Thursday, October 31, 2013

Technology, Governance and the Phailin Cyclone

Cyclone Phailin (photo from DNA/AFP)

"Why should I leave my home?? What storm are you talking about? Can't you see the blue skies??"

Convincing a villager about impending disaster is not easy business. Even if you are armed with the latest satellite imagery.

On 29 Oct., 1999, when an super cyclone hit India's Eastern coastline, across Odisha, nearly 10,000 people died. The Indian Met Department (IMD) had issued warnings to the state government.Nobody took them seriously Warnings were not issued to the coastal villages. Blue skies suddenly turned grey, wind-speeds crossed 220 kmph and thousands of homes were blown away.

Nearly 14 years later, on 12 October, 2013 when a very severe cyclone hit the same coastline, IMD was able to provide a warning five days in advance. Within this limited period, the Odisha state government evacuated more than a million people inland. The skeptics who saw only the blue skies were coaxed, cajoled and then bullied to the cyclone shelters.

Once the storm died down, they had much to be thankful for. In all, the cyclone and floods affected around 12 million people in 16,487 villages. It damaged about 4,00,000 houses and 1,182 power transformers in 17 districts. Yet, only 44 people had died.

How did we pull it off this time?

First of all, IMD had got its act together. Since 1999, a number of new ISRO satellites had started scanning the region for danger signals. Sensors and transmitters had been placed all along the coastline.

Command and control systems too were altered. Instead of routing IMD's disaster alerts to regular government departments bogged down by routine administrative work, a new institutional mechanism was put in place. The National Disaster Management Authority emerged with its state-level counterparts - in this case the Odisha-DMA. To ensure that adequate manpower could be spared in emergencies, officers were deputed to the National Diaster Response Force and its state equivalent.

In 1999, the state government's tardy response had cost it the subsequent elections. This time the Chief Minister himself encouraged all his legislators, not only to join ODMA and other officials getting people evacuated, but also to ensure that food, drinking water and other supplies were reaching the evacuation centres.

It is certainly a real confidence booster to know that we can handle something of this magnitude. Now we need to roll up our sleeves and figure out why the monsoons flood our cities every year. Seriously.

The trick is to be prepared while the skies are still blue.


* Dash, Satya Prakash (2013): HOW ODISHA MNAGED THE PHAILIN DISASTER, EPW 2Nov13 --

* Bagla, Pallava (2013): A TINY STEP FOR A GIANT LEAP? The Hindu, 31Oct13 --

* Battle over Forecasts (NDTV, 14 Oct) --

* WSJ -



The destructive power of cyclones in measured in its wind-speeds: Severe (90-199kmph), very severe (> 220 kmph) and super (220+ kmph).

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The How of 'Schedule Y'

Last week the Supreme Court of India pulled the brakes on a thriving drug trial industry in India.

Valued at over $300 million a year this industry was engaged in a rather unusual business. Big pharmaceutical MNCs spending billions of dollars in the discovery of New Chemical Entities (NCEs) would conduct their first human-level trials in countries like India. If the new drugs turned out to be blockbusters, the chances of their being available to patients in India was next to zero.

Out of 475 global clinical trails conducted from 2005 to 2012 using Indian patients, only 17 patented drugs were freely available for the  participants. This is doubly significant because it was in 2005 that Indian pharma laws were amended to allow 'concurrent' testing of NCEs. With this removal of a phase-lag in the testing regime, drugs of  unproven safety and efficacy could be tested on patients in this country.

So it came as not surprise that on 3 Jan., 2013, the Supreme Court directed the Central Drug Standards Control Organisation (CDSCO) to put in place a three-tier scrutiny of all clinical trails. Drugs & Cosmetics Rules already had a separate section - Schedule Y - setting the procedures for such trails but they were never really implemented.

Even after the SC directive, for the next 10 months neither CDSCO nor the health ministry did  to improve the safety of Indians participating in these trails. Taking note of this tardy response, on 21 October 2013, the court has ordered the government to stop all 'concurrent' clinical trails.

Even though this affects only 331 or 1122 trails (30%); and even though our gains from these trails were limited (no patent rights, no affordable drugs) it is interesting to see the MNC pharma lobby portraying this as a zero-sum game where 'India's loss is Bangladesh's gain'!


* Mascarenhas, Anuradha (2013): DRUG TRAILS - LAX REGULATIONS COST THE COUNTRY DEAR, Indian Express, 25Oct13

* Jesani, Amar (2013): TRIED, TESTED AND FAILED, Indian Express 28Oct13

* Schedule Y --

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Perception Giap

General Vo Nguyen Giap, one of the greatest military strategists and leaders of this century passed away yesterday. India was unmoved. What a shame!

Not one talking head in India's strategic community thought of paying a tribute to him. Where are our military historians who are all crawling out of the woodwork whenever anybody whispers 'Pakistan' or 'China'?

Indian newspapers merely reproduced the obituaries prepared by Western newswires. Times of India picked stuff from AP; the Hindu reprinted an obituary from the Guardian, UK, while the Indian Express lifted one from the New York Times. Surely we could do better than this...

By all accounts, Gen. Giap was as earthly, realistic and practical as any great leader would be. He was trained to be a teacher and a journalist, not a soldier. Yet he went to to lead his troops - both men and women - through some of the most brilliant military victories that liberated Vietnam, first from the French colonial army (Dien Bien Phu, 1953), and then from the relentless US quasi-colonial intervention that ended with their retreat from Saigon in 1975.

Yesterday, on our prime-time TV, retired army generals and other assorted hawks were blowing hot and cold over Pakistani 'infiltration' in the Keran sector of Jammu & Kashmir. Perhaps the TV anchors did not consider Gen. Giap's legacy worthy of a discussion. Or maybe the NDA-OTA-IMA types don't think much of a teacher who switched tracks to become a soldier.

Either way, if we don't study modern Asian history carefully, the loss is ours.


Postscript: Finally, in today's IE, an economist has chipped in an op-ed on Gen. Giap. Small mercies.


NYT - Gap Remembers (1990) --
NYT --

Hookway, James (2013): LEGENDARY VIETNAM GENERAL VO NGUYEN GIAP DIES, Wall Street Journal, 8 Oct., 2013, URL --

The HIndu --

Alagh, Yoginder K (2013): GENERAL VISION, Indian Express, 8Oct13 --

Fall, Bernard B (): HELL IS A VERY SMALL PLACE --
- Good Reads-
- Amazon -

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Tussar Silkworms

In early morning sunlight, a Tussar silkworm is an incredibly beautiful sight.

The surprising thing is that despite its large size, you are likely to miss it completely, until you notice that during the Autumn season, some trees have been stripped of all their leaves. 

Tussar silkworms come in shades of green that blend perfectly into the foliage of Arjuna trees (Terminalia arjuna). If the color does not fool you, it also has a'twig' color-band along its sides. And like one of those fancy trailer trucks on our highways, it has a string of orange 'lights' running the length of its body!

Do these 'lights' serve some purpose? I've been scouring the net for more information but nothing has turned up so far..

Tussar silk ("Kosa" in Sanskrit), alongside Eri and Muga, happen to be some of the earliest non-plant fibers adopted in India. Yet, it is surprising to see so little information available on Google Scholar about their origins either as traded goods, or in terms of entomological studies. 


- Fiber Stories --
- Tussar Silk --
- Prasad, Mahesh (2011): INDIA'S FOREIGN TRADE - FROM ANTIQUITY TO DATE, Google books --
- Wardle, Thomas (1880): Wild Silks of India - Principally Tusser -- Google Books --

- Kosa Silk --