Kitchen waste powers street lights

Mamallapuram.17.9.12 111The Mamallapuram  branch of Adyar Ananda Bhavan generates 30 kg. kitchen waste a day.  A seaside resort  across the East Coast Road accounts  for 10 times more of food waste.  There are 700 odd eateries in this tourist town.  Till about five years back,  food waste from  Mamallapuram restaurants and hotels  wound up at  the municipal landfill.

And then,  came a bio-gas plant that converts kitchen waste into electricity.  I don’t know who made the first move,  but Vivekananda Kendra –  a Kanyakumari based NGO –   designed and set up this plant,  on a reclaimed  patch  of the municipal garbage dump yard.  The  waste-to-energy plant  is run by another NGO – Hand-in-Hand.

Mr M Raja of  Hand-in-Hand who conducted us around the plant –  a group of  OMR Greens  members from Padur –  explained at length the waste-to-energy conversion process,  from door-step collection of food waste to transmission of the converted electricity that powered 25 street lights.  Over 40 waste collectors are engaged;  and their remunaration is covered by the collection charges paid by the eating houses.  A minimum levy for kitchen waste collection is Rs.50 a month  and the chrages vary in accordance with the quantum of food waste collection.

The Mamamallapuram  waste-to-energy plant is a collective enterprise,  of several stakeholders. The plant,  designed by an NGO, and located on panchayat land,  is run by another NGO,  with  monthly contributions by eateries.  The 10 kilowatts generator running on bio-gas produced by Kirloskars,   costing Rs.20 lakhs  (at the 2008 price level),  is a donation from Sweden.  Under the renewable energy programme  the town panchayat is eligible to Rs.4 lakh subsidy.

Mr Raja,  so knowledgeable on so many aspects,  couldn’t,  however, tell us  the one thing  we needed to know –  the unit cost for producing power from kitchen waste.  OMR Greens  would  want to sell this waste-t0-energy  proposal  to  Padur  panchayat  and other stakeholders.   Ideally,  there should be a waste-to-energy unit for every panchayat  and in setting it up all stakeholders in the neighbourhood  need to be involved –  residents,  other individuals and institutions  generating waste,  property developers responsible for mushrooming residential high-rises ,  and the panchayat.

A bio-gas plant developed by Bhaba Atomic Research Centre (BARC) lends itself to  decentralized waste disposal system. For a plant with capacity to process one tonne waste daily requires  no more than 300 sq.ft.  of land.  And a tonne of bio-degradeable waste can produce 25-30 kg. of methane,  about 150 kg. carbon dioxide and  nearly 60 kg of organic manure.  Besides kitchen and veg. market wastes,  and those generated in abattoirs,  the BARC bio-gas model can take in even hazardous biological sludge.

The plant,  they say can be operated by unskilled workers  such as rag-picker  Ramesh  and his folks at Padur .   All they require is one-month training.


Homestaying Kerala: Wayanad

Our homestay  host   Sunil, with mother, wife Reena, children Meenakshi and Suryakiran readily agreed to my request to pose for this shot.  Sunil had earlier taken  our pictures for his album – ‘we keep photos of all our guests’.

I sensed in it a personal touch.  And I guess it is the personal touch that makes  a homestay  different from a hotel  stay. Our hostess Reena’s parting words to my wife were –  ‘do visit us again’. Whether or not we do,  the words had a sincere tone, and gave a personal dimension to what is essentially a hospitality business model.  Which, they say,  has worked very well in promoting Kerala tourism, particularly,  among foreign visitors.  They rely on Trip Advisor or word-of-mouth recommends.

Wayanad district alone has 136 homestay units,  says Sunil, whose two-cottage homestay – Treasure Trove  –  is located within a family-owned coffee/rubber plantation at Meenangadi .  Sunil’s family has owned the 25-acre plantation for three generations,  but it wasn’t until two years ago that Sunil ventured into this line of business.  It wasn’t that Sunil didn’t think of homestay on their premises earlier – ‘when I suggested it to our family nearly a decade back,  elders simply wouldn’t listen’.

I discovered Sunil –  rather his homestay was discovered for me,  by Shivya Nath of  India Untravelled.   Shivya was his guest and Sunil recounted how she used to stir out into the plantation after dark,  to listen to the forest  sounds  and to look for god-knows-what.  Sunil led us through the same path around the plantation that Shivya took,  but we did it at an early evening hour.
Sunil also took us to Uravu – a bamboo crafts centre – where they turn out an amazing range of bamboo products.  Uravu is also into developing bamboo processing skills among rural women through training programs and introduction of appropriate tools, technologies and processes.

The bamboo cottage in which Sunil put us up was designed and built by craftsmen from the Bamboo Village.  Asked if they could make a bamboo bike,   master craftsman Lenin agreed to give it a try.  I promised to send him,  via Sunil,  relevant info.  that is available on the Net.  The bamboo products they make at Wayanad are handcrafted,  and, in many cases, made to order.  Sunil said, if they accept our suggestion, he would book the first bamboo bike for use of his guests at Treasure Trove.

OnYouTube :  MyTakebyGVK

Talking the walk, Swapna’s Delhi Walk

When  Swapna Liddle’s  Delhi – 14 historic walks   was made available by  BlogAdda for book  review  I grabbed it because I wanted to  ‘re-visit’  Delhi; and because I believe heritage walks are not just for tourists,  but are  also for the likes of me wanting to re-discover Delhi. And here I found a historian with a doctorate in 19th century Delhi  to take me around.

Carrying,  as I do,  an emotional baggage of  having spent my college, and early working life in the city, I admit to reading  Delhi – 14 historic walks with tinted eye-glasses that had weathered 30 Delhi summers (1950-80s).  And if,  in  Liddle’s  290 pages,   I find the  book  leaves something to be desired,  it is because of my rather high expectations.  I expected the author to lead me by the hand while talking the walk,  pointing  things with anecdotes.  I expected a story-teller to bring  alive  the ruins and tombs of nawabs and other nobility with tales,  gossip and myths of their life and times.

I wasn’t totally disappointed, though.  Diwane Khas  at the Red Fort assumed a khasiat (added value) for me after reading Swapna Liddle ,  in the sense  I visualized  the emperor’s special court hall as the  spot where  Shahjahan  suffered the indignity of getting  deposed from the throne by his own son Aurangazeb.  Among other nuggets from history that Liddle weaves in her historic walks was Mehrauli’s  Metcalfe connection.  Sir Thomas Metcalfe,  British agent at the Mughal court in the 1840s, showed up as  bit of a crank in the sense that he converted the first floor of Quila Khan’s tomb in Mehrauli as a retreat.
The Qutab Minar, widely known as symbol of the Turkish conquest of northern India,  was seen by the Muslim faithful as a maznah, from where they gave the call to the faithfuls to come for prayer. Someone who could climb up the Qutab (72.5 m), and still have the stamina to call out to the faithfuls,  must have had super-human lung-power. Hogwash ?  Perhaps,  but it made an interesting read.

The book made me wonder  how Ballimaran got its name ;  I had no occasion to learn, till I read Liddle,  that  Mirza Ghalib lived in a rented haveli that belonged to a neibourhood  hakim.  And that Delhi’s St.Stephen’s College  was initially housed in a modest Chandni Chowk  house in narrow lane called  Katra Kushal Rai.

I wonder if  sarkari tourism  depts.  realise the potentials  of  city walks.  Walking tours are mainly done by  NGOs and through  individual initiatives.  I have read about some city-loving  San Francisco residents devoting their weekends to  taking interested  visitors on neighbourhood walks.  Nearer home, the walks with which I am familiar,  in Mysore and Mylapore (Chennai),  are individual initiatives.  The royal Mysore walks  is the creation of a software techie who got bitten by the walkbug in Singapore. While on assignment abroad Vinay was so taken in by the Singapore city walk  that he chose to return to  native Mysore  to start a heritage walk.  Vinay’s business model has apparantly been  successful  enough for him to start a Mysore bike tour.

I wish his success drives him enough to try out walks for other interest groups –  R K Narayan walk (of his haunts in the city),  the Maharaja’s College walk,  Kukrahalli walk (for bird-watchers),  The Mysore Banyan Walk , Mandi Mohalla or  the Agrahara walk. Speaking  agraharam,  my media friend Vincent D’Souza  has been conducting walks centred on the agraharam in Chennai’s Mylapore. 

INTACH with which the author is associated conducts the walks  she writes about in her book.  Her friend  Surekha Narain,  who acknowledges  Swapna Liddle  as a guiding force, is into conducting  Surekha Walks  devoted to the  Ghalib trail, the Pahargunj bazar, and the 1857 Mutiny walk.  I have a few walks ideas, triggered by my sense of Vintage Delhi. Would  Surekha  consider any of these ?

The Coffee-house walk:  Starts from Janpath where the original coffee-house was located. When the India Coffee Board decided to close  down  its chain of coffee-houses in 60s, their employees, left in the lurch, were backed by the Delhi coffe-house regulars to form a workers’ co-op to take over the Board abandoned coffee-houses. When they  faced eviction from  Janpath, the workers union started the search for an alternative, with  the support of coffee-house regulars –  they included artists,  academics,  poets,  journalists, politicians, lawyers,  insurance agents, and students. Among the regulars were  Inder Gujral and Young Turk  Chandra Shekar.  A joint agitation by coffee-house  regulars and workers  resulted in NDMC  allotment of open space where Thambu coffee-house came to be located .  So called because , the the coffee-house functioned under a tent.  That was the space where  Palika Bazar is now located.  The workers’  coffee-house  eventually moved to Mohan Singh Place,  still in Connaught Place (CP).

Meanwhile,  some  regulars from my time (70s-80s)  drifted away to other C P  locations such as the United Coffee House,  the Tea House in Regal Building. On a Delhi trip a while  back I discovered  a small band of old time regulars meeting  at Connaught Circus Embassy restaurant.  The group of coffee-regulars  is sustained  by my college friend  S P Dutt  (Barkha’s  dad) – we have been coffee-house regulars  since our days together in Hindu College,  till our jobs took us away from  Delhi.  I left New Delhi in early 80s, for good.  SPD, as friends call Dutt, returned to the city,   re-connected with old-time regulars after retirement,  and Embassy is where they meet nowadays.  Out-of-towners ,  like yours truly,  visiting Delhi can catch up with  S P Dutt’s group at Embassy, on weekdays –  ‘make it there,  11ish’,  as SPD would say when you call.

Karolbagh Monday market:  A weekly walk, on Monday,  holiday for  Ajmal Khan Road traders. It is  on Monday pavement hawkers of all type take over the stretch from Pusa Rd. end to the Unani hospital. The pavement close to the Gurudwara Rd. crossing on Ajmal Khan Road  would be of interest for pavement shoppers of used books.

Worship Walk, of 3 histoic temples, a gurudwara and a church. Could start from the Hanuman temple near Rivoli Cinema, Connaught Place;  walk down Irwin Rd. to  Gurdwara Rakhab Gunj;  Continue the walk upto the Gole Post office, where there is a church;  take a turn towards the Bird Rd. Kali Mandir, located on encroached pavement; and make your way to Birla temple on Mandir Marg via the heritage Gole Market.

The Mandir Marg Ridge: This walk could interest alumni of Mandir Marg schools,  notably Harcourt Butler and Madarasi.  Students living in Karolbagh used to walk to school through the ridge,  picking along the way  wild berries with sour-sweet taste,  that grew on thorny bushes.  The back-door ridge was also the escape route, notably for those who had running accounts at the Madarasi  school front  chai-samasa dukhanwala.

Delhi University Walk: For students in my times,  who did cafe-crawling before,  after,  and,  often, during class hours.  University coffee-house,  strategically located near the campus gate bus stop,  was usually the place where students started their day. From here it is a few minutes walk to the Miranda House cafe,  so named because  of its proximity to the noted women’s college hostel. And then there was Wenger’s,  an upscale cafe near the university library, conveniently located for students meeting  for ‘group study’.  After the study session at Wenger’s  day-scholars take a walk with hostellers to catch the bus home,  from the Miranda House stop. The 8 pm bus to Kashmere Gate,  Daryagunj and beyond  that passed by Miranda House was  widely known  among students as Ashiq Special. 8 p m was when the  women’s hostel gate closed for the day.

Costa Concordia, a touch of Titanic

It has been over a week since  Costa Concordia hit the rocks off the isle of Gigilio. And survivor accounts in the media are not going away anytime soon. It may be weeks, and may be  months before we get a sense of what really happened.  And media reports,  of rescue,  salvaging the wreck before it sinks, and the trial of the ship’s captain would  account for a spate of  media stories ,  some books, and, eventually,  a  Hollywood movie – ‘A  Titanic on the rock’ .
Every survivor  would have a story to tell.  And considering that Concordia had on board  3,000 plus passengers, and over 1,000 crew members, there is immense potential for publishers looking for cruise liner disaster titles.  Unlike the iceberg in the Titanic saga,  the rock on which the crippled Costa Concordia came to rest  has become a landmark  for passing vessels,  and promises to be a tourist attraction.

The sinking of  Titanic in 1912  gave rise to ,  and still does,  a series of events related to the disaster.  A Titanic memorial cruise,   departing from Southampton this April is already booked fully.  The tourist guide on board a New York  ferry boat that goes around  Manhattan  made it a point to show us an abandoned pier near 18th Street that continues to attract Titanic buffs.  Pier 59 is where the  Titanic would have docked had it survived its maiden voyage.

Meanwhile the media thrives on the liner disaster trivia –  the ship’s captain had that evening  red wine with gourmet meal, and a beautiful woman for company at the ship’s most exclusive restaurant. Media reports on Costa Concordia had me reach out to the Titanic book  on my shelf.   The ship’s wireless man Herald Bride  in his account of survival  said as he watched the sinking liner from a lifeboat some 100 ft away he could   hear  the band playing  ‘Autumn‘ as the Titanic went down.  On the ship  Commander Lightoller,  lone survivor among ship’s offcer,  referred to the band playing cheery sort of music as supervised the loading and  lowering of lifeboats with women and child passengers.  “I don’t like jazz music as a rule,  but I was glad to hear it that night,”  said the commander, “I think it help us all”.

Even after a 100 years there is no clear or widely acceptable explanation on what had  indeed happened on board the Titanic on April 15, 1912.  There are questions evoking disputed versions:   Was the captian drunk when it happened ? Did the band play ‘Nearer My God to Thee’  as stricken cruise liner plunged into the sea?

What India means to them

A San Francisco newspaper columnist, back from an India trip, raised in his column a cascade of questions he said readers wanted answered –  Did I get sick? Did I see God? Can you drink the water? Did I have sex on the beach? Did I find a yoga guru? Have I seen “Slumdog”? Cows in the streets? Would I ever go back? And several other such questions.

Such pieces, apart from their amusement value, gives one an idea of American mindset.  I get a sense that some  visit places to validate their  pre-set notions.  More than the columnist, the comments his article   evoked made revealing reading.

 Excerpts:   INDIA stands for “I’ll Never Do It Again” .

India?  Good hash but that’s about it.

Admittedly,  it’s not for everyone,  most Americans truly couldn’t handle it and certainly won’t understand it,  but for the few who feel at home there, the place is magical.  ..

Such a long way to go for enlightenment….maybe just give the airfare to Unicef  so they can provide clean water to those in need…

 One of the many beautiful things I got from a month in India was the realization of just how spoiled we Americans are….Most are too focused on the external crap,  so to speak,  that they miss the real blessings… The fact that even though there are people living under tarps, they smile at you and will offer any food and tea they have without hesitation….

‘Incredible India’, incorrigible automen

automen I’ve not had occasion to deal with women driving autos during my recent visit to Chennai, but then this post is about the incorrigible auto-drivers  in our  ‘Incredible India’.  I did spot an auto-rickshaw with a painted message at the back, saying ‘This is a tourist-friendly auto’.  A rare species, I believe. Tamilnadu tourism website lists  39 such auto-drivers,  giving their names, addresses and cell numbers.

Experiences of a majority of those hiring autos  have been such that a long-time Chennai resident has even gone to the extent of suggesting in a blog post  that it is time governments of other countries issued a travel advisory to their nationals not to hire auto-rickshaw while in Chennai.  A researcher in Madras University, Mr Jesuraja,  is reported to have done a thesis on the behavioural pattern of the city auto-drivers. His study is based on interviews with 130 automen from T Nagar.

My recent  experience in dealing  with these guys proved educative.  An auto-driver was the last person from whom I expected to get a lowdown on the state of recession, inflation,  petrol prices and allied economics. I found them agressively pragmatic in negotiating fares.  Did I say ‘negotiation’ ? It’s not the word; the Chennai auto-drivers have the last word, often the only word, when it comes to fare-fixing.   They know of no such thing as a fare-meter.  In terms of business ethics Chennai auto-drivers appear to be guided by the  take-’em-for-a ride  approach adopted with impunity by the likes of ‘Satyam’ Raju and Bernie Madoff. 

Like the celebrity swindlers,  autowalahs have no qualms about looting the gullible.  But aren’t out-of-town visitors meant to be fleeced?  Which, presumably,  what this auto-driver on South Boag Road (near Sivaji Ganesan’s place)  had on his mind when he asked for Rs.50 to take me to FabIndia on G N Chetti Road.  When I asked if it wasn’t a bit much for a two-km ride the automan snapped, “what,then, would you pay? Five rupees?” So scornful was he that I felt silly having bothered him in the first place. I skipped the next two automen we passed by; and  let my wife tackle the third one we came across.  He wanted Rs.40. When we asked if he couldn’t bring it down, the automan gave us a kerbside talk on rising cost of living, falling value of the rupee,  not to speak of high petrol prices.  But haven’t they brought it down ?  The auto-driver held that a reduction by a couple of rupees at the prevailing living costs made no difference to auto-drivers’ living standard. His punchline: “After all, I asked you for Rs. 40,  not 40,000”.  I couldn’t figure out what he meant by that. 

Eventually, we ran into an automan willing to take us for Rs.30. It may be well above the official minimum fare for a two-km ride. But then who follows the metered rate structure? Auto thozhilalar union president is quoted in Deccan Chronicle as saying auto-drivers could not be expected to go by the government fixed rates, and still hope to improve their living standard. 

 Such attitude of blatant defience of authority smacks of what I would term the  ‘Cooum syndrome’. It is a situation wherein you leave an issue unadressed so long that it becomes utterly hopeless.  Once a navigable river running through the city of Madras,  Cooum has,  over decades of neglect and inaction,  degenerated into a stagnant sewage dump. Cooum is  so far gone that the authorities can no longer address the issue of cleaning the river in a  meaningfully  manner. With apparent inablity of the local authorities to  discipline auto-drivers,  that  travel advisory may well  apply to  all visitors, not just foreigners.  As for Chennai residents,  they  appear   accustomed to their incorrigible automen, as they are,   to  an unflowing Cooum.

We’re doing New York, Heaven can wait

A ferry ride around the Manhatton island; a walk from the Circle Line pier to Rockefeller Center via Times Square and Broadway; and then back to the Port Authority bus terminal, by tri-cycle rickshaw. This sums up our New York visit. There may well be a million other ways of doing the city.

We – my wife and I – wanted to get a ‘feel’ of the place; had only a day in which to get it.  And we couldn’t have done so much, in so short a time, without the company of our gracious host, Mrs Shyamala Ramaprasad of Millington, NJ. What pleased us more was her saying that she really enjoyed it. Which is something, coming as it does, from someone who must have been to NY countless times escorting guests from India, in her 38 years of stay in New Jersey.

A sidewalk neon-signboard at Times Sq.said, ‘Heaven Can Wait’. Dead right they are. For we had things to do first – such as hagggle with the rickshaw driver over the fare to the Port Authority bus terminal. He demanded an outrageous $25, only to bring it down to $20; and I beat it down further, to $15. Which was still, they said, a few dollars more than doing it by a taxi, if we could get one that is – at Rockefeller Center around 5.30 pm on a weekday.

As it turned out, we paid the pedicab driver five dollars more ($20), for the experience of riding a rickshaw down Fifth Ave., and for the photo opportunity. Mrs Prasad said this was her first rickshaw ride through the Times Square.  The three of us, squeezed into a space for two on the tri-cycle, must have been a sight, judging from the number of tourist cameras that were focused on us as we were pedalled through Broadway.

The three-hour ferry-ride that took us around Manhattan gave us a seagull’s eye-view of the sky-scrapered city; and a glimpse of New York’s backyard – the Subway yard cluttered with junked railway carriages, and Pier 76 where NYDP holds cars they tow away for parking in no-parking zones in the city.

Our guide on board  – Mike Jason (or was it, Jack Mason?) – was so full of trivia on NY life that he brought to life steel and glass paneled buildings on the New York skyline. He pointed to the high-rises that housed Barbara Striesand, Dustin Hoffman, Henry Kissinger; and film studio where they shot widely watched TV serials – Law & Order, Sex and the City, Sopranos and what-have-you.  Jason, our guide, pointed to a building where Nicole Kidman bought an apartment recently.

We passed by a couple of man-made waterfalls. The first one wasn’t found working; what we got to see was a scaffolding in steel, rising upto 100 ft or more. And that wasn’t much of a sight. My host, Mr Ramaprasad, referred to the corrosive effect of these man-made waterfalls, on the steel fittings of the structures in the vicinity. The falls have been raised in the Hudson river, which has a fair measure of salt.  The Statue of Liberty, moulded in copper, has gone green.

Goldman Sachs, said our guide, pointing to a green-glass panelled high-rise that had 89 floors. As we ferried past Pier 76 he noted that here was where the New York Police brought all cars they towed away for wrong parking. They had brought in a thousand cars that morning, he said (as if he had checked it out earlier in the day), and their owners would have to pay a fine of $280 to reclaim their vehicles. Unclaimed cars are dumped into the Hudson river!!!  Our guide is apparently given to spins.

What they do dump into the high seas, I gather, are junked Subway cars. Our ferry passed by a barge laden with junked rail carriages, ready to be taken to the high seas. Abandoned rail carriages resting on the seabed, they say, is conducive for growth of sea-weeds and other forms of marine vegetation that fish feed on.

Jason, who kept up his chatter for much of the three-hour run, appeared never short of trivia. Pointing to a riverside building, he said Leonardo Dicaprio had recently acquired an apartment there. The place was not very far from an abandoned pier, where the Titanic was to have docked, had the ship completed it maiden voyage (1912). The pier attracts Titanic buffs visiting NY. Leonardo , in case you dont know, figured in Titanic, the movie.

Pointing towards another high-rise, our guide observed that it had been home to Marilyn Manroe while she was married to author Arthur Miller. And then there was the penthouse Frank Sinatra had owned. We took Jason’s word for it. In the absence of anyone on board who cared to contest his stories Jason had the floor, all to himself, to spin all he wanted. There are 25,000 restaurants and eating joints in city, said Jason, adding he had been able to eat only in 23,000 so far.

As our ferry passed by Gracie’s Mansion – official residence of the NY mayor – Jason mentioned that the present mayor Bloomberg didn’t live there, and used his official residence mainly to recieve visiting dignitaries. He wondered if the mayor’s office had been informed about our visit (those on ferry) – “If he were in the mansion today, Mr Bloomberg would have waved at us from his balcony”. Gracie’s mansion, behind the tree-cover on shoreline, was hardly visible from our ferry.