Date archives "March 2012"

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

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.

America 2.0

Read this interesting article from the New York Times today, it seems to make a lot of sense. India appears to be embracing consumerism as if its life depended on it with newer, bigger, flashier malls being thrown up all over every city in the land and branded stores all over the place.

Just like in America and England, the newly created aspirational middle classes are fueling their addiction to Apple, Levi, Gucci, BMW, Sony, Starbucks and foreign holidays via credit cards and bank loans. Citibank had a stall in the food court of my office building the other day with a banner that read: Why put your dreams on hold? Get a Citibank personal loan and have your dream today!

The bank that I use, Standard Chartered, is also on a mission to get people to take out loans to fuel the middle class addiction; the image below is from their Indian website – basically they are saying “You deserve to go on your dream holiday for 6 days so don’t worry about spending the next 5 years paying it all back with interest“.

Anyway, this journalist puts in a far more eloquent way than I can so have a read.

How India Became America -

How India Became America – NYTimes.com brick has come down in the great wall separating India from the rest of the world. Recently, both Starbucks and Amazon announced that they would be entering the Indian…

Extreme Danger – Useful to Know

Bit of a science lesson for you today, chaps.

Chennai is a coastal city in the tropics which means that most of the time it feels like your whole body is wading through pea soup and you have to push the air out of the way. The air is literally saturated with water and right now it is worse than ever. Today it was 32°C outside which might seem quite nice but the air humidity was 94%. Humidity is a measure of how much moisture is in a body of air and when it gets to 100% it means the air is completely saturated and can’t hold any more water – your sweat will simply pool on your skin as it has no where to go.

The human body keeps cool by sweating and then evaporating the moisture from your skin which works pretty well if it’s 32°C outside and the air is fairly dry, say 60% humidity or less. Above 60% humidity is where the problems start because less sweat is able to evaporate in to the already saturated air so 32°C with 60% humidity actually feels like 37°C because you’re not able to evaporate enough sweat to cool down.

As I said earlier, today in Chennai it was 32°C with 94% humidity which (apart from feeling like wading through water) makes it feel like a rather balmy 51°C. The American Government weather site has some reassuring information for temperatures and humidity like this: Extreme risk of death, do not go outside.

Useful to know!

Adobe, where are you?

I now know why Adobe has such a huge problem with piracy in India and contrary to popular opinion I don’t think it’s because it’s too expensive. It’s far more basic than that: You can’t buy the flipping software anywhere! People are forced to get the cracks and pirated versions because you can’t buy the software from a website, you can’t walk in to a computer store; it’s simply not available.

I’ve been looking to buy one of Adobe’s Creative Suites, it’s not cheap and I could easily get a pirated copy, but I want a legitimate license. You’d have more success getting blood from a stone than finding somewhere to buy Adobe’s software in Chennai. If a person in India goes to the Adobe website they are referred to a number of “resellers” who either don’t have a website, don’t have working cell numbers or if they do have a website it was last updated in 1998 when Photoshop 2 was released.

Extremely frustrating. Adobe, if you are reading this: Your product distribution system in India is hopeless.

Everything and Nothing Changes

Every time I’ve gone through Chennai airport I’m always amazed at how much it is changing and how fast it’s changing. When I came in 2006 immigration consisted of a couple of security guards sitting behind some rather old wooden desks and when I returned in 2008 immigration had changed to a big hall with a row of 8 metal cabins.

Currently they are building a new Chennai airport which is a big task in itself but the planners have given themselves the exciting challenge of building the new airport on top of the old one while the old one is still being used. Over the years the departure and arrival locations have been moved about more times than a nomadic tribe and the departure lounge has grown and contracted like a life size accordian.

There is further change still with the manic construction of the new metro rail system that is being built concurrently everywhere in the city above and below ground. Pylons are going up and boreholes are being sunk. The Metro Rail Construction boards that block entire lanes and spring up along the sides, and often the middle, of the road have become the bain of motorists lifes. Main arterial roads have been reduced to little more than side streets, 5 mile detours are a common occurance and residents can wake up one morning and discover their whole street is now blocked off. Still, it’s radical change that is needed and Chennai will have gone from nothing to a substantial metro network within just a few years.

Down to the south of the city you will find more change as Chennai’s IT corridor, the back office and grunt work to thousands of businesses around the world, as mega office complexes are thrown up. Quicker still are the super luxiourous gated townships which are springing up to accomodate the noveou rich IT couples who are working in shifts to programme the Internet banking platform you are using everyday on your computer.

As I left the airport it’s not the number of motorbikes or tuk tuks that you notice anymore, you can’t move for the amount of BMW’s, Mercedes, Jaguars and Range Rovers that are on the road. As you drive from the airport in to Chennai you pass Audi showrooms, Ford showrooms, Jaguar showrooms, Porsche showrooms, there’s even a Harley Davidson showroom here now. Capitalists and those driving being driven in the BMW’s call it progress, the socialists of the world would point staggering gulf between the haves and have nots.

Change is happening so fast, blink and you’ll miss something, come back again next year and the Chennai you remember will be different to the one you remembered.

And yet, amongst all this development; new metro systems, Porsches, steel and glass skyscrapers, the more things change in Chennai the more they still seem to stay the same.

As you step off the plane at Chennai airport there is a distinct smell in the air. I noticed it when I first came and I still notice it now. It’s like the air just hangs around and can be picked up and you have to fight your way through it. It’s air with presence. At the immigration desk the lady was at the end of her patience as she snapped at the couple in front of me because they didn’t go up to her desk quick enough and when it came to my turn she didn’t even look at my paperwork before plonking a stamp in to it. No change there then.

After baggage collection – which if you are ever going to Chennai be prepared for a long, long, long wait for your bags to come, it’s never got quicker in the 6 years I’ve been coming here – I usually book a Government taxi to get back home. The Govt taxi counter is recognizable because it’s the most delapidated counter in the far corner and where other counters advertise their Toyota Cruisers, Mercedes and Honda Accords the Govt counter displays some rather faded pictures of cars your grandad may well have driven when he was young.
To get to the counter you have to fight your way past an army of over eager taxi reps for private firms vying for your business before you reach a guy who couldn’t care less whether you used this Government taxi service or not. I use it because it costs half the price of private cabs and I’m a bit of a cheapskate.

It was actually touch and go this morning whether I would get a taxi or not because I handed over a 500 rupee note and it was promptly handed straight back to me because it had a miniscule tear in the midle and therefore was entirely unacceptable to the Indian Government Department of Taxi’s Bureau Chennai South Ward. No problem. I handed him my bank card, put it on the plastic, I indicated. Ah. The Indian Government Department of Taxi’s Bureau Chennai South Ward didn’t accept debit cards. I opened my wallet which was bulging with notes but alas together they didn’t reach the amount for the fare, all I had was the brutally mutalated 500 with a tear so small it would challenge even the best electron microscope to measure the length of it. With a deep sigh and a theatrical display to show he was clearly doing me a favour he plucked the note out of my hands and threw some change back at me along with an official Indian Government Department of Taxi’s Bureau Chennai South Ward Official Reciept of Payment Document, in triplicate.

I had to take this receipt to a man who was waiting outside, but like the other official he couldn’t give a damn if anyone came or not. He took one of the chellan copies of the Indian Government Department of Taxi’s Bureau Chennai South Ward Official Reciept of Payment Document and insisted that he push my trolley the 20 metres to the Official Government of India Taxi’s Pick Up Point which was staffed by a man sitting at a desk in the open who in turn was chatting to other men who were sitting on upturned bits and pieces.

The new man behind the desk took another chellan from the Indian Government Department of Taxi’s Bureau Chennai South Ward Official Reciept of Payment Document and shouted at a driver to pick up my bags. The person who pushed my trolley 20 metres was still hanging around looking at me imploringly. Tutting to myself I reached in to my wallet and handed over a ten rupee note. A look of total disdain flooded across his wizened old face, and he shook his head “sir, dollars only”.

I’m not sure what I was most shocked and taken aback by; that he wouldn’t accept his own curreny or that he thought I was American!

Once in the car, which is just like the one your grandad used to drive when he was young, we entered in to the crazy and hectic Chennai traffic. “Going to?” the driver asked, “Nungambakkam” I replied, in my best Indian accent which actually sounds more like deformed Welsh person with a speech impediment, “ah, which place?”.

Ambassador Taxi

Directions in Chennai operate on an iterative landmark basis so first you need to focus the mind of the driver on the general area, once they’ve got that then you give a big landmark which may or may not be near the place you want to go but it gives some relativity on where you want to go. A landmark can be a restaurant, hotel, station, major road, temple, college or anything else that is big and well known[1]. In my case I gave the name of a big chain of restaurants called Sangeetha’s, it’s not near me but from that area I can give directions.

“Sangeetha’s, sir?” the driver asked as we weaved in and out of traffic. The fact that he had to ask took my concern senses up to Defcon 3, especially given that with my limited Tamil I’m in no position to explain directions. “Yes, Sangeetha’s restaurant” I replied. “Ok, sir”, we drove a little further in the traffic maelstrom before he looked back at me in the rearview mirror. “sir, Sangeetha’s hotel?”, “Amma, yes” I replied, in India if you want to go out to eat you go to a hotel, if you wanted a room and bed from the hotel you would be very disappointed. A few minutes later my driver was on the phone, my concern senses went to Defcon 2 as I picked up words like “foreigner” which meant he was talking about me, “sangeetha’s” which meant he was asking where it was and finally lots of “ammas” and “seris” which meant he was understanding the directions being given.

Excellent I thought to myself as he hung up the phone, on our merry way. Or not, as we swung on to a petrol station forecourt, although not anywhere near a pump. “Two minutes, sir” the younger driver said to me earnestly via the rearview mirror “petrol”, I looked back to the pump and wondered how…oh, nice, he had a 2 litre plastic bottle, out he got ran over to the pump, filled it up with bright orange petrol and came trotting back to the car. With the bottle of petrol securely wedged under the front passeger seat we were back on our little adventure, but it wasn’t to last.

Since the car was built in two centuries ago the ability to sit idling in traffic for long periods of time in the quickly rising Chennai heat was matched only by myself and before long I was dripping sweat and the car was bellowing smoke. Once again we pulled over and the resourceful driver pulled out another 2 litre bottle of water. “Two minutes, sir” he said through the usual rearview mirror mode of communication and he popped the hood (I know I’m not American but saying pop the hood is just so much cooler than saying “I say old chap, would you mind awfully lifting the bonnet“). Within seconds there was the distinct sound of instantly vapourizing water as it turned to steam the moment it came in contact with the engine. Two litres of cooling water poured over the engine later and we were good to go again.

Chennai taxi

“Rhomba hot” the driver said to me, he wasn’t kidding, it was getting very hot.

As we drew nearer to where I wanted to be the driver suddenly yanked the car down a little side street, a “Whoa, stop!” nearly escaped my lips, but I’ve lived in India long enough to know that drivers tend to know where they are going and if they go a route you’ve never been down before then don’t worry until they stop somewhere that isn’t where you want to be. Nine times out of ten it’s just a short cut.

Alas, this was one of those one out of ten times. Concern senses were now at Defcon 1.

We were stopped outside the most downtrodden building in all of Chennai in a backstreet of goodness knows where. “Hotel Sangeetha” the driver beamed. By coincidence it was also one of those times in India where hotel actually meant the room and bed variety. “Illa!” I cried, which means no, “Amma! Hotel Sangeetha” and he pointed enthusiastically at the broken sign. “Illa!” I tried again and then asked him to go back to the main road, “Sir, Hotel Sangeetha” he tried one last time before finally reversing and thinking I was the most stupidest foreigner he’d ever met – didn’t even know where his bloody hotel was!

Old hotel

Finally I did get home though and the driver wasn’t bashful about asking for a tip, without even getting out of the car to help me lift up my rucksack. “No dollars?” He asked as I gave him 50 rupees. “No dollars” I said, waving him off.

Ah, I was finally home.

I opened the door and the apartment looked very clean and tidy so I gave my past self a pat on the back of a job well done.

First things first though, 16 hours on the road and a very sweaty taxi drive later, I needed a shower so I switched on the hot water and waited for it to heat up.

And then, to prove to me that Chennai hadn’t changed a bit, the power went off.

Ah, Chennai, you have changed so much and you haven’t changed a bit. I love you and I hate you.

[1] Although you couldn’t use Dawn French or Fern Britton

Note: None of the photos are mine, they are stock photos!