Statistically Speaking: The Story of Water

[I had written this article for a magazine called The Rosetta, for which I have been occasionally helping out with. It was written quite a few months ago, but just got published. Find the original article with some pictures on the magazine site.

In other news, I am currently in a place which is definitely not water starved. I hope I can get back very soon!]

I have an Indian everyman in mind. For today, let me call him Mr. Sharma.

Mr. Sharma has a fetish for water. He takes his own time (and not to mention an incredible amount of water) doing his ablutions – slow and careful brushing of teeth (he wants to be a Colgate model), washing his utensils for his coffee (wash once after using and once before using; lizards are so common), wash his feet after coming home from the vegetable market (cleanliness is next to godliness), an elaborate bathing ritual (upholding the traditions of the Indus Valley Civilization), and not to forget the water play using his lotta (an integral part of everything Indian). Mr. Sharma is a typical Indian.

No wonder Indians withdraw almost 633 cubic metres of water per capita per year while Europe withdraws only 586. Paper has its own advantages. If Mr. Sharma were to dissect his daily water requirements, he would realize that the water withdrawn by him and his ilk measures upto 87 buckets a day (at 20 liters per bucket). How much water did you use today? How much water did you waste today?

Aah, numbers playing games with you? It’s funny the way statistics can hide reality as much as they show it. The number (87 buckets) actually includes all forms of water withdrawals, including usage for irrigation, industries and so on. The domestic consumption would come to only about 3 buckets per day or 20 cubic metres (ADB). But again, do all of us even have access to 3 buckets of water? My friends from Chennai would certainly disagree.

But then, statistics can tell stories. Stories of change, of evolution, of men who lived and men who are remembered, of wars and loves, of births and deaths, of civilizations, of forests and rivers, of how we affect nature. And effect we do – negatively. Per capita availability of water in India has gone down from 5177 cubic metres in 1951 to about 1820 in 2001. Our increased national virility has had much to do with it. Over a billion people (up from 361 million) now need water to fill their lottas to elutriate themselves after the act. 1820 cubic metres means less than a bucket of water a day.

Bislery, Kinley, Aquafina, Evian, Himalaya – the list is endless. We can, of course, buy water. Water which costs 25 paise and sells for 10 rupees. India is rising, India is shining. Isn’t water supposed to be free? Coca-cola withdraws half a million litres of water per day at less than Rs. 25 thousand per year . At every bottle at 10 rupees, that’s about Rs. 182 crore. Contrast it with Rs. 25 thousand, and it is a profit of 75 thousand times. Indian laws stipulate that if you own a piece of land, you also own all the water beneath it. You can siphon off all the water from under your neighbors’ feet – legally. Wish it were oil.

Necessity is the mother of invention. Water markets are emerging. Farmers in Tirupur have begun to abandon farming so that they can sell ground water at a premium to water hungry industries and urban users around the region. At least some families would not go without food, even though we might not get water to drink after the meal in a few decades.

We, Indians, are not alone. Global water consumption has grown at double the rate of population growth, and the figure for 2000 was about six times the figure for 1950. If the current consumption pattern continues, almost 48 per cent of our population would live in “water stressed” regions by 2025. Water shortage has been reported near bottled water factories in Texas and the Great Lakes factory. German RWE and French Vivendi control 40% of the world’s water market. Vivendi and Suez, the number three, have revenues of over $70 billion . Water is big business already. I think the way we are going, we will make it one of the largest industries in the world. The global GDP will swell, fat cats will get fatter, and the poor people would not even have water to drink.

Where does all this water come from? The catchment area of our major rivers covers about 85% of our land area (CIAWRM). Our rivers fall from Shiva’s knots and never run dry; we call them perennial. The Gangotri glacier, currently 30.2 Km long and between 0.5 and 2.5 Km wide, is the primogenitor of one of holiest rivers, the provenance of the livelihood of hundreds of millions, and has been found to be receding at an ever increasing pace since 1971. Over the last 25 years, we have pushed the glacier back by almost 850 metres, 76 metres between 1996 and 1999 alone (EO). The government has more pressing needs. There is some election or the other every alternate month. Isn’t it essential to communicate their successes to the franchise, contrive to fracture them on the basis of religion and caste, and of course, utilize the five odd years they have in office to hoard such that the next few generations would have enough to eat and drink.

Statistics can be biased. They acquire the colour of the lenses you read them through. A trip to Coorg in the beginning of April, and all we found was parched ground, yellow soil, lifeless, livelihoodless. It has rained since, but it is usually dry for well over half a year, and all the farmers can do is twiddle thumbs. Bisleri at Rs. 10 per litre is too expensive to water their fields. And natural water is receding fast.

Did you turn off your tap today?

Statistics and data credits courtesy: WRI, The Hindu, Indian Budget – Population Figures, Klessill Lance- Bottled Water Industry, Larsen Emily Arnold and Janet – Bottled Water –Pouring Resources Down the Drain, National Portal of India-Water Resources, World Watch Institute, The CIA Factbook, Water Resources Ministry, Asian Development Bank.

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The Ostrich Attitude

Sometimes, when the gravest of problems stare us in the face, we choose to ignore it just because we find that we can’t do anything about it. And in most cases, we just ignore it and carry on with life — laughing, dancing, acting — as if everything is going to be set right, somehow. We just repose our faith in the omnipotence of Time — innocently believing that it is going to use a magical formula to answer all those questions, solve all those problems we haven’t a clue about. I wonder if it is called complacence, callousness, or just plain powerlessness.

To use a metaphor, I often see people using in Computer Science, if a problem is intractable, we would just create a perfect model of the universe, where we just elide a large class of problems by definition, hiding them in the assumptions section hoping nobody will notice that those assumptions don’t really hold in practice. Our simple model of eat, sleep, work (in that order) and party with your salary cheque without a worry for anybody else fails miserably when real life asks questions which we neither comprehend nor seek to do anything about — because our limited vocabulary hasn’t prepared us for something of this magnitude.

Even if sometimes we are aware of the problem, we realize that there is very less that we can do about it. In principle, we know what is do be done. We can just issue a few instructions and hope everything will be hunky-dory very soon. In principle. In practice, execution is far tougher (and this is not limited to the scope of this exposition). In practice, we realize that our brilliant ideas, and one-stroke solutions fall inadequately in a quicksand, the logistics are so complicated that we just propose, we never prove. We console ourselves with the false assurance that somebody will implement those ideas for us. And one day the false assurance comes back to haunt us.

The problem, in most cases, of course, is going to have many facets. What we observe and what we try to cure is only the symptoms. The real thing lies deep down — in the deepest recesses of people’s minds, and they have been implanted not by one statement, one event, or one person, but by years of internalizing the environment and people’s reactions to it. The problem, in most cases, is deep-rooted, inexplicable, irrational, and very very dangerous. We just observe simple deficiencies, deviations in behaviour and we just hope that it will all be alright in Time. We can not do much more because being able to look deeply into people and reason is something we haven’t figured out very well. Science falls short on this great promise — we have learnt to built machine that work faster than us, but we still can’t understand ourselves. We just scratch the surface, make up some explanations, propose some solutions we can’t even validate and claim victory. And soon, we cower in the face of defeat.

And if everything fails, we escape. We provide explanations, we run off on work, we circumambulate in order to avoid the problem, we evade not just with alcohol (that is the easy one!), but we do with sleight of words and actions.

And then one day that problem we’d hoped so dearly would somehow solve itself, gets out of the box and slaps us across our face. And with all our accomplishments, our competencies, our arrogance, pride and confidence, we feel helpless. We wish to hide ourselves in the pillow, unable to fathom the why, how and how to of the problem.

Powerlessness. Helplessness. Cluelessness. A welcome feeling?

Independent India: The discussion continues…

[Two other worth reads: John Elliot at CNN Money (India at 60: A Nehru Dream Comes True) and Rajdeep Sardesai at IBN Live (Needed: A Lesson in History)]

I heave a sigh of relief when I read things like these in the papers:

Nobel Laureate Mistaken for Street Vendor

She was wearing a Mayan dress, the traditional attire of indigenous people in central America, and the hotel’s response was also traditional: throw her out.

Staff at Cancun’s five-star Hotel Coral Beach appear to have assumed this was another street vendor or beggar, so without asking questions they ordered her to leave. Except, the woman was Rigoberta Menchu, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, UNESCO goodwill ambassador, Guatemalan presidential candidate and figurehead for indigenous rights.

And our neighbors haven’t taken too kindly towards car owners. In the bid to improve the quality of air in the run up to the Beijing Olympics next year, the city has come up with a wonderful new idea to test if they can reduce the number of cars in the US. I have always felt glad that some bolt of lightning like this can not come and havoc my life, while I live in India. Sample this:

tjblog: Odds and Evens — 1.3m Cars to be Taken Off the Road

Finally, yesterday – at yet another press conference – officials announced that they have decided to implement an “odds and evens” system during the last four days of the “Good Luck Beijing” test events. The measure will remove 1.3 million cars from the road on each of these days. On August 17 and 19, only vehicles with odd-numbered number plates will be permitted to take the streets, and on August 18 and 20 only those with even-numbered plates. Drivers caught breaking the rules will be fined a rather measly 100 kuai. A blanket ban on all city and provincial government cars will also be implemented over the four-day period.

Drivers whose plates end in 0 will not be able to enter into deep philosophical arguments about the nature of zero with traffic police, as city authorities have already indicated that 0 is officially an even number.

I have always wondered about the subtle connection between mathematics and philosophy, but it was never so apparent in public life earlier!

Not to be outdone, cops at our capital were ready with a booklet instructing girls in the north-east to dress appropriately since here has been increase incidence of rape and eve-teasing. Since, the women from the north-east are victimized very frequently, they came up with a prescription for the victims instead of going against the criminals. I have always wondered how we tend to take the most convenient path in India. And the instructions are not very kind:

India Together: Be Safe, Don’t Exist

“When in rooms do as Roman does” (whatever that means). Under security tips: “Revealing dress to be avoided.” “Avoid lonely road/ bylane when dressed scantily”. And “dress according to sensitivity of the local population.”

I have only read excerpts from the booklet. For all its good intentions, it is clearly inappropriate and offensive to the sensibilities of women from Northeast India. Not only does it give gratuitous and useless advice to women but it also proceeds to tell everyone from northeast India how they should behave in Delhi. How else can one explain a sentence that reads: “Bamboo shoot, Akhuni and other smelly dishes should be prepared without creating ruckus in neighbourhood”. Smelly dishes creating a “ruckus”? This would be amusing if it were not culturally offensive.

Anyway, India can still claim to have made a lot of progress in the last 60 years. So much so that Amartya Sen makes an argument in his essay ‘India in the World, in the Hindu special supplement on I-Day (I can’t seem to find it online!) that India which earlier “never liked being confined to just minding its ‘own business’, seems now dedicated exclusively to that minding, pointedly excluding larger ideas and objectives. In fact, Indians seem to have become skeptical of the ‘vision thing'”. He makes an argument about why India should celebrate the success of its political democracy and have a stronger voice in world affairs. He grumbles that India has let go of the leadership position that Nehru had created for it during the non-aligned movement. His lament is that Indians now suffer from a ‘ethical near-vacuum in our global thinking as an inescapable result of the priorities of a market economy’. ‘The alleged skepticism in the ‘vision thing’ is really an alternative vision — one that Gandhi and Tagore, even Nehru, would have found a little difficult to comprehend’.

While I do agree with Sen that India should brandish its new position of importance in the world economy and take a moral leadership position, I also believe that we have made rapid progress in the times when we shut our minds to meddling in other people’s affairs and concentrated on cleaning our house instead. And if we try to stake claim to moral leadership, we might just be held in the same negative light as the United States, which has made its mission to cleanse the world of anything George Bush doesn’t like. I would rather that India continued in this path of self-discovery and introspection and improved the life of the billions that inhabit it, and when a situation does arise when it can add some value by saying a few words of wisdom to interested parties, to delve into its own experiences and tender advice. I would not be a very keen supporter of India peddling free advice to unwilling states. (Amartya Sen knows a lot more than me. I am just trying to interpret his words)

Sen also talks about India’s rapid progress in crime control, especially ‘in his humble Kolkata’, which often goes unnoticed. He cites numbers — the average incidence of homicide in the principle Indian cities is only 2.7 per 100,000 people with a measly 0.3 in Kolkata. The numbers in some international cities is devastatingly high eg., New York 5.0, Los Angeles 8.8, Mexico City 17.0 and Rio de Janerio at an astounding 34.9. This indicates the strength of the social fabric in India and Sen speculates that culture, mixed-neighborhoods, family life, and mainstreaming of economic discontent into politics (particularly in Kolkata) might be some of the reasons. I am with Sen on India having a much lower crime rates than many of these cities (having visited NY and LA and finding them rather unsafe). I have, however, two doubts:

  • I would like to know what correlation homicide rates have on other violent crimes, such as crimes against women, stealing, burglary and dacoity. My humble surmise would be that India might have higher rates of smaller crimes primarily because going the whole hog and committing murder would still be a mental block, and also because weapons are not that easily available in India as in other places.
  • Are these officially published numbers? I know of many instances when the police refuses to take down FIRs in India to keep its books clean, in fact a systematic suppression of crimes which explains the low crime rates in Uttar Pradesh. While I agree that the numbers can not be cooked in the case of homicide, this would be an important consideration while collating data related to petty crimes.

I was still happy reading Amartya Sen’s articles despite the fact that I might not find myself agreeing on a few counts. Jawaharlal Nehru had said:

A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the sound of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.

And Sen’s article indicates that India is ready, now, more than ever to find utterance of its sounds in the global cacophony.

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Swadheenta Diwas

India completes 60 years of being independent, being a Sovereign Socialist Secular Democratic Republic upholding the virtues of Justice, Equality and Fraternity. It is another question that we have made a mockery of each of those words by tailing the USenabling reservations long after they were dueletting our country through infernal riots, rigging polls and undermining the Presidential office. While a full discussion is beyond the scope of this blog (and the knowledge of the author) and we might not have made as much progress as our enviable neighbors, I am still grateful that we are able to live a life and not die by the millions quite unlike our enviable neighbors.

However, one thing disturbs me. I had written last year about being insouciant about independence, the pop patriotism that pervades our country (is patriotism just another passing fad?), when every year newspapers come out with flashy supplements (with essays by nobel laureates, who else?) and leadership contests (and using Atlas as the hackneyed metaphor for holding the weight of the country?), news channels with deplorable documentaries (Aamir Khan recounting the making of Rang De Basanti?), thankfully I am not too much into FM or else I would have to bear to hear the troubled voice of a damsel in distress yearning for the glory of her country. Having supplements and documentaries is great, by why have them only twice a year. So very convenient. We spare two days in a year for our conscience, for remembering our heroes, for taking a break from Harry Potter and revisiting Bhagat Singh. Two days out of three hundred and sixty five. Undoubtedly, the rest of the time we are busy raising the roof (Chak De Phatte or should I say Chak De India?), banging desks in the Indian parliament, traveling around the world, buying and selling cars, and generally carrying on with life.

And we fail to see instances which need to be curbed. I am not sure if the media will report this tomorrow but my cousin was telling me that a bunch of hooligans landed in her school (DPS in Yelahanka, Bangalore) today and started throwing stones on the school building because they were having independence celebrations. Apparently, their complaint was that it was Pakistan’s independence day and not our own. Some school authorities as well as children suffered injuries. While I do not wish to get into a discussion if having a flag hoisting on 14-Aug is sacrilege to the nation or not, what I can’t quite understand is what chain of logic can lead people to throw stones at children. Silly me, we are an independent nation after all and people can, of course, throw stones in the air wherever they like.

As Spidey said, “with great power comes great responsibility”. With freedom comes the responsibility of thought that we exercise our freedom in a sane and sensible fashion, not by printing out advertisement supported extra supplements or stoning school buildings (or even getting stoned?). It took an arachnid to talk to some sense.

Finally, for lack of anything else to say, I am going to end with the lines of Bismil Azimabadi which were made famous by Ram Prasad Bismil during the freedom struggle (and subsequently and more famously sung in Rang De Basanti). If we just perhaps spare the noble thought our freedom fighters had, and what their country meant for them:

सरफ़रोशी की तमन्ना अब हमारे दिल में है
देखना है ज़ोर कितना बाज़ुए कातिल में है

है लिये हथियार दुशमन ताक में बैठा उधर,
और हम तैय्यार हैं सीना लिये अपना इधर.
खून से खेलेंगे होली गर वतन मुश्किल में है,
सरफ़रोशी की तमन्ना अब हमारे दिल में है

हाथ जिन में हो जुनून कटते नही तलवार से,
सर जो उठ जाते हैं वो झुकते नहीं ललकार से.
और भड़केगा जो शोला-सा हमारे दिल में है,
सरफ़रोशी की तमन्ना अब हमारे दिल में है

हम तो घर से निकले ही थे बाँधकर सर पे कफ़न,
जान हथेली पर लिये लो बढ चले हैं ये कदम.
जिन्दगी तो अपनी मेहमान मौत की महफ़िल में है,
सरफ़रोशी की तमन्ना अब हमारे दिल में है

More pop-patriotism. I myself am culpable because I thought of writing this post only on the occasion of the 60th year of India’s Independence. Ok, I lied about ending earlier. Just to feel a little better, I will also quote a poem by Henry Louis Vivian Derozio titled ‘To India – My Native Land’:

To India – My Native land
My country! In thy day of glory past
A beauteous halo circled round thy brow,
And worshipped as a deity thou wast.
Where is that glory, where that reverence now?
Thy eagle pinion is chained down at last,
And groveling in the lowly dust art thou:
Thy minstrel hath no wreath to weave for thee
Save the sad story of thy misery!
Well – let me dive into the depths of time,
And bring from out the ages that have rolled
A few small fragments of those wrecks sublime,
Which human eyes may never more behold;
And let the guerdon of my labour be
My fallen country! One kind wish from thee!

[Thanks StubbornFanatic for putting it online]

Talwalkars Gym: Do they think the Customer is an Ass?

I had a rather bad experience with the Talwalkars Gym in Sadashivnagar (Bellary Road, Bangalore) recently and so I thought I should write it down so that people googling for it will find this out and perhaps be forewarned.

I have been a member of the Sadashivnagar branch of Talwalkars for a year now. While people do complain about them being overpriced (5k per month and 20k for an annual membership), my opinion has been that there is perhaps some value since so many people join the gym. Also, since it is covered under my company’s fitness benefit, I really can’t complain.

Hence, this post is not meant to rant about their pricing. The whole problem started when I went to renew my membership. I asked the chief instructor on the floor around the third week of July about renewing it and he told me that new rates will be applicable from August beginning with new offers and I should wait. I decided to delay the renewal since I still had a few weeks left. One the first of August, a colleague of mine told me that there was a new scheme in Talwalkars under which renewal was only about 15k. He called them up and cross-checked with them. I thought the deal made good sense so I even sent out a mail to people at large in my office so that they could avail of the deal if they so wished.

When we reached the gym, the instructor (the one I had asked earlier) informed us that renewal would come to about 20k, a full 5k more than what we had heard. What they had done was bumped up the price by 3k and were then giving a 2k discount under an ‘early bird’ offer. Renewals would get a further 1k discount. Talwalkars has other schemes (such as discounts on couple membership) but he was extremely reluctant to share these with us (though he kept insisting that the prices are decided by the head office and they have to follow the catalog but he was not allowed to share the catalog with the customers). He said that he is not allowed to give us the details by the head office. On prodding further, he did give us the catalog sent by the head office, and we found that a discount of 15% is available in the case of renewal. However, he informed us that such a discount was applicable only on the full price (bumped up by 3k than the current price and this fact was not mentioned in the catalog) so the deal would come out to be more expensive for us. He was obviously not very comfortable with us asking a number of pointed questions because he seemed to be sweating profusely. I asked him for a proof somewhere in between, and he started fidgeting so much that I felt he was trying to evade.

The fun continued when I came back to the office and tried the Talwalkras number again. I called up the Jayanagar branch and they told me that the rate was 15k (n fact, they also said that the rates all over the country are higher). I called up a number of other branches as well, and it seemed to be lower everywhere. In Bombay, the rates were 10k. I could not get through to the head office in Bombay. I checked at each of these branches and they said that the rates are the same all over the country (and were very insistent about this). When we called up the Sadashivnagar branch and asked them the reason for the bumped up rates, they said that they have better equipment than the other branches. It was not clear now whether the rates were decided by the branch or the head office.

I agree that Talwalkars is a private company and they can pretty much do whatever they wish to, but I would like to focus on the following complains:

  1. Don’t try to make a fool of loyal customers: In most other shops (or organizations), if there is an impending price increase the shopkeeper would actually inform you and try to get more sales. It also makes sense to inform loyal customers anyway, at least they should get some rewards for their loyalty. It seems obvious that Talwalkars Sadashivnagar is making enough money and doesn’t give a damn whether older members leave or continue. On the contrary, they wish to bump up the price for them so that they can extract more money. At the same time, you can not ask repeat customers to pay the same amount as new joinees, esp. when the service is like a gym. If you mention a 15% discount, it should be given on the price you are charging new joinees and not a bumped up price which clearly implies fleecing. (In fact, a lot of other people have also left the gym for various reasons which I will not belabor here)
  2. There has to be transparency in pricing: If you are referring to a catalog, make it public and have the policies clearly mentioned. There is no point of playing a game of FUD with your customers. Moreover, the pricing should be simple. If there are alternate schemes, state them clearly, and not make a mess of the pricing structure so that the customer doesn’t trust you. Either there should not be any ambiguity, or if there is, the benefit of doubt should be given to the customer. He is the king, after all!
  3. Have clear communications between the head office and the branch: While it is very apt to have pricing being decided centrally, it is important to have them communicated to every branch. If the branch manager says, ‘We’re sorry, but everything is decided by the head office, and we can’t do anything’, the customer is going to wonder what he is there for. They could very well do away with him and replace him by a membership vending machine (a la a Coke vending machine). Also, if there is differentiation between the branches, it should be clear. I am still not sure if the differential pricing is a matter of policy, or if the guy was trying to cheat me.
  4. Hire competent people: The most important thing. You can be doing each of the three above, but if the person in-charge does it convincingly, the customer is not going to feel sour (I am actually giving wrong advice here!). The point is, the person should be able to handle uncertainties, and tricky situations, if they arise. We don’t want answers like “Cummon man, do you not trust me?” from the in-charge. Of course, we don’t trust you. The FUD game never works.
  5. Let customers see value in the price: Though I promised not to talk about it, I have to revisit this. At the end of the day, there has to be value. I thought that my year-long association should have promised me a better price. Most companies give a lower reimbursement for renewals as compared to new joinees, precisely for the reason. At least in the case of a gym, a repeat customer has much lower cost: since he knows most exercises and just has to use the equipment. It was very clearly noticeable that the trainers were only interested in helping people who had coughed up more money for getting a personal trainer, and others were left to fend for themselves. If that is the policy, so be it. But then, the customer has to be charged commensurate to what he is getting.

Of course, I had refused to renew and I would recommend the same to others. The price is not the pain point because finally a person has to judge if s/he sees enough value and s/he wishes to spend that much money for the service s/he is getting. However, what irks me is the fact that they are trying to so blatantly fleece customers. They obviously seem to think the Customer is an Ass.

Thanks to all this, I am now enjoying the Sankey Tank in the mornings.

Update: Sriram has posted his own horrendous experiences with the Talwalkars Sadashivnagar branch at his blog: http://talwalkars.blogspot.com

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