Posts tagged “India”

Field Notes - Measuring Village Air Pollution in Bajada Pahari

Twenty minutes from INCLEN’s SOMAARTH field headquarters lays Bajada Pahari1, a sleepy, picturesque village of ~120 households. The road to Bajada Pahari twists through bustling little villages, becoming more and more narrow until what remains is suited more for bullock carts, tractors, goats, and shepherds than personal vehicles. As the settlements dwindle, large open croplands — of tall sugarcane, bright yellow mustard, and various green sabjiyom2 — dominate the field of view. Enormous metal structures for high voltage powerlines stand erect yet untethered: no cables connect them. Below, and all around, the landscape is dotted with small, oblong discs of gobara3 used for fertilizer and as fuel.

Bajada Pahari is trapezoidal in shape, buttressed to its north by a small hill, upon which sits an old, abandoned watchtower4 and a small informal shrine to Shiva marked by narrow, red flags. Immediately behind the ridge, a green pool sparkles in the hazy winter daylight. Stray dogs roam a nearby shallow dig - perhaps an old quarry. Looking away from the village, pasturelands extend for as far as the eye can see. Barely visible brick kilns spew grayish black emissions. From the hilltop, the only audible sounds are chirping birds and rustling leaves, punctuated occasionally by a wailing child, a barking dog, a puttering engine.

We arrived in Bajada Pahari mid-morning and went first to the home of the Sarpanch, the head village elder5. At his residence, on the edge of town, a large gate opens first into a foyer full of mechanical farm tools — a tractor, a manual chopper — and a few simple cots and then leads into an outdoor space with trees, cows, chairs, and chulas. The Sarpanch arrived shortly thereafter, on a motorcycle bearing his title. After initial pleasantries and introductions, we discussed the village, which won an award for progress on sanitation and cleanliness, and our air pollution project.

Village air pollution is a hard concept to grok. For most, the pervasive images conjured by the word ‘rural’ are clean and pure, especially compared to places like Delhi, Mumbai, and Beijing. The sources of air pollutant emissions are no doubt different — quaint cookstoves, open fires, brick kilns, and small village industries look innocuous when compared to massive smokestacks and endless diesel vehicles visible in large Indian cities6. Tens to hundreds of these little village sources, simultaneously used over a small geography, probably adversely impacts air quality. Think of each one as a small contributor to a larger village smokestack.

The sarpanch is (unsurprisingly) thoughtful, measured, and interested. Mayur explains what we’d like to do, and why, succinctly and in simple language - a difficult feat he has perfected in his years with INCLEN. We talk about why we’re interested in understanding air pollution in a rural village (unmeasured, significant, and likely related to simple combustion of wood and dung) and why we think it’s important (trying to convince government to monitor and regulate the entire airshed, not just in urban areas). We show him some of our toys — including a miniature quadcopter, similar to the larger one we’ll use to measure some meteorological parameters and PM2.5. He laughs at the copter and approves of our plans. He decides we should discuss further with others on the village council.

We walk down the street, past a few cows lounging next to an abandoned biogas plant. At the intersection of two of the town’s biggest roads, a group of men and empty plastic chairs await us. Our discussion with them is similar to the previous one with the sarpanch. A few sarcastically questioned if we are asking them to stop cooking entirely. Others suggested their households, as proxies for the village, would be enthusiastic to move to LPG if the hassle of acquiring fuel wasn’t so great. They noted that there were no home deliveries and that it was difficult to coordinate pickup and dropoff of the cumbersome cylinders. One man, in particular, railed against the notion that food cooked on LPG was any different than that cooked over an open fire; he opined that it wasn’t the fuel that made the food, but the cook. His example was of village boys, who move to a city and eat food cooked on LPG by a stranger; they blame the poor taste on the fuel. He blamed the cook — or, more accurately, the fact that this food wasn’t the food they grew up eating, that they were accustomed to. A pretty neat (and new) insight. Not atypically, we spoke with only men about tasks they weren’t directly involved with.

We learned a little about electricity in the village, as well. It is reliable and consistent — rare for these areas. It arrived first in 1978. Many households have multiple electric appliances, including a washing machine, metal rods used to heat water, fans, and small electric stoves known as ‘heaters’. Our final task in the village involved locating a site to place an ambient air pollution and meteorological monitor, along with associated solar panels. We found a nice rooftop location, in the center of town, adjacent to a beautiful, decaying old farmhouse.


1 Alternate spellings include Bajda Pahadi, Bajda Pahari, Bajada Pahadi, and various other permutations. Depending on the spelling, the town’s name takes different meanings. My favorite is “lazy hill,” which sums it up succinctly. Bajada also has a Spanish meaning, which is curiously on point: “a broad alluvial slope extending from the base of a mountain range into a basin” or, more simply, “descent, slope.”

2 Vegetables

3 Dried bovine dung

4 The history of the tower is a little ambiguous; some of the village boys said it was an old British outpost, while others claimed it is a much older Mughal structure.

5 The sarpanch serves as a link between the local and regional governments and the community. There’s some push to pass along certain judicial and legislation-related powers to Sarpanches.

6 The situation is complicated by a national emphasis on cities as thriving centers of vitality, modernity, and growth. The concerns of rural villages don’t align with those of the metropolis - as such, their ranking in the national conscious and in the media is low. This despite ~80% of the population living in rural areas.

NYT: "Emissions From India Will Increase"

India’s new Minister of Environment and Forests, in the New York Times:

The minister, Prakash Javadekar, said in an interview that his government’s first priority was to alleviate poverty and improve the nation’s economy, which he said would necessarily involve an increase in emissions through new coal-powered electricity and transportation. He placed responsibility for what scientists call a coming climate crisis on the United States, the world’s largest historic greenhouse gas polluter, and dismissed the idea that India would make cuts to carbon emissions.

“What cuts?” Mr. Javadekar said. “That’s for more developed countries. The moral principle of historic responsibility cannot be washed away.” Mr. Javadekar was referring to an argument frequently made by developing economies — that developed economies, chiefly the United States, which spent the last century building their economies while pumping warming emissions into the atmosphere — bear the greatest responsibility for cutting pollution.

Not great news. Vox has interesting coverage of this story, as well; the bottom of their story has a great collection of links.

Urban Air Pollution in Delhi, India

I’ve got some fundamental issues with this recent article in the NYT, starting with its absurd title: Beijing’s Bad Air Would Be Step Up for Smoggy Delhi. The difference between levels in Beijing and Delhi are nigh indistinguishable shades of the same grey - we’re seeing similar and important trends playing out in large urban centers. We know the levels are health damaging and we know that the exposure-response relationships for a number of health impacts are not linear - a decrease from 400 to 300 ug/m3 doesn’t incur the same benefit in a population as the decrease from, say, 150 to 50 ug/m3. The latter decrease seems to have a far more profound and substantial positive impact on health. That, of course, is not to say we shouldn’t applaud any and all decreases in ambient air pollution — but instead to emphasize that we have a long way to go to fully protect public health.

No doubt, these issues need to become more prominent in Indian discourse, as the author acknowledges:

… [For] the first three weeks of this year, New Delhi’s average daily peak reading of fine particulate matter from Punjabi Bagh, a monitor whose readings are often below those of other city and independent monitors, was 473, more than twice as high as the average of 227 in Beijing. By the time pollution breached 500 in Beijing for the first time on the night of Jan. 15, Delhi had already had eight such days. Indeed, only once in three weeks did New Delhi’s daily peak value of fine particles fall below 300, a level more than 12 times the exposure limit recommended by the World Health Organization.

“It’s always puzzled me that the focus is always on China and not India,” said Dr. Angel Hsu, director of the environmental performance measurement program at the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy. “China has realized that it can’t hide behind its usual opacity, whereas India gets no pressure to release better data. So there simply isn’t good public data on India like there is for China.”

Experts have long known that India’s air is among the worst in the world. A recent analysis by Yale researchers found that seven of the 10 countries with the worst air pollution exposures are in South Asia. And evidence is mounting that Indians pay a higher price for air pollution than almost anyone. A recent study showed that Indians have the world’s weakest lungs, with far less capacity than Chinese lungs. Researchers are beginning to suspect that India’s unusual mix of polluted air, poor sanitation and contaminated water may make the country among the most dangerous in the world for lungs.

But even this doesn’t tell the whole story. Rural India is fraught with air pollution concerns of a different type — that arising from solid fuel combustion for household cooking. This ‘household air pollution’ results in approximately 900,000 annual deaths in India - 10% of national mortality. It disproportionately affects the rural poor, who, for the most part, don’t have access to modern fuels for cooking, heating, or lighting. It’s estimated that approximately 700 million people - more than twice the US population - in India rely on solid fuel use for household energy needs.

I applaud the NYT for covering air pollution in Delhi and across India. That said, neither of the above articles consider air pollution out of urban centers - and neither address the fact that these types of pollution events were commonplace in now-developed countries (see Donora, PA; London Smog; Thanksgiving Day Smog, NYC, 1966 ) as they stumbled in search of progress.

Stray thoughts from Kathmandu

It’s a little odd being back in Kathmandu. Much feels the same — congestion, pollution, tourists. Silent places pepper the roads, close to and worlds from busy intersections. Beautiful old crumbling Rana palaces, inhabited by the packs of wild dogs that still control the city. It feels as though it would be easy to fall into old work and life patterns - a welcome thought.

Familiar haunts have been reoriented, reorganized, redistributed, relocated. Some roads have gone from crudely paved to stone tiled. The palace — on lock down during past lives here — is open, a museum to an abolished monarchy, its end initiated in violent bloodshed.

A spot we visited often, for tourists of all ilk, once lived down a little alley. It still lives in the same place, but the alley has transformed. It has widened, opening up into a brick megaplex full of shops catering to tourists. It is like many of the paths here that converge on large central squares and are often adorned with stuppas, small shrines, and clotheslines.

On the streets, traffic appears much the same — though far fewer UN vehicles plow through intersections and around corners. Perhaps the UN mission here has been downsized. Perhaps my sample size of two days is far too small.

Fat, almond-shaped rain spewed from the sky yesterday for four and a half hours. “Pre-monsoon,” the hotel staff said. Memory must have erased the Kathmandu monsoon from my neurons — I have no recollection of rain like that. The streets filled with inches of water. Shops closed their front gates in an attempt to keep the rain out. Fellow KGH residents - with plans for meals out and about dashed - congregated in the small, overpriced, hotel restaurant.

Near Bishal Bazaar, Tip Top Tailors still serves the ultimate, mouth-scorching samosa. Amidst hundreds of similarly named tailors, on a bustling and wide road, two small signs point down a corridor to the legendary snack vendor. The largest clue that you’re in the right place is a steady stream of people entering and existing a narrow alley (which, like others, opens into a wide courtyard, this one with rich smells swirling about). Wandering there yesterday, old muscle memories guided me right to the spot. Another nice bit of delight.

Despite the gradual expansion of the city through the entire valley, KTM is still a small place. It’s unsurprising, then, that I ran into an old friend today. Now married to a Nepali, he runs an environmental consulting firm in Kathmandu, and is pulling off feats with rainwater harvesting, biosands, and soon cookstoves. He’s transformed — still American, but Nepali, too.

Into the fire — off to Delhi in four short hours. Temperature don’t seem to drop below 90-95, even in the early morning.

Air Quality in Delhi

From India Ink at the NYT:

But in New Delhi on Thursday, air pollution levels far exceeded those in Beijing, only without any government acknowledgement or action. It is not the first time pollution in India’s capital has outpaced that in China.

The level of tiny particulates known as PM 2.5, which lodge deep in the lungs and can enter the bloodstream, was over 400 micrograms per cubic meter in various neighborhoods in and around Delhi Thursday, according to a real-time air quality monitor. That compared to Beijing’s most-recent air quality reading of 172 micrograms per cubic meter. (The “Air Quality online” link to the left of the Delhi website gives you real-time monitoring of Delhi’s pollution levels.)

At the University of Delhi’s northern campus at 12:30 p.m., the reading for PM 2.5 was 402 micrograms per cubic meter; in the eastern suburb of Noida it was 411; at the Indira Gandhi International airport it was 421.

Having spent winters in Delhi, I can attest to the intensity of the air pollution. Part of the problem, like in other large cities, relates to winter meteorology; another significant component is the location of industry and power production in close proximity to urban population centers.

I’m working on culling the data from the Indian Ministry of Earth Sciences air pollution monitors; check back soon.

Q: What do a broken fuel injector, a helicopter evacuation, a plague of diarrhea, a minor tornado, and Rohtang Pass all have in common?

A: The 2012 Himalayan Health Exchange Kargiakh expedition.

More on all that later, though. We made it through the whole trip relatively intact. The trip was long and productive.

Around 600 people came through the public health and medical camps, with complaints ranging from simple osteoarthritis to worms to primary syphilis (yup!). We were able to sample indoor air quality in six villages across the Zanskar valley - a minor miracle. Remarkably, the levels of pollution during this time of year seem to be a bit lower than expected, though we won’t be able to say anything definitive until we do some more thorough data analysis.

The team arrived post-trek in Manali late on August 24th after a harrowing drive down Rohtang pass. The sky was thick with cotton-gauze fog, sharply contrasted by sticky, dense brown mud smothering the road. Our bus met them both, sliding around corners, sometimes narrowly avoiding steep drops, all the while pummeling through pea soup. The driver performed admirably, exhibiting nerves of steel save occasional bouts of hyperactive profanity. The passengers did alright, as well, though they were clearly many frayed, over-stimulated synapses at the end of the bus ride. Manali is a kitschy oasis of hot showers, beer, and wandering Druids. Our motley crew fits in well and is re-finding their footing among the modern.

We head to Delhi by bus in a few minutes, another long sojourn before we all disperse to our separate homes around the world. It’s been a great trip - and one I look forward to describing more in the coming days.

Humidity, Rain, and Power Losses

Made it to India Sunday night around midnight. Skirted through customs and baggage claim with little incident. Was stopped on the way out by a well-heeled, well-dressed fellow asking what was in my bag (not much outside of clothing and some teflon and quartz filters). Managed to talk my way out of a bag search, and then emerged from the airport into the stifling, 88 degree heat. It was 11:30p. It was 88 degrees… at midnight.

My glasses fogged up, sweat beaded on my forehead, and it finally registered: I was back in the motherland.

A short drive later, I found myself at a family friend’s house in Noida (which has grown, emboldened by status, into a thriving metropolitan suburb of its own). The apartment building (Stellar Kings Court) was well outfitted. I collapsed into a fitful sleep, interrupted by what turned out to be one of the largest power outages India has ever faced.

From the BBC:

An estimated 370 million people — about 60 million more than live in the U.S. — were without power for at least part of today in northern India because of a massive failure in the country’s power grid.

It was “one of the worst blackouts to hit the country in more than a decade,” The Times of India reports. The outage turned the [Monday] commute in New Delhi and other major cities in the north into chaos as trains couldn’t run and traffic signals went dark, correspondent Elliot Hannon tells our Newscast Desk.

Traffic was indeed horrendous, though by the time I made it to the Metro service had resumed and things were progressing normally. India Ink, from the NYT has a nice description of the “chaos” resulting from the power outage:

Power failures are common in India, but officials said Monday’s blackout was the worst in a decade. The Ministry of Power was investigating the cause, but officials suggested that part of the problem was probably excessive demand during the torrid summer. “This is a one-off situation,” said Ajai Nirula, the chief operating officer of North Delhi Power Limited, which distributes power to nearly 1.2 million people in the region. “Everyone was surprised.”

Monday’s blackout could have proved more crippling if not for what might be called India’s unofficial power grid — the tens of thousands of diesel generators and inverters, most privately-owned, that serve as backup power sources during the frequent localized failures. Many hospitals across the region are equipped with backup generators, as are many office buildings and government offices. In New Delhi, many homeowners also have their own private backup.

“The electricity here goes every day, several times a day,” said Sushil Gupta, general manager of Ashok Mahajan Hospital in Amritsar, in Punjab State. “We have installed two large generators. We don’t even know when the power goes and comes. Today was like any other day.”

India’s power supply has been especially tested during this year’s hot, dry summer. Electricity use has skyrocketed, especially in large metropolises like New Delhi, home to more than 16 million people. In recent weeks, with a poor monsoon, New Delhi has set new records for energy demand.

The scale of Monday’s grid failure was enormous. Beginning at 2:30 a.m., the entire state of Rajasthan, with 67 million people, lost power. Power failures also affected the states of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Haryana, as well as the Delhi metropolitan region, which includes the capital, New Delhi. The capital’s seven water treatment plants, which require hundreds of megawatts of power, also temporarily lost power. However, officials said water service was fully restored by early evening.

Update: Power has been lost throughout the North + East of India for a second time. At 1:45pm Tuesday, demand in Delhi peaked at slightly over 4000 MW. Supply was measured at 38 MW.

Speaking in India - Indian English

There was a recent thread at Quora titled, “What are some English phrases and terms commonly heard in India but rarely used elsewhere?” It is really, really priceless.

I find this kind of thing fascinating, and know many of the smarter out there know more about the academic and intellectual underpinnings of adaptation of a language to local culture, circumstance, region. Fascinating, though, how a foreign language, once adopted, grows to become something unique, evolving, unto itself. I can’t help but think that part of the unique change that occurs during this adoption process is just bootstrapping words and phrases — say in Hindi — to an approximate equivalent in English. Throw out some of the confusing conventions that English speakers take for granted, and it can feel you’re speaking two distinct languages.

The quora discussion explores unique vagrancies of the English language in India. A few of my favorite excerpts follow:

That reminds me, I should get my pre-paid converted to post-paid to make sure there is no hassle with roaming. The operator tells me that under the current scheme roaming is free but always the possibility for screwup is there. But the paperwork for updation is too great. Every time wanting same to same KYC. Limited timings, phones always engaged, very much difficult. They trouble you like anything but never answer any of your doubts. Tell me, what is one to do yaar? They are like that only.

I need to prepone some meetings to arrange for the trip so I need to rush due to the same, but not to worry, I will keep you initimated of my progress. Will give you a missed call when I deplane upon returning back.

Indian : Too much stuff in dicky

American : Too much junk in trunk

Gymming: In-house version of ‘Working out’. Have you been gymming lately?

Hope your head is not paining, I didn’t mean to eat your brains. I will offer a translation in a few days. Now it’s time to slow the volume, increase the AC, and off the light because sleep is coming. Kindly to stay in tune.

Paining always gets me. Eating brains evokes the zombie apocalypse.

Everything is lost — and found again — in translation.

Cookstoves & the shadow of the past

There’s been a lot of “controversy” in the development sphere over the value of cookstove projects, stemming largely from one large trial in one country using one (arguably not) improved stove. The abstract nicely sums up their point:

We find no evidence of improvements in lung functioning or health and there is no change in fuel consumption (and presumably greenhouse gas emissions). The difference between the laboratory and this study’s field findings appears to result from households’ revealed low valuation of the stoves. Households failed to use the stoves regularly or appropriately, did not make the necessary investments to maintain them properly, and use ultimately declined further over time. More broadly, this study underscores the need to test environmental and health technologies in real-world settings where behavior may temper impacts, and to test them over a long enough horizon to understand how this behavioral effect evolves over time.

Cheers to JPAL for bringing in researchers from diverse backgrounds to think about and work on household air pollution and cookstoves. The field moves forward when alternative perspectives force us to think in new ways.

The rub, though, is that many of us in the field are acutely aware of the explicit requirement that any intervention be fully vetted with the community before being deployed. This isn’t the first time the development world has been interested in cookstoves; past large-scale interventions have had mixed success in part due to precisely what’s outlined in the article. Fully vetting devices in the community to make sure they are culturally appropriate, usable, clean, and efficient is a known requirement.

There’s always a chance an intervention will still fail, but due diligence dictates prolonged and complete community engagement. Because a product is available on the local market and has claims of “proven” laboratory performance means little. The laboratory provides a first step to grade stoves — but the field is where final decisions should be made. And the value of an ‘improved’ label is heavily diluted - we’re barraged by dozens of these products regularly. We derive value from meaningful, beneficial, and unobtrusive interaction with and use of appliances. Devices that fail to provide those traits fail to be used. This is definitely true here and seemingly true everywhere.

Two fundamental conclusions from the recent brouhaha stand out. First, the astonishing hype surrounding this article fits within the larger patterns we see in the news machine. A single article, statement, or editorial snowballs and catalyzes a lot of discussion (in the popular media for a news cycle, and in academia for an eternity). Not a bad thing in and of itself, but problematic when the media ignores the history of available knowledge and treats the news as something profoundly new and unequivocally true. Second, the coverage helps focus and hone the message of those working in the field — never a bad thing. It reminds us of past learnings and helps light a path forward.

In a blog post from June 18 on National Geographic, Radha Muthiah (the Executive Director of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves) and the authors of the above article write,

This research, and the work of others, suggests that the first goal must be to develop cookstoves that people would actually want to acquire, use, and maintain—in addition to ones that meet clear guidelines and standards for cleanliness, efficiency, and safety. To ensure that scarce development resources are spent wisely, all promising cookstove designs must be tested in real world settings to assess their long-run benefits on health and greenhouse gas emission prior to large scale adoption of clean cookstoves. Moreover, additional research should continue in order to provide greater insight into what types of social marketing can improve the general acceptance of the stoves.

No argument there.

Perfection: Xaver Xylophon's "FOR HIRE! BANGALORE RICKSHAW"

This short animation captures the cadence of local travel in India perfectly. It nails those conflicting sensations of monotony, adventure, and relief.

Green, yellow, black. They are the blood in the veins of Bangalore: the 450,000 rickshaws and their drivers. Knocked together from bits and pieces, decorated, ready for the junk heap or carefully maintained like antique cars, the vehicles are as charismatic as their owners, who brave the monstrous traffic of this metropolis daringly, sleepy, chattering or stoic, making sure the passanger’s trip from A to B will be full of memorable experiences.

Based on days of riding around in rickshaws and drawings made locally, this animation captures the tough workaday life of a rickshaw driver, seen through the eyes of a European visitor.

Result of a one month trip to Bangalore, India as part of the project “The Law of the Market” at the University of Arts Berlin Weißensee, 2011

Postcard 1: Palwal, Haryana, India


Song: From 553 W Elm Street, Logan, Illinois (Snow)

A relaxing, impossible day

what a day. i got the call saying we were working today around 8:00 in the morning; i was up, but was hoping for a lazy, lazy day. alas, non. i got dressed, crammed some cereal down my throat, and split. the bus pulled up two seconds after i got to the stop; it took around 50 minutes to get to the train station. 12 rupees later, i was on the panvel express to khargar, where the YUVA office is located. I got there around 11:30 or so. The traffic this morning wasn't bad; as usual, the trains get super crowded at kurla, where two lines intersect and where the dash to get on the train embodies insanity. it is truly beyond description.

we hung around the office for around two hours, taking care of minor business; i looked over old YUVA annual reports. the reports are well put together; the organization does a lot in a ton of sectors. they are an amazing group of people.

around 1:30, we left the office - I presumed we were heading to k-wada... but I was way off base. We went to visit four of Rajen's activist friends, all of whom are living in a small apartment in Navi Mumbai, working on homeless rights - specifically migrant workers rights. The fellow in charge is bold, inspired, and inspiring. he advocates that the government of mumbai and maharashtra should provide some sort of transient home for the over 250,000 migrant workers officially thought to be homeless in mumbai. the number's most likely a lowball estimate. he's assembled a team of folks who have a variety of backgrounds - education, hunger advocacy, economic theory, social work. they bring a bunch of diverse backgrounds to the table - and have managed to get coverage on major indian news networks. they've caught the ears of politicians and large advocacy groups. change, though, is slow.

we sat around for hours and had a wonderful lunch, enhanced by really engaging conversation about development, about the way development has occurred in india, and about what motivates them in the context of an seemingly endless struggle. for abhishak, the public face of the group, it was simple - he said he was unable to close his eyes to the situation around him, and couldn't understand how others could ignore the obvious plight of so many in india. again, its hard to describe, but it is literally impossible to escape the crushing poverty here - even in the richest parts of bombay, you're never more than a few minutes from oppressive destitution.

development's damn tricky. we talked about the ways india is rapidly modernizing and developing. we discussed why development has been so different in the newly developing countries vs the 'older' developed countries. i always come back to simple arguments - the west forces a mode of development on third world countries that possess significantly different social, political, and religious institutions. develoment plans inherently undermine, undercut, and devalue those institutions in an effort to rapidly industrialize. the individual loses autonomy, loses self in the face of homogenization to improve efficiency, to make the country look developed. the process took hundreds of years to evolve in the west - and it evolved as the society created it, as the society grew into it. in LDCs, the society's not creating anything, change is seemingly being forced from the outside - a panacea embraced by self-aggrandizing politicians and economists. but there's no stopping development, the march of progress, or SAPs where the seeds have already been sown - the trick will be finding ways to maintain or retool successful indigenous institutions with the capabilities to find a footing in a rapidly globalized, developed world. it would be amazing if large business in india - be it state run or private industries, like TATA - could step up to the plate and make significant changes or commitments [be it to the environment, workers' rights, or health] that fostered societal change. amazing, but unlikely. imagine if a large state run energy company took a strong stand for alternative fuels in a country of 1+ billion. or if india's largest auto manufacturer committed to producing electric or hydrogen ice vehicles. it would be a monumental slap in the face to the rest of the world, and would warrant the attention both over-populated nations so crave.

ranting, raving. meeting those four was a true treat. they are so inspiring, work so hard, and manage to keep their wits about them and remain hopeful. i pray i'm lucky enough to continue to meet people like them, wherever i may end up.

after that, rajen and I hopped on a motorbike and took off into the hills of navi mumbai. riding beeyach on the bike with 40 lbs of gear strapped to your back... made me cherish life a bit. slightly scary stuff. navi mumbai is already far less crowded than mumbai; heading into the hills was bizarre. population density vanished. trash vanished. it was beautiful - rolling hills all around; a couple of streams flowing swiftly, meandering through the small mountains; kids playing in the water; some wildlife. we hung around for an hour or so, and then returned to the hustle bustle madness. i hopped on the train back to worli, by way of vadala. it was packed.

at some point, a blind beggar came through the car. he sang as he walked up and down the aisles, using his cane to keep a simple beat. his voice and song were beautiful, a lilting dirge that made it seem as though all he had lost in vision was made up 100 fold in voice. and, for once, i wasn't the only one to notice - much of the car fell silent as he sang. some respect, at least, for another one of india's surprising miracles.

the day ended like so many others... i took the wrong bus home. :)

Blorgh!

Hell's bells, its been like ten trillion days since i've written. Since then, much has come to light, many things have gone down, blah blah.

Monitoring

The work has been extremely, insanely challenging. The rains subsided earlier this week; the heat rolled back in, the sun beaming down irately in a vain attempt to sunburn the 16 million melanin-enhanced residents of Mumbai.

It's been hot. Haydes fire and brimstone hot. Anyway, given the fortuitous change in weather, we decided to sample like mad. Since Tuesday, we've sampled 11 homes and run all the blanks - somewhere around 48 or 49 samples total. Remarkably, there have been no real mechanical problems - one pump went nuts, one family disconnected the monitor, but nothing too insane. A typical day of sampling kicks off around 7:30 or 8:00, when I hump 50 pounds of equipment over to the bus stand and wait for Magic Bus 85, which whisks me away to Sion Hospital. After a short walk to the slum, the work begins in earnest. We identify two homes, get consent, and set up the monitors for a four hour run in the morning.

Potters are on a schedule that lends itself to monitoring - they prepare pots in the morning, let them sit in the sun during the day, and kick off the firing process around 3. We monitor both inside and outside homes in the mornings from 9:30-1:30, before the kilns begin. Then, i swap out monitors and we monitor inside and outside again, while the kilns are running.

Two days ago, I encountered hands down the worst air quality i've ever witnessed. You could see/feel the pollution three blocks away; in the slum itself it was nearly impossible to get around due to the smoke. Imagine taking hot peppers, sprinkling them with acid, mashing them up, and then pouring them on your eyes; forget about breathing; plan on showering asap - the fires burn hot and dirty. The last home i visited was a disaster - when i stepped inside, i almost doubled over from the smoke; they had shut the doors and windows in attempt to keep the smoke out, but instead were preventing any air circulation. Smoke crept in through cracked windows, gaps in the doors, poor roofs. The indoor air was like pudding. Bad, burning, caustic, smoke pudding. The two matriarchs were just kickin' it in the kitchen; one little fellow who's been tagging along/helping out took one step inside the place and had the good sense to get the hell out of there. The air inside was a thousand times worse than the air outside, surprisingly. To make things more trying, the temperature inside was easily fifteen to twelve million degrees higher than outside. I'm doing no justice to the situation - it is awful. Its a miracle the children can breathe at all; many have a perpetual hacking cough and runny nose. Today, two of the older chaps involved in the co-op talked openly about a number of folks in the community with cancer.

How did Dharavi come to be?

As a result of becoming more familiar [or numb, take your pick] to my surroundings, i've been getting curious. How did Dharavi, sandwiched between moderately high income parts of town, arise? And, perhaps more significantly, what allows it to keep sitting there? My first, instinctual answer to the latter question revolves around simple economics – the place churns out goods sold throughout Mumbai and India. It is economically self-sustaining; like in other places throughout India, the division of labor is phenomenal. Everyone has a job and pays some fee for people to do nominal things for them. A tremendous number of the goods produced cheaply in Dharavi – including textiles, leather, pottery, the like – are exported to other regions of India for sale. The economic impetus for keeping the people there is present – especially when, by vacant land tenant law, the government does not have to officially recognize or support squatters with infrastructure. There's an open window for folks to be booted from the land at any point.

History tells an interesting story of Dharavi. Originally, as far back as 1909, it was one of the great koliwadas of Mumbai – a great fishing village, flanked on one side by a bustling creek that fed into the Arabian sea. British reclamation efforts dammed up the creek, redirecting it prior to simply eliminating it - spelling the end of the thriving fishing community. The area fell into extreme poverty and slowly grew into the modern day slum of Dharavi.

That's it - that's all i've been able to glean from reading and research. There are some folks in the slum - two elderly couples in particular - who have been there for 40 or 50 years. I plan on picking their brains once the monitoring is finished.

Bedtime. more to relate later on: women's group meetings; kids, cricket, and caram boards; politics; video scheme; supplies for the school.

Yesterdays

rewind -----> all aboard the shrimp train

i was slow catching my train, so i quickly scurried into a very small compartment - reserved, much to my surprise, for fish vendors carting their wares about the peninsula. (fantastic! perhaps I can acquire food for the evening.) the car smelled like one would imagine- pungent and brackish; raw shrimpy goodness. positive i was on my way to hurl city, i flung myself out of the train at the next stop [okay, flung is too strong... hopped daintily out of the "shrimp car"] and jumped into the next open car.

big, big mistake.

the only analogy i can think of is the floor at philips when we saw NIN... a number of sweaty folks, except this time crammed into a thin, barely lit tin can. all pushing. to make things more fun, the people waiting at the next stop fight and throw arms and generally take a running dive into the train. picture: flickering lights; a gaggle of limbs, flailing about; a small american-indian, grappling for air complete with pained look upon face; hundreds of people, rushing the car, as though the one true answer to the mystery of life, sex, wealth, happiness, and samosa resides in the cubic centimeter of space between resident indians 1 through 4 and non-resident alien me. i'm not claustrophobic, but at one point i was crammed between one dude's armpit and another's fella's back and pinned to the wall and seriously thought i was going to flip out, yo. i had to close my eyes and just sort of wish myself outta existence for a little while. Two sweaty armpits and their associated staaaank whisked me violently back into reality.

The shrimpies were a far more tempting fate.

fast forward -----> Tanneries, Textiles, & Domestic Violence

Yesterday scared me. Anil, Rajan, & I went to the slum to collect B footage and interview some children, women, and a few other folks for YUVA's documentary. The interviews were smashing; one elderly gentleman in particular, who has been making pottery for over 25+ years, remarked intelligently on the strong need for change in the community and the excellence of the gas-powered kiln. He spoke about his breathing and heart trouble, and how they seemed to be worse with the smoke; he spoke on his children, who have found other work; and he spoke on the way the gas kilns fired pots, how some of them broke but no more than when firing with the traditional kilns. He recognized the resistance in the community to change, but felt it necessary, inevitable. It was refreshing to hear an elder statesman speak positively of change, to be in favor of change. Similarly, the B-roll footage of the kids and the women's group went well. The kids adore "shooting" [as the filming is called] and stuck around until we had to chase them off.

The early chunk of the day was similar to others - fun yet not central to my work. The later part of the day involved shooting in other regions of Dharavi for the introduction to the video - this portion was insane. The areas with tanneries and other small to medium-sized enterprises were unlike the potters' colony; they were cramped, without the wide lanes to accomodate bhatti; sewage and trash were rife; naked children, beggars, flea-laden dogs. small pathways careening through makeshift housing alongside informal, open sewage ditches. overwhelming and intense.

i started looking for something less... caustic. a group of children with a litter of kittens. three men, pushing a wheel chair-bound companion through muddy, muddy alleyways, all of them laughing hysterically as they slide around. a beaming mother, looking down on her elder daughter of 5 or 6 holding her newborn brother, who is cooing and gurgling loudly. i felt and still feel remarkably out of place. i have no right to be there, invading, internalizing.

the industries themselves make the sweatshops of NBC and Baraka look tame. Groups of between five and ten workers of ages ranging from 7-80 are crammed in a reasonably large, unventilated room with one wide opening. they're all working; the eldest gent, 100000 years old, hums out a familiar hindi tune along with the radio whispering in the background; its hot, but sweating here is a way of life. Perhaps most striking are the products they are working on - one shop worked on plastic containers found around blankets and comforters; another worked on fabric, pressing it and printing it; and the tanneries worked hides. the tanneries were an environmental disaster. chromium was everywhere, green and blue, frothing, mixed with god knows what else. hide was everywhere. the place smelled of death, fixatives, and mold. across a major road, leather wholesalers abound. no regulation binds action here, and concern for the environment comes second to scraping by.

india doesn't allow visitors to focus on just the attractions or remain in fun, comfortable places. for better or worse, the beautiful stuff plays footsy with the devestating stuff on every street corner, at every tourist attraction, around every corner. difficult.

step forward -----> Thunder Lightening Strike!

"Very heavy rains expected in Mumbai in the next 48 hours. Thank you and have a safe monsoon."

The rains have begun. For those of you who've lived in Louisiana, think storm season times ten. The streets in Dharavi flooded in minutes, and the rains didn't let up for over an hour. They began anew two hours later, twice as intense.

Slums + Development

K-wada is a small chunk of Dharavi, Asia's largest slum that hosts 1 million people of varying religious and ethnic backgrounds. Dharavi sprawls in all directions - upwards for two or three stories, and out and out and out. K-wada's an interesting part of Dharavi. It's the region's largest pottery colony, home to some 1200 families. Around 600 of those families earn meager wages as amazing artisanal potters. The pots are stunning, but more amazing is watching the community at work - some work the clay, preparing it for the potters; other prepare the kilns; other still glaze the pots. The final products vary - some serve a strictly utilitarian purpose; some decorative; the majority find a niche between utility and decoration. The functioning, organized, delineated process of the operation is striking, contrasting sharply with larger Indian inefficiency.

Development is a tricky concept to grasp at home. It is even more convoluted in India, a country in the throes of modernization, industrialization, commercialization - all the "-tion" buzzwords affiliated with development. We went to the slum on Saturday to hold a drawing competition with around 30 of the children and to give the cooperative members their pictures, which I had taken the day before. The cooperative members were sincerely grateful and enjoyed the 7 or 8 basic portraits I had taken, which came out well. The lighting was awful, so some improvisation was required, but they were adequate. Anyway, at one point around 40 kids burst into a tiny office, surrounding a small desktop computer so they could see digital photos from a trip they had taken to the park. Technology be damned and all that, but the kids' reaction to the computer, to the images, was priceless - the excitement, energy, and enthusiasm was palpable and contagious. There's this side of modernizing - the amazing trickle of technology to societies who otherwise don't have access to it. The people in k-wada aren't marginalized by large MNCs, by the national government, or by any of the usual suspects - instead, repression comes from history; from an archaic, outdated caste system that, while buckling under pressure, manages to maintain a firm, vice-like grip on Indian society. Mobility outside of your designated lot in life isn't a reality, it's a pipe-dream. It seems impossible. Yet watching those kids - a few in particular - one gets the impression that things will change, that they have to change, that they are changing. The kids speak broken English, while their parents speak none. The kids read and write, few of their elder's do. Many of the teenagers volunteer at the school as tutors, mentors, as little leaders - of their own volition, sometimes to the chagrin of their parents. They kids seem to yearn for something else. The parents, like parents everywhere, boast and show-off scores from their chillun that ARE as good as students from more prosperous areas. The ability is there - it always is, always, in every single person - but will the society let it flourish? And then, the flipside of all this, the loss of cultural customs to developmental homogenization. To the desire to escape the current lifestyle. Lays potato chips next to homebrew masala-laden hot mix. Plastic containers in place of hand-made earthenware. High capacity housing in place of sprawling slums. I'm in no place to judge that escapist desire. But, for the first time, I'm not sure where I stand with regards to development. There is life here that doesn't exist elsewhere, energy and vitality and an approach to living that world is rapidly losing... but the need to ramp up production, the desire to create more product for as little money as possible, the pressure of modernization has lead to tremendous difficulty in continuing to actively pursue pottery in a sustainable fashion. The current kilns simply are not sustainable - from an environmental perspective, an economic perspective, and a political perspective. The sheer volume and thickness of smoke created EVERYDAY when the kilns are run is extraordinary. Sometime last week, I watched one elderly gent get caught between two kilns that were firing pottery and take a hacking deep breath - and then cough up blood and pass out. All hell broke loose, as children tried to move this fellow five times their size. Everyone mobilized to help him, and after a few minutes he regained consciousness. Then, the kids return to running around the kilns, playing cricket, chasing each other - blissfully ignorant of the poop they're breathing in. Elders look on, relatively unconcerned. This is how its been, and how it will be. This is their lot in life. Long live tradition, but foofaa that.

Traveling and Arrival, Recounted

these are ancient posts. only edits are to correct my potty-mouthed tendencies

Around 10 days ago, I threw comfort to the wind and left for Mumbai. Those last few days, I surprisingly found myself unprepared for departure. I was aware of how wonderful my friends were before leaving, but now I'm keenly, acutely aware of it. All the time. I miss you all more than I can describe.

I've never been to Mumbai, never imagined Mumbai, never conceptualized all that Mumbai is/could be/may be. On paper, I knew some facts - 16 million people, a city built by "reclaiming land from the sea", Bollywood, bhangra, clubs. Beaches.

16 million people - an unimaginable number, as though one person for every grain of sand on the beach. Then, in the larger context, 16 million is nothing... 16,000,000 out of over 1,000,000,000 in India. A glass of water against the oceans. 1+ billion people. Unfathomable.

Flights are flights, and I'll leave out most of the details of the prodigiously long flight from Atlanta to Mumbai via Amsterdam. Suffice to say, the flights were packed [though my concept of packed people moving has since changed]. I had brief conversations with a fellow from Cameroon, which was interesting; and even more interesting, I found myself sitting next to a fellow who works for the same company as Meg's dad. Small world.

The flight arrived on time, miraculously. The terminal at the international airport in Mumbai smelled ancient, like my old high school - lingering odors of mold, flopsweat, dust, saltwater. It felt creaky, rickety. I rushed myself through the airport to baggage claim, attempting to reassure myself that collecting my baggage and making it through customs would be a cinch.

Alas, non.

But, before I get ahead of myself, let me describe Indian baggage claim. The carousel snakes around a large, rectangular room, curving and swirling about senselessly, as though to maximize inefficiency. Indians coming home from abroad tend to return with copious excess baggage, often beyond the designated limit of 2 pieces per person - for example, the family of four that was standing to my right had 8 checked bags, probably each in excess of the weight limit, and 8 carry-on pieces. Never mind the fact that one family member is probably 4 and another is still in swaddling clothes. Seriously, no big deal.

I digress. The horn sounds, and the baggage starts coming through the very small entry point. Not single file, not piece by piece, but instead bags stacked haphazardly atop bags - a house of cards, a pyramid shaped flea market of oddly colored, oddly named suitcases, boxes, duffle bags, strollers, televisions, rice cookers, air quality monitors - you name, veeee have it. Every fifth piece gets caught in the entry door. Ever other piece has some strap that gets caught in the conveyor belt, resulting in literally dozens of large pieces of luggage crashing to the floor. This being India... the luggage just sits there, as though eventually - at some point - it will gain sentience, realize its mistake, and hop back onto the belt. Or, more likely, someone else will come by and take care of it. Small children sit on the fallen luggage, play amongst it, and then try to move it. Occasionally, they succeed. More often, they become trapped by it, and start screaming. Loudly.

My bags were two of the last ones off the plane, but they arrived intact, a blessing. Blessing be cursed; customs was a nightmare. After reclaiming bags in India, one is presented with two options - the "Green Channel" and the "Red Channel" for customs. The green channel facilitates rapid movement for residents and non-residents who have nothing of consequence they are importing; the red channel is for folks who need to make some sort of declaration. I hustled over to the queue for the green channel, but was instantly spotted. A large customs official - dressed from head to toe in spotless, pressed, pristine white - heralded me with great fanfare to the red channel, where not one, not two, but three magical customs officials awaited me. At this point, my pulse quickened to a breakneck pace, my pores began springing sweat like a geyser, and my brain turned into a smoldering lump of coal.

My bags contain around 10,000 USD worth of equipment, three-quarters of which belongs to Harvard and the remainder of which belongs to Emory. Every piece is essential to the study. And so the conversation begins...

Hello, bya, bags ma kya ha?(Hello, brother - what's in the bags?)

Well, in this one, camping gear. I'm going to Ladakh in August. Clothing, personal medicine - normal travel stuff.

And in this one?

More camping gear, some electronics.

Electronics? Quickly, bring them here (points to X-ray machine, bags go on x-ray machine. Man makes rapid clicking sound with mouth, Indian for, nonononono.)

What is all of this?

Long, drawn out explanation. Volunteer in slums, air quality monitoring, student, equipment all goes back to US.

... ... ... ... ... ... How much USD do you have?

350.

Duties for this equipment are $400

(oh, of course they are, since I only have 350. Foofaa, to be honest, I don't really have 350. I bought coffee and a sandwich at the airport. What if he takes all my money? Then what? Bribery! Must... bribe...customs fellow. What if he's honest? Jackass, slap yourself later, he's not honest. Figure out a way to bribe him. 100 bucks is like 4600 rupees. One month's pay. Foofaaing piece of poo assholes. Foofaa Foofaa Foofaa Foofaa.)

I don't have 400, and all of the equipment is coming back with me - it is NOT staying in India.

Give me 50 USD.

Wha...Excuse me? (I mean, yeah, I had contemplated 100, but the reality is so much more severe and... poop.)

He now calls two guys with big guns, who usher me to a back room. They speak to each other in Tamil or Maruthi, which I cannot understand; we go over to a wall with a one-way viewing mirror. Extending from the wall is around 2 feet of table, like a bar; they make me exchange the money literally under the table. I find this final flourish both inexorably cruel and hideously, ridiculously amusing. Finally, after between two and three hours, I'm outside of the airport, passport and equipment in hand. It's a bit after 1 am.

Harpreet & Niladri (Batman & Robin, The Justice League, Fantastic Two, Turner & Hooch, JD & Turk) come to my rescue. I get a prepaid cab, we stop at a restaurant, and we head into Mumbai. Despite it being 1 am, its still extremely hot out - the sort of heat that sticks to you like flypaper. 1000% humidity. Supersaturated air. You exhale here, it rains somewhere.

Finally, we're at the apartment; its beautiful. Running water, two beds, plenty of space. Constant electricity. A foofaaing television! Pots pans silverware cleaning supplies. Unbelievable. I owe these two chaps my life.

Sleep that night consisted of lying awake, wide-eyed, wishing for a beer and friends.

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