24 June 2013

A Dream Journey On Board Boeing 787 Dreamliner…But Few Questions Remain…

Extra-long wings give a distinct look
  Excited indeed, waiting at the brand new sprawling Kolkata airport terminal following a grossly mismanaged check-in and security procedure (it seemed, the plush international get up failed to change the age-old unprofessional mindset of the Air India ground staff), our wait for the dream Pankhiraj got extended by another hour.
  A smiling ground crew was courteous enough to let us know that Netaji Subhas Chandra (NSC) Bose International Airport - a crucial cog as far as air-connectivity with the East Asian countries, let alone the neglected north-east states, are concerned - was not being able to facilitate landing of the giant Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft hovering the Kolkata sky due to lack of space, and more surprisingly, water on the runway...!!!
  Even before stepping into the Dreamliner, one of the six planes inducted by the state carrier in the recent past and now operating in a few chosen sectors, we were left wondering how such an important international airport can afford to leave water stranded on its runway even hours after it had rained actually. The bigger question was, whether the Indian airports with their poor infrastructure are at all ready for smooth functioning of such huge aircrafts.

  Nevertheless, the time came.
  Leaving us awestruck inside the glass-windowed departure lounge, the dream aircraft, considered to be one of the most environment friendly in the world, descended over the City of Joy. The fat-bellied flying machine with a wingspan of 60.34 meters (according to the passenger booklet), longer than the cabin itself, had a predominant presence in the Kolkata airport and covered a space usually occupied by three smaller aircrafts together. At first glance, it was almost impossible to ignore the imposing impact.

  Minutes later, as the gate for boarding opened and we started approaching the great belly and stepped into the sprawling cabin, it was hard to miss the difference. The ears, otherwise used to the distinct mechanical noise of the aircraft engines at the time of boarding, waited eagerly but in vain. It was much quieter this time. In fact, 787 Dreamliners are armed with a range of technologies that produce much lesser noise and thus reduce noise pollution considerably. The latest technologies used ensure that the aircraft’s sound exceeding 85 decibels, which is a bit louder than a busy street intersection, never go beyond the periphery of the airports.

On board, we were greeted by the crew with some soothing music in the background. As we occupied seats, the green features of the double-aisle (needless to say, in the economy class) aircraft started unveiling themselves one by one. Bigger windows allow natural light to become an integral part of passengers’ experience making them switch off the artificial reading lights, leading to energy conservation. The electronic dimming system allows passengers to regulate the window tint as needed, anything between fully transparent and completely dimmed. The electrochromic window system also requires lesser maintenance.
  The focus on green technology was quite evident in the interior lighting of the aircraft as well. Thanks to dynamic LED (Light Emitting Diode) lightings, heat generated inside the cabin is much lesser than the amount of heat produced by the filamented lightings used in most of the other aircrafts, and six different versions of lightings create calming effect on the passengers.

  Now, it was time to soar high and we had an incredibly smooth take off despite quite turbulent monsoon weather under a laden sky.
  As the giant flying machine tore into the overcast sky with landscapes and human habitations fast disappearing beneath the dense clouds, we had no dearth of food and entertainment (every seat is equipped with a personalised television set on which you can watch films, listen to songs or even can get indulged in gaming with a remote control) on air.
  However, the Captain in charge did not forget to remind us that 787 Dreamliners that have a maximum speed of 587 miles per hour consumes lesser fuel, thanks to improved aerodynamics, and thus have fewer emission records. It’s important for environment. Rapidly growing aircraft emission has become a matter of concern as it affects the atmosphere’s ozone layer that filters out harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays and other radiations before the sunlight reaches the earth. Some international communities are even planning to impose tax on aircraft emissions. In India also, the Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has decided to set up an environment task force to monitor and check aircraft emissions.

  It was indeed turbulent both in Kolkata as well as over Indira Gandhi International (IGI) Airport in New Delhi (weather condition in between was not good either). However, thanks to the Smoother Ride Technology (SRT), which senses turbulence and commands wing control surfaces accordingly, the bad weather outside could never really made us panic (even as two quite turbulent flights, another Kolkata-New Delhi trip and a bit longer New Delhi-Coimbatore flight, were fresh in my mind). Then what? It was an undisturbed movie time for me (and for many others, I’m sure).

  Not only while flying, the Dreamliner aircrafts contribute to environment even at the manufacturing stage and remain environment friendly at the end of their service life as well. The aircraft body is primarily made of specially designed carbon fibre composite material. Therefore, the manufacturing process produces lesser scrap metals and waste in comparison to other conventional aircrafts. Besides, all parts of the flying machine can be recycled, and this very feature ensures that the planes do not end up as a lump of metal contaminating environment in more than one ways (which is the case for many discarded aircrafts and ships).

  Two hours down the line, the National Capital Region (NCR) welcomed us with quite a jerky touch-down amid steady drizzling. And it was time to be grounded again.
  We alighted from the state-of-the-art aircraft only to find the posh IGI Airport, named as the world's second best in the 25-40 million passengers category after Incheon International Airport in South Korea by Airport Council International just a couple of days back, was dealing with a semi-flood situation following heavy downpour.
  Time for reality check - do we have enough infrastructure...??? If yes, why every time it grounds us during crisis...!!!
  Or, maybe it was another reminder that environment, and not the human being, is the ultimate power, and so the latter must take care of and be considerate to the former. And yes, not only up in the sky but on the ground too. (The environmental catastrophe was yet to strike Uttarakhand at that time.)

03 June 2013

GM Crops: A Path to be Treaded Cautiously

  Remember Rajnikanth’s science fiction film Robot, where an intelligent andro-humanoid machine-man, Chitti, went rogue to create ruckus and almost snatched heroine Sana (Aishwarya) from lover Dr Vaseegaran after falling love with her?
  Or Mary Shelley’s popular novel Frankenstein, where an unorthodox scientific experiment ended up creating a monster?

  Recently, something like has happened in the United States, but on really an unexpected note.
  A Genetically Modified (GM) variety of wheat, produced by multi-national agricultural bio-technology company Monsanato, has gone rogue and resisted an Oregon farmer’s effort to tame the strain - an incident that has already started disrupting American wheat export market as two major importing nations Japan and South Korea have partially scraped their wheat orders from the US. Even the weedicide formula by Monsanato has failed to kill the GM crop and now the unique case is being probed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

  Apart from impacting the US wheat export, the incident of rogue crop is throwing out a question that goes well beyond territorial limit of any single country.
  “GM Crop: A path to be or not to be taken?”

  The US, where most of the corn, soya and alfalfa crops are genetically modified but are used for feeding the livestock, is the pioneer in this field, but the transgenic crop technology provides with a lucrative option to the developing and lower-developing countries, including India, where ensuring food security for every member of a 1.27 million-and-growing population is a gigantic proposition. That situation worsens, and GM crops seem to be more promising an option, when an erratic monsoon makes the farmers (and, the governments also) dance to its tunes in every other year.
  However, India has judiciously adopted a cautious approach despite the great promise the GM crop technology flaunts - higher productivity, better weed and weather resistance power, and after all, a much smaller gestation period before harvesting.
  True, feeding the Indian population is a major challenge for the policymakers and there is dire need of some innovative pro-activism on their part to negotiate the evolving impacts of climate change on agricultural output, but any hasty decision to adopt GM crops for food production without delving deep into the pros and cons of its aftereffects can spoil the party altogether.
  We committed such a mistake years back, when Green Revolution was introduced in the country. The Green Revolution, which was aimed majorly at wheat and was confined to the northern India (mostly Punjab) by and large, helped the farmers harvest bumper crops and turned the country into a net exporter from a major importer, and thus had good impact on Indian economy. However, overuse of fertilizers and sometimes injudicious consumption of water led to degradation of soil quality and chemical run off contaminating ground water.
  GM crops may not have any directly visible impact on environment, but altering the natural genetic composition of the food crop species may affect human health - all those aspects should be looked into before allowing Indian farmers harvest GM crops, be it for livestock feeding or human consumption.

  In this regard, Professor Eric Seralini’s research report that was published in Chemical and Food Toxicology journal has shaken the world. During the research, the Caen University (France) professor fed a particular pedigree of rats with a particular variety of GM corn for two years in laboratory and the tiny animals developed ghastly cancerous tumours.

  One major factor that failed (yes failed, as claimed by many scientists as well as the pro-environment lobby) the Green Revolution that majorly took place during the 1960s and 1970s is still present very much in India - low literacy level of the farmers. Green Revolution helped a section of the farmers financially as they could enjoy record harvest, but the positive impacts in many cases eluded the poor farmers, including the illiterate and landless workers on the field, because it was difficult for them to adopt the high-yielding varieties (HYV) seeds with calculated use of fertilizers and water. That resulted in overuse, sometimes indiscriminate use, of chemical fertilizers leading to future degradation of agricultural base at many pockets in northern India.
  The fear is aplenty that regular consumption may lead to some serious health hazards, maybe some kind of genetic deformities or some new types of incurable diseases.

  But roses have never been hated for their thorns.
  Though dogged by problems and concerns, the GM crop technology presents us with the most promising answer to the global food security including in the developing and lower-developing nations where the goal of population stabilization is still a couple of decades away and acute hunger claims lives every now and then. From 1.6 billion in 1900, today the world population is more than 7 billion and the counting is projected to touch 8-billion-mark by the year 2025. GM crops, with its manifold advantages, are holding the promise of a hunger-free world.
  Genetic modification is a technology of future that can create a world just out of the science fiction books. Today we may have a reliable buffer stock of crops, but who knows that we don’t have to count upon the GM crop technology in near future when the impacts of climate change would be more prominent changing the heat and monsoon patterns, and thus affecting the agricultural output globally? Who can bet that on such an occasion the GM crop technology will not turn up as the saviour of mankind?
  Just like any other innovation, more research is required to ameliorate the even slightest tinge of doubt about the impacts of GM crops, be it on human health or the environment. And all the data must be made accessible to public making the information trickling down to the grass-root level.
  Probably, there is time yet before we see the dawn when the flash of promise will turn into a reality and GM crops would help the policymakers worldwide to get rid of at least one dangling question – Food Security for All.

  In India, though the final report by the Technical Expert Committee (TEC) appointed by the Supreme Court is still awaited, the committee in its interim report has advocated a 10-year moratorium on open field trials of genetically modified food crops until enough regulatory mechanisms and safety standards are put in place. Importantly, that recommendation has found support from 51 independent international scientists with expertise in genetic engineering and biosafety protocols.

21 May 2013

Carbon dioxide Level in Air Touches Milestone; So What…??

Today, we are breathing pernicious carbon dioxide gas more than we did at any given time in our historical past.
     And if the trend continues, soon we may have to reprint the science pages of the school books teaching the air composition in the atmosphere, and if we remain alive to do that, have to face a slew of problems ranging from health hazards including newer (and more unpredictable) types of epidemics to nose-diving agricultural output, thanks to an increasingly disturbed monsoon pattern across the world.

     In a major but distressing development, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration observatory in Mauna Loa, Hawaii have recently detected that the average concentration of carbon dioxide gas has reached the level of 400 parts per million, meaning approximately 400 molecules of CO2 is now present in every million molecules of air we breathe in -- unprecedented in the human history.
     Increasing concentration of CO2, a major heat-trapping agent present in the atmosphere, changes climate and acidifies the oceans. CO2 is generated in volume during various human activities, especially burning of fossil fuels, which, scientists agree, is majorly responsible for pushing CO2 concentration to the level unheard of during human habitation on the earth.
     “It (the latest CO2 level) also is kind of a warning sign or red flag that hey, we really need to tackle this problem. It’s happening right before our eyes,” Professor J. Marshall Shepherd at University of Georgia and a climate change expert was quoted as saying by a media report.

     More disturbing, the impacts have already started setting in. We may unknowingly notice them, or may try to ignore them knowingly with eyes wide open, but the impact is becoming more palpable with every passing day.
     Increasing concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere results into trapping of more amount of heat that invariably causes global warming.

     With growing CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, the earth is turning greener.
     Good news…??? Well, it’s just the opposite.
     A warmer atmosphere is responsible for shrinking of snow cover in the pole areas that have been under thick ice since time immemorial but have recently started sneaking out into sunlight and the exposure is giving birth to tinge of greens thereon. Though the shrinking snow cover is putting the polar species like penguins under serious threat, it also holds promise of opening up a huge continental area, unseen so far, which may present us with a jackpot in terms of un-trapped resources such as oil, gas and minerals.
     Cat-race to lay hands on the yet-to-be-seen resources has already begun. India and China were among the six countries that recently pocketed observer status in the eight-member Arctic Council; according to official estimate, 30% of the world’s gas and 13% of oil deposits remain untouched beneath the glowing white cover there.
     However, don’t forget to flip the coin. The situation is not as rosy as it seems; the changes are capable to giving birth to something as big as another World War (the 3rd, maybe).
     Don’t be puzzled…. Let’s look at the “simpler” implications first.
     Scientists warn, the fast reducing snow cover will hamper the world climate in a way that may not be fully analysed or predicted till the time the situation unfolds itself, and then, the countries (especially, those with long coastline such as India and the United States) -- many of them are harbouring hope of claiming the jackpot -- may have to shell out an amount much bigger than what they would earn thus to deal with the impacts like inundation of their coastal resorts and other sea-side habitats.
     The continental ice cover that reflects a good amount of sun rays back will not be able to do the same any more, if there is reduced or no ice, leading to further increase in the overall world temperature. Besides, we don’t know clearly how the world ecosystem and food-chain will react if the species like polar bears and penguins become extinct.
     Now, come to the war -- this time for the custody of water (just like we have read in fiction write-ups) -- and it does not seem a distant dream anymore. Wondering how…!!!
     The huge collection of polar ice in Arctic and Antarctic regions store most of the fresh water under the sun, and you don’t have to play an Einstein to understand that mingling of the fresh water stock with the salted sea water would hamper the current water cycle running on the green planet, probably irreparably, and potentially can trigger water scarcity throughout, thus resulting in two contrasting lobbies -- water haves and water have-nots.

     If you are minutely following the latest developments in the world of research and survey, you’ll know that our environment has already started sending signals that all is not well with its health.
     Some university study has recently found that various catch fish species are being evicted from their habitats, thanks to gradual warming of the sea water, and going deeper into the sea or even migrating towards comparatively cooler pole regions. Some fish species are being even displaced by their warm-water counterparts.
     This recently detected development has some serious implications.
     If such disturbed trends emerge (and it looks like it will sooner or later) in the riverine and coastal South Asian or South-East Asian countries like India, Bangladesh, Japan and Indonesia, where millions of people are solely dependent on the fishery industry, unemployment and poverty will come down haunting a large section of the population, besides hampering the food security of scores.

     We, the nations, have fought enough with each other. Now, before it’s too late to act, all countries need to come together and adopt pro-active policy measures to avert the impending crisis that is looming large, and the good news is that the end of 2012 showed some ray of real hope.
     In Doha, during the 18th Conference of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol, the only legally-binding international treaty to counter global warming that had entered into force way back in 2005 with an eye on reducing emission of greenhouse gases such as CO2 and was to get over in 2012, received an extension agreed by nearly 200 member countries till 2020 and the meeting also cleared way for replacement of the famous protocol with another international treaty to control climate change by the year 2015.
     Yes, hope is there indeed… But only the actions will bring the real difference…

06 May 2013

Hilsa dishes are at stake...!!!

Some of the most delicious Bengali dishes are under threat.
  Not because of the skyrocketing price of cooking gas. Not even because we are reluctant to invest price, time or energy (despite busy life and growing expense) to try out different recipes to satisfy our taste buds.

  But because Hilsa, the wonder fish that has become an inseparable part of Bengali culture and cuisine, is now facing extinction.

  Overfishing of Hilsa is indeed a threat the fish species has been under for quite a long time. According to the world’s catch statistics, around 90% of the total Hilsa harvest is reported in three south Asian countries – India, Bangladesh and Myanmar. Bangladesh, part of erstwhile undivided India, is topping the chart with 50% harvest, followed by India (25%), as the harvest from the Indo-Bangladesh estuary, especially from the River Padma, is in high demand not only in the sub-continent but abroad as well.

  However, yearly Hilsa catch has significantly come down in the last 30 years, making it dearer to buy with every passing season. Sometimes Hilsa has made the foodies shell out even Rs. 1,500 to Rs. 2,000 for single kg. Take the example of Kolkata, a major Hilsa market in eastern India -- a 50% drop in Hilsa supply was reported last year.

  But why the extinction threat…!!!
  By nature, Hilsa is a resident of sea for most part of its life but migrates more than 1,000 km inland through the major river estuaries during their breeding seasons following which they again return to their original habitat, if not caught. However, that is not the concern.

  The newborns (“Khoka Ilish”), before approaching the sea, where they spend their adulthood, stay in the lower opening of the river estuaries for a few months and are caught in numbers by the fishermen, thanks to a widening gap between market demand and supply. As increasing number of young members of the fish community fail to reach their adulthood every season, the reproductive cycles also get cut and so the overall number of fully grown fishes able to reproduce nosedives.

  The situation has turned grimmer over the decades. Lack of sound regulatory mechanism to stop the fishermen target the schools of juvenile Hilsha during the breeding period has played havoc and now the experts fear that unless fishing is restricted, if not stopped altogether, during the breeding seasons, the fish species could be wiped out from the planet, and we would have to visit the museums to remember Hilsa and replace the recipes the Bengali has been cherishing.

  Hope of a turnaround is there though.

  In an unexpected turn of event, the United Kingdom-based policy research body International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) has received monetary grant worth more than 1.5 crores in Indian currency from Britain’s Darwin Initiative to find ways to protect Hilsa from the threat of overfishing.

  “We started the conservation project in April this year in Bangladesh. In two years, we will involve India and Myanmar. Hilsa colony numbers are plummeting. If fishing does not stop during breeding season, the species faces extinction,” Dr Essam Yassin, the lead project officer from IIED, was quoted by a national daily as saying recently.
  Last year, the International Trans-boundary Policy Dialogue on Hilsa Fisheries Management between Bangladesh and India, organised by International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and India’s Central Inland Fisheries Research Institute (CIFRI) underlined the importance of maintaining flow of freshwater in the region’s estuaries and associated mangrove ecosystems for sustainable Hilsa fisheries.

  Now, discussion and contemplation are something that often stay far off the ground level implementation. Nothing but a multi-pronged approach would be able to handle the situation.

On one hand, we can use modern technologies like remote sensing and satellite imaging to stop the fishermen from throwing nets on the juvenile members of the fish species during the breeding seasons. On the other hand, some timely and serious initiative to spread awareness among the fishermen is a need of the hour.

  But why should they listen to such an advice at the cost of extra income…?? The answer lies in convincing and not forcing after all.

  The financially poor fishermen, who spend days after days on fishing trawlers away from their families frustrated and hoping for some good catches and better profit margin, would be convinced to do the extra bit only when they are provided with alternative ways of income that would help them in monetary terms. So, I guess, it is time for some innovative thinking…

  There are scores of recommendations regarding the matter.

  A recent study, The Importance of Migratory and Spawning Patterns for the Conservation of Hilsa in Bangladesh and India, has found that most of the juveniles start downstream migration during the months from March to May. The study also advises India to follow the policy of its eastern neighbour, which restricts the usage of bag and scoop nets for Hilsa catching below a certain level, in order to ensure smooth migration of the juveniles to the sea. The study also recommended targeted dredging along the Hooghly-Bhagirathi river systems, besides the Padma-Meghna, to maintain proper water flow and thus ensure smooth Hilsa migration.
  So, we need to be proactive before it’s too late and the Hilsa fails to continue with its magic in our kitchens...

27 April 2013

We together can create a new dawn
We can make wonder…!!!

     Yes, a magician is hiding inside every one of us. With a little more effort, collectively we can make a difference -- a real difference.
     All is not well with the health of our environment -- an uneasy truth that some of us already know and some don’t believe at all. Rest are yet to decide which way to go.
     But the reality is palpable. The world is getting hotter, temperature is setting the bar higher every summer, the monsoon patterns have been disturbed, agricultural output is dwindling (though, not to an extent that can make us sit up), glaciers are melting fast, droughts are intensifying and a turf war over water availability does not seem a distant dream anymore.
     Baffled...?? While the world leaders are fighting in order to eke out a consensus to find a way out of the problems those are intensifying with every passing day, what a wonder can we, the so called “cattle class”, can do…!!! And how...!!!

     True, we are busy, very busy. Every day, we have to reach office fighting with co-passengers in public transport, have to make boss happy with extra hours in workplace, need to take care of the family, and overall, not accepting the spirited demand of your child to play with on holidays is simply unpardonable. We have such a crammed schedule to follow. Where is the time to think green...!!!
     Still we can do a lot…

     Just out of the bed and brushing the teeth while racing with the live machine called clock, can’t we give our day a “wise” beginning by just turning the running tap water off while not in use? May be we have to do nothing beyond pressing the electric motor switch to get running water, that too hot in winters, in our washrooms, but who cares for those fellow countrymen, mostly women, who have no way but to walk down (remember barefoot, not with shoes or chappals) daily somewhere around 5 to 10 miles on an average to collect water.
     Are you listening…???
     There must be days fresh in some of our memory when we forgot to turn off the fans or the lights while living for office and on the mobiles responding to some frantic calls from bosses. Fine, forget the money you have to shell out for the electricity consumption, because you might be a highly paid white-collar executive, but how can you forget the news (must be read in some newspaper or shown by one or the other TV channels) that some crucial surgeries had to be stalled or the pregnant women with labour pain had to wait (sometimes even die) only because of interrupted electric supply at health centres in some other corners of the same country?
     If we don’t care about the “big words” like environment or energy conservation (you have the right to), can’t we act in a bit more sensible manner just to show that we do remember the condition of our fellow citizens (no one is asking you to do anything more)?
     Are you listening…???
     More left. 
     Stuck in traffic jam, how many of us bother to let the engines of our cars take some rest?
     You say, “Who the hell are you to give me speech?” But, experts (not me, I am not an expert) say, collective shut-downs of motor engines in all traffic signals or while in traffic jams across the country, forget the world, can save expensive fuel worth billions of dollars, let alone doing some good to the city air that we breathe in.
     Are you listening…???
     “Energy conservation or care for environment should start at the individual level. If every one of us can take initiative to stop wastage of energy, the overall scenario is going to change certainly. But that is not what’s happening,” an internationally acclaimed environment activist recently lamented while talking to this author.
     Office is the place where majority of the time is spent and the work pressure is enough to make you forget all other problems of life, and sometimes you don't get the time to even remind yourself that there is a mid-day meal called lunch.
     Everything said and done, how can we forget to shutdown the computers at our workstations while leaving for home? You don’t bother because it’s the spending of the company after all, not yours. Even if you don't have intention to do any good to your environment (simply because it’s company’s duty), just think about the amount your company can put aside every year if all the 3,000 odd computers are not left running throughout the nights. Can't you smell more profit triggering a better monetary appreciation?
     I don't insist that you think about those rural people yet to enjoy their first brush with electricity.
     The list simply goes on with numerous incidents, trifle or seem not-so-important otherwise, scattered here and there in our daily life though fail to grab attention more than often, but can make a big difference if taken care of collectively. We know, better resource management means a better environment. 
     However, it depends whether we want to bring about a real change around us or are eager to close our eyes and pass the buck to other’s table.
     It’s all in our outlook. If the outlook changes, we can save the earth and its environment; otherwise, a status quo would lead us to our peril.
     After all, it’s the same story of water half glass full or half glass empty. Look either way.