Published Date: December 14, 2019
To all of you gathered here today, thank you for coming and for your enthusiasm and for your insight and thank you for inviting me to join you here today.
At the outset I must point out two or three things. One, I'm very happy to address any function that is named after Arignar Anna. In my opinion, he is one of the primary reasons why Tamil Nadu is so uniquely positioned today among the other states of India. Also, unlike most politicians, when I was told the program would start at 5:30, I was here at 5:29.
But, as I was listening to the speakers I had a mild regret that I didn't have more time today. I flew in from Madurai earlier today, I had some other work for my party and I’m flying out overseas tomorrow, so I'm a bit rushed for time. Otherwise, I would have loved to hear everybody speak.
But when I heard Mr. Shankar speak I was a bit depressed when he says that Mr. Sivakumar has installed meters where you can tell how much energy is being consumed in the Tamilnadu assembly and how much water. What you cannot tell is what is being debated, because the speaker refuses to televise the proceedings and the amount of time wasted and nonsense that goes on in that Assembly is shameful. First thing we need is to broadcast the actual assembly proceedings so that the public can understand whether anything of value happens in the Assembly or not. Most of the time is just a sheer waste of resources and the public's money to run this assembly. But always things will get better, I hope we know that.
I'm very impressed and excited to see events like these where specialists, people with passion, people who behave and live the lives that they talk about in theory & in their presentations and then to see so many of you young people in the audience it's heartening for the future. This late in the day and after so many technical specialists, it’s not clear to me that I can add a lot of value from a scientific perspective.
But, I had a few thoughts from a policy perspective and based on my few years as an MLA. Some of the unique challenges and opportunities facing us today in the context of energy conservation specifically and more broadly natural resource conservation management, ground water, water supply etc. In the two-and-a-half years that I've been an MLA, I would say that 90% of the problems my constituents complained to me about and I have multiple channels I have a call center, I have complaint boxes, in every part of the constituency, I have you know two offices with staff, people can write to me I have online submission forms.
Across all of those I would say 90% of the problems relate to five things
· inadequate water supply
· improper drainage of either rain water or sewage
· inadequate cleaning of garbage
· improper roads, you know potholes, manholes missing, water and
· structural kind of law problems on behavior, so you know drunk disorderly, public nuisance, urination things like that
So it's quite clear that successive governments, I don't want to talk politically here, so I'll just say successive governments over many decades, have not paid enough attention to some of these basic problems of society and the concepts of urban planning or kind of strategic vision for decades are alien to us.
I was an expatriate for almost 30 years. Some of that time I lived in Singapore. Singapore is probably the best example of a highly thoughtful, you know long-term planning society. They have a 50-year plan which they update every 10 years. That's how far ahead they are thinking. And if you look at it on the ground, you go back to Singapore in five or ten years you can't recognize the place. The borders of the city have changed they have dumped sand and raised so much new land and then they redirect where the port is, where the businesses are, where the hotels are, where the river should flow, how clean it is.
And more importantly as a consequence of all of this in 50 years, they recently celebrated their 50th anniversary, in 50 years, the country has gone from 400 dollars per capita income to 43,000 dollars per capita income, in 50 years. Never in the history of any democratic government have they achieved the 100X+ multiplication in per capita GDP. So there are examples of good planning, good strategic vision, good execution, unfortunately we don't have any claim to any of those things.
I want to touch on just four or five points today which should hopefully give us both a sense of urgency why these are all highly time-sensitive for us but also hope that if the handling of these problems is thoughtful and well-intentioned, we can actually make significant progress. Some of these problems are global, in fact if you look at things like pollution you know China has gone through almost exactly the same problem in terms of air quality. I went to Beijing, I used to go fairly often on work. But when I went to Beijing in 2008, it was starting to get bad & when I went back in 2013 it was so bad that from my hotel room I couldn't see the road just on a skyscraper, there was that much more.
Of course China being a controlled economy, directed economy has now greatly improved its air quality, including in Beijing in four or five years unlike that India is continuously getting worse. What makes it particularly bad for India is that we have gotten so environmentally weak in terms of pollution, in terms of groundwater, in terms of you know lack of resources, so early in our development. You know China's per capita GDP is two-and-a-half three times ours so they are in a better position to deal with it because they have the resources.
India is still relatively speaking in the early stages of development we are touching that middle-income country level and already we have so many problems that will require significant funding. So we are in a very difficult position in terms of how quickly the onset of environmental problems have come relative to our long term development cycle. On the other hand, we have probably one thing going for us which is demographics. Unlike China, which is already an aging society we are still a young society. And across India though there's great variations between states we still have a lot of people due to enter the workforce which again as earlier speakers have said can be a good or a bad thing. If we can provide jobs for all of them then there's enough economic growth ahead of us that can provide the financing to take care of these problems. And if we don't, then we're going to end up with all kinds of social issues from unemployed youth on the streets.
Tamilnadu is very unique in India, in any measure you take. You know I would say because of the Justice Party and the social justice movement going back to the 1920s because of the focus on equality and broad-based opportunity but though we might argue about the causes the statistics are very clear. In per capita GDP, in average education level, in human development indicators, in infant mortality, in participation of women in the workforce, participation of women in education we are a middle-income country, if Tamil Nadu is a separate country. We are not the same as the Indian average was significantly different. But that also creates some unique issues for us we are the most urban state in India.
By the government's own projections we are roughly about 50 percent urban today one out of two of the roughly 8 crore residents of Tamil Nadu live in the big cities and the other lives in urban and by their projections in the next ten years or so that is going to swell to 75 percent. That means three out of four people are going to live in the big cities and only one in the rural areas.
When I spoke in the assembly on the governor's address earlier this year I asked the government what plans do you have to deal with this? Your own policy statement says that you're going to become 75 percent urban, I come from an urban constituency these are the problems of my constituents, we can't get them water, we can't take the sewage out; we can't get them food, we can't take the garbage out; we can't keep the roads maintained, how are you going to cope with this if there are now three people where there's the only two people today you don't have any vision you don't have any plan, the governor's address talks about 2 Crore programs, 5 Crore programs 10 Crore programs in a state where the budget is something like 232000 Crores. Where are the big issues? Nobody is addressing that.
The second problem that we have in Tamil Nadu is that at some level we are not bad off or badly off compared to others in an energy perspective. You know I think there was some statistics that we've dropped from the first to the fourth or something but if you add wind and solar together, we were probably in the top two or three in terms of renewable energy. But I travel a lot I have a political role in addition to my representative role I lead a new wing for my party so I travel a lot. And at least half the time I find many windmills not turning.
So first I thought was because the windy season is so you know short. but then I realized that the government of Tamilnadu manages its electricity supply so poorly that in periods of shortage, it doesn't have any and needs to buy you know at 10 rupees 12 rupees a unit from all kinds of places on the power exchange outside Tamilnadu. And then many days it basically refuses to off take from windmills and they have to shut the windmills. So, we are not producing renewable energy that we should because we can't off take them and as Sivakumar pointed out we don't have good storage solutions. So clearly we are in need of innovation but in most parts of the world, innovation just requires you to have great ideas and make them cost-effective.
In Tamilnadu, India in general, we have two additional problems one which I have talked about a lot in the assembly is that we have a structural problem we have 30, 40 years of bad policy that have led to all water bodies being encroached, starting with the government itself encroaching on them and building on them and then all kinds of rampant private encroachment. So whenever we see a bad flood or you know heavy rain situation we see all these sad sights of whole houses under water and communities not able to get out which were the result of bad government policy either by action or by inaction where they didn't stop it from happening. We have really bad infrastructure we have a decade or maybe 2,3 decades at some places of bad policy in terms of road development. If you take my constituency, Madurai Central, the average road is about 3/4 to 1 meter higher today than it was when I was a boy. They have laid road upon road upon road upon road.
So first, as somebody pointed out, the chances of groundwater acquisition through seepage is reduced dramatically. in fact you know as most of us I think are engineers, the simple equation is what is the surface area of the water compared to the volume of the water that's why water storage bodies that's why seepage is important because if you don't allow the water to aggregate anyplace, then you're going to lose most of it to evaporation and not enough of it go back to recharge the ground.
We have other problems that arise from it, so if you take the famous Meenatchi Amman temple in my Constituency, at one point the temple was higher than the road. Now the roads are higher than the temple. So when it rains a lot, the rainwater goes into the temple from the road. There are buildings that are from 7th century, 8th century onwards and in the course of 20 years we have fundamentally badly engineered the city around the temple, the city was built around the temple starting back 2,000 years ago thousand five years ago. In 30 years we have completely messed up that whole urban system.
There are any number of social and structural constraints because of bad governance. Though I'm a politician I have to admit because the government doesn't work properly because systems don't function the way they designed to because corruption is rampant because nobody ever pays the consequences for doing anything wrong, this has translated to a series of societal kind of psychological outputs if you will. That is nobody worries about breaking a law nobody worries about kind of what will happen if I get caught, from little things to big things.
So in my kind of experience, very few human beings in our state are actually 100% abiding within the law. whether it's simple things like violating traffic laws to where they dump their garbage to whether they have a motor on the corporation water supply to whether they have encroached onto the street when they build their steps to how they cope with the fact that the road level is rising so they kind of start putting steps onto the public access wherever it goes apart whichever way you look at it we have set this kind of game theory breakdown you know this notion of a free rider has gone to the other extreme where everybody is a free rider because nobody believes the system itself will work.
Multiple times in my constituency I have taken up projects for cleaning or desilting canals inside the city, storm water drains, cleaning the garbage from colonies only to find within six months or one year they are as dirty or as filthy as they were before we started cleaning. So there are social morays and I'm not going to base it on class or income I'm going to base it on lack of faith in the government. Nobody follows the rules there are no consequences for not following the rules so everybody decides they can do the same thing.
And then there are extreme cases in my Constituency again, the Vaigai River is the main source of water. The Vaigai river is fed by the Vaigai Dam. The Vaigai Dam is fed by the Periar dam which then passes through the Periyar River because ancestrally we happen to be landowners in the Cumbum Valley, we know much about the mechanics of this. So my cousin and I, also PhD in computer science from the US, we spent a lot of time analyzing why is it that Madurai is always short of water? Is it that there's not enough water supply? Is it that there is you know the lack of water bodies has fundamentally changed the network? What is it? Then we actually discovered that 100 cusecs would feed all of Madurai 100 liters per day for the population of Madurai. Almost 240 cusecs get stolen, stolen means illegally tapped from the Periyar river between Periyar dam and Vaigai dam.
So we sat and you know took all the websites Mr. Shankar showed us some you know the PWD puts out some Government of Tamilnadu puts out some of the Kerala Government puts out some, so we took all the public information and we wrote up a big analysis and we said between Periyar and Vaigai dam here's how much water is being taken illegally, here's how much should have been taken for the Ayakattu lands that were designated under the agreement, here's how much is being taken which cannot be explained, here's how much is supposedly lost by evaporation in Vaigai Dam which is not mathematically possible that means water is being taken illegally from Vaigai dam. Here's the fact that Madurai corporation is taking enough water out of its pumping stations and then water loss happens between where it starts pumping and where it supplies so there are people tapping that line and creating a business order taking that water and then selling it through tankers rather than allowing it to come to the corporation supply. And who has most of the contracts for those water tankers? Politicians.
So after we did all of this and we sent it at the time Jayalalitha is still alive and we sent her a letter and we said can you please do an experiment? shut off power to all the pumping stations along the Periyar River and see what happens. And I think she ordered the PWD & Theni collector and the PWD do that in one day the flow went up 200 cusecs with a barrier. And unfortunately less than one month later she fell ill then the change now we're back to the same thing with one difference now the PWD has stopped publishing the data, so that we can't touch them again.
So if we just stop publishing what water flow so anyway because we still have some access and because they're not that smart we were able to get the data and I'm just about to file a case in the High Court because I've sent it to the government multiple times they're not doing anything about it. Again mostly well-connected people, across all parties are the ones who are illegally taking this water. So that's just one example I don't want to end on that note but these are complex problems so we have confounding problems that affect each other if everybody behaved well then implementing systems and solutions would be easy and we could affect policy if the government policy was okay then we could actually hold people accountable when government policy is a failure and people's behavior is wrong then innovation itself has to cross additional barriers to be successful and yet it happens.
I'll give you two examples so that I leave on a positive note if we're talking about Internet of Things or the ability to place sensors and track and monitor the basic backbone for that the infrastructure backbone for that has just developed exponentially at light speed. I first started kind of actively playing in India or working in India 2007 when I came back as an expat with my then employer Lehman Brothers and I struggled to get 1MBPS DSL line up my flat in CIT colony in the heart of Chennai. Ten years later I can get 200 Mbps from multiple providers in my house in a suburb of Madurai so connectivity has just exploded and you know 4G speeds you can get 10, 12, 14 Mbps on your phone.
So the capacity to put things in place and monitor them has gone up a lot and we use that for example in my constituency when I set up auto plants reverse osmosis plants in places where the corporation was not supplying water because they illegal colonies people live there corporation doesn't give them water because they don't pay taxes so we set up bore wells to get them water, we have to be humanitarian and then that still doesn't give them drinking water so we set up our plants but our experience and our research showed us that our plants would get captured by somebody local and they would start making a business out of it so we got you know didn't have too much research we looked around and found a vendor who actually sold us the solution for something like 200 rupees a month. It's a SIM card & two CCTV cameras and we place them one on the outside one at the tap and we are continuously monitoring the auto plant to see who's coming who's taking what and make sure that nobody is basically stealing or collaring the resource and charging other people. And I'm also a member of the Public Accounts Committee of the Assembly, I've seen similar or slightly different variations of using technology for maximizing the utilization of RO plants in Ramnad, Thirunelveli when I've gone as a member of the committee so innovation is happening and there are solutions that are sustainable.
I'll give you another small innovation in the past when we used to develop both worlds using the MLA constituency development funds we had a very poor hit rate you know you have to do is find a water diviner and make an assessment of the water and in the old days it was you know guy with the stick stuff and then you have to write up a proposal based on that the government will give you a program and then heaven forbid you didn't hit water at that place they would just close the project at that because they've said failed. So first year I put in like everybody else for the bore wells and then I realized this was just not a bad method so I actually called the government I said cancel all the tenders I don't want to do a single bore well this year. You know a lot of politics in that, but finally I had all the bore wells cancelled and then we found a few vendors we brought them in and using a combination of satellite imaging plus resistance measuring on the ground they're able to very accurately predict at what depth we can get water in what place and I'm happy to say we have turned about 18 or 19 Wells and now in the last three years every single one but one we hit water earlier or at where they said one of them the soil was so loose that it kept filling the hole and we couldn't finish the well.
But we've applied technology that is turned out to be reasonable. Now of course there's a compromise we're playing a zero-sum game if we end up building a lot of bores, because the water table goes down but every time we drilled a bore we also put a recharge well around it like some of the examples that were shown here so that we can recharge the groundwater around that place.
And I'll just leave you with one example based on my experience as a global banker, where the right innovation at the right time overcomes all kinds of problems, all kinds of breakdowns in society. So one of the poorest countries in the world home to the largest slum is Kenya. Kenya also has a big connectivity with Indians one of the best hotels in Nairobi is run by South Indian called Sankara. My bank used to do a lot of work there so is to go to some CSR kind of activities. About 2006 or 07 in a place where the entire banking system had broken down and there was so much crime and the ability to distribute cash or to pay you know informal workers was fraught with risk by the time you took ten people's pay would get mugged on street the concept of mobile payments mobile money was introduced. One vendor Vodafone, one system called m-Pesa. Pesa is money in the Kenyan language, Mobile Money m-Pesa and it's a case of you can go look it up on the internet why certain condition ideal for it and what kinds of preliminary steps they took to make it viable but in less than eight years m-pesa became the channel where 60% of the GDP of the entire country of Kenya was transacted.
So, from payroll to settlements to payments to bank accounts to business transactions all of it happened on one platform because other players came in and so forth so I always look at an example and I think that the right innovation at the right time factoring in all the inadequacies and the broken down parts of government and society is still capable of achieving remarkable results and change of course in that case in economic activity and security of transactions and growth. But it's easily applicable I think also for the kinds of topics we are talking about today.
So with that and considering you know we're all quite long day let me again congratulate the speakers for their activities, for their insight. for their passion, to the organizers for bringing all of you here together
I have already spoken in the assembly about groundwater management about urbanization about natural resource management I'll continued to do so by God's grace at some point we will move from one side of the house to the other, from the opposition benches to the Treasury benches. And if not before then, at least then, we'll try our best to implement many of the great ideas that have been presented today. So I thank you again for your time and I wish you all the best.