Man-made Air-conditioning and Man-made Heating – Two Climates of Bangalore

In Bengaluru, 500 years ago, there was a drive to change the climate to a cooler one. And an intense drive to heat it today exists. Man can create local weather and it depends on the society’s values and the economic system it adopts as to which gets created.

Note: Bangalore and Bengaluru are the two names for the same city, and Kempe Gauda and Kempegowda are two ways to spell the name of it’s founder. They are used to delineate eras in this essay.

The rocky plateau of Bengaluru was originally a combination of grassland and scrub and thorn forest, with small trees. WIthout a historical record of the original climate, we can conjecture that is was warm and dry, similar to Kolar and Chikballapur districts nearby, possibly receiving only about 300-400mm of rain, with the temperatures somewhere in the low-thirties.

In recorded history, two different climates were created in Bengaluru, by man.

Bengaluru’s first man-made climate change

In 1537, Kempe Gauda I started to work on his dream – a new fortified city. A regular dream – ambitious ruling class members always dream of expanding territory, erecting victory towers, building a walled city by a river or port. But Kempe Gauda’s vision was difficult: to build a city where nothing existed. Nothing. No rivers, no tropical forest, no resources. To achieve his dream he had to first create all the resources the city would need.

Lakes as the foundation

Bengaluru is the only city in the world that does not have a river feeding it. A city cannot exist without water and Kempe Gauda started on his vision by creating a supply of water, a perennial supply, where only a couple rainfed tanks existed.

Kempe Gauda and successors continued to build on his vision, hundreds of more tanks were built and the an incredible network of kaluves (canals) was built to connect them all. The lakes of Bengaluru have always attracted attention, but it is the kaluves that make them work. Over a thousand kilometers of these lake-connectors ensured that not a drop of rain left Bengaluru’s three valleys until all tanks were filled. Work on this design followed for generations of rulers; the Wodeyars in the last century continued to build kaluves and tanks and a couple of lakes were even added by influential citizens and farming communities. It was India’s famous tank culture on steroids.

A water culture was created. Everyone knows water is life, but to conserve and protect it became Bengaluru’s religion. For centuries the lakes remained pure and one could drink from them because nobody would let any waste enter the lake system.

But the problem shifted from water storage to water itself – there was not enough rain to satiate a growing population.

The world’s first air-conditioned city

How can we attract rain? We see how extraordinary Kempe Gauda’s vision was because of its results. He and his successors knew that if Bengaluru grew a forest, it would rain.

And so a major investment into tree planting was made. It was also an activity that continued for centuries. As the forest grew, it breath became bigger and started influencing the climate. The water released from the trees as transpiration and from the lakes as evaporation formed low-lying clouds and then came down as gentle showers.

The temperature dropped. Bengaluru became the coolest city in the south and later the coolest in the summer across India.

This attracted more rain from the monsoons that earlier would pass by without interest. Now the monsoon clouds, lightened after crossing the western ghats, dipped lower due to the cooler climate and shed some more of their weight – rainfall more than doubled.

The world’s first fully air-conditioned city was born. It is said that in 1835, Bangalore had temperatures of 14-16°C at peak summer time. This AC needed no energy and was almost zero maintenance.

The problem of water scarcity was solved. The Vrishabhāvati river – that carried excess rainwater off the rocky plateau started flowing out of the city perenially. Other side-effect such as the creation of a rich layer of topsoil that remained moist and a high water table also created lasting benefits in food security and livelihoods.

Economics for cooling – Kempenomics

Economics is a social creation. In this article, we will refer the economic system used in South India five centuries ago as kempenomics and today’s system as smithanomics, just for the sake of this article.

In kempenomics, there was no GDP number to grow, no single number to worship. Thus, kempenomics did not reduce other sacred beliefs, it retained and strengthened the religious beliefs. Land, water – all of nature – had social and spiritual value and connections with them were not broken. Rather relationships with them were nurtured and even revered. A culture that involved sacred relationships with water (all rivers were named after goddesses) and actively demanded conservation could flourish. The commons and the common good had status in kempenomics, and improving both, created value.

A most attractive city (with limits)

The salubrious climate of Bengaluru attracted many rulers and it was exchanged several times. In 1806, the British made it their military cantonment – a city-state inside the expanding boundaries. It attracted many Europeans, Anglo-Indians and missionaries.

The sacred water culture gave way to an engineered water culture. Traditional tanks gave way to soup bowl style tanks to store more water to satisfy rising demand. A demand fueled by a growing population and a new lifestyle of consumption.

Water was brought from new reservoirs farther and farther away as electricity and motors made their way into the planner’s hands.

In as early as 1923, planners documented that: “[Bangalore] is unsuitable for development as an industrial center on a large scale.

When the British left, the city still continued to grow, especially in scientific research and aeronautics. While Bangalore’s reputation as the Garden City remained intact, sustainability indicators started moving off the charts and some foresaw water issues.

Bangalore’s second man-made climate change

While the first man-made climate change is an opinion, the second is fact. Experienced palpably by all the residents. In the 1960’s Bengaluru started getting transformed. Ironically, it was the reverse transformation of Singapore. Singapore recognized its cesspool conditions and started cleaning up and creating lakes for water security. Bengaluru’s lakes were destroyed and the remaining ones converted to sewage-fed cesspools.

The great transformation took off with the complete adoption of smithanomics in the 1990’s. It was to transform this cool city back to a warm dry place and, even beyond, into a hothouse.

‘Calakes’ – the new lakes of Bangalore

To warm up a cool city takes a lot of heat. How do you generate massive amounts of heat?

Bengaluru had two big coolers – trees and lakes.

The groves of trees, hundreds of years old, with trunks as wide as cars were axed. In smithanomics, the value of a living tree is zero, but the activity of cutting down trees and the resources from their chopped-up state both add measurable increase to the economy. With such a system, it is easy to build momentum and about 85% of the vegetation was lost between 1992-2009 as per a study by Dr. T V Ramachandra and Dr. Bharath H Aithal from Indian Institute of Science (IISc).

bangalore loss of green cover
Bangalore’s loss of green cover – a red signal?

Cutting trees, that slow down rainwater flow and create moisture both in the root zone and in the air above, is not enough, you have to replace them with heaters. Thousands of ‘calakes’ – concrete and asphalt lakes (which include roads, parking lots, malls, and office complexes) come into being at faster and faster rates.

Trees use solar energy to produce oxygen, moisture, and fruits while providing shade and soil and slowing down the rain. In contrast, the ‘calakes’ use solar energy to only produce heat, perfectly and efficiently. They heat up quickly, stay warm, and release the heat later, both into the ground and the air.

The remaining stump of a massive tree which would have cooled the building, parking lot, road, and cars.

Flyovers take this heat generation to new levels of efficiency. A flyover basks in the sun, is dark in color, and thus can easily become hot enough to cook on.

Lakes of water keep the ground and air cool and moist. So we replace water bodies with ‘calakes’ too. While it is not possible to own lakes privately in India, by exasperating the normal dry cycles of Bangalore’s lake system allowed them to look like unoccupied and unsold land. The conversion (destruction) of lakes created much financial activity for builders, bureaucrats, politicians, and banks. And consumers and investors flocked in to own homes (and offices). In addition, since a quality water supply became absent, tankers and household filters become prominent. Amazing progress when calculated in smithanomics terms.

Kempe Gauda remains Bangalore’s hero; his name is kept alive even in creations that dismantle his vision. Bangalore’s largest heater, close to Kempe Gauda’s village, is named after him. Larger than all the remaining lakes of Bangalore combined, this ‘calake’ is well over 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres) in size, much more if you consider the elevated highway to get to it. It is the Kempegowda International Airport.

Heating appliances galore

The second source of heating comes from all our appliances. Cars, trucks, diesel gensets (DGs), refrigerators, outdoor lights, and other big items of course generate the most heat. But millions of smaller appliances such as set-top boxes, microwaves, … all the way down to chargers also end up contributing to local heating.

The laws of thermodynamics inform us that all appliances that use the transformation of energy will generate more heat than the actual work performed. So refrigerators generate around four times as much heat as they cool.

We love our cars, which are truly efficient heaters. Modern gasoline engines have a maximum theoretical efficiency of about 25% to 30%. In other words, even when the engine is operating at maximum efficiency (which requires beautiful design, quality construction, good lubrication, and steady operation at high speeds), about 70-75% is sent out as heat – energy not used for turning the crankshaft (note there is further energy loss in turning tires, which also need to be properly inflated, balanced, aligned, etc.). In Bangalore traffic, only a couple of percent of the fuel burnt in the engine goes towards transportation. Heating efficiency is more than 90%. More if the car has an AC.

The particulates in the emissions also impact climate. They coat the leaves of the remaining trees reducing their vital functions. Haze also retains heat compared to clean air.

Air-conditioners have to be highlighted for two reasons. They are the most efficient heating appliances made – well over 90% of energy goes towards heat. For every unit of personal cooling created, around 99 units of heat are sent outside. One way to state is that for very short-term cooling 1% of the population, 99% (actually 100% in the long-term) have to warm up. ACs are also the main reason why state power generation cannot keep up with demand and thus DGs are required: efficient heaters plus airborne particle generators.

Economics for heating – Smithanomics

The head of Harvard’s Anthropology department, David Maybury-Lewis, eloquently stated: “The driven economy is accompanied by a restless and driven society. The educational system teaches children to be competitive and tries to instill in them the hunger for personal achievement. Drive is esteemed and required of business executives and even anthropologists if they want to be promoted.” Smithanomics makes countries measure their economy by a single indicator of increasing financial activity. Personal wealth is made the goal for individuals with the means of acquiring the wealth as unimportant. This breaks all links to religious beliefs and the sacred. Unbridled drive (greed) with no limits is unleashed as the necessary driving force of society.

In smithanomics, personal consumption (strongly linked to and confused with the term ‘personal freedom’) drives the economy, so creating more devices for individual is highly valued. In addition to being touted as a solution to commuting problems, private cars have high status. If the side-effects, in heat or pollution, are bad, it actually increases the economy, for example, as more people install personal ACs and start using air filters.

Since the focus is to sell more appliances and, as a result, even more energy will be consumed, our make-in-India heating effect will only increase. New technology like led lights, solar panels, and lithium batteries promise more efficiency but in a smithanomics system of perpetual growth, they can only marginally slow down further heating – they cannot reverse the trend.

A public AC, especially a free one such as old Bengaluru’s, would not generate enough economic activity and would be labelled backward, as many of our historically sound personal and social practices.

Man is seen as a one-dimensional being – homo economicus – and as Maybury-Lewis continued: “Other human capabilities – for kindness, generosity, patience, tolerance, cooperation, compassion – all the qualities one might wish for in one’s family and friends, are literally undervalued.”

The Oven City

Bangalore not only becomes hot, it also becomes dry.

With the removal of cooling lakes and trees and replacing them with highly efficient large heaters – the ‘calakes’ – and the addition of billions of smaller heaters, a towering pillar of heat emanates from the new city. This ferocious pillar pushes monsoon clouds higher and to the side. So rainfall events start getting reduced.

The monsoon is still mighty. Once in a while it will overpower the pillar of heat and heavy clouds will descend. And it will rain heavily. Intensely. Precipitation that took hours can happen in minutes.

Instead of regular gentle showers we will see a few of these heavy downpours resulting in floods and very little capture into the little left of Kempe Gauda’s system.

Now Bangalore is hot and dry and extremely dusty. We have transformed the Garden City into the Oven City. Rapidly. The first climate transformation for Bengaluru started took at least three centuries; the second transformation for Bangalore took only a few decades.

Entirely man-made. Local make-in-Bangalore, no credit to be given to global warming.

We don’t have a visionary for this new Bangalore to give credit to. To work on the common good is being socialist. To work on improving the commons is for NGOs. So current leaders will hesitate in taking credit in these areas. Of course, while it is said that destroying the commons is the price of economic progress, no leader wants that deed on their record.

What’s next for Bangalore?

Current leaders want it to become a ‘smart city’. That might mean having lots more sensors to track temperature and then visualize the heat on smartphones (a smart oven!). Great for the smithanomics fans; for the majority of humans, it boiling in a cooker.

In cooking, the flame is hot instantly, but a pot of water takes a while to boil. Similarly, while we turned on heaters in Bangalore a couple of decades ago, climate change took a bit of time. That lag is over. Bangalore’s climate in 2016 has reached the boiling point. Breaking all its records and showing higher temperatures in April than Chennai, Goa, and Mumbai.

The residents complain helplessly as they see the future snatched out of the present. It is not nostalgia that makes people lament the transformation of the places they call home. It is the conversion of life-affirming visionary cities to something with skin-deep beauty that does not support life. The replacement of a cool home surrounded by lakes with fish and trees with birds and inhabited by a connected community that reveres the space with a hot concrete structure in a cesspool filled with plastic waste and sewage, engulfed by sooty air inhabited by burnt-out, worried, isolated people is bound to make everyone unhappy and angry.

The same fate awaits every Indian city. Even if it has a river going thru it.

he folks building the new capital of Andhra Pradesh are visionaries, but of which kind is the question. Riding on the momentum of smithanomics and led by foreign consultants, they are unlikely to see Kempe Gauda as their role model. The result there is likely to be the same as the new Bangalore.

Heat pollution ranks far behind all the other pollutions in people’s eyes, until now. In 2016, it has made a noticeable impact, whether it is enough to act on is the question.

There is a movement in Bangalore to stop further destruction of the few remaining lakes and last few meters of kaluves. But there is no movement to reduce the total heat generated. To actually increase cooling. In kempenomics, we would follow Will Rogers’ advice: “If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.” In smithanomics, that would be against the system and labelled anti-progress. Instead we dig faster. Maybe we can reach 45℃ in 2017. Why not try to win the gold in the climate change olympics with 50℃?

Of course, we could always choose to move to a new economic system, kempenomics or another modern avatar, where people and nature matter, under which we could create a city with a pleasant and cool climate for the benefit of all.

– Rajesh works on sustainability: physical, social, and spiritual. He actually did study climate change in college.

Two Truths That Are Obstacles To Development

Two Truths in the Development Sector

Two ideas are generally regarded as true in the social sector. Both inspire people to enter the sector and find a mission — a dream to serve.

1. Any Impact Is Fulfilling

The first truth is about the importance of creating even a small impact.

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain.
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.

– Emily Dickinson –

Most people have read the above quote or one similar to it and deeply resonate with it. Humans do like to help others and such reminders bring out our inner calling to serve.

I realize that for some the motivation can be, as Peter Buffet states, “conscience laundering”, but we have to acknowledge that many who do not make big money do contribute in small ways, not for tax loopholes, but from a genuine desire to help.

Like all truths, this has a dark side. In our rat-race we lack time to listen, to understand, and help in the true context of the needy, much less to understand systemic issues and address them. So we are often satisfied with a donation and a feel-good photo in return; even the suggestion of an impact is enough.

2. Big Dreams Are More Important

The second truth people generally accept is regarding the size of the dream. If a person has a dream to impact one child, it is nice. Someone else who wants to impact a school has a better dream. The dream of someone who wants to improve a village is even better. Clearly, folks working at a national level deserve more support for their bigger dream and people working globally are considered incredible dreamers and more important. With pressing global problems of climate change, water, health, war, etc staring us in the face, we do need ‘big’ dreamers.

The title of Peter Buffet’s essay — The Charitable-Industrial Complex — gives us a hint about the dark side of this truth. The ‘industrial’ influence on our thinking,  steers us towards bigger projects, standardizable solutions that mention scalability and replicability. And it is dreams that mobilize resources, not actual impact or root-cause analysis.


The Truths Are Obstacles To Achieve Impact

While both these truths stand tall individually, together they have caused a system-wide failure. As described above, they do have drawbacks, and their combination amplifies their dark side and drives individuals, institutions, and society to expend vast resources without accountability, without results.

1. Small Dreams Have To Act Big

We obviously steer more attention and resources towards the big dreams. Small projects do not need big resources. Often they do not get any resources, since small projects do not have the visibility and require the similar attention as large projects. So people seeking resources for smaller, local efforts pitch bigger dreams. This is a mistake, especially when the pitches are ‘successful’. Large resources for the small dream (originally) ends up causing a loss of the passion and efficiency of efforts designed to impact at a small-scale.

For example, a person may have a great idea to help a local school thru a series of activities. To raise resources, they may be forced to pitch the applicability of this process to a thousand schools. The factors for achieving success at the original school might be: passion, local presence, and long-term commitment. These human factors are made less prominent, since those qualities are hard to scale and replicate — what is made explicit is the set of activities. The person may be good at working directly on the ground. They may not be have the same result by hiring managers and overseeing them at far-away schools. So if they do manage to get resources for many schools they are not likely to replicate the results of the original school.

However, the results of the original school will be showcased. The lack of success in scaling, replicating will not be part of the learnings shared.

2. Big Dreams Don’t Have To Deliver

When large resources are steered towards big dreams, another problem can result. Thanks to the first truth, if someone has a big dream, they also have a big escape door. They can exit without providing results in relation to the resources expended.

We are the world by Michael Jackson and his peers in the music world started a major movement of giving towards the poor. Decades later, others including Bono have picked up the mantle of generating resources. However, the results do not match the size of the resources consumed, and due to the fact that some good has been achieved, we do not question the entire activity. By not considering the outcome as a failure in not matching the original plan, we do not seek to learn from the entire process.

Another example: someone has a dream of helping 200 million get safe drinking water, and they manage to raise large resources for their big dream. If they do not reach their goal, they still have a way to look successful. If instead of helping 200 million, lets say that they manage to reach 50,000 people, they can take refuge in that achievement.  This is the problem. Instead of treating the result — not living up to the proportion of the large resources expended — as a failure, we celebrate the small success in itself. This means we loose a chance to examine what went wrong, to learn, to adapt, and try again.


How Can We Achieve Impact?

We need to close loopholes that exists in the current combination of the two truths.

1. Dreams Are Almost Equal

A dream of helping one village is not much smaller than a dream to work in 5,000 villages. Both are equally valid and resources should be allocated based on their approach and plan, especially to share results and learnings.

‘Small’ dreamers need to get the resources to do their work without posing as ‘big’. Whether they succeed or fail, their efforts can also result in learnings and inspiration for other dreamers.

So our challenge is to find ways to support small dreams. Today’s networking and mobile technologies, peer processes, and crowdsourcing options allow us to share small dreams, get support for them, and showcase outcomes.

2. Outcomes Analyzed In Relation To Original Dream

We need to measure results against the original plan. If someone has a dream of helping 200 million people and gets appropriate resources, then a result of 50,000 is definitely a failure. Labeling this type of effort as a failure is not denying that the 50,000 did not benefit or that 50,000 is a small number. It is a statement of measuring the outcome based on the initial plan, the resources applied, and adapting to challenges that surface along the way. Labeling an effort as a failure is the only way to study it and document what went wrong. It will more likely help the next dreamer since it is almost impossible to learn from ‘success’.

‘Big’ dreamers have to show plans that are up to the scale of achieving those dreams. They cannot rely on the status quo or scaling by simple mathematics. And if they fail, they cannot seek refuge in small outcomes, they have to create learning for other dreamers.


Today, our society has become cynical and apathetic, violent and draining. We do not act on the root causes of many issues. We need dreamers more than ever. We need new dreams to mobilize society, we need actionable dreams. We need to act on large and small dreams, and learn and share, increasing the chances of some dreams being successful.


Rajesh dreams about a sustainable society and has created a new model of giving — Philanthropy 2.0 — which increases collaboration, transparency, and effectiveness.

Our Country Is Being Invaded — Will We Fight Back?

National Security or Scientific Research?

Imagine if India was being invaded by one of its neighbours. Not in the traditional way – marching in with armies and tanks. But in a very subtle way. Imagine if Myanmar (to choose one neighbour) moved the 1,643 km border into Indian territory stealthily a few inches at a time. Yes, we could see the results over time, in a year would notice that the border had moved several meters in and we had lost many square kilometres of area to the enemy.

What would our nation do in this case? Would we send a few people to figure out how they did it? Would we give them a decade to study if they were moving a millimetre a minute or an entire meter at one time? How many resources would we provide so that they could graph how much area we were losing on a daily and annual basis? Would we forecast the outcome over five years or more? Would we spend years debating what to do?

Or would we be outraged and move the nation to put an end to this invasion?

The Invasion

The invasion described above is happening, it is real. However, the invader is not one of our land neighbours but the seas surrounding India.

With 1,600 km of coastline, Gujarat has one third of India’s coastline. For the past few decades, the Arabian Sea has been invading Gujarat. Subtly. Seawater has been encroaching into the freshwater aquifers along the coastal belt. Saltwater adversely affects human life and human activity, especially agriculture. This invasion has already caused debilitating salinity problems along a 15-25 km coastal belt. These problems are progressing inland at a rate of 500 meters annually (more than a meter a day!) and, over the next few years, will adversely impact the health, social, and economic factors of one fifth of the population of the state living in about 1,500 villages.

This invasion has not gone unnoticed. The people of the coastal belt have noticed it. Some government agencies are fully aware. One response was created in 2002 by the Agha Khan Rural Support Program (India), Ambuja Cement Foundation, and the Sir Ratan Tata Trust. They came together to seed the Kharash Vistarotthan Yojana: the Coastal Salinity Prevention Cell (CSPC). The role of CSPC is to facilitate the networking of civil organizations, government and local populations to study the issue, design responses, trial them and then take them to scale to combat the salinity problem.

For a decade CSPC has documented how salinity has increased and is impacting 10 million people living in 1,500 villages. Over the past few years, CSPC has built labs to monitor the salt-water encroachment and other pollutants to the water table. They do not have the resources to get data collated properly, analyse it and showcase it. They do not have the ability to map out the 600 sqkm. lost to salinity every year. With help from Indian and foreign foundations they have managed to support a few local organizations in doing water projects to ensure some steady supply of non-saline and even drinkable water.

Invasion? I Meant “Invitation”

Very few are studying, much less addressing the root cause of the issue. The Arabian Sea is not invading – it is being invited in. By extracting water from our fresh-water aquifers at an every increasing pace, we are creating a strong suction force. We are giving no choice to the ocean but to flow in. We are gifting our land to our saline neighbour. This is happening in Gujarat and also all along India’s coastline. And all around the world, even in California.
We have met the enemy and he is us
Can we see the real problem? The enemy is us. We cannot point to an external enemy. And thus we cannot unite quickly. And respond decisively.

The Only Way to Fight Back

A response involves acknowledging that we are the enemy and revisiting our new model of development, our new lifestyle.

Our ancestors successfully used aquifers to keep the salty sea out, resisting an urge to deplete them. They lived in harmony with the land and water. But they did not live in poverty and ‘backwardness’.

In Gujarat, they created the most beautiful forts, palaces, temples, havelis, and even amazingly decorated step wells all lasting hundreds of years – magnificent creations we are unable to replicate today. And their vibrant society was filled with dance, music, food, fashion, crafts – all of which are still part of today’s society. Their poor lived in better conditions than the millions living in the slums today. Instead of dismissing our elders as backward and their lifestyle as ‘old’, we need to learn from their wisdom that sustained their society and allowed it to thrive for hundreds of years.

Today, we have to stop sucking water out of our aquifers immediately. We have to recharge them with fresh water and push the saltwater back. We have to balance our consumption of our aquifer resource with its replenishment. That is the only way to push the Arabian Sea out and keep it away. And make our lands and waters healthy for us and for our children. And make our ancestors, who bequeathed us enormous resources, look at us with pride.

Egypt’s Nile v India’s Ganga: Practicality and Reverence

Egypt is the gift of the Nile. The world’s longest river is the source of life in an otherwise hostile (to man) terrain. Egypt’s civilizations have hugged the river. The ancient Egyptians worshiped it as their god Hapy. It enabled their civilization to rise to the zenith by providing water and transport. More importantly it served as the dividing line in their mythology. East of the Nile was this life. West of the Nile was the afterlife.

The later civilizations based on Islam and Christianity did not worship the Nile. Their monotheistic approach does not include reverence to Nature.

However, the Nile has still been preserved. Today the Nile is among the cleanest of the rivers in Africa and Asia. Very little sewage from the millions that live within a kilometer of the Nile flows into the river. Pollution is minimal and looks more accidental than deliberate. The cruise ships that plow the Nile do not discharge any waste into it. Save the fear of a parasite, the Nile is almost swimmable even at the end of its 5584-kilometer (3470 miles) journey. Not that there is nothing to worry about, the pace of development is putting pressures on the quality and quantity of the waters. Our guide on the Nile started his historical introduction with the observation that they were very worried that the source of the Nile – Lake Victoria – was receding at an alarming rate.

Two observations about today’s Egyptian society need to be mentioned: the presence of potable water across all towns in Egypt and the absence of destitution.

In India, the Ganga is revered – the holiest of holy rivers – even today. Its role in physical nurturing a several thousand-year-old culture is mirrored by its spiritual role in the mythology.

Great civilizations have come up along the its banks, used it for their growth, and even realized the impact they had on the river. The Gangetic plain was the site of the first national park in the world – Ashoka’s edict two and half millennia ago made the Ganges River dolphin (Platanista gangetica) a protected species.

However, today the Ganga is a closer to a sewage stream than a holy river. It is not swimmable even in the high reaches at the foot of the Himalayas. In Indian consciousness, the holy Ganga has been separated from the physical. They revere the spiritual image of Ganga emanating out of Lord Shiva’s hair, tamed. And they urge for the chance of taking a ‘purifying’ bath in it. However, today, the physical Ganga is seen mainly as a resource, a source of water, sand, and fish, and an outlet for all wastes: industrial and biological. The physical Ganga has lost its place in the mythology, its defilement causes no outrage to the vast majority of Indian society. This is true of all the ‘holy’ rivers: the Yamuna, the Brahmaputra, and the Narmada.

To parallel the observations about Egyptian society: a large fraction of the people living on the banks of the Ganga do not have access to safe drinking water, a majority lack access to sanitation facilities, and millions live below poverty: in destitution.

Ecology, deep ecology, and reverential ecology are supposedly progressive in terms our defining our thinking about nature, our feeling for nature, and our actions involving nature. It is thought that if we understand something we are unlikely to destroy it, if we connect with something we are likely to preserve it, if we revere something we are likely to nurture it. The case of the Ganga shows that thinking and feeling and acting can be a divorced threesome. We can revere something but at the same time rape it.

Manushi and Jal Biradari organized a three-day conference to discuss the Ganga and Yamuna Action Plans. Magsaysay Award winner Rajendra Singh led a discussion involving a small but diverse representation of activists, environmentalists, government officials, religious leaders, and academics. Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh participated on the last day. It was clear that many people understood the many acts that defile the river and also impact the communities along the river. Many in the room also understood preventing pollution was more important than cleaning it and that we had to return to revering the physical river.

However, India hurtles towards neoliberal capitalism eying everything as a resource to be exploited. A rise in the number and value of mutual funds betting on the exploitation of natural resources portend a speedier exploitation of the river. It is hard to find a silver lining in this dark stream. Clearly, until our both spiritual and practical thinking changes at a societal level to create action, no power can prevent the Ganga from becoming poisoned and thus poisoning us.

We still have time, we can clean up the Ganga and we can unite its holy spirit to a clean body. We can avoid the Cree prophecy of the wise Native Americans:

Only after the last tree has been cut down,
Only after the last river has been poisoned,
Only after the last fish has been caught,
Only then will we realize that money cannot be eaten.

Indian Women Don’t Pee

Men peeing

On any trip through any part of Bangalore, one catches a glimpse of a man relieving himself. It’s normal to have several such sightings. These sightings of this ‘natural’ behaviour are the inspiration for the cartoon printed in ToI, shown on the right.

In fact, that is true in all cities in India (except Mumbai where you have to look in the side lanes). One photo journal of men peeing around the capital city of Delhi shows the rich diversity of sightings.

I remember when my childhood neighbour painted his wall, he decided to paint some images of Indian dieties, to prevent the wall from getting dirty from pee, paan spit, and posters.

A photo by T. Trompeter in 1991, below, shows a Bangalore where there were ‘facilities’ for men to pee – the wall was tiled! Maybe this doesn’t exist now, but it clearly has not been missed.

B'lore '91

The sight of a woman and a daughter standing next to a motor cycle at the edge of the road, waiting for the man (wearing a helmet and facing the wall) to complete his business sparked a thought: Do Indian women pee? It struck me that i have never seen a woman relieving herself near the road. Men get to relieve their biological urge anywhere there is a wall. In the absence of public sanitation facilities in Indian cities, one should expect to see signs of women relieving themselves. Even if it’s just the blocking of the actual act from passing eyes, the evidence should be there. Yes, it is most embarrassing and an affront to dignity but sometimes you got to go. Or don’t you?

The only conclusion i can make is that Indian women don’t pee. Well, at least, they can go through the entire day without visiting a loo.

A friend spent a week in a village in Gujarat and told me how she and the women would get up at five in the morning and all the women would go as a group to answer Nature’s call in the dark. The elder women would form an outer circle to protect from prying eyes. And then nothing for the rest of the day. A Korean-American friend visited another (commercial) town in Gujarat and while the two males in the group enjoyed relieving themselves whenever and wherever, she had to go an entire day without bladder relief. I live in a nice gated community in Bangalore and while there is a facility for security guards, for other staff (gardeners, sweepers, …) there is none. It’s not that they can’t go into the security shed, but it’s highly unlikely that women workers will. So, a full day’s work demanded, with lunch break, but no sanitation facility. This essay was sparked by another friend who after visiting me told me that she wanted to use the bathroom before she left, “Not because I need to go, but because I don’t know when next I will be able to go”.

Yes, women, have it tough. Urban facilities are rare, and good facilities are rarer. Sulabh, the household name in public sanitation, has found its name copied everywhere, with little aspiration towards the standards that they hold dear.

A study by Arghyam titled, Ashwas, highlighted the dismal sanitation situation in rural Karnataka, just outside India’s Silicon Valley with its most globally successful and most marketed IT class. In this state, 78% of the rural population does not have access to sanitation and often the village maps show the open defecation places dangerously close to the water sources.

What is most damming is the statistics used in the water sector to show progress. The Nirmal Gram Puraskar is a prize given to a village where open defecation is history, all households have access to toilets and, they are all used. In addition, all schools should have toilet facilities. The awards are used in government statistics and by institutions (such as the World Bank and the UN) to show progress. The Ashwas report shows that of the 14 surveyed winners of the Nirmal Gram Puraskar in Karnataka, not one was worthy of the prize a year following the award; they had all regressed to some level of open defecation. Both these awards and the sustainability of projects are huge discussion issues, and should serve a warning about reading too much into prizes and progress metrics being touted.

In this nation of a billion we are rushing towards ensuring a mobile phone for all and a TV too. The GDP grows in that rush and we consider ourselves advancing.

However, can we consider ourselves advanced if we don’t provide private, accessible, and hygienic sanitation facilities for all?  Jawaharlal Nehru’s statement has been forgotten: “The day everyone of us gets a toilet to use, I shall know that our country has reached the pinnacle of progress“. Maybe we should consider another metric for progress based on Nehru’s vision – the number of public water and toilet facilities. Maybe we should consider ourselves having advanced to the next stage only when there is safe drinking water and access to private and hygienic sanitation facilities for all – especially women. Then we will know that we have arrived, not by economic statistics, but by sight or lack of seeing anyone peeing in public, by smell or lack of smell when we pass through slums and villages, and by stories or lack of anecdotes of women having to hold it.

Yes, Indian women do pee, and they should be allowed to do so whenever they want, with dignity and privacy.

A Volunteer’s Adventures Part Three: A Day in the Life

In addition to learning thousands of things about water and sanitation, I am also having the greatest time learning about Indian office life and sipping chai about six times a day! I usually wake up around seven to the lovely sound of water buffalo and goats cruising along on the road outside my window. I cart the water for a bucket bath from a tap in the center of campus back to my room- barely understanding the burden of hauling it from miles away and increasingly more impressed at how so many Indian women can carry these vessels all those miles on their heads while also gracefully holding up saris! Even though my task is so small, I am keenly aware that this is something I would have never had to do back home and it is giving me the slightest insight into life for so much of the world.
My room in the guest house is about ten minutes from the main office and dining hall. Breakfast is served by the wonderful cook we call, Na Na, around 8:30 – usually puri or idlly, but sometimes my favorite, opma or the odd choice, chowmein with ketchup (this is something most people back home would really never eat in combination let alone for breakfast!). The work day then officially starts at nine. I somehow scored a great little office on the second floor overlooking the courtyard in the center of the main building. There is even a little pond in the center with a turtle swimming around.
Everyday at ten, the lovely office employee, Joyo, brings little cups of chai to all of us at our desks and consequently ten might be my favorite time of morning!

When I’m not drinking tea, I am poking around the PWX site, exploring the different features, thinking of ways to make things easier or more understandable, and sorting out what Gram Vikas already has uploaded to the site and what else needs to be. Much of my time has been devoted to talking to different people in the office trying to locate records on different computers or actual hard copies of information for various projects on the site. I’ve been focusing on getting my hands on some interviews, videos, and photos to try to bring the sites alive and show the life of villages with or without water and sanitation. Collecting all of this information has proven a bit tricky since it isn’t always centrally located or accessible, and so my goal is to use PWX to add another element of organization and a fuller picture of projects for a non-profit that has really done some amazing work and has a lot to showcase to the world.
In addition to updating the Gram Vikas projects on the site and the welcome interruptions of chai, I spent a few days working on a water award application for Gram Vikas. Again throughout the project I learned more and more about this organization’s practices and other WASH systems for rural development, but I was also introduced to a British/Indian form of English quite unlike my native American English. For an English major with a mother who is a professional proofreader, this was quite a task! Words like “whomsoever” and “alongwith” seemed as foreign to me as the little chili peppers I picked out of my meals. Naturally I had to edit for British spellings throughout as well – in American English we write, “feces” while in British English the same word is spelled “faeces.” There are little sayings too that still confuse me: “fill up an application,” “go to office,” and “I’ve been in my home,” – those tricky prepositions always switching with different forms of the confusing English language! Many other parts from grammatical intricacies to crores and commas were different as well so in addition to picking up bits of Oriya, I’m really happy to have discovered this new form of English.

Besides punctuation and pronunciation differences, there are many office customs here that differ from the American offices I’ve worked in. There are, of course, the 10am and 4pm daily chai breaks which I have already explained my new love for, but other office practices are taking some getting used to for me. For instance, as an American woman shaking hands is always a little confusing for me, sometimes in certain offices we wear shoes and sometimes it is customary to leave them by the door, and here people always take lunch breaks whereas back home lunch usually meant shoving something down in front of your computer screen – these are just some of the quirky little differences in the day-to-day functions of an office in a new place. Then there are the power outages that remind me again that I am indeed out here in a village! They happen several times throughout the work day, and now I’m so used to them that when the power flicks off I just keep working away until the internet cuts out and then I read for a minute until it all comes flashing back on and we can start the whole process again!
Everyone stops for an hour lunch break at one and the work day is officially over at 5:45. In the evenings I have often continued working just trying to finish up these projects but sometimes I play cards with new friends or read until dinner which happens at 8:30 in the evening. Since we usually eat at 6 or 7 back in America, this late night meal is definitely a transition too! All of the curries and dals and pakoras have been delicious at the mess and all of the staff I have met through Gram Vikas have been so welcoming and wonderful! Only a few weeks left in my new home, but I have really enjoyed the learning experience – about water, but also about culture.

A Volunteer’s Adventures Part Two: Hydrogeology and Golpapur

Not only is the campus absolutely gorgeous, but all of the staff and volunteers I’ve met working for and with Gram Vikas are incredible as well! In addition to the 500 or so employees of Gram Vikas, various contacts from all kinds of organizations come through Mohuda all the time. For a traveler exploring the developing world, meeting people from all over the globe working on various projects in the villages is basically a dream come true!

Two such new friends, Marijn and Roelof, are hydrogeologists staying here for about two weeks to train people in the villages to test water quality. From the Netherlands, Marijn and Roelof have taught me so many things, one of which is a culinary tip from their hometown: how to turn every Indian dish into something sweet by adding jam or sugar! Besides amusing the dining hall with our strange creations, they invited another intern and me to go on an explorer mission with them last Sunday!

They explained to us the adventure they were planning: GoogleMaps shows the earth in this part of Orissa as being darker in a western part and lighter in an eastern part, pretty much separated by a distinct line that they imagined was a different kind of rock or deposit from a river or the ocean. Armed with a large print out of the area, a jeep and driver from GV, and a GPS system we were going to figure out why. They tried to play it off as though it sounded boring, but I thought they were essentially proposing an exploration mission that would rival that of Christopher Columbus!

So with excitement in the air and our explorer’s gear in hand, we climbed into the Qualis around ten in the morning ready for a day of real, live exploring! The four of us and our driver, Babolo took up all of the seats in the jeep so it was a little crammed especially as we wound around the dogs and people in the streets. Mixed with lots of trying to explain to our driver where we wanted to go, Marijn explained to me so much about water projects and systems of all kinds, the science and engineering about how water actually arrives to most of the taps, and ground water. I was ecstatic all day long! I have been working around water- fundraising with BPR and now here, for a few years, but something about seeing the projects and hearing about the processes from my new Dutch friends really illuminated the world of water to me.

Throughout the morning, we stopped at a few sites where holes had been dug in the ground for random purposes and surveyed the soil. Marijn and Rudolph showed us how and why certain parts of the earth were red and others gray. We took pictures of the rocks and my specific job was to make GPS readings at each site so we could make a more accurate map to compare with the google image. Everywhere we went a crowd of confused Indians huddled around us really baffled as to why four foreigners were maneuvering around piles of poop to pick up dirt and take pictures of holes!

We stopped at one of the GV village water towers and in addition to surveying the area, picked up about four new members to our team who were to help us navigate the tricky roads in that part of the region. So, for the next hour or so, nine of us crammed into the jeep and looked for differences in water sources and rock and earth colors. Most of the time we were going a different direction than we had planned because of road blocks and communication barriers but the adventure didn’t disappoint in showing us great new things like long-tailed, kangaroo-like monkeys and all kinds of mountainous and rocky terrain from rock quarries to brackish water bodies. It was wild and fun and fascinating!

After some photos and marking a few more points we returned to drop off the extra people at their car. The villagers were waiting for us with sodas and tons of kids crowding around the jeep looking at us. Even though our communication with the kids was limited to, “How are you,” and “What’s your name,” they were thrilled to hear us try to speak to them. Most of the 20 minutes we sat with them was just us smiling really big at the kids and them returning the gesture! It was such a fun morning!

The next few hours continued with much of the same, convincing our driver to take us down certain roads to spots we thought would lead us to a point on the map, making some notes and pictures, and then continuing on. From the highway our driver turned down a tiny narrow street totally covered in foliage which eventually led us to a huge lake. It was amazing that he could ever know that that tiny road from the busy highway could lead to the lake!

There we took a water quality reading. It was tricky to find a part of the lake where someone wasn’t bathing or doing laundry to be able to take a sample, but eventually we found a fenced in area that would be as clean as it would get. We tested the PH as well as the levels of carbonate hardness, nitride, and iron among other things and learned which pollutants may cause some of the levels to be higher- again I was learning just how important the link is between water and sanitation, but this time with chemical numbers to back this up!

Our last stop was Golpapur. In the spring Golpapur is known for giant sea turtles mating and laying eggs on the shores of the Bay of Bengal. Here we ate at a delicious Indian restaurant. We had my favorite, Paneer Butter Masala and another mushroom dish with hot, puffy naan. I also tasted the best sweet/salty lime soda! After a late lunch and a walk along the beach, we drove the hour-long return back to campus. The day was filled with exciting adventures and sightseeing. I felt like a sponge soaking up all of the knowledge my new friends could teach me and I was exhausted as I returned to my room. In perfect Indian style, my wonderful neighbor heard my return and knocked at the door with a steaming cup of chai. Oh, how I love India!

Adventures in Volunteering

Okay. I know, the little white suburban girl learns about a real-world issue firsthand – it’s kind of clichéd by now, made into movies and books and blogs galore, but here I am, in the middle of India, fresh out of university with a padded humanities degree and all of the fluff in my head trying to find a path into the world of development and getting a good dose of reality along with it!

I first worked with the Blue Planet Run Youth Board for two years working with incredibly creative and motivated young people to raise awareness among their peers of the world’s drinking water crisis. The experience was wonderful, and when I graduated and wanted to spend a year traveling and volunteering, I contacted Rajesh – head of the BPR water network, Peer Water Exchange, to see if he knew of anything. And boy, did he! Now I’m knee-deep in PWX and loving every single second of it!

I’ll first hail back to my BPR days though (even just a year ago). One of the many activities we created to raise awareness was a viral video where I, along with another youth board coordinator, explained the statistics on a video for other youth – 1.1 billion people, women walking hours, blah, blah, blah. And not that the statistics aren’t important – they are incredibly astonishing and worthwhile, but my point is that while I knew the statistics forward and back, I know now that I did not know the problem until I got to Gram Vikas.

I arrived to the sunny haven that is the main office campus of Gram Vikas in little Mohuda Village, Orissa after a grueling 20-some-hour train journey. Butterflies pranced in the palm tree-shaded path as I carried my backpack to my new room in the beautifully crafted intern guesthouse.

On the way here, I had no idea what the area would be like. In fact, in my ignorance, I was pretty much expecting dry, uninhabitable lands with unbearable conditions. Orissa is, after all, one of the poorest states in India where less than 4% of the population has access to piped drinking water. To make matters worse, I had been reading in the paper leading up to my visit to Gram Vikas that farmers across the state where killing themselves because of the terrible drought conditions slamming the lands. Walking in this lush enclave was not at all what I had imagined. Again, I knew the stats about the area, but I was blown away by the mountainous region covered in green trees and jungle fauna.

Since then, I have visited five projects in the area and researched pretty much every single one of the 701 water and sanitation projects initiated by Gram Vikas and the great Joe Madiath. In many parts, conditions are indeed terrible, but what I have learned from Joe – both through the books about him and his wonderful patience in explaining everything to me – is that the statistics about water that I have so fervently memorized and preached for all these years are very important, but still, only half the problem or less. Why is the water unsafe and unclean? Because people poop in it, bathe in it, and wash in it. Because flies land on feces, which sticks to their feet, which then contaminates the food they land on. Because animals loiter around the water sources pooping at will and carrying feces on their hooves and mouths as they drink from the well. Sitting in Joe’s office while he spelled it out for me was one of those “duh” moments. The numbers are meaningless without understanding the meat behind the issue. And in this case, it took me coming all the way here to begin to really grasp the water crisis.

Since then, I have delved into everything WatSan (one of the many acronyms I’ve learned for water and sanitation). My official business here is to help Gram Vikas get all of their projects organized onto PWX, but in that process, I have helped with a few other things around the office and in every ounce of my free time, soaked up all of the knowledge I can on water and sanitation – no pun intended! More on my adventures in water to follow!

In Praise Of Inefficiency And (Dis)Organization

This essay is about my personality and process, written in 2002.

It might explain how the idea of PWX came about, as it was in the period when BPR closed down without having a solution to the challenge of scale after a frenzy of activity including opening an office.
I was lucky to not have to work as my wife was working and so i used the time to let my mind drift and figure out a way to solve the world’s most important and urgent problems.

Continue reading “In Praise Of Inefficiency And (Dis)Organization” »

Airing Clean Laundry

While laundry is about water (see other article on Household Water Usage), this essay is about status symbols. Starting by looking at the energy used in drying our clean clothes, i end with the challenge of creating status symbols appropriate for our situation today.

Today, in India brands abound and the rich are using more energy to dry clothes.
For example, most using washing machines, use higher speeds in spin cycles using to dry clothes. And some have dryers in this tropical country!

Though, i am happy that hanging clothes out to dry is still acceptable in all parts of India.

Originally, published in HaasWeek, the newspaper of the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley in 1996.

Continue reading “Airing Clean Laundry” »

Change, the Motor Industry, and Water

Motors are used for many purposes today and consume an estimated 40-50% of India’s electricity. Is there a need to become efficient?

They also are used heavily for water, starting in Bangalore in 1894 and now used commonly in borewells across the countryside. Does the industry bear any responsibility for declining groundwater levels?

A short tour through Bangalore’s water history that is closely tied to the motor industry ends with the question: what does the future look like?

The article starts and ends with the question: can our society change?

Shorter version without images published in AIEMMA (All India Electric Motor Manufacturer’s Association), September 2008.

Continue reading “Change, the Motor Industry, and Water” »

Improving the PWX Application Process

After experiencing one round of the application review process, I have some suggestions on improving it.

To keep these dialogues concise and to the point I tend to believe that the key solution lays in the project proposal and applications. These may have to be presented by adopted concise and comprehensive standard format, containing specific parameters of a perfect projects definition that match adopted standard selection and prioritization criteria. These parameters and criteria would necessarily derive from adopted underlying general domestic water supply & sanitation development policy principles. The same parameters may form the basis for monitoring verifiable indicators respectively evaluation.

For example: currently stakeholder information is not clearly and explicitly spelled out.

I welcome a discussion on this topic.


Continue reading “Improving the PWX Application Process” »

Household Water Usage Guided by Spiritual Traditions

When we use our water to bathe and clean we put stuff (cleaners, solvents, chemicals) in it. Our used water flows into our drains and into other eco-systems where other life-forms see this flow as their incoming supply. Thus what we put in impacts others. We can minimize these impacts if using ahimsa (non-violence) as a guiding principles.

Ahimsa is core tenet of Jainism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and most religions.

Published in Jain Spirit in 2002, this essay is about understanding the downstream impacts of our water usage at home and how to minimize them using Jainism principles. Applies to most spiritual traditions, especially Hinduism and Buddhism. Essay appears even more relevant today as places like India use more and more household chemicals and pesticides (even those deemed too toxic and banned in the west).

Our interactions today have become less physical and observable. Faceless people and invisible processes send water to our tap without us being able to identify the source of our water. Our garbage and sewage also disappear from our home without us knowing where and how they end up. This makes it hard for us to determine the himsa (violence), if any, we cause to others, especially the animals and plants who have no voice. However, since we Jains are still responsible for any violence we cause, it is important, to identify our himsa and reduce it.
some chemicals around the home

The focus of this essay is on one type of violence we do indirectly on other groups. Individually our himsa is diffused and therefore subtle; collectively it leads to the vast devastation and despair that we have learned to ignore. To start on common ground, i repeat my definition from my previous essay: Preventing a living group from flourishing is himsa.

When my son started crawling, we noticed all the chemicals we stocked in our home. Adults generally know of the dangers of these chemicals and thus don’t drink them. They often wear gloves while using them and even avoid breathing them. But my son was not so knowledgeable and so we began to ‘child-proof’ our house. That lead me to think: if these chemicals were bad for him, weren’t they bad for all the life-forms that are exposed to them?
some chemicals around the home

I reflected on the life that lives downstream. Our drains lead to rivers, lakes, and seas. Do the millions of big and small creatures living there appreciate a dose of drain-cleaner in the water they live in, that they breathe? How can
they avoid these poisons (if they become aware of them)? Can they ‘child-proof’ their entire environment?

My thoughts led back to myself: would i notice if the cleaner clearly labeled ‘Poison’ killed some creatures in the San Francisco bay? Would i notice if all my detergents made the waters toxic and slowly squeezed the life out of the bay? Obviously, my dishwashing detergent alone would not cause much harm, but if a million homes dumped a scoop of it every night into the bay, it would easily create a toxic nightmare.
some chemicals around the home

Determined to find out what i was using and what my impacts are, i studied which cleaners
i used, what they contained, what the effects were. I could not believe how
much himsa i was participating in: both in the disposal and the

Due to dilution, mixing, and long-term nature, there is not much research done on the impact of our cleaners on downstream life. In fact, little is known about the impact on chemicals on us! Fewer than 1,000 chemicals (out of over 50,000 now in manufacture) have been tested for immediate acute effects, only about 500 have been tested for their ability to cause cancer, birth defects or genetic changes. Chemicals once thought safe are not: household chemicals can cause headaches, depression, insomnia and flu-like symptoms. There is evidence that many chemicals in our homes are poisonous, carcinogenic, ozone-depleting, and not natural to any ecosystem. This includes detergents, bleaches, synthetic fragrances, artificial dyes, and aerosol propellants. Other chemicals easily found around the home include ammonia, methylene chloride, naphthalene, nitrobenzene, perchloroethylene, sodium hypochlorite, trichloroethane, trichloroethylene, and xylene. Even without a a Ph.D. in chemistry and biology, i was sufficiently alarmed to take the warning labels stating “Poison” and “Hazard” very seriously.
some chemicals around the home

While using (and thus disposing) of these products is harmful, the manufacture may be even more so. While ‘not tested on animals’ is the label in fashion on personal products, the grim reality is that it is really true. We often do not test to see what effect manufacturing chemicals has on life – we just do it. We assume any impact is negligible until proven otherwise after which we consider it a necessary sacrifice. Attending a two-day seminar on the environmental impact of the chemical industry organized by the manufacturers themselves provided the data that my heart already knew: the manufacture of chemicals is a hugely poisonous, and thus violent, affair.

Abandoning this line of research i started what i consider a more Jain approach to research: what were my needs and how could i meet them using the minimum amounts of the gentlest cleaners – causing the least amount of himsa. This research was more fruitful and led to an incredible conclusion: most of my violence was totally unnecessary.

I want to share my findings on how to reduce our himsa caused by our cleaning rituals: personal, laundry, and household. Let us start by learning from the wisdom of our ancestors, which is still valid. The people who built the Ranakpur and Abu temples were clean, wore clean clothes and kept their homes clean. We could learn from their habits and ask ourselves as to why we have moved away from simple cleaners such as water, vinegar, lemon, and baking soda.

The first answer is economics and advertising. If water works better than 50% of the glass cleaners – according to Consumer Reports – in the market, who is going to profit from it? If a spoonful of vinegar added to that water makes it among the best cleaning substance, will you see an ad for it? We start thinking that the simple and effective solutions are old-fashioned, and soon we forget them completely.

The second answer is that we have created very abrasive and toxic cleaners only recently. People washing clothes and dishes with their hands will not tolerate chemicals that harm them. People wearing gloves (a recent practice) do not mind harsher detergents. People using washing machines and dishwashers want their cleaners to be as strong as possible. Actually since these machines cannot give direct attention to stains they require more abrasive substances.

A third answer is that detergents were developed especially to clean synthetic fibers, and are unnecessary for natural fibers such as cotton, linen, silk, and wool. Similarly, to keep fluorescent and other synthetic dyes looking bright we have to use detergents.
some chemicals around the home
So how do we reduce our violent cleaning behavior with something gentle? We need to do three steps: reduce, substitute, and change.

The first step is Reduce. We can reduce the dosage of all our cleaners. From our soaps and shampoos to our laundry and dishwashing detergents. I cut down quantities by half and everything came out fine. Of course some stains needed direct treatment but the extra manual step was worth reducing my himsa by half. I reduced my consumption of dishwashing detergents by much more than half, especially when i found out that there is a measurable residue that has been known to affect young children.

The next step is to Substitute. My babies were bathed in besan (chick-pea flour) paste, an Indian tradition, instead of soap. If it is good for babies, then it is definitely good enough for me and now i rarely use soap. I can visualize water creatures getting annoyed and even hurt by soap, but being grateful for besan as it is entirely biodegradable and life-friendly.

Our clothing detergent now has no phosphates, no colors, and no fragrances. And the next step is not to use any cleaner some of the time. You don’t always need to use soap or detergent to get clothes clean. If you need to wash clothes to freshen them or remove perspiration or odors, and not remove dirt, a cup of plain baking soda or vinegar will do the trick. For household cleaners, plain water is good enough or add a spoonful of vinegar and keep that solution handy. Baking soda is also another amazing natural cleaner. There are safe substitutes for drain-cleaners, silver polishers, boot polish, and all household chemicals. The interested reader is referred to Home Safe Home by Debra Lynn Dadd. For Jains, using cleaners that contain non-toxic and renewable ingredients should be the default step. We should use products that need no warning labels as that means that they will not cause violence to anybody!

The final step is to Change our habits. We can learn from our monks and use a wet cloth to rub ourselves and not need any cleaners. This habit makes a statement: our bodies are designed to be self-cleansing and self-healing; we do not need fancy products to be hygienic. We can choose natural fibers like cotton and wool that do not require detergents and avoid fluorescent colors. We can stop using the dishwasher and use our own strength to get tough stains out.

Through awareness, education and discipline we can live in a way that respects and nourishes other life.

Dams and Indian Spiritual Traditions

The Narmada dam has the support of the vast majority of the Jain community in India, but the project violates the major tenets of Jainism.

A look at the dam from the perspective of various Jain principles (applies to Hindu and Buddhist and most religious principles too).

A shorter version was published in 2001 in Jain Spirit and a version with a different introduction published in Sutra in 2008.

Many arguments had been put forth on the logic (or illogic) behind the dam-building activities in India (and the world). A few had talked about the history of rivers and the need to leave them untouched, and others had appealed to humanity to value the impacts on other life forms. However, to connect dam building to specific points in spiritual and religious traditions was something i had not seen. This essay flowed unconsciously from that viewpoint on the day when the great talk show prize was reached and the approval was given to raise the height of the Narmada dam.

My first essay on water issues discusses the conflicts of the Narmada dam with with Jain principles that are held dear by the wealthy and powerful community. While Jain principles are discussed in this essay, readers should find commonality with all spiritual traditions (including Hinduism and Buddhism) emanating from the Indian subcontinent.

The end of an interesting day (October 19, 2000) in Mumbai. The stock market rose after hitting some all time lows and many of my friends are smiling. All of India is glued to the TV because the first crore (Rs 10,000,000) winner is on Kaun Banega Crorepati? (Who wants to be a Millionaire?). And i am sitting in a back room trying to transfer a confused depression into a coherent essay.

Because, you see, today the Supreme Court of India cleared the continued construction of the Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada river. While this news made the majority of Indians joyous, including a majority of Jains, it made me sad and confused. Why sad? The construction of this dam is against every principle of Jainism that i cherish. Why confused? Because i cannot understand the reaction of today’s Jains.

In this essay i discuss the issues surrounding this dam and the Jain community reaction in terms of four fundament tenets of Jainism: Ahimsa, Aparigraha, Anekantvada, and Poonarjanam (Karma).

Ahimsapractice non-violence. The Sardar Sarovar dam is going to create a reservoir around 213 km (133 mile) long submerging an estimated 37,000 hectares (91,000 acres). No official survey as been done as to the actual size (hard to believe) but fields, homes, forests will be drowned and the magnitude of death and suffering is incalculable. Downstream of the dam, the drying out of a great river, causes a different torture to people and animals dependent on the flow of its waters. The enormous pollution caused by the manufacture of millions of tonnes of cement and its transportation will generate health problems and lead to tremendous suffering, not to mention global warming. Can Jains, who even worry about where they throw their hair lice, ignore this incalculable hinsa because it is indirect violence? Note that this is only one of the 30 large and 135 medium-sized dams planned in the Narmada Valley, which makes the total hinsa truly unimaginable.

There are two types of hinsa: the first is death. Death for all the plants and animals who cannot outrun
the waters or find another home. If Jainism has strong beliefs about not stepping harshly on the land because we may crush insects and worms, should not the flooding of 37,000 hectares be against our beliefs?

Other life condemned to death includes the hilsa, a fish that breeds downstream in the Narmada estuary and spends its life out at sea. Without this dual salt-water, fresh-water environment they die. Since this is their last spawning area, they will not just die, they will become extinct. Gone. Forever. Not being as glamorous as the tiger, there will not be a Project Hilsa to rescue them. The 10,000 fisher families that depend on the 13,000 tonnes of fish produce face the second type of hinsa, along with hundreds of thousands of others.

The second type of hinsa is destruction for the people (mainly tribals and Dalits) who are forced to move. Destruction of their homes, their families, their societies, and their livelihood. We would like to believe that our hinsa be alleviated by the government, which is already known to ignore the poorest of the poor, but that is unlikely. Firstly, there is no official plan on where to move them. Secondly only people flooded out are considered displaced, those who live downstream or whose homes are overrun by the canal system are not considered affected. Thirdly, there are very few resources – the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, where the majority of the “Project Affected People” live, says that there is no arable land to give them, he can only offer them a cash compensation. What can be considered adequate compensation for breaking up family and societal structures and pushing people into shantytowns and slums? In fact, the people already displaced by the current dam have not yet been relocated (is that a signal to pause before
continuing?). When i talk to members of the Jain community, they quickly switch to the benefits. In their eyes, the cost-benefit analysis is complete and the results are in black-and-white, there is no red. The majority of Jains welcome this as a necessary sacrifice for progress. Its interesting that we Jains sacrifice a lot in their diet, by not eating meat and potatoes and often fasting, but in terms of business and finance, we are not ready to sacrifice anything, it is time for others to sacrifice.

India has become a dam building power since independence – it has built 3,300 large dams, medium and small dams are in the tens of thousands –and its record at handling the displaced, about 56 million, is dismal. For example, the original Sardar Sarovar dam started in 1961 and it was in 1992, after thirty years, each affected family (with proper documentation only) was offered a sum of 12,000 rupees per hectare, up to a maximum of 36,000 rupees, with strings attached. The number, 56 million, is so huge, it is hard to fathom. It is more than all the affected in both world wars, more than the native populations of North and South America overrun by the Europeans, more than any devastation by any dictator anywhere. But we are not under Yugoslavia’s Milosovich or Indonesia’s Suharto, we are a democracy and thus, there is no crime, nor is any external power going to intervene to help our poor.

Maybe, just maybe, one could argue that this sacrifice of 56 million people has benefited the rest of India. The figures prove that this tremendous atrocity has been in vain. A major point to consider is that more Indians live in poverty (less than two meals a day) than the entire population of India at Independence. Another point: 200 million Indians have no access to safe drinking water – dams have not helped the poor. Finally, the areas irrigated by large dams produce only 10% of India’s food grains or 20 million tonnes. That’s equal to what is lost in storage, namely rats. Could it be that we have displaced 56 million people to feed rats?

We Jains, at a personal level, are particular about the hinsa we cause and many even cover each water-tap with a cloth to block tiny life-forms that may enter our water. But as part of the larger society we well-to-do Jains not only stand by the enormous hinsa being done, but through our thirsty factories and expectant investments gain tremendously from it. My Indian lifestyle includes unlimited, running, hot water, and a washing machine, and other comforts that is built on the broken backs of displaced people. I calculate that it will take me six years of continuously chanting Michchami Dukadamto ask forgiveness of 56 million people.

Aparigrahaminimize consumption. The purpose of this dam is to provide water (electricity will be generated only in the beginning until the canals start absorbing the water). Over the past 20 years i have witnessed a dramatic increase in overall consumption in Gujarat. Small community based towns are now industrial estates. The bicycle has given way to the scooter which has given way to the car which has given way to the 4-wheel drive. TVs, remote controls, air-conditioners, mobile phones have proliferated. Instead of using efficient construction techniques and materials, concrete (arguably the most inefficient and requiring the highest maintenance) has become the mainstay (even for all Jain apasarayas). Thus water consumption has been maximized as well as the need for cooling. In addition to consumption, the need to generate wealth has created industry after industry (most are the worst polluting industries transferred from the ‘developed’ world) that suck up water and electricity.

Jains comprise less than 0.1% of the population of India but our wealth can be measured by the fact we pay over 80% of India’s income tax. This successful financial accumulation not only flies against aparigraha, it generates much power and influence. While Jains may not be the key decision makers in the Narmada project, we are likely to be highly influential if only through our investments. If we Jains actually minimize our wealth generation (and consumption), i believe that the current water and power resources would be more than sufficient for everybody’s needs and that we could stop the Narmada project if we wanted.

Anekantvada – many views of the truth. Part of accepting many facets of truth is accepting others choices. The people impacted by the dam may not have the same desire for economic growth, their wishes to stay in their own farms (among the richest land in the country) are to be respected. There is a large population of tribal people, the original inhabitants of the subcontinent (before the first Hindus and Jains), who live in harmony with the land – never taking more than it can give. Their lifestyle may be hard, but it has ensured that they have survived for thousands of years.
In fact, we could learn about ahimsa and aparigraha from them. Our modern economic lifestyle is putting a strain on local and global resources within a generation but not only do we choose to ignore the wisdom of sustainable societies, we want to convert them or eliminate them. The decisions behind the Narmada dam have never included the opinions of those directly affected – those that are required to make the sacrifice.

Another important aspect of anekantvada is to understand our bias and sources of information. Our consumerist dreams are built by businesses and fueled by politicians. And the industries are on an exponential growth curve, they have to sell more cement, transport more things and build more things. Even the agriculture business is into growth (i do not refer to farmers who grow food to eat, but businesses who want crops to return money, not food). The media is also a growth business and its income comes from advertisements and marketing of businesses. Even the law enforcement agencies and other government bodies side with the engines of business. So even if the benefits of water do not materialize to the common man, the economic gains to the cement, construction, transportation, and power generator industries, among others will be tremendous. Already Rupees 1,050,000,000 has been spent with the same amount required to complete the dam. No wonder the voices of tribals, the displaced, the animals, and the plants – all of who do not increase growth – are extremely faint today.

Another aspect of anekantvadais listen to others (especially those whose voices are growing fainter) with an open mind. Medha Patkar, Baba Amte, and Arundhati Roy (all of whom have inspired this essay) have asked questions on behalf of the displaced. Instead of being listened to, they have been beaten, arrested and labeled as spies. When Mother Teresa won a Nobel Prize, we were proud. When Medha Patkar won the Goldman Environment prize, we considered it foreign interference. All for asking basic questions: what is going to happen to the displaced? Where is the environmental impact report (without one, most people are assuming that there is no impact)? Where is an open discussion of the alternatives (again, without such a discussion, people assume there are none)?

Finally, it should be noted that there are many alternatives to the Sardar Sarovar, all at a fraction of the cost. They include trapping rain-water, growing pulses instead of rice, managing water with local schemes such as the pani panchayats in Saurashtra. Most of these alternatives require local wisdom, reduce central authority, and do not benefit the big industries of cement, transportation, construction, and, of course, economics and finance – but that does not mean that they are not valid. In fact, they are in much more harmony with Jain principles and should be pursued enthusiastically.

Poonarjanma – rebirth aspect of Karma. If we are going to be born again, what society, country would be want to be in? Are we definitely going to be born into wealthy families with unlimited access to electricity and oil and pure mineral drinking water and, probably in a few years, oxygen tanks? What if we are one of the poor? Would we want to be in a country where no river has potable drinking water? Where the groundwater has been depleted or polluted? Where no forests or woods exist? What if we are born as one of the animals or plants in this shrinking oasis? If we believe that we
are going to be born again, why are we trying to use up all of Nature’s bounty in a single generation?

For most of the supporters, the Narmada dam is a sign of hope, a cure for their current ills and of a better future. How can one argue against the promise of water, especially after a drought? This is much better than free petrol from the Middle East. This will cover up all the development mistakes made in the past – nobody need pay for the reckless use of their ground water, nobody need believe that the excessive pollution will impact people in the long run. This will enable a future where rice can be grown in the desert.

I do not wish to argue against this hope. Even the Gujarat Chief Minister has stated that the canal network will take 10-20 years to complete but will never reach Saurashtra. This huge 460 km long canal (450 meters wide at the head and 100 meters wide at the Rajasthan border) has to cross rivers like the Sabarmati and other canal systems. All along it thousands of families will be displaced, but ignored because they are not displaced by the dam. With land near the head of the canal given to sugar mills, water parks, 5-star hotels with golf courses the people at the end may have to wait. With powerful lobbies like the Baroda City Corporation eyeing the water (even though they were not on the original beneficiary list), those really in need will have to wait even longer. Wait like the farmers in Aurangabad, waiting 41 years after the completion of their dam for a sign of the canal to go past the municipal corporation. Is it too unreasonable to ask that the canal network be built, and all the pumping stations and the drainage systems tested before they continue construction of the dam?

Another cause of support for the dam is that it will prevent floods for the more important people downstream (remember that the less important people behind the dam are permanently flooded out). The question to ask is why should others pay for the reckless development in concrete and asphalt (both materials that do not absorb water) close to a major river. One solution is to provide public or agriculture areas in the flood plains for that have the ability to absorb water in the monsoons. This experiment was successfully conducted in Brazil where a city’s boundaries were moved back a few hundred meters from the river. These inexpensive (and, it must be admitted, not as contributory to the economy) means of preventing floods are well aligned with Jain principles.

For all the reasons discussed above, the construction of the dam causes me grief and the fact that the majority of Jains do not see any conflict between their beliefs and this dam causes me confusion.

I want to mention there are a few Jains who are actively campaigning against this project, but it is the massive support by the majority that has me sadly confused.

To eliminate my sorrow i need a few answers: am i misunderstanding the basic principles of my religion or why does not my religion provide a real context in the modern world to the majority of its followers? Why is it no longer a counsel to define the criteria for development and success? Why does it not help distinguish between needs and wants today?

Maybe i should let my religion – Jainism – be restricted to guide me mainly in my food habits. And then, as the majority of Jains today, let the rest of my views on life: progress, development, happiness, greed, ethics, etc. be defined by modern economics and the seductive marketing forces emanating from it. This will eliminate a conflict and happiness should be close behind, right?

PWX taught at African Women and Water Conference

Blue Planet Run Foundation’s Annette Fay went to Kenya to attend the African Women and Water Conference in June 2008. 15 pairs of women were being trained in water technologies so that they could go back to their communities and start water projects.

As part of the conference, these women were also trained by Annette on using PWX to manage their funds, projects, and learn and share. Here’s Annette’s report.


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PWX has a new water-friendly eco-friendly home in Bangalore

The Peer Water Exchange finds a new home in a community appropriately named Laughing Waters.

PWX now operates out of one the most operationally eco-friendly buildings in Bangalore.

The building runs on solar power (18 photo-voltaic solar panels) and there are two cascaded solar water heaters.

The water system is the most interesting and features:

  • – a 17,000 liter underground rainwater harvesting tank

  • – a biosand filter for drinking water

  • – four recirculation/reuse systems to maximize use and reuse of water

  • – bathrooms featuring 4 input water lines: drinking water, regular water, hot water, and grey water

  • – a grey water system from the washing machine that goes to flush the toilets

  • – grey water systems for irrigation of roof garden.

The first piece of ‘furniture’ purchased was a composting bin!

Then 12 trees were planted, 9 of them fruit trees.

PWX-central is trying to walk the talk and also providing carbon offsets to Blue Planet Run.

Of course you can track down PWX-central on the PWX map!

Terrorism: The Only Alternative?

A challenge to my classmates in ’97: Can we create a society that manages to prevent certain problems? Can we create a system which rewards or at least accepts people who focus on preventing problems.

We face a water crisis that is not showing any signs of reducing, and a climate change threat, and an economic crisis, among others. Lets not just solve these piece-meal, lets strive to create a system where such crises are less likely to occur, where preventing problems is as least as important, if not far more important, than solving them. Otherwise, we will be fighting fires and our attention will be on the biggest or latest fire. And those who want attention will be setting fires.

Originally, published in HaasWeek, the newspaper of the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley in 1997.

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