Saturday, January 12, 2008

The New York Model

We recently made our annual Christmas pilgrimage to the great American "North-East" - the New York Metro area. The trip was one of contrasts: the serene isolation of Princeton at one end of the spectrum and the bustling multitudes of Manhattan at the other.

Manhattan is a tiny island which houses 1.2 million people - a staggering population density of 26,000 per square kilometer - a ratio similar to that of another financial hub, Mumbai, the densest city in the world. (Why New York City is not in the top twenty list in population density is because its other "boroughs", Staten Island, Queens, The Bronx and Brooklyn are relatively sparsely populated - though dense by American Standards.).

Our trip to New York city was punctuated by suppressed restroom-visiting urges. The damned place is filled to the brim with establishments doing their best to cram a pretzel, a hot dog or a burger of some sort into your throat - but their attitudes towards letting one relieve oneself in the privacy of a urinal leave a lot to be desired. In New York city, it is fair to say that one is more or less water-tight.

The life-line of the city is the sub-way. With such phenomenal population densities, it would be unimaginable if New Yorkers drove like the average American. If almost every grown adult in Manhattan had a vehicle (something like the average Dallas or Houston inhabitant), the resulting chaos on the street would probably make Bangalore streets look as lonely as Siberia. New York relies on its sub-way - all 229 miles of it - almost exclusively to get its people from Point A to Point B - often via Points C,D and F - but never in more than half an hour. The Sub-way is unobtrusively underground in Manhattan - and operates each and every hour of the day, every day of the year.

Turns out, we experienced almost all the cliches associated with subway riding in New York City. Grumpy passengers who utter expletives into infinity when their foot is inadvertently trampled upon; broken down ticket vending machines (which accept every cash denomination except the one you have in your wallet); book shop clerks reluctant to break a $10 (change is worth its weight in gold, apparently in NYC); noisy infants raising a racket in the train; condescending reservation booth attendants (who love informing the masses that they don't accept credit cards)...

Housing in Manhattan is compact - and the average person lives in a minuscule (but optimally designed) apartment. Apartments are invariably in multiple story buildings - and bungalows as a concept do not exist in Manhattan. Groceries are sold in small roadside shops - and not in those walmartish monstrosities that have proliferated elsewhere in the US. A new trend is to get groceries delivered home - after shopping for the same over the internet- but one does not get "the everyday low price". But all that being said, the average Manhattan Dweller earns much more than the average New-Yorker.

Consider, on the other hand that epitome of American prosperity, Dallas, Texas. Dallas houses are nothing short of palaces - all (invariably) centrally air-conditioned in summer and centrally heated in winter. Dallas residents are ostracized from society unless they possess one of them vehicle thingamajigs. (For the area is so tremendous that the apology that they have for "public transport" is almost laughable at). It is no surprise to see that the average Dallas Resident consumes 16,000 (kW-hr) units of electricity a year; wheras the average New Yorker consumes only 5000: and this includes the obscene lighting excesses at Times Square at night! Remember, New York is miserably cold (much colder than Dallas) in Winter and just a little cooler than Dallas in Summer. And now considering the biggest offender: petrol (Gas to the American). The average New-Yorker hardly uses any petrol directly, wheras the Dallas resident almost swallows it by the bucketful.

Dense developed cities such as NYC, Chicago, Tokyo and London are marvels of efficiency - their entire infrastructure system: the water supply, the emergency management, the waste management is nothing short of a modern wonder.

Common sense tells us that the future of Indian cities is going to be just like New York. I feel fears of an imminent infrastructure crisis hastened by the arrival of one "Tata Nano" are ill founded in the long run. And I would believe the additional pressure imposed by the likes of the people's car on the infrastructure will just hasten the eventual completion of Mass Rapid Transit Systems.

To me, the trip to New York was an eye opener. It made me optimistic about the future of India - for New-York style population densities are common in India. And evidence that things are moving in the right direction: the New Delhi Metro - and the initiatives to mimic the same in all other cities. We're not headed for an armageddon with Nanos flooding the streets in these big cities: trust me, the free market will see to it (because parking prices and fuel prices will sky-rocket, creating a significant dis-incentive from using personal transport). People will find keeping vehicles in the cities as expensive as New Yorkers find keeping cars. The future still looks bright!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom

When Richard Feynman uttered these words in 1959, little did he know that 58 years later, an Indian Industrialist would make a very serious attempt to prove him right (in a context he would never have imagined). Richard Feynman's famous words are considered by many to be origin of the modern obsession with the science Nano-technology. And fittingly, the "one-lakh" car is called "Tata Nano" - possibly reflecting on the fact that there's plenty of room at the bottom of the economic pyramid to sell a car to the Indian masses. [In reality, his target would seem to be the middle of the pyramid. The "Micro" might have been a better name - but nit-picking will not get us anywhere.].

The Tata Nano is slated to deliver a staggering 24kmpl - almost 50% more than my Toyota Yaris, the most efficient non-Hybrid in the USA. The specifications show it costs a lot less originally and minimizes the monthly expenditures due to fueling. Less CO2 in the atmosphere than its nearest competitors.

Now, let me address the issues raised by those wet blankets: GreenPeace and Sunita Narain . Sunita Narain (the Anti-Coke/Pepsi Campaigner who has accused the said corporations of saturating their beverages with pesticides) suggested that the government "Tax the vehicle like crazy" - for these vehicles will push the Indian urban air quality further into the abyss. Greenpeace held a protest outside the Delhi motor show claiming that the vehicles would add to the CO2 emissions hastening Armageddon. And everybody I met in India (well, every upper-middle class / rich person) did voice serious concerns about the wisdom of inflicting Mumbai/Bangalore/Hyderabad's static roads with many more cheap vehicles.

Very serious concerns; all equally pertinent.

I would like to split the concerns into two categories: concerns that can be addressed by market forces and the democratic forces, and those that cannot be addressed by the same.

Air Quality and Infrastructural Issues:

Urban India is a nightmare. Polluted like hell. And adding more vehicles to the urban mess would seem to make the matter worse. These concerns are extremely legitimate. And so are the concerns of an infrastructural break-down. But these concerns are universal: they affect everyone. By "taxing the small car to hell", one focuses on the most insignificant of the sinners: a vehicle that gives 24 kmpl (against the current industry average of 14kmpl); the smallest motor-car on the road (two or three of which can fit inside the average SUV) - a vehicle which conforms with the stringent Euro IV norms (as opposed to the scooters on the road which are predominantly two-stroke disasters).

The claim that these little vehicles will expose infrastructural deficiencies is quite obvious. But "taxing them to hell" is sheer economic bigotry. All vehicles on the road are responsible for this mess: the smaller cars less so than the large ones. Perhaps an infrastructure and pollution tolls could be levied in urban areas: creating a dis-incentive from alone-travel.

Another positive that one over-looks is that the impending infrastructure crisis will make infra-structuring an economic and political priority hastening an improvement. More politicians will be promising efficient mass transit; more Corporations will fund politicians who focus on issues like mass transit. Humans are, after all, at their best in a crisis, as Dr. Manmohan Singh showed in 1991.

Global Warming Issues

Political forces in the west have failed miserably in making potent anti-global warming legislation. It is blatantly unrealistic (and foolish) to expect India be a trailblazer and make such legislation - especially when it does contribute just a minute little bit to global warming.

But still, in this day and age, the reality of global warming cannot be ignored - even in India. There's two ways to tackle the global warming issue:

1. Don't develop. Stay poor forever. Greenpeace agrees.
2. Develop. Do so in a sustainable way. Why should only the western man have a car? Why can't the average Indian have a car?

In my mind, it is incredibly foolish to protest the launch of the one of world's least polluting mass-vehicles. What is green-peace doing when they sell Hummers in Texas? It is sheer economic bigotry on GreenPeace's part to protest the launch of the Nano - not to mention foolishness.

If the time comes when India really has to do something about global warming (and looking at India's per capita emissions, it does not look like it is going to happen for a long, long time) - then everyone should foot the bill. The best way to take care of it eventually is to impose a carbon tax - which will create an incentive for owning a vehicle with higher mileage like the Nano - rather than, say, a Hummer.

Though this shows that the Indian corporate houses are finding making the lives of the poorest of the poor much better a profitable proposition, this vehicle will still not be able to touch the lives of around half-a-billion Indians. One hopes that future innovations will cater to those lower down the pyramid. But it is hard to be optimistic looking at the infinite ocean of urban poverty and misery in India.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

An Embarassment Down Under

When I was much younger (fifth grade?) we used to play cricket in parks (breaking numerous windows, causing physical harm to numerous unsuspecting aunties sitting in the park and scaring the living daylights out of (and sometimes, provoking into aggression) numerous stray canines). We were, as a consequence never popular with the flora and fauna, but we did have to good time. Oh, we had our own fair share of sledging (almost everyone called me "fat"; someone else was called "Godzilla" (because the individual had an uncanny resemblance to the lizard in question)). We had our own fair share of racism (saala "madrasi"/ "sardar"/ "bihari"/ "chinki" : all not in the sense of utmost amicability). We had our own fair share of physical violence - I remember fighting with someone when we had a disagreement over a run-out. We had our own biased umpires (often quite blatant, often just plain incompetent like Steve Buknor).

Turns out professional cricket is just the same - no matter the colour of your skin, no matter the amount of money you earn. I must say, all the gentlemen who claim that cricket is their game must be spinning in their graves. Not that I care. Not that anyone does.

There's no way anyone can beat the Australian team right now. Since actual test victories against the Australians are so hard to come by - the team from the Sub-Continent will try to do the next best thing. Steal a moral victory. Does the term "sore loser" ring a bell somewhere?

But that being said, the issue of Harbhajan being reported for racism one so full with irony that it is identical to Mahmoud Ahmedinijad joining a Feminist Rally. The Australians are the master sledgers: almost as bad as that bully who used to play with us in the park (Let's Call him M.) . M had the choicest things to say about his victim's parents and siblings in Hindi. Let's jt leave that there with the confidence that all my Indian reader(s) familiar with Hindi would more or less have understood what the offensive terms in question are.

It is pathetic to hear Sharad Pawar consider abandoning the series. We never abandoned our games when we played in the park: even if one side had to bat in pitch dark. (One can imagine the umpiring standards in pitch dark!)

Here's what I say to the Australian Team. It is incredibly stupid to report Harbhajan for acrimonious behaviour. It is Indian culture to make fun of other people's races. Indian Ancestors did not enslave black people, so they're not that sensitive to racism*. (If you want to be a stickler for facts, direct Australian ancestors did not enslave black people - but the sensitivity to racial discrimination is owing to the European and American experience with African exploitation). Deal with it. You're no angels either. You sledge like crazy. Withdraw all charges against Bhajii and go to Perth and start sledging. And be sledged too.

And here's what I say to the Indian team. It makes me SICK to see you resort to emotion off the field when you find yourselves incapable of making your game speak. It's just too bad Buknor is going blind and deaf. Shit happens. Deal with it. Go and play the game in Canberra. Go to Perth and try to avoid an innings defeat. (That would be quite an achievement on that bouncy pitch). And then, try to beat Australia in at least one one-day match. And then go back to India, overthrow the BCCI monopoly, let the ICL give it good competition so that one fine day, any domestic team from, say, Hyderabad can beat the Baggy Green.

* I hope Indians get sensitive to communalism, regionalism and casteism (Indian forms of racism). But it does not look like happening anytime soon. Contemporary Indian society is bigoted to the core. Luckily, the government is not, thanks to universal franchise, a triumph of democracy.