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Written by on January 9th, 2015

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Make sure our markets glitter

Written by on November 20th, 2014

I’ve been worrying — to anyone who will put up with listening — that the attention generated by the Swatch Bharat Abhiyan will be diverted from lifesaving efforts to end rural open defecation, towards cleaning up litter in the markets of the urban rich.  You can tell that I didn’t make up this picture I took in Defence Colony this morning because my stock example has been Khan Market:


Op-ed in Indian Express: Can India be far behind?

Written by on November 19th, 2014

My op-ed on emissions and coal in India was published today in the Indian express.  I’ll post it below, but first this haunting photograph that accompanied Gardiner Harris’ article yesterday in the NYT on coal in Jharkhand and its implications or India and climate change — read it first!

Coal mining in Jharkhand.  As the top commenter wrote, it looks like Mordor from the Lord of the Rings.

Coal mining in Jharkhand. As the top commenter wrote, it looks like Mordor from the Lord of the Rings.


My article:

Can India be far behind?

This week, China announced a historic goal: its carbon emissions will peak around 2030, and subsequently decline. This announcement is widely regarded as a landmark moment in humanity’s efforts to avert catastrophic climate change.  Scientific evidence leaves no room to doubt that the well-being of all nations will soon depend critically on the emissions that we are all pumping into the air today.

For now, the worst offenders are the richer countries of North America and Europe. But, the large developing economies are catching up fast.  Only China and the U.S. exceed India in annual carbon dioxide emissions; Europe does too, if it is counted as a country.

Yet, annual emissions are now declining in the U.S. and Europe, as well as in Canada, Australia, and South Africa. India’s rate of increasing emissions is greater than the combined rate of increase for the total of both Russia and all of Africa.  China’s announcement leaves India as the largest remaining carbon polluter without either declining emissions or a target set for declining emission levels.  Even if China’s commitment is a weak one – or would be met automatically under business as usual – it remains politically significant that a commitment was made.

So, an important question is whether India will be willing to match what China has done.   Can India join the ranks of the leading economies by committing to a timeline for reversing emissions?

Some readers may be surprised that I am writing about climate policy in India, having been born in the United States. Indeed, carbon emissions per person are well over 10 times in the U.S. what they are in India.  I would have very little to say in approval of the so-called “efforts” of the U.S. to reduce the chances of climate disaster.

But, every country must do its part, because climate change threatens us all. If an irresponsible, distracted driver is about to run you over as you walk across the street, you will die if you stand still, explaining calmly that the driver is at fault.  What matters most is to step out of the way of disaster.  You can sort out who to blame after you have done all you can to survive.

The threat to people in India from climate change is far more urgent than that of an out of control car. Analysis of infant mortality in India shows that on the hottest days, more children die.  Climate change can only be expected to increase these threats.

Some of the worse case scenarios would be almost immeasurably bad. Economist Martin Weitzman has concluded that we may face a 1% to 5% chance of global warming more than 10°C.  Climate scientists Steven Sherwood and Matthew Huber note that, because of the biology of our bodies, exposure to sufficiently high temperatures kills humans within hours.  Their models predict that such a temperature increase would make half of the world’s currently inhabitable land literally unlivable for humans – including essentially all of India.  One percent may sound like a small probability, but it becomes very important when attached to such a catastrophe.

Fortunately, many of the most useful steps would come at little cost to society. This is because about two-thirds of India’s carbon emissions from energy consumption are due to the consumption of coal.  Coal is not merely harmful to future generations due to carbon emissions: it also releases pollutants in the air that make people ill today.  The resulting sickness, loss of productivity, medical expenses, and deaths – to say nothing of long-lasting, but difficult to measure, effects on the health of growing babies – make coal terribly harmful to the people in India alive today.

A paper by economists Ian Parry and coauthors analyzes several carbon emitting countries, including India. They find that coal is so very bad for our health that limiting carbon emissions would be a money-saver and life-saver even if we did not care about climate change at all.  Politicians who claim that reducing emissions comes at a cost to development or India’s interests do not know the evidence: reducing coal emissions would both reduce emissions and make Indians healthier and more productive.

In other words, even if the present generation of people in India were completely indifferent to the well-being of their future descendants and were completely indifferent to the welfare of people in other countries, it would still make selfish sense to tackle carbon emissions from coal. And with China getting on board, there is no longer any good excuse for India not to.

China is already ahead of India on many dimensions of human development: infant mortality, female literacy, child stunting, and open defecation are only some of the most important for well-being.

This week, when China committed to reversing its increase in carbon emissions, it moved ahead of India on yet another critical dimension of human well-being. Neither we in India nor the rest of the world can afford for India to neglect to close this gap.

[All of my quantitative claims about international emissions in the opening paragraphs are based on this EIA database.]

Coal isn’t worth the costs

Written by on November 18th, 2014

I’m writing mainly to post a link to Gardiner Harris’s NYT story today: Coal rush in India could tip balance on climate change.  Getting energy from coal has truly awful health consequences — I sometimes think that if I weren’t working on open defecation, that would be where I should turn my attention.

The only thing I would add to Gardiner’s article is a reply to the quoted politicians who repeat the old misunderstanding that India needs coal to develop.  In fact, mounting evidence proves that coal is a bad economic deal even only for the present generation, ignoring climate change: the disease, medical expenses, and loss of life are simply too large to be worth it.  Two thirds of India’s emissions due to energy consumption are from coal, and that is something nobody needs: not future generations, not today’s workers and taxpayers, and certainly not tomorrow’s babies, who will attempt to grow healthy while breathing its smoke.

Wrong numbers: Attack on NREGA is misleading

Written by on November 10th, 2014

NREGA work sitePhoto Curtsey: The Hindu

A recent article in the Times of India by Dilip Abreu, Pranab Bardhan, Maitreesh Ghatak, Ashok Kotwal, Dilip Mookherjee and Debraj Ray poses a rational argument against phasing out the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. Here are some of the excerpts from the article.

The author’s say, “If, for the sake of argument, workers do currently earn Rs 80, it is only true that the gain for the NREGA worker is Rs 50. However, what matters is the gain, direct and indirect, for all workers. In this scenario, there will typically be a wage increase (though not “by leaps and bounds”, as attributed by BP to mysterious propagandists), which benefits all employed workers. This is possible even when NREGA employment is wholly concentrated in the slack season (if higher slack earnings tighten peak labour supply). Even small increases in the market wage translate into large aggregate benefits, given the size of the labour force under consideration.”

They also talk about the other non-transfer benefits of NREGA like assets creation and empowerment of women who work for NREGA, “Rural roads, soil conservation, flood control, groundwater recharge and land improvement projects may not shine as brightly as the smart cities BP so enthusiastically endorse, but they do contribute to India’s development. A recent study of over 4,000 NREGA assets across Maharashtra, by the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, found that most of them are valued by local residents…. for instance, empowerment of women who work in large numbers, reduction in distress migration and impact on schooling achievements.”

A lot of literature similar to these arguments is available for one to read. For instance, Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen in their book ‘An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contractions’ write, “There has been a major slowdown in the growth of real agricultural wages in the post reform period: from about 5 per cent per year in the 1980s to 2 per cent or so in the 1990sand virtually zero in the early 2000s. It is only after 2006, when NREGA came into force, that the growth of real agriculture wages picked up again, especially for woman.”

In a different paper ‘Equilibrium Distributional Impacts of Government Employment Programs: Evidence from India’s Employment Guarantee’, Clement Imbert and John Papp write, “The introduction of the program, public employment increased by .3 days per prime-aged person per month (1.3% of private sector employment) more in early districts than in the rest of India. Casual wages increased by 4.5%, and private sector work for low-skill workers fell by 1.6%.”

You can read the full article published in the Times of India here.

Stopping stunting, Swachh Bharat, and trash cans

Written by on November 9th, 2014

I’m writing from the opening minutes of a large Unicef conference called Stop Stunting at the Taj Palace hotel in Delhi.  On my way into the hotel, I had with me an empty soda can to throw away.  The lobby of the hotel is indeed palatial, but neither there, nor downstairs in the conference area, nor in the large meeting room of the conference could I find a trash can.

After searching this huge, glittering expanse, I eventually tried the men’s room.  But even there, the otherwise servile bathroom attendant yelled at me just before I dropped my piece of trash in: that trash can is isn’t for the cloth towels at the sinks.  So what am I supposed to do with it? He took it from me wordlessly.

Of course, trash cans will not stop or otherwise impact stunting — although one would not know it from the extent to which litter and sweeping have absorbed all the media and political attention of India’s new Swachh Bharat Mission.  But this surpassingly fancy hotel intends to have everything proper, and we learn something about cultural ideas of cleanliness and purity from what this goal, immaculately achieved, does and does not include.

It remains to be seen whether the focus of the Swachh Bharat Mission can be returned to rural open defecation, and the complex, deep challenges sanitation behavior change presents here.  I hope the this question will be at the heart of our thoroughly swachh conference to Stop Stunting.


For more reflection on the Swachh Bharat Mission, see Anand Teltumbde’s recent article in EPW.

Beyond brooms and toilets

Written by on November 7th, 2014

Nidhi Khurana wrote a nice article in the live mint about the governments Swachh Bharat Mission. She also refers to the SQUAT findings in her article.

Nidhi 1.1Nidhi 1.2Nidhi 2Nidhi 3Nidhi 4

You can also read the full article here

SQUAT dataset now available!

Written by on November 6th, 2014

squat logo_final_2

The full dataset from the SQUAT Survey is now available here! You will find the questionnaires and documentation files, also accessible at the same link as above, helpful if you decide to use the data.

We invite you all to play around with the data and do interesting analyses! Get in touch if you have questions, feedback, or things to share.

Sangita Vyas presenting at the Hindustan Uniliver panel discussion on Swachh Bharat Abhiyan

Written by on November 6th, 2014

photo 3

Our Associate Director, Sangita Vyas gave an illuminating presentation of the SQUAT findings and discussed the importance of behaviour change and monitoring latrine use. Other panelist at the session were Malini Mehra, founder and CEO of Centre for Social Markets, Mr. Sarasvati Prasad, Joint Secretory Ministry of drinking water and sanitation, Sanjeev Mehta from Uniliver, Raj Shah from USAID and Hand Washing Champion and Help a child reach 5 ambassador Kajol Devgan.

An insightful look at the hurdels of Swachh bharat Abhiyan

Written by on November 6th, 2014


sreenivasan-jainSreenivasan Jain: Is Swachh Bharat repeating mistakes of the past?

India’s proposed toilet revolution is all set to repeat mistakes of the past

Enter in Uttar Pradesh’s impoverished Sitapur district, and the toilets stand out in their striking white newness, one outside every home. We are told they came four months ago, under (NBA), the United Progressive Alliance-era scheme to build individual rural toilets, now replaced by the prime minister’s even more ambitious Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. On paper, the seemed unexceptionable: individual demands for toilets would be routed via a district level committee to the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, which would release money into the account of the gram sabha: Rs 10,500 for each latrine. It was left to the beneficiary to decide the choice of contractor, size, design and so on. adopts roughly the same demand-driven model.

In Ramduari, however, the toilets had an unused air about them. The village continues to defecate along the banks of a nearby canal. We had come on a day when the clouds were dark with the prospect of rain. Isn’t there a risk of faeces being washed into the canal? Yes, they said. Some even drink the water, we were told, an admission that drew nervous giggles. But why not use toilets? Hadn’t they asked for it? No. They were built in one swoop by the village pradhan, identikit structures for the whole village, each roughly the size of a guard hut outside an urban bungalow. Even so, why not use them now that they are there? To this, there were no clear answers. Some suggested that they were poorly built (this was strictly not true, at least not in every case). Others had more legitimate doubts about how the toilets are meant to work. The design we came across was the basic Sulabh-tested flush latrine, with the waste emptying, successively, into two underground tanks. After three years, the waste in the tank can be emptied and used as compost. Did anyone explain any of this? Or the importance of using toilets? The health risks of open defecation? The answer was a resounding no.

This might have something to do with the fact that the the NBA spent only four per cent of the 15 per cent it kept aside for what is known as Information, (IEC). The envisaged army of evangelists at the state, district, block and gram sabha level, who would convince or shame the populace into using toilets via plays, workshops, training sessions and monitoring visits remained largely on paper.

Our experience in Sitapur seemed to broadly match the findings of a much-quoted survey on toilet usage (or the lack of it) by the Uttar Pradesh-based RICE Institute, which surveyed 3,200 households in five Indian states to find that in 40 per cent of households that had toilets, at least one person still defecated in the open. The reasons varied from the notion that doing the business outdoors was healthier, to a reluctance to use poorly constructed sarkari latrines.

Nipun Vinayak, today a deputy secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, is not a great believer in the subsidy-driven, nanny state approach to the toilet problem. As the CEO of the zilla parishad Jalna in Maharashtra and later as Municipal Commissioner of the city of Nanded, he was witness to the merits of a community-based approach (known as or CLTS) to ending open defecation, where the focus is entirely on triggering a collective shift in social attitudes. “You have to stand in the shit and ask questions of the village like ‘who’s shit is this? And ‘where has yesterday’s shit gone?’. At first, they think of this as drama, but then the community realises this is the same shit that is ultimately contaminating our water and we need to stop it.”

At the ministry, we were told that has its merits but cannot be scaled up, a contention that blithely ignores neighbouring Bangladesh that aggressively adopted the community model to reduce open defecation from 34 per cent to three per cent in 20 years.

Swachh Bharat’s budget is three times the amount under NBA, but is a smaller proportion – eight per cent – of the net budget. The construction budget, by comparison is seven times greater. The overall budget of about Rs 30,000 crore a year is roughly equivalent to NREGA, about whose efficacy the new regime seems to have developed grave doubts.

How will this multi-crore frenzy of construction be monitored, given the depredations of the past? The ministry has launched a new app that will allow beneficiaries to upload pictures of their newly constructed toilets onto its website. SBA’s target of 110 million toilets in five years amounts to one toilet every second. Three weeks after the scheme launched, the app showed about 29 uploaded images, mostly desultory views of the ministry’s offices – empty workstations and water coolers. Tiny lettering on the top right hand corner said the app was still in “demo stage”.

You can also read the full article here

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