Degrading the Environment, Indian Style

In my first post on this blog, I tipped my hat to The Ugly Indian. Let’s face it. India is ugly and it’s because of us, the people. Dirtying takes almost zero effort and a cleanup takes a few orders of magnitude more effort. Think about your room. It probably takes a minute to mess it up and an hour to clean it. As a tax-payer, I disagree when people dirty everything and ask the Government to clean up. Tax payer money should be invested in processes like sewerage lines and treatment plants etc. With the right processes it should not be necessary to use tax-payer money to clean lakes and rivers if people took some real responsibility. An unapproved layout next to a lake, dumping sewage in storm water drains, refusing to segregate garbage and similar crimes are the real problem. Let us see how disaggregate (micro-level) behaviour and thinking adds up and affects us at an aggregate (large-scale) level.

Here is one of the most sacred parts of the Bhoganandeeswara temple (near the Nandi Hills), which is over a thousand years old, on the day after the Maha Shivaratri festival. Plastic is floating around in the tank. I did not take any other pictures of the temple grounds that day because it was disgusting to see garbage everywhere. This was the least ugly place if you discount the sanctum sanctorum! An employee of the temple had just started the cleanup which would have probably taken several days.

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Here is a picture of how it looks otherwise:

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There’s even some wildlife here:

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I know I am generalizing but an average Indian just doesn’t care about the environment and our actions show this. It looks like the same attitude seeps into our panels and authorities who assess environmental impact of large-scale projects because after all they are people drawn from the same pool. But they have the capacity to do large-scale damage that costs lives.

Here is an example. This is a satellite photo of Chennai Airport in 2000. The airport is pretty much in the flood plains of the Adyar river and the smaller runway is almost touching the river.

ChennaiAirport-2000

In 2015, this is how the airport looks like. The smaller runway has been expanded and extended over the river! It is practically a dam because going by the typical Indian construction standards there would probably be debris under the bridge!

ChennaiAirport-2015

In case you think the river flow is low and cannot do damage, see the below picture which is more zoomed out compared to before. You can see the huge Chembarambakkam lake (upstream and on the left of the picture) from where excess water was released and drowned Chennai Airport (downstream and on the right) along with a lot of low-lying areas last year. Obstructions like this on the Adyar river and its floodplains amplified the flood damage immensely and cost several lives.

Lake and Airport

A similar lack of logic was used to approve the World Cultural Festival (organized by Mr. Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living Foundation) to destroy the Yamuna flood plains which are already under attack in Delhi. The event is being organized in one of the widest areas of flood-plains within the city limits. People who can influence the public need to be more responsible and informed before they speak on any topic and this article quoting Mr. Ravi Shankar shows why. There simple references here and here that you can go through to understand why floodplains are important and should not be encroached.  His statements betray a lack of understanding of this.

There is another side that says Mr. Ravi Shankar has the best of intentions and has a track record of cleaning rivers. I have not verified this. But whatever the case may be, the floodplains should be left as is. Even if Art of Living conducts this with zero impact to the environment, it sets a bad precedent. What if a super-rich guy wants to do a mega-wedding here tomorrow? Why not a rock concert?

I am sure a better place can be found for the event. Why not conduct it in a stadium and telecast it on TV? 3.5 million footfalls in 3 days in one place is a safety and security nightmare anyway!

The latest developments cannot be seen on the satellite images but you can observe how the flood plains are eaten away and streams are blocked over the last decade or so.

Yamuna floodplains 2004:

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The same in 2015, before the additional developments to host the event, show how the urbanization is catching up: new bridges, roads, construction on the western bank, old streams are now clogged or blocked and so on. I have approximately labeled the affected zone with a red rectangle based on what I read in news reports.

Yamuna-2015

The floodplains in the eastern bank next to the Mayur Vihar metro station where the World Cultural Festival is organized is about 450 hectares in area. The western bank is about 200+ hectares. From news reports, we hear that 50-60 hectares have been leveled and debris has been dumped and a pontoon bridge has been built across the river for this. Although this is 10% of the area, it will affect the larger ecosystem. Delhiites may be able to point out which areas on this picture are actually affected now. Please comment below if you know.

Floodplains are naturally marshy, have grassy vegetation and open gravelly/sandy surfaces to to absorb excess flow when required. Aquifers are also recharged with this type of geology. Planting trees in such areas doesn’t make sense because they are naturally not part of the floodplain ecosystem. Not so long ago, during the 2013 North India floods the Yamuna had completely engulfed its floodplains in Delhi.

Since there are no free images, here is a screenshot of this from The Hindu:

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We are taught in Universities to plan for 100-year floods. Now the memory doesn’t even extend 2 years! The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has been given some teeth to deal with all these macro problems and I hope these are not of the milk teeth variety.

Another area where we see major issues closer to my home is solid waste management. A space-constrained India that organizes events on floodplains doesn’t have the places to dump garbage. This picture below shows Mandur evolving from a sleepy farming village in the outskirts to being the favourite garbage dump for Bangalore. The images are from 2005 and 2014 respectively. Note that this is now one of many such landfills.

Mandur-2005Mandur-2014

Food waste, plastic and metals are not items that should end up in a landfill but they do. The villagers here are sick of this “deal with the devil” and now want out. The real problem is that waste segregation by people is not universal and processes to take this segregated waste are not robust enough. The latter is BBMP‘s responsibility but the former is all about the people: you and me. A court decision cannot solve this unless people become more responsible.

This is what happens to segregated waste:

  • Wet waste is all the food waste and this can be composted at home or at larger composting plants. The output is manure and can be used for organic vegetable gardens at home.
  • The dry waste is mostly paper, plastics, metals etc. and these can be recycled at automated plants. Recycling plants sometimes pay people money for this waste!
  • Sanitary waste goes to a landfill

Today, most houses in Bangalore mix and send all of the above straight to the landfill therefore multiplying by several times what each one can handle. It is immensely hard to separate the mixed waste into components for composting or recycling. There are also process failures from the BBMP because in some areas people segregate the waste but it mixed when collected.

There are, of course, some encouraging signs. I’ve seen experiments at our apartment that kids can be taught and are also good at enforcing their parents to be more sensitive. It helps if every house has one person with an environmental OCD. Be that person! The segregation initiative in our apartment building works pretty well and the ladies and kids go door to door to explain this to new folks who join the community. If we did segregation properly we wouldn’t have the Mandur problem. Only sanitary and hazardous waste would go to landfills. As I write this, I also hear that plastic is to be banned in Karnataka and I sincerely hope it is implemented. We need to ensure those who depend on the plastics for their livelihood have viable alternatives and that people are sensitized and trained. Otherwise this is a token initiative that will be destined to fail.

I am not starting a blame game here or pointing a finger at one group. I am equally culpable when I order takeout food and send plastic containers to the landfill. Is there a better way? This thinking is needed at every level, whether individuals or Governments. Japan needs to think about better design to prevent radiation leaks at nuclear plants built on a tsunami-prone coast or the US about oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico. The purpose of this post is to encourage us to question what we do today and do better next time.

I was discussing this post with a friend who pointed out that George Carlin once said:

The planet has been through a lot worse than us. Been through earthquakes, volcanoes, plate tectonics, continental drift, solar flares, sun spots, magnetic storms, the magnetic reversal of the poles … hundreds of thousands of years of bombardment by comets and asteroids and meteors, worldwide floods, tidal waves, worldwide fires, erosion, cosmic rays, recurring ice ages … And we think some plastic bags and some aluminum cans are going to make a difference? The planet isn’t going anywhere. WE are!

We’re going away. Pack your shit, folks. We’re going away. And we won’t leave much of a trace, either. Maybe a little Styrofoam … The planet’ll be here and we’ll be long gone. Just another failed mutation. Just another closed-end biological mistake. An evolutionary cul-de-sac. The planet’ll shake us off like a bad case of fleas.

This is not about Planet Earth which, given time, can probably evolve intelligent life that eats plastic. This is about the survival and well-being of the species that call this planet their home today.

Infrastructure Islands

This my first post and it is not a pretty one. There is the real Silicon Valley and there is the Bangalore of 2014. The Bangalore where shoddy planning has resulted in lakes filled with sewage; pothole-ridden, vehicle-clogged roads; and believe it or not, traffic jams on the 3g airwaves. Take the Whitefield area as an example. Incomes are high, villas and apartments are coming up but the quality of life is poor. The erstwhile industrial zone is connected to the city via two arterial roads about 6 km apart. During rush-hour it takes 60 minutes to navigate from either of these gateways to the heart of the IT zone for a distance of only 7 or 8 km. Other than more frequent buses, there are no improvements in connectivity in the last 10 years. On a weekday it is impossible to connect to leading mobile networks to make or take calls during office hours. It can take up to 2.5 hours to reach a city pub on Friday evenings. Short of water surrounding Whitefield, it can truely be described as an island – an infrastructure island. The property prices in Whitefield are high partly because of this – closeness to offices be damned!

A city that can expand in all directions can sometimes do so haphazardly and resources are stretched too thin to accommodate this. An initial boom in infrastructure was cut short by State Governments that were keen not to be seen as developing Bangalore – a city far from the Kannada heartland and politically difficult to explain. The city government was quick to adopt IT to help citizens manage public services but infrastructure was never on the table. The metro (a relatively expensive public service) is designed to fail because it does not connect the major IT zones in the much delayed first phase.

The impact is not insignificant even if this study gets the numbers wrong by a factor of 10! Working from home is not a great option because of power cuts and difficulty in accessing high-speed (10 MBPS or higher) broadband speeds.

Since constructive criticism is better than ranting, here are some ideas:

  • Concrete trucks and office traffic do not mix well! Pollution and residential populations do not either! Shift industries from today’s de facto IT and residential zones that are de jure industrial areas. Use that land to build up infrastructure – metro and shuttle bus stations, parking lots, replanned and wider roads and what not.
  • Do the same for cantonment areas. Convert them to green parks traversed by fenced off arterial roads and metro lines.
  • Better zoning: A simple example, convert a couple of airfields in the city’s outskirts into academic zones where existing institutions can move to or new ones can be setup.
  • Roads: Build the next ring road and start planning for the one after that! (Think Beijing). Build redundancy into the road networks.
  • Re-prioritize and redo metro plans pragmatically. Offer large campuses (office or otherwise) access to metro stations if they provide land.
  • Garbage is a huge problem. Garbage segregation works and kids can teach their parents. Teach the kids how to segregate!
  • Building sewage treatment plants and connected systems accompanied by rejuvenation of lakes over a 10-year time-frame
  • Fibre-optic backbones need better penetration. Since digging roads is a favourite hobby in Bangalore, some common sense and coordination would ensure this since every road in Bangalore is dug every few months. Provide incentives to older lay-outs and apartments to ensure last mile connectivity.
  • Power: Honestly the situation isn’t too bad where I live in Bangalore but millions of Indians don’t have it good. The Central (Federal) Government needs to act on it. Solar power can help and is definitely under-used.
  • Cellular networks: Get Defence spectrum reallocated at decent prices. The towers and networks will take care of themselves! Except for the diesel generators that power these towers! So we have to address the previous point about power.

Finally, a tribute to those who did the opposite of what I did – The Ugly Indian. Their motto is simple – stop talking, start working. Something that works very well for keeping a city clean. Getting the government to fix infrastructure needs more supporting voices though and my small note is another drop in the ocean. Hope all this improves because a lot of talent sits in Bangalore each day and gets burnt out. A move to greener pastures is an option that the cream will take very easily. This will be followed slowly by the cream of the technology companies and India could ill-afford this with its burgeoning population of aspirational job-seekers who cannot get off the islands!