Sunday, February 21, 2016

Cleaning the Augean Stables: Patna

As per Greek mythology, one of the labours of Hercules was cleaning the stables of King Augeas. The King owned thousands of heads of cattle, horses and goats. Every night they would be driven into a stable. which had become really filthy. Hercules managed to clean the place by diverting a river which flowed nearby through the stables and cleaned up the entire place in one go.

As part of the the ongoing Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan launched by our Prime Minister, a Swachh Survekshan has been conducted. The results are out and Patna comes out right near the bottom of this survey, ranked 70th out of 73 cities covered under the survey. The results are as expected. It just confirms what we already knew. The city lags behind on every single parameter covered in the survey (Details). 

On a recent trip to the city, found it filled with filth. Rubbish was thrown all around, there are open drains filled to the brim and mostly choked. All kinds of animals cows, buffaloes, dogs, chicken, ducks, goats were roaming around and eating from the same piles of garbage. Except for the modern cars plying on lanes meant for 2-wheeler's and bullock carts, it almost seemed as if the city was still living a couple of centuries behind the rest of the urbanized world, especially in matters of hygiene.

Below are few sample pictures from my recent trip.
(a) Housing complexes surrounded by standing water; (b) Cows munching in the garbage filled roads; (c) Unlit lanes; (d) Crumbling buildings - In all a picture of  complete squalor
Cleaning up Patna would be no less than the labour of cleaning the Augeon Stables. But we can't depend on a single Hercules to the task. A filthy garbage riddled city is not a unique problem. Most of the big European cities were in equally bad shape in the 19th and early 20th century. Urbanization had brought with it problems of waste management.  Lee Jackson's book "Dirty Old London" describes the state of squalor in London. London was described as having choking, sooty fogs; the Thames River was thick with human sewage; and the streets were covered with mud. (Sounds familiar). The book goes on to describe how the city came up with its innovations and fought its way towards cleanliness.

This is not just a European phenomenon. Though it is hard to imagine now, Singapore was equally, if not more filthy under the British rule (Singapore Sanitation). But the initiatives undertaken by former PM Lee Kuan Yew transformed it into one of cleanest countries in the world. The Singapore model was adopted by other developing South East Asian countries. It requires strong political leadership, public infrastructure development and strict implementation of rules to make the program a success.

Given Patna's size and population, the solutions would need to be even larger in scale.It is not as if nothing has been done in this regard. Patna has provided leadership in this regard earlier also. Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak and his foundation Sulabh International were the original Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan campaigners. The work done by Sulabh in building sanitation systems has been globally recognized. However, we can certainly do with more such sustained campaigns for cleaning up this mess. 

An example can be taken from the city which ranked bottom of the survey, Dhanbad (another place where I have a personal connect). Post the results, the students of my alma mater have decided to take up the matter in their own hands. A waste management start-up called Total Waste Solutions or ToWaSo has been launched by the Centre for Innovation, Incubation and Entrepreneurship at ISM, which is working on the theme 'Utilize the Waste before it gets Wasted'. 

More such schemes would be needed. Only a joint effort by the administration and the citizens can accomplish this seemingly Herculean task of cleaning up the city. It is possible. There are parts of the city, the so called VIP areas which are models of cleanliness with no garbage dumps and wide tree-lined roads. But they are only tiny pockets in a huge city. It is necessary to ensure that these areas expand further. It needs a strong political will, dedicated funding for the development of public infrastructure, and strict monitoring with heavy fines for rule breakers. Patna has recently deployed lots of traffic police in an attempt to decongest and manage the traffic. Sanitation department also needs similar manpower to drive the cleanliness initiative. And the efforts need to be sustained over years for results to come.

And yes, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan would be considered a great success if this task is accomplished.

P.S. An old blog post on the subject of sanitation (Link

Thursday, February 18, 2016

BookMarks #10: Frankenstein

Title: Frankenstein (or The Modern Prometheus) 
Author: Mary Shelley 
Genre: Science Fiction, Horror 
Setting: Europe primarily Switzerland 
Published: 1818 

The story is told in the form of letters written by Captain Walton, who is exploring the Northern Seas, to his sister Margaret, back in England. Captain Walton narrates the tale of a man named Victor Frankenstein, whom his crew had rescued during their expedition in the Arctic Ocean. The crew had also spotted a gigantic figure moving along on the ice earlier. 

Victor begins telling Walton his story and how he came about to be on that icy landscape. He tells Walton about his family in Switzerland, his friends and early life. Then he went to university where the subject of chemistry and natural philosophy interested him the most. He develops a fascination for giving life to non-living things. He creates a large being to replicate human life and his experiments are successful. The “creature” as he refers to it comes into life. However he is repulsed by the creature’s hideous appearance and runs away. When he comes back the creature is missing. 

Victor falls ill from the results of his toils. However, his friend Clerval manages to nurse him back to health. Victor decides to go back to his family in Geneva. He then learns about the murder of his younger brother William and how the boy’s companion Justine has been implicated in it. On visiting the site of the murder, Victor spots his creature lurking around. He is convinced of the creature’s involvement in his brother’s murder and of Justine’s innocence. However, he is unable to stop Justine’s hanging. 

On a trip to the mountains, the creature corners Victor and then tells him his story. The creature has learned to speak and read from observing a family living in a cottage. His earlier interactions with humans had not gone well and he stayed in hiding in their cottage for some months while observing the family. Finally he mustered enough courage to meet the family but his intentions are mistaken because of his monstrous appearance. The frightened family runs away. The creature is angered by this reaction and sets the cottage on fire. Then he sets out in search of Victor, his creator. He also admits to the killing of William. After telling his story, he asks Victor to make a female companion for him, otherwise he would continue troubling Victor’s family. Reluctantly Victor agrees to this but seeks time. 

Victor and Clerval set out for England together. On reaching Scotland they separate. Victor sets to work on creating the female companion. One night he finds the creature watching him. Victor begins to doubt the monster’s promise and proceeds to destroy the female he was building. The creature is angered by his betrayal. He kills Clerval and implicates Victor in the murder. Victor is acquitted of the crime and he returns home. 

Victor gets married to his childhood friend Elizabeth, promising to tell her everything about his worries on the day after their wedding. On the wedding night, the creature comes and kills Elizabeth. Victor is enraged and vows to pursue the monster and destroy him. The pursuit takes him across the world and finally to the Arctics where he meets Walton. 

Fearing that his end is near, Victor makes Walton promise to destroy the monster. Walton agrees. Meanwhile the ship gets trapped in the sea ice. Walton’s crew is reluctant to proceed any further and although Victor argues otherwise, Walton is convinced to drop off the pursuit and return home. 

Victor succumbs to his illness. Walton finds the creature in mourning over Victor’s body. Walton hears the creature’s remorseful pleadings. The creature promises to destroy himself and end his own misery. Walton then watches the creature drift away into the sea. 

Who is the monster here? Victor Frankenstein or his creation. While the creature commits the murders, he justifies himself due to him being abandoned by his creator, being rejected by the human society and his attempts at friendship being discarded all because of his hideous appearance. Certainly Victor is the one to blame for abandoning his creation. And also for keeping his family and friends in dark about this constant danger that he had created. 

Its a common misconception that the monster’s name is Frankenstein (although many may argue that Victor is the real monster in the tale), the creation is unnamed throughout the tale being referred to as creature or monster. 

Mary Shelley's original draft
Previously on BookMarks: Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Net Neutrality Wins

Net Neutrality: "the principle that Internet service providers should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favouring or blocking particular products or websites."

For the past few months this had been a widely debated topic in India with Facebook's Free Basics campaign on one side, the average internet users on the other and the telecom operators and ISPs in the middle.

On 8th February, 2016 the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India ((TRAI) issued a notification on the "Prohibition of Discriminatory Tariffs for Data Services Regulation, 2016".

The TRAI order states that "no service provider shall shall offer or charge discriminatory tariffs for data services on the basis of content." Also "No service provider shall enter into any arrangement, agreement or contract, by whatever name called, with any person, natural or legal, that has the effect of discriminatory tariffs for data services being offered or charged to the consumer on the basis of content: Provided that this regulation shall not apply to tariffs for data services over closed electronic communications networks, unless such tariffs are offered or charged by the service provider for the purpose of evading the prohibition in this regulation." 

So in effect, it has declared that the entire internet content is same, whether its a video on youtube, a news channel site, live scores site, a social media site or even this blog. No particular content can be promoted by telecom operators through special plans like zero charges for certain sites/apps while charging different amount for others.  Although there are still some grey areas and some loopholes still need to be sorted out it was a first major notification in the net neutrality debate.

This notification has effectively stopped the Mark Zuckerberg's Free Basics campaign. Zuckerberg has been championing the cause of Free Basics to get more people on board the internet by providing certain websites free of costs (i.e. without any data charges). They had also conducted a major newspaper and billboard campaign for Free Basics. However the effort wasn't enough to covince TRAI or the net neutrality activists. Here is what Zuckerberg had to say in his Facebook post

"Everyone in the world should have access to the internet.
That's why we launched with so many different initiatives -- including extending networks through solar-powered planes, satellites and lasers, providing free data access through Free Basics, reducing data use through apps, and empowering local entrepreneurs through Express Wi-Fi.

Today India's telecom regulator decided to restrict programs that provide free access to data. This restricts one of's initiatives, Free Basics, as well as programs by other organizations that provide free access to data.

While we're disappointed with today's decision, I want to personally communicate that we are committed to keep working to break down barriers to connectivity in India and around the world. has many initiatives, and we will keep working until everyone has access to the internet.

Our work with around the world has already improved many people's lives. More than 19 million people in 38 countries have been connected through our different programs.

Connecting India is an important goal we won't give up on, because more than a billion people in India don't have access to the internet. We know that connecting them can help lift people out of poverty, create millions of jobs and spread education opportunities. We care about these people, and that's why we're so committed to connecting them.

Our mission is to make the world more open and connected. That mission continues, and so does our commitment to India."

His intentions might be completely altruistic but Free Basics isn't cutting any ground with net neutrality activists. In fact the TRAI ruling has been welcomed all across. For those in doubt on the correctness of the ruling, here is a tweet from Tim Berners-Lee.

"Well done India! passes strong #netneutrality rules, stands up for open Web. See @webfoundation -> #savetheinternet"

Coming from the man who built the world wide web, that should end the debate on Free Basics vs Net neutrality. 

Now, the implications of this ruling. All existing data plans with prioritized access will go for a toss. Alongwith Free basics, Airtel Zero kind of services will also get shelved. This would lead to changes in the tariff plans by all telecom operators. Could be interesting times in the Indian telecom space where data and net speed are becoming the dominant sectors ahead of voice calls and messages.

Technology has been moving at a pace much faster than the regulations. This ruling by TRAI is a major step in ensuring net neutrality and keeping pace with the rapidly evolving connectivity needs.