31 July 2009

Keeping Faith

93% of Indians believe in God…

Or so said a report in the Hindustan Times long, long ago. Somehow, this little figure, this absurdly accurate figure, so full that self-congratulatory statistical pomposity, has remained stuck in the forefront of my otherwise cluttered mind. I mean, kuch aur nahin to 93%, nothing more, nothing less…

And whenever I think of this that inevitable query crops up- what then of the remaining 7%?

Indeed, what then of the remaining 7% of Indians who, according to the HT, do not believe in God?

*

I ‘became’ an atheist quite early in life. Somewhere in eight standard. My dear elder brother had renounced religion sometime before that and I, the obedient younger sibling, decided to follow suit by killing God.

But that was more of a statement than an actuality. A fashion statement of sorts. To be an atheist, to pretend to have stripped yourself of the over-whelming baggage of religion, of your ingrained cultural consciousness, was-and still to a large extent is-to be modern. Many who claim to be atheists do so without really believing in disbelief, to rather project their so-called modern, rational credentials than actually arrive to the conclusion after in-depth philosophical engagement and interrogation. A considerable amount of these 7% would be of this type, people who’ve given up on God just for the heck of it, only to enhance their coolness quotient.

Certainly, for me, it wasn’t as if I stopped believing the day I ‘gave up’ religion. Diwali Pooja continued unabated, as did the faith in an over-arching moral framework guided by supernatural powers. As a child of the 90’s I had grown up watching Ramayana, Shri Krishna and Mahabharata on Doordarshan and the indelible marks which they have left upon my subconscious were well nigh impossible to erase…

Indeed, at that stage I did not even feel compelled to do so. I had moved above my Gods, but they continued living right there in my heart: an interesting symbiosis which ensured that I lived undisturbed, at peace with my affected atheism and inherent faith.

It was only later on, in class eleventh or twelfth, that I really started questioning my faith. Was there really a supreme power, or a trinity of supreme powers, which rewarded virtue and punished vice? Did good always-ever-triumph over evil? The evidence of the material world suggested otherwise. All around an uncaring, corrupt society which committed crimes under holy disguises. The fatalist logic of the yuga theory lost ground: why did Narayan preordain decadence and annihilation for his own world? Which creator would want his own stuff to be destroyed, and by his own hands too? Certainly not a caring, empathetic one! Wasn’t the idea of caring divinity a big fat lie then? A hoax perpetuated to conceal the real tyranny and sadism of a being for whom we were all playthings? God was a despot, undoubtedly so, and to put life in the hands of such a dictator was intolerable.

I did the only thing I could think of to hurt him: refusing to acknowledge his suzerainty, I shut myself against him in the firm resolve to be my own master. Of course, this little personal rebellion happened in full knowledge of the irritatingly smug claim to sovereignty which religion maintains for itself: we don’t care if you don’t believe in us, for try as much you can never get out of the system. The system in eternal, inviolate, and there is always a place for disbelieving buggers like you- hell!

“So be it! Damn you and your bloody system! Hell better than this!” In retrospect, it was the typical late 70’s angry-young-Bachchan relation with God- waise to bhagwan ko nakarte rahe, aur jab sar par mushkil aan pari tab to toofani raat me mandir jaakar use larkara, aur chila chila ke kaha ki aaj tak tujhse kuch nahi manga, aaj tak sar nahi jhukaya, par aaj aaya hun ek cheez mangane…Can’t live with him, can’t live without him!

I tried hard though. I became a nature-worshiper of sorts. One fine day I told my best friend Rajat that I had given up on God and religion as we know it, and that from now on nature alone would be my dharma. “I will plant a sapling every festival as a mark of respect for Mother Nature”, I said, “So that by the time I grow up I will have enough plants to generate oxygen for me!” The idea, nobly novel though it was, didn’t go on for long and the afforestation zeal fizzled out in half a year or so. In any case, investing nature with divinity was indirectly conforming with one of the traditional strains of religious belief. Something more was need.

And so, as usual, I turned to science. I adopted the clich├ęd, conventional rational attitude in dismissing much of my heritage as childish bosh. Mythology and the great epics were rejected as fanciful exaggerations; organised religion demonised as a ruthless institution of appropriation and power. I suppose it really was providential, getting Hawking’s Brief History of Time as an award for “excellent academic performance in tenth”. The Big Bang and related theories accounted for everything- the formation of the universe, the laws of physics, the evolution of man, everything could be understood as a rationally irrational, inherently chaotic sequence of chance events.

Everything, yes, but not quite. The primeval atom burst, yes, but why? What cataclysm made it erupt? Science can offer no possible answer to that- no trajectory can be traced beyond to before that primordial explosion; the inviolate, insurmountable break in the space-time graph will not allow it. How then do we explain things?

God.

Something, or someone, did cause that big big bang. That, and that alone is God- the reason behind the Big Bang, and so the reason behind us all. But God now was a curiously impotent figure- he just caused the crucial event to happen and after that they took their own random, unguided course to reach to this stage. God’s role ended with the explosion, with kick-starting the game: chance was the new god.

The idea, of course, is disturbing. To think everything, not just the existence of this planet but your life as well is just a simple matter of a few odds is not a comforting idea…for one, there are umpteen what ifs. What if that meteor hadn’t wiped out the dinosaurs? What if a meteor were to wipe us out tomorrow? It was a difficult choice, between the vagaries of a tyrant and the vagaries of a meteor.

I chose the meteor.

*

Narayan, Nature, Science, we humans always need something to believe in. What we do as atheists is to just replace one faith with another, God with Science. The trick, I think, is to believe in both, to lug around the baggage of God with the rationality of Science, to see them as not distinct but overlapping and drawing a lot from each other. In any case, God or no God, it really is no use outright rejecting all one’s heritage for an idea- I love it too much, more indeed than any idea to let it go. I love mythology too much to let it go for an obscure bang…

It has helped, really. I believe in disbelief, in the rationality of science but still let it not affect my engagement with mythology and organised religion. I have once again attained that peace by balancing rationalism with religion, by blending them both to form my own eclectic potpourri of a factual faith…

*

Yes, I chose the meteor, but-and I’ve never confessed it-I have always wanted to choose the tyrant. The tyrant in all his/her/its glory, all the undying, eternal glory and omniscience…after saying all this, I finally come down to where I started- atheism is perhaps only a mask to hide one’s doubts. One word, one conviction, and we’ll change over. Of course, it may never come and many of us die without it coming, but then, I believe that is what it is all about. Of waiting, patiently waiting deep down within for that ultimate conviction, that leap of faith to the hereafter.

Of keeping faith.

16 July 2009

Metro Trouble

I believe that a Mass Rapid Transit System (MRTS) like the Delhi Metro is not a feasible, long-term intra-city transport option.

Here’s why.

As an entirely electricity dependent MRTS, the Delhi Metro naturally consumes a considerable amount of electricity. Nonetheless, there seems to be no general consensus regarding its exact consumption- a paper on the Institution of Railway Electrical Engineers website claims it’s the largest power consumer in Delhi, a May 9, 2006 report on the Tribune website puts the same to 45MW, or 1.15%, of the average demand of 3,200MW and a write-up on the Metro’s website fixes total consumption to 75+45=120MW or 3.75% of the average demand of 3,200MW. Now, as anybody who’s spent this summer in Delhi knows, this last figure cannot possibly be accurate, for, first, as the channels and papers have been publicising, the total demand at the peak of summer in June was a staggering 1000MW more at around 4,400MW and second, since this figure is so patently obsolete and the Metro’s network has increased considerably since then, its net consumption of too must’ve gone up. There is, unfortunately, no clear figure for that.

Be that as it may, one thing is totally unambiguous: an over-whelming percentage of the Metro’s electricity comes from either non-renewable fossil fuels like coal and natural gas or from ecologically unsound hydroelectric power plants in the lower and middle Himalayas. This crucial fact has till now been consistently ignored by media and civil society alike, for even as we rightfully applaud the DMRC for installing a solar power plant on the Connaught Place station and justifiably take pride in it been awarded carbon credit validation by the German TUVNORD for the use of the innovative regenerative breaking technology, we simultaneously forget that at its core the Metro still functions on hazardous, toxic and ecologically unsafe technologies. Like a majority of successful corporate establishments, all the DMRC does is to stay on the right side of public conscience by adopting small, piece-meal green methods with great fanfare without changing it’s core base of unsound energy generation technologies.

What is urgently required, therefore, is a holistic scientific analysis by an independent, unbiased agency on the overall environmental impact of the Metro’s creation and its unfettered expansion.

First of all, it must be found out to what extent electricity generation in thermal power plants offsets the Metro’s commendable achievement of preventing emission of around 2,275 tonnes of vehicular carbon-dioxide. Indeed, even as we in Delhi celebrate the supposedly modernising influence of the Metro and felicitate it for it’s role in the reduction of vehicular pollution, we overlook the fact that the DMRC characteristically follows conventional Western wisdom of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ by increasingly buying power from a NPTC plant in far-off Orissa. All this happening in the National Capital acquires another, ironical dimension when we consider how the Indian Government cries itself hoarse in every international climate change forum about developed Western nations relocating all their dirty work to developing countries and so making them victims to their insatiable hunger for resources.

Similarly, a detailed study on the multi-nuanced ecological impact of the construction of the Metro too is in order. The DMRC claims to be “one of the most eco-friendly projects in Delhi” so it will be worthwhile to find out whether or not it sources construction material like bricks, cement, concrete, girders etc from clean, green and ethical firms instead of the popular run of the mill profit-maximising, unsound businesses. The affects of exposure-whether adverse or not and if so, how much-to fine concrete dust to construction workers and those living near construction sites too must be conclusively established.

Moving on, one must also consider the costs involved in maintaining the DMRC’s entire network. Whether or not the Metro makes profits, maintenance costs are bound to go up each year as its assets age. Gradually, in about a decade or so, it’ll be bound to phase out a majority of its existing rolling stock if it still wants to maintain its current high standards and afterwards major changes and upkeep would be required in all the stations as well. It is not wholly inconceivable that as time passes maintenance costs would slowly become a considerable amount of its expenditure so that the DMRC’s huge infrastructure and unmovable assets might just end up as an encumbering public liability. Once again, an unprejudiced investigation is in order to determine whether or not these will eventually become equal to or override the net income.

On the whole, I think the DMRC can really not be fully blamed for not being far-sighted enough to anticipate these issues: it is, after all, just a modern replica of a century old transport model carried out under the guidance of a smart and efficient yet aging man. What is surprising, however, is that nobody in Delhi seems to have realised that the Metro, in its current avatar, is only repeating old mistakes and so seems to be going well down the way of becoming an embarrassing liability for the city. Indeed, had even a fraction of the will and money spent in erecting the humongous Metro network been spent on refurbishing roads and revamping the bus system the need for the Metro would never have arisen and the transport problem solved without so much exertion. The very induction of air-conditioned buses in the DTC’s fleet, which will make available to the common citizen a facility till now the Metro’s complete monopoly, coupled with the increase in road space and, so, vehicular traffic raises serious question marks over the very existence of the project as some of its basic objectives get gradually defeated.

All of this is not to say that I am against the Metro. No, like all Delhities, I too have more or less enjoyed the Metro experience and do sincerely believe that by setting enviable professional standards it has brought about a sea change in and contributed immensely to the evolution of public attitudes and consciousness, creating, in fact, a whole new ‘Metro culture’ of discipline, responsibility and patience. Nevertheless the Metro is no holy cow and, more now than ever before, we need to evaluate the whole project in a radical, all-encompassing manner and ascertain its viability for the moderately long-term. That alone will be beneficial for the city.