Friday, December 12, 2008

Making Bangles, Saving Energy

This was a visit of many firsts – my first visit to the ‘Glass Capital’ of India - Firozabad; my introduction to the process of bangle-making and the first time I have actually seen the results of a energy research project that benefits thousands of people.

Until a few years ago, Firozabad used to be enveloped in a cloud of smoke coming from thousands of coal-fired furnaces. The fact that the city was a mere 40km from the yellowing marbles of the Taj Mahal in Agra, earned it a lot of attention from environmental activists.

In 1994, the Supreme Court imposed restrictions on four major sources of pollution within the Taj Trapezium Zone (TTZ) – automobiles in Agra city, the Mathura Oil Refinery, the Foundries in Agra, and the Glass industry in Firozabad. They were given a deadline and told to either shut down, switch to cleaner fuels or to move out of the 10,400 TTZ.

Among the hundreds of glass factories in Firozabad agonizing over the SC order, Islam Khan was the first to open the doors of his factory, Express Glass Works (EGW), to researchers seeking to help the industry switch from coal to gas fired furnaces. It was a tough decision – on one hand was the cost of displacing people associated with EGW for over three generations, and other the other, was the economic imperatives -- a coal furnace costs less than Rs. 200,000; for a 30% reduction in energy consumption, he had to install a facility that cost Rs. 3000,000! Clearly, this defied business logic, so Khan had to be persuaded with generous subsidies from SDC and promises of international technical support through TERI.

When the gas furnace was finally ready, one huge problem still remained – EGW was famous for its blood-red “Lal Anju” bangles. Somehow the clean-fuel technology had robbed the factory of its USP. TERI tried to solve the problem by bringing in Indian and international experts but nothing worked. Ultimately, Islam Khan had to use his own ingenuity and skills to bring about a consistent, deep red into his bangles.

Today the factory is veritable beehive of activity. More than a hundred workers go about their work – feeding the ovens with sand, caustic soda and other chemicals; scooping out ladles of glowing, molten glass; adding strips of color and softening them again for the ustads who transfer fine threads of glass on to a rotating shaft, resulting in long glass springs which are then split using diamond tipped cutters.

Ultimately what exits the factory gates are the “spilt” bangles. These are then sent to smaller shops where they are fused, glazed and polished in smaller ovens (paka-bhattis) before going out to the retail outlets.

Thanks to the Supreme Court directive, more than 40 units in Firozabad have now switched to the cleaner, gas-fired furnaces. The workers continue to work in difficult conditions but at least they are able to retain their jobs in a city where the air is lot cleaner than it used to be.

The main furnace

Steady hands that turn molten glass into bangle spirals

Splitting the spirals
References & Links:

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Mumbai Terror - A Week Later

Last week was a nightmare.

As soon as we heard of the assault, we were making desperate calls to check on our friends & relatives in Mumbai, one of whom was a senior manager at the Taj. When we finally got through to him, he was cursing himself for leaving office at 8:30PM. And for the rest of the sleepless night he kept getting desperate calls from friends trapped in the hotel, many of whom were later randomly shooting the corridors and kitchens.

The TV channels have squeezed this tragedy for what it was worth. Now it is disheartening to see print media too go down an all too familiar road - projecting the Mumbai terror-attack on the global canvas and looking for dramatic, quick solutions - bombing raids on the "known camps" in Pakistan, following the dubious US-Israeli model of chasing mirages - a strategy that is only guaranteed to create more suicide bombers.

My guess is that if the Jehadi's are smart enough to plan and execute such an operation, they also know how to lie low until we finish our predictable debates, sack our scapegoats and settle down once again into our usual, pathetic complacency.

If any of the 10 jehadis (or their friends / families) had been at the receiving end in Kashmir (81-90) or Gujarat ('02) , perhaps I could have empathized with their rage and fury. But by all accounts, they just seem to be a bunch of brainwashed kids from the "land of the pure", seeking martyrdom by slaughtering innocents.

Its unfair to rob them of their dreams. Without any further delay, our covert ops guys ought to speedily home-deliver martyrdom to the jehadis, focusing first on the ideologues and rabble-rousers who would not dream of putting themselves in harms way. The kids may yet want to keep Bollywood as an alternate career option. Aerial bombing is best avoided - its a blunt, messy tool - especially across international borders.

Given that this been a spectacular success for the mad mullas, we can be sure that video clippings from Mumbai will be used to train, inspire the martyrs-in-waiting. At least five more jehadis of the same batch must be chilling out somewhere waiting for further instructions from Karachi. So, in the days to come, I am hoping that the IB-RAW spooks will pull up their socks and that the state govts will finally implement the long-overdue police reforms leading up to better trained, better armedpolicemen on the streets within the next few weeks / months.

I'm praying this beleaguered govt doesn't act in haste. We need them to prepare for a marathon and i fear they might be aiming just for a100m dash to the next elections. I'm praying that public anger does not evaporate as it usually does and that something good will come out of this mess.

Afterthoughts -- Worth Reading :

Death Of A Salesman And Other Elite Ironies - Tarun Tejpal, Tehelka - 13 Dec., 2008

"For years, it has been evident that we are a society being systematically hollowed out by inequality, corruption, bigotry and lack of justice. The planks of public discourse have increasingly been divisive, widening the faultlines of caste, language, religion, class, community and region. As the elite of the most complex society in the world, we have failed to see that we are ratcheted into an intricate framework, full of causal links, where one wrong word begets another, one horrific event leads to another. Where one man’s misery will eventually trigger another’s..."

The chatteranti
Shekhar Gupta, Indian Express
, Dec 06, 2008

"...Since TV chat shows, SMS and chain emails have become the main forum of our domestic debate and political discourse among the upper crust, it is safe to go by the evidence of what you see and read there. Any number of illiterate emails and SMSes now float around, not merely cursing politicians, but spreading utter falsehoods about the Constitution and laws...."

The rampaging elephant
Vir Sanghvi, Hindustan Times, Dec 06, 2008

"When the attacks began, I applauded the anger. It did make a difference. Nobody ever loses his job in India because of failure. But such was the public rage that three heads promptly rolled: the Union Home Minister, the Chief Minister of Maharashtra and the Deputy Chief Minister...But now the anger is so diffused and so unconstructive that I doubt if it will achieve anything more. So, what went wrong? Why did we suddenly lose our focus and start striking out wildly in all directions?.."