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Thursday, 29 April 2010

Global Warming to India's Rescue - Part I


Before I explain the meaning of the above heading, I wish to share a story that I first read in Thomas L. Friedman’s bestseller, “Hot, Flat and Crowded”

He says:

“In October of 2007, I was driving through downtown Hyderabad and passed the dedication of a new overpass that had taken two years to build. A crowd was gathered around a Hindu priest in a multicolored robe, who was swinging a lantern fired by burning coconut shells and praying for safe travel on this new flyover, which would lift traffic off the streets below.

The next morning I was reading The Sunday Times of India when my eye caught a color photograph of total gridlock, showing motor scooters, buses, cars and bright yellow motorized rickshaws knotted together. The caption: “Traffic ends in bottleneck on the Greenlands flyover, which was opened in Hyderabad on Saturday. On day one, the flyover was chockablock with traffic, raising questions over the efficacy of the flyover in reducing vehicular congestion.”

India's growth devoured a flyover that took more than 2 years to build in less than a day!

How is this story related to this column? Let’s find out.

'Global Warming to India’s rescue.' Firstly, is global warming really happening? Well it is and quite frankly if at this stage we are still discussing whether or not it is, as we are, then we have already lost half the battle.

Since this is not an article looking into the scientific basis of global warming, I will spare you the details, but there is no denying that some weird climate phenomenon is definitely taking place across our planet.

Once we have established the reality of Global Warming, we can focus on India’s response to it. And so far, it must be said, our response has been a negative one. Before leaving for the Copenhagen summit, our Minister for Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh appeared on all news channels giving interviews that more or less had this to say:  “that India will go there and be strong, that India will not give in to Western pressure to accept legally binding emission cuts.”

And that is exactly what happened. We went there and we basically told the developed countries, “You know what guys, you got to grow dirty for 150 years and well guess what? Now its our turn!”

Now there’s nothing wrong with that statement simply because it is the truth – the fact is that America and Europe grew their economies on cheap and dirty coal based power, but the problem lies in our attitude – for we fail to see the opportunities such a crisis can provide. Why? Because as Thomas L. Friedman likes to put it : “In a world going from 2.5 billion people in 1953 to 9.5 billion people in 2053, the next big industry after IT is going to be ET or energy technology. The country that goes green the fastest will be the one having Energy Security, Economic Security, National Security, Electrical Security, Competitive Companies, Healthy Environment, and Global Respect. There are 3 billion people who will enter the world economy from India, China, Brazil, each one of them having the ‘middle class’ dream of having a house, a car, a fridge, a microwave, a toaster & mother earth just cannot accommodate each one of them. We are heading towards an infrastructural and environmental disaster and therefore if we don’t find a cleaner, greener way to fuel their demands, we are going to burn up, choke up, heat up, smoke up this planet faster than any one realizes.”


The green technology problem is essentially an engineering problem. We must find a clean fuel technology that is better and cheaper than the existing dirty fuel based one. And this is where India can step in. We have so many engineers, all we need to do is simulate 10k engineers in 10k garages trying 10k different things of which 1 thousand will be promising, a hundred will be really promising and 2 of them will be the next green Google and green Microsoft. And why do I sound so confident? Well, has anyone heard of the Nano before?


(contd.)

Global Warming to India's Rescue - Part II

(contd.)

So how do we simulate an environment for engineers to innovate? How do we kickstart the companies into trying to innovate? The answer is as simple as it is straightforward: Remove the Petrol Subsidies and add a Petrol Tax.

It is a bold thing to say. But to give you a proper framework into just the magnitude of the things that we are dealing with, here’s our annual oil import bill:

$ 50 Billion – a year (Rs. 2.5 lakh crores – a year!)

We spend the above amount EVERY YEAR trying to buy enough petrol for our nation. Just how much money is $ 50 Billion one may ask? To give you an account of just what it means, here’s a list of some of the things we can build/buy if we save that money (Note- we can pursue any one of these projects)

      162 IIT’s  - a year!
      291 AIIMS - a year!
      24 lakh primary schools - a year!
      16 Delhi Metro like projects - a year!
      Double our Defence budget, double our Health Budget, send 10 Chandrayaan’s to moon and still have money left to construct 3 Olympic sized stadiums.

I find the last fact particularly startling. We can double our defence budget, double our health budget with the snap of a finger and still have money left to do other things!

And therefore, as the cliché goes, we must act as tough citizens and send a message across to our MPs, “that you can take tough decisions, we will support you.”

Already the government was in two minds regarding the roll back of the petrol prices. If your government cannot even stand by its decision to increase the price of petrol by a rupee or two, then you can be sure the option of complete removal of petrol subsidies is something your government does not even know exists.

But it is easier said than done. Because any MP who gets up in Parliament and proposes such a measure will be drowned by the opposition voices saying, “You want to raise the petrol prices and add a petrol tax! Are you out of your mind? As it is the Indian people are burdened with too many taxes and now you want to add another one. Once the price of petrol goes up, the cost of transportation goes up and once the cost of transportation goes up the price of everything goes up – including essential commodities. No, no we cannot have this tax.”

And there is only one answer to that. You say, “You know what friend, let’s get one thing straight. As far as taxes are concerned we are both on the same side. We are both paying taxes. While I am paying taxes to the Indian government, you are paying taxes to the Saudi Arabian government so that they can build more of their palaces. And  I have just this inclination – that I want my taxes to go into building more Indian schools, Indian hospitals, Indian roads and Indian bridges.”

If that argument does not win, nothing will. To understand the above point all you have to do is look at the spectacular growth of the Arab countries. Where do you think they got all that money from?

Ultimately, I am reminded of that famous saying, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” We know the price of petrol will go up in the future whether we like it or not. We also know that India will be among the hardest hit countries by Global Warming. Why not make the most of it?

Sunday, 11 April 2010

The Dragon's in the Forest

Anyone who still thinks India’s main rival is Pakistan has not entered the 21st century.

Back in the older days, I remember we would be filled with pride upon reading flattering statistics such as the number of soldiers in the Indian Army vis-a-vis the Pakistani Army. But something changed since then. Pakistan stagnated, India inched ahead while China simply pressed the fast forward button.

It was not long ago that India’s defence was superior to China’s. Now even such a thought is considered laughable. This article will make the case that India’s real competition will now come from China and not Pakistan.

In 1947, India and Pakistan were partitioned amidst much civil upheaval and riots. As is normal after any break up, feelings of jealousy and competitiveness arose. The two countries (Pakistan more so than India) made each other the centre of their development goals. So money began pumping in in trying to outdo each other. But while we were still infatuated with our Western neighbour, something was taking place quite discreetly on our eastern borders. A nation was busy reviving itself and clocking massive double digit growth. Having neglected that amidst the heavy illusion of false pride with respect to Pakistan, the result is that today, India is an ENTIRE generation behind China.

Today, China is building infrastructure that is surpassing America’s. Already the world’s fastest train has come up, covering the distance between Beijing and Shanghai in 2 hours 45 minutes (compared to which India’s fastest train the New Delhi-Bhopal Shatabdi express would take about 7 hours 10 minutes in covering the same distance!) A friend of mine, who has recently come from China, summed up the attitude differences very nicely, saying “In India we like to make comparisons with China, In China they like to make comparisons with America”

And this is the scary part. That China is not even bothered about us, taking us to be no more than a regional itch in the back. A mention of India is still hyphenated with Pakistan.

So what should India really be doing? My view is that we must stick to our democratic principles while finding a way out. Because we cannot and should not become a dictatorship, to take on China, we need to summon all our energy and determination to kick-start the democratic engine so that it delivers promptly and properly rather than laggardly and lethargically as is the case now. For that the government must be capable of taking tough decisions. Already the government was in two minds about the rollback of petrol prices. If the govt. is not even strong enough to stand by its own decisions then competing with the headstrong leadership of the Communist Party of China can remain a pipe-dream.

China’s decision making prowess is something that takes even the Americans by awe. But this does not directly imply that a democracy cannot function at high levels of efficiency. Case in point: America’s response to the launch of Sputnik by the erstwhile Soviet Union. That lesson of history, more than anything else shows that if democratic countries can pull up their socks and work in a single direction, they too can become unbeatable.

In the end I am reminded of a quote from Gurcharan Das that I hope will be the guiding light in our attitude towards our neighbours, “If Pakistan pulls us down into an abyss of terrorism and identity politics, China will lift us up, I think, firing our ambition for better roads, schools and health centres” The best example that describes India’s state versus that of China is the endless ruckus over our preparations for the Commonwealth Games and the smooth steamrolling by China at putting up Beijing 2008.

If Sardar Vallabbhai Patel were alive today, he’d be quick to comment, “Well folks the dragon has entered the forest and it’s about time the tiger got prepared.”