Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Maps: Getting Your Bearings Right

A flick of your finger - that is all it takes now to zoom through the most detailed maps. Every now and then, whenever I call a cab from Uber or Ola, locate an office or eatery, wander through Google Earth or just seek the easiest way to dodge traffic jams, I wonder at the many conveniences we now take for granted. 

Come to think of it: Mapmaking has indeed come a long, long way. 

In India it started in 1802 as a project initiated by the East India Company to ensure accuracy when it came to exploiting newly subjugated territories, and for waging military campaigns. A project that started out from Mysore, after the defeat of Tipu Sultan, went on to be called the Great Trignometrical Survey.

Using nothing more than ropes, link-chains and theodolites, an infantry officer, William Lambton and his team calculated heights and distances across the entire subcontinent. It was during this survey that the highest mountain peak on earth was identified deep in the Himalayan ranges, and named after Lambton's successor, George Everest. 

Further north, when the surveyors were blocked from entering Tibet they sent spies who, dressed as buddhist pilgrims, would keep track of the steps they walked each day, to map the rivers and mountains of the Tibet, for the first time. The story of Nain Singh and nephews is now stuff of legend.

The organisation once headed by Everest - the Survey of India - became zealous custodians of maps, all the way from the 1800s to the early 2000 until it woke up and realised, like Rip van Winkle, that the art and science of mapmaking had been revolutionsed by satellites and the internet. You no longer needed a written permit from the Surveyor General of India to map your streets, villages, towns and cities - it was now openly available from satellite images with the finer details crowd-sourced by users.

Willingly or otherwise everyone with a smartphone is now a mapmaker. With location coordinates being uploaded in real-time, along with inputs from millions of accelerometers, we all now have access to fairly accurate information to help us plan better.

What are the ways in which your location coordinates are being shared over the networks?

* LatLong: Traditional ways of marking a location with lattitude-longitude coordinates with a little help from all the GPS satellites hovering in the MEO ~20,000 km up there. Online tools now allow you to get both coordinates up to 14 decimals!

* DMS: A standard developed by World Geodetic System (WDS-84) goes in the Degrees-Minutes-Seconds (DMS) format and is said to have an accuracy of up to 1cm!

* Plus Codes: Perhaps the latest format, this was developed by Google as Open Location Codes. A plus code is 10 characters long, with a plus sign before the last two. It consists of two parts: (1) The first four characters are the area code, describing a region of roughly 100 x 100 km, and (2) The last six characters are the local code, describing the neighborhood and the building, an area of roughly 14 x 14 meters – about the size of one half of a - basketball court.

Add any of these codes to a spreadsheet and you can easily create maps that get your bearings right, down to the 14th decimal!


- Geolocation Coordinates --
- GPS Coordinates -
- Google OLC -
Plus Codes - 

- Data Visualizaition Tools -
- Google My Maps -
- KML files - Keyhole Markup Language -

- Importing Spreadsheets into Google Maps -


* Keay, John (2010): The Great Arc: The Dramatic Story of How India Was Mapped and Everest was Named

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Meeting the Snakeman

About 16 years ago, while rummaging through the second-hand book market at Daryaganj, Delhi, I had picked up a biography simply out of curiosity - "Snakeman: The Story of a Naturalist". It was the fascinating story of Romulus Whitaker, the American-born Indian herpetologist who has done more for building awareness - and respect - for snakes and reptiles in India than anybody else.

It is truly the 'power of one'; of what a single committed, determined individual can achieve, despite all odds. Despite the cynicism and active discouragement of numerous people, he mobilized the Irula tribesmen into a cooperative that helps manufacture precious anti-venom serum which saves thousands of lives in India every year. It also provides valuable alternate employment to the Irulas who had been reduced to a life of poverty and destitution after a ban was imposed on their main livelihood - the export of snake-hides (Wildlife Protection Act 1972).

Last week, I had a chance to meet the great man himself, at an event organised by the Indian Express in New Delhi. 

There were so many things I did not know. I was surprised to learn (or be reminded, if that's a better word), that not all snakes lay eggs. Vipers give birth to live babies, and it is for this very reason that they get their name (vivus = 'alive' + pario = 'bring forth'); The deadliest snake in India is not the Cobra but the Russel's Viper; Biochemistry of snake-venom is still not clearly understood - the anti-venon-serum for vipers in Tamil Nadu is not quite effective for the larger vipers found in Rajasthan. I also did not know that the bite of a Krait is so painless that most people do not know that they have been bitten - until it is too late!

Here is a collection of three videos Rom Whitaker has made recently, to raise awareness on deadly snakes, snake-bites and rescue. Not many people seem to know about these educational videos, so here are the links:





* WIldlife Protection Act, 1972 -,_1972
* Irula Snake-Venom Cooperative -
* Chennai Snake Park -

Thursday, May 24, 2018

On Plumbing and Skilling

There are plumbers, and there are plumbers from Odisha.

A few years ago, frustrated with the number of times I had to pay for replacing ballcocks on our watertanks, I contacted a new plumber. He took one look at the the tanks and murmered, "Fir se nakli peetal!" (Fake brass, once again!). Turns out that the earlier plumber had been conning me by installing cheap ballcocks that actually corroded in water! 

Much like the puncther-repair guys who toss nails on the road to ensure a steady tyre servicing business, our plumber had been installing the cheapest stuff to ensure that he got called in frequently. The new plumber installed real brass ballcocks, and sure enough, water overflow and wastage became a of thing of the past.

Curious about this plumbers' unusual attitude, his Hindi accent, and to know why he was not the regular fly-by-night operator, I asked him where he was from. "Odisha", he said, "One of my brothers works in Dubai...a few cousins are plumbers in Bombay and Kerala."

After this exprience I have been seeking out Odia plumbers, not only for their aversion to cutting corners but also for a certain professional pride they all seem to take in doing a thorough job: using waterprood plastic tape instead of cotton threads for joints, insisting on getting 'heavy' quality spares because they would last longer.

How did men from rural Odisha decide to specialize in a skill-set - and thrive - in the plumbing profession all over India, and the world?

Turns out that there is a history to this. According to DTE, plumbing as a profession was once dominated by muslims. Following the partition of 1947, and the subsequent exodus to Bangladesh and Pakistan, a few Odiya plumbers based in Kolkata began to fill this vacuum with friends and relatives from their villages in Kendrapara district. The profession became so lucrative that an entire region came to be known as "Villages of Plumbers".

Look a bit closer, and as you would expect, it is just a few individuals who have changed the fortunes of these remote villages. One man picks up plumbing skills in Kolkata, hones it at a large company (Gammon-India), and then sets up his own contract-work firm. His nephews branch out to Delhi, set up a larger company (DD Pradhan & Co. PL), that not only takes up large plumbing contracts, but also serves as an agent to supply Odia plumbers to overseas employers. 

In 2006, the Odisha state goverment took the initiative of setting up the State Institute of Plumbing Technology (SIPT) at a village of the plumbing pioneers - Pattamundai. Formal training and certification now adds to their competitive edge. 

Are there lessons here for ongoing mission-mode programme for skill development in India? Our choices are quite stark. India would need 700 million skilled workers by 2022 to meet the demands of a growing economy, and yet, of the 15 million youngsters who join the workforce every year, more than 75% are not "job-ready". They simply do not have the knowledge or skills needed by various industries. With 54% of the population below 25 years,  the so called "Demographic Dividend" may turn out to be a nighmare haunted by unemployed youngsters.

Just as Odiyas from Kendrapara have built a reputation for themselves in the world of plumbing, what are the lessons we can draw here for the hundeds of other professions?


- Sahoo, Namrata (2016), Caravan: Flush with Cash - Inside the unofficial plumbing capital of India -

- Duggal, Sanjeev (2016), The Hindu: Bridge the Skill Gap -

- Ranganathan, Aruna (2013): Professionalization and Market Closure: The Case of Plumbing in India, ILR Review -

- Indian Plumbing Association (IPA) -
-- also trains through PEEP : plumbing education and employment programme

- National Skill Development Corporation -

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

India's External Debt

According to a recent issue of the Economist, India's financial health is in trouble. 

Rising international oil prices and a decline in exports is straining on our forex reserves, and on the other hand, a large chunk of the country's external borrowings (USD 500 billion now), is due for repayment in a few months. 

Having administered Yen Loan projects a few years ago and seen first hand the frantic to and fro that goes on between external lenders and India's Department of Economic Affairs (DEA), Ministry of Finance, any article or report that sets such borrowings in a larger context was bound to get my ready attention. This one was no diferent.

How accurate was the TE analysis? Which are the external borrowings due for repayment. and what are our options at a time when Donald Trump is churning up the Middle East?

I looked at two sources for getting a better understanding. The first was the latest available DEA Status Report (Sep., 2017) on External Debt, and then QEDS - the Quarterly External Debt Statistics collated by WB & IMF. 

While the the DEA report placed overall external debt at $ 472 billion, the QEDS, which has data from 2017-Q4, puts it at $ 513 billion. So TEs $500b was a fairly good indicative figure.

Here are some other points that emerged from the DEA report, across various parameters:

  • Duration: long term debt was 81% while short-term ones were mostly trade related credits;
  • Types: commercial borrowings (36%), NRI deposits (25%), government sovereign external debt (SED) was $95 billion  (20%);
Source: DEA report

  • Currency composition: US dollar (52%), Indian rupee (33%), SDR (5.8%), Japanese yen (4.6%) and Euro (2.9%); 
  • Concessional debt was just 9.3% of the total - mostly from SED;
  • Debt Servicing: Gross debt service payments  was $ 43.3 billion during 2016-17, a decrease of 2.2 per cent over the previous year;
  • India’s debt service payments are dominated by the External Commercial Borrowings (ECBs) which accounted for 75.1% of gross debt service payments during 2016-17;
  • Interest rates: External assistance (1.4%), NRI Deposits (4.4%) and ECBs (4.7%) -- overall "implicit" interest rate on total external debt - 2.8%;
  • Sovereign External Debt (SED) - $95b in March 2017
  • Debt from multilateral sources - 73% (external assistance) - $44b in absolute terms, of which:
    • Multilateral: IDA ($23b), IBRD ($9b), ADB ($10b), IFAD ($0.3b)
    • Bilateral: Japan ($15b), Germany ($2b), USA ($0.1b), France ($0.4b), Russia ($0.9b)
So when it comes to external assistance by way of concessional loans, they added up to just $44b (9.3%) of the total debt of $471b. Out of this Japan contributes $15b which, at second position, is larger than what we get from ADB but significantly less than the soft-loans from the World Bank. In overall terms, Japanese Yen Loans make up 3% of India's external debt!

It also turns out that there is indeed going to be a sharp increase in loan repayments. However this process started a year ago. Projections on long-term debt service payments shows that repayments were $33 billion for 2017-18, and they are going to be $29 billion for 2018-19, and then declines progressively for the next 10 years.


* DEA Status Report (Sep., 2017) -

* QEDS - Quarterly External Debt Statistics collated by WB & IMF -

* (22 Mar 18) Mint -

Comparison of gross external debt to GNI (source: DEA)

Japan provides the lions share of bilateral loans (3% of total debt)

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Apasmara and the Loss of Recollection

Representation of Siva as Nataraja, or the 'God of Dance', is supposed to be the acme of classical Indian sculpture. 

Having seen it hundreds of times, in temples, museums, and even government offices (there is fine specimen in the North Block), I have always been drawn to  its face. Composed and serene while engaged in callisthenics within a ring of fire, he seems rather cool about a little guy getting squashed underfoot. 

As children we had always been told that this was the demon of ignorance being trampled, and that the dance itself represented the three cyclic states of the cosmos - creation (srishti), preservation (sthithi) and destruction (samhara). All this highbrow symbolism has been beyond my comprehension, and I could only marvel at the sheer dedication, effort and patience that had gone into making each of these amazing Chola bronzes.

Today, my own veil of ignorance was lifted a bit - thanks to a tweet from @ARaganathan72 that let me to a remarkable article in the Swarajya magazine - "Nataraja and Epilepsy: An Interpretation of the Cosmic Dancer".

The author, Anand Venkatraman is a neuro-surgeon, no less, at the Harvard University. His focus is on the little man getting trampled by the Cosmic Dancer and who goes by names such as Apasmara and Muyalaka. AV goes into the etymology of 'Apasmara', translates it from Sanskrit as "Loss of Recollection". Apasmara is also the term for epilepsy which is one among the  eight 'Mahagada' or dreadful diseases in Ayurveda texts.

Pointing to the fact that the Aztecs and the ancient Greeks considered epilepsy a sacred disease, AV highlights the link between epilepsy and memory:
"Memory is what links our existence from second to second. Memory provides us with a sense of continuity, a perception of an enduring self, and gives meaning to what would otherwise be seemingly random events."
Inside our brains, epileptic fits emerge from the Temporal Lobes where memories are encoded, and the Hippocampus which is "ground zero for the intersection of mind and brain, of the environment and the organism, as memories are etched into its structure like a DVD"

So the Nataraja reminds us to overcome our epileptic fits of forgetfulness, to reach out to the inner conciousness that unites us with the whole cosmos.

If 'Apasmara' has such a deep meaning, I now wonder what 'Muyalaka' means...also, why is the little demon doggedly holding on to a little snake?? 

- Swaraj Article - "Nataraja and Epilepsy: An Interpretation of the Cosmic Dancer" -
- On Apasmara / Muyalaka -

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Apathy Towards Water

When we moved to NOIDA a few years ago, among the various bills we paid came one from the Jal Nigam or Water Authority. Annual charges for water supply was Rs. 1800 or just Rs. 150/month. This was a flat charge since no meters had been installed. 

This seemed rather odd especially when the other essential utility service - electricity - was carefully metered, with digital bills coming in every month based on a minimum base charge.

Thanks to this apathy towards water nobody cares about the volume of water that overflows and goes down the drain everyday. Water overflowing from the storage tanks in fact had a nuisance value only because it caused seepage from the terrace. This problem was solved, not by getting residents to install 'ball-cocks' to prevent overflows, but by fitting pipes that funneled overflowing water down into the drains. Cheap solutions for cheap resources.

The quality of the water is, of course, questionable. Despite government claims of supplying a mix of river water (Ganga 80%) and groundwater (20%), it comes so loaded with salts and impurities that every household has to either install Reverse Osmosis (RO) machines, or buy water cannisters of RO water for Rs.25 each.

Summer months in North India are characterised by squalls - dust-storms driven by sharp winds that, at times, tear through at over 120 km/hour. It uproots trees and homes, and this season, has caused over a 100 deaths in Uttar Pradesh alone. One such squall knocked out my solar-panels, and one of the water-overflow pipes on the terrace.

Curious to know how much of the overflowing water was disappearing unseen down the drains, I set a bucket under the broken pipe and did a quick calculation. Water overflowing from a set of four tanks was filling up a 15L bucket in just 3 minutes. Extrapolate this to eight sets of tanks receiving municipal supply for at least four hours everyday to 12 residential towers with eight sets of tanks each, and you have a staggering 115,200 liters of water being wasted every day. So, in just one residential colony with a mere 192 houses in Noida, is wasting no less than 42 million liters of water every year!

The optimistic or pragmatic way of looking at this rather grim situation is that barely-treated water is going down the drain to ultimately recharge groundwater aquifers. 

Yet, one cannot help worrying about amount of energy, manpower and other resources that are being deployed to supply water for bathing, washing clothes - and filling the drains of Uttar Pradesh!


Friday, May 18, 2018

Paz on India

It is interesing to view India through the eyes of Octavio Paz. 

A few days back, a tweet got me searching for the book "In Light of India" at the Dayal Singh Public Library. I had not heard of the book so when went across and mentioned the name of the author to Pankaj, the ever helpful librarian, he looked as though I had reminded him of along forgotten childhood memory. And when he pulled out the book from a corner bookshelf, I understood why. The last time anybody had borrowed this book was in 1997 - more than 20 years ago!

The book itself is a monograph of memories from 1954, the time when Paz was posted to India as a young diplomat. As can be expected, he reflects on the prevailing attitudes and biases of the time: an admiration for Nehru and the "secular" Congress party, and wariness towards the "Hindu nationalist" BJP; a sense of bewilderment over the cacophony of colors, smells that greet a visitor, and the diverse set of people who called themselves citizens of a newly minted republic. One has come to expect such reactions from visiting foreigners but Paz turns out to be slightly different.

Unlike the typical Western view of India what you get here is a unique view of a South American poet and traveller. India's caste system, for instance, is a puzzle he tries to decipher - how did it manage to survive two millennia of foreign invasions and proseletizing? 
"Castes... are not only cooperatives, such as ours, but also solidarity groups, genuine fraternities...this fabric of religious, economic, political, territorial, linguistic, and familial relations gives the castes their extraordinary solidity... Hinduism does not convert individuals; it absorbs communities and tribes, their gods and rites."

Paz notes the strong influence of Mesoamerica in India's cuisine - the word "chili" is of Nahuatl origin for the plant originally came from the Americas...- Another Mexican import "Chico-zapote" is called Chiku is North India and Sapota in the South!

He dives deep into classical Indian poetry and is amazed to find in Vidyakara's anthology of poetry, erotic poems written by Dharmakirti, a Buddhist philosopher and logician who lived in the 7th century.

Yet, Octavio Paz has his failings. The clarity with which he looks at India clouds up when he compares the influence of 'Western Civilization' on Latin America. In his view, the Spanish conquistadors did a great thing by uniting the various tribes in South America, and weaning them away from cycles of war and blood-sacrifice, and introducing to them a new religion in which "sacrifice of a god who became man and spilled his blood to redeem the world". Not a word about the massacre of the Mayans, Zapotecs, Aztecs and Teotihuacanians, or the systematic destruction of a unique civilization, its unique art and architecture, or of the shiploads of gold and silver looted and taken away to enrich Europe! 

If the world is a kaliedoscope, the designs and patterns seen by Paz are unique, but his book leaves you feeling a bit shortchanged, of expecting a real South American perspective, and finding instead, merely another European dressed in a poncho.


- GoodReads -

Friday, May 04, 2018

Pulp vs. Recycled Paper

"Did you notice?" A friend asked me recently, "We have reduced the number of pages in our newspaper". I had noticed not such thing.

Two newspapers get tossed on our balcony every morning and I had certainly felt that either of them was any lighter. The cost-cutting measure apparently had come about because the cost of newsprint had shot up 35 percent in the recent months.

This too had escaped my attention. What could possibly be the reasons for such a significant hike? A quick search on the net throws up the following facts:

  • In 2016, the gobal demand for newsprint stood at nearly 24 mmT of which 10.6 mmT came from Asia.
  • Yet, in terms of quality and value, US has always been the top market with the highest per-capita consumption of 200kg/year (India - just 13kgs)
  • The global newsprint industry has been on a steady decline despite big-ticket mergers (eg. AbitibiBoWater Inc.) due to a steady decline in demand from the US market, which is declining 10%+ YoY.
  • Decline in global demand, combined with fluctuations in cost of energy and transportation costs has resulted in the prices fluctuating from $320/T (2002) to over $1000/T. At present the prices hover around $770/T.
  • Considering the fact that newsprint costs account for 55-65% o the total cost of producing a newspaper the future does indeed look gloomy for the newspaper industry.
However, the demand for newsprint in India has been rising steadily, thanks to increasing literacy rates and incomes. Yet the global sellers are not exactly rushing in because we are not yet willing to pay the rates they have been getting from USA and Western Europe. 

Also more recently, China, one of the major suppliers of newsprint decided to import pulp instead of waste-paper as a raw material for the the newsprint industry. While this move led to a fall in the prices of imported waste-paper, Indian mills have not been able to use them because all these years, thanks to the print-media lobby, zero-duty on newsprint imports had driven many Indian papermills out of business! 

One thing however remains unclear: If India is consuming about 2 mmT of newsprint every year, why is it not being recycled? Is the process way too expensive or does it go elsewhere? The going rate for used newspapers being collected by the local "Raddi-wala" is Rs.10/kg or Rs.10,000/T whereas newsprint is being imported at about $760/T (INR 50,000/T).

It seems only 20% of waste-paper in India is recycled, compared to over Germany's 73 %, Japan 60 %, Western Europe 56 % , the US 49% and Italy 42%. So much so that we imported USD 1 billion worth waste-paper for our mills in 2011. Surely there is a case for more efficient recovery and recycling in India?


* 2016 - Global demand for Newsprint -

* 2018, March 18, The Print -

* 2018, 12 March, Mint -

* 2018, Feb - India Paper consumption -
- The domestic market / consumption of paper is over 16 million tonnes per annum (TPA), with over 2 million TPA being imported.

* 2018, Jan - BS - Rising costs of paper -

* Newsprint import policy -
- List of scheduled newsprint manufacturers/importers -

* 2018 - Care Ratings -
- India consumes about 18 mmT of paper every year which is about 4% o the global market

* 2015, FE - Wealth from Waste -

* Newsprint -