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July 17, 2009

Water in the market – bottled water

If there were ever futures trading with water, I would be a millionaire. Several others would be too. I would have a lot of money, and I would be very thirsty too.

I read an article in the TOI, page 14, July 17 2009, Bangalore edition title: “Stamping a new mark for bottled water“. The full article can be accessed at this URL, excerpts are below:

Though the consumption of packaged drinking water in India is just 1.7 litres per month, the packaged drinking water industry sees India as the most booming sector, growing at a rate of 25%. Jeffrey B Smith, general manager, global water business of Underwriters Laboratories (UL), tells TOI about UL’s venture to set up a water certification programme that will supplement the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) in India.


We are currently analysing the challenges but according to our studies so far, fluoride and arsenic are huge contaminants here. Pesticide residues also. The issues are different in the West. For instance, in the US, iron levels are very high and there are concerns about aesthetics: the water should not smell, it has to look good…. We are here to add value to the issues of water scarcity and safety. Even though buying power is a problem with the poor here, most of the middle class prefers safer options, and that is huge for us.

Now they see packaged drinking water as a market, and an opportunity. Am I the only one who sees a problem in water, or am I just dumb….

Reminds me of the story “Welcome to the town of Allopath“, by Mike Adams. This was sent by my colleague, Shekhar who has a farm outside BLR. Gist of the article is that Allopath is a city with the problem of accidents. A doctor “Dr West” examines the accidents and concludes that they are linked to “skid marks”. If the skid marks are removed/prevented he concludes, there will not be any accidents. He recommends that the roads be lined with teflon that will prevent all skid marks. The accidents increase exponentially. A hermit comes along and recommends that the teflon be removed and that stop signs be installed to prevent the accidents. He is chided since he is not “qualified” enough to advise. Accidents continue, almost all of the city dies off. Several years later, the hermit is still living on, painting stop signs so that a new generation could use them.

Anyhow, I am also part of the middle class who walks the often trudged path. BTW, folks who got till here would like to read my other post on dry borewells in hyderabad.

June 27, 2009

Will I beg for food? Bhavati Bhikshaam dehi…

Filed under: NGO, social change — neosurya @ 20:56

Excerpt from a blog with a very pragmatic look at several issues, including education for all:

The problem is that people in India don’t realize the economic costs of teaching everyone, we were brainwashed into thinking that if we study only then we will be able to make a future, so we presume if everyone studies then it will make their future. Unfortunately it’s not true. Just studying does not secure your future. You have to be really good. For that bottom 1/3rd, its better that nobody waste their money on them, and let them do blue collar jobs.

I had been trying to articulate for several months that education for all is not a good thing, it is not sustainable, and it does not make sense. The author, Shanu Athiparambath Gargi Dixit presents a host of other discussions, some of which have quite deep repercussions.

A related question I request my reader to ask him/herself is (I assume all readers of this blog will at the least have high school education) – Will I consider working for a very low salary, or Will I agree to beg for sustenance? At one point of time our culture ruled that student should subsist by begging from house to house. Work of any stature was not considered beneath education. But now, we have evolved.

I will take the example of Taarein Zameen Par, the movie which has opened the eyes of many parents towards the proper rearing of children. But even in this movie, the boy Ishaan had to become a “winner”.

The movie did a good job. The masala has to be there for it to get the message across, and it did get a good message across. But fact remains that kids have to “win” to prove themselves. The path is lost amidst the goal.

April 16, 2009

Village games – workshop by Sudha and Dwiji

Filed under: agriculture, NGO, social change — neosurya @ 19:14

Last Sunday, we had a workshop by Dwiji and Sudha, two colleagues from AID who are doing excellent work in Sitapur, UP. The workshop placed the attendees in different groups with roles modeled around the lives of villagers. For example, we had:

  • Five village families, each with about 2-3 members.Two of the families were dalits. These families had various assets. E.g. 2 acres of irrigated land, 1 acre of un-irrigated land, one unmarried daughter, 0-1 old parent, Rs 10K of debt with monthly interest of 2K (!!!) etc.
  • A rich farmer, alo called बडा किसान (bada kisan). The kisan would employ villagers and pay them some amount of money.
  • A contractor, ठेकेदार (Thekedaar). The contractor would employ villagers to go to the city and work for a season.
  • A pradhaan प्रधान (village chief). The village chief executes various Govt. programs. This workshop limited him to the NREGA, which provides a minimum of Rs100 per day of work.
  • A social worker. The social worker conducts programs to develop the land quality. He can give the farmer some money to participate in land development, and the farmer in return has to pay him a portion of his produce.

The game is played out for three years, with each year divided into three seasons. Each of this role had a goal to achieve by the end of the game: The villagers had to stay alive, make sure that their daughters were all married etc. Staying alive or dying was determined based on meeting food requirement for the family for three consequtive seasons. The contractor had to make money, the social worker had to do a few projects etc…

Vagaries of weather and fate was determined by a draw of lots. A draw of lot could indicate that your farm got pest-infested and you lost your crop for the season. Such incidentals could even include death in family, sudden increase in debt. All was not bad in the lots and occasionally a village family could be graced with a bumper crop.

As we played the game, we realized how difficult it was to even “play” the role of a villager who very much a hopeful human, but subject to vagaries that were hopeless, and most inhuman. Even in a non-drought year, several families opeted to fast. Most of the players were educated and could still not figure out how to balance the debt payments, food consumption and plan for next season’s food intake. And, this was without complexities of having to buy seed, pestiside, managing health and a host of other factors that accompany village life.

March 25, 2009

Research on global warming.

Filed under: global warming, NGO, science — neosurya @ 22:33

Saw the following article in the Times of India, page 18, 25th March 2009….

Ocean test to fight global warming fails
Amit Bhattacharya | TNN

New Delhi: LOHAFEX, the Indo-German Antarctic scientific expedition that had triggered a storm of protests when it set sail in January to test a controversial method of fighting global warming by getting a huge amount of CO ² to sink deep into the ocean, has returned with disappointing results.
The team found that the amount of CO ² —a greenhouse gas chiefly responsible for global warming—eliminated from the atmosphere as a result of the experiment turned out to be far less then expected. This has led the scientists, 29 of them from India, to infer that the Southern Ocean near Antarctica may not be as good a site for ‘ocean iron fertilization’ as previously thought.
Iron fertilization is a method of seeding the ocean with iron to prompt the blooming of phytoplankton, a class of tiny plant algae which take up CO ² from the air and quickly die off, sinking deep into the ocean with the carbon. If conducted on a large scale, it was touted as a way of sucking millions of tonnes of CO ² , thus reducing the level of the greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. The LOHAFEX team, however, found that though the algae mass doubled in size after four tonnes of dissolved iron was dropped in a 300 sq km patch of ocean, most of it was quickly eaten away by a crustacean zooplankton species. ‘‘This grazing resulted in most of the CO ² trapped by algae to be recycled into air,’’ said S W A Naqwi from National Institute of Oceanography, Goa, the co-chief scientist of the project.

Funny feeling I get – A few days ago, I had written about the one straw revolution, and how science and business collude in an unholy matrimony, resisting from seeing all parameters before implementation of an idea. This article is another (though milder) embodiment of that observation.

February 27, 2009

To GE or not GE…

Filed under: association for indias development, NGO, social change — neosurya @ 18:01

Got into a discussion with members at AID about Genetic Engineering; it was about whether one should support it or not. There were several aspects that were discussed; the question according to me is not about GE but about issues that NGOs have to pick up in general.

I will re-state a few salient aspects as points:

1. Science is often mis-aligned for profit. Science needs to have experimental
rigor and business ethics should be sound.
2. Science should have solutions that are reversible. Think harmful
gas leaks without medication in neighboring hospitals (Dow/Bhopal, industrial
effluents, Agent Orange).
3. Historically, when technology or a line of thought removes choice,
it is harmful.
This is not just about science. Its effects are more easily
understood in social problems. Think Mangalore – removal of choices for women etc.
4. No amount of testing is sufficient testing. Errors happen, and that is
acceptable. Hence, technologies must balance 1, 2, and 3 so as to
allow correctable and gradual acceptance.

As users of advanced technology, and more because we are NOGs, we have to
be aware of these aspects, and be clear about why a certain technology should,
or should not be supported. We cannot have ad-hoc approaches to each problem.

Generally, I am not against a particular technology, and that includes GE. But I would be most comfortable with a technology that supports these tenets.

December 12, 2008

Question by the "COMMON MAN" : How wretched do I have to be?

Filed under: common man, NGO, social change — neosurya @ 05:26

This is in response to an article that was sent to me by a friend.

The article mentions the following:

===== Snippet Begins ====
“The hard reality of this country is that we are living in two Indias. One is for the rich, who matter, and one is for the poor, who are invisible,” said Ashok Agarwal, a lawyer who runs Social Jurist, a group that litigates education cases on behalf of the marginalized sections of society. “In India, you can use the poor for your benefit. He should cook your meals, wash your utensils, scrub your clothes, but when it comes to doing justice for the victims of other bombings, there wasn’t this level of outrage. When poor people were attacked, the country wasn’t suddenly insecure. This is a fundamental injustice, and it has led to authorities ignoring attacks.”

Mumbai, with more than 14 million people, is India’s most populous city and has often suffered tragedy. In 2005, monsoon flooding killed more than 400 people in the city in one day, and the main victims were the poor. One Indian media study found that a fashion event got more local coverage than the flooding, which affected many slum dwellers. Mumbai is home to Asia’s largest slums.

Although India’s economy is booming, poverty runs deep. Nearly half of all Indian children are clinically malnourished or underweight, on par with the rate in Bangladesh and worse than in Ethiopia, according to UNICEF. Even as the economy has grown by up to 8 percent, child malnutrition has declined only one percentage point, to 46 percent, in seven years, according to a 2007 National Family Health Survey, part of a government report.
===== Snippet Ends ====

This article defines a common man with a bar that is too high. As per their definition of a common man, I would not be a common man. A majority of AIDers would also not be common men (or women).

The article says that train bombings only affected “really poor people”, and in saying so, it completely ignores local realities. What, really does the article think a middle class individual is? I remember traveling to college everyday in a second class compartment in Mumbai with 10-15 of my friends. I too may have been dead if the attack were on my compartment. My mom missed the 1993 blasts by a hair’s breadth. I was significantly pained by the developments of July 26th, when Mithi river combined with rains lashed the city. Several of my friends lost their apartments with everything in it. Some of my colleagues had friends who died saving lives. Articles such as these do not do justice to the individuals mentioned above. I agree that media attention for the Taj attack shows how high-society damages are being considered very important. But at the other end, it is also fashionable to highlight only the “completely helpless”. There is someone in the middle who always loses out. 🙂

This someone in the middle is the householder who owns a scooter (If he has a car, he is in pretty bad shape, since he is too filthy rich), has a mortgage on a flat (If he owns one, hard luck – the Govt should be doing nothing for him), two kids who go to school, and a job (or two) that consistently lets the family meet ends. The family tries its best to save, it is conscious of society, but its consciousness is either directed towards religious charity, or it is very busy in maintaining a tight ship. In the worst case, the consciousness is overwhelmed by the feeling of “Every man to his own – no one is helping me, so why should I help others.”. This someone in the middle is often ignored by the media and establishment.

But then, why am I writing this email to you, and not to someone else, maybe the editor of the Washington Post. This brings me to the real grudge. I have always been outraged that our establishment exhibits callous behavior when common people die. It’s reaction to the parliament attacks has been significantly different from say, the July 26th rains in Mumbai, Bihar floods, 1993 bomb blasts, Bhopal tragedy, the train bombings, and for a host of other issues. However, I also have a grudge that this person in the middle is systematically ignored by NGOs as well.

It is neither right, nor necessary for most NGOs to stick to this definition. Of course, the poor appeal as poster ads, but in the long run it is very damaging if the NGOs seek holistic and sustainable development. The issues of a middle-class individual – “access to clean water, decent roads, honest establishment, honest livelihood, nice education” are very much in line with those of “the poor”. One blame that can be placed on the middle-class individuals is that they are not (yet) 100% desperate for these resources, and have not (yet) extinguished the facilities at their disposal to guard families from a lack of resources.

I have held a household in India now only for about 3 months. In these short 3 months, I have begun to learn why it is very difficult for the so called middle-class to sustain themselves, and why they find it extremely un-realistic to help others. Few examples:

1. I have acquaintaces who hold top jobs, and would in no way fall under the category of “opressed”. Their kids receive education in a decent school amongst several other “decent” ones. The student teacher ratio is 1-60. The education he gets is nowhere close to marginally good, let alone ideal. The civics and moral science class is a heap of rubbish. What, then is the position of NGOs here?

2. I had been to the police station recently. It was incredible to note the level of apathy meted out to the ordinary police by our establishment. For the kind of facilities provided to them by our Govt., the work they do is amazing. I can only imagine what they would be able to do if someone were to ensure them security of their families and decent living condition. This police, alas will also fall below the bar of “the common man” who should be helped.

3. Several flats in Bangalore have to purchase bottled water. It has come to be accepted as a norm. The ground water is horrible. The middle class has not been told that this is sub-standard living. They will continue buying water because they do not know any alternative. I do not know if there is any solution for this.

4. Teachers in private schools do not get paid the salary they have signed up for. Almost all work for peanuts, while parents dole out significant amounts by way of fees.

There are several instances where the “middle man” always loses out and no one even likes to comment about it. Presumably, he has the ability to help himself. The latter is alas, just a presumption and very far fromt he truth. I would go further to say that if we do not help these individuals, NGOs and politico-social organizations (like Governments) are losing out on a large support base. If we can provide them with some simple assistance, some semblance of social responsibility in their daily lives, they can potentially become a sustainable force that will ultimately assist social development. This “person in the middle” has incredible resilience, the ability to help himself, and the intent to help others. But he needs assistance. The person is regrettably always ignored in the cross-fire between “high-society” and “marginalized”…

I guess if I had to summarize this in one line, I would put it as follows:
“How wretched should I be to get help from your hands?”

BTW, for those who know me better, I am not going to stop the current activities I am involved in. This entry mentions what I think is in-appropriate ethics on behalf of various establishments. I will continue my current work, and strive to create gradual changes.

September 23, 2008

Tuition center work at Bangalore

Filed under: association for indias development, NGO, social change — neosurya @ 04:11

A report that I prepared on the tuition center for AID-Bangalore:

Had an exciting time teaching kids in a tuition center at a slum in Bismillah Khan Nagar near Jayanagar. Will be doing this every Wed from now on.

Blog at