too much visibility

Too much visibility

Motorists are in all sorts of trouble. Suddenly able to see far, drivers are having a difficult time keeping their focus on the road immediately ahead, and are bumping into all sorts of objects, including objects off the road. There is just so much visibility that one can handle.

Looks cool

Looks cool

Even man’s best friend has not been spared.

As can be expected, sports and outdoors people are among the first to be affected.

I Give Up

I Give Up

Cycling for health has gained popularity in recent times. But in the situation the city is presently in, cyclists have no option but to hang up their boots. “If there in no pollution about which awareness is to be raised, what is the point of cycling”, is a refrain one is hearing from the cycling community over and over again. And, indeed, from the running community as well.

What's a Doctor To Do?

What’s a Doctor To Do?

“We were trained to handle chest and lung problems caused by a polluted environment, not by a clean one”, this senior medic can be heard complaining. “We will have to go back to school. This puts at risk the years of hard work we put in at medical school.”

…even as queues at respiratory clinics around the city are rapidly increasing and threatening to go out of control.

But nothing like able leaders to show the way during a time of crisis.

PM Modi, as has come to be expected of him, was the first to take responsibility.

'Twas this finger that did it

‘Twas this finger that did it

In this TV grab, the PM can be heard saying “bhaiyon behnon, yeh is ungli ka kamaal hai; main chahta hoon ki desh ka har nagrik aur har bachcha apni ungli ka theek istemaal kare” (brothers sisters, it is the magic of this finger; I want every citizen and every child to make proper use of their finger). The faithful, of course, understand that he was implying that he reached up and punctured the clouds with that finger to let the rains come down.

Being an intelligent man, after taking credit for what he did not do, and knowing that rains were causing distress to the people, he has promised to tackle the problem on a war footing by launching the World Index Finger Day.

Face masks are becoming redundant.

This has let to sharp cutbacks in production in some factories in a country to the North and East, that manufactures everything in the world. This, in turn, has led to labour unrest in some parts of that country.

But, one man’s meat as another’s poison, they say.

Designers are stepping in to fulfil the need of locals to wear masks, which they have become accustomed to, and without which they feel naked. It is the latest fashion accessory to be seen in, in high society.

Here is an image of a socialite seen in a Prada mask at a popular event in Delhi.

Prada mask

Prada mask

Shopping malls, as part of their CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) effort, are stepping in to do their bit by inviting people to breathe in their bottled, recirculated air while they shop.

Breathe in deeply

Breathe in deeply

A busy mall in the suburb of Gurgaon, abuzz with people eager for their “fix” of stale air.

Car companies are eagerly awaiting their turn to do a good turn to society.

Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal, as has come to be expected of him, immediately announced relief for the beleaguered population by introducing the Odd-Even scheme. Readers of this blog might know that Mr. Kejriwal solves all issues with the help of his trusted Odd-Even scheme, be it excessive pollution, unmanageable traffic, or, as in this case, too little pollution.

Odd AND Even

The Power Plant in its heyday

Under the new version of the scheme, the decommissioned coal-burning Indraprastha power plant would be restarted to give the Delhi air some of its mojo back.

The new version is called Odd AND Even. The plant, once restarted will work on Odd days. AND on Even days.

Those were the days!

Those were the days!

Being the good man as all politicians are, or become, the Delhi CM is reported to be deeply affected by the developments. In this image, with a wistful look, he is watching a video of the halcyon days of Delhi. Can he bring those days back?

But there is good news. The Met department has forecast that rains will soon taper off and Delhi will return to its salad days of haze and smoke and smog and dust.

If people who have left Delhi are reading this, please plan on coming back soon. We miss you. More than that, we miss our atmospheric pollution.

Cause and Effect

On 15th April, the Delhi government took the decision to introduce the odd-even scheme for another fifteen days. Once again, private vehicles with an odd-numbered licence plate can run only on odd days and, even-numbered ones only on even days.

It appears the scheme has been reintroduced at the first available opportunity because the original odd-even scheme, introduced in January for fifteen days, was a resounding failure and did nothing to solve the problem it was introduced for, that of reducing atmospheric pollution in Delhi.

But what it did do during those fifteen days in January, as our leaders have discovered, is that it seemed to have resulted in some reduction in traffic on the roads. Quite against the run of play, it seems. Now who would have guessed that if you prohibit half the cars from coming onto the roads, the number of cars on the road will reduce.

At least not the Delhi CM, alumnus of the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology (IIT). How, then, can one blame the Delhi government for not knowing?

Displaying maturity and foresight far beyond any political mandate, Delhi’s political leadership has decided that atmospheric pollution, a raging issue just three months back, does not need to be solved any more. Till, of course, it becomes an unsolvable issue once again next winter, requiring drastic measures that don’t work. Which gets solved once again by the onset of the following summer, creating bigger problems to solve.

As is the case this year. Freed from the yoke of solving the pollution issue, as summer is now raging in Delhi, the government has reintroduced the odd-even scheme, this time to reduce traffic on the roads. Like atmospheric pollution, traffic needs to be reduced only for fifteen days. Of course, as with all good schemes, it has been reintroduced because of pressure from the public.

Quite a handy scheme this odd-even is turning out to be. First it is introduced to reduce atmospheric pollution which it does not. Now it is introduced to reduce traffic on the roads. Wonder what else it can be introduced for? For solving the issue of the plunging water table? For providing food to the poor? Poor performance of Delhi Daredevils in IPL? European refugee crisis?

One wonders if any other scheme will ever be required…

The big question everyone is asking is; what will the scheme solve this time. Last time it was introduced to solve the pollution issue and ended up reducing traffic on the roads. As this time it has been introduced for reducing traffic on the roads, it cannot be expected to reduce traffic on the roads. One wonders what it will really solve. At every corner tea-shop, in every metro coach, people are busy guessing the problem that the odd-even scheme will solve this time. Radio jockeys are having a field day running contests for people to guess the problem the odd-even scheme of April 2016 will solve.

There is really no saying what a decision of the government might end up solving.

A senior minister in the AAP government in Delhi, who had taken it upon himself to treat all women of visibly foreign looks as being of questionable character and personally led police teams to raid their homes, is preparing to start these raids once again.

“We don’t know what we might end up solving,” he looked somberly into the horizon and stated, while putting on his helmet in preparation for the raid later in the night.

In Gurgaon, or Gurugram now, always eager to copy from Delhi, transport authorities are busy breaching medians on busy roads, contrary to the once popular belief of reducing criss-crossing traffic to smoothen the flow.

Their response to enquiries from the media is, “We know it will solve something. As of now we don’t know what. But we will tell you as soon as we find out. Meanwhile, expect more central medians to be breached.”

The political will to take decisions without thought and logic is back.

“I have no idea what, but I might have solved something today,” is the new war-cry of members of the Delhi cabinet.

For more details of the odd-even scheme, go to post titled ODDities and EVENtualities.

ODDities and EVENtualities

No prizes for guessing what this is about. The title pretty much gives it away.

In a bid to reduce atmospheric pollution and improve the ambient air quality, that, thanks to the joint efforts of the common man and successive governments over several decades, has snowballed out of control, the Delhi government has decided that, beginning 1st January, only cars with even numbered plates will be allowed to run on even days and odd numbered ones on, you guessed it, odd days.

Their hand has been forced. They have had to resort to take this step because other, more reasonable, permanent measures, that would permit the common man the luxury of choice, have never been tried, and hence can be classified as totally ineffective. Like charging a substantially higher price for gas-guzzling vehicles. Like a road-pricing system that deters driving and parking in the city. Like an enforcement of simple traffic rules such as parking to ease needless jams. Like closing down illegal factories. Like regulating construction activities in the city. What is the government to do?

A similar mandate had once been issued in the capital of a big country, to the North and East of ours, with an even larger population. My fellow common men and women had marvelled at how quickly they had been able to take decisive steps, without bothering about process and consensus, in the interest of the nation, and how we have been mired in bureaucracy while attempting to take similar steps.

As soon as Delhi Chief Minister (CM) announced that cars with odd and even numbered plates will be allowed on odd and even dates, without bothering too much about process and consensus, my fellow common men and women have broken out in criticism, of the CM taking unilateral decisions without respecting the democratic fabric of our society and the impact of such decisions on the common man.

That the decision has been well thought through and all possible angles examined is evident from the fact that the government has promised to repeal this arrangement by the 15th of January, if the common man is inconvenienced, pollution be damned.

For the convenience of the common man, emergency vehicles, ambulance, fire, hospital, prison, hearse, enforcement vehicles, vehicles of paramilitary forces, Ministry of Defence, pilot and escort, vehicles of SPG protectees and vehicles bearing diplomatic corps registration numbers would be exempted from this rule. As will be the vehicles of the President, Vice President, Prime Minister, Speaker of Lok Sabha, Deputy Chairman of Rajya Sabha, Deputy Speaker of Lok Sabha, Governors of states/ Lt Governor, Chief Justice of India, Union Ministers, Leaders of Opposition in Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha, Chief Ministers of states except Delhi, judges of Supreme Court and High Court and Lokayukta.

As, indeed, will be vehicles of persons with disability, two-wheelers, buses, CNG vehicles, women drivers with women co-passengers and children upto 12 years of age and vehicles of persons in a medical emergency carrying proof; like a body, perhaps.

The remaining vehicles, if any, will be managed by a posse of cops withdrawn from other unimportant duties around the capital where they are deployed despite not being required so that they can be withdrawn on a whim, as well as an army of volunteers, drawn from their various important tasks of doing nothing.

In order that the arrangement gets a “trial by fire” in real-life conditions, schools in Delhi have been ordered shut till 15th January in order to decongest roads.

The Delhi government hopes to launch an App for car-pooling and giving lifts to strangers. In a display of responsible governance, it has appealed to people to avoid giving lifts to strangers for security reasons.

Meanwhile, capacity created on roads, if any, will be quickly absorbed by making new, bigger buildings, with even more grossly inadequate parking spaces, and narrowing down passageways with the help of unauthorised parking. As was so effectively done when the Delhi metro came into being and took away, we are told, some load from the roads. While absorption of road space has been planned for, it is not yet clear how the reduced pollution, if any, will be replaced, so that another hurried decision, to reduce it and save the lives of common men and women, can be taken in the future. The CM has appealed to the common man to play his part if he desires to be saved again in the future.

Vilified they may be for taking this decision, one has to grant, even if grudgingly, that the Delhi government has taken a bold step. And, in doing so, they have opened up a gloriously simple and effective path for solving many of the internecine problems plaguing the world, so that we can live together and happily, if not ever after, at least longer.

Crimes against women, committed by men, as they almost always are, will soon be history. The state government is about to issue a decree to permit men and women out on the streets on odd and even days. Only persons with disability, women with other women and children upto 12 years of age, persons in a medical emergency carrying proof, paramilitary forces, SPG protectees, diplomatic corps, the President, Vice President, Prime Minister, Speaker of Lok Sabha, Deputy Chairman of Rajya Sabha, Deputy Speaker of Lok Sabha, Governors of states/ Lt Governor, Chief Justice of India, Union Ministers, Leaders of Opposition in Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha, Chief Ministers of states except Delhi, judges of Supreme Court and High Court and Lokayukta, will be exempt.

We can look forward to a future of rock-solid fixed-line quality connections on our mobile phones. Only even numbered phones will be allowed to function on even days, and odd numbered ones on odd days.

Death caused by irresponsible use of private fire-arms will be reduced to half by permitting only arms with an even-number registration to fire irresponsibly of even days, and, you guessed it again, odd-numbered ones on odd days.

This could change the world.

It already is changing the world. Fighting to be in the race to save the world from drowning in pollution, a village in Italy has banned the making of pizzas in wood-fired ovens, while Japan has banned smoking between 9 AM and 12 noon on weekdays. In an effort to not get left behind in the race to save the world, the Nordic countries have come together to ban walking and cycling and introduced a steep tax on all cars that are not SUVs. Found wanting in their ability to further improve the quality of their air, they hope these steps will position them well to contribute to this noble cause when the need to save the world arises the next time.

While the city celebrates, a citizen group has struck a sour note by asking the Delhi government for a refund of half of the road-tax car owners have to pay at the time of buying a car. “If you are not permitting me to use my car half the time, you can only charge 50% of the amount,” is the logic.

But the government is not letting such trifles worry them. After all, they have the power of inadequate assessment and hurried decision-making on their side.