Jolly's Volley: The Pending Indian Epidemics

13 April, 2012

Last week, the following note was e-mailed to all residents of my community (roughly 500 homes).

"We are having severe water crisis with BWSSB not assuring any supply. It has been five days now and yet, they have no answer as to when they can resume water supply. We are heavily dependent on water tankers who are demanding high prices (as other apartments in the Ultima campus are paying higher). Of the three, only one water tanker has been supporting us. Sanjay and Unni are pursuing with water tankers. We may have water for the next few hours… but the situation is alarming. We have got only 30 per cent water supply from tankers, but our consumption is close to 2 lakh litre a day. Carwash with running water, gardening with fresh water, washing front porch or any such luxury at this moment must be refrained."

This also reminded me of my road trip last year through Haridwar, Hrishikesh, Dhanaulti and Mussoorie (a bit of a self-discovery tour). What I vividly remember is that after a fairly significant downpour, I noticed two key events as I was driving. First of all, people lined up at a roadside hand-driven water pump which was producing only a trickle even though a couple of kids were pumping hard. Secondly, a pseudo-riot erupted as a water tanker got to one of the small communities. And mind you, all this happened right after a smart shower. So, the irony was stark.

Whether it is Dhanaulti or Bangalore, chronic water shortage may end up being the biggest cause of civil unrest in parts of this country, more so than terrorism, ultra-corrupt bureaucrats/politicians, power shortage or death of a popular film star (I don't want to be in south India when Rajinikanth goes). But seriously, just to drive the point home, let me mention a conversation I had with a dear friend of mine who lives in one of the popular gated expat communities in Bangalore.

He described to me a frightening interaction he had with his maid who was facing water shortage in her village. In fact, she told my friend that she was going to transfer water from his house to her village and if he dared to stop her, she would go to the village and indicate that my friend had made derogatory comments against the Kannadiga community. This was local blackmail 101 in action, which shows the indirect impact that water shortage can and will have.

I am convinced that as India grows, and as more and more families raise their standards of living, there will emerge a fairly significant divergence between the haves and the have-nots. There is a very tedious social balance that I observe in a city like Bangalore, which is often referred to in engineering terms as 'metastable' (think of a ball on the top of a hill which can fall fast if it goes too far either way). If, God forbid, the 'up and to the right' trend that India continues to enjoy, suddenly hiccups, the consequences can be drastic. Nothing will stop droves of actually needy people and the hoodlums (who are in it for the entertainment value) from attacking the Expat Shangri-Las in Bangalore, Gurgaon and elsewhere. I am not trying to be an alarmist, but just hypothecating on what I think will be a natural reaction on the part of those looking for sustenance if the economy goes south, and their employment or other precious resources suffer.

Incidentally, my wife often says that I am in the wrong business. For one, I am too straightforward to do well in India where a five-year-old can run circles around me from a business acumen standpoint. Secondly, my experience in the public markets of buying high and selling low doesn't bode well for a career as a VC. The latter applies not only to my stock-picking skills but also to my real estate skills (I am the only person I know in India who has lost money in real estate here). Three years ago, I decided to get into the Indian real estate market and buy near the new Bangalore airport. Against the better judgment of some close friends, I did not pay attention to the water table situation (it is non-existent) that is dire in north Bangalore. So, I have a home for sale in north Bangalore, water not included. Having said all that, initiatives like rainwater harvesting are taking hold in virtually all new developments in water-starved cities across the country. All of the above is still timid, compared to the severe water-related health issues that plague India, resulting into heavy losses in terms of lives, quality of life, productivity loss and healthcare costs, among others.

The Second Upcoming Wave Of DisasterâOne of the key assets that India has is its young population and the conjecture is that the Indian demography will help us overtake China in terms of population and GDP in the latter half of the century, if not sooner. I certainly hope that proves right. But if one pays attention to the changing habits of the young people in this country and the genetic make-up of Indians, it seems that people will die of massive heart attacks, cardiovascular diseases and strokes, not to mention India being the diabetes capital of the world.

Hypertension, stress, lack of physical activity and proliferation of fast food chains are creating a ticking time bomb. If one goes to the USA, one can see the obesity epidemic in full swing. Except that the goras are blessed with better genetic make-up from a health standpoint, generally speaking. In my last three years in India, I have known or heard of more young Indians dying in their 30's and 40's. But it had never been the case in my prior 38 years of experience. What's more, those who suffered were not obese individuals, but in some cases, were hard-core gym-goers in seemingly good physical shape, but with a stressful, hectic, over-achieving, sleep-deprived work schedule.

After a lot of pushing by my wife, who is a health nut, I have made some lifestyle changes with more physical activity, healthier foods, yoga etc. She actually has a very straightforward way of making me realise my priorities. Some time ago, she made two comments in quick succession which made me stop and think.

First, she said, "I wish I was your BlackBerry. I would be next to you all the time and when I buzzed, you would actually pay attention (Ouch!)." Before I could recover from that below-the-belt punch, she said, "Oh, by the way, if you were to fall dead tomorrow, do you think D, F or J would really care? They would be more concerned about who is going to manage the India portfolio going forward." Now, I don't agree with that comment (and I hope that D, F and J will forgive me if they read this). But the point my wife was and now I am trying to drive home is that success sometimes comes at a price. And I certainly hope that young people in India realise that. In the USA, people are eating themselves to death. In India, I do see lifestyle, stress and God-given genes creating a terrible health equation. Unless people do recognise that and do something pro-actively to prevent it, our very own demographic asset will turn into a tremendous liability.

I know that the above two points are not representative of the typical Jolly humour that the readers have gotten accustomed to. But every now and then, it is important to stop and think about some of these issues and what can be done at the individual, community, local, state and central levels to address those.

Oh, the yoga instructor is here. Time for some suryanamaskaraâ


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Jolly's Volley: The Pending Indian Epidemics

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