Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Warren Anderson saga

June 7 last was quite a watershed for the victims of the gas leak in Bhopal. On that day the Chief Judicial Magistrate (CJM) of the city gave a verdict of 2 years’ imprisonment with assorted fines for the accused officials of the Union Carbide India, Ltd (UCIL) under the provision of the Indian Penal Code that deals with death(s) caused by criminal negligence. The case was registered in December 1984 against the management of the UCIL and its parent body, the Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) in the United States, after the lethal methyl isocyanate gas leaked out of the Bhopal-based factory in the early hours of 3rd December 1984 killing, officially, 15000 men, women and children, the unofficial count being in the region of 25000 to 30000. Thousands of others died later or were maimed for life and are still suffering from the after-effects.

All hell broke loose at the ultra-mild verdict. There was a sense of outrage amongst the victims who were present at the Court in strength. Their indignation was magnified because the convicts were bailed out within hours for a surety of a paltry sum of Rs. 25000/-. What agitated the victims most was that while they were still suffering from the after-effects of the gas that hit them 26 years ago, the accused were not even taken into custody. Worse, there was no mention in the judgement of the main accused Warren Anderson, the then Chairman of the UCC, who jumped bail and fled to the US. The ruckus, though, was inexplicable as all concerned should have known that the CJM could not have awarded a more severe punishment as the charges had been watered down by the Supreme Court in 1996 and were framed under provisions of law that carried only 2 years’ imprisonment.

The verdict exploded in the face of the Indian National Congress that was in power both in the state of Madhya Pradesh (MP) (of which Bhopal is the capital) and at the Centre at the time of the disaster in 1984.The print and electronic media went on an overdrive as did the civil society and the political opposition. Sniffing an opportunity of going after the Congress, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) generously stoked the fires.

The flip side of the furore was emergence of a wealth of information on various aspects of the catastrophe, including the release of Warren Anderson, the then Chairman of the UCC. It seems Anderson arrived in Bhopal on 7th December 1984 only to be arrested by the local police who, instead of taking him to the police station concerned, deposited him in the luxurious UCC guest house. Within hours, however, Anderson was bailed out after he gave the assurance that he would make himself available whenever required for the judicial process. He was taken back to the airport by the local district magistrate in his car, driven by none other than the local superintendent of police, to be put on the plane of the state government and flown to Delhi. On the same night Anderson caught a commercial flight for the US, never to return to India.

After the verdict, the print media reported that a mysterious phone-call from Delhi to the MP Chief Minister Arjun Singh provoked the hurried action to bail out Anderson, even without observing the due legal process. It was evident that somebody very big had intervened on behalf of Anderson and that, as MJ Akbar, the respected journalist, surmised in a TV programme it could be none other than the then Prime Minister himself. Latching on to it, the BJP, with its barrage of allegations, drove the Congress into a corner. The result was a cacophony of statements from different Congress spokespersons and leaders, including Pranab Mukherji, the Finance Minister, all of whom denied the Centre’s involvement, putting the entire blame on Arjun Singh. Everyone was trying to fend off the charges against that iconic Congressman –Rajiv Gandhi. Hiding behind the Group of Ministers (GoM), constituted in May 2010 to look into issues involved in Bhopal disaster but having nothing to show for results, the Congress spokespersons not only lied but also became offensive, branding all those who blamed the Centre as “despicable”.

Tables were turned on the Congress when, first, Raj Kumar Keshwani, a veteran Bhopal journalist who had been cautioning the MP government about a possible disaster since 1981, when he said in a TV programme that it was all part of recorded history. He said that on Anderson’s arrest, the accompanying representative of the Bombay Consulate of the US got in touch with the US Charge de Affairs in Delhi who swung into action contacting big wigs in Delhi to have the accused released. This was corroborated by a statement later by Gordon Streeb, the then US Charge de Affairs in Delhi, which contained details of his efforts to have Anderson released in accordance with the assurance given to him of a “safe passage” to and from Bhopal. Even MK Rasgotra the then Foreign Secretary, Streeb’s interlocutor, said as much who, it seems even met Anderson after his release. Last of all, Arjun Singh, who all this while kept his counsel, made a clean breast of it saying that he had no “locus standi” in the release of Anderson.

Rasgotra has said he consulted Narasimha Rao, the then Home Minister. But, Rao, who later became Prime Minister, hesitant and careful as he was, was unlikely to have dared to order Anderson’s release. So far none has mentioned the name of Rajiv Gandhi, though it could well have been he. The GoM has since reported to the Prime Minister that according to the contemporary media reports Rajiv Gandhi was briefed about Anderson’s arrest and release only after the latter had left the country. A contemporary report of the universally respected newspaper, The Hindu, however, indicated that Rajiv Gandhi, camping in MP for the ensuing elections, was informed by his principal Secretary, PC Alexander, about Anderson’s arrest when the latter was still in Bhopal. The Hindu report, therefore, added that it was highly unlikely that Arjun Singh would have had Anderson released without consulting the PM. The PM’s later acts of forcing an out-of-court settlement for compensation to gas-victims in 1989 for only $ 470 million against the government’s own claim of $ 3.3 billion and extinguishing their rights to sue the UCC for just compensation and relief indicated his softness towards the company.

The gas-victims have been demanding extradition of Anderson as he was aware of the out-dated technology of the UCIL factory, lack of safety provisions in it, the cost-cutting that was undertaken at his behest compromising its safety features. Having assured “safe passage”, the Congress couldn’t have been expected to make any efforts for Anderson’s extradition. The intervening governments, including the one that was led by the BJP, made some feeble attempts that were squelched by the US. The GoM that has since had urgent sittings has now proposed to seek Anderson’s extradition.

In the Anderson saga one cannot really blame him or the US. It is Indians themselves, especially the nincompoops wielding power then at the Centre and in MP, who, unmindful of the death, devastation and misery to millions that he caused in Bhopal subserviently arranged his escape from the country. Uniquely, a criminal charged with manslaughter in the world’s worst ever industrial disaster was set free by top Indian government functionaries.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

bagchiblog: Solar power - the best bet

bagchiblog: Solar power - the best bet

Solar power - the best bet

Recently we had a 16-hour power outage commencing from midnight until 4.00 next afternoon. The inverter saw us through the hot and stuffy night but it, too, lost its energy by the next afternoon. There was no alternative but to bear the acute discomfort of an air-less hot afternoon. Outages are frequent but this was out of the ordinary.

Lazing around through the day drenched in sweat in the sweltering heat my mind wandered and sauntered down the years that have gone by. In the early 1940s I used to be a child in Gwalior which was the capital of the eponymous princely state. Although we had electricity in our rented house there were many others in the neighbourhood, including that of a minister, which did not. Apparently, even then it took quite a bit to have one’s house electrified. Living off the arterial road, we still had gas lamps to light up our rather broad, generally, deserted lane. Every evening a man would trudge down the lane with a ladder on his shoulders to light up the lamps mounted on somewhat low posts. He would repeat his trip in the early mornings to put out the lights. The lane got its electric streetlights much later.
Apart from lighting up the houses and streets electricity had very little non-industrial use in those days. Hardly any electrical appliances were available for domestic purposes except, of course, fans – table or ceiling. Right through the ‘40s, I recall, we managed the hot Gwalior summers with two table fans in combination with thick khas curtains with water dripping on them through perforated pipes. Radios, symbol for the well-to-do then with their roof-top antennas, were very few. The per capita carbon footprint was, naturally, negligible.

As I grew older radios became ubiquitous, so much so that they would be raucously blaring out film songs from paan shops. Even during the first few post-Independence decades of “Hindu rate of (economic) growth” (of around 3%) the middle classes were inflating, though tardily, and electrical equipment and appliances appeared in the markets to feed their demand. Soon electric kettles, hot plates, mixer-grinders to refrigerators made their appearance for making things easier in the kitchen. For the living rooms there were radios, of course, followed by electrically operated turn-tables, record-changers, even radiograms and tape (spool) recorders. To meet the exigencies of the weather there were either heaters or coolers, even an occasional air conditioner.

All these were confined to a very thin upper crust of the society – the rich and upper middle classes. Liberalisation of the economy in the early 1990s brought about a sea change. Not only MNCs descended in the country in large numbers, transfer of modern sophisticated technology also took place. The rapidly expanding middle classes accessed a whole new range of electrical appliances known as “white goods” and luxury items at prices that were competitive owing to the phenomenon of “globalisation”. What were confined to a small segment progressively came within the reach of a much larger section of the population. As a result, electricity today doesn’t simply light up the houses; it runs kitchens, helps in washing clothes, crockery and utensils, cools and heats the houses, entertains the family and provides 24X7 connectivity. No wonder, the per capita carbon footprint rose from 0.8 in 1990 to 1.3 in 2006 and yet nowhere near the footprint of giants like US which was 32.8 in 2006.

The veritable explosion of the middle classes and the accompanying growth of industry and commerce preordained a rise in demand for power. The supply, however, could never match the demand making shortages endemic. The country currently lives through a regime of extensive power cuts and prolonged outages. All talks of sufficiency in the near future are misleading as, firstly, there are not enough power projects in the pipeline and, secondly, in the current times of faster economic growth demand is always likely to outstrip the supply.

The problem is likely to get compounded as environmental considerations may inhibit the country’s efforts to install many more coal-fired power plants unless it is able to, miraculously, find a cleaner thermal power technology. Similar considerations may hamper development of hydro power. Already there are protests, for example, against proposals for scores of hydro-power projects in the states of Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh. The current government seems to be banking on nuclear energy. That too carries its own rather heavy baggage. Apart from the long gestation, not only there are concerns relating to security of the plants, there would also be difficulties in locating safe sites for disposal of the nuclear wastes.

So far coal has been the main source of our energy. Evidently the country has to now go after renewable energy in a big way. Among the renewables are solar, wind, tidal and biomass. However, for reasons that are obvious, solar power holds the key and could be the best bet for India. With about 300 clear and sunny days in a year India’s theoretical solar power reception just on its land area is enough to produce energy that could be a thousand times greater than the likely demand in 2015, even if conversion efficiency of photovoltaic modules is pegged at a modest 10%.

Currently solar energy in the country works out to merely 0.4% of the total energy produced. The grid-interactive solar power as of June 2007 was merely 2.12 MW. Government-funded solar energy in India in 2005 accounted only for approximately 6.4 megawatt. However, the generation is disintegrated for applications that are mostly off-grid and petty in nature like street-lighting, water-heating, solar lanterns and so on.

Since the potential is enormous what is now required is a huge push for solar power generation that can be integrated, at least, with localised and regional grids. It is said that more energy falls on the world's deserts in six hours than the world consumes in a year. Africa's deserts receive enough power not only for Africa and Europe, but for the whole world. Hence, the Thar Desert with its locational advantages could become India’s solar-energy hotspot.

Instead of entirely depending on the photovoltaic technology, which proves to be costlier unless subsidised like in Europe, concentrating solar (thermal) power needs to be given a big push. There are varied technologies that produce energy by concentrating the light rays onto a small surface to generate heat and use that heat to drive a turbine, which in turn drives a generator. Experts believe solar thermal power can play a significantly important role in meeting the yawning demand-supply gap (claimed to be 12% but actually is much more) for electricity.

While the Clinton Climate Foundation is mulling huge solar power initiatives of around 3000 MW each in the Rann (Gujarat) and Thar (Rajasthan) the Centre has launched the Jawaharlal Nehru Solar Mission. Mercifully, the Mission proposes, apart from striving for global leadership in solar manufacturing, to launch a major R&D programme in solar energy – a crying need for the country, given the availability of surfeit of knowledge-workers.

According to Americans, solar power is no longer an “eco-fantasy”. One wishes we Indians could ape Americans, especially the Californians, at least in respect of production of green energy. Power-starved as we are, like the Californians were in 1970, we need to act like the state by inducing the consumers to use less power, legislating for energy-efficiency in buildings, appliances or whatever, to foster entrepreneurial spirit among the industrialists and require the utilities to provide one-third of their power from renewables by 2020. Given the circumstances, that shouldn’t be too much to ask for!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Elderly care - a lesson from China

The Time magazine, in one of its issues, before Barak Obama was to visit China in 2009, made a mention of a few things that he could learn from the Chinese. Among them were the Chinese habit of saving and the care that they take of the elderly. Chinese have not given up these traditions in the euphoria of accretion of untold riches. Both are twined together, as one becomes the enabling element for the other.

The magazine expected Obama to harangue the Chinese to spend more, consume more and, “believe it or not, to become more like Americans”, forgetting the irreversible Chinese habit of saving. Imprudence and profligacy, with not a thought ever given to the idea of saving for the future, have been the hallmark of Americans, i.e. until around 2005 when the personal-savings rate in the US hit zero. The sub-prime crisis changed all that. The shockwaves that emanated from the crisis reverberated around the world but taught a lesson to the Americans which they are unlikely to forget in a hurry. It prompted them to snap-shut their wallets, inducing them to be more careful with their money. The consumer spending plunged with rising unemployment, “heavy debt loads” and credits that became tighter. For the first time in many decades Americans became prudent spenders. The savings rate lifted itself from 0% to a high of 6% late in 2009.

Although China has come a long way during the last 60 years, it has not shed many of its traditions and saving is one of them. When the Communists seized control in 1949 China was a poverty-stricken basket case. Mostly an agrarian country, it was ravaged by food shortages and famines. From Mao’s collective farms, hidden from the world behind a “bamboo curtain”, China today has emerged as the “world’s factory” and is now readily acknowledged as the world’s fastest growing economy, an industrial and military superpower. Unabashed capitalism adopted by Mao’s successors converted a once-peasant society to one that is modern and is virtually aping the West in all respects. With a couple of trillions in foreign currency reserves, China has become the world’s third largest trading country and soon it is going to become Asia’s largest economy. While during the last twenty years its poverty rate has fallen from 53% to just 8%, its middle class has progressively become richer and some of the rich are aiming to become “big rich”.

And yet, the Chinese have not given a go by to their traditional practices. Personal financial prudence, for example, has for centuries been held in high esteem in China and hence it has a high saving rate – above 20%. Saving for the future for the Chinese has all along been necessary for the simple reason that they have to take care not only of their children but also their aging parents. This is a cultural norm which has not undergone any change despite the perceptible transformation in their living standards. Regardless of the fact whether one is a wage-earner or a billionaire real-estate agent, across the socio-economic hierarchy care for aging parents has remained the norm and has for long been accepted as a familial duty. Looking for its reasons outsiders may attribute it to the absence of publicly funded pensions or healthcare systems. The absence of such social security nets may have, according to them, even incentivized the practice. Whatever the reasons, the fact, however, is that for the life of them, the Chinese are unlikely to ever think of going and parking their parents in homes for elders or nursing homes. It is not in their ‘system’ and the practice, apart from being abhorrent, is just not acceptable and is likely to remain so regardless of the new initiatives, if any, that the State takes.

This is in direct contrast to what obtains in the United States. The American nursing homes are so chockful of the elderly that soon there may not be enough space in them for fresh arrivals. By 2030 their number is likely to soar to 70-odd million. The explanations given for the large scale use of these homes by the elderly are many and varied. While it is contended that three generations living together was virtually a norm once upon a time in America, all this witnessed a break-down during the last century when Americans became more mobile, and, in the process, rootless having to move from state to state in search of better economic prospects. Caring for the aging parents from two or three time zones away, thus, was stated to have become difficult. Nursing homes provided a very viable alternative for proper care and treatment of the elderly by personnel who were professionally trained. The practice, nonetheless, is likely to undergo a change for reasons that are patently economic. Nursing home services being frightfully expensive, with the progressive cutback on personal expenses the emphasis may eventually come on home-care for the elderly – even if it eventually has to be subsidized by the State.
In India, however, the situation in this respect happens to be dismal. Despite the traditional respect and care for the elderly, the elders largely find themselves in an unenviable situation. As long as the concept of joint family remained intact, they, apart from being cared for, wielded considerable authority within the family. No major family decision would ever be taken without their approval. However, the system progressively faded away with modernization, industrialization, urbanization, education and ever more ‘nuclearisation’ of families. Simultaneously, the values that invested the elderly with respect and authority also got largely eroded. No wonder, the tradition that demanded care for the elderly also melted away into thin air.
The problem in India gets compounded because of the huge population, almost 33%, that survives in abject poverty (below the poverty line). The elderly in such families, generally, have to be left to their own devices. Often when younger ones migrate to towns looking for employment the infirm elders are left behind in the villages to fend for themselves. Worse, 90% of the labour force in the country is in the unorganized sector of the economy where post-retirement benefits are mostly absent. While the traditional system broke down nothing new emerged in the shape of social security or safety nets for the elderly, barring a few attempts by some states. Pitiable and utterly inadequate, they are more in the nature of an exercise in tokenism.

Indians are also great savers. The current household saving rate in India continues to be high – above 20%. And, yet Indians are increasingly becoming selfish and are reluctant to support their elderly in the manner they should. Some, in metropolitan towns, happened to indulge in behavior with their own parents that was utterly un-Indian, unethical and not in keeping with the country’s traditional values. Parents were, reportedly, driven out of their homes by their own progeny. Even some murders of the elderly were reported in order to secure ownership of parental property. In view of the increasing hardships inflicted on the elderly by their own offshoot, the government, shamefully, had to bring in an enactment for the welfare and maintenance of parents and senior citizens. Parents can now demand from their progeny food, clothing, allowances, medicines and a place to live in accordance with law.

Clearly, it is not the US alone that needs to imbibe from China some of its social mores. Even India, despite its rich traditions and culture but somehow having lost its way, would do well to imbibe some of them.