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Cleanliness and Godliness- Guest Blog by GKS Virk, Switzerland

Posted by kg1972 on December 25, 2008

I have been living out of India for nearly nine years now. I end up traveling back to India on an average of twice a year. My India trips are quite short, usually for just two weeks and mostly confined to my home town Karnal and traveling across the North part of the country around Delhi, Chandigarh, Haryana and Punjab. I have always looked forward to my India visits because I am on holiday and the relaxation and de-stressing is a welcome relief from the ever busy work life.


The one thing that has stuck me across all my trips home over these last 9 years is the fact that a lot has changed and a lot has remained constant. In my opinion, the key changes have been in the area of general infrastructure development. The number of vehicles on the road has increased exponentially, there are many more avenues for entertainment and leisure (even my little home town now has an FM radio station!?). The average person on the street seems to be happier and confident. The changes have been across almost facets of life.


In spite of all these changes, what has remained constant across all these years are the apathy towards general cleanliness of public places and a lack of sense of respect for public spaces. The personal hygiene of an average middle class Indian is of a fairly high standard. However, when it come to maintaining the cleanliness and hygiene of public spaces, apart from religious spaces, every other common area is used as a garbage dump with impunity. As a nation, we seem to have singularly failed in maintaining even a minimum standard of cleanliness in our public spaces.


Living in Switzerland has highlighted this aspect to me even more. A core Saturday morning ritual for many people in Switzerland is to visit the local recycling station to deposit the recyclable garbage. Parents take pride in bringing along their young kids – in some cases as young as 5 years old – to the recycling station and showing them how to separate the recyclable garbage and deposit it at its rightful location. At school one of the first lessons that kids learn is about recycling and maintaining cleanliness of public spaces. 


In our country where basic education itself is the preserve of a privileged few, it may not be enough to educate the masses about the need for cleanliness. Given our penchant for religion in general and faith in God-men, it may be worth investing in promoting a religious teacher who makes it a cornerstone of his teachings to promote cleanliness of public spaces. Maybe the government should provide land at subsidized rates to God-men if they  take on the responsibility of promoting cleanliness of public spaces. If the state encouraged God-men of different hues to promote cleanliness and hygiene of public spaces, I suspect we may be able to tackle this problem. My view is that religion is a potent force in India and it may be worthwhile leveraging this to promote the important social cause of maintaining the cleanliness and hygiene of public places.


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Greenbiz-The Electric Car

Posted by kg1972 on December 21, 2008

The electric car concept is surprisingly old. Some digging on Wikipedia, shows us that electric cars of one form or another were being built as far back as 1835! There are a number of electric car projects on stream around the world, including from large,established automotive players. I will not delve into details in this blog- we will study each endeavour in detail when we can in later blogs. However, we should think about some key questions in this blog and I would very much like to know from readers what they think.
1)What about the cost and means of generating electricity? If electric cars run on batteries charged from grids supplied by fossil-fuel plants, is that clean energy?

2)Countries like India and Indonesia have been suffering for a long time now from a severe energy shortage. How will electric cars be practical in such  markets in the next 3-5 years?

3)Outside the large car makers, companies such as Reva and Tesla are relatively small. Is small scale effective?

I believe electric cars have a great future but what we all need to know is if the stakeholders have thought through the entire electric car ecosystem. Otherwise it will be a bit like building a flyover over a congested road and then having it meet the same road 500 metres on.

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Riding Trams

Posted by kg1972 on January 4, 2009

Hi- was away for a couple of days and now am back.

I guess those of you who have lived and travelled in Hongkong or Europe would be familiar with trams. Trams are among the earliest eco-friendly mass transit systems. I have seen trams since I was a kid- when I used to visit Calcutta. The Calcutta trams still limp along, despite routes being curtailed, passengers numbers falling and of course, many more people simply buying their own transport. However, with car loans becoming costlier, the inevitability of fuel price rises round the corner and many more people looking at pay cuts or unemployment, it may not be a bad idea to relook the idea of trams.

Of course, in many cities in the First World, trams have been reshaped to become light railways- faster, more comfortable, and so on. But where they continue to exist in their old shapes-Hongkong, San Francisco and Calcutta among others, they are a cultural phenomenon as well. Tourists like to travel on old tram cars as do ordinary workers. The trambell and the hiss of the air brakes have been an integral part of daily life in Calcutta and many other cities, I am sure.

But when there are so many other options, what can make the trams revive in the cities where they are dying? Firstly, I believe trams in whatever form they may exist, have to be fitted into the overall transport plan of a city. In many cities, especially in the developing world, transport plans have remained on paper and piecemeal efforts have been made to build specific projects. That results in tremendous disruption to daily life and structural damage and increased repair costs for many parts of the affected cities. Secondly, it does not appear that the public is often taken into confidence about the plans, much less consulted. Instead, grand plans are announced, often as vote-grabbing bids, and citizens are not consulted about their needs. Thirdly- and we have seen this debate in Delhi about the Metro-transport planners can run the risk of riding roughshod over key elements of a cityscape, including heritage structures, green belts and unique ambiences. It is taking into account all of these and many more aspects, that the revival of trams should  be considered. Personally speaking, I would like to see the tourism angle heavily pushed for trams in  Calcutta. For a city steeped in history, there are not enough walking tours, memorabalia sales, books and other mementoes and so on. Citizens as well as visitors should be afforded the opportunity of taking tram rides through historic parts of the city, visiting tram depots and seeing movies or documentaries on trams. It is difficult to say where there will be a tram revival across Calcutta in the foreseeable future. But it is possible to conceive that the government will ask for a new MRT system in the next 20 years. In that case, a unified system combining the metro and trams should be considered. That seems to be the best bet at this stage.

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Flight of Biofuels

Posted by kg1972 on December 31, 2008

Yesterday, a Air New Zealand Jumbo made a two-hour flight using a mix of legacy ATF and biofuels. The biofuel component was only 10%. In February, Virgin Atlantic made a flight between London and Amsterdam with a 20% biofuel mix. There can be no doubt that such flights are significant for being made in the first place. Of course, green activists continue to express some scepticism( see But in such flights, they should see the success of their own campaigning over many years. Secondly, people are not about to suddenly abandon flying and stop travelling from one continent to another-there has been no viable alternative provided. What is significant is the use of crops such as jatropha nuts, coconut  and algae in these experiments. These can grow in most places and do not compete with food crops for arable space.

Boeing has made available a paper in which alternatives are examined

The scenarion of using synthetic fuels in the near term has been discussed. After all, this is a well-known solution, first used by the Germans in WW2 and then  by the South Africans during the embargo years. Of course, the plausible option is for a mix of regular jet fuel and synthetic fuel to be used.Synthetic fuel may have issues in terms of performance of engine as well as cost of extraction, to become a complete alternative in itself.

Long term options being discussed include liquid hydrogen and liquid methane. Using such  fuels is not easy and will require substantial and fundamental changes in engines, airframe and overall aircraft design. At this stage, it is difficult to understand when these scenarios may become reality. Still, we have seen electric and fuel cell cars become commercially possible in our lifetime. At the end of the day, the need of industries to look for alternative fuels with petroleum reserves declining, will spur innovation and invention to look for solutions. Of that, we can be very certain.

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Green transport made and unmade by planning.

Posted by kg1972 on December 29, 2008

Phoenix, Arizona and the surrounding cities (Tempe and Mesa), have just been gifted a light railway project(read article link above from the Huffington Post quoting this Yahoo story). It will target 4 Million people living in the tri-city metropolitan area. It is significant as the first prominent mass rapid transit system to start, post the Detroit Three debacle. Of course, light railways, tramways, monorails and the like are all solutions urban planners have dabbled with, trying to look for the magic formula that reduces cars, reduces emissions and congestions and improves urban transport experiences. However, a contrast between 2 towns where I have lived- Gurgaon in India and Bukit Batok in Singapore- also show how things can go very right when you plan well and how they can go very wrong when you do not.

Gurgaon is a sprawling city in it’s own right, with a population of over a million, just outside Delhi. It is a global centre for the outsourcing and IT industry, a 20 minute drive from the international airport. People had very high expectations of Gurgaon because it was built from scratch and hence had the space to allow planning. That did not happen. Roads were dug and re-dug. An extension of the Delhi Metro was planned AFTER the town was already well-established, leading to the lines having to be made on top of old roads, taking over and demolishing dwellings and generally adding to the traffic chaos already on hand. But the biggest failing one can see is the lack of what we call in Singapore as the interchange.


This is where Bukit Batok, the town where I live, succeeds so well. You can take a train from anywhere in Singapore to Bukit Batok, walk out of the station, hop onto a bus and go home. When you leave home in the morning, you have a choice between taking the train and one of four or five different bus routes, depending on where you want to go. You have a loop bus every 5 minutes taking you to both Bukit Batok and Clementi train stations.  It is this onward connectivity as well as strategic junctions and switching points that continue to be non-existent- not only in Gurgaon but in Delhi as well. If I use the metro rail in Gurgaon, I will need to either have someone pick me up at the station or use derilict and crowded three wheelers to get to where I want. I cannot walk or cycle- unlike in Bukit Batok- because it is not very safe. And if it is late night, you can be guaranteed that trains will run empty.

This, then, is the way in which projects come of age or collapse-because they are not thought through. Who will change the crime-ridden culture of many years in Delhi and it’s suburbs? That will require law enforcement of a different kind and social engineering on a different scale. Will we ever see air-conditioned public transport in places where the average summer temperature is 42 degrees centigrade? No wonder people do not give up their cars- but keep adding more cars. It is also a lesson for green planners. A project to better people’s lives is worthwhile only when you change the fundamentals of the surrounding ecosystem for the better. Otherwise a feat of modern engineering will remain a white elephant.

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Greenbiz-Green Investments Summit

Posted by kg1972 on December 26, 2008

The Green Investments Summit will be held in Hongkong between 9th and 11th February 2009.

The speakers include:

  • Winston H. Lee, Managing Director Corporate Development, China Solar Power (Holdings) Ltd
  • Edgare Kerwijk, Managing Director, Asia Green Capital
  • Arun Sen, Executive Vice President, Asia Cleantech
  • Ma Jun, Chief Economist Greater China, Deutsche Bank
  • William A. Pazos, Managing Director & Head of Carbon, Standard Bank Plc
  • Vivek Tandon, Founder and General Partner, Aloe Private Equity
  • Li Da Hong, Managing Director, Vision Capital Partners
  • Dr. K.K Chan, Managing Director and Head of Investments Greater China, Climate Change Capital
  • Jeffrey Dickinson, Regional Manager for Asia, E+Co
  • Jun Ying, Head of Research, New Energy Finance
  • Marvin Yeo, Managing Partner, Frontier Investment and Development Partner
  • Denis Koh, President, Vestas Technology
  • Dale Seymour, Deputy Secretary – Energy Resources & Major Projects, Dept of Primary Industries, VIC
  • Joseph Jacobelli, Group Director – Carbon Ventures, CLP Holdings Ltd.
  • Goh Chye Boon, Chief Executive Officer, Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city
  • Nikki Wan, Conceptual Founder & Project Managing Director, Earth Biofuel Asia
  • Takashi Hongo, Head of Environment Finance Engineering, Japan Bank for International Corporation
  • West Stewart, President and CEO, PhilBio Waste to Energy Company
  • The topics to be covered include:


    Clean energy and transportation

    Solar energy

    Wind energy.

    Please visit if you wish to attend.


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    Greening, The Singapore Way

    Posted by kg1972 on December 26, 2008

    Excellent article from Straits Times quoted by Ronnie Lim in Asiaone Motoring.

    It shows as usual, how far the Singapore government is already thinking in terms of clean energy alternatives for the country’s transport needs. Of course we are now seeing moves towards CNG and LNG already and at least one local company which makes fuel out of residual cooking oil- and has a number of customers, too. The various educational programmes relating to clean energy, started over the last few years in a number of institutions, are helping build a critical core of managers and engineers to help take this transformation forward. What is significant also is that energy initiative financing is being discussed actively. As the global VC  and private equity communities move towards clean energy and green solutions as the next wave in innovation, Singapore is taking the right steps towards becoming a significant player in this area. As such, it already is a global leader now in some ways with the world’s largest solar cell manufacturing plan about to start operations.

    It will be interesting to see in 2009 to what extent Singapore powers the global eco-revolution. As an Asian power,it will bring unique perspectives to the table. While USA and Japan may grapple with the electric car, and that by itself is a critical development for everyone, there is a large related market required in electric infrastructure. While the Better Place initiative has started well with Israel and Denmark, I cannot imagine entreprenuers in China, India and other Asian countries not wanting to do something similar quickly in their own markets. Similarly, the success of Honda’s fuel cell car will be dependent on effecient, clean and cheap hydrogen- can the vast amount of Asian waste be turned into bio-hydrogen? Singapore has some of the key capabilities in recycling, re-using and financing waste related efforts. And then what about Reva, India’s long running electric car? Does it get a second life with this wave? Using the humble bicycle to transport people, reduce pollution and provide healthier lives can unlock significant revenue generation avenues. Do not forget the money that can circulate just by manufacturing and selling bicycles. The key learning that Singapore can bring to the table is how to fit the bike into urban transport ecosystems, make it trendy and acceptable among the upper classes and ensure generation of grassroots level revenues. Then we have areas like de-gridding and allowing large buildings to generate their own electricity using solar panels, solar films and some biomass.

    We will be discussing many of these possibilities in the days ahead but the key is that Singapore can be the Asian eco-incubator-and perhaps for Latin America as well. Let us hope this happens during the forthcoming year.

    Have a great and green new year.

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    Greenbiz-The Honda fuel cell car

    Posted by kg1972 on December 26, 2008

    Managed to grab a look at the programme “Wheels of Change” on CNBC last night. Goes to show how far the green industry has mainstreamed that CNBC can devote an hour of programming to it! Hey, now we are looking at a bio-degredable car from Sanyo as well. Sany? Yeah,I  have to admit that was a strange one. But I promise to dig deeper into that point soon.

    Anyhow, it is Honda we really need to keep our eyes on as they come up with their fuel cell car in 2010, after 16 years of research. It is interesting to see how they have subsidised the pioneer purchasers, charging only 600 USD per month as payment for the car. But the biggest task facing Honda will be the creation of the fuelling infrastructure. It is not the technology itself that is in doubt. It is the generation of hydrogen, the cost of real estate, permissions and so on. Often we tend to take the gasoline fuelling networks for granted and forget the effort it took to build these anywhere in the first place. Check this site out from Honda. It’s very interesting that Honda is thinking of a home fuelling station kit. That may well get a lot more people out to the nearest Honda showroom and seeking  a lease. If you live in Torrance,  Santa Monica and Irvine , CA that is.

    Now, here’s a key question- how do you generate hydrogen in the first place? If it is largely generated from fossil fuels, then you have sort of lost the plot because you are encouraging higher pollution levels and tapping sources that are not renewable. The other means of generation include electrolysis, biomass gasification and biohydrogen production. What are the effeciency levels for these various means of hydrogen production and the associated costs?

    Above all, it’s cool to drive a fuel cell car in California, but what is the future of the car for the highly polluted, crowded urban ecosystems in emerging markets? They have the needs and the numbers, but the means? Does America, for that matter, have the means anymore?

    I would be interested in hearing from readers about their opinions in this matter.

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    Tend to the roof and share the fruits

    Posted by kg1972 on December 22, 2008

    I grew up in a house with gardens.  l lived in it for 20 years, watching banana trees, neem trees, rose bushes, onions, tomatoes and potaotes- they were all there. Then I moved out and soon came to know I could no longer live in such a house for a long, long time. Unless of course I became  an investment banker and blew other people’s money. Joking. Anyway, I listened to all the talk about rooftop gardens and looked at some pretty cool pictures from the National Parks website(which is very lively and very good, by the way). What occured to me is that people are spending a lot of effort in building and making these gardens. Why not make some money from them? Is that a mercenary attitude? Not at all. When my parents grew all sorts of vegetables at home in distant Bengal, it was  a labour of love. It was also a money saver. A government engineer did not earn a lot. But he could buy seeds, seedlings and tubers for cheap from local nurseries. I am sure that has not changed. So how do you monetise this? Simple. Calculate how much you spend on veggies every month. Do a check on what veggies you can grow on a rooftop garden and see what savings you can make from that. Maybe nothing at all, maybe just a little- but go do the check anyway. It might surprise you.

    I remember reading somewhere that Southwest CDC would be giving residents funding to set up little gardens. My argument is why not have some vegetable gardens along with flower gardens? Certainly, residents committees inside condos can do this. Those vegetables can be shared among the people who grow them. Or even better, a number of groups can sell them to NTUC. Is there a check to be imposed by AVA or some other authority? My suggestion would be to work closely with local grassroots leaders and government and hammer out a plan. But at the end of the day, even if none of that happens, you may still be able to harvest a cauliflower in a flower pot, call it a labour of love and save a dollar. In trying times, this kind of approach can make a lot of difference.

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    Electric Dreams in the Land of the Gods

    Posted by kg1972 on December 22, 2008

    Of all the places in India i have travelled to, Himachal Pradesh is my favourite. It is clean, crowd-free, has great views and you can drink beer that tastes like ambrosia at 7000 feet. My significant other and I used to go there every year to our friend’s apple orchard, till we moved to Singapore.

    Here’s the little secret which many  of you outside India might not know- Himachal Pradesh(HP, as we call it), is 100% self-sufficient in power-and it also exports the surplus. This is a major achievement and not one which too many other states have to their credit. All of it’s power comes from hydro-electricity. It is also one of the top two in human development, the other being Kerala. If there ever was a lesson for small being beautiful, it is this land tucked between Tibet, Kashmir and the smouldering Indian plains. Now here’s my grouse- in India’s leading electricity producing state, we see not a single electric car. Yet, truck upon truck, bus upon bus, car upon car, trudges up and down the hilly highways, belching out smoke. Yes, India now has unleaded petrol all over, but surely that does not take away the assault on the environment. I do not think we can stop heavy vehicles pulling their weight, especially where transporting fruits, vegetables and machinery are concerned. But let us consider again- small is beautiful. If I need to take a ride from one village to another, with 20 kilometres in between(if I am a hill guy, I will probably walk upto 7 easily), surely a electric taxi is not too difficult to imagine. A small electric taxi that can sit 4-6 passengers and do 40 kms both ways, and can be charged easily at any village enroute makes a lot of sense, does’nt it? I have seen Revas in Delhi and Bangalore- but for crying out loud, those cities have no electricity! What’a a better place to start than a power-surplus state full of educated people, where hamlets are separated by 10-20 kms and where use of an electric car can make a real, real difference to the environment?

    The one place in HP where I would really like to see these electric taxis being used is Shimla, the overcrowded, dirty capital which was once Queen of the Hills and the summer capital of the Raj. A fading colonial charm still clings to it but roads turn to mud during the rains, the wooden pathways groan under the many feet of tourists and garbage is all around. In this city, where almost every journey is uphill or downhill, a electric golfcart-like cab can work wonders. Tourists and old people(and there are many retirees here) can use this and will not hesitate to pay a premium. The question remains-is there a electric car which can take the hairpins and the steep climbs? Now, that ‘s a question for a technical expert to answer. If yes, let some enterprising chap stand up and harangue the authorities long enough- for there’s money to made and a city to be saved.

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    Electric cars sold worldwide

    Posted by kg1972 on December 21, 2008

    Just out of curiosity. But could not get hard facts. Just projections.

    The nearest to numbers that I got were the sales figures of the Toyota Prius, a hybrid gasoline-electric car.

    Prius sold 429,000 units in 2007 and that was an increase of  37 percent from it’s previous year (2006) sale figures.

    These figs are all from, in an article dated 15th May 2008.

    Did you know, though, that  most forklift trucks are powered by electricity? So, almost every warehpuse in the world has an electric vehicle! And modifications of this are used in Singapore condominiums(and I am sure elsewhere as well) for pulling trash bins. You just need to look out for them, that’s all!

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