Thursday, March 30, 2006

Lata Mangeshkar & The South Bombay Rip Van Winkles

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Lata's Neighbourhood Of Rip Van Winkles(Pix: Mumbai Mirror)

Didn't expect Lata Mangeshkar to stand by her attack on the new Pedder Rd flyover. The denial that followed was almost inevitable. Particularly since the heat got a little unbearable. And she was being pilloried for stalling development et al.

Yes, the whole city of Bombay is polarised over whether we should have a flyover here or not. This is the part of Bombay, south, where influential people live. So, you can't have flyovers sailing over their balconies so to speak. Particularly when one of the Bombayites sipping a cup of tea in the evening in one of those balconies might be singer Lata Mangeshkar.

But a Lata Mangeskhar and her ilk can hardly be expected to welcome a flyover that whizzes past their drawing rooms, with open arms. Their protests are understandable. What is not understandable is how all of south Bombay, where all of the city's most influential and richest people reside didn't see this coming. And worse, how they slept through all the decades they should have done something about it.

Planning Failure

The Peddar Road problem flyover or the need for it didn't materialise last week. This is the second attempt to push it through. The last time around, in 2001, Ms Mangeshkar threatened to depart for Dubai if it was built. Most people were more stupefied by her choice of destination than the fact that she opposed the flyover. Anyway, the project was buried. But it didn't strike too many people that there was an urgent need for a larger solution. As there is not now.

And that's a serious problem. The Pedder Road issue represents a complete and total failure of anticipation and planning. Including by politicians like Sharad Pawar who live there. Correction, own property and have lived there. Who have ruled over the state and city off and on and have never thought or acted on what the city's needs could potentially be. Not since A R Antulay tried to create a New Bombay has there been a serious attempt to address the city's economic and people balance.

Of course there have been hundreds of proposals, thoughts, ideas. They've been followed up with zero action. And finally that's what matters. Bombay should have had a western sea link connecting Nariman Point to Worli and Bandra 15 years ago. The concept if I remember right is at least 30 years old, if not more. Here we are still debating it, even as the island chokes itself to a standstill.

Bypass surgery

At this stage, obviously a Peddar Road flyover makes some sense. So does, possibly, a bypass surgery for a patient who has had cardiac arrest. Has it struck anyone that Manhattan does not have flyovers zooming all over. Or central London. Many cities actually choose to go under rather than over. Sure, Manhattan does not have the same dimensions as Bombay but the traffic crush is similar. And of course it has an efficient metro, like London. Which we are still debating over.

Peddar Road's residents have reacted by rejecting the flyover. They still fail to comprehend that their very neighbours could have acted a few decades ago to save this city. To ensure that economic activity shifted in such a way and infrastructure created in a manner that the whole city was not moving in one direction in the morning and another in the evening.

Today, its both ways. And its choked on either side. And we are slowly but surely entering a permanent gridlock. Join me on my morning ride and I will be happy to demonstrate. And its going to get worse because there is absolutely no solution in sight for a few years. Of course there are many plans on paper. So, a flyover is but one of many scotch tape jobs that this city might unfortunately have to settle for.

Waking Up After Two Decades

The reason we need scotch tape and band aid jobs is not because the city has grown to unmanageable proportions. That it has. Its because, we have a whole half-island of Rip Van Winkles who've just woken up. They include some of the country's richest businessmen who've created billions of dollars of assets, powerful politicians, noted artists, media barons, legal eagles to name a few. And of course singers. Even the period fits, twenty summers, from around the time Bombay began its irreversible decline to now. The question is: will they will now smell the coffee.

The writer lives in north Bombay, obviously.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Journalism, Anyone ?

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Media..well, let me think (Pic Courtesy: Akanksha)


She was sitting on the first row. With an intense, intelligent gaze. And quiet most of the time. The classroom was like any other. Actually, perhaps better. At least brighter and airier. Large trees outside provided a protective cover. Not quite from traffic noise though. The road I turned off earlier went on to join the northern tip of Bombay’s Marine Drive. The desks were nicer too. Not beat-up, wooden ones. Like in my time. With all sorts of names and initials etched, testimony to many a belaboured hour.

Her question came at the end of the session. “Do you journalists really feel for what you do ?” I was stumped. Did I read a little more than perhaps her question really meant. Or not? Several days later, I am still not sure. “Can you explain that ?” I asked. “Hmm, for example, you talk about saving paper and all that and yet print so many newspapers.” I got the feeling the example was watered down. Her look said something else.

This was a classroom of school children between Class 8 and 10. And we were four journalists talking to them about how great and glorious the profession was. And what it took to be a hard-nosed journo. My friend Shobhan defined what a journalist’s trade was about. About asking the basic questions, What, Where, When, Who, Why and How ? Answer these questions and you have a newsman, he said. He made it sound simple.


Grilling Session


As we fumbled for answers, another question from the back. Another eager looking girl. “How is it that the newspapers say you cannot eat chicken and the television channels say you can ?” Well. Maybe the newspaper or channel in question did not convey the message properly. And did but it got lost. But here was another 14-year-old with some serious doubts about what we were all about.

The teacher, Poorvi, joined in to hammer the last nail. “What about the kind of stuff we read and see ? Don’t journalists sensationalise too much. Particularly nowadays?” I have the answers to that one. Well, we try and reflect what the larger society wants. So on and so forth. Same answer to two different kinds of people. Hoping they accept and believe. Yet I wonder.

Poorvi has worked with consulting firm PriceWaterhouse (now PriceWaterhouseCoopers) in the US and a leading venture capital fund in India. In the latter, she must have taken million dollar investment decisions. And then she switched to teaching children. Arguably, being older and possibly well travelled, she has seen more of the world. And yet teacher and students were resonating on the same frequency. Or so it appeared.

Building Leaders


Now, a little about the children. They were part of Akanksha Foundation, a non profit that helps teach or augment the education of children from less-privileged backgrounds. Particularly Bombay’s slum children. Akanksha is run very professionally and the stories about its success and work are legion. It benefits from the talents of many people who have done well in the corporate world. Not surprisingly, a key initiative of Akanksha is Learning to Lead, a crème-de-la-crème group of the roughly 2,600 students that are enrolled presently.

Its this group of maybe around 25 children we were talking to today. I will not say more about them and their backgrounds - Akanksha’s website is self-explanatory. What I can say is that they were very smart, articulate, insightful and intelligent. Compared to anyone and anything. Which goes to say lots for creating an almost Nehruvian selection process of this sort. Lots of people can learn from this. But that’s another story.


Media Conclave

I will now digress a bit, only a little though. Three days later, I was at India's biggest media and entertainment conclave – Frames 2006 – organized by industry body FICCI. Held at Bombay’s suburban Grand Hyatt hotel, it was spread over three days and saw the who’s who of India’s entertainment industry participating. Including a healthy smattering of Bollywood, from actors to directors and everyone in between.

One `plenary' session was on the future of print media. Being an interested party, I attended. Malayalam Manorama’s Jacob Mathew and India Today Group’s Aroon Puri spoke. Both, essentially, said print was growing in India. And that the regional press was growing faster than English language press. To get to the point, in the Q&A that followed, someone asked Puri a question, actually two. They were: why does the media sensationalize everything ? And has news become entertainment ? Several members of the audience actually clapped in approval.

Puri, in effect, said he did not agree with a lot of things that went on air either (He owns Aaj Tak). In news and entertainment. But advertising followed TRPs, he pointed out. He quoted a few examples. For instance, he said, the best TRPs in recent weeks were not from sting operations exposing corrupt members of parliament, rather some story about a man who claimed he was re-incarnated. And so on. “I have to run a business to,” he shrugged.

Journalism, Anyone ?

Back at the Bombay International School, we were wrapping up with Akanksha. Outside, dusk was on us. And bird cries from the trees rent the air. One of us asked the children. “How many of you want to become journalists ?” Hesitation. Perhaps a hand or two. A faces-saving measure was called for. “Okay,” the question went again, “How many of you would consider becoming journalists ?”. Heads nodded. Considering was fine. More hands were raised. Not one of them looked quite convinced though.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Frustration City !

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Looks Nice By Night (Pix Vivek Sawant)


A few weeks ago, this writer had the good fortune of being part of a workshop on Bombay..the idea was to bring together people from different `walks of life'. To talk about solutions to improve life in the city. The gathering was called Mumbai Generative Dialogue. No, it was not hosted at the Taj Crystal North or some such opulent address.

It happened at the venerable St Xavier's College in south Bombay. And there is something nice about walking into the Xavier's grand Gothic stone buildings. A stroll across the grand quadrangle surrounded by open cloisters and then onto the section which houses the canteen, open on all four sides. Beyond is another exposed patch with lots of trees, their leaves swaying in the breeze. It was a quiet Saturday morning.

The interesting thing here that it was not about speeches or statements. It was about dividing a group of people into two sets, making them sit down with each other and debate issues. It was about bringing people with often dramatically opposing views together. It was about forcing them, albeit gently, to arrive at some consensus. In thought, if not in action. Boston Consulting Group chairman Arun Maira drove the process.

Diverse Opinions

We sat in a circle, facing each other. In a classroom. I was seated with Raghunath D. Medge on one side and Banwali Agarwala on the other. Medge is the president of the Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Sup Charity Trust. Translated, he is the boss of the Dabbawalas of Bombay. His mail id appropriately says rdmedgedabbawala@...Agarwala is an office holder with the Confederation of Indian Industry. He is also the managing director of Wartsila Diesel.

And there was the fiery Gerson D'Cunha, former ad-man who runs Agni. In another group were Sanjay Ubale, the young, smart bureaucrat who is the `CEO' of Bombay city, if there can be one. And the fiesty Bittu Sahgal of Sanctuary magazine. Of course, Bittu is more than just the editor of Sanctuary, as we all Bombayites know. And then there was Jamshyd Godrej of Godrej & Boyce, one of the more thougthful participants.

There were lots of others, including academics, experts on transport, from the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority and some from outside. There was the head of an university. There was Vinay Somani, a Harvard chap and businessman who sponsors and runs karmayog.org. This is a website that must be visited and used, by anyone who has any feeling for Bombay. On the face of it, karyamaog aggregates all the NGOs and non-profits who work for the city. But its more than that. Somani has done much to bring disparate views, objectives and grouses together. In an environment of transparency and clarity. You can find BMC's budget on his website, for instance.

The Process IS Important

Why I am I talking about all this ? For two reasons. First, the process that Arun Maira initiated. It showed that sometimes, the process of dialogue and debate is as critical as finding solutions to mega problems. I mean, where do you start when you are faced with one word, Bombay ? Roads, civic apathy, lack of investment, utter lack of interest on the part of state governments, the list is endless.

And yet, the process of bringing such people together and forcing them to come up with a single list of wishes was useful. Particularly when, like students, you have to write out your demands on a Post-It and stick it up. And then be prepared to see it challenged by the rest. Sometimes quite vociferously. And yet it worked quite well. As most of the participants acknowledged at the end of the day. Notably Bittu Sahgal. Though it looked a little shaky in the beginning.

The second reason springs from an anecdote that D`Cunha recounted. A few days before, he said, he got a call around midnight. This was an AGNI activist from north Bombay calling him. The activist had been beaten up by some people who were trying to breach a water pipeline. The activist was trying to stop them. The phone call happened because the police did not register a First Information Report, or a complaint.

A Midnight Call

D`Cunha then called up a senior police person he knew (at night) and got things moving. D`Cunha was not showing off his connections. He was merely lamenting the fact that unless you know people and can pull strings, justice is hard to get. Around the groups, I heard a few more stories. Each one came up in a different context. Some to do with blatant land grabs, others with environmental violations.

So, these guys who I would otherwise think had it going easy did not. Nor were they men and women of inpenetretable steel. They faced the same problems you and I do. And worse, the frustrations. Yet sitting next to them, I noticed a fundamental difference. While they complained about something in private, they were going gang busters in public. Filing public interest litigations, writing articles and even holding protest marches.

Architect P K Das was there too. Ive been on a panel discussion earlier with him. He has some very strong views. Some of which you may disagree with. But he is dogged, like the rest. A week after the Supreme Court decision favouring Mumbai's mill-owners, he wrote an article in an newspaper saying it was not too late. And that the State Government could still change things if it wanted to. Of course, it won't. The politicians in power were never for improving the lot of citizens in Bombay. But Das made the point. Didn't lament, perhaps as I am here. And the good news is that there are others protesting the decision. Which by the way is the most bizarre one I have seen.

Tough Guys

And that's the conclusion. The messages I saw on some of my last two posts suggest a frustration with many things, the lack of real freedom of speech, the fact that innocent citizens get hounded for not paying tax and celebrities get away scot free. Dozens of things. I share the frustration totally. And feel quite helpless.

And yet, as the Mumbai Regenerative meeting suggested, there are people who decide to fight. They are normal too. Except for that streak of determination. They crib too. Even worse than me, I thought ! The difference is they do something as well. It does not take that much effort. A D`Cunha is human inasmuch he expressed his frustration. The fact he does something after doing so separates him from the crowd. That's my take home.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Rang De Syriana..If Only..

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Clooney takes a walk in Tehran..


You wonder how a movie like Syriana is openly exhibited and discussed in the US and then you know what the concept of freedom of expression really means. At least relatively.

Contrast that to our own Rang De Basanti which was not cleared by the Censor Board whose job it is to, but a full meeting of the Defence Minister of India and the chiefs of staff. Both films have one common strain. They tackle sensitive defence issues.

The chiefs of the forces claimed they had only passed on their views because they were asked to. Wonder why ? Why did they even sit in for a screening if they really meant that. So, if nothing else, rest assured that the most significant defence threat to India at this point is Aamir Khan.

Syriana makes you think. Much has been written about it and reviewed. There are folks in America who have written on it. And then some back home. Some of us here are wondering about the somewhat direct portrayal of Pakistani youth as suicide bombers. Very effectively shown, the transition from embittered, jobless youth to suicide bomber, but Pakistani nevertheless. And not an Arab state.

A few points are worth noting. First, Stephen Gaghan, the director of the film travelled in the Middle East for two months attending oil conferences and even meeting religious leaders in an attempt to understand the space. Second, the director (who also made Traffic) says he feels strongly about this issue. And that is perhaps what makes the film what it is.

Putting out a Supari

I quote him directly from his National Public Radio interview responding to a question on whether he had potrayed Americans as villains..note such a question could not have been asked in India because the film would have been stuck at the Censor Board or South Block and the director would be running from politician to judge..”If I had gone out and found out that we have a bunch of selfless people, that the small voice is as big as the big voice..I would have dramatized that. Unfortunately that’s not what I saw.”

What Gaghan saw is See No Evil, a book written by a former Central Intelligence Agency officer Robert Baer. Listening to Baer on NPR is more gripping. Could America or American agencies actually put out a supari on an Arab emir ? Like in the movie. Well, yes, says Baer.

“It happened to be in 1997. I showed up in Beirut, there was a contract out on a Gulf prince..he was hiding in Syria. He tried a coup in 1995. There was money being offered to whack this guy.”

What about the scene where George Clooney, the CIA agent, is tortured in Beirut ? Specifically, his nails are worked upon, with a nail cutter you don’t use at home, at least for cutting nails. “Sure, it happens. Bill Buckley, the station chief for CIA in Lebanon was tortured to death.”


Truth is Fiction


And then Baer says, in Yemen 2002, CIA officials fired a Hellfire missile into a car that killed a US citizen. Baer is not lamenting the lack of morals. His point is that targeted information has a habit of going wrong. And that happens.

And did he get disowned like Clooney does in Syriana ? Yes, he says. “I was disowned by the CIA in 1995, on attempted charges of killing Saddam Hussain. You do get cut loose.”

Baer has been interviewed for an earlier book as well. Where he points out how the CIA has to vet his manuscript. And they cut out stuff which `belongs’ to them. And if what gets through is so riveting you shudder to think what gets held back.

Can We Stomach Free Expression ?

The point is obviously a question on our own ability to stomach free speech. More appropriately, the degree to which. Why do film makers only have to show Indian armed forces as good guys ? Sure, there are good guys. But there are problems. For instance with the Air Force's ageing MIG 21 aircraft. What are we trying to hide when these aircraft crash in full public view, into public or private property every alternate month ? Why not admit it and get on. And stop buying Russian aircraft.

Syriana is making some Americans question once again the whole business of Iraq. Could the $200 billion earmarked for rebuilding of Iraq have been spent on finding the next big alternative to fossil fuel ? What say ? I don’t know, but you must read this interesting view point.

Syriana also tells you the world is pretty complex. Some say as complex as the plot of the film which is somewhat difficult to follow. The director insists its deliberate. The name itself is almost mythical and no character in the film ever mentions it.

Has A Film Made You Think ?

Most importantly, it tells you that first, movies have a role to play in a system if made well. In moulding public opinion. I can't think of one, serious Indian film in two decades which has done that. From what I can guage, our Rang De Basanti is. Maybe there is no market for films that make people think !

One is not referring to the chief minister killed in his chambers with wooden sten gun variety. Which convinces you that there is no hope, both in the system and in Bollywood. Rather than make you think ! Equally, for them to be made in that form, you need an atmosphere of real freedom of expression. We might well be capable of making that film. We are not capable of showing it.

Click here to download the screenplay

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Mr FM, You Don't Need IT To Catch These Tax Dodgers

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I don't know what's worse. Is it breaking the law by not paying duties and taxes or assuming that you can get away with absolutely anything in this country.

The Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) impounded actor Sushmita Sen's sports utility vehicle or SUV two weeks ago. The reports say its a Toyota. I think its a Toyota Lexus specifically. The SUV's import papers show that it was manufactured in December 1998. Its value, accordingly, was shown as Rs 6 lakh. And a duty of Rs 9 lakh was apparently paid. Turns out the SUV rolled out in December 2003 and is apparently worth (with duties) around Rs 50 lakh.

The Lexus was brought into the country under the Transfer of Residence rules. Where any Indian resident or non-resident Indian having resided overseas for more than 2 years and owned the car for more than six months can bring home a car without paying customs duties. After all, he may have purchased the vehicle for his personal use. The condition is that the vehicle can't be sold for two years.

Of course in this case the returning Indian is typically a construction worker from the Gulf. Who in turn hands it over to a car dealer in India. The car dealer then goes on to sign a `lease' agreement with the buyer. So, on paper, the car has not been sold. And technically, it is possible that a Sen cannot be hauled up. So, India must have the largest collection of Lexus-owning construction workers in the world.

Obviously, the whole operation is funded backwards. So, Mr Dubai-return must be buying the car with funds sent from India. Or some other well-oiled havala route. Note that a Lexus GX 470 costs upwards of $50,000 (Rs 22.5 lakh) and a Lexus LX 470 upwards of $68,000 (Rs 31 lakh). But this is before customs duty, which is around 110% in India.

Its funny how our importers are so confident of hoodwinking the system that they don't even care about chassis numbers, model, make and so on. At least that's what the Sen case suggests.

Star evaders

Sen is not alone to be charged with this. The DRI has confiscated cars belonging to Saif Ali Khan, Suneil Shetty and Sanjay Dutt as well. The route used to bring in the car was different for Shetty and Dutt. But one thing was common. All of them were evidently trying to escape duties. Which does not make them any different, in effect, from any other form of tax evader or law breaker. And there can be no better case of evidence, as the kind parked in front of you. The impunity is staggering.

Sen's SUV is a spanking new one. I think I have seen it in the neigbourhood. With her driving. Our Customs officials need to get their eyes tested if they could have passed this for a 1998 model. Forget lifting the hood and groping for the chassis number. Or calling up Toyota Motor. A IV Grade student could have told you. So, you and I have possibly reached the same conclusion. Someone or many people have been paid off. And this is not the first time its happened.

The dealer in question came up from what I could see with some equally ridiculous explanation. He said he went by what the import papers said. Hang on, I thought this guy's livelihood depended on being able to spot the good egg from the bad one and the old from the new.

The sad part is that Sen can afford it. I don't know how much she earns but surely her income runs into crores of rupees or a million dollars plus per annum. Actually, regardless of how much she earns, its disgusting how she and her ilk shirk the basic responsibility any citizen has towards the state, that of paying taxes or, in this case, duties.

Unfortunately, under the current dispensation, where the real owner of the vehicle is Mr Dubai-return, a Sen could well argue why she should pay duties on something she does not own. True. In court, driving a leased vehicle may not be tantamount to ownership. So, its a masterly scheme which protects all parties concerned. Except the Customs guys who let it come through.

I have huge problems with the way our taxes are used. But never would I argue that taxes and duties should not be paid. So, why is that an educated person who pontificates liberally on helping poor children rob the state of its dues ?

Don't Spare Them

This form of smuggling has been going on for six or seven years. Which suggests the revenue authorities have been slumbering, at least till now. They must establish how all these SUVs sail into the country so easily. And who abets their smooth ingress. They must not just collect the additional duty but levy massive fines.

And as far as the FM goes, he should accept and acknowledge that as long as his department ignores people who brazenly disregard taxes or duties, he is doing me a great disservice. And while I account for every penny I earn, I have to watch overpaid celebrities flaunt their underinvoiced goods in full public view.

And if the revenue chaps really want to catch more such tax evaders, they can start by parking themselves in the suburb of Bandra in Bombay.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Nuclear Fuel For Sure, Nuclear Power, Not So Sure

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Can I Take This Back To My Ranch (Pic Courtesy Business Standard/K Sudheer)

Kudankulam is an hour's drive north east of Kanyakumari at the southern most tip of India. The air is strikingly clean and the sky a cool blue. The morning sun beats down with a radiance you are unlikely to witness elsewhere. And not too far from all this pristine beauty, the waves lash the shore with considerable vigour.

The sea appears like a riot of brilliant colours..from light green to blue. Or is it your imagination ? We are, indeed, close to the confluence of three oceans, the Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. Down south in Kanyakumari, hawkers sell little plastic packets with three different colours of sand, to represent this. Seems fine in theory, but somehow difficult to believe. Obviously you never really see it anywhere.

Apart from the scenic beauty, Kudankulam is the site for a 2,000 MW nuclear power plant, India's largest and one of the world's biggest as well. The plant is being built by state-owned Nuclear Power Corporation (NPC) with most of the turnkey construction being carried out by Ajit Gulabchand's Hindustan Construction Company (HCC).

We arrived at the heavily guarded facilities the previous evening, a three-hour drive from Trivandrum. And stayed over. It's early morning now and things are a lot clearer. Kudankulam tells you two things; one, large nuclear power plants are a big deal but not so big as we perhaps make them out to be. Second, building them is not that simple. And not because its an engineering challenge.

Symbolic Deal

The George Bush-Manmohan Singh nuclear deal has made much news. A few inisightful commentators rightly pointed that the symbolism behind the nuclear deal is greater than the deal itself. And yes, there are several other clauses of scientific co-operation. Possibly one will ensure we don't use ageing rocket technology (excellent as it was) for our mission to the moon.

Its the media hype that's a little unsettling. It somehow seems to suggest that we (a hopelessly power starved country) will have nuclear plants humming in every other district and town, supplying clean, energy efficient power to hungry homes and industries. And that this deal was the last hurdle in achieving that.

There are tonnes of debates on nucelear safety but this writer is inclined to believe that nuclear power is safer, cleaner than ever before. Also, more work is being done on this matter in the laboratories of General Electric in the United States than anywhere else in the world. Our first reactors at Tarapur near Bombay came from there as well. So, collaborating with the Americans or American companies is not a bad idea.

The problem, in this writer's mind, is a little more practical. Our track record in implementation of power plants in general is dismal. Our efforts at putting up nuclear plants, well, could be best be described as something you would associate with a perpetual pilot project.

Poor Track Record

Power is not only the government's fault. Well, both the private and the public sector have failed to match up to the energy needs of the nation. The private sector has had no role in nuclear but hopes to now. The government at large has been extremely tardy at clearing any form of power projects, particularly privately promoted. Together, the result is a figure which is very close to zero. Its tough to see how this will dramatically change in coming years.

To return to the azure waters of the Bay of Bengal, since we are parked on the eastern seaboard now. The Kudankulam plant was conceptualised in 1988, by, guess who, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev. Since then, its been a series of roadblocks. The big one was that the Russian Federation disintegrated and a new Russia was formed.

Obviously, a fresh agreement had to be signed. I quote from The Hindu here. "So, in 1998, a fresh supplementary agreement to the earlier Inter-Governmental Agreement was signed in New Delhi by Russian Minister for Atomic Energy Yevgeny Adamov and Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Dr. R. Chidambaram, who is also Secretary in the Department of Atomic Energy."

Projected Delays

Should be smooth sailing here on. After all, its a State-sponsored project. Well, not quite. By end 1998, early 1999 furious opposition began building up to the project. There were all sorts of problems cited. From the threat to the livelihood of local fishermen to the more ominous Russian reactors that would fire the plant. Actually, if you were to read to the `indiatogether.org' link above, you would wonder what in blazes were we doing with Russian reactors anyway ?

So, the project got delayed by about three years. Cut to the present. The first ground break happened in mid-2001. And the first concrete pour in 2002. As things stand, a little more than half the work has been completed. And target for commissioning is end 2007, early 2008. This makes it a construction span of 7-8 years, a project time-span years of 10 years. Or 20 years if you included the original Rajiv Gandhi signing. Do note that nuclear plants take much longer to build.

So, the sun is beating down a little more strongly in Kudankulam now. Work is on in full progress. Giant cranes are dumping concrete into the central reactor core. We take a trip ourselves. We are lifted maybe 50 storeys into the sky and then lowered, in a cage, into the reactor well. Its quite scary and impressive. The view from up there is staggering.

20,000 by 2020 ?

As is the target of generating 20,000 MW of nuclear energy by 2020. Total nuclear capacity today is 3,310 MW, but scattered across several small projects. Rest assured, even if nuclear fuel is flowing freely in taps, getting projects off the ground will be nightmarish. Expect howls of protest for any project on the coast. And don't expect the ones inland to be spared either. Its bad enough trying to set up a normal thermal or gas-based power plant.

Ask any of the American companies who ran way in the 1990s after breaking their collective heads. And the list does not include Enron. Or look at it this way. The Aditya Birla Group succeeded in just doing everything they wanted, including buying a clothing franchise. But they couldn't set up a power plant. And they wanted to set up two at least. Ten years ago. Even the otherwise worldly-wise Reliance group has had not much success in greenfield power projects.

So, more than nuclear power, we have a power problem. Which will take considerable resolve to manage. And neither private or public or both can find any magic solutions. Changing nomenclatures every ten years, "fast track and mega to ultra-mega" is not helping either. And neither can you railroad the environmentalists. Often they have a point.

So it was nice to see George Bush visiting India. It was a good for many things. Nuclear power must be the least, in real terms. I particularly liked the picture of his, taken in Andhra Pradesh, holding a pickaxe on his shoulder. You have to admit he does some cool stuff. Even if it's a stunt. I could never think of AB Vajpayee or Manmohan Singh pitching a baseball with the New York Yankees.
 

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