Chennai’s Concrete Super Highway In The Sky

Every morning I have to take the train to south Chennai. The Mass Rapid Transit System, or MRTS as it’s known, is a marvel in concrete. Soviet Russia style concrete monolithic stations are dotted every few KM and are so brutal in design, it would make Joseph Stalin himself give a nod of approval. Rather surprisingly, it’s also a triumph of punctuality and reliabilty too, something Network Rail would do well to study. Trains that actually run on time? How can it be?! The MRTS gets a lot of flack from the media and the local population but actually I think it’s pretty bloody fantastic for what it is.

Since the elevated track runs along about 4 stories high, the plan was to use the first level of the stations as a car park for commuters and the 2nd and 3rd level as huge shopping malls, like the big stations of London. That was the plan. 10 years later and many of the stations still resemble building sites with scaffolding and construction detritus littered around the platforms. Where the thriving shops were supposed to be are instead cavernous halls, serving as shelter to dogs, goats and the occasional cow, the odd homeless person and not to mention a place for hapless souls to drink away their troubles in the cold darkness.

This photo shows the station where I catch my train. If you turn up before 8:30am then the platform is virtually empty like it is here and the journey is relatively pleasant. After 8:30am is when Chennai goes to work and 6m people mobilize at once…the journey is then pretty far from pleasant!

Chennai MRTS station

They Call Him King of the Golden Nuggets

In my apartment we have a cat. King of the Golden Nuggets is his name. A fearless predator, an alert hunter, a father to half the local feline population, stalking through the night for his next victim, he answers to no man…unless of course you have some delicious curd to give him. The relationship between the apartment dwellers and Golden Nuggets is thus: you feed him whenever he’s hungry and in return he’ll guard the steps of the apartment against any trespassers and ne’er-do-wells*.

image

* Provided the trespassers scurry on four legs, go squeak and come at a convenient time when he’s not sleeping.

Smile: Global Catastrophe Is Imminent

Makes for depressing, unhappy reading. But smile: We’re all doomed in the end.

BBC News - Resource depletion: Opportunity or looming catastrophe?
BBC News – Resource depletion: Opportunity or looming catastrophe?http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-16391040For many living in the world today, this nightmare scenario is already a reality. Even for the well-off living in developed economies, it is becoming all too familiar.

Bus Anxiety

I’ve discovered a time investment fear disorder during my daily commute too and from work. My new office is actually closer to the south pole than it is to my apartment so the daily journey is one of the toughest aspects of my job (16 hour days are a cinch by comparison).

The commute has got all the more harder recently because the temperatures have started to soar and even the nightime temperature doesn’t dip much below the mid-30’s. Add to that, 85% humidity and you have yourself a free outdoor sauna.

In the evening my commute involves a 15 minute power walk to the station, with a laptop strapped to my back. The end result, as I stagger up the 40 steps to the platform can only be described as the drowned rat look. Marathon runners probably produce less sweat in a two half hour race that I do in that 15 minute walk. I then take a non-ac train to central Chennai where I disembark and my bus fear rises.

By this stage of the commute my hair has afro’ed out from the sweat and humidity, my shirt is sopping wet and my shoes are making scquelching noises because they’ve filled up with the sweat cascading down my legs. Frankly it’s a mystery why my girlfriend is still with me when she sees me like this.

There is an air conditioned bus that runs on the route I take. The catch is that it only runs once an hour and they don’t appear to run at a fixed time each hour. Given the sodden state I’m in by the time I need to catch the bus I’m longing for that little bit of luxury an a/c bus can bring. The problem is, I don’t know if it’s coming or already been because some days it will turn up at 6:20, others at 6:45 or sometimes it doesn’t turn up till gone 7.

Of course, there are plenty of regular buses I could take, but I think I’d rather have the back of my eyeballs scraped out with rusty razor blades than be rammed up against someone’s armpit in the suffocating heat.

And so, in an attempt to relieve the bus anxiety, I have taken to turning up at the bus stop as early as possible. I plonk myself on the seat, fire up Angry Birds and wait and wait and wait and wait for a bus. Will it come in the next 10 minutes? Will I have to wait 40 minutes? What if it doesn’t come at all? As the minutes go by, stress levels tick upwards.

At this point I should point out that in the last 4 months I’ve compiled what could possibly only be described as Chennai’s most comprehensive database of bus timings from my stop. Over the months I have been diligently noting down the times of every bus that I could take. Essentially I have found that this was a rather pointless task, given the traffic in Chennai, no bus can run to a schedule once it departs the bus station.

That said, I have discovered that 6 times out of 10, the A/C bus will turn up between 6:30 and 6:40. Occasionally it shows up much earlier, sometimes a bit later, or, with some depressing regularity, not turn up at all.

It is said that even the best financial traders fail to maximize their profits because of fear. A fear of missing out on the bigger rewards if they stay in the game just a bit longer. If these hot shot bankers came and stood at a bus stop in Chennai and waited for the A/C bus to come, then they’ll understand the true meaning of the fear of missing out.

The fear arises because the longer I’ve been standing there, the more time I’ve invested waiting for the A/C bus. As each passing normal bus goes by, my investment increases. As each bus passes that clearly has available seats, and I let it go on by, my stake has increased. I’ve given up the opportunity to get the normal bus in the fear of missing out on an even greater reward, or, in this case a pleasant A/C bus with comfy seats and where you are not being intimately acquainted with the arm pit of a stranger.

If I were to simply get on a normal bus now, all that time, all that sweat, that I’d invested would be in vain.

So how long is too long to wait? I know that more often than not, the A/C bus comes at 6:30ish. But what if it hasn’t come? What if it’s coming in the next 5 minutes? What if there was traffic at the start of the route? What if…I get on a normal bus, full of armpits, and the A/C bus rolls up just behind it?

These my friends and random readers, are the troubles that plague me on a daily basis and form the basis of my new theory on bus-time investment fear, but you can call it Bus Anxiety.

Sums Up Politicians Quite Nicely

A driver was stuck in a traffic jam on the M25.

Nothing was moving.

Suddenly, a man knocks on the window.

The driver rolls down the window and asks, “What’s going on?”

“Terrorists have kidnapped all of our MP’s during a sitting of parliament and they’re demanding a £100 million ransom otherwise they are going to douse them all in petrol and set them on fire. We are going from car to car urgently collecting donations.”

“How much is everyone giving, on average?” the driver asks.

The man scratches his chin in quick contemplation and replies, “Roughly a gallon.”

Democracy For Sale

When it comes to interviewing for jobs in India you never really know what you’re going to get (which is probably the same the world over but I’ve never interviewed anyone in England so am in no position to say!). Often candidates haven’t been taught how to handle an interview, say the wrong thing, don’t say enough, say too much, don’t let the interviewer speak, cut the interviewer off in the middle of a question or worse they have read a “how to ace your interview” guide on ehow.com and come up with answers like “my biggest weakness is that I’m a workaholic.”

My company is currently doing interview rounds as we look to expand our team and as usual the process has thrown up a number of anecdotes. My favourite one so far went like this…

A young man enters the office. He’s from a small village in rural Tamil Nadu and visibly apprehensive, nervous and uncomfortable in the surroundings. His answers are short and he’s got no conviction in what he says. Determined to bring the young man out of his shell the interviewer tries a number of light conversation topics like films, food and family until she hits on one topic where his face lights up light a 1000 watt bulb. “actually it’s my life’s dream to be an MP for my village” he tells her, then continuing, “I will bring development and jobs, make electricity come and make sure everyone has healthcare. Then I will campaign for Tamil rights in Sri Lanka and bring the Sri Lankan government to justice.”

Suitably impressed with the eloquence and passion with which the young man has described his ambitions the interviewer asks him how he plans to get elected. The young man brushed the question aside and said “I will join whichever party gives me the most money then I will pay everyone in my village to vote for me.”

And that is south Indian politics 🙂

I’ll Have A Boot Please

I was sitting in a bar in Delhi the other day where they brew their own German style beer on the premises and after 4 years of Kingfisher it’s like liquid gold in a bottle. The beer wasn’t the only thing unique about this bar though because I noticed one of the waiters carrying this boot of beer to one of the tables. I couldn’t let it go by without taking a quick snap of it – it’s not something you see each day!

I'll have a boot of beer please

Creative Packaging From Indigo

Indigo is a budget airline that operates in India in much the same vein as EasyJet or BMIBaby. The budget airline sector in India is pretty crowded and with rising fuel costs forcing up the prices getting customers is harder than ever. Indigo have a unique style that permeates every part of their business, it’s the little things that separate them from all the other carriers. On the flight just before we landed the hostess requested everyone to turn off electronic devices, but part of the speech also included a note about making sure you save your work before you shut down your laptop. Very small, but it sticks in your mind. Airplane food also gets a tough time from many frequent travellers but Indigo has made a big effort to bring something unique to the food as well. The picture below is the box the sandwich comes in. It’s in the style of a matchbox because the sandwich contains a lot of chilly. Simple, smart and stands out enough for someone like me to mention it on my blog. A great marketing effort by Indigo!

Sandwich box for Indigo

The Plastic Road Campaign

During the monsoon season, which comes at different times of the year depending on where you are in India, the deluge of water inundates the the drainage system and turns the roads in to shallow canals. I’ve posted my fair share of pictures and videos on this blog of roads that are completely submersed after days of non-stop rainfall. It’s not so much that the drainage system is poor, it’s pretty extensive, it’s mostly because of the volume of water that can fall in such a short period of time and the drains can get blocked by the detritus of the city. Every year before the monsoon season starts you see frenzied activity as the authorities clear out and prepare the stormwater drains.


During and after the monsoon season, many roads in Chennai look like this as the water washes away the surface

All this water turns the roads of Chennai in to a labyrinth of pot holes as the upper surface is washed away. The effect it has on the traffic, not to mention what it’s doing to private and public vehicles is pretty horrendous – which is of course the only reason I haven’t bought myself a car yet; it would cost too much to maintain! (seriously!). Pot holes have also caused injury to pedestrians and in one extreme case last year a young girl lost her life because the storm water drains that run along side the roads had collapsed and as the girl was walking along the submerged road, fell in the hole and unfortunately drowned.


I can’t confirm that this happened in Chennai but many websites say it did!

There is a solution to the pot-holed roads though which is to use recycled plastic and mix it in to the bitumen compound. This creates roads that are harder and far less susceptible to water damage – pretty awesome when your roads are submerged for three months of the year! The results have been so successful that in several test roads around the city with some having lasted several years without damage. Thanks to these successful trials the Corporation of Chennai decided that it was time to finally solve the road problem and roll out plastic roads across Chennai.

There was one problem though: The Corporation of Chennai has a reputation slightly better than the ebola virus and PR skills taken from the book of BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster mitigation team. Simply put, even if the Corporation is able to put out a message the public are not likely to listen it it.

Step in the Stella Maris MA Public Relations class of 2010. They have taken up the cause and put in place a PR campaign to raise awareness on the importance of segregating and recycling plastic across their ward (the city is divided up in to wards and zones). Named Plastic Salai (salai means road in Tamil), the campaign has been so effective that it has not only taken their own faculty by surprise but has won the accolades of the Chief Commissioner of the Corporation of Chennai who heaped praise on them during a recent live radio interview.

Before the PR students started their campaign the Corporation was having to import plastic from other states to use on the roads since 1 tonne of plastic was required to lay just 1KM of road. This is pretty insane because walk along any road in India and you’ll see plenty of discarded plastic bags, plastic pouches and plastic packaging material. The Corporation was collecting around 7.5 tonnes of plastic a week but the latest figures suggest that now well over 50 tonnes has been collected – probably in no small way thanks to the awareness that has been raised by the Plastic Salai campaign.

The students have created a Facebook page with all the details of their campaign so far and have engagement rates that would make every social media manager in the world salivate and turn green with envy. There is also the Plastic Salai blog which has indepth analysis of everything the students have done so far (and is far better at explaining how great plastic roads are than I can) and a regularly updated Twitter account.

As well as doing some pretty amazing social media work and organizing the rally pictured above, the students have also created some very professionally produced videos like the ones below:

There is also this educational animated video that has apparently gone down a treat with school children and corporates alike and businesses have donated money to the cause based on seeing this video alone!

Finally, what’s a holistic PR campaign without a brilliant catchy tune? Several of the students put together this amazing song which got plenty of air time on the Chennai radios and has notched up well over 1,000 listens on SoundCloud.com

The campaign has the secondary benefit of getting more people to think about recycling their plastic. Most rubbish that is thrown out is actually recyclable and one of the reasons the stormwater drains are not as effective as they could be is that they are clogged up with – you guessed it – plastic.

All in all, this has been one of the best campaigns the city has seen in a long while. It’s getting citizens to be more involved with the civic authorities, getting people to think more about segregating waste and improving the infrastructure of the city so that the roads become safer and longer lasting.

Technology Fail

It’s strange how we don’t notice technology until it fails us. In India we have to put up with daily power cuts that can last up to two hours and sometimes even the whole day. Even though we know the cuts are coming it still seems to catch us off guard by coming at a really inconvenient time.

Today I had the option of leaving the office fairly early, I just had to get some paperwork printed and photocopied. Of course, technology failed me as the office bought a new super whiz printer with wifi but the computer stubbonly refused to talk to the printer regardless of whether it was connected by USB, ethernet or wifi. I exhausted my entire arsenal of ninja Google search skills looking for a solution but all in vain. The printer was a Canon by the way, just incase you were thinking of buying one. In the end the computer gave up and said “you know what, good luck on that one because there ain’t no printer around here”.*

Then this evening I was supposed to be involved with a pretty exciting call to a PR company in America. The way it works is you fund your Skype account with some money and you can call a number in the US to be patched in to the confernce. The moment I funded my account the Internet died on me so I couldn’t connect. I knew it was fairly important so I called in from my pre-paid Indian number (calling to a US number, youch!) which lasted all of 5 minutes before it burned through all the credit.

10 minutes later my Internet came back so I quickly connected to the conference again via Skype but that lasted barely 3 minutes before the Internet conked out again. I’ve had Internet installed for 8 months and it has never gone down, the one time I really need it and it fails me.

Today was just one big fat technology fail.

* Actually the printer didn’t say that exactly, I was just giving it a bit of anthropomorphic personification. What it actually said was “Runtime error X00111XXX01100. Please try again” which basically means the same thing.