Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The thick-skinned Indian politician

Politics, perhaps, more so Indian politics, desensitises its practitioners and dulls their sensibilities. Emotions, including those which are considered superior, like shame and embarrassment, hardly ever affect them in any manner. Confronted with disgrace and dishonour after committing the most unethical of acts, our politicians put up a straight face, occasionally, even adopting an aggressive stance.

This was in evidence in ample measure during the preceding few weeks. TR Baalu, a Central minister, for instance, was caught misusing his official position for promotion of his son’s business. He not only canvassed with the Petroleum Ministry but also had half a dozen recommendatory missives sent to it by the PMO. When exposed in the Parliament, far from being embarrassed, he blatantly and aggressively shook off the accusations and denied having committed any “wrong”

Anbumani Ramdoss, another Central minister, likewise, brazened out the expose` in The Pioneer about the huge favours shown to a party apparatchik. Using WHO’s adverse comments on vaccines produced by three PSUs, he peremptorily shut down their production, allowing a free run to a party worker in the starved market in vaccines. That the WHO had also offered to upgrade the manufacturing facilities in the PSUs was unscrupulously suppressed. He also irregularly lavished financial favours on his friend from government funds. Wilting under pressure, Ramdoss ran for cover, ordering an enquiry.

The PM, observing the coalition “dharma”, remained a passive spectator of the shenanigans of his two ministers.

In Madhya Pradesh, having presided over a scam of Rs. 500 crore in the Health Department for two years, the Health Minister, Ajai Vishnoi, refused to resign when his house was raided by the Income Tax authorities, nonchalantly pointing out that only the portion occupied by his brother was raided. That his brother, operating from a PSU in collaboration with senior departmental officials, was the lynchpin of non-supply, under-supply and supply of spurious medicines to the field healthcare units in the state didn’t seem to occur to him.

According to researchers, shame and embarrassment, though ephemeral, are emotions cherished only by individuals who are highly evolved. Our politicians, who are too unennobled, hardly ever harbour such superior sentiments. Sheer power with its pelf is what drives them –ethics be damned!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Green roofs for salubrious cities

The Environmental Planning and Coordination (EPCO) of Madhya Pradesh have taken an admirable initiative for promoting “green construction”. Quite obviously, the state is gradually becoming concerned about the urban environment and the progressive adverse impact on it of the burgeoning construction activity. Numerous multi-crore projects are either in progress or are on the anvil in major towns of the state. In Bhopal, for instance, one such project is already in progress. Clearly, the initiative is indicative of the government’s rising anxiety to forestall the environmental degradation that massive construction activity inevitably entails.

That large scale construction in urban areas causes a rise in ambient temperature is a well-known phenomenon. Many of our towns, like Dehra Dun, Bangalore, Pune and Bhopal, which once were considered green and idyllic with pleasant and equable climate, have now heated up because of massive, thoughtless construction witnessed therein during the last few decades. Much of their old attributes could, however, have been retained had recourse been taken to “green construction”. Apart from being eco-friendly, it would have kept their ambience well within the comfort zone, retaining their salubrious attributes. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen as environmentalism has been a little late in taking roots in this country.

While “green construction”, with all its environmental benefits, can be made a reality by suitably organising/incentivising the relevant aspects of the construction industry governments, in the meantime, could encourage the concept of “green roofs”. These are also to a great extent environment-friendly. Massive constructions taking place in all urban concentrations are propelling demands for energy, besides heating up their environment. Green roofing, if introduced, particularly in large constructions/complexes, could mitigate to a large extent their ill-effects

“Green roofs” are not the ones that are strewn with plants in pots or containers. The term refers to a roof that is partially or wholly covered with vegetation and soil on top of a waterproofing membrane. Not an unknown phenomenon, one recalls at least one building around 20 years ago in South Mumbai on the roof of which fairly good-sized trees could be seen swaying in the breeze from the road below.

Historically speaking, however, green roofs first came up in Germany on top of low-cost apartments during the post-industrial constructions in the late 19th Century. The roofs were topped with gravel, sand and grass to protect the constructions from fire. Germany saw a second wave of “green roofs” during the 1980s to bring the fast-disappearing vegetation back into cities. Subsidies helped create around 63,500 square metres of green roofs by 1996. Made a legal requirement for all large construction projects, Germany today is estimated to have 10% of all its roofs “greened”.

It is not Germany alone where green roofs have taken off in a big way. France, Austria, Switzerland and other European have climbed on to the bandwagon. Switzerland has one of Europe's oldest green roofs, created in 1914, on a water-treatment plant in Zurich. Europe, currently, is estimated to have 15 million square metres of green roofing. Becoming increasingly popular in the US, the 2.5 acre-roof of San Francisco's new California Academy of Sciences building is being greened as habitat for indigenous species. While the largest expanse can be found at the Ford Motor Company’s plant in Michigan, Chicago’s City Hall is another well-known example. Fukuoka, in Japan, has 35,000 plants of 76 species on the terraces of its Prefectural International Hall as a compensatory measure for gobbling up the park it was built on.

World over cities are taking to green-roofing for their obvious public and private benefits. Among the major public benefits are insulation of buildings from extremes of temperature, reducing their energy requirements for heating/cooling thus preventing further global warming, re-creation of brownfield habitats of ecological value fostering regeneration of their bio-diversity; mitigation of air-borne pollution and risks of floods and enhancement of their visual appeal. More importantly green roofs cool overheated cities by reducing the Urban Heat Island Effect (UHIE) which makes urban concentrations, with their hard reflective surfaces, hotter than their rural surroundings (Chicago’s City Hall roof has been found several degrees cooler than the surrounding roofs). Besides, depressed UHIE reduces ground-level ozone, contributing to a healthier urban community.

Private benefits include, inter alia, substantial savings on energy for internal heating/cooling, provision of drains and storm water management. Besides insulating the building from external noise, green roofs extend aesthetic advantage, providing congenial spaces for rest and recreation. They even have economic value. A hotel in Vancouver saved more than its investments on its green roof by growing herbs it used in its cuisine and a farmer in Chhattisgarh grew his crop on his small rooftop patch. What’s more, they increase the value of the property.
As retrofitting of existing roofs is eminently feasible the central and the state governments could launch a campaign and incentivise green roofing, particularly in large constructions/complexes, for its all-round benefits, more so for the wellbeing of the rapidly growing urban communities. An enactment on German pattern could also be considered

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Resurrecting the humble bike

The ‘2008 Oil shock’ has helped resurrect the humble bicycle, curiously, at the hands of our hypocritical politicians. Providing them photo-ops, it has given them an occasion to display their non-existent closeness with the aam aadmi. Soon after the recent steep petrol/diesel price hike, Shiv Raj Singh Chowhan, Chief Minister of MP, acquired a bike at government expense and pedalled up the Arera Hill of Bhopal to the Secretariat. Not to be outdone by their chief, a few more ministers, along with their side-kicks, huffed and puffed their way up the next day.

Essentially a gimmick, as none has surrendered the allotted fleet of automobiles, the crass act ended up trivialising a dire need – that of converting once again the bicycle as one of the mainstays of urban transport. That it is largely carbon-neutral would be stating the obvious. We, however, seem to have given it up altogether. Time was when we were basically a biking nation. After Independence there was a veritable bicycle revolution and every middle-class home used to own a bike. Even villagers, those who could afford, would pedal down the country roads. In the cities it was the vehicle of the masses. Poona, now Pune, was where swarms of cyclists were a common sight. Everywhere, schools, colleges and offices used to have cycle-stands and the students/staff unions used to fight the administration for sheds over them. The stands today have become extinct as the bicycle itself has become an endangered species, having been pushed aside by its self-propelling, more powerful and expensive, albeit polluting, avatar. Like the bicycle revolution of yore, we are now in the midst of a motorised two and four-wheeler revolution. Middle-class households generally have both; the good-old pedal-bike being seldom in their reckoning. Motorised two-wheelers are common in villages and urban jhuggies. It is a dangerous trend. Bicycles in Beijing used to be ubiquitous. With greater prosperity people took to cars and look what happened! Beijing ended up with the sobriquet of “the air-pollution capital of the world”.

But, bicycles are coming back all over the world in a big way. The global warming-induced climate-change has done the trick. Naturalists, environmental activists and cycling aficionados are reviving the humble bike everywhere. The “Critical Mass”, a group of cyclists of the US Bay Area, has spawned “The Raging Cyclists” in Santiago, Chile. Similar groups have taken off in Canada, Europe and Australia.

Promoting the bike as a clean and efficient alternative to the personal automobile is a practical way for cities to reduce traffic congestion and smog. A number of European cities have set the standard for bicycle use and promotion, via pro-bike transportation and land use policies, as well as heavy funding for bicycle infrastructure and public education. In Copenhagen, for example, 36 percent of commuters bike to work. The city plans to invest more than $200 million in bike facilities between 2006. Amsterdam has always been a biking city.

Governments elsewhere are following Europe’s lead. In November 2007, South Korea announced a new pro-bike campaign, expanding its bicycle infrastructure to substantially increase bike ownership by 2015. Mexico City, using promotional campaigns, plans to have 5 percent of all trips to be by bikes in 2012, up from less than 2 percent today. In the US, aided by $900 million a year in federal funding for promotion of biking for 2005 to 2009, the bicycle facilities are being put in place apace. The US is also working on an inter-city National Bicycle Greenway.

No such initiative is, however, noticeable in this country, barring in New Delhi where the new Master Plan proposes “fully segregated” bicycle tracks along all arterial roads. It does not talk of any other bicycle infrastructural items. Now that the oil prices have gone through the roof and climate-change is closing in, concerned and sensitive citizens in this country need to persuade their local bodies to provide necessary facilities for the untrammelled use of bikes. More importantly, they have to launch educational campaigns to bring home to every one – young and old, rich and poor – the virtues of the use of the humble bike

DISAPPEARING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION Rama Chandra Guha, free-thinker, author and historian Ram Chandra Guha, a free-thinker, author and...