Let’s inspire each other

22 Mar

A month or so ago, a friend sent me a somewhat unusual email. The subject was ‘Let’s inspire each other’.  It had a list of two names – the second name being that of my friend (sender) and the first being that of one of her friends. It requested me to send an inspirational quote/poem/song/verse of my choice to the first person on the list. After doing so, it required that I send the original email to about 20 of my friends in Bcc – after modifying the name list so that my friend’s name (from whom I had received it initially) would occur first while mine would be the second. The idea was that the friends I forwarded this email to would in turn send an inspirational quote to my friend and their friends in turn will send their quotes to me. Well, I did not quite know what to expect, but it did seem like fun and I did as I was told. Here’s a poem that has inspired me. Well, it’s written by Kipling (yes, yes, I know, he did hold terrible racist views, but this poem is good, so I forgive him).


If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:.
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build’em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

Rudyard Kipling
Well, I am not finished yet. Surprisingly, after a week or so, my inbox started filling up with lovely inspirational quotes. A young man (who is a friend of a friend, but I don’t really know whose friend) sent me Invictus (another of my favourites). He said, this is the poem which helped him keep focus while he was preparing for his exams.


Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

William Ernest Henley
Then a lady sent me this: “An eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind.” Mahatma Gandhi
And another this:
“In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel
Love I get so lost, sometimes
Days pass and this emptiness fills my heart
When I want to run away
I drive off in my car
But whichever way I go
I come back to the place you areAll my instincts, they return
And the grand facade, so soon will burn
Without a noise, without my pride
I reach out from the insideIn your eyes
The light the heat
In your eyes
I am complete
In your eyes
I see the doorway to a thousand churches
In your eyes
The resolution of all the fruitless searches
In your eyes
I see the light and the heat
In your eyes
Oh, I want to be that complete
I want to touch the light
The heat I see in your eyesLove, I don’t like to see so much pain
So much wasted and this moment keeps slipping away
I get so tired of working so hard for our survival
I look to the time with you to keep me awake and aliveAnd all my instincts, they return
And the grand facade, so soon will burn
Without a noise, without my pride
I reach out from the inside

In your eyes
The light the heat
In your eyes
I am complete
In your eyes
I see the doorway to a thousand churches
In your eyes
The resolution of all the fruitless searches
In your eyes
I see the light and the heat
In your eyes
Oh, I want to be that complete
I want to touch the light,
The heat I see in your eyes
In your eyes in your eyes
In your eyes in your eyes
In your eyes in your eyes

And there were many many more. Even after a month has elapsed, I was pleasantly surprised to find another email in my inbox this morning. It said: “Solutions come to you when you are calm, centred, when you use your intelligence, when you are active and have strong faith in the divine law”.
Let me be honest and say that when I got that email, I hesitated a bit before forwarding it. I hesitated because I did not know what to expect and found it a little weird to send email to someone I did not know. But looking back, I am glad that I overcame my initial reluctance and did as my friend asked me to do. And because I did this, fascinating inspirational quotes, poems and songs pop up in my inbox every other day. It was indeed a good way to start 2014. So what inspires you?

2013 in review

31 Dec

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 4,600 times in 2013. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

On arsenic and groundwater in West Bengal

9 Oct

I make a lot of presentations in India and elsewhere, explaining my work on groundwater in West Bengal. And almost always, the first question I get is: ‘but what about arsenic?’ And it is a very important question, something I want to answer carefully.

To be able to do so, my colleague, Nari Senanayake, now a graduate student at University of California at Davis and I decided to sift through evidence to understand what we know about entry of arsenic into human food chain through irrigation with arsenic rich water on the one hand and ways of mitigating the same on the other hand. To me, mitigation always seemed important. This is because, farmers in this part of the world, often don’t have any other viable livelihood alternative than irrigating with groundwater and in some places, this groundwater contains arsenic. I have noticed how easily one recommends that irrigation with groundwater be banned in such places, without providing any other alternatives. That, to me does not sound like a good public policy due to two reasons. First, such a ban can never be implemented in reality given that farmers depend on this resource for their livelihoods. Second, assuming it was possible to actually implement this ban, it will only make farmers poorer than they already are, and in the process, make them even more nutritionally insecure. There is a lot of literature to show that people with poor nutritional status are more prone to arsenic poisoning than others. Thus, in some sense, such a policy will end up victimizing the same people it was purportedly designed to serve!

Now coming back to our paper. This paper, titled ‘Irrigating with arsenic contaminated groundwater in West Bengal and Bangladesh: A review of interventions for mitigating adverse health and crop outcomes’ is now under review process of an ISI journal. But a few months ago, we published a working paper version of the same paper for a more policy oriented audience. Here is the paper.  

We looked at two distinct, but related aspects. First, we looked at consequences of irrigating with arsenic rich groundwater. Here, we reviewed 27 high quality studies that had credible counter factual and found that irrigating with arsenic rich water leads to accumulation of the same in soil, but not necessarily accumulation in crop parts in equal severity and that such accumulation depends on crop types and water management practices. But what was evident was that irrigating with arsenic rich water for long periods almost always led to decline in yields. 

Second, we looked at ways of mitigating the negative impacts of irrigating with arsenic rich water. Here, we reviewed 29 high quality studies with experimental design and found that there are at least 6 categories of interventions that have been tried and tested in the field or in the laboratories. And the good news is that most of these work, but work with varying degrees of success. These six categories of interventions are:

1. Improved water management practices like deficit irrigation

2. Correct doses of artificial fertilization and bio-remediation of soil

3. Switching to alternative field crops with low water requirement

4. Breeding arsenic tolerant rice varieties

5. Cooking rice with clean water and in traditional ways

6. Providing nutritional supplements to those most at risk

We explain the pros and cons of each of these interventions in our paper. To me, the most important take home message is that we have to move beyond scare mongering and find solutions to managing arsenic in agriculture. And that those solutions are already being tried and tested by scientists. What then is needed is to link this science with extension activities. Agricultural extension in India, has literally gone to the dogs. But, good extension services are now needed like never before. Therefore, for me, the greatest concern is not that some farmers are irrigating with arsenic rich groundwater. The greatest concern is that they are not aware that they are doing so in the first place and second, they are not aware of how they could potentially avoid the negative impacts of doing so by adopting some best practices. It is here that there is a huge role for innovative extension services — something that is conspicuous by its absence. 

And this, my friends, is my answer to: ‘But what do we do about arsenic?’


Greenpeace Grand Challenge on solar pumps in Bihar

9 Oct

Till a few years, I was rather skeptical about potential of solar pump technology to address energy squeeze in eastern India. Not so any more. And the reasons: rapid decline in costs of solar panels, which has been matched with equally rapid improvement in efficiency. Chances are, solar pumps will prove to be just as much of a breakthrough for farmers in eastern India, as diesel pump operatedshallow tubewells were in the 1970s and the 1980s. A number of small companies have come up with cost effective designs and the government of Bihar has launched a program to convert its defunct electricity operated public tubewells to solar pump powered tubewells. I have heard anecdotal stories of how solar pumps are being tested in few locations in Bangladesh. Many have asked me whether or not solar pumps can provide a long term sustainable solution in West Bengal. To me, the biggest barrier still seems to be the price, followed by portability of panels.

Greenpeace has taken this challenge head on and designed a grand challenge on designing cost effective solar pumps that can be adopted by farmers in Bihar. Their challenge question is simple: Can your design replace dirty diesel pumps in the fields of India? 

This challenge is open from 3rd September to 15th November 2013. I am on the jury of this challenge and will strongly encourage designers to come up with solutions to meet this challenge.

Read more on the Challenge here and happy submissions, folks!

Floods in Uttarakhand

28 Jun

My colleagues at Water and Air theme at ICIMOD work on various kinds of early warning systems and disaster risk reduction strategies. In the aftermath of the tragic events in Uttarakhand, a team led by Dr. Mandira Shrestha put together this report .
Extremely high rainfall seems to be the immediate cause of this flooding. My colleagues have also been circulating other interesting blogs and news items, many of which are speculating that it may have been a GLOF (Glacial Lake Outburst Flood) event. We don’t know that for sure yet, but I am hoping that in the coming few days, we will know more about the physical processes that led to this deluge. However, what we already know is that there was a governance failure of the highest order—for instance; early warning systems were not triggered in a timely manner. Here are some news items and blogs of interest.


Managing the water-energy-food nexus in India: Insights from three states

15 Apr

Water-energy-food nexus is on top of the global policy agenda these days. What does this nexus mean for India? In India, it means, how do we manage electricity and groundwater without causing a lot of collateral damage to our farmers? There are no easy answers. Here are some of my thoughts where I draw evidence from my previous work in West Bengal, Punjab and Karnataka.

India is the world’s largest groundwater user. By far the most important factor explaining this is the regime of power subsidies that India has evolved to support agricultural growth. As a result, agriculture, groundwater and electricity sectors in much of India are now bound in an invidious nexus of mutual dependence where the growth of one sector (agriculture) is being supported by unsustainable trends in the other two sectors (groundwater and electricity), so much so that even growth in agriculture is now threatened. Interestingly, all three components of the nexus – groundwater, electricity and agriculture are state subjects according to the Constitution of India. Hence it is the state governments, rather than the central government, which can formulate policies for tackling this nexus. Not surprisingly, different states in India have adopted different ways of managing this nexus.

Let’s take the case of West Bengal – an eastern state of India endowed with alluvial aquifers and high rainfall and recharge. Here till 2007, farmers had to pay a flat rate for electricity consumption – a rate, which was non-trivial and quite high when compared to other states where farmers get electricity subsidy. Due to a number of favorable political factors the government of West Bengal (see Mukherji, 2006) was able to meter all electric tube wells and charge a metered tariff which is equivalent to the cost of supply of electricity. This did away with the need for electricity subsidy. Thus, a strong price signal was sent to the farmers to make efficient use of electricity and groundwater and break the invidious nexus. However, the consequences were not so equitable — the small and marginal water buying farmers lost out as some of our previous studies showed (Mukherji et al. 2009). The recent plans of the government of West Bengal to give more electricity connection to farmers may help in reducing the negative impacts of metering by introducing competition in informal water markets.

Punjab, the heart of Green Revolution and the bread basket of India is located in the north-western part of the country. This is a semi-arid state, endowed with alluvial aquifer – an aquifer that has been over-exploited for over 30 years now. The Punjab government gives free electricity to farmers for groundwater pumping, but the amount of this electricity is strictly rationed through separation of feeders into agricultural and non-agricultural feeders. There is a strong political resistance to metering and hence rationing came up as the second best option. Punjab State Electricity Regulatory Commission (PSERC) was set up in 2000. Since then, it has encouraged the electricity utility to do better energy accounting, lower their technical losses and to improve quality of power to farmers through installation of High Voltage Distribution Systems (HVDS). Here, the main policy lever for controlling groundwater use has been rationing of electricity, thereby forcing farmers to invest in efficiency enhancing measures such as use of energy efficient pumps and laser levelers.

Karnataka, a drought prone, hard rock state in Southern India provides another contrast to Punjab and West Bengal. Agriculture here is precariously dependent on groundwater and aquifers with limited storage capacity have been depleted. Here too, like Punjab, the government has taken upon a scheme to separate agricultural and non-agricultural feeders and ration electricity to agriculture, but the design of this scheme is such that it has defeated the very purpose of rationing. For instance, in segregated agricultural feeders, three-phase electricity is provided for 6 hours, but single phase electricity is provided for another 10-12 hours. This enables farmers to withdraw groundwater using a single phase electric pump. Similarly, cases of power theft and illegal tube wells are rampant and the Karnataka State Electricity Regulatory Commission (KERC) has not been able to do much about it, in spite of its good intentions, purportedly due to strong farmers lobby and unwillingness of the state government to take decisions deemed to be anti-farmer.

To sum up, I present examples from three states in India—states which have used very different approaches for managing this nexus—ranging from economics text book solution in West Bengal, to second best solution in Punjab, to utter anarchy in Karnataka. This underlines the importance of politics and governance in managing water-food –energy nexus in India.

Additional readings:
Mukherji A. 2013. ‘Water-Food-Energy nexus in the context of groundwater use in India: Experience from three Indian states’, paper presented at Expert Group Meeting on Improving Access to Water Sanitation and Energy Services in Asia and the Pacific by addressing the Water-Food Energy nexus, 20-22 March 2013, Bangkok, Thailand

Shah, T; Giordano, M; Mukherji, A. 2012. Political economy of the energy-groundwater nexus in India: exploring issues and assessing policy options. Hydrogeology Journal, 20(5):933-941.

Mukherji, A., B. Das, N. Majumdar, N.C. Nayak, R.R. Sethi and B.R. Sharma (2009), Metering of agricultural power supply in West Bengal, India: Who gains and who loses? Energy Policy: 37 (12): 5530-5539.

Mukherji, A. (2006), Political ecology of groundwater: The contrasting case of water abundant West Bengal and water scarce Gujarat, India, Hydrogeology Journal 14(3):392-406.

Food in Delhi

27 Mar

As we are about to leave Delhi in a couple of days, I thought it is time that I write about the food I loved eating in Delhi. Well, after all, my blog is about food!

Let me start with Oh! Kolkata – the place we frequented most, partly because it serves Bengali food, but even more importantly because, being right next to our house, we could just walk there any time we felt like. And we felt like it pretty often! Food is good, reminiscent of home cooked Bengali food that I grew up eating. Most often, we went on Sunday afternoons and ordered the buffet lunch. It is reasonably priced and offers a large selection of traditional dishes. But I must say that over the years, I have seen some decline in quality of food. And then, I can pretty much cook everything they have to offer; so the only reasons we kept going there were sheer laziness and the temptation of eating full course Bengali meal without having to cook one. My all time favorites are: prawn cutlet, kosha mangsho and nolen gurer ice cream.

Next in the order of frequency of visits is a Chinese restaurant called Royal Princess – again, within walking distance from our house. Located on 16th Floor of a business complex in Nehru Place, it offers beautiful view of the Lotus Temple. Food is authentic Chinese (and not Indian-Chinese), but I can bet that my friend Lingli Gao cooks better Chinese. Deprived of Lingli’s home cooked Chinese meals, we took refuge in the next best alternative that Delhi had to offer. But it is an expensive alternative with meal for two costing up to Rs. 4000! Peking duck was crispy and delicious and we enjoyed a whole lot of lamb, prawns and pork dishes.

We have eaten at several restaurants at Hauz Khas village. Let me start with Park Baluchi, located inside the deer park. We have been there quite a few times and pretty much ordered their chicken potli every time. It is a tennis ball sized kebab– chicken mince stuffed inside thin layers of chicken breast. Full marks for innovativeness and taste. Sadly, two of these, and I would be full every time. My husband also loved one of their paneer dishes—tender pieces of cottage cheese in white sauce and liberally sprinkled with dry fruits.

L’Amour is another place we have eaten quite often. It serves Mediterranean food. Entry to this restaurant is through a tiny rattling lift, which makes you rather scared, but brave hearts are rewarded with a spacious restaurant with outdoor seating arrangement. I have always liked the ambience. Risotto is good (though not as cheesy I would have liked it), as are thin crust pizzas.  They have a nice Sunday brunch, but sadly, we never ended up there on Sundays. I don’t recommend fish though; my husband and one of my friends did not feel so well after eating fish.

Another Italian place, though not in Hauz Khas (but in M block market, GK II) where we went once is Diva. And we went with an Italian friend and he declared it authentic. What more can I say? Food was lovely and now I wonder why we never went back there. Perhaps I can squeeze in a dinner at Diva before we leave.

I can think of two more places in Hauz Khas – Golconda, which serves Hyderabadi food, and Tarami, which serves Kashmiri food. Hyderabadi and Kashmiri food make on top of my list of favourite foods, but none of these restaurants quite do justice to them. Nahari of Golconda is good, biriyani is not. Tarami, I will not go again. Chor Bizzare near New Delhi Railway station also serves Kashmiri food, but I have had better Kashmiri food – food I will talk about later in this blog.

Gunpowder is a place we never ended up going, but I can’t say I am a fan of South Indian food. Same holds true for Naivaidyam, another South Indian joint in Hauz Khas. But I have heard wonderful things about them from my friends.

There is a Japanese restaurant called Izakaya at DLF Promenade Mall where we have gone a couple of times. I love Japanese food, can’t say my husband loves it as much, but he comes along to humor me.  But even he loved their panfried salmon and I think this is the best salmon I have eaten in Delhi. I also liked their thick wheat noodle soup. There are two more places where I have tried salmon. One is Latitude at Khan Market and another is Indian Coffee House at Connaught Place, but none are as good as Izakaya’s. If you like salmon, head to Izakaya.

What I have really missed in Delhi is a plate of piping hot paella – seafood or otherwise. We have tried two places and been disappointed by both. Al Fresco’s paella was mediocre and Shalom was just being optimistic when it called it’s fried rice a paella! I think there is a niche for authentic paella in Delhi and I hope someone corners this niche market soon. I, for one, will be one loyal customer.

Good news for chicken lovers in Delhi is the recent opening of Nando’s in one of the DLF malls. Delhi, it seems, loves Nando’s because we had to wait in queue both the time we went there. And we love Nando’s chicken. It was our favourite place to eat back in the Cambridge days and I think I have eaten at Nando’s pretty much in whatever city I could find one. Colombo and Dhaka comes to mind. In Dhaka, one evening, a couple of colleagues and I walked across several blocks late in the evening, just to eat at Nando’s. I can bet that they ‘do their chicken right’!

Now, let’s talk barbeques. Barbeque Nation and Kebab Factory are both awesome. But, if you are into just kebabs, then I recommend Barbeque Nation as they have a better selection of kebabs and barbequed meat. Kebab Factory, on the other hand, have a better buffet menu – but then, it’s kebabs we want, don’t we?

And I have saved for the end my top two favorites. One is Karims opposite Jama Masjid. Their mutton burra and lamb stew is to die for. There are several other Karims spread across the city, but none match the original Karims. Well, if you are into ambience and décor, this is not the place for you.  It’s just tables and chairs, tables that you have to share with strangers during rush hour. But the food is delicious and I will keep going back there, even if I have to elbow my way through the most crowded streets I have ever walked on.

And then there is Ahad Sons – a takeaway joint well hidden in the alleys of Masjid Moth village in South Delhi. And they make the best Kashmiri food ever. Tabak Maz, Rogan Josh, Dhaniwal Korma, Aab Gosht, Rishta and Gustaba – you name it and they cook it to perfection. Everything is just heavenly, just as Kashmir is supposed to be – a veritable heaven on earth.

As we leave Delhi, I will look upon these last two years as a gastronomic journey par excellence – a journey peppered with numerous visits to Delhi’s historic sites courtesy Delhi Heritage Walk. And yes, reunion with old friends and making new ones. Goodbye Delhi, till we see you again.