Thursday, April 28, 2011

On "Independent" Regulators

Under the shadow of Fukushima and the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, India has decided to go ahead with a N-power project at Jaitapour, Maharashtra. A report in the Hindu adds that, "in a concession to heightened public awareness of the need for proper regulation and oversight...the government promised to introduce a bill in the next session of the Parliament for creating an independent and autonomous Nuclear Regulatory Authority of India (NRAI) that would subsume the existing Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB)".

How many regulatory institutions in India are actually "independent and autonomous"?  Given the way in which agencies like TRAI have been created then then rendered toothless, the NRAI-bill is unlikely to inspire much confidence in N-safety.

There is, of course, a world of difference between regulating telecom and N-power. The inability of TRAI to foresee or prevent scams does not result in permanent genetic damage, malignant tumors or death.

The hazards of creating a pliable "independent and autonomous" N-regulatory authority has been brought out forcefully in a recent NYT article. Onishi and Belson write about the 'culture of complicity' behind the recent disaster at Fukushima-Daiichi plant.

The regulations that control the Japanese N-industry have a record of being inconsistent, nonexistent and unenforced. Thanks to a nexus between politicians, bureaucrats and industry executives, the regulatory system - headed by the Nuclear and Industry Safety Agency - remained non-transparent, encouraging collusive interests that "underlie the establishment’s push to increase nuclear power despite the discovery of active fault lines under plants, new projections about the size of tsunamis and a long history of cover-ups of safety problems".

How do we prevent such a collusion of vested interests? Onishi and Belson present the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in USA as a possible institutional model which is free to choose from a pool of engineers unaffiliated with a utility or manufacturer, including those who learned their trade in the Navy or at research institutes.

The very fact that government of India intends to subsume AERB into NRAI may be a tacit admission that it is not, at present, an effective regulatory body. But will the NRAI turn out to be nothing but old wine in a new, subsumed bottle?


Dhar, Aarti (2011). Green Signal to Jaitapur Nuclear Project
Onishi, Norimitsu and Belson, Ken (2011). Culture of Complicity Tied to Stricken Nuclear Plant. New York TImes, 26 April 2011

Monday, April 25, 2011

BSNL 3G - An Exercise in Frustration

A few days ago, I was taken in by a BSNL campaign and purchased a 3G data-card which promised high-speed (7.2 Mbps), value-for-money Internet connectivity. It has been a disappointment.

The promise of high speed has remained just that - a promise.

I had initially shortlisted three service providers, after consulting folks (I thought) who knew better - Tata-Docomo, Reliance and BSNL. All three provided 3G services but I was told that the first two - Tata and Reliance - offered this service only on a CDMA platform whereas BSNL had it on the more widely used GSM platform. I wanted a connection that could be used throughout India and BSNL, with its huge, government-backed infrastructure seemed like a logical choice.


The first thing you notice about BSNL is that they offer no brochures or instruction pamphlets to its potential customers. The basket of services on offer keeps changing so frequently that sales personnel themselves are unclear about what they are selling. They have clearly laid out procedures for giving out connections (application, id proof & address proof) and in exchange for the fees (R 2500+) you get a data-card, helpline number (1503) and a verbal assurance that the service would be activated by 4:00 PM the same day.


The actual activation took more then three days. At the promised 4:00PM, the customer service officers (CSO's) at the helpline number 1503 said that I had been misinformed by the sales personnel - actual activation would take 24 hours. After 24 hours they said new connections take 24-48 hours, and after 48 hours they informed me that the connection had been activated but would work only if I purchased a "recharge" for more than R50.

What about the 500MB data that was supposed to come free with a new connection? Sorry, you were misinformed.


Neither sending nor receiving speed ever exceeds 100 KBps - at least in Trivandrum, Kerala.

Here is what R. Dinakaran writes about this issue in the Hindu Business Line (16 May 2011):
Another operator attracts customers by advertising speeds of 7.2 MBPS. When a potential customer wanted to test the speed at the operator's demo zone, he was informed that the services were still not ‘stable' and that he would get speeds of only around 3 MBPS. The speed test revealed the real speed — it never crossed 2.2 MBPS!


"Thank you for calling BSNL 3G Broadband Services...Your are in Q...your estimated hold-time is one minute...".

The first time I called 1503, a monotonous, deadpan voice went on repeating this message for 10 minutes before the call was finally picked up by a customer service officer (CSO). The wait may have been worthwhile if the problem got resolved, but it didn't.

Most CSO's were found to be inconsistent, evasive, and quite unhelpful. The only exception was a lady named Sunita. All other CSO's have this uncanny ability to cut the call whenever you ask them to explain something. At the customer help-desk at the BSNL office Statue, Trivandrum, the youngsters were found to be especially cocky and rude.

Some samples of red herrings from BSNL Customer Support Officers-
  • A call to *123# is returned with an SMS giving you data usage status but since it did not contain the updated validity period, I asked a CSO. Their reply - "Just send a message 'DATA3G' to 53733 for this information". The reply from 53733? - "This option is not available on your mobile number. Pl dial *123# to check details"!!


The BSNL website has a chart listing recharge rates for 3G prepaid services.  However most retailers in Trivndrum (Vattioorkavu, Shastamangalam) prefer to exclude BSNL from their list of mobile support services. The rare ones that do offer a recharge claim to be unaware about the current rates. Even those with a retailer's access to BSNL website is unable to tell the customer the exact recharge amount (eg. R203) without which he is unable to complete a transaction!   What prevents BSNL from communicating its tariff plans to its own vendors & retailers?

BSNL's tag-line for its 3G services is "Faster than your thoughts". Surely somebody out there has a wicked sense of humor...


Monday, April 11, 2011

India's Ban on Japanese Food Imports

India's food imports from Japan have been relatively insignificant. But on 5 April 2011,  India became the first country to suspended all Japanese food imports. This ban was to be reviewed after three months but within two days of announcement, the government did a U-turn and reversed the decision. What explains this unseemly hurry to impose a meaningless ban, and then to revoke it?

By all accounts, this seems to yet another case of the right hand not knowing that the left hand is up to, within the government of India. The ban seems to have been declared by the Ministry of Health after receiving inputs from the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India, Board of Radiation & Isotope Technology, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), Atomic Energy Regulatory Board and the Indian Institute of Toxicology Research.

Since the Ministry of Trade had not been consulted, it promptly issued a notice rejecting the Health Ministry order. It insisted - perhaps quite rightly - that a blanket ban was unwarranted and that it would merely ask for some extra paperwork (radiation-free certification) from the importers.

At the end of the day, it is the government of India that stood exposed for the incompetence of its senior bureaucrats.


India bans food import from Japan for 3 months (The Hindu, 6 APr., 2011).

India Ban on Food Imports from Japan - Economist -

India Bans Japan Food Imports (Reuters, 5 Apr 2011) -

India U-turn on Japan food import ban

India does a U-Turn (Sky News, 8 April 2011). 

Shikata,Takagi,Takashima & Karaki, "Japanese Food Safety Concern: Fact and Fiction" (FCCJ, 11 May 2011)

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Quake Notes

Today, it is exactly one month after 'the big one' hit us at Tsukuba-U, Ibaraki Prefecture... and I am now tired of answering questions about our quake experience in Japan.

What were you doing when the quake struck? Were things really as bad as portrayed by BBC and CNN? Have you been exposed to radiation? Will I get cancer if I sit next to you? Hahaha.

This post is just an attempt to collate my impressions and images from 3/11 and the difficult days that followed.

Shock & Awe:

I was having a late lunch at home, sitting next to our baby - 4-month-old Aki. My wife had gone to pick our daughter from her school and we were all packed-up to leave for a holiday to Kyoto & Nara as soon as she got back home. Suddenly, the ground trembled and an overhead lamp started swinging. Oh, well, another one of those regular tremors, I thought. But then the shaking just would not stop - it got stronger and stronger...cupboards opened on their own, the windowpanes rattled wildly and strange, groaning noises came from the building girders. I grabbed Aki and stumbled out of the building to see buildings swaying like reeds.

It was cloudy and cold outside and brown, windblown seeds slowly floated down, covering everything like brown, fluffy snowflakes.

Standing outside in my stockings with a baby in my arms, I was filled with an immense sense of awe - at the force of nature that made the ground beneath my feet feel like jelly, and at the buildings around me that were performing this surreal, swaying dance instead of just breaking up and collapsing.

I tried to use the mobile phone… it was useless - the lines were already clogged. Once the first tremors subsided, I tried getting into the house but the doorway had been jammed by a fallen shoe-rack. I squeezed my way in to find the house in a complete mess.  Everything had come crashing down - TV, cupboards, cutlery, bookshelves but my half-eaten lunch was still intact on the table.

Even while I was wondering about the next thing to do, the tremors resumed. This time I went out wearing my shoes and jacket, with Aki in one arm and the baby-cart in another. He was to spend the rest of the evening outdoors lying peacefully in the cart, gently rocked to sleep by the incessant aftershocks.

First Moves:

A large crowd had collected by now at the Ichinoya parking lot. Electricity, internet links, water supply had already been shut down and security personnel in blue uniforms darted from one building to another, checking for trapped people and gas leakages.

Volunteers with yellow armbands appeared and urged everybody to assemble at the Ichinoya community centre. At the assembly, a plump, elderly officer in fluorescent green windcheater told everybody to calm down and stay within the community center. Within minutes it was announced that this building too was unsafe and it was better to move to the soccer ground across the lake and over-bridge. While we waited here, I checked the only device that seemed to be working - the Kindle e-reader. Our quake was already on BBC headlines and there was some alerts about a tsunami.


Even as the crowd gathered outdoors, stunned and bewildered at the quake & aftershocks, a garbage-truck slowly trundled in. The driver stepped out, glanced nonchalantly at the fuss around him and went on to briskly load his truck. He then continued on his rounds as though nothing had happened. Similarly, the C10 city buses continued to ferry people from one place to another, running their buses on schedule, and on time!

Extra Care:

The initial uncertainty and confusion dissipated as soon as more people appeared with loudspeakers and yellow-armbands. We were moved from the increasingly chilly outdoors to a gym. Its dark, cavernous interiors had been lit up with kerosene heaters. In the orange glow everybody sat in silence, waiting for the next round of tremors to rattle the steel beams and corrugated roof, high overhead.

Buses were then arranged to ferry the students in three groups - the families were to go first, followed by the single women and men. We missed the first bus- I had cycled back home for some emergency supplies - diapers, water and snacks. Instead of just asking us to go in the buses that followed, we were ferried in a special car to the evacuation center.

A few days later while traveling back the the university in a bus, the driver made an unscheduled stop, shut down the engine and stepped out of the vehicle. Even as we wondered what was happening, he walked across to the middle of the road, picked a large branch that had fallen there, shoved it beyond the pedestrian walkway before returning to his seat. A few hundred meters away, the same procedure was repeated twice over. I wondered if such a notion would even cross the mind of a city bus driver in India.


It is past midnight...its raining and freezing cold outdoors. You are glad to be back home from the evacuation center. Even though there is no water in the taps, you have electricity and a connection to the internet. The kids are fast asleep and then, suddenly, that familiar, and, by now, dreaded rumble, starts again. You grab the kids but where do you go? If you stay indoors the building might just collapse - after all, how many shocks can a building take? It might be safer in the sleet & rain but what if the rainfall is radioactive? What do you do? Where do you go??


At the evacuation center everybody was given a pack of salted biscuits. Hoping to find something more nutritious we set out looking for shops that were still open. After walking a few miles we found that not only small convenience stores but even large stores like Seibu and Dayz Town were closed. Luckily, a friend appeared in a car and we expanded our range. Far away from Tsukuba Centre, one convenience store was still open but the shelves are already empty. The smell of smashed liquor bottles lingered in the air; the floor looks as though it has been hurriedly mopped to make way for the crowds looking for something to eat and drink.

We picked up whatever is available - snacks, tetrapacks of yogurt, dried fruits and nuts - and slowly drove back to the evacuation centre. The only eatery that seemed to be open was Sukiya, but here too, the kitchen had been moved outdoors to serve a long line of customers patiently waiting for their turn to be served take-away packets.

Amazingly, even at the few shops that remained open, goods were sold at exactly the original marked price, even when the food shortages were at their worst.


The home-seismograph

Trouble starts at Fukushima

Helmeted news-reader

Quake damage at Ichinoya
Lining-up for drinking water at Hirasuna

Wobbly pavements, Hanabatake

Friday, April 08, 2011

Bangalore to Vythiri

Pics from a road-trip to Wyanad and the forest ranges in the Western Ghats, South India.

View Vythiri, Wyanad, Kerala (3-5 April 2011) in a larger map