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India Calling

(Page 3 of 4)

At first blush, Ashrafpur and Khairatpur seemed much like any other villages. One-story houses of mud and brick, small temples and mosques, cows and water buffalo slumbering in dirt yards, women in bright saris threshing rice by hand, four hours of electricity a day. The poverty is so desperate that many of the breadwinners head for the Middle East each year for a few months as migrant laborers. In Ashrafpur, a man ran up to me in the street, pounding at his chest and saying, "Gulf! Gulf!" Seeing my puzzlement, he produced the card of a dry-cleaning business in Abu Dhabi, which he’d had sealed in plastic. "Job!" he said. In all likelihood he would return to the village in May or June to help with the pre-monsoon harvest.

Nearby Khairatpur is the launch site of Project Surya -- "sunlight" in Hindi. The concept is sweepingly simple: mesh the world-class science and the grassroots reality together, and use the results to do an end run around the fraught, interminable attempts to negotiate a binding global treaty on carbon emissions. Instead of concentrating on carbon dioxide, Ramanathan proposed to focus on black carbon, which accounts for 18 percent of the emissions that are warming the planet; only CO2 contributes more.

To gain traction on global warming, and in the process buy time to bear down on the central problem of CO2, attacking black carbon offers some distinct advantages. While CO2 remains in the atmosphere for about 100 years, black carbon dissipates within days. A similar logic applies to ozone, which has a lifespan of only a month or so. So removing these pollutants at the source brings rapid results. Furthermore, the problem can be addressed locally. Since there’s no need for an international treaty, black carbon is not a political third rail. In fact, Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the most militant of all climate deniers, was one of the cosponsors of a bipartisan bill in 2009 that directed the Environmental Protection Agency to study the impact of black carbon emissions on public health. The science on black carbon is so new (the subject was barely mentioned in the IPCC’s last periodic assessment report, in 2007) that the world is just beginning to grasp its significance. In December, the chief scientist of the U.N. Environment Programme declared that it would be the centerpiece of that agency’s "fast-action agenda" for a low-carbon world.

Project Surya, which began in late 2009, is now collecting real-time hard data on black carbon. Villages using traditional mud stoves represent a control group; meanwhile, starting in Khairatpur, the plan is for TERI’s clean-burning stoves to create a "black carbon hole" in an experimental area that will eventually embrace about 40 villages. The data that are gathered should document both the scale of the problem and the potential magnitude of the remedy. Project Surya relies on the most advanced technologies, from surface sensors to NASA’s A-Train satellites, the most sophisticated tools available to scientists seeking to understand climate change. But its pivotal point is the cell phone, and that can be used by someone with no scientific training. Someone like Shabnam.

Khairatpur is a mainly Muslim village of 2,500 people, and Shabnam’s home was not its poorest. The floors were mud, but the walls were of roughly mortared brick, and over the lintel of the living room there were decorative carvings of minarets and onion-domed Mughal tombs. Shabnam was excruciatingly shy at first, avoiding eye contact and speaking in a near-whisper. I asked how old she was, and she said 16. Then she thought about it and said, "No, 17." Her parents pulled her out of school after grade eight, needing her contribution to the family income. To keep up with her book learning, they told her to study the Koran.

"She has been an amazingly good learner," said Abhishek Kar, who oversees TERI’s work here. "She has the confidence to test state-of-the-art high-tech equipment without any formal training. Lots of people here wouldn’t even dare to touch it."

It was V. Ramanathan’s own daughter, Nithya, who made the conceptual breakthrough. She is the founder of Nexleaf Analytics, a not-for-profit whose mission is to bring mobile phone technology to disadvantaged communities. One day her father asked, half-teasingly, what she could contribute to Project Surya. The cell phone, she said.

Shabnam showed me how she uses it. She starts with an unassuming little box, about six inches square, which sits in the kitchen. A miniature, battery-operated pump draws in air, which then passes through a flat quartz filter a bit larger than a quarter. Shabnam removes the filter periodically, puts it in a plastic container, and writes the place, date, and time on the outside. Then she photographs it next to a calibrated color chart. You don’t need a smart phone; the simplest kind will do, just as long as it has a camera. After that she uploads the image and sends it to a remote server. The server instantaneously sends back a text message with a real-time reading of the black carbon level, based on the degree of discoloration of the filter. (The color chart allows the server to standardize the results to account for the proprietary algorithms that each phone manufacturer uses in its digital imaging devices.) Shabnam’s readings are then combined with data from surface sensors and satellites and input into regional climate models. But her mobile is the critical element, because it operates in real time. Daylong monitoring shows that black carbon emissions spike when meals are being prepared, between 5:00 and 8:00 in the morning and 5:00 and 8:00 in the evening. Readings from a satellite that happens to pass overhead at noon or in the middle of the night will be misleading.

But how can you be sure that cookstoves are to blame? I asked Kar. Couldn’t these black carbon peaks be coming from the tailpipes of nearby traffic?

He shook his head. They’d thought of that. This location had been chosen because it was at least two kilometers from the state highway and five from the national highway to Lucknow, with its flotillas of smoke-belching diesel trucks. But what nailed it, he said, was a happy accident: the fact that Khairatpur is predominantly Muslim.

"We took samples during the month of Ramadan," he said, when people begin firing up their stoves at 3:00 a.m. for the pre-dawn suhoor. "That’s when the black carbon began to peak, and the results stayed the same for the whole period. So that settled the question once and for all. A Hindu village could never have given us the proof. You need a lot of luck in science, for sure!" He grinned.

We went up the staircase to the roof, where there was an array of four photovoltaic panels. There was also an aethalometer, which measures ambient black carbon concentration; a pyranometer, which measures solar irradiation; and an anemometer to track wind speed, which may affect the dispersal of airborne soot. Inside a small brick shed, Shabnam showed me a row of test tubes, in which she collects samples that will allow scientists to refine further the data on pollutant levels, differentiating between black carbon from cookstoves and the small amount that comes from the motorbikes and the few larger vehicles that make it into Khairatpur’s rutted alleyways.

Kar was still beaming. "This is one of the few villages in the world that has a real, functioning weather station," he said. And the whole operation was run by a girl of 16. Or 17.

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George Black has reported from five continents, chronicling civil war in Central America, the democracy movement in China, and climate change in countries from Bangladesh to Peru. His most recent book, Empire of Shadows, is about the 19th century exp... READ MORE >
Not only was this article interesting for its stated subject, the implications of the cellphone revolution, but for the well-drawn snapshots of Indian life in rural areas and the kind of efforts put forth by scientists and entrepreneurs which are promising ways to address the shortcomings of this life. Mr. Black very adroitly provides the social backdrop which adds depth and understanding to all the rest. I think I must read more by him.
Too much information and literature.. It would be nice to read in bullet point rather than story, though is informative in social terms
I find it a lovely story! Bullet points would make it a quick list of facts. Now it is a short extract of rural life, and a picture of how development can happen.
Dear Nichol (and Anonymous User) - Thanks first of all for taking the trouble to comment on the piece. We may be old-fashioned, but like the New Yorker, Harpers, The Atlantic, Mother Jones, and a few other holdouts, we still deeply believe in the unique value of long-form narrative journalism. I have no problem with bullet points as such - they're often very useful - but I think they would do a disservice to a topic like this, not to mention leaving out the extraordinary individuals whose stories make India such a compelling place to write about. Thanks again for your comments. George
If you request bullets, I am afraid you have been accustomed to too many bad Powerpoint presentations... Text is for reading, complicated problems needs a context and a background. This was a good article!
What if corporate executives and unschooled women in remote villages could join forces to change the world? In India, that may be happening--thanks to the cell phone." - Why is THIS the tagline for this article on the NRDC Online email blast? I know there's pressure in the this - "sustainable development world" to project environmental solutions that are "win-win" situations, but that CEOs-'unschooled women' binary is inaccurate and doesn't represent the content of this article. Both of the rural women profiled are here educated; one is even an college student! Also, the phrase "Cow Belt" is insulting; don't use it as a subtitle without qualifications.
I would say "the Achilles’ heel of the cell phone" is its impact on the environment. Not once in the article did I read anything addressing the disposal or recycling of cellphone components. With billions of people not just using them but becoming more dependent on them day by day (not me, I'm glad to say) shouldn't that at least be a concern of a long article under the NRDC auspices?
Excellent point, Penelope, but while the topic is obviously very related I felt it was simply beyond the scope of an already complex story. However, you should know that Uninor, the mobile provider that is featured in the article, has a very ambitious recycling program (including of all its wiring, signage, office supplies, etc.), as do some other significant players in the Indian cell phone industry. As the material on diesel and solar-powered cell towers suggests, there are some extremely enlightened people working in this sector. Thanks again.
Dear Mr. Black Thanks a lot for enlightening me on the state of rapid development of my state in India (My hometown is Meerut in western Uttar Pradesh) I would like to add numerous points as comments here, however I confine myself by adding to Penelope's question. In addition to Uninor, Nokia (which is the leading hand phone instrument manufactures in India) runs a very successful cellphone recycling program under their 'Planet k Rakhwale (Saviors of the Planet)' campaign. For more information please visit Thanks once again for taking me on a trip down the memory lane of my days spent working for various grassroots nonprofits like Janhit Foundation Meerut to WWF India's Living Ganga Program under HSBC Climate Partnership (HCP) in U.P. for the past 8 years.
Excellent article. I recall that slave-owners in American society forbid their servants to read. One can't but help see the similarities of how knowledge can be liberating, or on the other hand, the lack thereof be used as a vice.