Monday, May 27, 2013

46 degrees C is precursor of worse that is yet to come

There was some confusion in Bhopal the other day about the peak day-temperature. The digital thermometer in the New Market area showed it as 46+ degrees Celsius whereas what the Met recorded was a little more than 44 degrees. The Met said there could be variation in temperature from area to area in the same town due to several reasons.

Neem tree
The temperature might well have climbed to an unusual 46+ degrees in the New Market area. I, for one, am quite prepared to buy it. The area where the thermometre is located has recently seen some drastic tree-felling for widening of roads. Nearby, the Gammon India had also chopped down many trees and has already erected some steel and concrete structure, most probably without necessary clearances. With so much of asphalt and concrete around the mercury had to move up and away to a sizzling high of 46 + degrees (around 115 degrees F). Perhaps, it did so because of the “heat island effect”. Who knows!

Whatever the reason Bhopal was not so hot earlier. Around forty-odd years ago when my second brother and I were posted up north in Delhi we would send mother, if she happened to be staying with either of us in summer or winter, to Bhopal to my third brother stationed in the town. Neither could she stand the harsh winter nor the frightfully hot summers of the north. Bhopal was known to be a city of equable climate – neither very cold in winter nor very hot in summer. The winters used to be delightful with bright sunshine and turquoise blue skies and the minimum temperature seldom dipping below 8 degree C. A light woollen would suffice. Likewise, the summers used to be very tempered with the temperature hardly ever hitting 38 degrees C. Evenings were pleasant and the nights were cool. Fans were the only electrical cooling appliance that used to be in use. Other cooling contraptions were yet to arrive on the scene. For the elderly with age-related ailments of high BP and sundry skeletal problems Bhopal, climatically, was a blessed place.

How was it that it used to be such a pleasant place? It was not quite in Malwa, known for its bracing evenings. Yet its climate was a delight – much like Dehra Doon and Bangalore during those gone-by years. With its greenery and several water bodies its climate got that edge making it very inviting. Added to them were the several surrounding green hills – the offshoots of the Vindhya Ranges – that gave one an exhilarating weather right through the year. Alas, all that is now gone – sacrificed at the altar of ‘development’. Climatically the town is no longer even a shadow of its past self. With temperatures dipping down to 5 degrees C in winters and hitting 45 in summers it has lost that quality of equableness. It is no different now from any other north Indian town where the temperatures move up and down in extremes with changing seasons.   

While general global warming may have had its impact but locally we, as local inhabitants, have made no mean contribution in impairing the city’s delightful micro-climate for good. While the city has been spreading out from all its four corners eating away, in the process, all the hills and valleys that came in the way of its self-defeating efforts to expand itself it kept losing on many fronts that included its soothing greenery and delightfully refreshing climate.

Urbanisation is necessary to a certain extent in today’s India but it cannot be at the cost of nature that we inherited from the preceding generations. What one witnesses today in Bhopal is a reckless spree of construction. In the process, more and more hills are being denuded of greenery, catchments of the water bodies are being colonised and farmlands gobbled up not only for erecting money-spinning educational institutions that mostly produce duds but also for creation of pricy gated housing complexes that are of no help to the people in general. All this, however, has given the construction lobby tremendous muscle and its nexus with the politicians and the bureaucracy can even swing government policies in its favour – mostly to the detriment of the city and its citizens.

But none seems to be bothered – especially about the ever-increasing urban sprawl. That it is all generally without the concomitant infrastructure is another story. Suffice it to say that the city planners don’t seem to believe in the credo “small is beautiful” although they are aware that the bigger the city is more unmanageable it becomes increasing the privations of the common man. Given our lack of prowess in civic management the country is littered with examples of chaotic metropolises, cities and towns devoid of the basic civic amenities for a vast majority of their citizens. Even in the West, with far higher levels of civic managerial skills and commitment, planners are veering round to the view of containing the growth of cities for reasons of better civic management and improvement in the quality of life of the residents.

In our case, however, short-term gains of a few drive the entire process for harvesting the benefits – legal or illegal – of the city’s unrelenting expansion. With nothing in it for him, the common man finds himself at the wrong end of the stick with adverse circumstances progressively stacking up against him. One of those is his degrading environment – a component of which is manifested by the mercury hitting hard and going above 45 degrees C. While a few make merry, a vast majority struggle to survive. That’s the gift of our ‘new’ reformed economy.

What most of us forget is that Nature is not going to take our assaults on it lying down. It has already started striking back – with runaway temperatures, widespread droughts, floods and storms that are monstrously violent.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Bhopal gas disaster - WikiLeaks expose US role

The UCIL factory, Bhopal
It is almost a month since very vital disclosures were made by WikiLeaks in respect of the Bhopal Gas Disaster but, surprisingly, the media did not find it of any importance. The disclosures were literally blacked out.  People wouldn’t have known about them but for the initiatives of the NGOs working for the welfare of the victims of the gas leak. They fished them out from the mass of disclosures and organized a joint protest rally in Bhopal.

The disclosures known as the Kissinger cables make the US Administration ethically and morally, if not legally, responsible for the Bhopal Gas Disaster that took thousands of lives, sickened and maimed many more. If one looks at the larger picture of the Bhopal tragedy one would find officials of the US Administration including those in its Indian embassy and some Indian collaborators working against all ethical or moral and legal norms from the beginning to end for the benefit of a big corporation. The entire script, however, was prepared and choreographed by the US.

Let us start at the beginning. A proposal was submitted to the Government of India by the Union Carbide India Ltd. (UCIL) in 1966 for erection of facilities for the manufacture of up to 5000 tonnes of Sevin Carbaryl insecticide. Except issuing a letter-of-intent, nothing much was done on the proposal at the government level for around three years.  The UCIL took up the matter with the government again in 1970 indicating, inter alia, that in the intervening period the Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) had devised a new technology in manufacture of Sevin using Methyl Isocyanides (MIC) that had brought down cost of the product by half.

With the apparent inactivity in the government in regard to the matter the US Administration got into the act, reportedly, taking a cue from (one) Kaul, presumably TN Kaul, the then Indian Ambassador to the US, who was keen to push the industrial development of India. The WikiLeaks disclosures reveal that in the 1970s the US government had pushed hard the case for UCC to set up its operations in India. It meticulously followed the UCC's case with the Government of India seeking exceptional terms to help the company set up a factory in Bhopal.

The disclosures also show that in 1973 the company decided to install the unproven MIC technology in the Bhopal plant, at the same time deciding not to abide by the then existing Foreign Exchange Regulations Act (FERA) of limiting foreign equity participation to less than 50%. During the same year, it seems, the head of the UCIL had approached the US Ambassador, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, to ask the visiting US Deputy Secretary of State to lobby on behalf of the company with the Indian finance minister. A series of cables reveal that the UCIL managers were in constant touch with the US embassy officials in order to secure favourable terms for the UCCs investments in India.

In 1975 the US Embassy asked the State Department to help the UCIL secure a loan from the US Export Import Bank. The official intervention paid off by the end of the year as the UCIL obtained a loan from the Bank in contravention of the extant FERA regulations. The disclosures indicate that later in September 1975 the US lobbying paid off even in the UCIL getting a license for manufacturing 5000 tonnes of MIC-based pesticides. The official US lobbying, thus, not only got a loan for the UCIL much against the FERA regulations (the provisions of which were apparently diluted under US pressure), it also facilitated establishment of the proposed plant at Bhopal with a technology that was yet unproven with all too evident disastrous and tragic consequences.

Having leaned on the Indian Government of India to ensure a “footprint” for the UCC in the substantial Indian market the US Administration continued to render assistance to it even after the MIC gas leak and the consequential disaster. It is now well-known how UCC Chairman, Warren Anderson, who came to India after the disaster, was granted bail soon after his arrest in December 1984 and was put on a plane for Delhi by senior district officials of Bhopal and then allowed to sneak away back to the US. The promptitude and the alacrity with which his escape from India was arranged smacked of enormously huge pressure on the Indian government.

Later, even at the time of settling the compensation for the victims of the disaster the US Administration was reported to have pressurized the Indian government to accept a far lesser amount of only $470 million than the $3 billion that it had claimed. The UCC lawyers reportedly went to the Supreme Court from the residence of the Prime Minister for the settlement that was arrived at in camera in the Chief Justice’s chamber. Even much later in 2007, the US Ambassador pressed the Government of India to drop its claims against Dow Chemicals, the new owners of the UCC. The US even threatened to link investments in India to the country’s stand on Dow Chemicals. After all, The Dow is one of the largest corporations in the US and such entities are the movers and shakers of its Administration which literally eats out of their hands.

For pushing an unproven UCC technology in a developing country and then bailing out its progenitor from its responsibilities for the massive disaster (caused due to its own acts of omissions and commissions) makes the US Administration as much culpable as the UCC and the UCIL. The then Indian government displayed just no spine for standing up to the US even for the sake of its own huge number of suffering people. Looks like there were massive pay-offs. Moynihan, the then US Ambassador, later went on record saying that the Congress party took money from the US. A senior lawyer and MP, Ram Jethmalani’s allegation in 2010 that Congress got paid by the UCC has not been denied so far. One cannot really put it past the Congress, the party that was in power through the 1980s both in Delhi and in Bhopal, as it has had a record of receiving funds from abroad.

What, however comes out in bold relief is the double standard of the so-called Big Power. While its heart bleeds for the violations of human rights of Sri Lankan Tamils prompting it to move a resolution in the UN Human Rights Council against Sri Lanka for their alleged wanton killing in war against LTTE, its heart, however, did not even miss a beat for death and lifelong injuries to hundreds of thousands of innocents by sheer negligence and apathy of its much-valued UCC. By the admissions in a cable of its own embassy as many as 15000 died and 500,000 were critically injured because of the gas-leak.

The US has always been like that – preachy only for others, not for its own people, especially its Corporations.


Thursday, May 23, 2013

"Marriage Gardens" of Bhopal

Lion City marriage garden
The properties in Bhopal on the Indore Road along the banks of the Upper Lake that are used for wedding receptions have been in dispute for a long time. These are not only located in the catchments of the Lake but are also discharging their wastes into it. On several occasions the civil society representatives have taken up the matter with the
Municipal Corporation but all of them got the stock reply that nothing could be done as there was a stay by a court in the matter relating to their demolition. Even the Bhopal Citizens’ Forum had taken up the matter several times but it was fobbed off with the same reply.

All of a sudden three such structures on the lake shores were demolished and with that the whole secret was exposed. It seems owners of these properties, called “marriage gardens” as receptions followed by weddings are being held in them, were illegally letting them out for the purpose. Authorised only to operate non-polluting gyms in them, over time they illegally expanded their respective properties encroaching on areas that did not belong to them and let them out to all and sundry for holding wedding receptions. None in the municipal corporation objected as indeed any revenue official. This has been going on for years and the owners of these illegally occupied properties made fortunes through their unauthorised and illegal activities.

All this was made possible by bribes. Reports have now appeared in the press that “hafta” (weekly payments) and “maheena” (monthly payments) were being made. The court had stayed action on the gyms and not the action on illegally run “marriage gardens”. Wrong interpretation of the stay order of the court, most probably by design, enabled the unchecked continuance of the illegalities. The field staff of the Municipal Corporation had been reporting against them but the same were, apparently, suppressed and were not acted upon. While the owners of the properties made fortunes, the concerned municipal officials also enriched themselves.

Reports have also appeared that the Municipal Corporation is in the process of getting at the bottom of this veritable scam. Nothing might come off the inquiry as numerous municipal officials – petty and big – are involved. They would see that the inquiry fizzles out. Clearly, the illegalities could not have continued for so
Another view of Lion City marriage garden
long in the face of public opposition unless everyone concerned in the municipal corporation, from top to bottom, was involved. After all, the matter related to illegal use of very valuable properties of the town. It is, therefore, necessary that public pressure for action against the defaulters is intensified and Municipal Corporation is forced to close down these so-called marriage gardens forthwith.

As one looks at it, a very strange picture emerges. The Municipal Corporation is the custodian of the Upper Lake which only means that it is responsible for its protection and conservation. There is a very vital reason for it and that is it draws millions of litres of water from it for distribution among the people of Bhopal. And yet, seemingly, it is the custodian’s acts of omissions and commissions are harming the Lake and polluting its waters.

Allowing the “marriage gardens”, to discharge its wastes into the Lake is not the only instance of its inaction. It has for years failed to plug several drains that empty muck into the Lake despite expenditure of crores of rupees and formulation of several projects. Another major instance of its inaction is allowing motorised boats to ply in the Lake after having banned them as far back as in 2005. Recently, even the councillors wanted the motorised boats out of the Lake. But, the spineless Municipal Corporation has somehow not been able to act for and behalf of the people of Bhopal to whom it owes its existence. It seems to have surrendered before the politically powerful Tourism Corporation, the operator of the boats. Nowhere in the world are motorised boats running on internal combustion engines allowed to ply in a water body that is a source of drinking water.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Greening the roadsides

Akbar's favourite - the Sheesham tree
In History lessons in the primary school we were told about the penchant of the Afghan King Sher Shah Suri for improving the then-existing administrative set-up. An ethnic Afghan, born in Hissar in Punjab, he took control of the Mogul Empire in 1540 and established the Sur Dynasty after overrunning Bengal. Being far away from the centre of action which used to be Delhi, he was obsessed with better communication with it. He, therefore, organised a postal service and, in order to make it effective, we were told, he built the Grand Trunk Road. What is more important for our purpose is that while building the road Sher Shah spared a thought for the road-users, which included his postal couriers. For their benefit he had plenty of shady trees planted on the road sides under which the tired long-distance travellers could rest and relax and take the strain off their aching feet.

The history of roadside trees in India is that old, if not older. One supposes, even in earlier times paths used to be laid for the sake of establishing connectivity and trees would be planted along them for the benefit of man and animals. This has been the tradition right down to modern times. Emperor Akbar ordered that all avenues and arterial roads be covered with the graceful sheesham tree. The British were tree-lovers too, and the British architect Edwin Lutyens went to great pains to ensure that all the main avenues in New Delhi were lined with handpicked species. Jamun (black berry) trees were planted along the Raj Path and likewise, I remember, some other Lutyens Delhi roads having only neem (margosa) and tamarind trees on their respective sides.

During my stay in the Curzon Road Apartments in New Delhi in the early 1970s I had observed that Curzon Road had two rows of trees on each side of the road with a small asphalted strip for movement of two-way traffic with the sides left kutcha, un-asphalted. Compulsions for accommodating the burgeoning vehicular traffic made the authorities asphalt the entire available surface. Within a year or two, however, I noticed, a row of trees was being felled to meet the increasing
An avenue of Lutyen's Delhi
demands of the Delhi traffic. Thankfully, the British had provided a total of four rows of trees on the road as otherwise Curzon Road, as indeed many other roads in Central Delhi, would have become bereft of any greenery long years ago. 

During those very years if one happened to visit the newly-developing areas of, say, South Extension using the still up-n-coming Ring Road one would get that bare and arid feeling. The Ring Road was being laid but none ever thought of planting trees on the sides. That goes as well for numerous other colonies that kept coming up during those years. It was, apparently not in the Public Works Department (PWD) or, shall we say, the Delhi Development Authority culture? Probably they never included the cost of tree-plantation in their projects but, perhaps, would readily include the cost of felling them if these happened to obstruct the road alignment.

In Bhopal in Central India during the construction of the BRTS corridor when trees were being felled right and left to widen the existing roads the Bhopal Citizens’ Forum took up the matter with the Commissioner, Bhopal Municipal Corporation. Strangely, the Commissioner countered the Forum’s objections on felling of trees by saying that compensatory plantation was being undertaken on a hillock outside the town. Apparently, trees on the roadsides for him and his minions had no role and could be dispensed with. That the trees render ecosystem services hosting colonies of birds and other creatures and also beautify the roads seemed to be much beyond their comprehension. Hence no space was provided along the widened tarmac which, most likely, will play havoc with the citizens when the city sizzles in the peak of summer in temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius (104 F). Worse, he was not aware of the “Actions” adopted under the Urban Environmental Accords signed at San Francisco during the World Mayors’ Conference on June 5, 2005 in pursuant of which the city government was to maintain canopy coverage at least of 50% on all available sidewalk planting sites. 

Showing exemplary persistence, the Forum persuaded the Commissioner to consider translocation of the huge, mature, decades-old trees, an enterprise that was reported to have met with success at Indore. Accordingly, as many as eighty-odd trees (against a few thousand felled) were reported to have been translocated with the help of an expert summoned from Indore. Yet, on the day the massive trees in front of Kamla Park, a heritage site, were being uprooted I happened to witness a pathetic sight. Hundreds of bats roosting on those trees were rendered homeless and were flying round and round during the high noon, seemingly not knowing where to go. The effort and the sacrifice of the bats and other creatures, however, seems to have been in vain as recent reports indicate that the survival rate of the translocated trees was very poor – just about 10 to 20 percent.

Perhaps better counsels could have been obtained. The Minister of Urban Administration always used to claim that he would turn Bhopal into another Singapore. That being so, one wonders as to why help in this matter was not sought from that City State which has developed an expertise in replanting imported fully-grown trees. Planting a sapling and nurturing it to grow over many years is too much of a hassle for it. It also wants the trees to decorate and not shed leaves or drop ripe fruits to mess up the roadsides. Only such trees, non-messy and fully grown, were therefore imported and replanted. Despite its rather peculiar attitude none can deny the State’s love for civic aesthetics and the roadside trees, which, it believes, also decorate them.
Taiping Street, Nanking, China - 1982

The role of trees in beautifying roads can also be seen in China and Japan which I happened to see for myself in the spring of 1982. Particularly in Beijing and Nanking roads were lined with trees of uniform heights and width. The trees also branched out from a uniform height. Standing on the pavement one could see the bare stems of the trees and branches radiating from all of them from a pre-determined height. The Chinese and Japanese appear to go to great lengths to care for them. To prevent sprouting of branches up to the desired height the civic workers would tie ropes around the stem then leave the trees to grow. Later controlling the height and width of the tree is, apparently, managed by tree-surgeons or arborists. The then tree-lined empty, almost devoid of automobiles,  roads of Beijing and Nanking looked fascinatingly beautiful.

Unfortunately, we in India suffer from lack of concern for citizens as also lack civic aesthetics. Our public bodies are devoid of them, especially those like the municipalities, PWD, housing boards and other urban development organisations. Their big wigs know only beautifying their own offices or those of their bosses – political or civil. What they build for the people is generally bland, which frequently are also ugly. Worse, they refuse to improve. 

NB: Except the photograph of Taiping Street, Nanking which was taken by me the two other are taken from the Internet

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