Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The "Silver tsunami"

Ever since I crossed 70 I have been apprehensive of the future. With the rising life expectancy I just do not know how long I am going to live. The government from which I retired more than a decade ago provides a pension which till now is handsome. I do not know what happens in the future with the continuing double-digit inflation. For the present things are comfortable – the government supplies the basic medicines that I need and I can afford to buy the vitamins, micronutrients and other diet supplements. But their prices are also rising almost every month. That is, however, a minor worry. What gives me nightmares is what would happen if I develop some disabling ailment or if I happen to go into a coma. Geriatric care here being what it is, I may become an unbearable burden on my wife or may have to lie around uncared and neglected oblivious of my surroundings.

My lot, however, is much better than those of many others who have either far scarcer resources or none at all to take care of them. In the lower middle classes, particularly those who retire either from the unorganised sector or were self-employed have a pretty miserable advanced age with hardly any safety net to fall into. Perhaps, worse is the condition of those in the rural areas when they become unable to work in the fields as farmers or farm-labourers. They have nothing to fall back on. There have been reports of young men and women leaving their old parents at home when they go looking for work in urban centres. The parents are left behind with very little for sustenance. I remember during one of the Kalahandi (a district in Orissa) famines years ago things were so bad that all the younger people left the villages leaving behind all the elderly and infirm. As nothing was available they were left to fend for themselves until they met their inevitable end. The story was so well written that it became a real tearjerker.

Things are likely to get worse for the elderly in the country. Statistics show that in post-independence India their population has been increasing along with the general growth. Though the country is stated to have a large majority of youngsters, the so called “demographic dividend”, yet the rising population of over-60 is increasingly becoming a cause of concern. Over the last few decades their numbers have been steadily increasing and today it is estimated to be more than 10% of the total population. The small percentage, however, hides behind it a very large absolute number. A sharp decline in mortality and a steadily declining fertility rate have contributed to the process of population aging.

Consequently, a larger number of elderly are going out of the workforce every year. Better healthcare and nutritional levels, particularly among the middle classes, have enhanced the life expectancy. Hence, surviving through the 70s is really no big deal. Their presence, however, does cause a strain on the household budget as well as the national economy. Carrying a large army of unproductive population will strain any economy. Even in the developed world very scary projections have been made. Rich countries are up against a rapidly ageing workforce. Nearly one in three American workers will be over 50 by 2012 when America is considered a young country compared to Japan and Germany. China is also aging rapidly, mostly because of its one-child policy. Hence, many observers find the phenomenon to be a serious threat and they have given it a name; they have called it the threat of “silver tsunami”.
The problem has yet to be appreciated and seen in its proper perspective. In the West they were preparing to deal with it when they were overtaken by the recession. When the economy happened to be sliding no one could give a thought to the problem of the “silvers”. As the Economist (February 6th 2010) says, “Companies are still stuck with an antiquated model of dealing with ageing which assumes that people should get pay rises and promotion on the basis of age and then disappear when they reach retirement.” Corporations would sometime try and find relief from the burden by encouraging workers to take early retirement. But, such a model, however, could not work for long because of shortage of young people with necessary skills and experience, particularly in the educational, scientific and engineering establishments, making it difficult to shed older workers.

Nevertheless, to quote the same Economist again, “many industrial companies are re-jigging processes to accommodate older workers”. BMW decided to staff one of its assembly-lines with over-50s and then raised their admittedly low productivity by making their life in the workplace more congenial. Others, like Bosch, are trying to capture the knowledge, experience and skills of the elderly to close the skill-gap among younger workers.

The corporations in the capitalist world are always much smarter in tackling an oncoming problem when they see one. Some of them are what are called “gerentophile”. For example, Asda, a subsidiary of Wal-Mart, is Britain’s biggest employer of over-50s. Another Danish supermarket has experimented with shops employing only people who are 45 or above. Elsewhere some companies keep a pool of retired workers who are called upon to work on individual projects. Then there is the concept of semi-retired people who double-up as part-timers.

In India, however, things seem to be different. There is just no evidence that India Inc has become conscious of the brewing “Silver tsunami”. Perhaps, the need has not been felt yet as the Indian technical pool is still, by and large, young. The Central and state governments in India, however, make the best use of the best of the technically qualified men either in their own respective fields or in several others where they could make valuable contributions. Over 80 years old Dr. MS Swaminathan, the famous agricultural scientist, E Sridharan, Metro Rail Chairman are undoubtedly the best examples. A vast majority of ordinary humans are, however, out of this catchment and are left to their own devices. With an economy on the up and up some do find a source of income. Others, however, have to fall back on their familial resources or their own savings, failing which, with the liquidation of the joint-family system, they lead a miserable aged life.

There is every indication that with the growth in population, which is likely to continue for a few more decades, the problem will become only more acute in India. Whatever has so far been done is too little and suffers from several inhibiting factors. The National Old Age Pension Scheme is hardly ever properly implemented and often the beneficiary remains deprived mostly because of corruption and the bureaucratic processes involved. In January last it was decided to evaluate the Scheme in order to make it more effective. Perhaps, the government could also examine the need for its expansion to cover more helpless and economically weak elderly.

Unlike in the rich world geriatric care in India is virtually non-existent. It seems, the Central and state governments have disowned their responsibility towards the “silvers”. There is no reason why a beginning should not be made now. There is need for its institutionalisation at least in urban areas. And, in villages if there are “anganwadis” for children why “anganwadis” cannot be established for “silvers” living out their “second childhood” in miserable destitution.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

BRTS - Is Bhopal getting into a mess?

Bhopal looks somewhat like New Delhi these days with roads dug up and wet earth lying along their sides. The main arteries are being worked on their flanks for widening them, in the process, denuding the roadsides of their green canopy. Thousands of trees have been sacrificed for the purpose – which, perhaps, many do not know – of facilitating introduction of the multi-crore Bus Rapid Transit System, BRTS for short. General public was, maybe still is, as ignorant about it as their representatives in the Municipal Corporation and the State Legislative Assembly.

This came out recently at a meeting hosted by a prominent newspaper house of the city that was arranged to discuss this very project with selected invitees.
The transport sector being a substantial contributor of greenhouse gases that are believed to have been the cause of global warming and the changing climate the Government of India adopted BRTS as a kind of a spearhead in its mission to renew urban India that is being increasingly cluttered and clogged up by millions of private two and four wheelers. The scheme essentially hopes to push people from using personal transport to public transport. The objective seemingly is to provide under the scheme unhindered passage to the buses of decent quality in dedicated bus lanes taking commuters to their destinations with relative ease and rapidity. In the process, hopefully, the commuters will save time and energy by commuting in modern, comfortable high-end buses. Not only the roads will be decongested, it will help in stabilising the country’s progressively increasing emissions and enlarging carbon footprint.

A system first conceived and tried in the Bogota, capital of Columbia, the country of Shakira, BRTS has been replicated elsewhere in the world as also in Delhi, Jaipur, Pune etc. A scheme that proved successful in the countries of the West, that have had from the inception of their cities broad roads to accommodate dedicated lanes for big, commodious buses, may not prove to be so in every expanding city, particularly, those which are of medieval vintage in South Asia. The lay of the land in every city is different. A system that proved successful in the West can be transplanted lock stock and barrel in our parts only with, inter alia, clear thinking and planning, coordinated approach, educated and aware users, effective governance – the factors that are generally absent in our system.

As became evident at this meeting, the bus corridor has been planned right through the middle of the town yet it is not quite clear until now how many of the numerous problems confronting the project are going to be overcome. For instance, how the corridor is going to negotiate the core of the old city with its narrow, encroached-upon roads with several priceless heritage structures. None really knows whether the corridor would bulldoze its way through or take the aerial route of flyovers. Then, there are rotaries – big and small – on dozens of junctions which had been enlarged and spruced up at considerable expense a couple of years back and then reduced in size again, spending more money, only recently. What is going to be the fate of statues erected in their middle, holy cows for many, is yet to be decided. Likewise, the Link Road No. 1, supposedly the pride of Bhopal, beautified at great cost only last year with green sides with fancy bus stops and central verge would need to be uprooted. Besides, there does not seem to be any clarity about the bus stops that are planned at the middle of the corridor which, apparently, will necessitate foot over-bridges at every stop. Power situation being what it is and unlikely to improve, escalators, if provided, are likely to get jammed because of disuse. Climbing up and climbing down the foot over-bridges is likely to discourage many from using the System. Then, since the System is going to run right through the middle of the town it is going to have numerous stoppages that will slow down the progress of the buses, virtually killing its “Rapid” attribute. And, one is not sure whether enough planning has gone into feeding the System from various far-flung areas by introduction of linkages with feeder services.

JNNURM was announced in 2005. All these years there seems to have been no planning and coordination in regard to implementation of the BRTS project. Public money was wasted on those very roads for their beautification and sprucing up several rotaries on them which would later make way for the BRTS. The Link Road No.1 alone saw an amount Rs. 7 crore needlessly spent on it. Or was it the case of the left hand not knowing what the right one was up to? It seems, the BRTS project was kept a well guarded secret and none knew about it. Strangely, for such a massive project affecting lakhs of citizens and at the cost of several crores of rupees the people were never consulted.

What is more, the city and its people have not been prepared for taking to buses in a big way for their commutes. Honestly speaking, the city has had no culture of public transport; there has been no effort to encourage it. The backbone of the city’s public transport – the ramshackle mini buses – that one sees on the roads is a phenomenon of not more than a couple of decades old. The way these are maintained and operated deters the middle classes – supposedly the ultimate users of the BRTS – from using them. In fact, the middle classes shun them. These despicable rattling moving metal boxes are largely responsible for driving people to acquire their own vehicles – new or used two or four wheelers.

A beginning was made by the city administration to introduce better buses taking a cue from Indore. Good looking, Tata Star buses were introduced a few years back under the aegis of Bhopal City Link Limited on several routes. As the buses started cutting into the incomes of the minibuses, soon the Service was reduced to a farce with many of the buses rendered out of commission by the goons of the vested interests. As the management threw up its arms, today the Service is not even a pale shadow of what it was with its buses in as bad a condition as the minibuses. Their services are infrequent, unpunctual and irregular. The management that operates the service has neither the capability nor the wherewithal to maintain and run the service. The local administration has stood by helplessly watching its decline. At Indore, however, the Service is not only running but is reported to be flourishing.
Given the city’s administrative culture one wonders whether the sacrifice of thousands of mature trees, expenditure of thousands of crores for the bus-corridor and the soon-to-be-procured high-end low-floor buses with dozens of foot over-bridges, perhaps, with escalators will eventually be worthwhile. Planning and coordination-wise, administratively and organisationally the city is so weak that its administration hardly ever inspires confidence. The BRTS is being managed by the Bhopal Municipal Corporation. None has ever asked whether it has the human resources with technical acumen to implement the project in a manner that in a couple of years’ time the roads are de-clogged and the BRTS takes commuters by hordes to their destinations freeing the rest of the roads from traffic snarls. From all evidences, it does not have any of that. It will be awfully sad if after commissioning of the corridor buses on it run virtually empty and the jams that one sees now continue – and progressively become worse.

I, for one, am very apprehensive. Crores have already been poured into the project with only destruction and denudation to show for them. An enormous mound of details is yet to be sorted out. People of Bhopal are going to have a long, hard time during which their patience is going to be tested by the torturously slow progress of the work. I think, for the citizens of Bhopal the moment of truth is here and now. They have to decide either to put pressure on the administration to speed up the work or just ask it to lay off. Or else there is going to be hell to pay in the shape of ... well, somewhat like what Delhi-ites are suffering now. With the Games, for the Delhi-ites there is light at the end of the tunnel; for us in Bhopal it is likely to be a long dark claustrophobic tunnel.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Needed enhanced ecological literacy

That ecologically India has been facing tough times has been known for some time. Things have not been happy and what is perhaps more forbidding is that they are going to become more difficult in the future, generally worsening the plight of the people. Many of those who are suffering perhaps do not even know what is really hitting them. Global warming may have been the reason for most of the misery, yet one cannot entirely rule out thoughtless human interventions with nature.

The following story covering three regions of the country culled out of one single issue of the prestigious environmental periodical “Down to Earth” will try to unravel the problems that their respective inhabitants are trying to face up to and are perhaps, in the process, fighting a losing battle.

Those who have had occasion to see the Konkan coast of Maharashtra would know how picturesque it is. The entire coast is peppered with some exotic beaches like those of Ganapatipule, Malwan, Vengurla and so on. That beautiful coast is being nibbled away by the rising Arabian Sea.

Scientists from Pune who have been studying the coast have found that the sea level on the West Coast of India has risen by five to six centimetres over the last decade making the tides creep up more and more inland and the levels of several creeks have risen alarmingly. They ascribe it to global warming and thoughtless constructions on the coast. The people of the region feel that ever since the Coastal Management Regulatory Board was created about ten years ago more ports and jetties have been built, bridges constructed across creeks and the ambitious West coast highway has been launched.

As a consequence salt water has become intrusive and charges with impunity to more than one kilometre inland. In the process, it erodes beaches, damages mangroves and fills up creeks with sand and other detritus. The sea has gobbled up tens of hectares of precious land with coconut groves, casuarina plantations and lands that were used by coastal villagers for drying fish and beaching their boats. While the coastal flatlands have been affected the most, the residents of villages on the rocky coastline have reported slow but progressive submergence of distant rocky outcrops. Needless to say, the phenomenon is causing misery and anxiety to the villagers who see the prospects of losing their hearths and homes and even their livelihood in not too distant future.

Barring the coastal region, the state of Andhra Pradesh on the Deccan Plateau is generally a dry region. Agriculture, therefore, has largely to depend on irrigation by tapping river waters or extraction of groundwater. Farmers have largely to depend on groundwater as it is economical and is easily accessible. Surface water resources are limited and unevenly distributed. It is the groundwater which has been failing the state for the last decade and more. The monsoons have been erratic with rains mostly infrequent. The reduced and irregular rains could well be because of global-warming induced climate change.

Deficit rainfalls have failed to recharge the underground aquifers. More than half of the 6.7 million hectares of cultivated lands are irrigated by groundwater. No wonder more and more bore wells are being sunk only to get less and less water. It has been estimated that now even 260,000 bore wells in Andhra Pradesh cannot match the amount of water that used to be extracted earlier from 100,000 bore wells. With plummeting water levels – in 2010 the average fall of the groundwater level in the state has been of the order of 12 metres below ground level in the past year – not only the existing wells are being drilled deeper, new wells are being bored at the rate of 50000 every year.

Farmers have been known to have invested heavily on drilling multiple bore wells many of which failed to yield water. Most of the investments have been made on loan. The problem has been becoming increasingly more acute as many farmers have switched over to water-guzzling crops like paddy, tomatoes etc. When the rains fail they, in desperation, sink multiple bore wells in the hope of striking water. A farmer in Mahaboobnagar district was reported to have sunk 39 bore wells in a period of six years of which only two are functional to service his one out of five hectares of land to grow, of all the things, heavy-on-water paddy. No wonder, indebtedness has increased many folds and as many as 4500 farmers are reported to have committed suicide in the state from 1997 to 2006. Although an excellent piece of legislation was enacted to regulate groundwater use, bureaucratic lethargy, corruption and the farmers’ proclivity to take the easy way out of hiring a geologist and sinking a well have brought the crisis to a head. Once again, coupled with depleting precipitation, recklessness of ignorant farmers and inertia of the government to guide them towards a reasonable cropping pattern are enhancing human miseries.

Away in the north-east of the country, reputed to be a bio-diversity hotspot, the Government of India has pitched in for exploiting the region’s numerous rivers for their latent potential for producing as much as 25000 MW of clean, emission-free hydro-power and as many as 39 MOUs have been signed. However, its plans to build a series of more than 160 mini and mega dams have somehow come unstuck.

One of the mega dam projects on the rivers originating in Arunachal Pradesh is the one on the River Subansiri, a tributary of the Brahmaputra, which is coming up near Dhemaji in Assam. Slated to produce 2000 MW of hydro-power, the project has run into trouble. An eight-member committee set up by the Assam Government of experts from IIT-Guwahati, Guwahati University and Dibrugarh University has recommended a thorough review and redesign of the 115-metre high dam.

The panel has recommended lowering of the dam height and reduction of its capacity to generate power as otherwise it would have environmental and economic impacts downstream. According to the experts, the height of the dam could adversely impact downstream areas leading to siltation and destruction of bio-diversity. More alarming is the finding that the spillway for releasing flood waters is inadequate. Environmental groups and the All Assam Students Union have demanded the immediate stoppage of work. They believe that even if the dam were to be redesigned it would create socio-economic problems.

Claiming that the concept of downstream effect was a recent one, the Minister for Environment & Forests is non-committal about any review as 40 % of the work of the project has already been completed. Until a decision is taken, the fate of the inhabitants of the area, its flora and fauna hang in balance. The earnest quest for clean energy may eventually be the undoing of the many affected people.

These are only a few illustrative instances – there are many more that escape attention or do not find prominence in the media – where people are finding themselves in misery under the overarching influence of global warming. What, apparently, is required is enhancing all round ecological literacy – call it human ecology, if you will – among ordinary people as also those in the public and private organisations who plan measures that interfere with nature, seemingly, aiming at general well-being.