This dispatch is prompted on the back of multiple questions playing in the back of my mind, conversations with many people and observing the nature of current discourses—which, to put it mildly, are rabid ones.

• To eat meat is bad.

• A universal Identity (UID) being implemented in India called Aadhaar is bad because it is a tool that can be used to infringe upon privacy.

• All automobiles that run on fossil fuels like petrol and diesel are bad because it contributes to global warming. We must, instead, shift to more contemporary systems like electric vehicles.

And so on and so forth.

There seems to be no middle ground. Just that I may find some perspective, I chanced upon an interesting study posted by my friend Dipayan Baishya on his Twitter handle. Baishya is a member of the senior team at the Future Group headed by Kishore Biyani.

That image offers much food for thought on why the nature of conversations in contemporary discourse are as rabid as they are. Everybody believes they are right and decline to engage with each other. Why does it have to be that way? This is a question I have often asked Arun Maira, former chairman of BCG India and member of the erstwhile Planning Commission. He is a gentleman I often turn to for advice when conflicted. And I felt compelled to ask this of him again last week.

As always, his answers (or pointers to where the answers may lie) were thoughtful ones. Allow me to paraphrase some takeaways around what I picked up on listening to him—all of which I will place in the public domain at some point. There are, he said, three kinds of questions, of which two kinds dominate the current narrative and perhaps explain many conflicts in our discourses.

• The first masquerades as a question, but is actually an opinion. We are witnesses to this on prime-time television every evening where the star anchor is judge, jury and executioner. The nature of the “discourse", if you may want to call it that, goes like this: “I think Pakistan must be bombed (or some such thing). What do you think?"

“Experts" from inconsequential “think-tanks" echo the anchor’s views. Guests who disagree are outshouted and the number of tweets on social media around the theme is the barometer by which the popularity of this farce is measured.

• The second kind of so-called “question" is one that contains a lot of information embedded in it—usually as facts bolstered with numbers for credibility. There can be no answers possible here. Because it is not a “question" in the first instance. You can only agree with the facts by adding some trivia to it. Or you may disagree with the evidence. To that end, though, you must either provide more information or evidence to the contrary—or outshout the opponent. If there is a consensus on the facts, the outcome is an agreement. Else, a debate and common ground is impossible to find.

• So where do questions exist in our current narratives? And assuming they exist, do any inquires follow those questions? And do all questions have to be based in numbers and facts? Is it possible to follow a hunch? Why is it that we insist that when asked a question, we think it incumbent the answers be known? Is it possible we lack the humility to admit “I don’t know"? Why, for instance, does a child have the grace and innocence to ask wide-eyed questions that insist on a thoughtful response? By way of example, last night, my little girl (who is in Senior KG) asked me why is it that I insist she brush her teeth in the morning and night? After having listened to me explain as simply as I possibly could, she extrapolated that it may be a good idea to brush her teeth thrice then; after she gets back from school as well. Logically, she was right. But I had to think up some interesting way to tell that inquisitive mind what excessive brushing may do to her enamel. On doing that, who knows what kind of questions may trigger in her mind?

In her own way, she was testing the limits of my knowledge. She often does that. I’m learning—the hard and gentle way—that I am better off acknowledging gracefully to her that I don’t know all that answers. And that we may have a lot more fun in mutually exploring where pointers to the answer may lie.

In thinking about it for a while and poring over my bookmarks, after a long while, I revisited The Rational Optimist, a blog maintained by one of my favourite science writers, Matt Ridley. One of his posts on meat consumption is something that has me deeply conflicted.

How does my stated abhorrence of violence fit in with my dietary preference of meat over all other forms of food? But Ridley makes an interesting observation. That I need not feel conflicted. And that how I feel may just be a part of evolution. “… The trend of history is clear, that one day in the future, people may well look back on the rearing of animals for slaughter as barbaric. The number of animals killed for food each year—about 60 billion chickens, 1.5 billion pigs, a billion sheep and goats and 300 million cows—continues to rise."

“Yet perhaps the early signs of (Steven) Pinker’s coming change are already there: rising vegetarianism, growing disapproval of factory farming, boycotts of foie gras, opposition to hunting, more emphasis on the ethical treatment of farm animals. History has a way of driving these trends inexorably forwards, without anybody being in charge of them."

When thought about, Ridley has a point. There was a time when I used to crave European visits just so that I may get the perfect foie gras. A decade down the line, though, and on the back of much understanding on what it takes create the perfect foie gras, I cannot bring myself to consume it. I had never imagined this day would come.

It is another matter altogether that this raises a different issue. Technology is hurtling at an unforeseen pace. Researchers are working to create synthetic meat. Can synthetic meat be considered as “living creatures"? If grown in a petri dish and comprising the same tissues as other “living creatures", when cut and diced, will it feel anguish and pain? How will we know? Is synthetic meat vegetarian? Or does it violate the spiritual principles as espoused over the millennia?

Intriguingly, in Ridley’s research, when these questions are asked of those who are now avowed vegetarians, they are open to consuming synthetic meat. The ones who are conflicted are meat eaters like me. Quite honestly, I don’t know what to make of what lies ahead. That said, I continue to eat meat. And to console my conflicted soul, I often take refuge in the profile of what a meat-eating Indian looks like as described by Manas Chakraborty, whom I have always known as the quiet and gentle Manas-da, with a sense of self-deprecatory humour that is uniquely his.

Even as I write this, the irony is difficult to miss—even to me. How much more stupid and hollow can I possibly get? On the one hand, here I am, placing evidence that people with different beliefs don’t talk to each other, wondering about the philosophical nature of what kind of questions ought to be asked, and staring at myself with an accusatory eye for consuming meat and contributing to violence when I profess non-violence as my way of life.

Then, on the other hand, I am a petrol head who loves fast cars, feels no guilt at zipping around the city in a turbo-charged car that he purchased, owns and drives with much pride, and has felt no moral compunctions while at it. Whatever is the matter with me? Ought I not feel guilty? Why haven’t I turned to public transport and alternative fuels when these are staring me on the face? In fact, I have been questioned on this.

Often, I have thought of making the switch from the so-called petrol guzzler to something that has a lower carbon footprint. That I haven’t done anything about it is another matter altogether. I don’t know what is it—perhaps it was someplace in between conversing with Arun Maira, who urged that we listen to as many voices as I possibly can, and reading another post on electric cars by Matt Ridley, that I felt compelled to call Adil Jal Darukhanawala. A veteran journalist, automobile historian, accomplished rally driver and somebody who keeps a hawk’s eye on all technologies in the automotive space, he is an old friend as well.

“How am I supposed to look at the larger picture on where may the truth lie when it comes to automobiles?" I asked of him.

Adil made some very interesting arguments that reinforced Ridley’s points and drove home the value of Maira’s advice that we listen in to multiple voices which we may have chosen to shut out on the back of our biases.

1. Electric cars may sound good on paper. But in a big country like India, as things are, it is not feasible. The blame for this lies at the government’s door. This is because to implement a policy, you need a vision, a plan and a clear deadline. Minus all these, what we hear is hype to satiate popular public sentiment and gullible clowns like me.

2. “Have you," Adil asked me, “thought of a few things?" Bharat Stage IV (BS IV) fuel that was promised to be made available in 2010 is still not available nationwide in 2017. But the government has gone ahead and made a commitment to transition to BS VI fuel standards by 2020. This means oil refineries will have to invest Rs80,000 crore over the next three years. But oil refineries in India are owned by the government and haven’t met any deadline in the past. What evidence is there to suggest they will meet these stiff deadlines in the future? What if this Rs80,000 crore were invested in building roads instead? Isn’t that the government’s primary role? Why does it have to run fuel refineries?

3. India has gone ahead and made public its intent that only electric cars will be sold in India by 2030. But there are multiple issues. France has a set itself a deadline for 2040. Then there is the UK, which has a deadline for 2050.

These deadlines are not for anything else, but because it is not just about building electric vehicles. While the technology itself has been around for years, to create the infrastructure to support it—like roads—will take years to build even as the technology refines itself. And as Ridley has eloquently pointed out, no government would want to lock itself into the wrong technology.

I probed Adil on this. He was on the same page as Ridley. “Electricity is still generated from coal and gas. So, if we get electric cars into India in a big way, all we’re doing is shifting the carbon emission footprint from the city to countryside. Yes, I know that there is a “seemingly" massive thrust on solar and wind. But this just a fraction of the sheer numbers needed to move the transport infrastructure. And then there is the absolute lack of battery recycling and disposal technology. If this one important detail isn’t met from inception, then the environmental impact would be larger than that caused by tail pipe emissions and in far lesser time than anything seen earlier."

4. For good measure, he added some more nuggets. That even as these technologies are evolving, the carbon footprint of automobiles powered by conventional fuels have gone down dramatically. And you need fuel bunks as well at as many places on the roads you build to deliver the fuel before any automobile can run seamlessly on a highway and people can come to trust it.

Minus that, we will continue to have pile-ups of all kinds, whatever it is we transition to. By way of example, he talks of CNG as the only fuel any public transport vehicle in a city like Mumbai or Delhi can use. It sounds good on paper. But there aren’t enough places to service the numbers of vehicles on the road. So, at the end of a hard day’s work, the people who man these vehicles have to line up for hours on end until their tanks are re-fuelled. They get no rest. But they have no choice either. They’re poor. How do you impute their loss in time into a metric called the GDP?

Adil and I were on the phone and the theme until an airline official came looking frantically. He was the last man to board.

It was late in the night and time to call it a day. I had to get out early. I’d promised an “agent" I’d get to the RTO office early to get a copy of my misplaced “driving license". How I wish I had hit the bed earlier! But because I don’t like to sleep without having read a few pages, I looked up how the Digilocker initiative is faring. It is part of IndiaStack and linked to this animal called Aadhaar that has everyone in a frenzy.

Well well! Turns out, the Mumbai Road Transport Authority (RTO) is among those agencies that has gone digital. What it means is that if I have a UID, or the much-dreaded Aadhaar, I can link it to the Mumbai RTO. If the records match, the agency will issue me a digital copy of my license. No questions asked, no fees to be paid, no touts to be dealt with, no queues to stand in, no appointments to seek, no printouts to take, and, best of all, store it on any device of my choice.

But if you’ve made your mind up that my privacy is compromised and that Project Aadhaar, UID and IndiaStack are evil entities being deployed for surveillance, I guess there is no conversation we can have or common ground that we can meet on.

I can only hope that the better angels of our nature prevail and lead us to the path of sane conversation. That we have a sane tomorrow. For the sake of the generations to come.

Charles Assisi is co-founder and director, Founding Fuel.

His Twitter handle is @c_assisi

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