Birds of a Feather

Have you noticed a reduction in the number of news stories about Indian aeroplanes forced to re-land as a result of hitting a bird during take-off? While this is having a beneficial effect on the airline industry's punctuality records, according to many environmentalists, the decline in carrion-eaters like vultures, eagles and even the common crow is a result of the use of diclofenac, a painkiller administered to cattle and sheep (the drug was finally banned by the Government in 2006). In many Indian states where it is illegal to kill cows, livestock is raised not for consumption and therefore steroids and painkillers are used to prolong their usefulness in the field. When these dead animals are eventually eaten by vultures and their ilk, they succumb to these drugs' after-effects.

Besides scientists and ornithologists, one other group that is anxiously assessing this fallout is India's Parsi community, who leave their dead on dakhmas or "Towers of Silence" to be devoured by vultures, believing it to be the cleanest and most hygienic way to get rid of the immortal soul's temporary home.

Parsis or Zoroastrians are followers of the Persian philosopher Zoroaster or Zarathustra, who is believed to have lived in Central Asia around the first millennium before the common era. His belief in the single god Ahuda Mazda makes Zoroastrianism the most ancient of the great monotheistic religions. However, after the invasion of their homeland by Islam in the eighth century, the community fled to the Indian coastal states of Gujarat and Maharashtra in an attempt to escape religious persecution.

One apocryphal legend from an eighteenth century epic poem, Qissa-i Sanjan, perfectly captures the position of Parsis in India. When the Zoroastrian immigrants landed in ancient India and seeked asylum from the local Hindu king Jadi Rana, he (not knowing the Farsi language, even though it is very closely related to Sanskrit) motioned to a vessel of milk filled to the very brim to signify that his kingdom was already full and could not accept any refugee. In response, one of the Zoroastrian priests added some sugar to the milk, indicating that they would not bring the vessel to overflowing and indeed make the lives of the citizens sweeter and richer. Chagrined and suitably chastened, the Rana gave shelter to the community and granted them full religious freedom.

In exchange, the community made no attempts to proselytise (to the extent that inter-faith marriages are not allowed), enthusiastically participated in India's freedom movement (Sir Pherozeshah Mehta and Sir Dadabhai Naoroji were leading members of the Indian National Congress and close counsels of Mahatma Gandhi) and were crusaders in the subsequent indigenous economic growth where the House of the Tatas, for instance, stands out both in terms of instilling a sense of self-pride and for making charitable contributions to independent India's development. As a community, Parsis have the highest literacy rate in India (97.9% according to the 2001 census) and have made immense contributions to the arts (Zubin Mehta, Rohinton Mistry, Freddie Mercury) and the sciences (Homi J Bhabha was the father of India's nuclear programme).

Today there are fewer than 1,00,000 Parsis worldwide, of which 75% reside in India. However, their number is rapidly dwindling as the younger generation puts career first and marries late, and because of their education and ambition have only one or two children. While the Parsi panchayat are taking steps to breed pure vultures in an aviary to solve the dakhma problem, it is hoped that they are also looking at the very real problem of their own survival, so that the community may continue to sweeten and enrich the diversity of Indian society.

I am driven out of fatherlands and motherlands. Thus I now love only my children's land, yet undiscovered, in the farthest sea; for this I bid my sails search and search.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

Who Killed the Compact Car?

I was browsing through the March 1977 issue of National Geographic for a story on Egypt when I came across an advertisement for the 1977 Honda Civic, promising an EPA estimated 54 miles per gallon (mpg) on the highway. In contrast, the 2008 Civic's fuel economy is only 29 mpg highway.

Why has the efficiency of America's greenest car company dropped by nearly half in a span of thirty years?

It is, of course, not fair to conclude that the forward march of technological advancement somehow left the automotive industry by the wayside. A modern car has many performance and safety features that would embarrass the 1977 Civic. And many of these features come at a heavy cost. As a Center for Auto Safety statistic demonstrates, cars with inertia weight less than 2,500 pounds dropped from 10.8% in 1975 to a mere 2.6% in year 2000 models. The Honda Civic, in particular, increased its curb weight over 50%, from 1,687 pounds in 1977 to 2,738 pounds in 2008.

But besides the necessary add-ons for safety and comfort, there is also the question of size. Vehicle sizes have been growing at such an alarming rate that the sub-compact category has been rendered almost obsolete. Many will testify to being upgraded from an economy or compact car at a rental agency to an intermediate or standard, simply because there are so few of the former. In fact, the traditional basic cars have grown so obese that the Big Three (comprising Honda, Nissan and Toyota, who are arguably more worthy holders of the title today than Detroit's Big Three) had to introduce three new models (Fit, Versa and Yaris) to cater to the sub-compact segment that used to be dominated by their Civic, Sentra and Corolla cars.

While automotive obesity is correlated with human obesity, the lust for bigger and more powerful cars is a legacy from a bygone era before the OPEC oil embargo, when fuel-economy was an oxymoron and energy conservation considered an European fad. With the popularity of pick-up trucks, and more recently SUVs, motorists in America have been used to gas mileages that barely reached double digits. It is joked that the gas tank of the Hummer (the most atrocious affront on aesthetics and the environment) was designed to hold enough petrol to transport it from one gas station to the next! I was recently in the market for a 4-door luxury sedan, and could find only two 4-cylinder cars with an acceptable carbon footprint (BMW 318i and Infiniti G20). Not surprisingly, both cars have been discontinued for years!

That is why Tata Motors' introduction of the 50 mpg Nano is a reason to rejoice for environmentalists of every colour and creed. The one-lakh-rupee car is also a dream fulfilled for thousands of Indians who have seen the original version of the "peoples' car" (Maruti 800) pass them by as it has shot up in price and stature. India's urban designers and developers now have a different kind of challenge on their hands, attempting to accommodate upto 10 lakh new Nanos every year on the country's crumbling infrastructure.

In the day we sweat it out in the streets
Of a runaway American dream,
At night we ride through mansions of glory
In suicide machines.
Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run