Saturday, August 27, 2011

Two Highways in Kerala

For anybody traveling out of Thiruvananathapuram by road, there are essentially two choices - the national highway (NH-47) or the Main Central (MC) Road. Both run through the length of Kerala with the NH mostly hugging the coastline and lagoons, while the MC is a roller-coaster snaking through the central hills and valleys.

Yesterday we had to make a round trip to Chertala (literally "Swamp Head"), around 180km from Tvm. For the onward journey we drove down the NH and returned in the evening using the MC. It was a journey that provided a glimpse into the patchwork of intentions that marks infra development in Kerala.

The National Highways are built and owned by the central government, with its management being outsourced to the state. In Kerala it follows the minimum national standards so we have a two-lane configuration all through. The poor quality of construction and maintenance is apparent in many places - potholes, loose gravel and traffic jams. The MC road, on the other hand, is now a strange animal - something of a cross between an autobahn and a bullock-cart track.

The stretch from Changanaserry to Pantalam is the bullock-cart patch, with the traffic crawling at snailpace through narrow, broken roads and single-lane bridges. Then, suddenly, as you approach Pandalam, you have stretches that are so perfect that it is difficult to believe that you are on the same highway! The two-lane highway now comes with clearly demarcated shoulders, lanes and crossings. The stretch is so good that you now have the time to take in the lush green hills and paddies dotting the countryside.

Strangely, there is no sign of any further effort to make the MC Road consistently better.  The complete absence of road construction equipment along the way makes you wonder what brought about this patchwork quilt where excellence and mediocrity sit side by side.


World Bank Project & Operations (2009): India: Kerala State Transport Project; URL -

Status Report: India - Kerala State Transport Project : P072539 - Implementation Status Results Report : Sequence 21; URL -

Kumar, Sanjeev V (2006): Kerala State transport project second phase to be launched next month, The Hindu BusinessLine 20 Jan 2006; URL -

Friday, August 26, 2011

Rescuing a Snake

Q: How does one rescue a trapped, tangled snake?
A: With a lot of trepidation!

Yesterday morning, our domestic help, Ramani, was fretting about a big snake that she'd found trapped on a neighbor's fish-tank netting. She said it was just a matter of time before the crows descended on it. My curiosity aroused, I tagged along with a camera in hand, hoping to get some frames before it was too late.

Attempting a rescue was something that never crossed my mind - until I saw this magnificent creature twisting helplessly. About five feet long and yellow-brown in color, it was lying entangled on a nylon net, atop  a rusty, metal grill. Ramani expressed her sympathies from a safe distance, along with the house-owner, a middle-aged lady  who kept saying this was a "pambu" not a "sarpa" (a hooded cobra), hinting that there was no sin in ending its misery by just killing it.

Luckily my enthusiastic  nephew, Appu, turned up and volunteered to run and get the necessary things to attempt a rescue: a pair of scissors and some sticks. While waiting for him to return, the snake too seemed to sense that we meant no harm. She stopped twisting wildly  and moved her head below the metal grill, flicking her forked tongue close to the water surface. By the time the equipment arrived, the chances of getting bitten during the operation had diminished and we set to work.

The snake remained absolutely motionless as we slowly snipped at the nylon wires. The outer ones were easy to cut but the ones closer to the scales were difficult to reach. These wires had cut deep into the skin squeezing out white tissue and blood. The snake remained absolutely still while the scissor blades dug through the scales to reach the wires.As soon as the tightest wires were snipped, the snake sprang up, sending us both jumping backwards!

Finally, after slithering out of the nets, it rested for a couple of minutes outside the tank, savoring freedom, before slithering out of the gates, into the undergrowth.

The crows were, no doubt, upset about being deprived of a feast but I just cannot stop wondering: how did the snake figure that we meant no harm?


Last week I had sighted another snake - and a dozen snake-eggs - while clearing some backyard rubble. It looked like a krait so I had called up Vava Suresh, who is apparently the preeminent volunteer-snake-catcher in Thiruvananthapuram (contact - +91-9387974441). A tall man with a restless mien, he was dressed in black shoes, formal trousers and a full-sleeve shirt, and looked  as though he had rushed out of an office meeting. One look at my specimens and he pronounced that the eggs belonged to a rat-snake. My "banded krait" was demoted to the rank of a wolf-snake - a danger only to lizards!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Between Authors

I didn't know there was a connection between Haruki Murakami and Raymond Carver!

In her essay, "Unfaithful Reader" (The Hindu, Literary Review, 7 Aug., 2011), Anuradha Roy describes linkages between various authors. Murakami, after reading one story by Carver, swore that he would translate everything Carver had written, into Japanese. He kept his promise and then went on to publish his own first novel after Carver's death in 1988.

This is the sort of essay that sends your fingers shuffling through library book-shelves :)

Additions to my list of must-read's --

Friday, August 12, 2011

"Privately Smart, Publicly Stupid"

Prof. V. Ramanathan tries Game Theory to explain the propensity of Indians towards obnoxious behavior.

TED, Bangalore (March 2010)

Twelve severe aspects of "Indian-ness":

1. Low trustworthiness
2. Privately smart, publicly dumb
3. Fatalistic outlook - "what can I alone do?"...and the converse, "everybody is doing it, why shouldn't I?"
4. Too intelligent for our own good
5. Abysmal sense of public hygiene
6. Lack of self-regulation and a sense of fairness
7. Reluctance to penalize wrong conduct in others
8. Mistake talk for action
9. Deep rooted corruption and a flair for free-riding
10. Inability to implement or follow systems ("we will create systems but fail to implement it for any length of time")
11. Our sense of self-worth is massaged only if we have the authority to break rules
12. Propensity to look for loopholes


V. Raghunathan's Website:

SMEs: Mittelstand and Chuken Kigyo

An interesting article in the Economist drew my attention back to Small & Medium Enterprises and to the combination of factors that makes them world class players in Germany and Japan, but not in India.

The article titled GERMANY'S MITTELSTAND - BEATING CHINA (Economist 5 Aug 2011) takes the example of KSB Pumps to describe the unique industrial ecosystem in in Germany where  universities work hand-in-glove with manufacturers; of suppliers clustering around big manufacturers and of owner-managers' rubbing shoulders with workers.

In Japan, such companies are called chuken kigyo (strong, medium-sized firms), and they serve more than 70% of the worldwide market in at least 30 technology sectors worth more than $1 billion apiece. Their niche areas are mostly at the high-end of electronics, engineering and materials-science.

Israel, Taiwan and South Korea have also managed to replicate similar models for SMEs.

What prevents Indian SMEs from building a similar reputation for world-class quality?



Venohr (2010): "The power of uncommon common sense management principles - The secret recipe of German Mittelstand companies - Lessons for large and small companies", 2nd Global Drucker Forum Vienna 2010, URL -

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

God's Own Garbage

In Thiruvananthapuram, there is a new way of disposing household garbage - it is called "toss and scoot". 

Even in the most affluent areas, one can now witness something, which until recently, was rare in Kerala : the unedifying sight of citizens rolling down windows of their air-conditioned cars, to toss out plastic packets full of garbage on to public sidewalks or any blind corner deemed to be "no man's land".

A good example of this practice can be seen on the road going down from the upmarket PTP Nagar to Maruthankuzhi. Also known as Pipeline Road, this is one of the few straight roads in the city, gently sloping down the hill with a Forest Department plantation on one side and the Army cantonment property on the other. It is a lovely, green stretch.  However, a hundred meter's down this road, just beyond a board welcoming you to PTP Nagar, piles of garbage adorn both sides of the road. And just when you're wondering how so much garbage had come to occupy such a large area, a car speeds by, a window rolls down and yet another garbage projectile hits the ground, scattering its contents down the slope. Domestic servants and morning walkers toss in their packets at a more leisurely pace, much to the delight of crows and stray dogs.

The same pattern is repeated in most parts of the city - except in the areas surrounding the Raj Bhavan and Kowdiar. In the narrow lanes of Vazhutacaud, Elipode and Pettah, where you cannot hide behind the anonymity of a faceless, speedy car, the garbage packets are surreptitiously dropped in blind corners or empty plots. In Vattioorkavu  one spot has packets piled right under a Residents Welfare Association (RWA) board pleading in Malayalam - "For God's sake, please don't drop your garbage here!".

In keeping with Wilson & Kelling’s “Broken Window Theory”, a single garbage packet, lying unattended for a couple of days attract many more such packets, and soon, a pile builds up. Some get tossed into open drains and rivulets, increasing the chances of flooding during the monsoons.

Why is it that the allegedly 'most educated people', in the most literate state in the country, are so indifferent and callous to public hygiene? Is it merely a failure of the civic administration or is these pointer's to a deeper societal problem?

The civic administration does have a scheme in place, under the Kudumbasree program. Each of the eighty-six wards under the city corporation has a team of women who set about early in the morning, going from house-to-house collecting garbage. Each household is supposed to hand over segregated the garbage to the workers, who pack them into crates for further processing at their facility at Vilappilsala, 16 km East of the city.
This is, of course, the plan. In practice, the Kudumbasree workers regularly face householders who grudge them even the token monthly charge of Rs.40. Since most of the packets they receive are un-segregated, they go about using their bare hands to pull out kitchen & food waste from piles that invariably contain razor blades, rusty cans, broken bulbs and glass shards. An exasperated worker at Elipode says, "We keep requesting the people to give us segregated garbage, but nobody listens!"

The situation at Vilappilsala processing centre is often the subject of controversies. The plant was commissioned in 1999-2000 and is presently being run by a quasi-government agency - the Centre for Environment & Development. Spread across an area of 43 acres, the Vilappisala facility has the capacity to convert 200 tonnes of biodegradable garbage per day using aerobic reactors as well as mechanical composting. The choice of technology has raised a stink and, in response to vociferous protests from residents in surrounding areas, the government is restricting the inflow to just 100 tonnes per day - half its built capacity. 

According to a paper presented by Edward and Kumar (2009 CET Trivandrum), the problem of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) disposal in Trivandrum city is typical of the problem faced by all states in India. Lack of financial resources, institutional weaknesses, improper choice of technology and public apathy towards MSW has made this service far from satisfactory. Two years ago, the city produced an average of 145 tonnes of garbage per day and now, there just not enough land available for conventional landfills and processing plants.

Given the precarious finances of the Kerala state government, it may be unrealistic to expect quick-fix, high-tech solutions. What can be addressed incrementally are the institutional weaknesses, but, ultimately, the crux of the problem rests on one single issue: public apathy. 

Perhaps the only cure to this ailment is a sustained, carefully crafted campaign involving  households, RWA's, schools as well as entrepreneurs’ involved in the waste-recycling business. In consultation with the RWA's, each area should have clearly demarcated points for garbage disposal, provided, if necessary with wire-mesh enclosures or nets that blocks free access to scavenging birds and animals.  

Chennai city produces 3500 tonnes of garbage and, after years of experimenting, seems to have come up with an effective solution that involves private enterprise, RWA’s and the municipality. This model may have some lessons to offer to the people of Thiruvananthapuram.

There is no point procrastinating here. The problem is only going to get worse as the population increases. Until careful planning is backed by concerted action, households - even in the most affluent areas - will continue to toss their garbage out of their cars, or delegate this unpleasant task to their domestic servants.

The Trivandrum Corporation, in consultation with the RWA’s, needs to get proactive on this issue. As of now the corporation website provides only a "White Paper" on the subject, with no information or guidelines on what is to be done with domestic waste, including the tricky issue of disposing non-biodegradable waste - especially the more hazardous items like hospital waste, battery-cells, electronic goods, glassware, fluorescent tube lights and bulbs.

Until this happens, the capital city of God's Own Country will continue be the abode of ironies : a city named after the richest temple in the country, home to Technoparks, high-tech hospitals, satellite & rocket scientists, but one that is incapable of coming up with a creative, effective way of managing its own household garbage.