Missing those “lazy” conversations


Writing this post takes me down the memory lane.

I remember Mr Mahesh Sharma, Manager Chemical Technology once invited me for a chai at Century Textiles and Industries in Worli in Mumbai. He introduced me to some more friends. We as a small group started meeting almost every Thursday of the week. The group consisted of people like Prof E D Daruwala, then Director at Institute of Chemical Technology (ICT), sometimes Prof W B Achwal a doyen in the textile sector, again from ICT and various friends in the textile industry, supplying dyes, chemicals and equipment.  Conversations used to cover a wide of topics ranging from latest developments in the R&D, market trends and impact of regulations on the textile sector. Environmental regulations were often the focus.

Mahesh Sharma was exploring those days an alternative to sodium sulfide in sulfur black dyeing. After the lab scale experiments, he had found that glucose could an effective substitute. This substitution would reduce concentration of sulfides in the effluents and thereby meet the newly imposed effluent standard by the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board. Besides, such a substitution eliminated generation of sulfide contaminated sludge. The challenge was however the economics as glucose would cost much more than the sodium sulfate making such a substitution unviable. Fortunately, Sharmaji had found a cheap source of glucose from waste stream of a maize starch making industry nearby. The lab scale experiments with this cheap glucose showed good results and pilot trials carried out to reaffirm that there was no compromise on the quality of the dyed fabric.

Sharmaji ’s experiment and pilot trials formed exciting part of the conversations as he would tell us about the progress of experimentation during our Thursday meetings. When the strategy worked and got implemented on full scale, we understood that responding to environmental regulations had to be done in a smart way – not following the conventional end of the pipe approach but by innovating process change upstream! To me it was a great experience. Watching suggestions from stalwarts like Dr Daruwala in these experiments was quite some learning. I also witnessed a fusion between “theory” and “practice” and understood the lingo of the industry.

Later, I played a role to get Sharmaji ‘s work recognized in a UNEP Publication “Cleaner Production Worldwide” . We also worked together in Egypt to implement such substitutions in Egyptian textile industries and published a guidance manual that was translated in Arabic. In Egypt, another source of cheap glucose had to be found out and professors of the National Research Centre in Cairo gave us the support.

It was wonderful to see how the conversations with right people can brew. Here, you inhale the aroma of innovations like a well brewed coffee does.

The United Nations University (UNU) commissioned me, Dr Richard Carpenter and Professor Asit Biswas to write a book on Environmental Impact Assessment for Developing Countries. I was young and a toddler compared to these two giants. Dr Carpenter (called as Dick Carpenter) was on the team who wrote the National Environmental Protection Act for the US  and introduced EIA as a practice to the world. Professor Biswas, an internationally known water resources specialist was a prolific writer and had already published more than 20 books by then! It was 1993 and I was just 37-year-old!

UNU had a great proposition. UNU hosted us to meet during the annual conventions of the International Association of Impact Assessment (IAIA) and spend time conversing and exchanging our perspectives in structuring and writing the book. Conversations in person was the idea. We met during the IAIA meetings in Shanghai, Quebec and Hongkong. In Shanghai, Prof Biswas could not join and only me and Dick Carpenter could meet.

We stayed a bit longer than the IAIA’s schedule of events. Our hotel was in the newly developed Pudong district of greater Shanghai. We decided to travel to the Peace Hotel (now Fairmont Peace) on the Shanghai harbor and spend the day conversing on EIA while watching the harbor. It used to be close to an hour drive from Pudong as construction work was in progress. We booked tables in the restaurant on the 10th floor. Here, the food was to our taste and the view to the harbor from the glass window was amazing. Importantly, staff at the restaurant could speak good English.

Dick and I conversed on EIA over long hours and over several days. I was absorbing every bit of the conversation. Listening to this wise and kind person was a treasure to me. He was very generous and let me “steal” his wealth of experience. (In fact, I learnt so much from Dick on how to remain  humble and continue to be generous). These conversations laid a firm foundation in my mind on the subject of EIA.

Dick had summed up our last session saying “Prasad, EIA is simply Early, Integrated and Always!”. I never forgot this interesting “definition”. (Later in 1999, the book was published of UNU and got translated into Chinese and Japanese. Unfortunately, Dick dropped out of the book project because of his health and probably because his style of book writing didn’t resonate with Prof Biswas)

In 2008, Dr Mohmed Zaman, Dr Greg Guddin and I were contracted by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to work on Country Safeguard System and contribute to ADB’s Safeguard Policy Update. Dr Zaman was a well-known resettlement specialist and Greg had worked on indigenous peoples. I was the environmental expert.

For this assignment, we did several missions to Manila HQ of ADB, spending sometimes 2 weeks at a stretch. We stayed in Discovery Suits – an apartment hotel that was right opposite the ADB building. When the work was over, we used to walk across to the shopping mall opposite Discovery after dinner. A café near the entrance was our spot for the conversations. Zaman would ask for a cinnamon candy and Greg and I used to order coffees. We occupied chairs outside the café – right outside the entrance door of the mall. By that time the crowd to the mall would dwindle. A soft breeze used to wrap us encouraging easy conversations.

These conversations were great as each one of use spoke on how ideally the country safeguard system should be developed and narrated our practice experiences drawing across the world. Sometimes in our conversations we would speak about some of the great stalwarts, academicians and consultant experts, that we encountered.  When we would retire and cross the street to reach our hotel Discovery Suits, I used to realize that how much I could “discover” just through such post dinner conversations. Integration of environmental and social impact assessment was my learning.

I dearly miss today such conversations. According to my Professor Friend the days of such conversations are over. Most people are busy, getting busier and no one has time. You either Google or Zoom in your life. You are always in a hurry. People prefer instant expresso now and not a slowly brewed coffee.

“Professor, don’t forget we now have challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic. Meeting physically is not welcome or feasible”. I tried to make a point

Professor vehemently disagreed “Dr Modak, I take your point, but remember that very few understand the power of conversations today and the warmth of being in a great company of people. Even if COVID-19 gets tamed, this challenge will continue”

We were speaking on the phone at that time.

I reminded Professor that we were to meet in the evening at our usual coffee place.

“Oh, thanks Dr Modak for reminding. Professor said. “In fact, I have invited two more friends today and I look forward to some “lazy” conversations. So don’t be in a hurry. We have few interesting topics to discuss”.

My wife probably heard what we spoke.

“So, I assume you will not be home for dinner”, she said. I was not sure whether she sounded happy or unhappy.  I thought of asking the Professor as a side topic of the evening conversation.

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  1. Nice read Dr.Modak. In fact the post pumped me to get in touch with my other idle friends to have a lazy weekend conversatios at club today.😁

  2. Thanks for sharing these moments Dr Modak! It is indeed exciting to learn how your conversations were actually the genesis of some key milestones in the field of environment. We feel fortunate!

  3. Once we get “right” people, conversation ( exchange of ideas and reciprocation) is very natural phenomenon. The real challenge is having “right” people at right time (phase) of life.
    Somehow exchanging and reciprocating is missing may be due to fear of being judged or lack of ability to express.
    सत्संग and वाद-संवाद are always emphasised by wise men ….. like you 🙂

  4. “L”earned and Cr”azy” conversations only add to new knowledge. Thanks for sharing your interesting and educating experiences.

  5. Superb narration Dr. Modak. All your blogs are nicely written and I get to learn so many new things from those blogs. Thanks for writing

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