Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Green India

You have to be here for a while before you realize just how little waste, how little environmental load there is per Indian citizen. When you first arrive from the US or North America, you see traffic, dust, smoke, and for that reason you can miss what’s really going on.

Sensible high-rise design: Bangalore unfortunately has a few wall-o-windows high-rise buildings, which must be a nightmare to keep cool here within 14 degrees latitude of the equator. But more recently constructed apartment buildings have come to a better understanding of their environment. Our apartment building, like most of recent construction, has a sort of staggered fa├žade, with lots of balconies and terraces and protruding horizontal and vertical slabs of concrete. The balconies are nice in their own right, a place to sit or hang laundry, but the main effect is that almost every window in the building is shaded between 8:30 and 3:30, which makes a huge difference in comfort and A/C use.

Commuting: Most high-tech companies facilitate or indeed subsidize a sort of carpooling, running seven-passenger SUVs over regular routes to apartment buildings and neighborhoods where the employees live. My company main building is on a side road about 500 meters back from the public bus stop out on the main road. Not a huge distance, but just the sort of thing that could tip the scales towards someone’s taking their own vehicle instead of the bus. My company runs the minivans continuously to and from the bus stop during peak commute hours. Buses run all over town, on most routes at only three or four-minute intervals.

“Smart-grid”: So-called smart-grid and smart-meter technology is coming to the US eventually. Renewable energy sources like wind and solar are not always perfectly matched to the instantaneous demand. Yes, one can “store electricity” to use during peak periods but that can be costly. It will likely be easier to instead modulate demand, by charging more or less during the day, and by offering consumers incentives to use their high-power devices only when green power is plentiful. Much of that is already happening in Bangalore, albeit in a rough-and-ready way. There’s not much by way of renewable energy here, but many apartment buildings do have two sources of electricity: expensive, dirty power (diesel gensets) and cheaper, cleaner power (utility-provided electricity). The utility isn’t able to meet demand at times, and we fall back on the expensive back-up gensets. Our relatively modern apartment is wired with three different circuits, for AC and hot water, for other high-current devices, and for lights. When the utility is overloaded, it institutes rolling blackouts around the city, and when our apartment complex is hit, our diesel genset turns on automatically and its power is allocated to different circuits in the building depending on the level of demand. In the morning, everyone wants to heat hot water, so if the utility dumps us then, we certainly don’t have enough diesel power for hot water. In our apartment, we do a sort of manual smart-grid. Some nights before I go to bed I run the electric water heater for 15 minutes, and then turn it off. In the morning, if the power is off, I can use the still-warm water in the heater for a shower which is, if not piping hot, at least plenty warm to start off a day that will likely top 35 C anyway. With a “smart” hot water heater talking to a smart grid, and better insulation on the heater, we’d basically never notice that the power was out. I anticipate that eventually most US residents will be moving electricity demand around in a similar way.

Low-waste: It’s rare to see food left on trays at my company cafeteria. One is strongly encouraged to take only what one can eat. Posters on the wall chart the cumulative kilograms of food wasted (left on trays to be scraped into buckets by the dishwashers) over the course of the month. Can we do better next month?

Most hand-washing areas don’t have paper towel. Where I work, there are paper towels, but I’ve never seen anyone take more than one to dry their hands. Many men in any case by habit ignore the paper towel and reach for a clean handkerchief kept in their pocket for exactly this purpose. Others just give their hands a good shaking to get the water off -- it dries in few minutes anyway. When there’s no paper towel, the shaking’s what I do, but I often surreptitiously use my pant leg to help with drying, just like I see the Indian guy leaving ahead me do.

Recycling: No, as upper middle class consumers here in India we don’t separate our trash stream. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t get separated. Recycling is happening in locations which are, from our point-of-view, behind the scenes. It’s driven not by “green conscience” or government mandate but by profit motive. It’s made possible by low labor costs or more precisely by the very high ratio of the cost of raw materials to the cost of labor. You see it all going on out of the corner of your eye. As the maid is heading out the door of your apartment with the trash, she is already pulling out the plastic bottles. On the roads around town we see flat-bed trucks with huge bags of crushed plastic bottles lashed to the back. They weigh hardly anything, so the truck can carry as much as the trucker is able to lash on – the load towers high over the cab and bulges way out over the edges of the truck bed.

Compostables: the maids don’t seem to mess with that stuff, but someone does. Here is what I observe: here at the very edge of Bangalore, we live in a neighborhood of apartment complexes interspersed with vacant lots filled with scruffy dry weeds. In patches in the middle of these vacant lots, piles of organic refuse, (peelings, stalks, cobs…) appear and gradually get bigger over a period of some days. When I first saw this, I thought “ew, we live next to a garbage dump.” But they aren’t random piles – in some cases their boundaries are marked out by cinder blocks. About once a week or a little more often, a small herd of cows appear. The cowherd tethers them to the cinder blocks at night but lets them wander over the vacant lot during the day. The cows don’t have much use for the weeds but they love the kitchen refuse. The cows reprocess the compostable stuff into milk and manure. I’ve seen the cowherd milking the cows into a bucket, but I’ve not been able to follow the process from there – does she sell it to consumers, or to a milk processor? The milk we buy here at the supermarket, ultra-pasteurized and plastic-bagged, did it first spend a few hours in a pail in an urban vacant lot? Every morning I have a bowl of home-made yogurt at our little restaurant. It was thoroughly boiled of course before it was set out to curdle, and is completely safe. Did the chef buy the milk from our neighborhood cowherd? As for the manure, yep, I’ve seen people collecting the cowpies as well, whether for fertilizer, fuel, or paint, I don’t know. I wonder how the economics of all this work. Does the cowherd pay the trash collector to sort out and leave the kitchen waste in the vacant lot? Does someone in the employ of our apartment complex sort out the garbage so that we residents can pay less, for a smaller volume of trash collection? Are the rights to collect manure from this herd also sold, the neighborhood cow-dung franchise?

On the topic of cowherds: Last week I saw five cows being herded from one vacant lot to another by a teenaged boy on a bike. I had to stare at the scene for a moment to understand why the bike seemed to make so much difference. Then it came to me – a cowherd on a bike is a mounted cowherd, and a mounted cowherd isn’t a cowherd at all, but a cowboy, a major step up the social ladder, or so it seems to my American mindset.

By the way, here in Bangalore, if you happen to be willing to do your own waste-stream separation, more power -- and money -- to you. We’re told that if you are willing to take the time to separate out and bale and twine your used newspaper, a guy will stop by your apartment to collect it and actually pay you for it.

As our stay in India comes to an end, an unanswered question in my mind is, can a country like the US, where average salaries are much higher compared to the cost of raw stuff, ever do as well as India does in terms of having a low environmental load per person? The professional motivation for my sabbatical here was explicitly to learn about technology related to sustainable energy. In many ways, that's been a big success. I know much more about the nitty-gritty of heat transfer, for instance, than I did three months ago. But both in India and now back in Colorado (as I get ready to finally post this we've actually been home a few days now) I found myself thinking a lot also about money.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Gods, Godmen and Gurus

I can’t speak for the rest of India, but to my foreign eyes, it sure seems like Bangalore is full of religious fervor. Just yesterday midmorning in our courtyard I met a group of young girls all dressed in festival finery heading off to do puja (worship) at various aunty and uncle’s homes where they would collect presents afterwards. My girls didn’t have the day off from school so I don’t think it was a major holiday. (Meanwhile my girls tell me that a lot of people aren’t going to school these days because they are worried about exams; they can get more studying done at home than at school.)

Hinduism is a very diverse religion with tolerance for different ideas. Generally speaking there are three primary gods: Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver) and Shiva (the destroyer of evil). In practice, most families are either Vishnu or Shiva adherents. There are only a couple of Brahma temples in India. In addition to the three main gods and their avatars (or alternate identities – e.g.mother, daughter, wife, teacher, patient and customer may all describe the same person), each god has a family. For example, Ganesha (the elephant god) is the son of Shiva and Parvati.

Most families have a small shrine in their homes where they do puja. A foreign company planning to build apartment complexes in India was told they needed to redo their architectural drawings to include a space in each apartment for the shrine. In our family we also have a collection of dolls – oops, I mean iDolls. Oops again – “idols” is the proper term used in India. We have a portrait of Ganesha (as seen in Chitra Santhe), a Nataraja (dancing Shiva), a Balaji (avatar of Vishnu – see #3 below), a Saraswati (wife of Brahma and goddess of learning), a small portrait of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and a placard with the philosophy of Sathya Sai Baba.

Darshan is a common word in India. It means the beholding of a deity (usually an idol), a revered person or a sacred object. Because the viewing is considered to be reciprocal, the human receives a blessing. Here are some of the touted religious sites to see in and around Bangalore if you want to perform darshan.

1) Shiva Mandir. Mandir means temple. Below is a photo of its immense Shiva statue. Eric compares this temple to Disneyland. It has a frolicky, commercially-magic sort of atmosphere rather than a serious, holy atmosphere.

2) ISKCON Temple. ISKCON stands for International Society for Krishna Consciousness, better known as the Hare Krishnas. The ISKCON followers believe that Krishna is the prime god. (Other Hindus believe that Krishna and Buddha [!!!] are avatars of Vishnu.) ISKCON’s Indian founder was told by his guru to go to the US because the US was the cultural mover and shaker; if the US would adopt the beliefs, the whole world would soon follow. A FOLK (Friend of Lord Krishna) proudly told me that the ISKCON temple in Bangalore was second in south Asia in visitors and collection of funds after the Venkateswara Temple in Tirupathi. I’m not very surprised. After a short visit to the main hall at ISKCON, you have to wind your way through about ½ kilometer of vendors selling wares and temple workers asking for donations. There is also a display of the new, grander temple that ISKCON plans to build although the current temple already seems quite adequate if not over the top. At the end whether you have given money or not, you are invited to partake of prasadam, a savory porridge served from a huge vat, because the founder believed that no one within ten miles of an ISKCON temple should go hungry. The standard salutation at the temple is “Hare Krishna.”

3) Tirumala Venkateswara Temple (aka Tirupathi). This temple is 250 km from Bangalore in Andhra Pradesh. The temple is also called Balaji Temple. This is the most popular pilgrimage site in the world. It is more popular than Mecca, more popular than the Vatican. Sleeper cars on trains are booked weeks in advance. It gets 40,000 visitors a day on average. It has 12,000 priests. We didn’t actually make it to Tirupathi, but we did go to Chikkatirupathi (small Tirupathi) in Karnataka. We visited a government school, not the town’s main temple even though it was across the street from the school.

4) Sathya Sai Baba’s summer ashram. Sathya Sai Baba is a godman who claims to be the reincarnation of the famous Sai Baba of Shirdi and preaches that there is one God which is present in all religions. His 6 million followers are not expected to give up their personal religion. (See photo below of the emblem over the ashram gate.) His most common miracle is the materialization of ash from thin air. I was given some ash during my visit to the ashram. The godman hadn’t arrived at his summer ashram yet so the place was fairly quiet. Sai Baba is now 83 years old and in a wheelchair. I get the impression that his popularity has peaked, but he has done some wonderful community service work including providing free health care at his hospital near the ashram. The standard salutation at the ashram is “Sai Ram.”

5) Art of Living Foundation headquarters. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, a Bangalore native, is the founder of this United Nations-accredited humanitarian organization with centers in 140 countries. Sri Sri was recently named one of the 25 most powerful people in Bangalore. He encourages healthy and spiritual living through yoga and meditation. Like Sai Baba, he doesn’t demand that his organization’s workers and volunteers belong to a particular religion. Sri Sri has also focused on disaster relief and conflict resolution especially in the Indian subcontinent region.

For a different taste of religion, you could follow godman Swami Nithyananda’s travails. A sex scandal developed recently when a videotape of him with a Tamil actress was made public. Charges against him were filed in Bangalore. He has an ashram in Kerala, a neighboring state, and also one 40 km outside of Bangalore, but I never heard of him until the scandal broke.

If you tend towards Christianity, there are several Christian churches in downtown Bangalore, many built by the British. Winston Churchill used to attend Trinity Church which was the military church.

If your religious tendencies veer in other directions, here are some other local opportunities for darshan.
1) lions, tigers, bears, elephants, deer and butterflies – Bannerghatta National Park
2) science – Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) Heritage Museum (zoom in on the photo below) and the Vishveshwarya Industry and Technological (VIT) Museum (good for kids)

3) art – Chitrakala Prarishad (a school and museum) and the Venkatappa Art Gallery. I preferred the former.
4) food – Malvalli Tiffin House (MTR) near Lalbagh Park

I recommend darshan, no matter what your preferences are.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

What Democracy Is Not

On my first trip to India, which lasted only a week, I was struck by the religious diversity, especially within Hinduism. (Think of the diversity within Christianity or within Islam for a small sense of what I mean.) After staying here for a longer time, I’m struck by how my understanding of democracy has changed since I have been in India.

India is the world’s largest democracy. The online Oxford English Dictionary defines democracy as “a form of government in which the people have a voice in the exercise of power, typically through elected representatives.” All fine and good. However, I previously thought of democracy as comprising a country’s entire lifestyle or infrastructure, if you will. I expected the Indian government to be more like the system in the US. Let me tell you the ways it is not.

Democracy is not capitalism. The prices of many food items, fertilizer, and petroleum are controlled by the central government. (Where we would say “federal,” India uses the term “central.”) There have been many demonstrations and much political campaigning in reaction to what opponents see as lack of action by the central government to control prices.

Democracy is not freedom of speech. For example, a member of the high court feels compelled to speak out in his official capacity when a Bollywood star discusses her love life in a little too much detail. Universities are instituting policies to contact parents if students are found kissing on campus. (Keep in mind that Desperate Housewives, Friends and other American shows appear regularly on television here.) Even more drastic – on Valentine’s Day vigilantes were marrying young couples found together who weren’t related. In the art world M F Husain (also spelled Hussain) left India so that he could paint what he wished without having to show up in court to defend his choice of subjects. My impression is that a fair number of Indians are very sensitive about certain moral and religious issues. In general, Indians try to avoid conflict, but once Indians are aroused, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere nearby. If there are enough angry people, the result is too often a deadly riot.

Democracy is not justice. We complain in the US about court cases dragging on for months or years, but in India a delay of a decade or more is not uncommon. (M F Husain is in his nineties so some of his cases have actually been resolved.) Eliza’s class had a long, depressing discussion about it. I hope the younger generation in India can take action to improve the justice system.

Democracy is no guarantee of honest officials. We know about this problem in the US also, but allegations of corruption in the US often lead to a politician’s downfall. Maybe that happens here, but I have only seen cases of politicians continuing in office despite allegations of corruption. Perhaps the delays in the justice system are partly to blame. Today the Times of India newspaper’s front page reported that the local JD(S) leader saying the party would field candidates with a criminal past as long as the party leaders thought the candidates had a chance of winning.

Democracy is not laissez-faire. At the local level in Karnataka some representative slots are reserved for the “backward castes” or women or both, and there is an attempt to extend the current reservation system at the national level to include women. The proposal has passed the Rajya Sabha [similar to our Senate, but more like England’s House of Lords – some members are appointed rather than elected] but the Lok Sabha [House of Representatives] has not yet voted on it. In the US a primary tool for promoting diversity in representative bodies is district boundaries; the resulting demographics give minority candidates a good chance to succeed in some districts. In India, on the other hand, residency in the district is not a requirement for election. In addition, the proposal at the national level would rotate the reservation system so that each district would have to elect a woman every third term. Some people say that the result will be mostly women in government. The thinking is that, once elected, a woman can run as an incumbent and win against male candidates. Meanwhile the next-door district will have to elect a woman per the reservation system. Can you imagine a government with a majority of women?

If you have never been to India, I hope you can now imagine a different style of democracy from a western-style democracy. I, for one, have had my preconceived, all-encompassing notion of democracy corrected. I now have a much more precise idea of what democracy actually means.

Monday, March 22, 2010

MTR - Less Ambience, More Flavour

During our first week in Bangalore we bought a great many different things to stock our kitchen, including various spices. We were advised to buy the brand MTR. Later European tourists as well as one of dad’s colleagues recommended the restaurant called MTR or Mavalli Tiffin Room. He said that you couldn’t come to Bangalore without eating there. Last Saturday we had an opportunity to go.

Comprised of about four undecorated rooms, MTR has an atmosphere of efficiency and assembly lines. There was no waiter smoothing gliding over with glasses of wine to ask you what you would like to eat. There was no soft clink of polished cutlery blending with the equally soft voices of the clientele. Instead everybody in the room was given a glass of water, (similar to many Indian restaurants, you could request cold or room-temperature water) an aluminum spoon, and an aluminum tray with about seven little compartments. Lungi-clad men (lungi – an informal tube-like piece of cloth worn around the waist) toting slop buckets sloshed the food unceremoniously onto your plate. Everybody got the same food, but what food! A dozen toothsome things soon covered our plates and as Dad put it, “Everything tastes different; it’s not all sort of muddy.”

MTR is not only known for its food, but for its no-nonsense attitude. We heard horror stories about people getting there a few minutes late and finding their reservation given to someone else. The waiters gave you the food even when you shook your head. It reminded me of school cafeteria workers. One thing that did work was saying “selpa, selpa” (Kannada for “a little”) upon which you received a smaller ration.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Bharata Natyam

Recently, I went with Mom to see an Indian classical dance performance by one of my classmates. It was located in a Kannada cultural heritage center in central Bangalore. All of the signs were in Kannada and I realized how spoiled we had become living in a foreign country where English is very commonly spoken.

Indian classical dance, or Bharata Natyam, is usually performed by one person and the style includes lots of stamping feet and forming arms and hands into complicated positions. It is set to devotional music, often singing without very many instruments. The costumes that the dancers wear are flashy; with vibrant colors, flowers in their hair, and sometimes bells attached to their ankles that ring when they move. In the performance that we went to, there were four musicians sitting on pillows off to the side. One woman was singing (devotional songs in Kannada), one woman was clashing together small metal cymbal-like things, and there were two men: a drummer and a flutist.

Every dance is centered around one story. The very first dance that we saw was about Ganesha, since he is the god of beginnings. (See Beginnings and Political News.) The singer in the background tells the story and the different gestures the dancer act out the story. I bet if I could understand Kannada, I would be able to follow the story line very well and see how the dancing and the words are connected. However, Mom and I can’t understand Kannada, so after the performance my friend explained what a few motions from the dancing meant and how they connected to the story. For example, Lord Shiva has three eyes. Two of them are normal eyes. The other one sits in the middle of his forehead. Normally it is closed, but when he is very angry he opens his eyes and fire shoots out, burning everything he sees. In the dance, this was symbolized by flicking two fingers in front of her forehead (showing the opening of the eye) and moving them forward while waving them back and forth (showing the fire shooting out). To see an example of Bharata Natyam go to:

Friday, March 19, 2010

Tibetans Are Welcome in Karnataka

On the way to the Coorg rainforest we stopped to visit the first ever Tibetan exile settlement at Bylakuppe. Karnatakans tell me that Bylakuppe is the largest Tibetan refugee settlement in the world. Dharamshala, the seat of the exiled Tibetan government in north India, is more famous, but the Namdroling Monastery in Bylakuppe is well worth a visit if you are in the area.

The monastery is best known for the Golden Temple. (See photo.)

I was impressed by the beautiful buildings constructed in the last 50 years and by the Tibetans monks going about their daily routines. As the picture of the monks fetching water indicates, there is a large, active community here.

I visited Tibet in 1988. There was palpable tension between the Tibetans and the Chinese. I did not get any similar feeling during my short visit to Bylakuppe. In fact, the Dalai Lama claims a special personal relationship with his adopted country of India, the birthplace of Buddhism.

P.S. Sophia said to make sure to tell you that if you visit the Golden Temple, you should eat at Shanthi’s Family Restaurant.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Ugadi = No Newspaper

Tuesday was Ugadi, the Hindu New Year. Schools were closed, but there weren’t any big public celebrations unless you count the cricket game. Families mostly celebrate the holiday at home with special food.

I thought everything would be back to normal on Wednesday so I was quite surprised when I went to read the newspaper and heard that there weren’t any and none were going to be showing up. It turns out that the presses don’t print newspapers the day after Ugadi. The newspaper workers get a day off for Ugadi. I was told that there are two other holidays which are also press holidays: Diwali and Ganesh’s birthday.

In the US I often hear about the demise of newspapers. Imagine the rumors if there were a press holiday!