Do No [Significant] Harm

[Presented below are three encounters with my crazy Professor friend. These episodes give messages or takeaways that are left to you to interpret. I don’t subscribe to any. The idea is to make you think.

There is nothing like “right” or “wrong”. And perhaps that is the challenge when you want to “Do Something Good” to the people and the planet, without compromising the profits]

Episode One

I was in New Delhi with my Professor friend. After a meeting with the World Bank in Hindustan Times Building, we decided to snack at the legendary bakery, Wenders, at the Connaught Place. I asked for a lemon cheese roll and Professor opted for a homemade chicken burger. We called for a large coke with two glasses to go along.

When the waiter served us the food and the drink, we noticed that instead of the usual plastic straws, paper wrapped straws were provided.  I was pleased to note the sustainability thinking of the management at Wenders – an effort made to ultimately reduce plastic to the ocean. But I saw that the Professor was visibly upset. “What’s wrong Professor?” I asked.

“Well, Dr Modak, are you aware that paper straws are not biodegradable nor recyclable. Further, they use significantly more energy to produce than plastic straws so lead to higher GHG emissions.  In fact, paper straws do not degrade all that much faster than their plastic counterparts. Paper straws aren’t recyclable. Plastic products that encounter food are recyclable, but paper products, which absorb food and waste, are not. Once tainted with food or drink, a paper product must be routed to landfill. And doesn’t the use of paper affect our forests?”

“I must speak to the management of Wenders and explain. It is now become a fashion to talk and walk sustainability, but the concern is in which direction are we moving? And are we opting the right alternative?”

I was surprised with Professors views as I disagreed with some of his statements.

“Do you disbelieve in what I am saying?” He frowned.

“All this is based on a newly released Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) software called Alternatives”. Professor said.

I knew about the software Alternatives. It was a tool developed by a group of European research workers and papers were published in international jounals. I knew its limitations in the Indian context and also knew that one could either prove or disapprove whether Alternative A was better than Alternative B or otherwise. All depended on the scope of the “system”, computational methodology followed and the underlying database.

So, you can prove that plastic bottle did less harm than a glass bottle or otherwise, as you like.

But who would argue with Professor? I could see that Professor’s voice was already quivering with anger. So, I kept quiet and concentrated on my lemon cheese roll.

I told my wife about Professors opinions. She was in the kitchen. She yelled “Why do you use the straw in the first place?”

I had not thought of this Alternative.

Episode Two

We were at our usual coffee shop in Mumbai. I ordered for Americano with separate hot milk and Professor asked for an Ethiopian coffee that was served in a large size cup. The waiter got us some chocolate cookies to go along.

“Professor, I am eagerly waiting for the commencement of Mumbai’s Metro 3. Life for a Mumbaikar is going to be much better once the Metro 3 starts functioning” I began my conversation.

Professor was silent for a while. Then he said slowly and in all seriousness.

“Dr Modak I have decided not to use Metro 3”.

I was surprised. “Why Professor? Isn’t it an environment friendly or a green project?” I asked.

“Well Dr Modak, this project has cut down nearly 1000 trees and threatened another 2500 trees in the Aarey colony for building the car shed. This reckless destruction will affect the forest and the eco-system. More than loss to the biodiversity, this cutting down of the trees will symbolize the insensitivity of the management of Mumbai Metro 3. And so, as a protest, I am not going to ride on the Metro.”

“But Professor, the Honorable High Court has declared that the area was not a forest.” I argued. “And the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL) has committed to plan 5 times of the number of trees that will be cut.  You are also aware that timely completion of the Metro project is very important. It will reduce vehicular traffic, congestion and noise and importantly bring down emissions of GHGs substantially. Aarey colony is home to five lakh trees. Cutting down of 3500 trees is not going to make any long-term impact. Not surprising that the Bombay High Court cancelled four petitions seeking to stop from cutting down trees in the colony.” I tried to justify making a practical argument.

Professor continued to sip his coffee.

“It’s a question of principles Dr Modak.” He looked at me like the Moses in Ten Commandments. “It’s not the number of trees that is important. I would fight even if one single tree was to be cut.  You must stick to the pristine principle of “do no harm”. We must respect this principle and not compromise for the sake of so-called development – So we must protest whether right or wrong.”

“And Dr Modak, I am not alone, there are at least 100000 people with me, mostly youth, who have decided not to use the Metro.

I thought that Professor was crazy. Shouldn’t we compromise a bit for the interest of larger public benefit?  And accept a bit of harm?

Take the case of rehabilitation and resettlement of people when we build reservoirs for water supply to cities. We build these much-needed reservoirs for serving millions of populations and in this process a displace a couple of thousands of Tribals.  We promise and do our best to rehabilitate and compensate these Tribals. Unfortunately, many times these efforts are not successful. But probably doing little harm to some for benefiting a larger population may make a practical sense.

But will I have the same view if I belonged to those Tribals? I was not sure.


Episode Three

We were sitting with the Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) of a large multinational firm in Nariman Point in Mumbai. We were served with cashew nuts and English breakfast tea.

The CSO had invited tenders for installing solar panels on the rooftops of their offices and residential colonies.  This was indeed a major purchase order amounting to nearly 100 million Rs. and so, he wanted our advice on the selection of the solar panel manufacturing company.

Shortlisting based on technical specification and performance was over. Only price negotiation was left. One of the three shortlisted contenders had an aggressive price tag of 9000 Indian Rs for 330W Polycrystalline Solar Panel. The CSO was zeroing on this company as there was a performance and price advantage.

The Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of this company was called in the meeting room. After discussing and revisiting the specs and reviewing supporting documentation, the CSO asked the CEO to quote final price. He hinted a 10% price reduction and was expecting our support.

Before the CEO of the company could answer, the Professor spoke.

He said “Gentleman, as regards the pricing, let me be clear. We would like you to pay a price 10% more than what you have quoted. I am asking this higher price as I notice that you have not considered the end of life cost of the used or abandoned solar panels. Our company being sensitive to environmental sustainability, would like to practice the principle of “do no harm” in letter as well as spirit.

We would pay you therefore a higher price i.e. 10,000 Rs per panel and in return expect you to provide a scientific plan for end of life disposal of the solar panels and make a commitment”

There was a silence. The CSO of the company was speechless. He did not know what to say. Given Professor’s stature and that the point he made being in line with his company’s sustainability policy, he gave up bargaining and instead agreed (though reluctantly) to a higher price.

I was sure that he was never going to invite Professor for tender evaluation again.

I realized that Professor was going crazy as solar panels are not currently listed in the E-Waste (management and handling) rules of Government of India. So, no end of life considerations were necessary. I thought shouldn’t we rather focus on the present and not worry about the future?

Fortunately, there was no episode Four.

I am glad that there are only few like my Professor friend who believe and practice the doctrine of “Do No Harm”.

Most want to “Do Something Good”.

I guess the problem seems to be to decide what is good to all.

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  1. Professor is two thirds correct (avoiding ‘right’) one third debatable.
    Mass transportation has far,far more benefit than the unavoidable

  2. I tend to lean towards professors thinking – for a slightly different reasons. One has observed that one concession – of say cutting down 2500 tress, which may not seem a lot, has generally given way to more clearances, many times citing the precedence. There have been far too many incidences of such behaviour – generally considered ‘good for the public today’. In larger scheme of things, respecting biophysical nature (not just of humans) would be a good principle to follow to limit and minimise the undesired side effects, which we see plenty. Going upstream to solve a problem at hand might yield enormous benefits – sometimes at some level of inconvenience today. Today’s development paradigm is a question mark therefore that it invite more and more people to cities, even with a knowledge that the cities are already bursting at the seams!

    I agree with you that LCA can prove anything depending on the ‘SCOPE’, however the LCA experts have a conscience that they are being chartered for doing ‘public’ good, would and should choose the right ‘scope’ and hence their results might be meaningful in the given context.


    Ajay Phatak

  3. Through your posts, I have come to know the professor more intimately than any other character, bar Sherlock Holmes, may be. A true contrarian gentleman with an unshakeable opinion on everything under the Sun. Many a time I do get the strange feeling he could well be your alter ego.

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